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When Harry was a kid, his father made him a zoetrope. 

He'd been sick, again. It wasn't the time he had the Mendakan pox, but it wasn't long after that. He'd overheard the doctor telling his parents that his immune system was likely to have 'hiccups' following the pox. This had seemed interesting, until Harry realized the hiccups were only metaphorical, and definitely not as fun as they sounded. - One of the problems with being a smart kid was when adults assumed you understood what they were talking about, just because you knew what all the words meant.

He'd been tired and glum and sulky all day, an irritation to his parents and to himself. Harry's eyes were too sensitive to bear the light of watching vids or even reading. He listened to the computer read aloud for a while, but it wasn't anywhere near as good as his mom reading aloud, and she was too busy for that. Dad was in his studio - it wasn't time for him to make supper yet. 

Harry's head hurt. It had hurt for days now. He just wanted it to stop, so he could sleep. Sleep until he wasn't sick anymore, and he could get up, eat, play, go to school. Be normal

His dad came in and found him crying. Harry's parents had never told him not to cry, but when he did they looked so sad that he felt he was letting them down. He understood that he would get better, that he wasn't sick forever. But his feelings didn't understand it. He was so tired.

Dad hugged him, and after a little while he said, "There's tea. Come and see what I'm making."

He only ever showed a piece when it was done, and he never said see what I've made. It was always technically still in progress. Harry went with his father to the studio, where the tea was waiting. 

It made him feel better - just a tiny bit, but the hot fragrant tea, generously sweetened, made Harry's brain feel more alive, alive enough to be curious. He spied the new thing, a large cylinder made of thick paper, with regular slits cut horizontally in the walls, all at the same level. It was sitting on the biggest pottery wheel. But it wasn't pottery. 

On the inside, Harry could see when he leaned close, was a ring of birds drawn with brush and ink, in different stages of beating their wings in flight. He frowned, thinking it through. It wouldn't be sitting on the wheel for no reason. 

His father waited with perfect patience. He was not a teacher like Harry's mom, but he was good at teaching. He would wait and let Harry think things through. 

Harry tried. He could see that you were supposed to look through the slits - and you could use the wheel to slowly turn the cylinder a little at a time, so that you looked through each one, at each bird picture on the opposite side. But what was the point of it? Why make it so hard to see each picture, rather than draw them all on one page?

His head was aching. Harry sniffed - oh, he did not want to break into tears again. He wanted to understand. He looked helplessly to his father. 

Dad set his teacup down and stood, coming over to Harry's side. "It needs to be in motion," he said. "You'll see then."

He slid his foot under the table to the pedal control for the pottery wheel. He pumped it slowly, spinning up the wheel, till he found the speed he wanted. Then he gestured toward what was now a line instead of slits. "Look inside, Harry."

He looked. Inside the spinning cylinder, the ring of birds were all flying. The motion seemed magically smooth. They flew and flew, on and on in perfect time.

It was animation. A loop - a literal loop!

That moment of understanding made Harry laugh aloud, delighted, the pains of his illness momentarily forgotten. It felt so good to connect those half-formed ideas, to see why one would construct such a strange device rather than just draw birds: to spin them into motion and give them flight.

***

"Mr. Kim," someone kept saying. "Ensign Kim!"

He was sick. He couldn't anymore. They needed to leave him alone. 

Harry was tired. But his heart was pounding, pounding. He tried to speak, but nothing happened.

He could hear insects buzzing around him. They were talking? No, people were talking, the insects were just buzzing. Then the buzzing stopped. 

" - what he's been through," someone was saying, nearby. " - weeks of sleep deprivation - they pumped him full of stimulants - just to keep him working on the..."

He faded out. He didn't care.  

He felt the coolness of a hypospray against his neck, and flinched: not again! but then he gasped in a deep breath, trembling, as his heart began to slow down from its painful racing. The voice kept on. He thought maybe it was the doctor, but that might just be a guess because of the hypospray. 

" - will need assistance - not sure who to - "

"I'll do it," he heard very clearly: that was Tom. 

There were a few more hyposprays. Harry didn't flinch from them this time. He was drifting. The doctor-voice said a lot of things, and the Tom-voice answered a few times, but Harry couldn't follow it. It was all too fast, and too far away. 

Time became a zoetrope, slowed down to his childhood attempt at understanding it - moving the wheel a little bit at a time, to look through at one picture at a time. Each time that Harry had enough energy to surface from his drifting, he saw something new, an almost static image. 

Sound blurred in and out, but he heard Tom's voice, a background of nonsense in hushed tones. He heard his own name a lot, Harry this, Harry that, sorry Harry, it's okay Harry. It was the way one would talk to a feral animal.

Image: being helped out of his uniform. Deep inside, Harry cringed at how awful he must smell by now. The Hirogen cared for their prey in between holodeck bouts, but Harry was not a player in their games, he was slave labor. They told him so all the time. 

He hoped Tom just tossed all that stuff into recycling. But he didn't have an image for that. 

Image: this one was almost completely obscured, a dark veil: his hair, hanging wet in his eyes. Bathing with water cost replicator rations, but he was too filthy by now for a sonic shower to actually get him clean. It would probably take several of both. 

He was trying to help, but his slow-moving hands just got in Tom's way. 

Tom's hands were like his voice, gentle and repetitive. How could he be this patient with Harry? He hated having to do sickbay things.

Image: over Tom's shoulder, as Tom hugged him dry with a large towel. 

"Sorry about this," Tom was saying. "We can finish drying you off in the sonic, hang on." 

Harry wanted to say, It's fine, and Sorry you have to do any of this, and Actually this part is nice. It was. There had been no human contact for the last three weeks, let alone touch. It felt wonderful. 

But all that came out was, "Hmm."

Image: the sonic shower, Tom helping to hold him up. A jolt of adrenaline spiked down neural pathways sore from weeks of abuse and pulled Harry out of the zoetrope. 

"Hirogen," he said, his voice ragged in his throat. 

"No, Harry, it's me, you're okay - "

He didn't understand. "Where are they?"

"Gone, Harry, they're gone, they're light years away. You did it."

The shower cycled off: he was dry, and as clean as he could be. But he was trembling. 

"You're okay," Tom said, again and again. "You're okay, Harry, it's all over."

His brain wanted to stay alert, in case it wasn't true. But there just wasn't enough power in the system. Harry's awareness narrowed back down to the zoetrope's tiny viewport.

Image: Tom dressing him in pajamas. 

He ought to find this humiliating. What a baby he was! But there was nothing Harry could do about it. And he did feel better not to be naked. 

And he liked to have Tom touch him. The bruises the Hirogen gave him were gone, but now they were being replaced with a caring touch, and that felt good. 

Image: Tom trying to get him to lie down. And Harry, annoying as a sick child, resisting. "If I sleep you'll leave," he said, slurring his words. He had to say it a couple of times for Tom to understand him.

"I won't leave," Tom said. "Harry. I won't leave. Lie the hell down already."

This burst of irritation was what it took to convince him. He actually smiled at Tom as he finally lay his head down. 

He slept, maybe. He must have, because there was a Hirogen there, leaning over the bed, leaning over him. He jerked awake with a cry, "Stop it!"

Image: Tom leaning back, wide-eyed. "Harry! It's just me, it's okay, you're - "

"I'm not okay!" Harry shouted. His voice felt like a torn old flag flapping in the wind. 

"I know," Tom said. "I know. I'm sorry."

"They would - catch me sleeping," Harry said. "I'd - doze off - at a console - or with my head in an access panel. Anywhere I was. I was desperate for sleep. One of them - liked to grab me by the hair."

That one was the reason he got so filthy. They probably would've let Harry shower if he'd insisted on it. But that particular Hirogen would have been the one to stand guard while he did it. 

So, no.

"You almost shot me," he went on, in the same tone. 

"What…?"

"In your soldier role. You challenged me." (You speak English?? You're an American?? Quick, objectify this woman you've never heard of!)

"Oh," said Tom. "I - can't remember that."

Something about the way he said it stopped Harry from going on. 

Harry had to remember: all of them had been used by the Hirogen. The ones who couldn't remember could only wonder what they'd done, or had been done to them. Tom had been a puppet. Harry, meanwhile, was abused and worked half to death, but he knew everywhere he'd been, and everything he'd done. 

So Harry said, "I'm sorry."

Image: waking up again, this time wracked with muscle spasms. He was sitting up, uselessly pawing at the back of his neck. 

Tom was beside him. "Here." He sat up, shifted over behind Harry. His big warm hands settled carefully on Harry's shoulders, and when he did not reject the touch they tightened and kneaded, thumbs sweeping to the middle to push at the knots in his neck. 

Harry gasped. 

The pleasure of it was shocking. And it was twofold: the firm massage of the seizing muscles was almost painfully pleasurable, but so were the brief moments of skin-to-skin contact, Tom's fingertips electrifying the back of Harry's neck.

"Oh my God, Tom," he moaned, and it really did sound like sex. 

"I am pretty good at this," Tom said, as though he were revealing a secret. Harry could hear a smile in his voice. 

Harry tried to laugh, he really did. He wanted to laugh. But when he tried, he just sort of lurched, as if hiccupping, like a cat trying to vomit. It was not a success. 

Sobbing was easier, so he ended up doing that. 

Tom was better than pretty good at it. He didn't stop, for one thing. And he didn't say any more soothing phrases. 

Sobs subsided to shudders, then melted into deep breaths. 

Tom sighed through his nose, and his breath tickled Harry's back. Then he lay down, pulling Harry down with him, and spooned up behind him. 

So warm. He'd never felt anything like it. He'd always been the bigger spoon. 

Image: Tom's hand resting on Harry's pillow. The weight of his arm was comforting. His body heat enfolded Harry like the corona of a star.

The next moment had no image: Harry could not see it, could only feel... Tom's lips brushing the back of his neck.

Heat flowed and hardened in immediate response. Harry arched his back, inhaled deeply. And waited, heart pounding, to learn what Tom would do. 

Tom did it again. This time, it was unmistakably a kiss. Shivers spread out all over Harry's skin from the point of contact. For a moment, just that one moment, he luxuriated in it. The warmth of Tom's body in his bed. The touch of his mouth on Harry's skin. He wanted these things so much and now -

This is too good to be true.

The adrenaline jolt was so agonizing this time that Harry cried out. Tom jerked back, putting space between them. Harry twisted around, though his head hurt so bad he could hardly see.

Image: Tom's eyes, wide, his face dismayed. 

Harry said, "Computer! End program," but the computer complained that it couldn't comply, please restate the request. 

Of course. It was a simulation. He wouldn't be given any control of it. The Hirogen weren't that stupid, and they had plenty of experience with manipulating everyone in the crew. 

"Harry," said Tom. His expression was different now, and Harry was reminded again of the feral animal and how one behaved when you weren't sure what it would do. 

"Shut up!" Harry shouted. He rolled off of the bed and started toward the door - but stopped short, because that would be an illusion too, wouldn't it? He wasn't really in his quarters. He'd helped the Hirogen turn more than half the ship into holodeck space. 

"Talk to me!" Tom said. "What is happening?"

"This isn't real," Harry said through his teeth, pacing the room. "You aren't real."

"Harry. This is real. I'm real. You're real."

"Of course you would say that!"

"I'm saying it because it's true."

"It isn't possible." Harry clutched at his head, pulled at his hair. It reminded him of that Hirogen hunter who leered at him. 

"You're in pain." Tom's voice was gentle, but he sounded upset too. "The doc gave me meds that I could give you. Will you let me?"

"So you can sedate me? No!"

"That's not what I - !" Tom sighed. "You probably should be sedated. You should definitely be in sickbay. But sickbay is full."

"Because of the Hirogen."

"That's right." Tom looked optimistic for a moment, as though Harry had started talking sense again. As though Harry was on script again. 

"They put a neural interface in me, didn't they? in sickbay?" Harry demanded. "And you, you're either a hologram, or else you're you playing you, a puppet you." He made a laugh-sounding noise that wasn't really a laugh. "That would be just like them!" His head hurt so much that tears streamed down his face as he shouted at Tom. "God, I fucking hate them!"

"I hate them too." Tom spoke evenly, visibly controlling his temper. "But no, Harry. The Hirogen are gone. You don't have an interface, you never did. We're in your quarters. And I am not a goddamn hologram, or a puppet!"

"But you must be," Harry said. "That's the only answer that makes any sense."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, come on! I could believe most of it. It was a nice slow build, right? I'm too fucked up to take care of myself, sickbay is full of injured, I can believe Tom would take me 'home,' help me get cleaned up, be nice to me because I'm sick. I can believe that. "

"Okaaay," Tom said. Apparently he did not follow. But did that prove anything about whether he was purely holographic or the real Tom forced into a role?

"And I totally believe that he would be good with his hands. One hundred percent."

Tom raised his eyebrows. 

"I could even - just because of the extreme situation, though - I could imagine he might stay because I asked, sleep next to me, even. But he would never kiss me like that, never." He heard sadness in his voice before he could even feel it in himself. "Not possible."

"Why not?" said Tom. This seemed like proof to Harry that Harry was right, so there was no reason not to answer. 

"I am not - anything that he wants," Harry said, "I never have been. There's nothing I could do to change that." 

He turned away, but not soon enough to avoid the - 

Image: the stricken expression on Tom's face. It hurt Harry's eyes, like too much light.

"Besides," Harry said, suddenly exhausted, "Tom has B'Elanna. He would never cheat on her."

He sat down on the edge of the bed, defeated. He probably shouldn't have told "Tom" that, because they could simply adjust the simulation next time. 

"Thank you for taking care of me," Harry said, closing his aching eyes. "Whoever you are." Even if this Tom was only an empty hologram, Harry was still grateful. "I'll take that sedative if you still want me to." He didn't really care what it was, anymore. (Maybe it was just an in-simulation pretext for resetting his neural interface.)

"God almighty," he heard Tom mutter, and then there were the sounds of him fumbling open the medical case. The hypospray pressed against Harry's neck suddenly, and he jumped. 

"It is not a sedative," Tom said with his teeth gritted. "Not that you'll believe me, but there's a padd here with a list of the stuff the doctor said you need. You're paranoid, Harry. You're coming down off of weeks of horrible heavy-duty stimulants. Hirogen ones, not meant for humans. You're a mess. But you'll get better. Are you listening to me? Lie down, you can't sleep sitting up."

Tom's grouchiness was soothing to Harry in a way nothing else could have been. Maybe some of it was the result of the hypospray bringing relief to his throbbing head. But not all of it. 

He let Tom push him over - Tom's hands were more gentle than his voice as they tucked the pillow under Harry's head.

***

Harry opened his eyes. Time had passed. 

Tom was just putting the scanner of a medical tricorder away. It must have been the sound of it that woke him up, Harry thought. Back in sickbay, he'd mistaken that sound for insects.

"What happened...?" Then Harry remembered. Everything. The images shuffled in front of his mind's eye like a flipbook. "Oh." 

"Yeah," Tom said. "I'm real, by the way."

"Yes," said Harry, weakly. "Of course you are. I - see that now. I'm sorry, Tom. I was, I was - "

"- Out of your head. I know. It's okay. It's not your fault."

Maybe it wasn't Harry's fault, but he wasn't sure that that made it okay.

"You might not remember," Tom said, looking away, "but the day before the Hirogen took over the ship, I told you that B'Elanna and I were on a 'break.'"

"I remember," Harry said. "But you said it was 'space', that she needed 'space', because you made a joke about how much 'space' do you need on a spaceship - "

"Okay, space," Tom said impatiently. "She used both words with me. She gets sick of me on a regular basis, then she gets bored and takes me back." His lips thinned. "Okay, that was - uncharitable. It's not all on her. The point is that we were both supposed to be doing some 'thinking,' her and me. And I am going to go see her later, and tell her I'm done thinking."

"I… don't - " Understand, he was going to say, but Tom interrupted. 

"I am going to break up with her. Officially."

"Why…?" 

Tom made an exasperated noise, but he did not look angry.

"You were right about one thing," Tom said. "I would never cheat. I appreciated the vote of confidence there, by the way, even though it turned you into a conspiracy nut for a while. - I shouldn't have kissed you like that. I was - half asleep when I did it. You surprised me when you reacted - The point is, I shouldn't have done it, because you were in no condition to consent to it. I'm sorry."

 "It's okay," Harry said, trying to jump into the deluge of words. "I - "

" When the doc clears you for duty," said Tom, "you and I are gonna have some things to talk about."

Image: Tom looking down at him, fond and annoyed, frowning a little, but his eyes as clear as a river.

"Okay?" said Tom. 

Harry nodded. 

"Yeah." 

After Tom left, Harry turned to the replicator, his mind spinning in astonishment, and ordered hot oolong tea, extra sweet. It wasn't as good as what his dad made, of course, but the flavor was recognizable, and the sweetness and caffeine were bracing. He sipped at it, and he thought about the zoetrope. 

The wheel, spinning at the right speed, revealing the pattern of the pictures he saw. They made sense, in motion. 

He looked in, and saw birds flying.