DISCLAIMER: Yadda, yadda, yadda. The characters belong to Paramount, the story belongs to me . . . we've said it before, we'll say it again.
This one's for Chella and Fred and the gang on the asteroid. You take up closet space, but it's worth the odder moments for the inspired conversation.
Author's Note: In my mind, Harry is the epitome of Voyager's message: he's the idealist and he wants to go home. There's nothing he'd like more. But after having his hopes dashed so many times, his idealism thrown in his face, and seeing everyone else move on with their lives, I can't imagine that he wouldn't be just a little bit bitter. Here's my interpretation of his thoughts following Tom and B'Elanna's ribbing at the end of "Inside Man."
A Taste of Home
"You were right about him, Tom."
He stared at his pie. A taste of home, sure - a taste of home, had he been home. It was now only a taste of a sour reminder. Home was far away.
"I always am."
He listened to them as they laughed. At his misfortune, his lack of acceptance of the years-old scenario. They had been here for seven years, he knew. They thought he should accept it, move on. Move on like only they had - laughing now at another failed attempt to return to Earth.
To them, it wasn't home. Home was . . . right here, eating Neelix's repulsive taste-of-home cuisine, laughing at gullible Harry.
"Isn't that right, Harry?"
He poked his neon-green apple pie. It didn't look quite right, either, somehow. It looked like Neelix's sad attempt to liven things up. He raised his gaze to the pair across from him, the only two on the ship who could use a little less liveliness.
He couldn't fault them - they were still giddy from their recent marriage. They were all smiles all the time, always content to share their joy with others.
"Yeah," he said, nodding in their direction but returning his gaze to his plate. He hefted another piece onto his fork, watching as it jiggled a little, being reminded too much of the green jello that he had hated as a child.
"C'mon, Harry!" Tom said, surely noting his reluctance to enter their conversation after his display of idealism and hope. "We were just kidding."
Harry nodded. They were always just kidding, he knew. Teasing him about the girls - too many to count, though Tom probably kept track. Saying he'd have better luck next time, telling him to maybe stay away from the fairer sex for a while because his luck had to get better because it couldn't get any worse. Grinning as they went off together, leaving him with no doubt to exactly what went on between them. Leaving him alone, without one of those several girls. But, they were just kidding.
Teasing him about Earth - his parents, his clarinet. Sure, they didn't have anything back home - no, not home to them. They didn't have anything back on Earth. Nothing they needed, anyway. They had everything they could have ever wanted right here. No sympathy for young Harry, the tagalong kid brother always tolerated but never accepted. No sympathy because they didn't understand.
But, they were just kidding.
"Yeah," he said. "I know."
He watched his food, and he had been holding the same forkful for a minute now, seeing it jiggle in its iridescent form. It wasn't a taste of home, it was a taste of Neelix. The Chef de Cuisine of the Delta Quadrant - home away from home.
It wasn't home cooking.
It wasn't San Francisco.
He put it in his mouth and it almost tasted good. He chewed and swallowed, closing his eyes as he tried to put himself in a different place at a different time. He wanted to hear his mother's voice, his father's voice, his clarinet as it came tumbling out of its case and down the stairs only to land without a dent. It was because it was special, his mother said, that it didn't break.
He hadn't believed her then.
He pulled the fork out of his mouth and set it with a clink on his plate. He opened his eyes and glanced away from his food and towards his friends. Both were eating cuisine de Neelix with the same energy they put into everything these days - too much.
The food before them looked like something the proverbial cat would drag in, not dinner. But they had all been eating it for years now. Even he ate it - more often than they did, for more and more they found excuse to stay in and replicate something. He didn't resent them, no. The day they got married had been his happiest day on Voyager - despite losing another girl, for which Tom teased him incessantly. He had just been kidding, and that day, it was easy to believe him, for the smile on his face - and hers - lit up the room.
Their smiles hadn't faded, though, even though it had been nearly a month and even though they were dining on Delta Quadrant delights. He poked his food and it jiggled again.
He looked up at Tom, who gestured to the pie. Tom raised an eyebrow, a fair imitation of Tuvok - a thought that brought a frown, simply because he remembered the last person who had imitated Tuvok and the hope that had come with him. "Nah. Just not very hungry, I guess." He looked at Tom's plate - empty. He raised an eyebrow.
"Hey! I have to keep my energy up," Tom protested in a half-whine with a sideways look at his wife. B'Elanna jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow, fighting the grin on her face. The grin won.
Tom smiled back, a little contritely, a little seductively. He rubbed his side where her elbow had impacted his ribs. "Ow!"
"You deserved it."
"Oh, really? Then you'd rather I didn't eat and -"
"Stop, stop, I take it back!"
"Uh-huh. I see. I know where your priorities lie, Miss Torres."
Harry rolled his eyes, though he knew that once it would have made him smile. It would usually make him smile.
They did that, too, even when they were kidding - forget his presence and drift into territory he cared little about. They would forget him, he was just the third wheel, always around, sure to make a remarkably unremarkable statement on how they should really behave while in the messhall. They would forget him, even when they were just kidding.
"Go on, get out of here you two," he said, forcing a smile. They grinned back, and to everyone else in the messhall those grins were infectious. Harry thought his face would break if he had to keep smiling.
Tom collected their trays and put them back on the counter and they left arm-in-arm, laughing together, with knowing looks following them all the way out.
Her words echoed as he stared back at his unappetizing taste of home. "You were right about him, Tom," she'd said, after they managed to pull another one over him. Again. Every day, every night, Ensign Eager was willing to take it and laugh because he knew they were just kidding and that they meant well and that they were there for him if he needed them and that he would let them go when they needed to. Every day, every night.
He picked up his fork and poked his pie and it did its usual dance. It no longer interested him, for it was no longer even reminiscent of home. His mother's cooking - that had been wonderful. Her apple pie would light up his face. It had nights after bad and good days alike, nights when he was content just to be his mother's son, reveling in the known acceptance.
But this? This was Neelix trying to lighten to somber mood - another lost chance because of a holographic malfunction. There were too many of those.
But it wasn't somber to some - his friends, incessantly happy. It was somber to him.
A taste of home, Neelix had called it. It wasn't that, no. It reeked of the Delta Quadrant, the replicator always just a little bit off, the temperature held slightly lower than on Starfleet ships in the Alpha Quadrant, the cooking they subjected themselves to because they told themselves it was getting better. A taste of the horrors of the Delta Quadrant.
He stabbed the pie.
He barely heard the question, "Mind if I sit here?"
"Sure," he said, pulling the fork out of his pie to gesture at Tom and B'Elanna's abandoned seats, not looking at the interloper
"No." Harry poked his food again, hating its movement - it reminded him of the gel packs, which were surely on the fritz again - he hated Tom's archaic phrases.
"Too much excitement. Hasn't worn off yet. I'll be hungry then." He shook his head at his blatant lie.
He jabbed the pie, and it had begun to crumble under his continued onslaught. "They're too happy."
"They don't care if we get home or not, they're happy right here. Without a care in the world - doesn't matter if we get back to Earth." He noticed, sort of, that he was talking about this, that they might disagree if they heard about it.
They wouldn't hear about it, too caught up in their own world.
"It matters to you," and he had been counselor and morale officer alike, but rarely to young Harry, caught in his own world.
"But not to them," Harry said, mashing the pie under his fork. "To them, we might as well find some planet to settle on - forget Earth."
"You really think that?"
There was something about the man across from him that begged trust, despite the smell of leola root that accompanied him wherever he went. Harry raised his head a bit, before dropping it again to glance at his food. "I don't know."
"No. I don't know." He hated that admission, and averted his eyes further, continuing his violent assault on his pie. "I really don't know - they've never told me things like that." But they had in the past, before they'd each had the other, before they lost the cynicism that had been their trademark.
The man across from him paused and took a breath. "I don't know either," he said finally, nodding his head with every word. He quirked his mouth and hinted at a smile. "I know that they've found a lot here."
He interrupted. "Each other."
"Yes." He took a breath. "They have. But it's been hard. They've faced their challenges." And he knew more about that than Harry did, but he couldn't say it. He wanted to.
"And I haven't." It wasn't a question.
"I don't know." It was. Neelix stood then, watching his friend mutilate his dessert. A taste of home, he had said. To him, it was. A taste of San Francisco, of Harry's mother's cooking. "I do know something."
"Yeah?" Harry said.
He gestured to the blob that rested on Harry's plate, pointing. "Home tastes better when it's in one piece."
Neelix walked away then, leaving that final bit of indecipherable advice. Harry glanced at his pie - it looked tortured, for it barely resembled pie - now it was the Caretaker, shrunken to a bit of sporocystian nothingness.
Nothingness - not in one piece, not in several, it no longer existed. It wasn't pie, or a taste of home, or of the Delta Quadrant. It was nothing.
Sighing, he stood with the plate in his hand and walked toward the replicator. Putting the plate down with a thud he sighed, "Recycle."
It vanished, leaving only empty air where it had been.
That's what it was. A taste of home, of nothingness.
Home . . . nothing?
It wasn't. It was something - his ideal, his goal.
Nothingness. It sat there, the empty air where his personal nothingness had been and still existed. His hope vanishing with it, as it had those years ago when Janeway had ordered them to abandon their lives for permanent residence in the Delta Quadrant.
It was nothing - home. It was an idea, not a thing. Home, a concept, not a place. Not anywhere tangible.
"One slice of apple pie, recipe Kim Beta Six," he said, and watched as it shimmered into existence.
It was something.
In once piece, it was his pie. Looking at it - still green, still jello, he meandered back to his table. Picking up his fork, he took a bite.
It wasn't his mother's pie, or his mother's voice.
It was Neelix's pie, a Delta Quadrant delight, and it was something. In one piece, it was a taste of home.