~*~ June 2380 ~*~
Eight and a half. Eight and a half years old. That was the clincher. A childs preoccupation with exactness. If he had only said eight, well, then, maybe, maybe there was a chance. A chance that...
But no. The child with his fathers green eyes and his mothers wavy brown hair was definitely eight and a half. Add nine months to that and it came out to a lovely nine years, three months. And how long had they been in the Delta Quadrant? Nine years. Almost to the day. Certainly to the week. And yet, there, in Libbys living room, was this child, a cherubic mix of Harrys former best friend, one John Miller, and his almost-finance, Libby. Who was eight and a half years old. *Exactly* eight and six months, the boy was proud to point out.
He didnt understand the silence that fell over the room after this declaration. Didnt understand the pained look that passed between his parents.
Wha-at? He asked in a loud, drawn out voice filled with a childs amused annoyance.
Morning sun streamed through the window behind the couch, and the toys strewn across the floor cast long shadows. Libbys hand was up, over her mouth, her brows drawn together, her eyes focused on some spot of carpet. John was just silent, sitting motionless beside her on the couch with his hands on his knees.
Harry leaned forward in his chair, almost standing, and then fell back into the depths of the soft recliner. He remembered this chair well. He remembered the apartment itself in exact detail, as a matter of fact. He remembered every place that he and Libby...
John looked over at his son and forced a smile.
Go on and play in your room, ok?
But why? Dad...
Just go, Har, ok?
Gods, theyd even had the gall to name the kid after him.
The child sensed the seriousness in his fathers voice and turned without another word, skipping off into his room. He paused for a moment to scoop a little toy starship off the floor, and then continued on his way, zooming the ship down the hall.
No one spoke. John rubbed his hands on his knees, and Libby continued to stare at the floor. Harry broke the silence.
So, when exactly were you two planning on telling me about all this? Maybe when Libby was in the hospital giving birth? Or how about when I was down on one knee, proposing?
Libby drew in a breath and closed her eyes. John stood up, and turned towards the window behind him. The shadows shifted across his face as he spoke.
Look, Harry, Im sorry.
Sorry? Oh, well, that makes it all better, doesnt it?
John spun around.
We were going to tell you!
Harry lunged to his feet, just barely missed smashing a game piece lying on the floor into oblivion.
She was three months pregnant, you jerk! And dont try to tell me that was an accident, I know how careful she always was!
We didnt know what to say, Libby finally spoke. She clasped her hands together on her lap. Harry, I just didnt, I mean, I loved you, just not, not... you know...
Harry curled his hands into fists at his sides.
Bullshit, he said, between clenched teeth, and then he stormed out of the apartment.
He immediately requested a deep space assignment and got as far as possible from Earth. From home. Hed spent nine years trying to get back here and now all he could think about was getting away again.
Home. What a joke. There was nothing there for him.
~*~ December 2382 ~*~
Theyd all been promoted when Voyager got home. Amidst the speeches and toasts and the frantic happy whirl of getting reacquainted with families theyd only seen over subspace for almost a decade, theyd all received the promotions due them that they couldnt logically receive on Voyager. That was how Harry had ended up jumping from Ensign to Lieutenant Commander in a few seconds flat.
Janeway had held nothing back in advocating him before the Starfleet panel of admirals, and in the end theyd decided that he was promising, intelligent, blessed with the capacity to be a great leader, and definitely in a position to go far in the Fleet.
Now, here he was, two years later, those three pips, two silver, one black, still on his collar. Stuck in a dead end again.
Harry pulled off his uniform jacket as he walked into his darkened quarters. The starlight reflected off of a bottle he held, dangling from one hand. He threw himself down on his couch and twisted the top off. Gods, hed thought that shift would never end. Once more day of being ignored by his captain, doing the same old job hed been doing for the past eleven freaking years, with no more, and in fact probably less, respect than hed gotten when he was an ensign on Voyager.
He took a long sip from the bottle and screwed up his lips in disgust. He held it up and squinted at the label in the dark. Nasty stuff. But, desperate times called for desperate measures. They wouldnt be hitting a port with a decent bar for another three weeks or so. He vaguely wondered just when alcohol had become such a defining factor of his life, but the thought quickly faded as the familiar feeling of false well-being swept over him. He shut his eyes, and tried to pretend that everything was going to be ok.
Before hed even gotten halfway drunk, however, his desk computer chirped at him. Harry rolled up into a sitting position. He waited for the room to stop spinning around him then rose to his feet and tapped a button on the terminal. Odd. He had a subspace message. Probably his parents. They were always worried about him.
He accepted the message and slumped into the chair in front of the desk. The screen showed the familiar Starfleet logo for a second and then a person appeared. In spite of himself, Harry smiled. Tom Paris. He hadnt even thought of him in too long a time.
Tom smiled as well, although it was a recorded message, and he began to speak.
Hey, Harry. I know its been awhile, and I know youre out there exploring the depths of space again. Tom chuckled at that, then became suddenly serious, but I was wondering if you could stop by Earth sometime. Id really like to see you. Ive missed you, buddy. And... he paused, looked down at his hands, Well, I really need someone to talk to. Its a long story, I guess I dont want to tell the whole thing over subspace... just, call me, ok? Well meet somewhere... reminisce about old times. Tom paused again, then smiled one more time and touched a button.
The message vanished and the Starfleet emblem returned. Harry decided he needed a change in his life.
Sandrine's. It brought back a lot of memories, even though Harry had never been inside the real place before. He shoved his way through the crowd to the bar, smiling at the click of pool balls, the shouts of customers over the ambient murmur.
The moment he reached the bar, a familiar woman appeared on the other side.
Can I help you, mon cheri? she asked, drying a glass with a white towel, and Harry felt his smile widen even more.
Sandrine? he shouted.
She nodded, That is my name. Do I- then she stopped and a spark of realization flashed in her eyes, Harry Kim? You are friends with Tom Paris, correct?
Yep. Thats me. Wow, I feel like weve already met.
She set down the glass.
Likewise. Harry was surprised by that. Can I get you something? Tommy should be here any second now.
Sure... how about a- then he stopped himself. Sandrine cocked her head, waiting. Just water.
She nodded, understanding in her eyes, and then filled the glass and pushed it towards him.
I must go tend to my customers. We should talk later. Ive heard a lot about you.
Harry took his glass, and found a table. He stared down at the boring, clear liquid. This was not going to be easy. Why had he agreed to this? The last place he needed to be right now was a bar...
Luckily, before his resolve broke down completely, he heard a familiar voice. Ah. Tom Paris was in the building. The tall blond-haired man battled his way through the patrons. Harry was amused to note that it had not been Toms ego that had caused him to program everyone in the bar to know who he was. It seemed like every single person greeted him as he passed. Sandrine handed him a drink without waiting for his order and then gestured in Harrys direction.
Toms eyes brightened when he found Harry, and he quickly made his way over to the table where he sat down with a sigh of relief and plunked his drink down on the scarred, polished wood.
Hi yourself. Wheres BElanna?
As it turned out, that was a very bad way to begin their conversation. A shadow fell over Toms face, and he took a sip of his drink. He look down at the table.
Shes... havent you heard?
Harry shook his head slowly. Tom took a slow breath and looked up at him.
Shes... shes dead, Har.
The world seemed to constrict around him. BElanna? Dead? it was impossible to believe. He wished desperately he had something stronger than water on hand.
What happened? He heard his own voice as though far away. It was quivering like an arrow that has just embedded itself in a target.
Tom turned his cup, watching the amber liquid catch the light.
Warp-core breach. She was trying to stop it. It didnt work.
Gods, Tom, Im so sorry.
It was two months ago. Im not over it, but it doesnt hurt as much now.
Harry shifted in his chair. Around them, the chatter in the bar went on. Tom laughed softly.
Well, that didnt take long. I was kind of hoping wed talk about something cheerful first.
Harry watched him as he continued to fiddle with his drink. He wasnt sure if he should bring it up or not, but finally, he did.
Is Miral all right?
Shes fine. So is Danny.
Harry frowned in confusion.
Danny? Whos Danny?
A sparkle appeared in Toms eyes.
Daniel Owen Paris. Hell be four months old on Tuesday. We really do have a lot of catching up to do, dont we?
It took a second for that to sink in, and then realization slowly dawned on Harry.
Oh. Oh, hey. Congratulations.
Geuss what else. Those fools over at Starfleet HQ just promoted me to Captain.
Youre kidding. You? Whats the galaxy coming to? Harry said, laughing for the first time in a long time.
The cloud of discomfort lifted from them, and they both began to talk. It was such a relief, to be back together. Their old camaraderie returned as though they had just seen each other two hours ago, not two years.
Tom explained how hed been promoted to Commander after a one-year stint as helmsman/first officer of a science vessel, and then promoted to captain for taking control of a difficult situation and overseeing the evacuation of the crew of his ship, the USS Trailblazer, before the warp core breach that had killed BElanna. Hed only left BElanna behind in order to get the kids to safety. By the time he realized she intended to either repair the breach or go down with the ship, it was too late. Four-year-old Miral had been awed by the brilliant orange and red fiery explosion, and then she and baby Danny had cried in fright when the shockwave rocked the pod. Tom didnt know for sure she was dead until the crew had been rescued by a passing merchant vessel. Afterwards, he had decided that a starship was no place to try to raise children, and now he had settled down on Earth and taken a desk job at Starfleet headquarters.
Harry told his own story, and Tom listened sympathetically. He at least knew how much Libby had meant to Harry. He knew that Harry had clung to the hope that she would still be there, still faithful when Harry got home.
Harry, thats terrible. Shit, what a bitch.
Harry shrugged and took a drink of water. The bar was growing empty around them. A few people still slumped on barstools, and hovered in the circles of yellow light around the pool tables.
I... you know, I want to say Im over it, but Im really not. I just cant accept it. I waited and waited and then I got home and I found out she was cheating on me before I even left.
He leaned back in his chair, feeling the wood press into his back, and shut his eyes.
I really havent been doing too well, lately.
He opened his eyes and saw Tom, sitting quietly. It was funny. He couldnt think of anyone else in the universe he could talk to about all this. Tom didnt say anything, silently urging him to continue, so he did.
Ive been drinking too much. Harry shook his head. It seems weird, even to me. I just dont care anymore. I never got a promotion, you know that? I stayed a Lieutenant Commander all this time.
He fell silent again, toying with the condensation on his glass. He couldnt meet Toms eyes.
I resigned, Tom. I just... I was stuck in a rut, I felt like I was never going to-
Hey, Harry, Tom cut in.
Harry looked up. Tom gazed at him intently.
What? Harry said.
Tom looked away.
Nothing, it was silly.
What? Harry frowned. Tell me. Have I ever laughed at any of your hare-brained plots?
Well, since you asked so nicely... Tom grinned, and then, as he had in the subspace message, he became abruptly serious. I was thinking... see, Im not home as often as Id like to be. And I really dont like just shoving my children into child care eight hours a day. So, I was thinking... maybe, since you dont really know what youre doing with yourself, maybe you could... um... come and stay with us for awhile?
Harrys eyebrows jumped up into his hairline and Tom spoke before he could say anything.
I mean, its just a thought, you know, since you dont have anywhere to stay, really. Just until you get back on your feet... You dont have to, Im sorry, it was stupid, I...
Harry raised one hand to silence him.
Tom, Id love to.
I guess this will be your room, Tom said as he flipped on a light in the guest room. Its kind of small, but its all Ive got.
Harry wandered in and looked around, his duffel bag hanging over his shoulder. It was small, but it was nice. There was a comfortable bed that looked infinity more inviting than the Starfleet standard-issue variety, a bedside table, a dresser. The walls were a soft cream color.
Its fine. Kind of cozy.
He heard Tom chuckle as he walked up behind him.
Well, as long as you need it, youre welcome to stay.
He tossed his bag on the bed, and turned around grinning at Tom.
You mean as long as Im willing to be a nanny.
Oh, come on, Har, Im sure theres a better word for it than that. Think of it as a trade-off. I give you somewhere to live, you take care of my kids, everybodys happy.
Provided your kids dont hate me...
Oh, how could they hate you? Lovable old Harry.
Harry rolled his eyes and sat down on the bed.
Gods, dont even go there. If I hear one more person tell me how sweet I am, I think Im going to kill someone.
Silence fell over the room. Tom stood in the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest for a few moments, and then he said, Well, if you need anything, my rooms upstairs at the end of the hall.
He stayed in the door a little longer, then turned to leave.
Tom? Harry called.
Tom stopped and turned back.
Hey, what are friends for, right?
Harry sat at the kitchen table early the next morning, nursing a cup of coffee. He held one hand out over the table, palm down, and watched with a kind of detached amazement as it shook. He had the beginnings of a headache pushing against his forehead, as though his brain were trying to escape his skull. Hed seen a doctor about it earlier, on his way to Earth. The doctor had confirmed his fears that his drinking strayed into alcoholism, and had given him a hypospray to help ease the withdrawal symptoms. Well, the hypospray could only do so much, Harry was discovering to his annoyance. He pressed his hand down on the table and tightened his grip on the handle of the coffee mug.
Just then, he heard a soft shuffle of footsteps coming down the stairs, and in a moment, a sleep-tousled pajama-clad little girl appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.
Daddy- she began to speak, and then her words froze in her throat. Her eyes widened, and she suddenly spun around and fled up the stairs with a shriek.
Great. Just what he needed. Why wasnt Tom up, yet? Now the poor girl thought there was some invader in her kitchen. After a brief panicked flurry of activity above Harrys head, Tom appeared at the top of the stairs, dressed in his old blue robe, holding Miral in his arms. She had two fingers stuck in her mouth and looked down at Harry distrustfully.
See? Tom was saying to her as he carried her down the stairs. Its Harry. Dont you remember him? From Voyager?
She shook her head and buried her face in Toms shoulder. Tom shot Harry an apologetic look. He plunked her down on the floor and shook free of her grasp.
In that case, Miral, meet Harry. Hes my friend. Hes going to be staying with you today.
Miral clung to Toms robe with one hand, the fingers of the other still in her mouth, and eyed Harry.
Hi, Harry said, offering a hand to her in greeting. She waited a long time.
Go on, Tom said, laying a hand on her back to ever-so-slightly propel her towards Harry. Finally, she released her deaths grip on Toms robe and laid her small hand in Harrys.
Hi. She frowned, seemed to be in deep thought, then added, You play music.
Harry smiled, glanced up a Tom for a second, and then focused back on Miral. Thats right. I used to play lullabies for you. When you were a baby.
She slowly returned the smile, but also reached back to grasp Toms robe again.
Will you play music today?
Sure if you want.
And somehow, the ice was broken. Miral freed Tom and hopped off to the replicator, humming to herself. Both Tom and Harry watched her as she ordered cereal and headed back to the table with the bowl balanced delicately in her hands. She lifted it up and slid it on to the table, then ran back to the replicator for the spoon.
They were all interrupted by a wail from upstairs. Tom dashed up the stairs, leaving Harry and Miral alone.
So... Harry said, feeling the need to start a conversation as he watched the four-year-old fishing out little grain flakes from her milk. Youre in preschool, right?
What are you doing?
Do you like your class?
Nothing but pensive chewing. Harry practically sighed with relief when he heard Tom coming back down the stairs.
Tom reappeared, holding a baby in his arms. As he settled at the table Harry got a better view of the infant. Light forehead ridges, soft blond hair, lively blue eyes. He wondered where all those recessive traits had come from. BElanna must have been pleased. He knew shed wanted her child to look more like Tom.
So, this is Danny, huh? he asked as he watched Tom cradle the infant and offer him a bottle.
Tom nodded, waiting until he was sure that Danny was content and eating before looking up.
My little baby, he said, in a soft affectionate voice Harry recognized from way back on Voyager, back when Tom first held his daughter in his arms.
Nuh-uh, Miral said, Im the little baby!
Youre a big girl, Mir, Tom said, grinning at her. Harry realized it must be a family joke.
No! Im a baby! Ga ga ga! She giggled so hard she practically fell out of her chair.
Harry found himself laughing along with them. Even Danny turned his head away from the bottle and beamed a milky, toothless smile at all of them.
The rest of the morning went relatively smoothly. Tom and Miral made it to work and preschool, respectively, and Harry was left alone in the house with the baby and a PADD full of instructions on everything from how to change a diaper (which, thankfully, he remembered from Miral infancy) to what toys Miral and Danny liked to play with and when.
Harry had baby-sat for Miral on Voyager, but not regularly, and never for more than a few hours at a time. It was generally accepted aboard the ship that in long-term situations, like away-missions and such, Neelix was the man for the job. So Harry knew enough to change a diaper, fix a bottle, maybe put a kid to bed. But now, suddenly faced with the prospect of caring for two kids on a regular basis, for an indeterminant period of time... Harry felt the first slight squirms of panic in his stomach. He didnt know the first thing about raising kids. He didnt really know these kids. He didnt really know the house rules. What the hell was he thinking? He was an Ops officer, not a nanny! Harry sat on the couch in the living room and gazed down at his young charge, who was lying on his back fiddling with his toes. Danny seemed to sense the sudden shift in the adults mood because he released his toes and fixed Harry with a penetrating look. As the emotions played over his face, Harry could see brief flashes of both Tom and BElanna.
Da goo da! Danny declared suddenly, in a very serious and determined tone, and then he returned his full attention to his fascinating toes.
Harry slipped off the couch and sat on the blanket beside him, reaching behind himself to pick up a rattle. Danny released his toes again. Ba!
Harry shook the rattle, just within Dannys reach. Blue eyes widened in amazement, as though it was the first time Danny had ever observed such an intruiging phenomenon, and then his tiny, pudgy hand shot out and grabbed the rattle. Harry put up a token fight for it, then let Danny have it. He waved it around in the air, smiling with wide-mouthed baby delight. When he laughed, Harry laughed with him. Maybe this wouldnt be so bad after all.
By the time Tom got home, Harry was on the verge of collapse. Tom stepped through the door and Harry plunked a squirming infant in his arms.
Tough day? Tom inquired cheerfully as he headed to the kitchen. Which was a mess.
You could say that again. And again. And again. Remind me to have a vasectomy the next time Im in the general vicinity of a doctor, will you?
Harry trailed Tom into the kitchen and collapsed in a chair. Tom laughed and settled Danny in his playpen. Miral burst into the room at warp factor ten and crashed into his legs. DADDY!
He scooped her up.
Hey, Mir. Have you been wearing Harry out?
Lies! She lies! Harry moaned.
Tom set her on the counter and ordered a pizza from the replicator.
Im sure they werent that bad. He paused, then glanced back at Harry as he pulled the pizza out of the replicator. Were they?
Harry shook his head.
No, I just not used to all this... energy.
Miral hopped off of the counter and launched into a top-speed, top-of-her-lungs recitation of the events of her day. To Harry, it was a blur of slightly slurred, toddler-accented nonsense, but Tom listened as he made his way back to the table, nodded thoughtfully and then, when the flow of pseudospeak finally ebbed, he said, Wow, you did all that?
Miral hopped up into her chair and grabbed a slice of pizza, nodding. Harry leaned over to Tom.
You understood what she just said? he whispered.
Not a word!
Oh. Harry said, considering this. I see.
They all ate in relative silence, and then Miral vanished back into the living room. Tom stood to gather up the discarded dishes and Harry moved to help.
Hey, Har, you can go if you want. I can take over. Might be nice to have you around in time for bedtime, but, other than that, I guess youre relieved.
Harry dropped his plate into the replicator and hit the recycle button.
Right. Well, Im dying for a shower. Other than that, I cant think of anywhere I have to be.
They werent too bad, were they? I dont want to force you to do this, or anything.
Tom picked up Danny and leaned back against the counter. The baby had settled down considerably. He gripped Toms collar and sighed sleepily into the sleeve of his uniform. Harry felt a rush of affection for the pair. What an image. Tom was born for this.
No, no, they were fine, he said, Just rambunctious. Im not used to having kids around.
Tom nodded, trailing one finger lightly over Dannys ridges.
I know what you mean. But they grow on you.
Harry didnt move at first, just stood in silence. Tom rocked Danny, his whole body swaying, and murmured something down at him. Danny replied with a soft babble of syllables, reaching up with his free hand to touch Toms chin. The pure love in the gentle smile that resulted from that touch transformed Tom. Harry had always known on an intellectual level that Tom was an attractive man. But suddenly, for that one eternal moment, he was undoubtable the most beautiful creature in the universe. And then Miral ran into the room, shouting gleefully, and the smile transformed back into that Tom Paris grin. Yet some that beauty lingered... and it never really went away.
~*~ March 2383 ~*~
Another charred lump materialized in the replicator. Harry sighed. Miral reacted a bit more strongly to the situation.
Its not fair! she screamed, and kicked the wall.
Without a conscious thought, Harry had swept her up in one arm and was starting for the stairs.
Thats it, young lady, I warned you that one more outburst like that and-
She let out an ear-piercing shriek and struggled to escape his grip. Danny, awakened from his nap by all the noise, burst into tears in his cradle upstairs.
Harry sent a silent prayer to whatever gods might be listening and set Miral at the top of the stairs. Into your room, Ms. Paris. Right now.
She crossed her arms and glared at him.
No! I dont want to!
Well, you should have thought of that before you started screaming, now shouldnt you? Lets go. Im counting to five. 1... 2... 3...
She marched sullenly to her room, like a prisoner heading for her execution. Harry shut the door behind her and leaned against the wall, squeezing his eyes shut. Dear gods, he sounded like a parent. What happened to all those vows he had made that he would give his children cookies and candy for every meal, and never send them to time out, and most of all, he would never, ever say he was going to count to five... Well, technically, he had to remind himself, these werent his children.
He ducked into Dannys room to comfort him, a huge headache brewing in his temples.
Hey, there, Danny, its ok, he said, in a sing-song voice as he lifted him out of his crib. To his surprise, the little boy quieted instantly in his arms. Impressed, Harry settled into the rocking chair in the darkened room. Danny shifted around in his arms until he got comfortable, and then let out a string of baby-talk.
Ga dro pa da la doo da... He paused, nestled in deeper, and sighed, dada.
Harry stared down at him. Just a coincidence. It had to be. A random connection of two sounds that actually meant something. Not a word. Not Dada. Just two sounds. Really. But still, he was shocked at how his heart leapt at those two syllables. This was Toms kid, for crying out loud. This was a temporary arrangement. He was a glorified babysitter! Not even all that glorified, really. Maybe it was about time he put a little distance between himself and this family. He was supposed to be staying here until he got his life back on track. He hadnt even had time to consider where he wanted to go next. He agreed with Tom that it wasnt the best idea to leave kids in child care all day, but still. He had a life to get back to. Tom would just have to find someone more permanent.
He shook himself out of his thoughts after about five minutes, and laid Danny, now fast asleep, back in the crib. He slipped out of Dannys room and opened the door to Mirals, peering in. She looked up at him, her cheeks tear-streaked, her thumb deeply entrenched in her mouth, from her bed.
You can come out now, he said.
She got up slowly, and walked over to him, then held her arms up at him. Responding to that universal signal, he picked her up, and she rested her head on his shoulder.
Im sorry, Harry, she said.
The sincerity in her voice took Harrys breath away for a moment. Once he recovered it, he looked over at her and smiled.
Its all right, Mir. What do you say we go fix that mean old replicator and have some cookies?
She squealed again, this time with delight, and they both headed back down to the kitchen.
That night, once the kids were in bed, Harry and Tom settled down in the living room, as had become their routine. Lately, Tom had been plowing through what seemed to be an endless stream of reports. He tossed himself down on the couch and picked up the nearest PADD. His brow furrowed as he began to read. Harry sat on the edge of one of the armchairs and folded his hands together. Maybe he should wait until Tom was finished... but then, for all he knew Tom might not stop reading until 0100. But it didnt really seem right to interrupt him... Harry stood back up again and walked across the room, unconsciously straightened the pictures on the hearth, then reversed course, headed back to his his chair, and paused to refold the blanket that hung over the edge of Dannys playpen.
Ok, whats wrong? Toms voice interrupted him.
Harry stopped and turned. He felt guilty for some reason, and twisted the blanket in his hands. He considered saying it was nothing, but decided Tom would probably see right through that, anyway. He returned to his chair and sat back down.
I think I need to leave.
Tom sat up, the PADD forgotten in his hand.
Its not that I dont like it here... He looked down at the blanket. It was cute. Little pink and blue targs. Something of a gag gift from Chakotay. But I dont think Im accomplishing my main objective.
What does that mean?
Harry stood up again, and draped the blanket over the edge of the crib. He stayed there, resting his hands on the rail. He couldnt face Tom.
Well, Im supposed to be trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life. And Im really not. I appreciate you letting me stay, I adore the kids, but, I really think-
Dont go just yet.
He looked back at Tom.
Tom chewed on his lip, then said, sheepishly, Ive got this... uh... thing on Betazed for a week.
What kind of thing?
Tom ran a hand through his hair.
Its kind of a date.
Harry tensed, his hands tightening on the rail of the crib, squishing into the soft padding.
A date? Isnt it... I mean, it hasnt been that long...
Five months, Harry, Tom said softly.
When are you leaving?
Oh, well. Thursday. Harry debated whether he should be amused or annoyed, and settled on a mix. And just when were you going to inform me of this?
Which would be Tuesday, by the way, Harry said, turning around. Tom raised his eyebrows, and smiled innocently.
See? A whole two days to psyche yourself up for it.
Harry flopped back down in the arm chair. Tom was quiet. After a moment he dropped the PADD on the coffee table.
Im sorry. I kept meaning to tell you... I should have given you a little more warning, I guess.
That would have been nice.
Are you ok with it? Because I guess the kids could stay with my family, if you really want to-
No, its ok. Its just- you trust me to watch them that long?
Sure. Why not? Besides, you can always call me if you need anything. Its not like Ill be in the Delta Quadrant.
Well, thats what we all thought before...
That comment hung in the air. Tom and Harry looked at each other, and Toms eyes were unusually serious.
Ill be fine. He paused, rubbed his hands together, then kind of forced a laugh. Itll be weird without you around. I guess I kind of got used to you.
Harry looked away again.
Where are you going to go? Tom continued.
I dont know.
Youre welcome to stay, Har. Dont think youre imposing on me. The kids adore you. Suddenly, his eyes widened. Hey, Im not asking too much, am I? Because we can get day-care or something, if-
It isnt you, Tom.
What was this? Harry wondered. Why was this such a hard conversation? Why did it feel like Tom was begging him not to go? Why did he want so badly to stay? Why the hell did he feel like he was breaking up with the man? He wanted to just wave his hand and make this strange awkwardness vanish. He wanted to blithely change the subject, to laugh at one of Toms stupid jokes and ignore the portent air that suddenly hung over the room.
Well, Tom said, think about it. While Im gone.
Harry nodded and a thick silence claimed the room. Tom picked up his PADD again, and touched a button on it, but before he started reading, he spoke again.
Guess what! Danny called me dada!
Lets see... Kids fed, bathed, fast asleep, house clean... well, relatively, anyway... Harry nodded to himself and headed for the shower, deeming his duties for the day satisfactorily carried out. It was the last day of Toms trip, and he would allegedly be home tomorrow morning. Harry still hadnt really decided what was going to happen then.
He decided to use the shower in the master bedroom, since it was the last night hed have a chance for awhile, but he stepped into the shower and was about to flip on the water, his hand froze midmotion. Damn. A comm signal. He was going to ignore it, but the computer was insistent. He sighed and snatched Toms blue robe, which happened to be hanging conveniently nearby, and slipped into it. He tapped the button on the desktop computer terminal. Admiral Paris appeared on the screen, hastily dressed in civilian clothes.
Once he got over the shock of seeing the spit-and-polish admiral in such disarray, he managed to answer, Owen? Is something wrong?
The man nodded. Harry felt his heart skip a beat.
What? Is it Tom?
Another nod, then Owen spoke.
Hes missing, Harry. They received a distress call from his transport. They havent located it yet. Theres some evidence of an antimatter explosion... they dont know- His voice cracked and he bowed his head.
Harry didnt know what to say. He fought just to organize some kind of thought. Through the haze, he heard himself ask in a shaking voice, What about the kids? What will, who-
Owen shook his head.
I dont know, I dont... He took a sudden deep breath and clenched his hands together on the desk in front of him. When he looked up, he had regained most of his composure, and he spoke in a level voice. Look, I think right now, if its not too much to ask, it might be best if they stayed with you, until all this is worked out. That way theyd at least be able to stick to their normal routine.
Of course. Its no trouble.
Tom. Oh, Tom, dont do this. I cant. Where would I be without you? What will I do? Where will I go?
The Admiral seemed to also be deep in thought, but he looked up at the sound of his name.
Owen, what do I tell them?
Tell them the truth, Harry. Lies will always come back to haunt you.
I should go, Owen said. I have to be up early to oversee the search.
He waited a moment before he reached out and terminated the link, leaving Harry all alone in Toms room. He couldnt move. He sat there in front of the computer, gripping handfuls of the blue terry cloth. He wasnt gone. Not Tom. How could life go on without that grin? Without Captain Proton and obscure history references and that infuriating, yet somehow compelling, cocky attitude? At least Danny was too young to understand, but what would happen to Miral? Shed already lost her mother. It was mind-numbing.
The room pressed in around him, every little detail seemed to scream Toms name, from the TV set in the corner to the familiar clutter on the floor.
Miral sobs echoed down the empty hall outside of her preschool class room. She was clinging to Harry like a boa constrictor, soaking his shirt with tears. He stood there in the hall, holding her, stroking her hair, whispering into her hair as she cried.
There was a brief burst of sound, as the door to the classroom opened and the teacher swept out, glancing around her feet for any escaping four-year-olds before closing the door.
Is she all right? She was just so upset. I wasnt sure whether I should call or not-
Harry nodded, still whispering to her, Shh, its all right, its all right, sweetie, Im here... Her small body was trembling in his arms. Gods, shed taken the news so well at first. Strange, how she made it two days before all this. The teacher hovered nervously.
Whats the matter? Im sorry, I dont mean to intrude... but she...
Harry dropped a quick kiss in Mirals hair. He didnt want to explain again. He didnt want to think about it.
Her dads missing.
The teachers eyebrows raised, and she touched a hand to her lips.
Oh, Im so sorry- is he, are you-
He saw her eyes flick to his left hand and realized what she was asking. A jolt ran through him.
No, no, Im just a friend.
The teacher nodded.
I see, Im sorry, I thought...
Its ok, he said, waving it off with a slight sweep of his hand. Mirals sobs were quieting, but her grip hadnt loosened one bit. I think it may be better if I just took her home.
At the teachers agreement, he set off down the hall, holding Miral in one arm and Dannys baby carrier in the other. He scoffed at the thought. He and Tom. Ridiculous. The very idea, ludicrous. Really.
Really, it was.
The call had dragged him out of a deep sleep. Hed answered the comm with shaking hands, but the news had been good. Tom was alive, and back on Earth... but he was hurt. The kids couldnt see him just yet, so Harry was all alone when he stepped into the hospital room. He hadnt let himself believe any of it until he finally laid eyes on Tom himself. He was laying on the biobed, and turned his head enough to see Harry come in. Harry smiled.
You really did it this time, Tom. Look at you.
Harry turned a chair around backwards and sat next to him, crossing his arms on the back. Tom didnt answer, he just let his head fall back against the pillow and stared up at the ceiling. He was pale and thin, with dark smudges under his eyes. Harry looked him over, trying not to wince.
The ship had crashed in an asteroid belt, pulverized into a knot of twisted metal, and Tom and eleven other passengers had been trapped in the wreckage for two days, literally clamped in place by the remains of bulkheads and walls and floors. A beam had pinned Tom lightly against a wall. He had floated there in zero-G the whole time, in a tiny pocket of rapidly depleting air, unable to move. His injuries were relatively minor, but the psychological damage was greater. Being trapped in space for long periods of time had a powerful impact. The knowledge that one is surrounded by nothingness, countless millions of miles from safety, especially when trapped alone, leaves its mark.
Hey, buddy, you ok? Harry asked. Tom still didnt answer. Harry reached across the expanse of white sheets and wrapped one hand around Toms. It was cold. Tom rolled his head to the side and looked at him.
Miral cant wait to see you.
The room was cool and quiet, bright lights washing away every trace of personality the stark white walls and sterilized surfaces might have allowed in the first place. The gleam of the lights off the wall only made Tom seem paler and frailer. He sighed, and the line on the respiration monitor took a brief dive.
I got dumped, Har.
Oh. Her. The date, he presumed. Naturally, Tom would be thinking about his love life at a moment like this.
There are lots of fish in the sea. Harry said, You told me that.
But I dont want just anybody. I want to fall in love again.
He accompanied this statement with a lofty wave of his free hand. Harry snorted, amused.
I want to fall in love for the first time. Whats your point, Tom? You cant expect-
Toms fingers curled around the smooth white sheet, bunching it, and he cut Harry off.
Im forty-one years old, Harry. Did you know that? Forty-one years old, and a single widower with two small children. This isnt exactly where I planned to be right now.
The chair creaked as Harry leaned in closer.
Nothing works out like we planned, he said, When I was twelve, I thought Id be a professional musician. A year ago, I was hoping to be a commander in Starfleet.
What do you want now?
Once again, hed had no time to think about it. Any plans he had been considering had vanished entirely from his mind as soon as Owen had told him that Tom was in trouble.
I dont know. I want... I just dont know. Right now, I guess Ill stick around, at least until you think you can handle things on your own.
Tom lay still, his chest rising and falling with each breath. His hand tightened around Harrys.
What would I do without you?
You dont have to worry about that. Relax. Get well. Ill keep an eye on things for you.
Finally, Tom smiled, the muscles at the corners of his mouth just barely twitching and pulling the edges of his lips up.
This man is my friend, nobody touches him, huh?
Damn right, Harry said, though the lump in his throat made it hard.
~*~ May 2383 ~*~
Tom is right there, Tom is right there, Tom is- Shit. Tom got out of the shuttles pilot seat and left his almost, but not quite, five-year-old daughter at the helm.
Harry held Danny on his lap, frozen in mid-bounce. The baby gave him a protesting look at the sudden cessation of their game. Tom flopped down on the bench beside Harry and tickled Danny under the chin.
Dont worry, he stage-whispered to Harry, Its on auto-pilot.
The breath Harry had been holding whooshed out in a sigh of relief and he resumed bouncing Danny up and down on his lap, delighting in the babys giggles.
Come on, Harry, I may be a sucker, but Im not that bad.
Sure youre not. You just go on believing that, *Captain.*
He lifted Danny over his head and looked up at him.
Tom laughed at him, but he didnt care. Babies made people silly. It was a physiological reaction over which he had no control. Dannys big blue eyes were practically bugging out of his head with glee.
Dada! he thrilled, looking straight at Harry.
Harry plunked him back on his lap and forced his features into a grave expression.
I am not Dada. That is Dada. Not me.
Danny swiveled his head towards Tom, then back to Harry.
Dada dada dada!
Out of the corner of his eye, Harry could see Tom. He didnt seem at all put off by his childs insistence on calling some other guy Dada.
I think my son failed Distinguishing People 101, Tom said, amiably, Were all the same to him.
The sound of his voice must have caught Dannys fragile attention, because he turned to him, and declared, once again, Dada!
Both Harry and Tom laughed. Miral seemed to decided that they were having more fun than she was, so she hopped down from the pilots seat and scurried over to join them. She sat down cross-legged on the floor facing them.
Can I help you? Tom asked, smiling down at her.
She looked very serious.
I want a baby sister.
Yeah. For my birthday. My friend Jamie, (Heaven spare them all from the great and powerful my friend Jamie, Harry thought.) told me that her mommy told her that when two people love each other they can make babies. So you should make me a baby sister.
Silence fell over the shuttle so hard Harry swore he heard it hit the floor. Danny was once again deprived of his bouncing. Harry glanced over at Tom, and Tom back at him, and then they both focused their eyes elsewhere. Harry suddenly found the carpet extremely fascinating.
Well? Miral said, holding out her hands in an imploring gesture.
Honey, its a bit more complicated than that, Tom said.
Uh... Well, see...
Its a boring grown-up thing, Harry said, saving Tom from the trap he saw he was about to plunge into head-first.
Yeah! Tom agreed instantaneously.
Mirals face fell.
Oh. But dont you love each other?
Those accusing brown eyes nailed them both to the wall. For a moment, she looked just like her mother, her brow furrowed, her eyes narrowed. Harry was about to say no, laugh at the thought, but then, he realized he didnt know. He didnt know what to say, what he should say. Love? Love Tom? Did he? Gods, the word had never crossed his mind before, but... He could feel Tom beside him, the soft heat of his body, the way his weight made the cushion sink towards him a bit. He could hear him breathing. Love? No. No, no... maybe. Oh, gods, now what? In that one instant, his whole sense of self, which, moments ago, had been relatively stable and reliable, vanished in a swirl of conflicting emotions. Luckily, Tom saved him this time.
Of course, Mir. Were friends. Friends love each other... in a way. But its different.
Harry just nodded, numb, and shifted Danny around til he rested in the crook of his arm. The crises was over... but the shuttle flight home was unnaturally quiet.
It was well past the kids bedtime by the time they got back to the house. Miral was sleeping and drooling on Harrys shoulder as he carried her up the stairs. In her room, he wrestled her, half-asleep, into her pajamas and got her nestled in between the covers. She reached out one arm and he bent down to slip her stuffed targ under it and lightly kiss her forehead.
Night, Harry, she echoed, her voice sleep-slurred.
Right before he stepped out in the hall her voice stopped him.
I love you.
He was trapped by those words, one hand resting on the doorframe, the light from the hall way spilling around him.
Love you, too, he said, in a voice that barely even qualified as a whisper, and then he escaped into the hall, pulling the door closed behind him. Tom emerged from Dannys room a moment later, and gave Harry a brief smile as he passed.
See you in the morning, he said, brushing past Harry on his way to his own room. Harry tried to pretend his arm didnt tingle where Tom touched him.
Right. Good night, Tom.
He hurried down the stairs and into bed, but once he was there, he couldnt sleep. He lay on his back, surrounded by soothing darkness, with his hands behind his head. He stared up at the blank blackness that was his ceiling, and tried to sort out his thoughts, which pushed and shoved like investors on Wall Street, all trying to get their own two cents in.
It wasnt that much of a revelation, actually. Hed known for a long time that his feelings for Tom had deepened over these last five months. But hed never realized how deep they ran.
Love. It was such a strong word, but also a multi-faceted term. It wasnt like hate, which was pretty much a blanket term for complete dislike. Love covered so many things. Parents, children, friends, hobbies, pets... so many different shades. But what was it exactly he felt for Tom?
He cared about him. Hed always cared about him. From the moment hed first met him, that poor lost soul, hed taken Tom under his wing as much as Tom had taken him under his own. So that was nothing new. But what was it? Why was it lightening flashed through his soul every time someone suggested that he and Tom were more than friends? Was it love with a capital L? Harry wasnt sure if hed even know love if he met it on the street. And suppose, just suppose, he loved - was in love with - Tom. What signs were there that Tom would feel the same way?
Nothing. Nothing reliable, at least. Nothing at all worth risking the closest and best friendship of his life over.
He sighed. Why was it he couldnt shake this unfailing ability to fall for the wrong person? Tom would be so amused.
A vague sense of darkness... he was somewhere else, somewhere familiar, but different... Voyager, he was on Voyager in someones quarters... whose? His own? No, Toms. Toms, not Tom and BElannas... It was dark... he thought of calling for lights, but his vocal cords didnt obey. A sensation of movement, behind him, arms slipped around him, lips touching the back of his neck, and all the hairs on his arms stood up. An instant, and he was naked, flat on his back on the bed, soft lips on his, warm skin brushing over him. Tom, he knew, didnt have to open his eyes. Returned the kiss, felt hands, long fingers, trail over his body, leaving paths of fire in their wake. Toms voice, whispering his name, breath hot gusts on his neck. Gods, yes. He arched his body against Toms weight pressing down on him, took him in his arms and held him tight. Tom, my love, my only, want you love you need you
He snapped awake, soaked in sweat, tangled in the sheets, and moments away from an orgasm. He sat up, fought off the sheets, and ran a hand through his damp bangs. Just a dream. Doesnt mean anything, he told himself. Random images, a result of a weird day. But it wouldnt fade away like dreams should. It persisted, flitting back and forth in his skull.
He threw the sheets aside, and stormed across the hall to the bathroom, where he slapped on the shower. The shock of freezing cold water on his hot skin quickly drove off the physical arousal, but his mind still refused to let go of the dream. He stood under the spray until he began shivering, then he stepped out, dried off and slipped back into his boxers.
As he stepped out into the hall, his heart leapt. There was someone out there. Tom froze, a vague shape in the darkness, then grinned.
Fancy meeting you here, he said dryly, as he headed into the kitchen.
Harry, wondering what the hell he was doing up at three in the morning, followed him. Tom handed him a cup of tea when he stepped into the kitchen and they both settled down at the table.
I was under the impression I was the resident insomniac, Tom said.
It was more surreal than his dream. Sitting here in the kitchen, in the middle of the night. Tom sipped at his tea, lounging back in his chair. Flashes of the dream mingled with reality. Toms robe was tied loosely, hanging open over his chest, and the dim glow of the night light in the kitchen glinted off curls of hair and subtly shaded muscle and bone, and gods, Harry had never expected to be so utterly captivated by another mans chest! A sluggish rush of hormones stirred in his blood, and he wondered if Toms skin was really as soft as his dream made it out to be.
Are you ok? Tom said, his eyes narrowing a bit.
Sorry. Weird dream. He realized he had to change the subject quick before Tom got too curious. What about you? What are you doing up?
Tom leaned forward, wrapping his hands around his teacup on the table.
Just cant sleep sometimes. Its no use trying.
Tom sighed, and looked down into the cup between his hands. Harry was suddenly struck be a powerful urge to just reach up and touch him, to trail his finger along his hairline, caress his neck, feel that skin beneath his hands, not have to wonder anymore, ever again. The urge was so strong, his hand actually lifted off the table before he regained control of his senses and slapped it back down in a panic. He opened his mouth to say something, to ward off any chance that Tom had possibly seen this movement and correctly interpreted it, but then Tom spoke again.
I still miss her sometimes, Harry.
Harry found himself trapped by intense blue eyes.
Not a lot, Tom said, his voice quiet, strained, But I wake up some nights, still, and I reach out for her, and then shes not there. And it hurts all over again...
Now, Harry really did lay his hand on Toms shoulder.
Its ok, he murmured.
Tom shook his head.
No, its not. Its been months, Harry, I shouldnt still be... I... I cant even look at anyone else... I dont understand it...
The muscles under his hand were hard as dueranium, and as Tom spoke they somehow managed to become even tenser. Harry didnt even think about it, he rose from his chair and walked around behind Tom, keeping his hand on Toms shoulder.
How long has it been, he asked, settling one hand on either side of Toms neck, since youve gotten a decent nights sleep?
The shoulders shrugged under his hands. Harry strategically arranged his fingers and began to gently knead the tightly coiled muscles beneath them. It was satisfying to feel the tension begin to ever-so-slightly ebb as he worked. Tom sat up, pressed into the massage.
Damn, Harry, youre good at that.
I should be. My grandfather had back problems. Ive been doing this since I was ten.
Mmm, Tom responded, A little lower.
The chair was getting in the way and Toms robe wasnt exactly conducive to a good thorough massage.
I think were going to have to move if you want this done right. And the robes got to go.
Tom shot him a look over his shoulder.
Why, Mr. Kim, are you trying to seduce me?
It was as though Harry had been delivered a quick kick to the stomach. His hands stopped and his mind went blank. He hadnt even thought of the possible double meaning to his words. To him, massages had never been a sexual thing. They were a friendly gesture, nothing more, a nice something he could do to alleviate his old grandfathers suffering. He felt sick.
Tom laughed once.
Relax, Harry, it was a joke. Jeeze.
A joke. Of course it was. Harry forced himself to chuckle.
Of course. I, I just meant-
I know. I appreciate the offer. Would the couch work?
Yeah, yeah, that would work, Harry mumbled, lost in a haze. He was barely aware of the transition from kitchen to living room, but he must have had something to do with it, because the next thing he really noticed was standing over Tom, who was lying on the couch with his robe off of his shoulders and draped over his hips.
Shit, Harry thought, looking down at the expanse of pale, exposed skin with a great deal of trepidation. What in hell had he been thinking?
Tom was resting his head on his crossed arms, his eyes closed. Harry rested his fingertips between Toms shoulder blades, and began again to rub Toms back. His skin was indeed soft, not flawless, of course, but no one was perfect. He moaned as Harry hit a particularly tight spot, and then sighed as expert fingers smoothly untangled the knot. It grew easier as Harry worked and began to slip into his normal concentration state. Once he was focused, he could almost make himself forget that it was Tom beneath his hands.The wordless groans and sighs were pretty generic, but then, Toms voice intruded on his reverie.
The exact words from his dream. He pressed his knuckles into Toms back and Tom rocked up against him, moaning softly. A wave of heat broke over Harry. His hands gentled on their own. He sank to his knees, and where he had been digging into the stubborn muscles, his fingers relaxed, began to caress in small, light circles, reveling in the feeling of warm skin.
Toms eyes flashed open, and Harry was positive he was about to either be slugged or maybe just quietly lose his best friend, but instead, something else entirely happened. Tom didnt say anything, but his breath quickened a notch. Harrys gaze never left his friends face as he let his hand meander up Toms rib cage, down, and then up again. Toms eyes darkened and his breath continued to speed up, but he didnt move except to slowly tense and relax his hand. Harry laid his palm flat, spread out over as much of Toms skin as possible, and he ran it down his spine, all the way to the edge of the robe, into the soft fuzz on the small of Toms back. Tom drew in a deep breath and his eyes fluttered closed.
Yes, he whispered.
It could have meant many things: a statement, a request, permission to continue, perhaps. Whatever it was, it startled Harry. Reality came crashing down around him and he lurched to his feet. Tom half sat up, and the robe slipped off onto the floor, revealing the beginnings of an erection. Harry averted his eyes, stumbled away, almost tripped over the coffee table, and then practically ran to his room.
Har! Toms voice followed him, and in a moment, Tom himself appeared in the door, silhouetted in the light from the kitchen, wearing his robe.
Harry sat on the edge of his bed. There was no escape. He rested his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands.
He watched between his fingers as the shadow moved towards him. A hesitant hand touched his arm, and then Tom knelt in front of him.
What is it? Gods, youre shaking, Harry...
We cant do this, Tom.
Harry crossed his arms on his knees and found himself staring into Toms eyes. Tom reached up and tucked Harrys bangs back, never breaking eye-contact.
What if it doesnt work? Harry whispered, his throat painfully tight, Its not worth it.
You know thats the exact phrase that kept me from proposing to BElanna for so long?
Harry hung his head and shut his eyes. Burning hot tears fought to escape his eyelids. When the first tear did trickle down his cheek, a gentle finger brushed it away.
Look, we dont have to do this. Not tonight, not ever, if thats what you want, Tom said.
I dont know what I want!
Gods, he was getting tired of saying that. He felt like his emotions had completely lost touch with the rest of his mind. Nothing made sense anymore. Once upon a time, hed known exactly what he wanted. If someone had asked, he could have rattled off his whole lifes schedule right then. He wanted a career in Starfleet, preferably aboard a starship that would return to port relatively often, so he could visit his family, which would consist, naturally, of Libby and their two children. He even knew precisely when the children would have been born, and their names. Now, he couldnt even see far enough ahead to predict what the next day would bring. He opened his eyes. Tom had rocked back onto his heels, and was silently watching him.
Take as long as you need, Tom said. I can wait.
And with that, he stood up. Harry looked up at him, and he bent down, cradled Harrys chin with one hand, and kissed him, lightly and quickly, on the forehead. Then he released him and was gone, leaving only the ghost of the soft, warm pressure of his lips.
To Harrys great surprise, the sun did come up the next morning. He dragged himself out of bed, somehow. He was so tired his bones ached. In the kitchen, he replicated a cup of double-caff coffee, and then he walked out through the living room to the deck, wincing at the gust of cold air that swirled around him the moment he opened the door.
The house was in the middle of the Alps, in a valley between four huge, snow-covered peaks. A small village had sprung up here, in this seemingly inhospitable climate, consisting mostly of the homes of Starfleet officers who worked at Headquarters... which was about a third of the way around the world, but thanks to transporters, it was virtually next door.
Down here in the valley, the short tundra shrubs were beginning to flower, dotting the ground with little specks of yellow, pink, and white. Heavy grey clouds rolled overhead. A cold wind rustled over the shrubs, and cut straight through Harrys thin shirt. He shivered and took a sip of the hot coffee, then set the cup down and leaned against the railing, closing his eyes and inhaling the sharp, clean, snow-scented air.
A few snowflakes swirled madly in the wild wind. Every once in a while, one would make a kamikaze run to the ground, and disappear on contact. The weather had been getting warmer, but it had taken a slight turn for the worse. The white patches that had been retreating up the flanks of the mountains had begun to grow again, creeping down towards the valley like an invading slime mold.
Harrys teeth were chattering, but he barely noticed. What now? He was scared to death. Hed gone and screwed up again. The wind howled. He contemplated flinging himself from the deck and just ending the whole messy charade that was his life right there, but then he decided that the short fall and the ensuing tumble down the rocky slope probably wouldnt be enough to kill him anyway, it would just humiliate him further. And besides, poor Miral had had enough trauma in her life already. With a resigned sigh, he turned and walked back into the house.
The heated air wrapped around him like an embrace, and he noticed that Miral had made her way downstairs and was sitting at the table in the kitchen.
Hi, Harry! she said. You look sad.
He tousled her hair and headed to the replicator.
Im not sad, Mir. Two orders: eggs, scrambled, two orders: toast, medium, he added to the replicator.
Ok, Miral said. Harry pulled the plates out of the replicator and set them on the table, one in front of himself, and the other in front of the chair he knew Tom would soon occupy. So, did you sleep good?
Miral nodded, chewing her cereal.
I dreamed about a pony. Can I have a pony for my birthday?
Well, that would be more manageable than a baby sister...
I dunno, Mir. Youd probably better ask Tom about that.
I know. But you could tell Tom to get me a pony, she said, cause he listens to you. If you do, Ill be your friend forever.
Harry found himself smiling. This kid, she could be devious.
I think you should ask Tom yourself. He listens to you to, you know.
Ask me what? Tom said, appearing in the doorway. A rush of sensations blasted through Harry. Tom had just come from the shower, his hair was wet and spiky, and his skin was flushed. His shirt hung open and his jeans were a little too tight for Harrys comfort. Gods, if he was going to react this strongly every single time Tom walked into a room, there was no physical way hed be able to stay.
I want a pony! Miral shouted.
Oh, really? Tom said in an amused tone as he sat down and picked up one of the slices of toast, And why should I get you a pony? You probably wouldnt take care of it, and poor Harry would have to do all the work.
Nuh-uh, Miral said. She crossed her arms and pouted.
Well, Ill tell you what. I cant promise Ill get you a pony, but you get to go to Grandpa Owens house tonight, and if youre good, hell probably take you to ride a pony.
Harry looked up sharply. Since when were the kids going to Owens house tonight? What? he mouthed at Tom. Tom winked at him. Equal measures of excitement and fear clamped onto his heart, like fire and ice.
What do you think of that? Tom continued.
Yea! Miral said.
Gods help me, Harry thought.
I swear, Im not even going to proposition you, Harry, Tom said, Relax before you sprain something.
Very funny, Tom, Harry said, glancing up from the menu.
Across the table, Tom himself looked completely at ease, lounging back in his chair. It was a nice restaurant, but Harry was relieved to note that it hardly qualified as a romantic dining establishment. He really didnt think he could have handled that at the moment. In fact, most of the patrons were parents with small children. Harry returned his attention to the menu.
Oh, come on, dont do this, Tom said. Harry heard him sit up.
Do what? he asked, debating to himself whether he should go with the chicken, or just have a simple salad.
Youre... distancing yourself. Youve been doing it all day.
Yeah, so? Harry stared at the words in front of him without seeing them.
So why? Are you really that angry with me? Im sorry, already.
Maybe Im not interested.
I think you might be, Har.
Maybe Im not interested in a relationship with anyone, Tom.
He was surprised to hear anger in Toms voice.
Oh, so thats it, then? Youre just going to call this whole thing off because youre scared it might not work?
He looked up, and met Toms fierce gaze.
Pretty much, yeah.
Toms shoulders slumped and he looked away.
When has it ever worked?
What do you think? Do you think Im going to drop you like all those people? Harry, weve been friends eleven years! Were been living together for almost six months! Tom looked around the restaurant, almost as though seeking inspiration, then blurted out, I love you, ok?
All of the oxygen vanished from the room, and they both stared at each other across the table, motionless, as though the slightest movement might upset some delicate balance and send the entire universe tumbling into a heap of smoking wreckage. Around them, the cheerful chatter went on.
What the hell, Harry whispered, because he couldnt force himself to speak any louder, makes you think that?
Could we go somewhere more private?
A few silent minutes later they were walking down the quiet, early-evening streets of San Francisco. Tom had his hands clasped behind his back, and Harry had his arms crossed over his chest.
Tom watched the pavement pass below his feet.
Remember how Candace left me, after that accident coming home from Betazed?
Harry nodded, then realized Tom wasnt looking at him, and said, Yes.
Well, it didnt have anything to do with... See, it... she...
Personality conflict? Harry suggested.
Tom actually laughed.
No, no, no, believe me Harry, by that point in most of my relationships, I am way beyond personality conflicts...
Let me talk, will you? he paused, then continued. When, when we... I couldnt do it, Harry. When... in bed, I couldnt... you know... Tom blushed to the roots of his hair. It was quite charming.
Its ok, Tom. I hear it happens to a lot of guys. He was trying very hard not to be amused by Toms mortification.
Tom shook his head.
Not me. Never before. And believe me, Harry, Ive done it often, and Ive done it extremely drunk.
There is a point to this, believe me. Its not something Id ever intentionally reveal to anyone without a very good reason.
Naturally, Harry said. He uncrossed his arms.
See, at the time, I thought it was just that I wasnt over BElanna yet. I figured I felt guilty or something. Well, it got worse. After that, I didnt even care. I thought I should be dating. I thought it might help, but I just couldnt work up the interest.
So, you miss your wife.
No. Well, yes, I do. I miss her. A lot. I told you that. But, theres more to it than that.
Harry didnt say anything. His heart was fluttering against his ribs. He crossed his arms again. Tom scuffed his foot on the asphalt and continued.
One day, this woman from down the hall asked me if Id go with her to one of those Starfleet functions. She was a real knockout. Practically up there with Seven in the looks department, but she also had a personality. They both chuckled, then Tom said, But I didnt go. All I wanted to do was get home, to see the kids... to see you.
He took a deep breath.
I didnt really notice it at the time, but last night, it just all suddenly seemed so clear to me. All the pieces fell into place. You know, back when you said you wanted to leave, I practically panicked. I still panic, when I think you might leave. I cant imagine life without you. I cant wait to get home to you.
A shuttle roared over their heads. The rush of its atmospheric thrusters ruffled their hair. Harry struggled to absorb all Tom was saying to him. It seemed unreal. He wondered if he was dreaming again.
This is all happening way too fast, he said.
Tell me about it. Tom grinned. I went from mourning my wife to wanting my best friend in about three seconds flat. Cognitivly, anyway...
They found themselves at the end of the street, on a cliff overlooking the bay. The beam from a lighthouse, a historic relic, swept across the dark waters every few seconds. Tom sat on the rail of the fence that guarded the drop off.
I dont want to push you into anything.
Im sorry, Tom. Its stupid, I know...
Tom hopped up and took a few steps towards him, then stopped about three feet away.
Its not stupid. I know how much it hurts when you lose someone. Especially the way you lost Libby.
Funny how the mention of her name didnt sting quite as much all of a sudden. Tom stood in front of him silently. Their eyes met and neither one of them looked away. The look in Toms eyes was wonderful. But at the same time, it was terrifying. A warm night breeze brushed past them, tugging at Harrys shirt and toying with Toms bangs. Tom smiled, that same smile he had blessed Danny with all those months ago, and he held out his hand, halfway between them. He didnt move when Harry didnt respond right away, he just let his hand hang there, a wordless offer that meant more than he could ever possibly say. A question hung in the chasm between them: Do you trust me?
Luckily, that was one question Harry could answer, because if there was one thing in the universe he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that was it. He trusted Tom Paris. He reached out and closed the gap.
They walked back to the restaurant, hand-in-hand.
And then the Ferengi says, Thats not my ear!
Both Harry and Tom cracked up. They were back home, in the living room in their accustomed positions, Tom draped over the couch like a watch in a Dali painting, and Harry relaxing in the arm chair. It was late, but the kids were spending the night at Owens house, and Harry and Tom were enjoying the chance to be loud and obscene. For a night, at least, they could shed their parental personas.
As soon as Tom regained conscious control over his breathing, he wheezed, This from the man I trust to watch my children every day?
Harry, who had been trying to compose himself, burst into laughter again.
And I dont appreciate blond jokes, thank you very much! Tom added, failing to keep a straight face.
I know. Thats why I tell them, Harry said with an innocent smile.
They chuckled on and off for a few more minutes, and then Tom sat up.
Its kind of late. We should probably get some sleep.
Yeah, Harry agreed, but neither of them moved. The clock on the mantle became louder, filling the air between them with an incessant tick... tick... tick... There had been a clock like that in Harrys room when he was growing up. During his brooding teenage years, when he hadnt been studying like a madman, he had often lain on his bed and listened to the ticking of that clock. It seemed to him a reminder that time flies. It was as though he could hear his life passing by: tick... tick... tick...
He suddenly rose to his feet, and the rustle of the movement was sufficient to drive the fatalistic sound away.
Well, good night, Tom, he said, a little too quickly, and even as he began to walk down the hall to his room, he heard Tom jump up and follow him. He reached his door and Tom caught his arm, stopping him just short of the sanctuary of his room. He turned reluctantly to face him.
Tom seemed a little startled by the way Harry stiffened at his touch again, and dropped his hand to his side.
I dont regret anything I said tonight, Harry. Or last night.
The humor had rolled right off of him, and his eyes held nothing but sincerity. An unexpected surge of love rushed over Harry, leaving behind it a slight tingle from his toes to his hair. He felt himself smile.Toms eyebrows hopped a bit, and he smiled too. An unsolicited thought drifted through Harrys mind: *So beautiful when he smiles.*
Not anything? Harry said, part of himself shocked at suggestive quality that crept into his voice.
Nothing, Tom whispered, lifting his hand to trail his fingers lightly over Harrys cheek.
Toms touch was sending chills down his spine. This situation was rapidly spiraling out of control.
Not even that comment about the Risan pleasure maid and the Deneebian slime devil? he murmured.
Well, maybe that, he said, his voice still soft.
Harry caught Toms hand and squeezed it in his own. Tom stepped closer to him, so close he could feel his body heat. So close that their hands, clasped between them, touched their chests. Tom leaned towards him, his free hand coming out of nowhere to rest on Harrys shoulder blades. The gravity of Toms gaze trapped him, and he finally felt no desire to escape. He buried his fingers in Toms hair and pulled his head down, urging him on. His eyes fluttered shut, and Tom kissed him, retreated for a moment, and then returned. Toms arm tightened around his back, and he freed Toms other hand to embrace him, so they were pressed together in a fierce hug with nothing between them but the a few thin layers of cloth. Toms soft lips stayed gentle, despite the fact that his arms held Harry so tight.
Tom, Harry breathed, his mouth moving over Toms, whose only answer was a sigh that brushed against Harrys neck.
They kissed one last time and then, on some unspoken signal, they both dropped back, their arms still loosely around each other. Harrys muscles felt like putty, as though he had some fever that made him weak and shaky. He and Tom looked at each other, blinking like they had just woke from a deep sleep. They exchanged a smile, and then Harry let go of Tom, who followed suit. Toms smile widened a little, just enough to almost qualify as a grin.
Gods, Harry, if you kiss like that, how the helld you manage to stay single that long?
Guess Im just talented like that, he said.
A long silence inched between them, and from the living room, Harry could hear the clock, faintly. A quiet alarm bell of unease rang in Harrys soul. Did Tom want more? He really didnt think he could give him more at this point... They both spoke at the same time.
Well, um- Tom said.
I guess we should- Harry said.
Tom grinned again, that amused sparkle in his eyes.
Good night, Har.
Relief washed over Harry.
Tom swept him into another brief hug, dropped a quick kiss on his forehead, and then headed up the stairs. Even after Harrys nighttime rituals of teeth-brushing and face-washing, the taste and feel of Toms lips lasted for hours. Gods, what a kiss. Harrys recent bout of insomnia continued well into the night.
~*~ June 2383 ~*~
There was naturally a problem the instant they walked in the door.
The puppy, a manageable compromise, they had foolishly believed, when weighed against a pony or a sister, was far more trouble than Harry had ever imagined would be possible. He was also the cutest thing on four legs and incredibly sweet. He was a pure-bred Burmese Mountain dog, and at twelve weeks old, he was already huge. He gave Harry a look not at all apologetic as he stood over the remains of a formerly potted plant in the living room. Miral slapped her hands over her mouth and giggled at the sight of her puppy coated in dirt.
Bad dog, was all Harry could manage.
The puppy let his tongue hang out and wagged his tail at the sound of Harrys voice. Miral giggled again.
Tom, Harry called up the stairs, *Your* dog needs to have a little talk with you!
The puppy trotted over to Miral and stood up on his hind legs, propping himself up against her, almost knocking her down, and getting muddy paw prints all over her dress. She continued to find the situation highly amusing. Tom returned from settling Danny down for his nap, kissed Harry quickly on the lips as he walked past, and then scooped up the wayward pup, held him over his head and looked into his eyes.
Bad... dog... Bad boy, Woofie, he said. The dog positively deflated at the words. The light went out of his eyes. When Tom set him on the floor, he flopped down on his stomach, legs splayed every which way, and sighed. Harry shook his head in amazement and collapsed into his chair, holding his arms out for Miral to climb into his lap.
Ever considered dog-training as a career option?
Tom rolled his eyes as he began to clean up the chaos the puppy had created.
Dont I wish. Dogs are a lot easier to deal with than Starfleet captains. We need to get this guy a better kennel.
Woofie (which, as a name had been far better than the other option Miral had offered: Super Prince Sparkles) edged over to Tom and nudged him with his nose.
Shoo, Tom said.
Woofie looked back and forth between Harry and Tom and finally decided that Harry would have to do. He trotted over and laid his head on Harrys knee, looking up at him and Miral soulfully. Miral slipped down to the floor and gave the poor little doggy a belly rub.
I am such a cat person, Harry muttered. Mir, take Woofie out, hes getting dirt all over.
Miral complied instantly, and Harry only wished that the dog listened as well. He sighed as he looked around the room. Muddy paw prints over everything, the carpet, the walls, the playpen... a gnawed-up pillow in the corner.
Tom, we cant take him to my parents house, theyll go nuts...
Aw, come on, Har, we cant leave him here.
Harry watched Woofie and Miral dash back and forth across the deck outside. Tom came up behind him, unexpectedly, laying his hands on Harrys shoulders and nuzzling the back of his neck.
He can stay out in the yard. It wont be too cold.
Tom slid his arms around Harrys neck and kissed his cheek. With a sigh of resignation, Harry turned his head to give Tom access to his lips, which Tom quickly made liberal use of. First it was just a rather chaste, light touch, but soon, his tongue flicked out, coaxing Harry to let him deepen the kiss. They both shifted around until they were at a better angle. Harry grasped Toms hands which hung over his chest. He loved the taste of Toms mouth, very distinctive, pleasant, addictive. He loved the moist heat of Toms tongue on his.
He gently pulled away when Toms hands shook free of his and started to wander. He turned in the chair, shook his head with a smile.
Number one, not in front of Miral. Number two, Im still not going there.
Tom sat back on his heels and sighed.
Why not? For heavens sake, Harry, were been dating, he indicated the quotes with his fingers, for a month, and you wont even let me go past first base?
Look, dont you find it... I dont know, a little weird, even?
Well, yes, I do, as a matter of fact-
Not that, Tom. I mean, doesnt it even bother you that Im a guy?
Harry shoulders slumped in frustration.
Why? Tom said, Does it bother you?
Yeah, a little.
Im beginning to think there may be a little more to it than that.
Miral chose that moment to come barreling back into the room, and all their discussion ceased as they both leapt up to try to prevent the muddy dog from ruining any more of the carpet.
Harrys mother, Mary Kim, was turning seventy. Hed been a late child, born well after his parents had given up hope. He was used to his parents being older than everybody elses, or at least he had been used to it. Then hed spent eleven years in the Delta Quadrant. A lot changes in eleven years, and his parents managed to go from late-middle-age to downright old when he wasnt looking. It had been a little jarring, coming home to this elderly couple he didnt know.
Well, it was probably worse, he reasoned, for people like Joe Carey. Hed left behind a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old and come home to a first-year Academy student and a high-school senior.
He sat with his mother in the screened-in back porch, watching as Miral and Woofie played with Tom in the back yard. Danny slept in Marys arms. Harry chuckled at the trio outside.
You look happy, Mary said.
He glanced at her.
She smiled, traced a finger along Dannys ridges like Tom always did.
Yes, you do. Im glad. Its nice to see you happy.
Harry didnt know what to say, so he just sat quietly in the white wicker chair. Everything was so familiar, and at the same time, so alien. His parents felt like strangers. His mother rocked in her rocking chair, the runners squeaking against the old wooden planks. Danny sighed with contentment. Tom was right. He could not tell people apart. Hed be just as happy in the arms of a complete stranger, it seemed, as he would in Toms.
Any chance this little guy will be my grandson? Mary said, in a cautious tone.
Harrys breath caught in his throat.
Uh, he said, letting it out in a rush, I.. I dont know. Its... we... we really havent thought about that yet... I mean, right now... were just-
Calm down, dear, it was just an innocent question. She rocked back and her eyes followed Tom. Well, you could certainly do worse. And Im not getting any younger... she added lightly.
Mom, Harry groaned. He listened to the creak of the rocker. He couldnt look away from Tom.
Whats wrong? Mary asked
Am I the only person whos noticed that Tom and I are the same gender?
Oh, Harry, we may be a bit old-fashioned, but were hardly antique. Love is love.
He sighed, then answered the original question.
I couldnt tell you. I really dont know myself.
They had dinner together a week later, at a nice, quiet restaurant that definitely had a more romantic flair to it. They came home, and Tom thanked the babysitter and sent her on her way and then they both headed into the living room.
Once they were seated on the couch, Tom put his arm around Harrys shoulder and kissed him. Harry moved into the kiss and welcomed Toms tongue into his mouth. Tom bent closer. Harry wrapped his arms around him, pulling them as close to each other as they could get in the rather awkward position. The kiss seemed hotter than usual, more demanding, from both sides. A flash of desire crackled through Harry, and instead of fighting it back, he rolled towards Tom, not breaking the kiss for a moment, so he was hovering over him, pressing him back against the couch. When he felt Toms hands caressing his sides, he didnt pull away. Instead, he responded in kind, finally touching that body hed been staring at all night, learning its contours, feeling its solid reality beneath his fingers.
Hed never felt this way before. Never wanted anyone, ever, this bad. It was like a fire pulsing in his chest, sending waves of heat and hormones through him, every time Tom kissed him. There were bolts of electricity everywhere Tom touched him.
After some time, a second, an hour, Tom suddenly held him tight and lay down on the couch, pulling Harry on top of him. Harry couldnt stop a soft moan when Tom arched his back under him, grinding their hips together.
Gods, Harry, I want you so bad, Tom gasped, when their lips parted for a moment. His words went straight to Harrys groin, and Harry moaned again. He stroked Toms side as Toms hands made their way down his back. He practically yelped when Tom touched his ass, couldnt stop a quiet exclamation from escaping his lips. He wanted more. He was sick of fighting it. He didnt know why hed kept fighting it for so long.
Tom escaped from under him, and stood unsteadily beside the couch. Harry looked up at him, feeling too weak to move.
Tom smiled and offered a hand to help him stand.
We are not doing this on the couch like a couple of teenagers, Har. No way.
Harry stared at Toms hand. Oh why, oh why did he have to interrupt the momentum? Just when Harry had finally managed to put his doubts and fears aside, when hed finally managed to just let his feelings take over, Tom had ruined it. The dark clouds of confusion closed in again.
Harry sat up and shook his head. Tom sighed and sat beside him.
Im sorry, Harry whispered. A film of tears rushed over his eyes, blurring the room into meaninglessness.
Tom reached out, hesitated a moment, and then lay his hand on Harrys shoulder.
Harry shook his head again.
Youre wasting your time, Tom. Im a lost cause.
Tom sat down next to him, holding him close with one arm around his shoulder. Harry shook free and stood up, fleeing partway across the room.
I love you, Harry, Tom said, staying where he was on the couch. Harry could feel his gaze boring into his back.
I cant, I just cant, Tom, I-
Its ok. It really is.
Gods, tears again. He felt like such and infant. He swiped them away, mad at himself and fate.
Tom, this is never going to go anywhere.
Tom got up from the couch, touched Harrys shoulder. Harry pulled away again, without looking at him.
You heard me.
Tom, I dont even know if I want to sleep with you!
So? Theres more to marriage than sex, Har.
The shock of this statement coming from Tom Paris stopped Harrys tears dead in their tracks. His head swiveled towards Tom. He tried to say something, anything, but he was struck completely speechless.
Harry... Tom paused, pressed his hands together. He looked lost in thought for a moment, then drew a deep breath and continued, I love you more than Ive ever loved anyone, Har. The kids love you. I cant imagine anyone I would rather spend the rest of my life with. You...
He paused a long time. Harrys heart was hammering in his chest. It wouldnt work. Well, maybe it would, but what if it didnt? What if Tom turned on him like so many other people had in his life? Hed never be able to deal with it. When Tom spoke again, he couldnt meet Harrys eyes.
Look, if you dont want to sleep with me, thats... thats... I mean, I could... I could deal with that. I know couples who-
Like an eclipse on a sunny summer day, anger stole over Harry.
So basically what youre saying is we could marry each other and just sleep with other people, is that it?
Tom half-shook his head, and ran a hand through his hair.
You make it sound so- He gave up on that sentence, and tried a different tack, Harry, what Im saying is- He stopped again, squeezed his eyes shut in concentration for a moment, then said, Id do anything for you. Anything. I want you here. I need you.
Harry laughed once, sharply, cynically.
You need me to raise your kids and clean your house, Tom. Hire a maid.
Now it was Toms turn to be speechless. He stammered a few meaningless pronouns and fell silent again. Harry scowled.
Maybe youre willing to settle for some damn marriage of convenience, well Im not!
He paced over the fireplace, then spun around, his eyes bright with fury.
Ive lived my whole fucking life to please someone else, and Im sick of it. No one respects me. Hell, even the dog doesnt even respect me, he said, waving at the kennel where Woofie slept, Im just good ol Harry, always eager to please... Damn it! Im leaving! Im getting my own fucking life!
He didnt look back as he stormed to the door.
Harry! Wait, Har, I- Tom called, but the rest of his sentence was lost as the door slammed shut between them.
Harry fled down the path to the transporter through the cold mountain air. He looked back once, to see Tom standing in the doorway, and Miral, silhouetted in the window of her room upstairs. And yet, somehow, he kept walking.
~*~ July 2383 ~*~
It was funny how easily bad habits returned, Harry mused. Hed gotten a job working on an old merchant vessel. The work was incredibly simple, just light maintenance, so Harry spent most of his time doing nothing. Normally, he would stare out a window and watch the stars go by, and wonder why, since he was free again, he wasnt happy. Well, at least he knew he wasnt happy. He blamed it on the fact that he had a sucky job and told himself things would get better once he found something worthwhile to do with his time. There had to be something he could do that would challenge him, that would make a difference. Something that he might actually enjoy...
He drained the last drop of liquor from the bottle and tossed it aside. He hated himself at the moment. He was nothing but a lousy drunk doing a stupid job any damn high-school graduate could do. Heck, they didnt even have to be a high-school graduate. A ten-year-old could do what he was doing.
Yo, Kim, the merchants teenaged son (he could do my job, Harry thought darkly) shouted through the door, Come out and see this! The Enterprise is docked here!
*What the fuck do I care about the Enterprise?* Harry thought, but he got up and walked to the bridge anyway. Sure enough, the Fleets flagship herself was docked at the station. Maybe theyd run into Captain Picard... nah, probably not.
Once they were docked, Harry left the ship in search of a bar. He found one, after a long search, and planted himself on a bar stool, planning to stay there until he fell off. His plan didnt get a chance to go into effect, however, because before the bartender even brought his first drink, a dark-haired woman moved to the seat next to his, and greeted him.
Hi. Im Counselor Deanna Troi, from the Enterprise. Youre from Voyager, arent you?
Guilty as charged, Harry answered, watching himself listlessly in the mirror and wishing she would go away.
Im sorry, I shouldnt be interrupting. You seemed troubled.
Harry drew a breath, intending to use it to tell her off, but then, he just sighed. Well, he was troubled. He couldnt deny it. Maybe he could use a good talk with a counselor, anyway.
Would you like to talk about it? she asked.
Youre off-duty. Why should you care?
I dont like letting people suffer. Besides, Id be interested in hearing how youve fared. The media stopped following Voyagers crew... Shall we go somewhere more private?
They left the bar and wandered until they found a bench in an out-of-the-way alcove. As they sat down, a tall, blond man walked past. Troi noticed that Harry watched him for a moment, then suddenly looked away. She sensed a swirl of emotions from him.
So, what seems to be the problem? Troi asked.
Dont you know? Youre Betazoid.
Only half. Im empathic. I read emotions, not thoughts.
There was a brief silence, which Troi filled before it became uncomfortable.
So, what happened after you got home?
A spike of anger.
You dont want to hear about it, believe me.
I wouldnt mind hearing it. But if you dont want to tell it-
Harry laughed bitterly, and she sensed a barrier in his mind.
I found out my girlfriend was cheating on me... before I even left.
Im over it, believe me.
So, what then?
Then I drifted around two years and ended up staying with a friend of mine.
At the word friend, a virtual maelstrom of emotions flowed over Troi. So now they were getting to the heart of the issue.
Your friend? she prompted.
Tom Paris, he said.
This time, Troi was ready for the confusion. She always liked working with humans, they were so unrestrained. Sorting out their conflicting feelings was like tasting a fine wine. There were levels, different shades, and with practice, she could generally untangle the whole mess. Sometimes all it took was one little tug in just the right place to make everything fall into place.
At the mention of that name, the first emotion to jump out was uncertainty. Uncertainty, flavored with fear. This was followed closely by the conflicting tone of friendship. And then a dash of lust. But below all the rest, the unifying factor: unquestionably love.
How long did you stay with him?
He paused, and then continued to speak.
I was helping with his kids. I didnt really have anything to do, so I would watch them during the day.
The feeling of loss grew stronger.
Id guess you got pretty close to him and the children, then, she said.
Harry could only nod.
Do you know you love him?
Harry looked up at her. Hope, pleading.
She nodded. He buried his face in his hands.
Why did you leave?
I dont know! I felt like there was somewhere I belonged. I felt like... I dont know!
You were afraid?
A lot of people are afraid of love. Especially if theyve been hurt before. Love makes us all vulnerable.
That wasnt all. I felt like I wasnt going anywhere. I felt like I should be out on a starship, or in some deep-space colony, or, or doing something with my life! I sat around the house all day! I was a damn housewife!
Troi sensed that the last sentence was, indeed, a cynical joke, so she let herself laugh softly before continuing.
Harry, raising children is the most honorable profession in the universe. It may not seem like a lot of glory, but the rewards so far outweigh the costs... she thought for a second, then added, What are you doing right now?
Now, think of it this way, which will make more of a difference: fixing a broken plasma injector, or helping a child who could one day grow up and invent something that would make plasma injectors obsolete?
Silence as he considered what she said.
Yes, it is hard, Troi continued, Its probably the most demanding job in the universe. If you think nobody respects you, just pay attention to the way children look at their parents. Their mothers and fathers are their whole universe. Everything you say is pure latinum to them. How much more respect could you ask for? No matter what your Starfleet rank is, no cadet will look at you the same way your own child will.
He was shaking his head.
What? she asked.
I am such an idiot, he said.
And when he looked up, he was smiling.
Harry was amazed how simple it all seemed now. All that had been holding him back was his inability to trust his own feelings, but hearing it from a third party, it all became so clear. No wonder he could never figure out where to go. He was already exactly where he wanted to be. And then hed gone and left. And hed been utterly miserable. And he missed Miral, and Danny, and Tom. It hurt every morning to wake up and realize that he wasnt going to hear Mirals bright chatter, or rock Danny to sleep, or stay up ridiculously late talking and joking with Tom. How could he have been so blind?
He spent a day training the merchants son how to do his job, and then he caught the first transport back to Earth.
A warm breeze, a harbinger of summer, blew through the valley as he walked up to the house. It was early evening. The sky behind the dark mountains was pale salmon, the clouds tinged with fluorescent orange fire. The sun itself hovered in the dip between two mountains. It looked every bit the giant fireball it really was.
The house was a dark shadow against the fire of sunset, but the windows glowed yellow. Good, they were home. It would be kind of anticlimactic to come back to an empty house and have to wait around on the porch...
He expected to be nervous as he walked up the steps, but he wasnt. He touched the door chime and waited. Finally, footsteps approached, and Tom opened the door. Woofie pushed his head out between Toms legs and barked once.
Harry? Tom said, after a moment of shocked silence. Harry was amused, but didnt show it. He was probably the last person in the universe Tom expected to see.
Hi, Harry said. I owe you an apology. Can I come in?
He kind of liked Tom speechless. He was quite cute like that.
Uh, of course, by all means...
Tom stepped back and let Harry into the house. Woofie jumped up on him instantly, licking his hand and barking. Miral stood in the living room at the end of the hall, peering around the corner. Her eyes widened when she saw him.
Harry! she squealed and ran down the hall. Harry caught her before she collided with him and picked her up.
Daddy said you went away and you werent coming back and I was really sad and I cried and you said a bad word whyd you come back Daddy said you wouldnt, she said, all in one breath.
Well, Im back.
She hugged him and buried her face in his neck.
I missed you a lot.
I missed you too, sweetheart.
Harry set Miral on her feet.
I have to talk to Daddy alone for a second, ok?
Ok. But when youre done, you have to come see the starship I made!
Harry nodded solemnly and she hopped off down the hall. Woofie scurried after her.
Tom stood by, arms crossed, eying Harry cautiously.
So, how long are you planning to stay this time?
Harry lifted a hand, but stopped before he touched Tom, and then let it drop back to his side.
I was kind of hoping to stay for awhile... Like maybe... oh... the rest of my life? A tiny twinge of nervousness stirred inside him, but it wasnt nearly the paralyzing doubt hed felt before. If your offer still stands, that is... which I would certainly understand if it didnt-
His oxygen supply was cut off rather abruptly as Tom grabbed him and hugged him so hard he thought his ribs might crack. He grinned, and hugged Tom back.
I take it that means it does?
Toms eyes were sparkling like blue Caribbean waters. His arms loosened enough to let Harry breathe, but not much more.
Harry tilted his head back to stare into Toms eyes until they closed and Tom bent down and kissed him.
It was wonderful. He could finally just relax, stop analyzing everything, and melt in Toms arms and feel Tom melt in his. They must have stayed that way a long time, because Miral got bored, dashed back down the hall and tugged on Harrys shirt.
Harry! You said youd come see my starship!
They each took a small step back, but they couldn't stop standing there, smiling at each other.
Harry! Miral whimpered, trying to squirm between them. Harry picked her up again.
All right, all right, Im coming.
He carried her into the living room and then released her to go retrieve her toy. Danny was in his playpen - sitting up.
Hey, look at that! Harry said, surprised. Tom scooped Danny up and grinned.
It gets worse. He can crawl!
Oh boy. Thats going to make my life interesting.
Tom plunked Danny down on the floor and he was off like a shot, scooting over the floor as though hed been doing it all his life. Miral ran over and held up a collection of connectable parts which, yes, in a vague way did resemble a starship. Harry paid the proper respects to her brilliance, and then sat down on the floor with her to join in. Woofie galloped over and sprawled in his lap, his tail thumping on the floor. Tom retrieved Danny from the opposite side of the room and joined them. Harry looked around at the group and laughed.
Look at us, Tom. Two kids and a dog.
Tom laughed, too, and Miral just gave them both a funny look and returned her attention to her construction. The silence of concentration fell over the room as they all became absorbed in whatever they were creating. Danny squirmed out of Toms grasp and crawled around awhile, and Woofie fell asleep on Harrys lap, growling and huffing quietly in his sleep.
Harry, are you ever going to leave again? Miral asked.
Harry shook his head.
Tom looked up, met his eye for a moment, and Harry smiled.
Were getting married, Mir, Tom said, Do you know what that means?
Mirals eyes lit up.
Does that mean youll be my dad, Harry?
Harry nodded again.
Good, Miral said. cause I like you, and I dont want you to go away anymore.
Danny finally noticed there was another person in the room, and crawled over to Harry and looked up at him.
Dada! he said.
Finally got it right, Bud, Harry said gently, ruffling the soft fuzz on Dannys head. Danny giggled, and flopped onto his side.
You know whats kind of weird about that? Tom said.
He never called the guy who baby-sat for him last month dada.
Harry put the storybooks away and sat down on the edge of Mirals bed again.
Tuck me in! she said, and he pulled the covers up to her chin. She smiled sleepily at him.
If youre going to marry Daddy, can I call you Dad?
He stroked her hair.
Sure, Mir. Id like that.
And you cant go away, now.
Her eyes narrowed for a second.
And you cant yell at Daddy anymore.
I wont yell at Daddy anymore.
Good. Cause if you do, Ill punch you.
Ill bear that in mind.
Its just an expression. It means Ill remember that you said that.
Ok. Because you made Daddy really sad. And me, too, because I dont like it when Daddys sad.
I know. Im sorry, Mir.
She nodded again, and then shut her eyes. Harry leaned down and kissed her, then quietly headed for the door.
Night, Dad, Mir said.
Night, Mir. Love you.
A soft, indecipherable mumble came from the bed, and Harry slipped out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
Tom was already sitting on the couch with his nightly report in his hand when Harry got downstairs. He looked up when Harry walked in the room.
You look happy. What happened?
Harry flopped into his armchair.
Life is good. He paused, then added, Miral called me Dad.
Shes pretty sharp.
Sometimes too sharp for her own good, Harry said, laughing.
Agreed, Tom said, trying to focus on his report.
After a few minutes of quiet, Harry shifted from his chair to the couch, and edged towards Tom.
What are you reading?
Tom inclined the PADD away from him.
Classified. If you saw it, Id have to kill you.
Really? That sounds a bit kinky, dont you think?
Tom, caught completely unprepared for a statement of this nature, laughed so hard he almost dropped the sensitive document. Woofie, who had been curled up by Toms feet leapt up at full red alert. Harry wondered how Tom would have explained to his superior that his dog really had eaten his report... Tom had to take several deep breaths before he could compose himself.
Excuse me, Harry, he said in a tone that made a fair effort to be serious, I am trying to get some work done. Harry cuddled up next to him, but he managed to keep talking without skipping a beat. I would appreciate it if you would refrain from-
He was rendered physically unable to continue by Harrys lips pressing against his. Harry continued to kiss him until he stopped trying to talk.
You dont have to do this all tonight, do you? Harry whispered against Toms jaw, his lips skimming over the short stubble there.
Well, actually, I... uh... I...
Harry slid his hand under Toms shirt, lightly caressing his stomach, toying with his chest hair. He moved his head a little and began licking Toms earlobe.
Um... what was the question?
Thats what I thought, Harry said.
Tom tossed the PADD onto the coffee table and stood up, making sure he pulled Harry up with him. They kissed each other, lips moving slowly, sensuously together, and then Harry pushed to deepen the kiss and their tongues met and probed, their taste mingling. Toms fingers wandered around Harrys back.
Harrys every sense was at full power already, and with his eyes closed all of his other senses seemed enhanced even further. He was starkly aware of every inch of Toms body pressing up against him, of every move Toms tongue made. He could hear his own heartbeat pounding in his ears. He could taste Tom, and smell him. Maybe in some romance novel that scent would be smoke and apples, but it wasnt. It was hard to describe... subtle, musky, clearly masculine and clearly Tom.
Eventually, the need for a good deep breath pushed them apart and they held each other up as they replenished their oxygen supplies.
So, Tom whispered, Your place or mine?
Harry considered the question a moment, his head resting against Toms chest where he could hear Toms heart.
Mine, he said, and tugged Tom to his room.
Once they were safely in the room with the door closed, Tom pulled Harry close, and brought their lips together again. As they kissed, his hands slipped between them, unfastened Harrys shirt and slipped it off his shoulders. Harry sighed happily as Tom caressed his bare back.
I love you, Tom murmured. He kissed Harrys forehead, traced his eyebrow with his tongue.
Love you, too, Harry said, into the hollow of Toms neck. The words sounded so right. He felt Tom shiver.
Toms hands roved over his back, slowly but steadily making their way down and around to the clasp of Harrys pants, which they then unfastened. In a few moments, Harry discovered he was completely naked.
Hey, no fair. You dont even have your shirt off yet, he muttered.
Tom grinned, and in short order, whipped off his shirt and the rest of his clothing. Harry took a few steps back and looked over Tom with an expression of frank appraisal on his face. A bit soft around the middle (something which bugged Tom to no end) but otherwise Harry could only hope he looked half as good at forty. He stared at Tom a little longer than he had intended. His hormones kicked into overdrive.
Not bad, he said, meeting Toms eyes and grinning.
Not bad! Jeeze, Harry, you could at least lie!
Tom tried to look hurt, but in a moment, he was chuckling too.
Harry took Toms hands and pulled them close again. The shock of skin-on-skin contact was all that occupied his mind for a moment, and he and Tom relished the sensation silently for a moment. Then Harry whispered, Well, I can honestly say youre the most attractive naked man Ive ever seen.
Tom pulled back, looked down at him.
Dont tell me youve never seen...
Tom, Ive seen hundreds. Dont you remember those damn gym showers at the Academy?
There was a pause as this sank in, then Tom kissed his temple, and said, Ever looked in a mirror?
Ok, Tom, that was corny.
Gee, thanks, Harry. I tell you, I try to be romantic, and what do I get?
Harry decided that there was a little too much talk and not enough action at the moment, so he dragged Tom over to the bed, then lay down on his side, supporting his head with one hand, and patted the covers beside him.
Come on, love. I didnt come here for your bad jokes.
Tom bounced onto the bed, and mirrored Harrys position, facing him.
Oh, you know you did.
He touched Harrys chin with just his index finger, and then slowly traced along his jaw, down the side of neck. His finger raced up Harrys shoulder, then on down his arm, and Harry shivered. When he reached Harrys hand, he grabbed it by the wrist and pulled it towards him. Harry trailed the fingers of his captive hand over Toms lips, and Toms tongue flicked out, wetting the tip of his middle finger. Tom leaned closer and, starting with Harrys palm, his tongue and lips retraced the path his finger had taken earlier.
When he reached Harrys shoulder, he pushed him onto his back and rolled on top of him, never stopping the maddening assault on Harrys senses. Harry moaned as Tom nibbled at his collarbone, and then began to move down. Toms hands had not been idle, the whole time hed been caressing Harry expertly. He took his time, his touch was never impersonal, but it seemed almost systematic, like he was finding every little spot that would make Harry react, and cataloging ever reaction. Whatever he was doing, it was working remarkably well, because Harry had never been so aroused in all his life. Finally, he couldnt lie there passively beneath it any longer, and with a single quick move, he flipped them over, so that he was on top, kissed Tom, rocked his body against the hot skin beneath him.
Tom moaned, and lifted his hips, grinding their erections together. Harry cried out. Both of them opened their eyes, Harry gazed deep into Toms dark blue eyes. It was as though he could see straight through to Toms soul.
With a smile, Tom moved beneath him, rubbing against his thigh.
No personality conflict here, he said.
Harry smiled back, and they began to move together, Harry thrusting down and Tom rocking up to meet him. The friction between their bodies was more than enough. Harry watched Tom throw his head back, cry out, Gods, Harry! and quickened the pace, plunging desperately against Tom. He was so beautiful, flushed and gasping, a light sheen of sweat over his skin.
Tom forced his head down, met Harrys eyes, and at that moment, he came, thrust hard against Harry, hot semen between them. Harry followed less than an instant after him, cried out as his world dissolved briefly in a timeless moment of perfection, and then collapsed against Tom, panting.
After they had both caught their breaths, Tom squirmed to the side of the bed.
Yuck, what a mess.
Harry was too worn out to laugh.
Thats your take on this whole experience?
Tom returned to his arms, despite the wet spot.
That was incredible, Har.
Youre just saying that.
Im not. Harry, Ive been dreaming about this for months. And the real thing was a hell of a lot better than anything I ever imagined. But it is a mess.
Harry punched Tom lightly on the arm, then kissed him.
A devilish glint appeared in Toms eye.
Sounds good to me.
Later that night, Harry snuggled up next to Tom in Toms bed. As nice as it was naked, Harry mused, there was something to be said for cuddling with all of ones clothes on as well. Especially when the article of clothing in question was Toms soft night shirt. Harry rested his head beside Toms shoulder and sighed in complete, utter contentment.
Happy? Tom asked.
Mm-hmm, Harry said.
Good. Me too.
They lay there in silence for awhile. Harry had never slept all night with anyone. So far, it was much nicer than he expected. Maybe it was just sour grapes, but he always assumed that sharing a bed with someone would mean nothing but stolen blankets and annoying snoring. Well, maybe they just hadnt gotten to that point yet. The night was young... He thought Tom might be asleep, but then he turned on his side and pulled Harry closer.
Oh, by the way, Har, he whispered as he held him tight, Welcome home.