Disclaimer: Paramount owns the rights to all the Star Trek franchises. I'm not receiving any gains from this story, except in the area of personal satisfaction.

Author's Note: This story wrote itself in two hours one morning, when I had sat down to complete another project. The imagery flowed onto the page, and I was as surprised as the next guy! This story was inspired by a Cassatt story called The Other Dynamic Duo, and it can loosely be called a sequel to that. I just couldn't get poor Ayala out of my mind after reading her tale. Joe's friends needed some closure, and I'm taking pity on them, *grin*.

High Noon, Too Soon

by LA Koehler

High noon.

They had set the appointed time at Carey's service that morning; they had agreed to meet at noon. Their appetites squelched, they would not be eating lunch that day they all knew. It was Carey's day—if they put it off for another, it would only be that much more difficult, so they had agreed. Noon.

They silently approached the cabin door, like hired guns at an Old West shootout, and stared at each other. Silent. Chakotay finally moved, opened the portal. But no one hurried in.

"Lights," Chakotay finally murmured. The small vocalization broke the spell they had been under since the night before. Their vigil was over; they had work to do now. One final task of the heart for their friend. Then they could breathe again.

Chakotay sighed heavily, as if dismissing the quiet within himself, then spoke in his normal tones.

"Okay, we'll start with three piles for now—Starfleet issue items that can be redistributed or reassigned throughout the ship, recyclable items, and personal effects to be stored . . . to be stored for when we get home," he finished with conviction.

'Bless him,' thought B'Elanna. 'He's making this as easy for us as he can.' She looked over at Michael Ayala, Joe's best friend aboard ship, and knew he was thinking the same thing. He met her eyes and quirked a knowing grin.

Their former Liberty captain hurt, but not for Carey. Oh, he had his own pain about the loss of a fine officer, the senseless murder of a good man. He had liked the honest and hardworking Carey tremendously . . . but his hurt stemmed from his feelings for the two people in the room with him now. He hurt for their loss. He hurt for the ache they would feel for some time. He hurt that there wasn't much that he could do about it.

Except make their burden easier. His back still toward them, he picked up a spanner off the desk and set it on the couch.

"Starfleet pile," he said, and moved on to Carey's work closet.

B'Elanna picked up a blanket strewn across the back of the couch and began folding it. It was not 'fleet issue. She pulled the sheeting material off the bed, and laid the blanket on the bare mattress.

"Personal pile," she said conversationally as she began folding the bedding materials.

Michael was standing frozen at the desk, holding a beer bottle in his hands. Though replicated, it looked like the authentic article, a readily recognizable shape and label of a popular brew from Earth's Old United Kingdom regions. The room was too quiet, and he looked up to see B'Elanna staring at him limpidly from the other side of the bed, the linens held loosely to her chest. She understood; he grinned again and held the bottle forward.

"He was drinking this when I left that night. That ass," he smiled now, "made a huge show of replicating it from all those credits I'd lost to him on Saturday night; remember?"

B'Elanna hadn't done too bad herself that poker game, and Carey had walked away the winner, marginally. But Lady Luck had utterly abandoned the swarthy tactical officer, effectively wiping out his account, and then some. B'Elanna had loaned him a few rations at the end—like the tide, they all knew that the next week would see those credits flowing back toward the losers, and really, the credit account was an afterthought to the camaraderie they all experienced at the weekly rivalry. But Ayala's defeat in every hand dealt that night was so extreme that his friends couldn't help but have some fun at his expense. B'Elanna laughed now, glad to know that Joe had continued the torture well into the week. Michael's smile softened, then saddened.

"When I left for the night, when we'd said our g'nights . . . he tossed me a second bottle on my way out the door, for no hard feelings. For good luck this week." The dark man looked at the bottle again, then tipped it over. Several small drops raced to the deck at his feet, splattering chaotically upon impact. He looked back up at B'Elanna, who found that she had stopped breathing.

"I'm glad I lost last week. I'm glad that he finished this." He tossed the bottle into the recycler. It clanked hollowly.

They continued in that way for a short time. They found themselves handling the most benign articles first—the engineering padds, the personnel reviews, the routine-repair priority list. The rock shaped like a sleeping dog, the Tsunkatse souvenir booklet, the bath towels.

Some of the items brought laughter, reflecting the dry but ready humor of the Second Engineer: the magic wand that scattered 'pixie dust', used to convince a little girl that tooth fairies were real, no matter where you were in the Universe.

The buccaneer eye patch and skullcap worn to duty shift once during the Nekkrid Expanse ordeal—when he showed up for shift change by descending a rope from the upper levels and shouting, 'Argh, mateys', a blade brandished in his teeth.

The shriveled and desiccated remains of a leola root, shoved suggestively and without ceremony onto a spike that had been driven into an ugly piece of raw wood, collected from one landing party or another, to form a makeshift trophy. The inscription whittled into the wood dubiously proclaimed 'Food of the Gods'.

Ayala asked permission to keep that one, and Chakotay readily agreed.

But it was a small cabin, like most, and extras were a judicious luxury. Too soon, they came to the crux of their damnable activity.

As they had at the cabin door at noon, they lingered hesitantly before the bedroom alcove. The personal items would be found here. Their personal hell would begin here.

"Lights," B'Elanna called.

And they weren't disappointed.

The Transgalactic Comm Link. Photo images. Everywhere, as if he couldn't decide what to put up and in an epiphany of happiness just flung them all onto the uprights with carefree abandon.

Birthday parties. Camping trips. School functions. Family weddings. Two boys and a plain, but intelligent looking woman enjoying holiday activities of all types. Exaggerated grins, with a new space where a tooth recently resided. Less-than-professionally built models, the proud architects gesturing toward it in the background. The woman and two boys at the Golden Gate bridge near Starfleet. The woman and two boys doing spring gardening. The woman and two boys reading an antique paper book. The woman and two boys . . .

The woman and two boys.

But there was a focal point to the photo profusion. Posted beside the bed—at eye level when one sat on the bed to retire for the night, or sat up when rising in the morning—was a meter tall blow-up of the two boys. The elder redheaded one, a young teenager, was in the back, both arms pressing a pre-pubescent, dirty-blonde boy to his stomach. The younger boy leaned enchantingly to the left, and the quirky smile and piercing eyes were all Joe's.

But there was a another photo overlapping the lower right corner of the Carey boys, smaller, but still considerably larger than the rest of the images. In it were two different boys, though the pose was uncannily similar. A black-haired older boy with warm eyes hugged an arm around a mop-headed younger one, who was squatted down, as if leaning far backward into the older boy's embrace.

And one look at Ayala confirmed for the two senior officers whose boys were depicted.

"He kept a copy," the stunned man rasped. He looked to his friends and licked his lips, shrugged with false nonchalance. "My number was 7 in the Link drawing—Joe had 131. But we switched because my family couldn't get back to Earth that fast. Joe's face . . . that switch was the greatest gift I ever gave anyone." He looked down, scrubbed a hand across his cheek.

"We talked about our boys. A lot. We're both blessed with happy marriages—ones we were both lucky enough to discover were still welcomed when we made contact with the Alpha Quadrant again; neither wife had felt the desire to start over again. But the boys . . . we've missed so much, and it hurt us both so much...

"I had nerves in my stomach the day Joe made his link. I couldn't wait to hear how it went, what the boys looked like, how Sarah was. But I couldn't help thinking, either, about how it could have been me, and Shala—to hear my son speak with a young man's voice.

"When I got back to quarters after duty shift," a single tear traced down his composed face, "there was a datapadd propped up on the desk, with this and a couple of other images on it. Joe had put in a request to Starfleet for Shala to subspace a few bits of data to Sarah, and she stuck it into her data stream to Joe."

"Oh, Michael," B'Elanna choked brokenly, overcome with feeling for the strong, reserved man who was beginning to realize in how very many ways he was going to suffer the loss of his friend.

"No, don't," he said quickly, forcefully. "He returned the gift in a wonderful way, pure 'Joe'," he made a vague gesture that seemed to encapsulate the essence of their murdered friend.

"Besides, in a few weeks, I'll get my turn at the Link in addition to this bonus, so the way I see it, I'm already ahead of the game. Let's keep packing, huh?"

Chakotay snatched the large duffel off its hook inside the closet door and began to empty the dresser as swiftly as he could. B'Elanna felt his empathy pour off him in waves. He was a man who chose his words carefully in every situation, and she wasn't surprised that he knew there were no words for right now. But his actions spoke for his concern.

She got down on the floor and began rooting for the smaller, personal bag Carey owned. In it, she would put all his personal objects—the things he had begun to acquire as gifts for his family. There were some bags on the closet floor that all appeared to contain various mementos of Voyager's travels, remembrances of planets forever in their past now. Shoes, boots, slippers she would allow the men to take care of; decide whether to recycle, or find them new owners among the male population.

"Ah," she proclaimed. "I found it, guys; the smaller—"

She looked up to find Ayala staring silently at Chakotay, who had stopped his packing to hold out a small, crumpled object in his fists. At first, all she saw were the colors—Starfleet gold and black—and lace trim. For a horrified moment, the chief engineer's heart sank, thinking it was someone's brassiere, and that the men had stumbled across an infidelity that would shatter their beliefs about the loyal, devoted man that had been their friend.

Until Chakotay's fingers unclenched and the velvety fabric unfurled to reveal a tiny dress, designed to resemble a Voyager uniform. The black lace trimmed the bottom edge, and each puffy little sleeve. Grey cadet's piping separated the skirt piece from the gold shoulder yoke . . . and a tiny Maquis insignia of Lieutenant's rank adorned the collar.

"You had promised to let him watch the baby sometime, when you and Tom were both on duty. He was planning on dressing her in it, then trundling her down to you and making all the staff salute her. He laughed himself silly, thinking about how you would pretend to kick him out . . . how then, he said, he was going to head for the bridge."

The soft grin Ayala had sported throughout the narrative turned to a grim line as B'Elanna sobbed once. Chakotay knelt down and pressed the delicate outfit into his closest friend's trembling hands.

"Damn it!" she spat, clutching the dress, "Damn it all, everything! It's all so much better now; we're closer to home than we ever expected to be! We can communicate with our families, finally! He deserves to enjoy some of that—"

"B'Elanna, it was tragic, we all know that. But it happened in the line of duty, during a mission overloaded with unknowns. If it wasn't Joe, it would have been someone else—another friend of ours, or worse." The commander stood and paced away fractionally, hands on hips. They all knew he was referring to Tom and didn't want to belabor the idea of considering how she would have fared had her husband been the one killed. "But it was Joe, on duty, and wishing that you could make someone pay for his sacrifice wouldn't change our loss." Chakotay seemed at a loss, himself—a loss to explain that which simply needed to be born by them all.

"I just feel . . . so bad," her eyes grazed Ayala, and he was touched to see that she felt bad for him. He shuffled himself closer to her and touched her shoulders.

"We're pretty lucky, actually," Ayala soothed. "Well, look at us, will you—you have a beautiful keepsake that will bring you a smile once that cutie arrives . . . " he rotated the 'trophy' clutched in his hand, searching for the right words. "And I have the perfect embodiment of Voyager's collective feelings for the leola root."

They all began to giggle, then chuckle frantically.

"Shriveled, shrunken—"

"Wizened little bugger—"

Tortured! Flaccid!"

"Used!" Ayala shot out, his laughter turning angry. "Used! Used, dead—fucking, senselessly dead—aw, bloody fucking hell—" he stopped to gasp in air.

There was no sound as B'Elanna pulled him harshly to her chest, but his body vibrated convulsively in her arms, wracking with the release of the hateful emotions he had been holding back.

Head still bent in sorrow, he eventually muffled out, "It's okay. It's okay; I'm fine. I'm sorry—"

"Don't," B'Elanna admonished. "Joe deserves all of it. There are things I wish . . . " She stopped; what she wished now was irrelevant.

They each felt a touch to their shoulder; a large hand grasped the scruff of their respective necks and squeezed. Chakotay stood frozen, his face turned away from them toward the door—partly because it was the only upright devoid of personal decorations, but mostly because he mentally wished his friends through it and out of the room. Now.

"We're leaving," he commanded quietly, an impotent worry tingeing his voice. "I'll come back later with Ship's Services members to clear the bulkheads. I'll let you both know in which storage compartment Carey's things will be stowed." Even as they hated themselves for it, B'Elanna and Ayala felt a rush of relief that it was finally over. Leaving the room would be difficult, the first step in letting go. But there would be worse things . . .

"Michael," B'Elanna spoke kindly, "would you like . . . to come to dinner Saturday night?"

Ayala stared, frozen, at his petite friend and colleague, his face inscrutable. He blinked fractionally, having come to a decision, and Chakotay held his breath.

"Aw, B'Elanna, I can't."

The engineer closed her mouth and looked down at her hands. "I understand; maybe another night, though . . . "

"I mean," Ayala continued, hesitantly, "what if . . . what if you're serving rokeg pie? Or Bolian souffle? I cannot eat Bolian souffle—gives me the runs."

Chakotay smiled and looked expectantly toward B'Elanna, swelling with unaccountable pride over her magnanimous gesture, spontaneously made.

"Um, well, actually, I had been thinking more along the lines of T-bone steaks, with . . . butter noodles, and boiled sugarfigs, and," she brought the menu home, clearly making it up as she went, "cold beers."

Her rise off the deck was assisted by the two gentlemen. She wrapped an arm around their waists and the trio slowly headed for the door.

"Can we watch that television thing of Tom's. I like that thing."

"What is the power that thing has over you guys, anyway?"

Their progress was halted as Chakotay stopped short. "Computer," he looked at the two officers, making sure. "Lights."

Carey's quarters plunged into darkness, lit only by the ambient glow from the corridor outside. B'Elanna tightened her grip around her friends. Noticing the tightness around the creases of Ayala's eyes, she gave his side several pats. He sighed resignedly and looked up. He would be okay, she saw.

"Who's up for a beer now?" Ayala asked genuinely. "I'm buying—"

"With what rations," B'Elanna taunted lightly.

"With Carey's," Chakotay stated. "I transferred them to you; he'd want you to have them, Michael." Ayala nodded his thanks, and acceptance. Chakotay continued. "But we're on for my quarters. Yours are too cramped, and your socks stink."

"Michael, are you still only refreshing on Sunday nights? I thought you'd have left that restriction behind on the Liberty," B'Elanna laughed as Ayala made indignant noises about energy conservation and 'doing his part', and the lack of respect from one's peer pool.

As the friendly banter continued its way down the passageway, the door closed on the nearly barren quarters. The echo of its swish dissipated in the darkened realm, and the last sliver of light from the portal refracted brightly off a small, decorative bottle and its unfinished occupant.


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