Title: Another Planet's Hell

Author: Sita Z

Rating: PG 13

AN: Thanks to highonscifi (in a way, I do, too. No more reviews -(!), Gabi ( naain, ich bin doch ganz lieb und schreib keine bösen Sachen in die AN ;-) ), Tata (well, I tried to squeeze at least -some- of those things into this chapter -g-), Chriss Corkscrew (don't worry, he will), Cha Oseye Tempest Thrain (you're right, Trip sees his own issues as "lesser"... but he still needs to talk about them), Exploded Pen (join the club, the stack of yet-to-be-written term papers on my desk keeps growing as well ;-) ), stage manager (yes, actually I -do- have some ideas about my next story ;-)...), Luna (I like the term "feel good" chapter ;-)...hope this'll be one as well), Rinne (thank you!), Romanse (and he will get it (the meltdown) ), AquaSox (glad to know you're still reading, and I hope you'll enjoy this chapter as well), Kitt (and I'll miss getting all those reviews ;-)...), bunsdarien (I'm trying, but as I said... the term papers -(...), Spike26 (glad you liked it so much!), Cougar Bait (thank you, I really like the Vulcan greeting, and I just -hate- when they use it in commercials... oh well, here goes the Vulcan obsessive ;-) ), LoveChilde (well, there's going to be -some- h/c in this chapter, at least) and Maraschino (glad you liked it!) for reviewing!

And now, the last chapter... please rr!

Chapter 19

"Doctor, I-"

"Patience, Lieutenant. You need to learn patience."

Malcolm sighed, ignoring the doctor's advice as he shifted impatiently on the bio bed. As always, he was driving Phlox nuts and vice versa, but today the doctor's unwavering cheerfulness seemed especially hard to bear. Why couldn't the man hurry up a bit?

"What are you doing? You- said you needed to run only a few more scans-"

This actually drew a sigh from the doctor. "Lieutenant, I assure you I am running those scans, and they are still going to take a few minutes. Why don't you-"

The sickbay doors opening interrupted him, and Malcolm never knew whether Phlox had been about to tell him to shut up, or go and stick his head in the fire eel's tank. Steps approached - two people, as far as he could tell - and a moment later he heard the Captain's voice.

"You're up early, Malcolm."

Malcolm grinned sheepishly in response. It was only 0615 ship's time, and he had been here since 0550, sitting on this very bio bed and waiting for the doctor's bloody tests to be over. In fact, he had hardly slept all night, feeling like he had as a very small child the day before Christmas. And all because a white piece of gauze was finally going to be removed from his eyes.

"So- are you, sir. Commander..."

He didn't have to ask who the second person was, having learned to recognize most people by the way they walked. And Trip, with that unique bounce in his step, was a particularly easy one.

"I am glad you are here, Captain, Commander," Phlox said from somewhere behind his back. "Maybe you will be able to keep the Lieutenant distracted so I can finish my examinations in peace."

Trip chuckled, and Malcolm suspected the Captain was hiding a grin as well. Well, he had to admit the doctor had good reason to be a little irritated with him. During the three days they had been back on Enterprise, Malcolm had pestered Phlox again and again as to when exactly the bandage was going to come off, and the possibility of removing it a little earlier than planned. He knew he was being a pain in the ass, but as he was still off-duty, there was little to keep him occupied except for thinking about his eyes. And he was starting to see again. Sometimes when he opened his eyes under the bandage, he would be able to see blurred shapes and colors through the gauze, and at these times it was particularly hard to keep himself from ripping off the detested blindfold altogether.

"Nervous, Lieutenant?"

Trip's friendly teasing came closer to the truth than Malcolm liked to admit. Yes, somewhere deep down he was nervous, anxious even; what if the doctor took off the bandage and the blackness he had been staring at for the last one and a half months would not go away? His stomach clenched at the idea.

"Maybe- a little," he said quietly.

"Hey." Trip's hand came to rest on his shoulder. "Doc said everything's gonna be fine. There's no reason to worry."

"Indeed, Lieutenant." Phlox' voice drew closer, and a soft click told Malcolm that the doctor had just switched off his hand scanner. "Shall we try and remove the bandage?"

For God's sake, just take it off! Malcolm gripped the edge of the bio bed harder.

"Please do."

He felt the doctor's hands on the back of his head, fumbling with the small clasp that held the bandage in place. Then the tightly wrapped fabric came loose, and Malcolm involuntarily scrunched his eyes shut as a bright flash of light hit him right in the face. It stung and burned, and at the same time it was the best thing he had ever felt. He could see. His surroundings were still somewhat blurry and indistinct, but he was able to see them, the bio beds, the monitors, the bat's cage on the counter, and the smiling faces of Trip and the Captain who were standing in front of his bio bed.

"And?" Trip wanted to know. Malcolm only nodded, not quite trusting himself to speak. The light was still too bright for his eyes, making them water, but for once Malcolm didn't care if the Captain or anyone else thought he was crying. Hell, maybe he was.

Malcolm swallowed, managing a faint grin. "Good to see you again, Captain."

"That's the best thing I've heard in a long time, Mr. Reed." Archer turned to Phlox. "Doctor?"

The Denobulan beamed, all earlier disagreements forgotten. "As far as I can see, Captain, there is no reason why the Lieutenant's sight shouldn't fully return within the next two or three days. I still suggest he stays off duty until-

"Captain, I-"

"-until I know for sure that there will be no further complications," Phlox finished, shooting him a pointed look. "You are still recovering, Lieutenant."

Malcolm grimaced, but in truth he felt only slightly disappointed. Now that the bandage was off, there were worse things than a having a few days for himself; he could use the time to catch up on his reading, finally answer his mail, and maybe tinker a little with that EM field booster he had started working on ages ago. The idea brought another smile to his face, and to everyone's surprise he nodded.

"Very well, doctor."

The Captain smiled at him. "Ready for breakfast in the Captain's Mess, Lieutenant?"

Malcolm hesitated, then his stomach decided the matter by giving a distinct rumble at the mention of food. Both Trip and Archer laughed. "I'll take that as a yes," the Captain said.

Malcolm thought of pancakes with peanut butter and scrambled eggs with ham, and suddenly realized that he was very hungry indeed. All the more so at the prospect of actually seeing the food on his plate.

"Thank you, sir. Breakfast sounds good."

"Want to come too, doc?" The Captain looked at Phlox. "I can ask Chef to set a fourth place."

"Oh, thank you, Captain, but I still have quite a lot of work to do," Phlox said cheerfully. "Commander, before you leave I'd like to take another look at your back."

Malcolm saw Trip's eyebrows draw together. He said nothing, however, easing out of the jumpsuit and pulling off his shirt so Phlox could have a look. Only then did Malcolm notice how thin Trip still was. The Commander's ribs were clearly visible, the skin pulling taut over his cheekbones, and he had dark smudges under his eyes.

"It seems like the laser treatment was quite effective," Phlox said. "After three or four sessions the scars should be hardly visible anymore."

Archer frowned. "You can't remove them completely?"

"Not all of them, I'm afraid. The infection delayed the natural healing process, and some of the scars are too deep to be completely eliminated by laser therapy. I could always try skin grafts, of course, but that would take a lot more time."

Trip shook his head, picking up his shirt again. "That won't be necessary, doc," he said. As he turned around, Malcolm saw the thin white lines on his back, and for a moment was painfully reminded of the raw, bleeding wounds he had tried to clean shortly after Trip had been whipped.

Trip never saw the glance exchanged between the Captain and the doctor, slipping back into his uniform the second Phlox had finished his examination. Then he turned around, smiling a little too brightly.

"Man, I'm starvin'." He looked at Malcolm. "Ya with us, Mal?"

Malcolm saw Archer open his mouth, and close it again when Phlox shook his head. Give it time, Captain, the doctor seemed to be saying. All he needs is a little more time.

Malcolm pretended not to have noticed the silent exchange - he knew similar looks were traded behind his back every time he stumbled on his words, felt it in the way people acted as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Give him time, those looks said. Just give him time.

He slid off the bio bed, and realized for the first time how wonderful it was to see your feet touch the ground, to move without being afraid of bumping into furniture.

"Just- promise me there'll be no- kelho fruit this time," he said to Trip. They shared a look and a grin remembering the godawful food rations they had shared in the flitter, and neither of them bothered to explain to Phlox or the Captain.

"That's a deal."

"Well," Archer turned to Phlox, "looks like my officers need a feed. You sure you don't want to come, doc?"

"Quite sure." Phlox smiled. "Lieutenant, I'd like you to come and see me for another check-up this afternoon."

"Doctor, I'm-"

"1400. Be there, Lieutenant."

Malcolm sighed, but mostly because everyone expected him to do so. At the moment, even the prospect of another fifteen minutes spent in sickbay could hardly put a damper on his good mood. On the way to the messhall, he kept noticing things he had never really seen before - a small speck on the wall, the color of the deck plating, tiny things like that - and found himself grinning for no reason at all. It was going to be good day.

XXX

"It's no excuse."

"Trip..."

"You heard me, Mal. Bein' tired is no excuse for actin' that way. I'm a senior officer. I'm supposed to be settin' an example, not lose it over somethin' minor like a few blown-up circuits."

Malcolm seemed to have no answer to give, and Trip turned away, staring out at the stars. Reflected by the window he could see the mess hall, the chairs and tables deserted except for the one right behind him. And judging from Malcolm's expression, the Lieutenant was not planning on leaving any time soon.

"Trip. You talked to Ensign Lewington. You apologized."

"Still. I had no right to shout at her like that."

Malcolm sighed, and Trip knew what he was going to say. I'm sure she understands. No one's blaming you. It's okay.

But Trip knew that it wasn't okay. Alright, he had slept less than four hours the night before, and Lewington had done a poor job, but that was no reason to lose control in such a way. The young ensign had burst into tears and fled the room, leaving behind a stunned engineering crew and a Chief Engineer who wished nothing more than for a hole to open up in the deck and swallow him. The deck plating, however, refused to transform its shape, and Trip set himself to the task of repairing the damaged circuits, acting as if he hadn't noticed when Hess left the room to go after Clara Lewington. When they came back ten minutes later, Hess never said a word to him, saw Clara back to her station and then returned to her own duties as if nothing had happened. In a way, her silence made it even worse. Only a few months ago, Hess would have politely asked to talk to him in private, and then told him not-so-politely what she thought of his behavior. Trip almost wished for someone to tell him that he had been a bastard, that he had no right to shout at his subordinates just because he was having a bad day (one of many, by the way.) But they didn't, and Clara had even smiled at him when he had apologized to her after the end of her shift.

"It's quite alright, sir," she had said. "I realize that this isn't easy for you."

Not easy for him. That was what the rest of his crew seemed to be thinking as well. It's not easy for him. Poor guy, I'm sure he's not getting much sleep at night. It must be bad for him, after all he's been through...

He saw it in their eyes, and sometimes overheard snatches of conversations that died quickly when he walked by. They felt sorry for him.

Trip became aware of Malcolm's eyes on him, and suddenly noticed the tired look on the Lieutenant's face. Now that he had returned to full-time duties, Malcolm had to split his days between the Armory and his speech therapy sessions with Hoshi, and there wasn't much time left for anything else.

And still he's here, Trip thought. Trying to talk to me, even though he can hardly keep his eyes open.

"Malcolm." Trip turned around. "Why don't you go to bed. Seems like I'm not very good company at the moment, and you do look tired."

"I wasn't very good company either back at the camp." Malcolm glanced down at the cup between his hands, not seeing the startled look on Trip's face.

"What do you mean, Mal?"

The Lieutenant raised his eyes. "I just realized that I never really thanked you. You got me out of there, put up with me when I... when I couldn't even feed myself, and risked your life to steal the flitter after Chi'an had threatened to kill me."

Trip stared at him.

"Come on, Trip." Malcolm sounded bitterly amused. "It was the best way to keep you under her control, with me being helpless and unable to defend myself. She'd have been a fool not to take advantage of that."

Trip was stunned. He had never thought that Malcolm would know about Chi'an's threat, or blame himself for becoming "blackmail material".

"Mal..."

"And you had to kill that woman to get me out of there. Trip, I... I'm so sorry."

Trip sat down on the chair opposite to Malcolm, his heart pounding. He had never talked to anyone about the woman, and had been sure that no one knew. But Malcolm couldn't have found out, could he? Neither Sepek nor Chi'an had ever bothered to talk to Tucker's blind friend, and there was no reason why they should have told him about the Sar'veen woman.

"How... how d'you know about her?"

Malcolm lowered his eyes. "You were talking in your sleep," he said quietly. "Back in the flitter. I tried to wake you up, but..."

He shrugged, and for a moment Trip thought of a blind Malcolm, trying to wake a man who was tossing and turning in his sleep, probably even shying away from his touch.

"That's okay." He hesitated. "I don't know why I never told anyone about her. Maybe... maybe because I was tryin' to forget about her myself. I shot her in the back, you know? She was tryin' to run away an' I shot her in the back." Trip stared down at his hands, afraid he might see shock and barely hidden disgust on Malcolm's face when he looked up. "She never had a chance."

"Trip."

At that he did look up, and saw that Malcolm's mouth had hardened to a thin line.

"That woman... it was her who put the stuff into my eyes that made me go blind. They had me strapped to a table, and she- picked the test samples that she wanted them to apply to my skin. I- I screamed, and begged her to stop... it hurt so much..."

Trip saw tears in the Lieutenant's eyes, and reached over the table to put a hand on Malcolm's arm. "Mal, it's-"

"Then she put the substance into my eyes, and it burned like fire... I realized I was blind, and I panicked. I- I couldn't stop screaming, and she told one of the techs to- to put a piece of adhesive tape over my mouth. I bit his hand, and he punched me so hard I lost consciousness only a short time later. When I woke up again, I was back in my cell. The tape was still over my mouth, and I managed to pull it off, but I still couldn't make a sound... it felt as- as if I had been buried alive. I couldn't see, could hardly move and had no way of calling for help, and there was so much pain..."

He angrily wiped away the tears that were running down his cheeks. "I'm glad you killed her, Trip. I know I'm not supposed to be feeling that way, but I am. Every time I wake up from one of those nightmares, I remind myself that- they are dead, and it makes me feel a little better. I don't know why, but it does."

Trip's throat had gone dry, and he swallowed hard before he spoke.

"No one could possibly blame you, Mal. And I'm sure that in some way she deserved to die. Or maybe she didn't, I have no idea. It's not for me to decide. It's just that... it's hard to live with the thought of... of bein' a murderer."

There, he'd said it. The word he had been trying so hard to avoid.

"You're not a murderer, Trip," Malcolm said.

"I shot her in the back, didn't I? I shot an unarmed person in the back while she was tryin' to flee. I guess that makes me a murderer alright."

"No," Malcolm repeated calmly. "You weren't planning to kill her, were you?"

"No, but..."

"She would have called the police if she had gotten away, and you had to prevent that. You did the only thing you could think of at the moment. You didn't wish for her to die."

"That's what I keep tellin' myself." Trip turned his head, looking at the stars streaming past outside. "But maybe a small part of me wanted to kill her. She... she was Sar'veen, and..."

"I know what you mean." Malcolm paused. "In the rational part of my mind, I know that I'm damn lucky. We survived, both of us. I regained my sight and Hoshi says that my speech is improving with every session. But I still... deep down, I still hate them."

Trip nodded. He had tried to ignore these emotions, but they were still there, haunting him even in his sleep. Anger, humiliation, the nagging question: Why. Why he and Malcolm, why all the other people they had met on the slave ship and back on K'tera. Emotions that had eventually turned into hate.

"Me too," he said quietly. "Guess it's somethin' we'll have to live with."

Malcolm gave no answer. They sat in silence for a while, unaware that several hundred light years away a man named Selin rose from his seat in the ancient Hall of Thought to officially declare that Vulcan was preparing for war. A "war of freedom", as the Andorian and Tellarite propaganda called it when their governments decided to join forces with Vulcan.

The stars continued to flow past outside, and Trip leaned back, smiling when he realized how much he had grown to love this sight. It allowed him to lose himself. To forget. And sometimes, he thought, that wasn't such a bad thing, after all.

The End

Thanks to everybody who reviewed this story, and especially to those of you who reviewed all chapters, or almost all of them! Your feedback and encouragement means a lot to me! Thank you!

Sita Z

Upcoming soon: "The Miles That Lay Ahead" by Gabi, a sequel to "What Lies Within Us"! Wonderful story, don't miss it!