The doors swooshed shut behind him and he called out for a higher illumination. The lights came on, allowing him to see all of the personal touches left behind. Initially he felt quite unable to move, standing just inside the doors for the longest time. Sometimes looking around, sometimes merely standing with his eyes closed, listening. Joe's slightly deep, slightly gravely voice seeped out from the walls. Laughing. Reading something he found ridiculous out loud. Talking about his family, his wife, his children. Daring his friends to up the bet, then taking the kitty himself as he laid out three queens with a flourish.
Chakotay asked Michael to give one of the eulogies the next day. He wasn't sure he would be able to do it, to actually get words out of his closed throat. He understood he was the proper person for the task. His friendship with Joe went back nearly to the beginning of their journey through the Delta Quadrant. They weren't as flamboyant as Harry and Tom, but they were no less an odd couple.
"Ayala, isn't it? I'm Joe. Joe Carey. Can I sit with you?"
"Sure. My name's Michael. I see you've picked the replicator's equivalent of beef and vegetable casserole, too. You might want to head back to the wall..."
"That bad, huh? Oh well, it's better than nutritional rations," Joe said with a chuckle.
Michael had been surprised that a Starfleet lieutenant had chosen to sit with him. By the time they got their dessert the reason became clear. Joe wanted some advice on how to get along better with B'Elanna Torres, his former rival for the Chief Engineer's position, now his boss. Joe confessed over a beer a week later that he had sought out Michael because he thought Ayala had 'intelligent eyes'. The fact that Michael was not on the engineering staff had come in a very close second as a reason.
They had quite a number of intense discussions about the Maquis and Starfleet, the Cardassian treaty, and the Neutral Zone. And though in some ways they personified the polarity of the two sides of this incredibly difficult issue, they found that in the end, they felt the same. They both wanted the same thing. To leave this galaxy a bit of a better place when they finally left it.
Well, now Joe had. For no good reason. He was murdered. Michael's hands clenched into fists as he continued to stand, immobile. He felt a strong urge to break something, just not here. An alien's nose would be good for a start. Joe would have understood that need. Michael sighed and tried to fight down the lump that was rapidly moving up in his throat. The lump that had yet to go away. He forced himself to walk into the living area.
Chakotay had promised him he would pack up all of Joe's personal effects, to get things ready to store for Joe's wife and children. Michael wanted just one thing for himself and he made his way to the desk to retrieve it. He opened the drawer though he was unable to feel his fingertips make contact. He pulled out the very worn pack of playing cards. The same motion he made at least once a week for years. His eyes had a will of their own and glanced in the drawer unbidden. There was the PADD. The current three month total of owed rations. They were due to pay up next week. He would talk to the others, sure they'd agree with him. The PADD would not be erased, rations would not be paid. He put the list back in the drawer, not wanting to keep it, not wanting to see it over and over in his own drawer, moved aside continuously until he eventually reached the Alpha Quadrant and emptied his quarters before leaving Voyager for good.
And there in front of him was what Joe was famous for amongst the crew. His miniature Voyager in a bottle. Everyone knew how close he was to finishing, even though no one thought he'd be able to do it in the first place. What was going to happen to this last nacelle? It looked so forlorn sitting on the tabletop, waiting for it's owner to put it in its proper place. Joe had always said that he was making this model for his son. To show him that the trip had not been so scary, so life-threatening that he had had no time to make something intricate. Michael worried about the miniature nacelle. It would likely get lost if nobody was careful with it. What was going to happen to it? Joe's son needed to get it. What if it got pushed off the desk and ended up under the couch? Michael's obsessive worry about this last piece reached a crescendo before bursting in his chest, replaced by reality, the cold hollow pit of grief that he had become accustomed to over the past day.
He turned in his seat, looking around him, listening again to years of talks, plans to take their families camping when they got home, arguments over who really was the Earth's best baseball player in the last century, prideful boasts about their children over many replicated beers. He wondered how he would face Joe's wife. What he would tell her. How much her husband had changed? She probably knew that already. He was sure she knew just how much Joe loved her. Would she also know how much he hadn't changed? How he had fought the despair of the Delta Quadrant successfully? Michael knew one thing he could tell her. How many friends Joe had made. Close friends. Good buddies. How much he would be missed.
Michael knew now what he was going to say the next day. He also knew two things he needed to do before going to bed. After another long look around, he left, heading for Chakotay's quarters, to have a beer and talk about Joe, getting home, and packing up Joe's things. After that he'd seek out a person he knew would be grieving deeply tonight. B'Elanna could use a friend to talk to as well. Someone closer to Joe than Tom or Harry. He would do that for her. And for Joe. He'd close that circle himself.
Want to read a sequel of sorts? LA has written one: High Noon, Too Soon
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