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Title: And Not Fade Away, Part 3 of 5
Author: Morgan Stuart
Fandom: Star Trek: Voyager
Disclaimer: This universe does not belong to me; I'm just an appreciative visitor. I make no profit from this fan work.
Description: When Chakotay, Paris, and Kim are stranded on a vicious alien world, Kes risks her sanity and Janeway risks her command to see that rescue eventually arrives.
Dedication: This is for Margret.
Historian's Note: The events in this story take place directly after the events depicted in the third season Star Trek: Voyager episode "Flashback."
Warnings (Highlight to Read): Graphic violence.




CHAPTER TWO

"I know we don't talk about it.
We don't tell each other
All the little things that we need.
We work our way around each other
As we tremble and bleed."
- Todd Park Mohr


Kes sat alone, her legs dangling, swinging erratically over the edge of the billiards table. So much time wasted while the officers poured over the data. Slow, sensual music played in the background, a little too low to be heard distinctly. She had removed the holographic characters so she would be undisturbed. But there were ghosts in Sandrine's, all around her. The room was thick with them.

Gaudy perfume, wood polish, strong whisky. She shook her head in amazement. It seemed like a lifetime ago that she had asked B'Elanna to program smells into this simulation. An intangible bittersweetness, like baby powder mingled with beer, almost too faint to detect. What was it? The scent of abandoned innocence. It was gone. She hopped down from the table, stepping tentatively in different directions, trying to recapture the fleeing fragrance. Where did it go? She could feel her heartbeat throbbing in her neck. It was important, whatever it was. Her world narrowed until this quest was all it held. Wait. There it was again. Clean. Scrubbed. Fallen.

Tom.

Kes knew that Torres could not have programmed this. Her mind was aching with effort and toying with reality. She sat in the floor where she had been standing. Tom, you are just beyond my reach. I've stretched with every nerve, every sense I have, but you're fading away. You've got to help me with this! The thought was a new one. She paused uncertainly. How can you help me? Do you even know what I am trying here? Can I touch your mind like you touched mine? Can I send you a signal? Can you respond?

"Kes?" A tentative voice, so soft she did not register it. A cough, another tremulous try. "Kes?"

She did not turn around, did not move from where she sat in the middle of Sandrine's floor. "Neelix?" Her voice sounded far stronger than his.

"Yes, it's me, sweetie." He waited for a reaction but received none. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Neelix, just thinking." Bright blue eyes peered over her shoulder at him, waiting for him to continue.

"Why don't you come eat some dinner with me, then maybe we could go back to my quarters and listen to some music. Get you mind off of everything?" He clasped his hands in front of him nervously.

"Thank you, Neelix, but I can't right now. I have to concentrate." She swiveled to face him, but she never met his eyes. "I wish I'd learned more from the other Ocampa on the array. If I knew how to use my mind more fully, I'd know the best way to follow the landing party. As it is, I am having to stumble along on my own and teach myself." Her fingers pressed a throbbing point at her temple distractedly.

It occurred to Neelix that she really was not talking to him at all. He cleared his throat as if to remind her of his presence. "But Kes, dear, the officers will devise some way of penetrating the atmosphere and finding the shuttle. Don't worry..."

"You don't understand, do you?" It was a simple question. No malice or judgment. He had no answer. "They aren't with the shuttle. They have been captured. They could be anywhere. And the only way we might have of finding them is this link I somehow have. And I can only sense one of them, the one who is injured, fading away. I've got to find a way to hold onto them." She put her hand out to him conciliatorily. "Do you see? I can't afford to 'get my mind off' of this. I have to stay focused and figure it out."

He nodded mutely and took her hand. "I guess I'm just a little... uncomfortable about the whole thing, that's all."

She drew him down next to her and wrapped her arm through his. "About Ocampa abilities?"

"No, not so much anymore, I don't think. I know you're special... you're with me, right?" Even he did not smile at his own forced bravado. "I'm afraid about what this could mean for you - experiencing what they're experiencing, working so hard to develop this link... I can't explain it. I'm just worried for you, and for us." She leaned her head on his shoulder silently. "I'm here for you, Kes, even if I don't understand what's going on." She lifted her head and smiled then, a sad smile, and withdrew her arm so that she could wrap it around his sturdy back. He rocked toward her as she drew him near and placed his head on her shoulder as she had done to him seconds earlier.

"I have to believe everything will be all right." She whispered the words to him and he nodded, resigned. Still holding him close, she returned again to her thoughts.

He wants me to assure him all is well. I don't know that it is. Or will be. But I'll do my best to make it so. Dear, sweet Neelix, I'll hold it all together, I promise, for you, for me, for the three men on the surface down below. She rubbed her aching eyes with her free hand. Exhaustion haunted her and made the unspoken vow seem cruelly difficult to keep.

As long as I have the strength.

***

All she could do was wait. Torres and her team needed time and peace to process the data from the shuttle. Then they could talk about options. How a rescue team could get to the planet. How they could find the missing men. How they could return.

But waiting never came easily to Kathryn Janeway. She was grateful for her reserve of replicator rations, saved for just such a situation. The espresso burned her throat and she arched her neck appreciatively. The ready room swam with the aroma, bitterness so biting it tasted on the tongue. To others it signaled jittered, frenetic activity, but to her it was a comforting comrade-in-arms. The night would be long and she was far from sleep.

She tucked her legs beneath her on the couch. Her quarters would not do. The stiff bonnet and heavy cloak would haunt her, reminding her of the holosuite hours she had enjoyed while her navigation officer had suffered torture on the planet below. Intellectually, she knew that she could not have known of Paris's plight. But guilt was seldomly rational.

Besides, the bonnet and cape represented waste. Think how many cups of coffee I could've replicated with those credits... She chuckled bitterly to herself and took another deep swallow. There were many things she wanted right now. To see a dark, broad presence, hands clasped behind him, nodding gravely to her as she commented on his first officer's report. So sober, so serious. If she were lucky, she might make him smile once, a concession to their steadily-growing familiarity and rapport. Or vulnerable blue eyes, carrying her on a breathtaking ride through despair to invincibility to cynicism, and perhaps even hope, all in one look. What had Chakotay called him? Her "personal reclamation project"? Of all of them on board, he was the most fragile. Another gulp, biting at her senses. He knew it, too. That grieved her the most. And what of a ramrod-straight youth, burgeoning with talent and possibilities? She had lost him once and her heart had screamed, even as she had forced outward impassivity. Having his parallel-self on board had erased that pain. If she had thought of her conversation with his mother once, she had relived it a million times. It was right before they left spacedock, right before they disappeared. You had the right to be proud of him. He's one of the finest I've ever known.

The cup was empty. She sighed. Why do you do this to yourself? She rolled her neck, stretching. It was a familiar question. You know why. You never want to forget what's at stake. You can't make people into numbers, and determine their fate by some equation. Compassion and care are Human strengths, not weaknesses. She played idly with the dry mug, still warm from its former contents. Don't be afraid to feel for them, Kath.

Rubbing the leg that threatened to go to sleep, she shifted slightly on the couch. That's easy to say now. A time will come when you'll have to make hard choices. Pleasant platitudes will be just so many words then. She twisted again, failing to burrow into a comfortable spot on the couch. It would be a long night, indeed.

***

Awareness appeared out of nowhere, a surprise for one who had thought it gone forever. But nothing comforting met him. His stomach twisted as he relived the experience, felt the alien hands hold him to the ground, felt his own traitorous body writhe and scream and entertain them. Wretched humiliation. He feared he would die. He wanted to die. Painful paradox in constant tension. Anywhere, anywhere but here, anywhere but beneath these eyes, the eyes of his torturers. The fevered dream held him captive, like the Phrama guards that had beaten him and laughed at his feeble attempts to protect himself. He shuddered and cried out a ragged, raw plea. "Kes!"

Beside him, a protective hand on the thin shoulder, Kim looked embarrassed at the strangled syllable of the Ocampa's name. Across the fire from him, Chakotay had the gallantry to pretend he did not notice.

Their camp, like the others before it, lasted one night. They traveled farther into the mountains at daybreak.

***

"Go on, then. Go off shift. I work better alone, anyway. Just go."

"Lieutenant..."

"Go!"

Crewmen shuffled awkwardly from the holodeck, leaving B'Elanna Torres crouched on the floor, alone. A cluttered pile of datapadds surrounded her. "Be glad I didn't break your noses," she mumbled darkly.

"Up the velocity... angle... 5 degrees..." She crawled over hardware, rubbed her forehead, and threw a right-handed spanner at the wall. "Computer, resume simulation."

Typing figures into the console, the engineer slid into the all-too-familiar seat of the simulated shuttle. "Oooooookay. Now. Computer, begin ascent sequence."

Elsewhere on the ship, Kathryn Janeway was preparing to go on duty. Wrapped in a rose silk gown, she leaned over the lavatory in her quarters and wound her hair up the back of her head. She hummed absently to the music she had programmed, the madrigals complete with lyre and virginals alternating with the stunningly acappella Gregorian liturgies. The melodies were familiar friends. They dated back to several centuries, as much Eleanor of Aquitaine as Anne Boleyn. Whether for God or King or lover, they were all songs of love. Strong and sensual. Her lips moved to the chant without her realizing it. "Non nobis Domine, non nobis, Sed nomine tuo da glorium."* Latin. Old English. French. So reassuringly familiar.

The haunting phrases continued. "Media vita in morte sumus: quem quaerimus adiutorem..." She chilled as the meaning of the mournful words struck her foggy reason. "In the midst of life, we are in death: from whom should we seek help..."**

"Computer, end music." My officers... Each luxury she had enjoyed - the heat of a bath, the feel of silk, the sound of beloved music - was lost to the three stranded men. She wondered about their food, their shelter, their clothing. They were two smart, able officers led by a former Maquis Captain, seasoned in danger and deprivation. If anyone could survive, they could. But still...

The uniform went on. There will be hours for despair after shift is over. There's a time and place for everything. She affixed the communicator and took one more glance in the mirror. You've looked a lot better. Well, sleeplessness does that for you.

Her pin chirped. "Janeway here."

"Captain... I've got it! We can power down and fall through the top layer of atmosphere, and then punch through on momentum to return. It will require a precise speed and trajectory on the ascent, but it will work -"

"B'Elanna, where are you?"

"I've been running simulations in the holodeck -"

"I'm on my way."

The lieutenant propped her feet up on the console, smiling. She cleared her throat, raw from screams and shouts of frustration. "Torres to Kes. Do I have news for you... "

[* "Not unto us, Oh Lord, not unto us, But unto Thy name be glory given." From "Non Nobis Domine," medieval chant. Author and date unknown. Carved on the portal of the church of Pont-Hubert (near Troyes in France) by anonymous artist.

** From "Processional Responsory for the Sundays immediately proceeding Lent," traditional medieval Gregorian chant. Author and date unknown.]

***

The resulting rescue attempt was tragically short-lived. By the time Janeway arrived at the shuttle bay to meet the two team members, Kes was gone. Torres was still there, pacing the quiet metal interior with long, erratic strides like a caged tigress. The captain entered quietly, searching for the appropriate way to approach her seething chief engineer. A scream pierced the close space, echoing with the sound of Torres hitting the shuttle's hull flat-handed. Janeway jumped at the unexpected wail.

"Feel any better?"

"No."

"If you'd said yes, I think I'd have slapped the shuttle, too. I'm searching for some new outlets."

Torres smiled crookedly, appreciating Janeway's attempt at comfort. "Kes has gone to her quarters, to rest. She was exhausted."

"How did she take it?"

"It was her suggestion. I wanted to go ahead, I wanted to try..." She looked like she was considering hitting the shuttle again. "But we couldn't. There was no way to conduct a search in those conditions. By the time we got our bearings and started, we could have been immobilized by the weather. She understood that the attempt had to wait. She was very strong -"

"You made the right choice."

"I'm sure Chakotay, Tom, and Harry feel the same way." She leaned into the cold metal. How long would it be before the frigid winter crept up the continent and swallowed them? Could they survive it?

"B'Elanna." The word exuded empathy.

"I'll be able to project when the winter passes and we can return."

"Good."

"The only way this will work is with Kes. It's a large landmass, Captain. She's our compass. Not two, not twenty, not two thousand people could find them down there. This will be a long, hard season for her."

Janeway nodded gravely, but Torres continued before she could speak. "Permission to speak freely, Captain?"

"Of course."

"I would really appreciate a few moments alone in here. I still have some screaming to do before I officially reboard."

***

Some of the adaptations were conscious decisions, and others evolved organically over time. Choosing the clearing, where the brook ran down from the mountaintop and the tree line provided shade and shelter, was a natural and welcome end to their flight. With Paris safe beneath a temporary lean-to, Chakotay and Kim used the tools the ensign had taken from the Phrama stable to build a sturdy log cabin. Additions to this humble dwelling followed. A bedstead, to keep the frail Paris from the cold drafts of the night floor. A hearth, for heating water and cooking foods. A stretching post, for drying the skins of the animals they ate.

Chakotay and Kim did not discuss the hope of rescue. They both knew that their relocation into the mountains would add time to any search effort. In the meantime, their first duty was survival. And, slowly but surely, in a myriad of little ways, they transformed their meager camp into a home. They were unlikely housemates, to be sure. But their diverse talents soon allowed niches, a natural division of labor, to form. Kim watched over Paris. The lieutenant would accept food and water, and even open unfocused blue eyes at his friend's gentle word or touch. But he whimpered when they wrapped bindings around his ribs or checked his fading bruises and burns. His breathing was still pained and labored. Coughs relentlessly assailed him whenever he moved. Often his own hand scrubbed against his aching chest, a frantic, palsied, repetitive motion, as if he could rub out the disease that devoured his lungs. And despite Kim's constant attention and encouragement, Paris had not spoken since the first night the Phrama had returned him. Except in his infrequent and obviously violent dreams, when he called Kes's name.

The cabin and the chores that went with it took up the rest of Kim's time. He chopped wood from the ample forest, drew water, and searched for edible plants. While Kim stayed close to Paris and the cabin, Chakotay took short trips of two and three days, exploring the surrounding country, hunting, and trapping. The circles he made around their shelter also served as a patrol of sorts, as he constantly kept guard against any Phrama or other predators. If one of them had to stay with the cabin, it was logical for Kim to do so. Paris's condition was far more likely to improve if Kim, his oldest and closest friend on Voyager, were near. Besides, Chakotay was born for a measure of solitude and independence, and their circumstances seemed far less likely to suffocate him when he slept beneath the open sky.

The most subtle changes offered the most tangible evidence of the passing of time. Kim took to tying his hair back with an animal-skin thong to keep the long strands out of his eyes. A ginger-colored beard framed Paris's sunken, pale face. Chakotay's leggings pulled tightly across thighs increasingly disfigured with new muscles from hours on a beast too wide for a Human's comfort.

The days passed.

***

The door chime sounded, and a delicate voice welcomed the last visitor into the room. Janeway approached somberly. She made it clear by her demeanor that she relinquished command in Kes's quarters. She would follow the Ocampa's lead. Like the others sitting in a semi-circle on the floor, by Kes's invitation, she knew that the diminutive woman-child was the only hope for the three men now abandoned to the planet's winter season. When Kes had told her that she wished to pursue this link, Janeway had stressed that it was her decision. When the Ocampa confirmed that she was sure, Janeway announced her complete, and grateful, support. And offered any help that she might give.

Taking a deep breath, the captain lowered herself to join the others, cross-legged. Kes was bent forward, her eyes closed, concentrating. They sat very still for some time in throttled, uncertain anticipation. When she finally raised her head, her eyes glittered like a medium channeling some faraway dimension. The other three exchanged wide-eyed looks, awed spectators at this seance.

With a glance from Kes, Neelix began. They had all agreed on a degree of formality, to help them meet the uncomfortable, intimate demands of the event. He cleared his throat nervously. "I am Neelix, obviously, I mean you all know that. But I have come here tonight to represent Thomas Eugene Paris. My friend. You all know how much we have been through, Tom and I. Our misunderstandings, our adventure on "Planet Hell," even my journalistic inquiry into his abduction by the Kazon." He chuckled without humility, distracted by his own memories. "I have been jealous of him, disappointed by him, and angry at him. That is all in the past. I know the man he is. Now I count him as one of my closest friends. I want him back." He dropped his eyes, seemingly fascinated with the pattern of the fabric of his slacks. "I have brought the original program of Sandrine's, the program we've all copied. This is him. The world he made for all of us, the world where he was at home, the world where we have so many memories with him. This represents Tom to me." He placed the crystal at Kes's feet.

She picked it up tenderly, as she would the hand of the injured man.

They gave her the time she needed. After setting it back on the floor, she looked to B'Elanna Torres. The engineer shifted uncomfortably, her emotions raw upon her expressive face. "I am B'Elanna Torres. I am here to represent Chakotay, my former captain and present first officer. He has been my friend, my teacher, and my mentor. He was and is the only family I have known for many years, not because he had to be, but because he chose to be." She stared intently at the objects in her lap. "I could not trust or respect anyone more than I do Chakotay. He is a man..." A long pause "... a man of honor. To represent Chakotay, I offer his medicine bundle. It was always with him, giving him strength, reminding him of his people. If anything is a window into his soul, this is it." Torres handed the bundle to Kes, who held it reverently. For a moment the honest, intent expression reminded the engineer of the soulful gaze of its owner, and she looked away.

Ending the pained silence, the captain spoke. "I am Kathryn Janeway. One of the brightest aspects of life on Voyager has been growing to know a young officer I hand-picked without ever meeting personally, Harry Kim. I knew I had chosen the best, but even so he exceeded every expectation I had of him, as an officer and a person. He has a brilliant, gifted mind and a heart far wiser than his years. Gentle, giving, sincere. I wish I had heard him play. His mother loved his music so much. That's why I am bringing you his clarinet, Kes. I know he practiced every day, and that music was one of the many gifts he brought with him to our ship. This symbolizes the heart, as well as the mind." Kes accepted the instrument gratefully, holding it skillfully as if she were born to play it. The implications of such ease chilled Janeway.

Kes spoke kindly with only a hint of distraction. "Thank you, all of you, for sharing these with me. And for sharing your feelings, your ties to these men. I am trying to feed off of your relationships and draw closer to them through you. And I will honor these things, their things, with all my heart. Captain Janeway has agreed to allow me access to their quarters. If I go to any of them, I will contact the appropriate one of you to stand in their behalf. I don't want to invade their privacy, I just want to strengthen my link with them." Her eyes were growing more other-worldly with each moment. "Thank you so much. May... I be alone now?"

"Of course," Janeway agreed, and rose to leave. Torres practically bolted from the room without comment. The captain started to call to her in the hallway and offer the engineer a cup of coffee and a sympathetic ear, but one look at Torres convinced Janeway to let her go alone.

Neelix lingered at her doorway, concerned. "Are you gonna be okay, sweetie?"

"Yes, thank you. Thank you for helping me. I know you disapprove."

"I'm trying."

"I know."

"May I look in on you later?"

"Of course, Neelix. I'll see you in a little while."

"Yes, yes... in a little while. I'll see you then." The door slid closed while he was still muttering to himself.

When he returned an hour later, he found Kes curled on the floor like a wounded animal, arms wrapped around her sides, asleep. He crept to her side to convince himself that she was resting easily. He caught the faint aroma of peanut butter.

He left her where she lay, draping a blanket from her bed over her still form as he exited. He dropped the spredendron bloom he had brought from the hydroponics bay beside her, to tell her that he had been there. Then he returned to his quarters to worry.

***

Despite the warmth of the cabin's fire, the night cold still required bundling in clothes, blankets, and skins. So morning found Kim folding away the layers that covered Paris, trying to make him more comfortable. As always when he moved around the lieutenant, he spoke quietly about whatever came to mind. He sometimes doubted Paris could hear him but he could not stand to act like the tortured man was already dead. If Paris were aware, at least he would know that he was with a friend.

"Harry?" The rusty croak caught Kim by surprise. He stared at the still, pliant form, uncertain if he had imagined the whisper.

"Tom?" He slipped an arm beneath the blond head and offered him water. "Hey, welcome back. I was getting tired of talking to myself."

Blue eyes opened slowly, searched, finally focused on the ensign. He took a breath to speak and gasped, his features contorting. "It hurts." The tone was incredulous, like he was discovering the fact for the first time. "I-" He dissolved in a harsh fit of coughing and then wilted in the ensign's embrace.

Kim winced and swallowed. "I know it hurts, Tom, but we're going to get you through this. A Phrama healer showed me some herbs to use for pain. I'll make you a tea, okay? Stay with me now." He slowly disentangled himself and reached for the preparations.

Paris met his eyes and gave him a short nod of thanks. "Where?" It was all he could manage. Kim understood.

"In the mountains. We escaped from Renoja and made it out here."

"Chakotay?"

"He's fine. He'll be back in a little while."

Wrapping an arm snugly around his chest, Paris shifted a bit on the crude bedstead. "You... made this?"

"Yeah, we built the whole cabin. Don't worry, we should be safe. It turns out that the Phrama have this taboo against the mountains. They can't grow their crops up here, so they think it's cursed. And they've developed a whole mythology about the creatures that live out here, almost like a 'the world is flat' kind of thing. I think we'll be safe." He pressed green leaves into a wooden cup. "Do... do you remember anything since you've been back with us?"

He squeezed his eyes shut in frustration as well as pain. "It's a blur." Clearing his throat, he tried for a steadier voice. "Mixed up... memories..."

"Don't worry about it, Tom. You need your strength -"

"Kes? Is... is she here? I... remember... what?" Confusion agitated him.

Kim dipped warm water from the pot that hung over the fire. "Uh, you seem to be dreaming about her. You've said her name while you were unconscious." He looked distinctly uncomfortable, unsure how to proceed. This was not the time to chide Paris for forbidden erotic fantasies.

The blue eyes grew wider as he sipped from the cup Kim held. He swallowed and shook his head. He could tell what the blushing ensign was thinking, and it was all wrong. That issue had been settled long ago. "Thought... I saw her."

"Not since Voyager, Tom." A new fear chilled Kim, and he unconsciously gripped his fallen comrade more tightly. The same thought struck Paris as well. Terror shone nakedly on his face.

"My mind?" His breathing quickened and the coughing returned.

Holding his head as the slender frame shook, Kim spoke steadily, far more confident in tone than he felt. "It's all right. You're not losing your mind, Tom. They gave you drugs, they hurt you - you're memory's playing tricks, that's all. You're fighting this really well. Hold on. It's okay."

The fit rode the abused body back into unconsciousness.

Kim stared at him for a long time, holding the cup of herbal tea that cooled uselessly in his hand. Conflicting emotions exhausted him. Eventually, though, he came to a practical conclusion. He was awake again. He talked. That means he's better than he was. That's what's important. I'll help him straighten out his memories and hallucinations later. The key now is that he's better.

And I won't rest until he's well.

But the old woman's descriptions of a slow death from the disease haunted him and tainted his hopes. Of course her experience was limited to Phrama victims, who entered the ordeal malnourished and exhausted and then endured abuse after infection. Perhaps Paris's Human physiology, his prior health, his care since the guards returned him to his fellow officers, maybe all of the factors would work in his behalf.

But the fear never quite left Kim, even in the small moments of triumph.

It was one of the many subjects that Kim and Chakotay did not discuss.

***

"Thought... you were... a vegetarian."

Chakotay shrugged pragmatically. "Survival seemed an attractive alternative. I still honor life." He glared at the navigation officer in mock sternness. "I trust that the keepers of the game agree that yours is worth sustaining. With protein."

"Keepers?" He sipped the stew without aid, propped up in bed. It was a small achievement for which he had fought for some time. It represented a measure of independence.

"My people believe that there are spirits that allow the hunt -"

A long-fingered hand waved away the explanation. "Sorry... I asked." Rolled eyes communicated what the husky voice could not. Chakotay snorted and mumbled something Paris could not understand as he rose from his stump-perch before the fire. His movements were stiff and awkward. Sometimes, after riding for several days, he could scarcely walk when he returned. Reaching for the branch he used as a walking-stick, he wordlessly shuffled into the twilight. The door closed behind him as he went to tend the two wallibeves.

Kim, cross-legged on the floor with his own bowl of stew, shook his head mutely at the two. Their attempts at humor danced on the edge of confrontation. Sometimes he could barely distinguish when words were kind or cruel, interaction wry or angry. At times the three functioned well in their artificially-intimate accommodations, but then there were moments when he could not shake the genuine uncomfortableness that settled on them. He knew that Chakotay sensed it, too. That explained why, when the Amerindian was not away trapping, he often spent his evenings outside, tending to the wallibeves, watching the sunset, doing whatever it was that Chakotay did.

And Kim let him. A sigh of frustration. Kim felt that he should do something, but he could not imagine what it was. The Paris-Chakotay mix was a volatile one, and he sat directly in the middle. Innocent. Bewildered. But an accomplice nonetheless, as he did nothing to ease the situation.

Irritation did not last. Chastening thoughts vanished as he watched Paris set his bowl on the ground and swiftly roll away from it in a fetal position, his face suddenly ashen. Eyes closed, throat forcing difficult swallows, the lieutenant fought the nausea that any food triggered. If he were lucky, his quick breaths would not begin the cycle of coughing again. Ever so quietly, Kim took the abandoned bowl and his own and began to tidy the small cabin, one eye, as always, on Paris.

This wave seemed to last longer than most. Kim cleaned, straightened, and rearranged the contents of the log house several times over while waiting for Paris to straighten and drift into sleep. But the emaciated frame remained tautly curved, slightly trembling. Finally he gave in and circled the small bed to kneel by his friend's face.

His face was twisted. He had shoved his fist over his mouth. His cheeks were wet. Sensing Kim there he opened his eyes and stared.

"Tom?" He thought better of the 'are you okay?' Clearly Paris was not.

"What?" A harsh whisper, seething with unreleased emotion. "What do... you want?" Short breaths through his clenched teeth. "Want me... to say... it'll be fine?" A staccato bark, a pathetic imitation of a laugh. "I don't... think it... will. I... hurt, Harry... You have to... do everything for me." He shuddered, as if thinking about his condition were too dreadful to contemplate. "I can't... get away. Remember... Fear?"

Kim nodded silently. After the computer-generated character Fear had released him as hostage, he had battled terrible nightmares for several nights. Paris had finally dragged him to Sandrine's and coaxed the details from him. He had slept after that cathartic pool session, after telling the lieutenant everything about the encounter. Everything. Even... I see where he's going with this, Kim realized grimly.

"You didn't want... to be old... where you couldn't... take care of... self."

This had to stop. "Tom, this isn't that same thing. Please stop this." His own voice sounded sterner than he had anticipated. Taking a deep breath, he tried again. "You're hurt, but you are getting better. Soon you won't need anything at all. And I'm not a stranger, I'm your friend. I want to help you, I don't have to."

If it were possible, Paris looked even more miserable. "I know... but I... hate being... helpless. I'm stuck... losing my mind." He waved Kim away with his hand, burying his face in his other arm. Muffled words. "I can't... I'm so scared... Please just... give me some... time."

Kim desperately wanted to say something, but he did not dare. Instead he slipped around the bed and to the door.

"But... don't leave me."

The whispered sob acknowledging his contradictory needs for privacy and comfort wrenched Kim's heart. He could hardly keep from crying himself. "I won't leave you, Tom. I'm just outside the door. I'm not going anywhere." At the nod from the arm-encircled head, he stepped outside.

Chakotay sat on a small stack of wood, gazing into the sunset, knuckles digging deep lines into his thighs as his fists rubbed back and forth absently. Kim sank down to the grass beside him. The commander noted his presence but did not speak. Kim found himself feeling a surge of irrational anger at this stoic and silent man. You don't know what it's like. You don't understand what's happening to him.

Kim sat with Chakotay well into the night.

Just thinking.

***

"A cheese omelet with green peppers, tomatoes, and sour cream." Kim tilted his head at the familiar sounds outside, knowing they announced Chakotay's return from the hunt. That would mean meat, and skins, and a return to the two-man rotation of night watch and Paris observation. A brief respite for both the ensign and the commander from being the only man performing their respective tasks.

"No, no. Peanut butter and jelly... on white bread."

Kim lay on furs on the floor, his feet propped up on the rock hearth, rag-wrapped toes wiggling before the fire's pleasant heat. On his side in the bed, Paris wagged a knowing finger at him. "No crusts."

The cabin door opened to reveal Chakotay, his hair still dripping from the routine bath he took in the creek to clean away the smells of sweat and blood and wallibeve before entering the small dwelling.

"And that's grape jelly... not strawberry or peach." Paris added raspily.

Kim rolled away to make room for the commander to warm himself. Chakotay knelt before the flames reverently as a believer beholds an altar. "Corn, roasted over an open fire. And mushroom soup." He added his voice to their long-running discussion of most-desired foods without missing a beat. Exhaustion had not dulled his mood.

The ensign was thumbing through their ragged items of clothing, looking for a suitable jacket in which to help with the catch. "How many?"

Chakotay shook his head. "Taken care of. I hung them in the springhouse." Legs stretched tentatively, lifting him shakily to sit on the stump-chair. He rested his walking-stick beside him. "I'll skin them tomorrow morning." Quiet nods. His fingers teased the last drops from his hair, and he played with the ever-longer silver strands distractedly. "How are things here?"

"We sent... the dancing girls... home an hour ago... The scenery was beautiful... wish you'd been here." Wit aside, Paris's voice had regained the harsh, bitter undertone that alternately angered and frightened Kim. His mood, like his health, varied minute by minute. The commander's return had triggered another shift. The sentence ended with a quiet cough.

Chakotay seemed to note the subtle change, the edge of submerged desperation. He did not rise to the bait. He merely snorted and continued to stare at the fire. The muscles in Kim's stomach tightened instinctively.

"Hot tea?" Chakotay nodded and accepted a steaming wooden cupful, sniffing the bitterroot concoction appreciatively.

"You've done wonders finding the tasty local plant life." The drink burned his tongue and he gulped a mouthful of air to cool it. Then he ducked out of the blanket-pouch strapped to his back and withdrew a bundle of smooth skins. Disentangling the folds of soft hide, Chakotay sought Kim's eyes and, once meeting them, held them with deliberate determination. Stand with me on this one. Help me. You struggle with this every hour, and I know you think I've escaped dealing with it, but I recognize the problem. I am trying to make things better.

His head still turned toward Kim, away from Paris, he spoke with concentrated casualness. "So, Mister Paris, I've been thinking. We need a record of what has happened, what is happening. To keep track of the days, to trace our steps, to make our report when we return to Voyager." Kim's eyes widened. This was the first time he had heard the commander mention their ship since they had escaped Renoja. Chakotay had silently tried to balance an implied faith in their future rescue with a practical dedication to easing their lives in the present. This departure was a planned, calculated attempt to help Paris's peace of mind. "So I made a notebook of sorts. Of skin. The berry-dye can serve as ink. It may be crude, but I think you can handwrite a useful log." He turned, half-rose, and handed his handiwork to the lieutenant. "You can start tomorrow."

The cabin fell silent. Kim's mind raced, appreciating the thought this move reflected. Yes, this gives him something to do, a tangible contribution he can work on at his own pace. He looked at his commander with a sheepish sense of awe, and a degree of regret for underestimating Chakotay's sensitivity and understanding.

"Great," Paris whispered. He started to laugh, then coughed sharply. Clearing his throat, his smile twisted into something ugly. "Keep me occupied... I'll be less of a pain, then... huh?" He pulled at his beard, his emaciated frame wound up with furious emotion. "Do you think... I'm so sick I don't... don't see? I mean... what's the point?" Wild eyes shot from Chakotay to Kim, as if he blamed his friend for his tacit consent to the order. "We're never getting back." The commander opened his mouth to speak but Paris drowned his attempt. "Don't... patronize me, Chakotay... I don't want your pity." The words left him breathless. A fist began rubbing his chest again jerkily, a subconscious return to the wounded reflex of weeks earlier. Kim held his breath.

Turned fully toward the lieutenant now, Chakotay met his eyes and shocked Paris with the gentleness of his voice. "What do you want?" His arms spread questioningly.

The blue eyes seemed confused, as if the soul behind them had not asked that particular question in some time. But the sharp tongue beat the mind to an answer. "For you to... leave me alone." Kim expelled the breath he had held in a low moan. But he stood paralyzed, unable to enter the tragic scene the commander and lieutenant were performing.

In painfully slow motion, Chakotay rose to his feet. As he stumbled around the stump awkwardly with his walking-stick, a small pouch fell from his jacket to the floor. He bent to pick it up and stared at it as if seeing it for the first time. Then it dawned on him, and he grunted in acknowledgment. Eyes focused self-consciously on the floor, he held it out to Kim behind him. "My father taught me to make them, not play them. I thought you might figure it out. It has a beautiful sound... and I heard you were good."

Without waiting for Kim's response he lumbered to the door. Mumbled words about the need for skinning animals died on the wind that entered as he left.

Paris watched him go, curiously detached from the exit. Still silent, shocked by his own words, he turned to his friend in disorientation.

Kim was on his knees before the fire, holding in his hands a beautifully carved wooden recorder. He looked up, his eyes bright and swimming, and his shoulders sagged.

Then he turned his face away.

***

Neelix served one last piece of quiche before untying his apron. He worried when Kes did not come to the mess hall for breakfast. They did not talk like they did before the landing party left, to be sure, but even when she seemed faraway and preoccupied, she still came. The gesture was not an empty one. Each quiet meal reminded him that she remembered him. Each visit contained a promise that, one day, their life together would resume normalcy. The morale officer was trying to cope with being, at times, a mere habit. He wrung every bit of hope from it that he could. But now breakfast had passed and Kes was nowhere to be found. He trotted past crew members, dodging those standing with drinks and plates, and headed off to find her. Fear of what he would find swelled in his throat.

Her quarters were locked and no one answered his chime. He whispered the security code and the doors slid open. Music, beautiful, alien music, poured out into the hallway. And there, in the middle of her quarters, stood Kes, slender back to the door. Neelix crept in and stood there, watching her.

It took him a minute to figure out what she was doing. She swayed with the music as if she herself were its conduit, with fluid swings and fervent slices of the air. Somewhere, in front of her, in her mind, was an imagined orchestra. She was its conductor. Her outstretched fingers groped for notes and begged for volume and slammed staccatos in precise order. She looked wildly from one phantom section to the next as she nursed melody and harmony from them. She had given herself over to it completely.

He stood there for almost half an hour until the movement ended and she wilted to the floor. She drew her knees up to her forehead and cried out in the silence like an abandoned child. Speaking softly to her, Neelix knelt beside her and wrapped his arms around her. "It... always makes me... feel better. But... not now... there's so much hurt... I want to hope... but then it all... crashes down... I want to make it work... I know I can... Why don't I feel better?" He stroked her while she sobbed in broken sentences, holding her tightly until she calmed.

"Kes? Do you want to talk about it?" He breathed the words into her hair softly.

"What was it, Neelix?"

"What was what, sweetie?"

"The music?"

"You don't know? But you just said it always made you feel better. You had every note memorized...."

"No. I had never heard it before, Neelix. Computer, what was the music just played?"

"'MATRIARCH REWOVEN,' FOURTH AND SEVENTH MOVEMENTS, BY BALSUNNI."*

She shrugged in his arms. "I don't know it. But there, for a little while, it seemed like an old friend." She sighed. "I'm all right, Neelix. Thanks for checking on me." Delicately, she disentangled herself from his embrace. "I think I'll take a shower now. See you for dinner."

He rose to his feet, stunned, and waited until he heard the water running. He kept expecting her to run to him, ask him for help, and let him inside the world she was seeing, but she never did. So he stumbled from her quarters, perplexed with worry and unanswered questions.

Back in her room, Kes peeked her head through the bathroom archway, assuring herself he was gone. Satisfied that she was alone, she jumped into the furthest edge of her bed where the walls formed a corner and huddled there, trembling, desolated.

***

Chakotay left the morning after the logbook incident for another round of hunting and trapping. There was no need; they had plenty to sustain them for a while. But the commander had observed that it could not hurt to stock up on food supplies, now that they had the springhouse in which they could preserve the meat. It was a transparent excuse, but no one stopped him.

Kim spent more time than usual outdoors. He always stayed close enough to guard the cabin and routinely check on Paris. But he threw the heartsick sadness he felt into playing with the recorder Chakotay had made. Music had always been his companion. It took Chakotay to show him how much it could heal him. Once again, he had underestimated his aloof superior. Not again. Never again.

In a self-important way, perhaps Kim also saw his own retreat from the cabin as a subtle punishment for Paris for his cruel treatment of Chakotay. He did not understand why his ailing friend seemed to sabotage his own future so routinely. This was, of course, a pattern that predated his torture. But since Renoja had returned him Paris had cycled through improvements and reversals in mind-spinning speed.

He did not know how he should feel. But the ensign felt an urgency about resolving the issue. Chakotay had built a cabin in which he could not live, and Paris seemed to be fighting his own recovery and all who would help him. The tension was tearing Kim apart. And the changing of the leaves, the possibility of truth in Paris's warning that help would never arrive, the physical changes he saw in himself and the others - it all pointed to the necessity of solving the situation. Of easing it. Of helping it somehow. Or at least of not adding to it. Kim's goals grew increasingly modest as the complexity of their planetbound existence overwhelmed him.

Inside the little cabin, Paris shuddered in his own private hell. The smooth hide pages of the logbook lay open on his lap. A sharpened stick protruded from a wooden bowl beside him. Counting the days, explaining their actions, meant reliving Nett Renoja's cruelties. The solitary cube. Burning, freezing, gasping. The beatings. Worst of all, the injection. Screaming, writhing, humiliating himself. He had thought he was a new Tom Paris. He had thought he had wrestled some dignity from life. But nothing had changed. His father was right. He was a failure.

He had hurt Chakotay badly. And pushed Kim away.

Bare chested, sweating, he wrapped skinny arms around his sore sides. He was so scared.

A cough. A sip of tepid tea, made with the pain-dulling leaves. A deep breath that sent sparks of agony through his once-athletic frame.

He picked up the stick in a trembling fist, paused, and then stabbed at the skin as if he could blot out a lifetime in a pool of berry dye.

***

Chakotay's entrance was tentative, reflecting his uncertainty of what he would find. Kim welcomed him meekly, offering him tea and kicking the stump-stool before the fire for him. The two officers listened as the commander told of his catch. The room settled back into silence as Chakotay hungrily devoured Kim's stew. After he finished he positioned himself against the log wall on his sleeping pallet, half-sitting, as was his custom, to spend the night. Kim curled on the floor atop the furs in front of the fire as usual.

"Could I ask you two... some questions?" Paris spoke quietly. Exchanging veiled looks, Chakotay and Kim both nodded. Here we go, Kim thought wretchedly. This is what I get for not confronting him while Chakotay was gone.

The lieutenant extended a one-armed reach beneath his bed frame and withdrew the bundled logbook as if nothing had ever happened. He flipped it open and thumbed through dye-covered pages, studiously oblivious of the surprised expressions on the faces of his audience. When he found his place, he glanced to them matter-of-factly.

"I am a little foggy... on the details of our escape... What happened?... How did you manage to... distract Renoja and the goon squad?"

This was his apology. Kim shook his head and chuckled quietly beneath his breath. Will he never cease to amaze me?

Dimples appeared in Chakotay's shadow-lined visage.

Kim was the first to speak. "The escape is a great story. We needed mounts and tools, as well as a distraction. Chakotay figured out that we could set fire to the stables, you know the ones next to the labor village, and -"

"You... killed the wallibeves?"

"No, I opened the gates. But that meant that the guards had to put out the blaze and catch all the wallibeves that were running all over the fiefdom." Kim smiled at the memory. "That kept them going for a while."

Chakotay took up the explanation where Kim had ended. "It wasn't guarded, 'cause the workers would never have tried such a thing. Where would they go? If they rode to another fiefdom they'd be returned for a reward. And they wouldn't go to the mountains -"

"Yeah, Harry filled me in on that superstitious stuff - "

"Right. On top of all that, they were in the middle of the final harvest of the season. They couldn't afford to drop everything for a thorough search. So it seemed to be the best plan."

Paris nodded thoughtfully. "Makes sense... Thanks."

The dusk bled into night as the three recreated the days, speaking frankly about their flight and the eventual homesteading in the mountains. Eventually an exhausted Chakotay drew blankets around him and dozed. Paris followed soon after. When Chakotay was home, Kim would maintain a quiet watch into the night, then wake the commander before dawn and sleep himself. Following this tradition, Kim settled himself down for a relaxing few hours of contemplative silence. It was not long, however, before he availed himself of the log.

He read Paris's critical, detailed account of his own torture.

He had never asked. Paris had never offered to tell.

He replaced the book silently.

And when dawn came, he woke Chakotay and slept.

He never spoke of reading the account.

Neither did Chakotay.

***

"Could I see you out here for a minute?"

Chakotay had been outside for seemingly hours after eating stew late that afternoon with Kim and Paris. Paris did not know what he was doing, but he figured it was something deep, sober, and introspective - in short, something he wanted no part of. But the commander's summons of Kim from the cabin rankled the lieutenant. He felt like a small child forced to go to bed while the adults entertained a party. Excluded. Forgotten. Curious.

It was not that he was idle. After his long, hard work on the log updating it to the present, he was rewarded with more long, hard work. But as much as he complained about being drafted as the landing party's tailor, he had to admit that the more he kept busy the better he felt. He remained in the sturdy little bed. But he could take small steps in the cabin unaided now, and required fewer catnaps during the day to maintain his strength. The pain still stabbed him with every breath, but the simple tasks served as distractions. Propped up and wrapped in fur, he forced himself to continue weaving the bone needle Kim had made in and out of the smooth skin Chakotay had cut. Soon they would all three appear like the buckskinned pioneers of old. An open shirt for Kim, that he could unlace and open in the daytime heat. Wide leggings for Chakotay to move with him as he rode. Even a vest for himself, still furred, to insulate his vulnerable chest.

Minutes later Kim returned, a small, strange grin on his broad face. "Hey, uh, how're you feeling?"

Paris narrowed his eyes. Despite his life-threatening, agonizing condition - or perhaps because of it - that was a question Kim and Chakotay never asked him. Something was definitely afoot. "What's up, Harry?"

"Would you like to take a little walk?"

That floored Paris. He had not stepped outside the cabin door since Chakotay had first carried him inside its walls. Shuffling around the place a bit was the extent of his freedom. He had endured the many humiliating implications of his invalid status, although Kim had always tried to offer him every dignity possible. The empathetic ensign would never be cruel. The question, the invitation, was a serious one.

He answered by swinging spindly legs onto the floor. Smiling broadly now, Kim helped to wrap him thickly in furs. Paris hurried in silence, afraid that any hesitation or query would break this marvelous spell, this promise of activity and experience. When he was finally bundled, Kim slipped behind him and gently grasped both elbows, signaling that he would help support Paris when he grew tired. Together the two friends opened the cabin door and Paris took his first trembling, small steps outside.

There in the clearing, beneath an impossibly clear sky, sat Chakotay. He had kindled a roaring fire and surrounded it with three pallets. Paris smiled at the inviting scene.

"We thought you might like to see this," Kim whispered in his ear, and nodded upward. Paris tilted back his head, swaying in Kim's firm hold. The black night sky was streaked with stars, like a glowing watercolor running across space.

"Wha... what?"

"Meteor shower."

His throat worked, and tears welled up in his pale eyes. "Aw, Harry..."

"I know," Kim agreed, and released his hold on Paris's elbow long enough to pat him gently on the back.

They stood that way for several seconds, looking up at the sky, until Kim grew aware of Paris shivering against him. "Let's get you over there next to the fire, okay?" The lieutenant seemed to return to reality and nodded. Together the two walked him over to the nearest pallet. As Kim eased him to the ground, Chakotay produced a heavy fur to cover him. Paris reclined there, warmed by the fire, and stared up at the sky.

"Thank you... it's incredible." He turned to meet the eyes of the commander and ensign in turn. "Thank you."

They both nodded happily and then returned to gazing themselves. It was an intimate experience to share, as these three stranded starmen looked up to the space where they belonged. The majesty, the beauty of it all, overwhelmed them. Kim eventually picked up the recorder and played. A shy grin communicated Chakotay's surprise and pleasure at the music, and after a while the commander closed his eyes and pressed his palms to the ground in meditation. Paris lay quietly, listening to Kim's melodies and the fire's steady crackle. The meteors seemed to dance for his entertainment, making him in turn feel incredibly powerful and devastatingly small, hopeful and bereaved.

The three solitary figures remained around the fire for several hours. They were together in peace, but they were also quite alone - Chakotay with his thoughts, Kim with his music, and Paris with the sky.


END OF SECTION

On to Part 4