Part 18

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Just because you know you're going to die, it doesn't make the actual experience any better. It doesn't make you braver, it doesn't make you calmer, and it does nothing to reduce the fear.

Nothing at all.

Tom was glad he hadn't eaten anything. If he had, he wouldn't be able to keep it down now.

Dalby shut the panel from which he'd retrieved the phaser. He didn't turn around. He was certainly taking his time-Tom didn't know if he should be grateful for the extra time or angry that Dalby was drawing this out. Tom stood up. Or atleast he tried to. His knees locked together. With considerable effort, Tom got to his feet. Something bothered him about dying sitting down. Something bothered him about dying at all.

Ken turned to face the Brig cell. Paris had risen. He was standing tall, in the center of the cell. Dalby had expected him to cower in the rear of the cell. Ken didn't know if he himself would be able to stay so calm in the face of the end. But it wasn't his end; it was the end for Tom Paris.

Dalby walked closer to the cell. Tom forced himself to hold still, despite the fact that he wanted nothing more than to tremble. He kept his breathing steady. Externally, he didn't give a damn that he was about to be murdered. On the inside, it was a different story. Tom's heart was pounding. Not only in his chest, in his head, in his hands, even in his knees, he could feel his blood pulsating. Firmly, he met Dalby's eyes. And Dalby dropped his gaze.

Ken looked down to check the configuration of the phaser. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to do this. Chakotay had said they didn't want an investigation. At the same time, they needed a cover story. Paris had tried to escape, better yet, tried to hurt Ken. The trajectory of the phaser beam and the placement of its target had to reflect this. But they didn't need a body. Dalby slowly moved the setting of the phaser from light stun. Past heavy stun, past kill, onto disintegration. He didn't see the shudders that went through Tom, each level he passed.

Dalby set the phaser on disintegrate. Atleast it would be quick. Dalby reached over and touched the Brig Control Panel. The force field dropped. Dalby raised the phaser, both hands wrapped around it. Tom swallowed, his throat dry. He desperately wanted to say something. Not something snide, not sarcastic. He wanted to have the last word. Hoping his voice wouldn't crack, he looked straight into Dalby's harsh eyes and said the first thing that entered his mind.

"You hug Naomi with those hands?"

Paris whispered maybe the only thing that could have delayed his execution. Momentarily. Ken's grip on the phaser loosened, slightly. His elbows almost lowered the weapon. Then, with even more determination, he tightened his grip. Raised the phaser directly parallel to Paris' midsection.

That was when the door to the Brig slid open.

Dalby instantly dropped his arms, using his body to hide the phaser. In the Brig doorway, Tom saw the most welcome sight he'd ever seen.

Neelix and Naomi.

The pure bravado that had been holding him up gave out. Tom fell to the floor of the cell, leg splayed. And he barely had enough strength to catch the streak of child that launched itself at him. He folded his arms around her small figure. He saw Dalby step away, the phaser hidden behind his back, irritation evident on his face. Tom buried his face in Naomi's hair. He tried to keep from crying. It was only against the warmth of Naomi's skin that he realized how cold he was. Clammy. Like a corpse. He held Naomi tighter. He wasn't a corpse yet.

Naomi could feel Tom's heart beat through his clothes. Fast and hard, like he'd been exercising for a very long time. This was a very small room, she didn't know what he could have been doing to get so tired. And he was squeezing her tightly. He wasn't talking at all, but he was happy to see her. Then she felt something warm and wet drip down the back of her neck. Tears. Like her mother's, the night before. Like the shine in Neelix's eyes. She didn't know what all the adults around her were crying about, but she didn't like it.

"Don't worry, Tom," she told him. "It'll be okay."

She tried to move her hands to wipe his face, but he was holding her too tightly.

Ken moved aside with a muffled curse. He turned his back on the image of Tom embracing Naomi like it was his last chance. Which it was. He walked over to Lon Suder and Gerron, who had followed Neelix through the door and were now lurking by it. Neelix had moved slowly toward Tom and Naomi.

"Lovely timing," Ken hissed.

"We're just keeping an eye on Neelix," Gerron whispered back. "We didn't know what we were interrupting."

"If you'd come in ten seconds later, do you know what Naomi would've seen me do?"

"Yes," said Suder.

"It's not like she's isn't going to see a lot more of that the day after tomorrow," justified Gerron.

"Aren't you the idiot who overreacted in the Mess Hall, and isn't that why Neelix needs keeping an eye on in the first place?" Ken snarled at Gerron.

Gerron didn't reply immediately, then he muttered, "It was Jarvin."

Ken shook his head at Gerron, to Suder he said, "I only have so much time. B'Elanna can't keep O'Donnell away indefinitely."

Suder took a step forward. "Neelix, it's time to go."

Neelix, kneeling next to Tom and Naomi, looked up.

"Get Naomi. It's time to go," Suder repeated, louder

Tom slowly disentangled himself from Naomi. He gently lifted her upright and pressed her hand into Neelix's. The Talaxian was hesitant to go. He knew all to well what his arrival had interrupted.

"Tom, if I stay..."

"Then the same thing will happen. To both of us," he said, mindful of small ears nearby. "I *don't* want Naomi seeing that."

Neelix nodded sadly. He guided a very confused Naomi out of the cell. Neelix turned back, his eyes wet.

"Tom," Neelix began, haltingly.

"Yeah, Neelix, I know."

The two men hugged, parting slowly when Lon Suder spoke for a third time. As Neelix and Naomi walked toward the exit, Tom called after them.

"Neelix, tell Harry...tell Harry goodbye for me."

Neelix stopped, and turned back.

"I will, Tom. I promise I will."

Gerron began hustling Neelix and Naomi toward the door. This earned him a viscous kick in shin from Naomi. She didn't know exactly what was happening, but she picked up on the desperate feelings of two of the people she loved most in the universe, and she knew the young Bajoran was partly responsible. As was her mother's 'friend' Ken, but he wasn't pushing her towards the door, away from Tom.

"Suder," said Ken. "I could use some help with this," he gestured to Paris.

"All right."

The door slid shut. Tom watched the two men approach him.

Well, atleast he'd gotten to say goodbye to Neelix and Naomi. That was a small comfort.

Part 19 | Index page