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Arlington National Cemetery: Virginia, Earth

Pam Montgomery leaned onto Katie's shoulder and quietly sobbed underneath a black veil. Lieutenant Katherine Stone was dressed in her Starfleet whites and fought hard to maintain a stoic composure. The only sounds were the birds chirping in the trees and rhythmic tapping of horses' hooves on pavement. The two of them marched, hand in hand, behind Paul's empty casket. His remains, lost in space for all time, would be represented by a hollow pine box covered in polished lacquer.

The empty casket, draped in a blue Federation flag, was on top of a black caisson, pulled by six horses draped in back trimmed, dark blue saddle blankets. A seventh horse, with an empty saddle and two reversed black boots followed solemnly behind led by a Starfleet marine in honor guard's uniform. Another marine carried a polished wooden box containing a Christopher Pike Medal of Valor: the Federation's highest award for bravery in combat, alongside the horse. It was presented posthumously to Pam yesterday in a ceremony by the President. The whole procession proceeded silently along the narrow cemetery road up a rolling, green hill.

Katie continued to hold Pam as they wound their way through the endless rows of white tombstones covering the verdant knolls over the Potomac River. She looked up to the see the gaunt faces and sunken eyes of the honor guards escorting the caisson. Each of them was crushed by physical and mental exhaustion. Paul's funeral was their third that day, and they had four more to go before they could collapse, but their uniforms were still immaculate and their discipline perfect. They were doing this for their brothers and sisters dying by the thousands in the stars, and they wouldn't let something as pathetic as fatigue stand in the way of caring for the honored dead of Starfleet.

After fifteen minutes of solemn marching, they reached Paul's grave on a hillside overlooking a gentle curve in the river. The guests in the procession took their seats. Pam was front and center and Katie took the chair next to hers. Two ladies in pressed suits sat behind them to offer additional moral support. Apparently, it was a tradition going back centuries. More of Paul's friends and family filled in the rows of chairs behind them. Finally, when the last of the Starfleet brass took their places, the honor guards carefully pulled the casket down from the caisson and gently placed it over the hole in the ground.

A priest came forward and said a few words, but Katie didn't remember them. Her emotions churned inside of her. All she could do was remember the terror and pain of the last time she saw her fiancée alive through the porthole of the escape pod. The blast of the acceleration as it carried him away from her, and his final words before his death:

"I love you, Katie. I always will. But there's still time to get other people out… I just had to make sure you were safe first."

But she wouldn't cry. She refused to cry. She felt like it would dishonor his memory, dishonor everything he died for. No, she would push the pain down and lock it away. The terror, the guilt, the heartache had to be banished to the deepest part of her psyche. She was a Starfleet officer, and she would be the strength that not only Pam, but her entire country needed in that moment.

At the conclusion of the short eulogy, a firing detail snapped to attention a few meters away. Their leader gave the preparatory commands and they prepared their phaser rifles.

"Ready! Aim! Fire!"

"Ready! Aim! Fire!"

"Ready! Aim! Fire!"

Twenty one blasts of light flew into the sky as an eternal memorial to Paul. Then, a bugler put his instrument to his mouth and began playing the solemn notes of "Taps." The entire world seemed to fall silent except for the painful, jarring melody echoing around them. Finally, the anguished sounds ended.

The honor guard stepped forward and flanked the casket. With the rhythmic precision of a thousand rehearsals, they lifted the blue banner off the casket, folded it into a perfect triangle, and handed it to an Admiral.

The flag officer clutched the banner to his chest, marched in front of Pam, and then took a knee.

"On behalf of the President of the United Federation of Planets and a grateful nation, I present you this flag in recognition of your son's heroic achievements."

He handed it to Pam. She was shaking so violently, Katie had to reach out and steady her hands to accept it. The Admiral whom Katie had never seen before and probably would never see again, then reached out and grabbed her hand.

"I am so sorry. He was the best of all of us…" he whispered loud enough only for the two of them to hear.

Normally, such displays by senior leaders either enraged Katie or driven her to laughter. This guy had no idea that she or Paul had even existed prior to being assigned to this funeral. What right did he have to speak to them as they were grieving a loved one? But this moment was different. His voice carried such real regret, such sincerity, that Katie actually smiled back at him.

"Thank you, Sir," she replied quietly.

He nodded, stood up, and walked back to his place. The sound of the breeze flowed past them as another individual in Starfleet uniform stepped out from behind the crowd. He carried a set of bagpipes in his arms and began the tunes of "Amazing Grace."

Pam's quiet sobs turned into full tears and she buried herself in Katie's chest. The two of them pulled Paul's flag towards their hearts and clutched it tight. Katie wanted more than anything to join Pam in grief, but she knew she couldn't. She had to be strong for her and for Paul. She couldn't let herself go. She couldn't…

****

"I just wanted to fall apart. I just wanted to scream as loud as I could and run away from their as fast as my legs could carry me …" Katie said shaking on the chair across from Kirby.

"Why did you?" Kirby replied quietly shutting her notebook and placing it on the coffee table next to you.

"Because I couldn't," Katie said shaking her head. "It would've been disrespectful to Paul, to Pam, and to the uniform."

"Katie," Kirby shifting forward to the edge of her chair. "There is NOTHING disrespectful about feeling pain when we lose someone we love. There is no reason to feel guilty about the gift that was given to you. In fact, it would be disrespectful to turn your back on that gift by staying silent about your grief."

"That's what everyone says!" Katie said, her voice starting to quiver.

"Maybe that's because it's true…" Kirby said. Her kind eyes pierced straight through Katie's weakening armor. "Don't run away from these memories, Katie. Don't fight them. You have to confront them if you want to move forward."

"But most of all, at that moment…." Katie said, her lower lip quivering. "I just wanted to cry. I wanted to cry and show everyone how terrible things were inside. BUT I DIDN'T LET MYSELF!" she yelled.

"It's just the two of us here," Kirby replied. "If you want to cry now, cry, Sweetheart. Cry as hard as you can and I'll never tell a living soul."

Katie finally lost it. She let the internal coffer dams she had built for herself collapse and years of repressed feelings rushed back to the surface at once. She shook so violently with her sobs, that Kirby walked over and held her into her chest, just as Katie had done for Pam at the funeral.

"Let it out, Katie. Let it all out," Kirby said with amazing understanding. The two of them sat together in the counselor's office past midnight. Katie telling stories of the happy times with Paul Montgomery, the anguish of losing him, and the hope she had moving forward to a future with Phil. It was a brutal experience, but with every layer of scar tissue that Kirby helped her explore, Katie healed just a little bit more.

****

After the funeral, Katie took Pam home to Fairfax County and then beamed over to her parent's condominium in Long Beach. She still had two more weeks of leave to recover from her experiences and say goodbye to Paul. Her father, a Starfleet retiree himself, grabbed Katie's mother and agreed to go to a hotel to give their daughter some space. Now, it was one o'clock in the morning and Katie sat on their balcony overlooking the beach. She wore athletic shorts, a tank top, and her dog tags around her neck. She also had a half empty bottle of Black Label Tennessee Whiskey she was sucking down one large gulp at a time.

The neighbors had long since gone to bed, and she was alone with the sea breeze, the incoming tide, and her thoughts. The California night was amazingly clear considering downtown Los Angeles was just a few miles away.

Between massive slogs of brown liquor, she would look up into the sky and then back down at the engagement ring still on her finger.

"You're up there, Paulie," she slurred out loud. "You're up there, and I'm down here. You, Izzy, Mark, Kathy, and the rest of the Trinity." She grabbed the bridge of her nose and squeezed tight. "Why did you do it, you asshole?" she said to the sky. "Why did you shove me into that godforsaken pod when you stayed behind till you got f*cking vaporized? Why did you think I deserved to make it?"

Her only answer was the quiet chirping of crickets and the sounds of the waves crashing on the sand.

When her father had retired from Starfleet, his section had gotten him an antique phaser pistol engraved with his rank, name, and years of service. He usually kept it locked in the hall closet, but Katie knew exactly where the key was. She reached down next to her feet and pulled the weapon next to her head.

"It would be so easy," Katie said looking back up at the sky. "In just a second, I could see you all again and you could answer my damn questions in person. We're never gonna stop Jem. He went through us at Betazed like we weren't even there. It's only a matter of time till we fold, so f*ck it. Might as well speed things along. That pod couldn't kill me, but guess what, guys? Here I come…"

Katie began moving the muzzle of the pistol towards her head when three loud bangs echoed at the condo's front door.

She jumped and shoved the pistol back into its case.

Three more loud bangs.

"If you're not the cops," she yelled at the top of her lungs, "go the f*ck away!"

After a few moments of quiet, the person knocked again.

"What part of 'go the f*ck away' did you not understand, Asshole?"

More knocks.

"God dammit!" Katie said pushing herself up and stumbling to the door. She still held the bottle in her hand.

She looked through the peephole. "You gotta be f*cking kidding me," she muttered when she saw it was a Starfleet captain in uniform.

She threw open the door and stared at him. His eyes opened wide with surprise as he looked the intoxicated, scantily dressed lieutenant up and down.

"Lieutenant Katherine Stone?" he finally asked.

"I'm on leave, Sir," she said propping herself up against the doorframe. "If you want to recall me to duty, you better bring the shore patrol cause I ain't going without a fight. Not today."

"I'm very sorry to disturb you, Ms. Stone," he said calmly. "But I just landed in San Franscisco about thirty minutes ago and after a 0600 meeting at Starfleet Command, I'm due back to Caleb IV on the 1100 transport. This is literally the only time I have to speak with you in person. My name is Captain Daniel Tigranian and I'm here to offer you a job."

Katie actually laughed out loud.

"Are you f*cking serious, Sir? I don't know if you're keeping track of current events, but I just put my fiancée in the ground this morning. Right now, I'm having a few drinks dedicated to my former crewmates. They are currently blown to sub-atomic particles in orbit of Occupied Betazed," she said holding up the half empty whiskey bottle. "So, I'm not exactly in the mood to talk about my future career track at the moment."

"I know, Lieutenant Stone, and I know what you've been through. That's why I'm here. I think you'll want to listen to what I have to say."

Katie was debating slamming the door in his face, but she finally shrugged her shoulders.

"Ok, Sir, shoot. I'm all ears. What do you have to say?"

"How would you like to grab every Jem'Hadar, Vorta, and Founder in the Alpha Quadrant by the f*cking throat and kick them back to the Gamma Quadrant so hard they'll shit themselves?"

Katie froze at his frank and aggressive language.

"You don't sound like any Starfleet Captain I've ever heard," she said straightening her posture.

"Invite me inside and share some of that weak-ass, human, excuse for alcohol," he said pointing at her whiskey bottle, "and I'll show you just how different I really am. I could never replace the family you lost, but I can least offer you a new one."

Katie grinned and stepped aside.

"Please, Captain Tigranian, come in."


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