The Smallest Consequence This takes place immediately after the episode "Elogium", and since it doesn't follow the events of the aired episode, I suppose it is an alternate universe. It all started with the question, what if Neelix had refused to father Kes' child during above mentioned episode and she asked Tom, who said yes? Nope, I didn't attempt to figure out what six days of Ocampa mating ritual were like. I left that to far more fertile (sorry) imaginations than mine. This is more about consequences and characters than sex, so the rating is PG-13.

The usual disclaimers apply. Paramount owns the characters but the plot belongs to me. Comments and constructive criticism always welcome.

******

THE SMALLEST CONSEQUENCE

by, Maddie


The draft of recycled air felt cool against his still damp skin as he stepped from the bathroom into the common room. He scrubbed at his head with the coarse towel he carried, then shook the last droplets of water from his wet hair, and quickly finger combed it into place. It wouldn't do to get caught looking like a tousled bear. But the shower had felt incredibly good. After six days, he looked, and probably smelled, as crummy as he possibly could, yet she had not seemed to mind, or even to care.

At the thought of her, his stomach lurched as though he'd been punched. The tickling feeling in the back of his head, the one that had been with him constantly, well, except for the times sheer pleasure had eradicated it, manifested itself now in the only way it could. As guilt. Good, god he thought, what have I done.

Part of his brain, the part that always came up with the smart answers, and quick excuses, the part that defined his personal self-defense mechanisms and manufactured them at warp speed, told him he was just helping a friend in need. Another part, the part he tried hard to suppress for a good many years, the part Harry would call a conscience, convinced him he'd taken on a monumental responsibility with little thought of the consequences. But how could he have said no? How could he have refused when she seemed so desperate? He had acted on impulse. What was so unusual about that?

Stepping further into the room, his footsteps silenced by the thick cushion of carpet, Tom Paris, stopped, watched, and tried to convince himself that the past six days had been a holodeck fantasy, not the most sublimely intimate experience he could ever remember. He understood why this could only happen once, in a lifetime, couldn't believe she had chosen to share this with him.

She still slept. Her hair was a matted tumble, her face calm. The color in her cheeks was more normal, not the flushed heat of the fever she had just experienced. The circles under her eyes, while still there, were not so pronounced. Her lashes shadowed her cheeks, masking the hollowness of her eyes. The temperature in the room, which had seemed unbearably hot a short day ago, now seemed uncomfortably cool. Paris stepped forward and pulled the light cover over her. He realized, with a rush of embarrassment mixed with excitement, that he would have much preferred to look at her as she was, her delicate limbs pale in the half-light from the bathroom, and the dancing contrails of the stars outside. She was so damned beautiful. Reaching out he brushed a stray strand of hair from her forehead, caught in a hushed fragment of time, prolonging the moment as long as possible. He did not want to leave her. But he had no choice. There was hell to pay, and he had learned from past experience, that some things did not get better if you put off facing them.

As he turned to leave, her quiet words stopped him.

"Don't go." There was a husky drowsiness in her voice, like the whisper of wind through the tall grass, hushed, yet riveting.

For a moment he considered not turning. He should just go now, before any more damage was done. But the thought lasted only the barest moment. Turning back to her, he felt his heart lurch. She watched him through half veiled eyes the color of a clear terran sky, or the ocean off the coast of Auckland, shifting with shades of palest green.

"Don't go," she repeated, lifting herself up on one elbow, the cover slipping slightly from her shoulder. "I don't want you to leave yet."

Torn between his desire to stay, and the knowledge that eventually he had to leave, Paris gave in to the easier route. Who was to know if he stayed a few minutes more, to enjoy the sweetness of her company. It might be the last thing he enjoyed for a long time. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he reached out to brush her cheek lightly with the tips of his fingers, and she caught his hand in hers, lightly kissing his fingertips.

"I have to go, Kes."

"Not yet." Her fingers tensed around his, holding him ever so lightly, yet holding him.

He dared not move, entranced by her closeness. Finally, he spoke the question he'd been waiting to ask. "When will you know?"

"Know?" she asked, more awake now.

"If you're pregnant."

A slight smile curved her lip. "Soon. Within the next 48 hours. Stay with me a while longer."

Giving in to her smile, and his own desire to stay, he slipped back onto the bed. Being careful not to jostle her, he lay down so that he was atop the cover and against her back. She snuggled into the curve of his body, her tiny figure conforming to his own, the thin layer of fabric a poor shield against her touch. He wrapped his arm around her and simply held her, enjoying her closeness. After six days in the throes of mating frenzy, it felt good to just hold her close, to open his senses to what she was, reveling in the calm nearness that follows a satisfyingly intense sexual experience and that only lovers understand. He wished he could stay this way with her forever. He knew better. He kissed her softly at the base of her neck, then again on her ear, tracing its elegant curve with a feather light dusting of kisses.

Turning slightly, she studied his face intently, fully awake now, her blue eyes bright and wide. "You're worried," she announced matter-of-factly.

He thought of denying her concern, but knew there was no hiding from an empath, especially one who had become so attuned to his thoughts and needs. It appeared the bond they had forged was not only physical, but for Kes, spiritual and empathic as well. There was no choice but to admit the truth. He sighed, then nodded. "Yes," he whispered.

"You're worried about the baby. About being a parent." Kes's face fell, "I'm so sorry, Tom. I had no right to ask you to assume such a responsibility. But, when Neelix said no, I felt this overpowering desperation. You were my only hope." She stopped, realizing what she had just said then continued calmly. "I've just made you sound like second best. I didn't mean it that way. Tom, if you don't want to be a father, I can end this today."

Paris was taken aback by her outburst. How could she have so misinterpreted his emotions. Apparently, empathy was not a very precise thing. The hurt look on Kes' face stung like a lash. Did she really think he had joined with her, only to satisfy some inner lust? Though he wouldn't deny the ultimate ecstasy of her elogium driven lovemaking, he wasn't just in this for himself. In a mental haze, he had realized that sometime around day two. Unlike Neelix, who had shied away from being a father, he wanted this child. Despite his irresponsible past, one thing he had always believed, was when the time came, he would try to be the best parent he could. Gods knew, he'd been thoroughly indoctrinated in all the bad aspects of parenting by his father. He knew what mistakes he wouldn't make.

"No, Kes, its not that."

Rolling further in his direction, so that she lay on her back, she studied him intensely. "Then what is it?" she asked

He tightened his arms, drawing her even closer, kissing her gently on the forehead, trying to calm her misgivings. "Kes, you got it all wrong. I want this child. Don't ever think otherwise. I know I can be a good father. God knows, I've learned all the ways to be a bad one."

Shifting slightly, nestling her body into his, she laid one slim, cool hand against his face, looking him directly in the eye. "Then what is wrong?"

Paris glanced away, to door in the common room, the one that led out into the corridor and had been sealed by a privacy lock six days previous. He had placed the seal. Looking back at her, he tried to smile, aware from her look, that the smile didn't fool her. "The other side of the door," he said simply.

"The door?"

He could almost hear the laughter behind her words, saw the twinkle in her eyes. She must think I'm nuts, he thought.

"Neelix?" she asked, seriously concerned.

Paris sighed, then drew her closer. "I wish it were that simple."

She snuggled closer, and he nuzzled her hair, kissing her again on her brow, tightening his hold on her, as though he feared she would fade away if he did not. "I guess that takes a little explaining."

"Then please do. We have time."

Paris wondered about that as he studied her, weighing how much he should or should not say, not wanting to dissolve the bond they had shared by making a careless revelation. Certainly she'd heard the rumors, the innuendo running rampant, doggedly following his every move on board. He'd heard it, and he wasn't supposed to. She had never given any indication she listened to the rumors, or gave them any weight, but she must be aware of how the crew of Voyager, both Starfleet and Maquis, felt about him. How could she not hear. Tom Paris and his true and imagined faults seemed the most popular topic of conversation when the need for back stabbing chatter arose. Yes, it was spoken behind hands and in low whispers, but it was bandied about for all to hear. True to her nature, Kes hadn't let on she'd heard a thing, didn't seem to hold it against him, had been open and honest with him, and thank whatever powers that be, she hadn't taken sides, either Federation or Maquis, not that either side was in his corner.

"Tom."

The gentle brush of her fingers against his cheek brought his attention back to her. She waited patiently, for his explanation. He sighed. What the hell, he thought, if he couldn't talk to Kes, who on board would listen.

"When I was a kid, my Father was often gone on assignment somewhere. We didn't always get to go with him. Most of the ship's he served on were not designed to carry families. Mom handled most of the discipline when he wasn't there, and she was a pushover. I could get away with a lot. Things were different when my Father was home, but it didn't change how I acted. I still screwed up, and when I did, he had this odd way of handling things."

Kes' eyebrows rose questioningly as she waited for him to continue. As he had talked her delicate, mobile features, had flowed from one emotion to another, relief, affection, and deep concern.

"Oh Dad was always good at hauling my butt out of trouble, patching up or covering up as many of my little indiscretions as possible, making us look like the perfect Starfleet officer's family, squeaky clean and upright." Paris felt himself grinning. "I, on the other hand, went out of my way to prove the exact opposite. I felt it was my personal duty. Anyway, after dad 'fixed' what I had broken, he wouldn't let me explain or apologize. I was sent to my room, as often as not. And there I'd sit while he thought of an 'appropriate punishment.'" Paris paused again, uncertain how much he needed to say, wanting, but not wanting to tell Kes everything, but knowing she would understand, in the open, caring manner that was so much part of her.

"Anyway, I never knew how he was going to react." Paris rushed on, trying to keep the tone light. "The way things worked, the longer I sat and stared at that closed door, wondering, the longer I had to think, the longer he had to work himself into an unholy rage, the worse things would be when the door finally opened."

Kes stared intently at him, waiting for the connection between all that and the door to her quarters.

"The point is," he continued doggedly, "I got to where I really dreaded going out that door in the morning. Specially when I knew I was in trouble. I kinda feel that way now. Even though my father isn't on the other side, when that door finally opens," he nodded toward the closed and sealed hatch. "I'm in deep trouble."

Looking down at Kes, her face crumpled with worry, Paris chuckled, the sound boiling out of him like bubbles from ale. "Please, don't look so worried Kes."

"But...you are. You haven't done anything wrong."

"I've got a feeling Neelix and Chakotay are going to have a different opinion."

"And you're worried?"

"Worried, kinda, yeah. I've been what amounts to AWOL for the last six days and I'm gonna catch it when I show up." *But it won't be anything like what dad used to dish out for less* he thought silently to himself. "There's a good possibility, I'll be on report for the next 70 years." He laughed as he said it, and as he did he felt Kes relax against him. Taking his head in her hands she kissed him softly, murmuring something under her breath he didn't catch. He pulled back, gently removing her hands and sliding away from her. "I gotta go, Kes. There's no sense delaying the inevitable. If I don't go now, it may be another six days before I want to."

*****
Kes methodically plucked spawn beetles from the leaves of the Oblissian cabbage plants trying not to think, trying not to feel, trying not to remember what had started a mere two weeks ago with the same spawn beetles. But her mind and heart churned with each gentle movement of the child within her. Movements far too gentle, and far to infrequent. She should go to bed. She should rest. But she couldn't.

Moving along the line of neatly tended plants, she paused, and smiled. The ardana she had nurtured for almost three months had bloomed. How ironic, she thought. Working quickly she carefully dusted the pale teal pollen from the stamens of the ardana blossoms. Each grain fell like drifting feathers to the bottom of the collection tube, settling in at the vessel's base. The ardana was so rare, its fruit so delicate, and so seldom seen, that Kes felt a rush of awe. The male blossom of the ardana bloomed once a year. The female bloomed almost a week later. In nature, the pollen was carried on the backs of suradow flies, stored until the female could be pollinated. It was not a wise system, Kes thought, and did not encourage survival of the species, but then, neither did her own. Sealing the tube, its precious contents safe, she placed it in a stasis chamber.

Kes did not normally work at this early morning hour, but she had found it difficult to sleep for the past two weeks. Rising in the middle of the night, she had spent the last hour in hydroponics tending the newest seedlings she was experimenting with, marveling at the speed of their growth. When she and Neelix had first proposed growing food for the Voyager crew, she had never dreamed the responsibility would fall on her. She was delighted to be given the opportunity to be a productive member of the crew and not simply a passenger. She thought her new life full, with this responsibility, but when given the chance to actually study medicine with the Doctor, it was more than she had ever, in her wildest dreams, thought she would be able to do. All because I wanted to see the blue sky. I've gained so much because of a bit of blue sky.

She finished adjusting the nutrient flow to her seedlings, then washed her hands. It seemed she hardly had time for growing things, now that she had become the Doctor's assistant and student, but she had been enormously content knowing she could do so much for those who had presented her with opportunities her people had not dreamed of in generations. And now she was pregnant, her child due to be born just three short weeks from now. She should be happy.

Checking the chronometer on the wall, she realized she was up far earlier than even Neelix who took pride in rising early to prepare the morning meal. She really should return to her quarters and attempt to rest. But she was no longer tired. The brisk walk to hydroponics had given her a burst of energy, and she did not want to waste a moment of the day. She could, she reasoned, go to sickbay and begin her lessons with the Doctor. Time of day meant nothing to him, but, she decided against that. She stood in hushed silence, closing her eyes, stretching her senses to feel the unusual calm blanketing the ship. As she reached outward, ignoring her own feelings, she touched him, standing in the shadows.

"Tom?" Kes knew who it was without turning, but she did, facing the darkness cloaking the far side of the hydroponics bay. "Tom?" she said again.

He stepped forward then, into the light from the grow lamps.

"Why are you hiding in the shadows?" she teased, her spirit brightening as he approached.

"I wasn't hiding."

"You weren't?"

"No." He had stopped a few feet from her, his uniform and face were patched with grime, a smudge of dirt streaked one cheek, and discomfort was written on his features and in his stance. He shifted, looked to the ground, then at her again.

"Then, why haven't I seen you? It's been..."

"Two weeks, three days, and some odd hours." Paris finished for her. "I wanted to see you. But didn't want to cause any more trouble, between you and Neelix."

"Neelix and I have...come to an understanding," Kes countered.

The expression that passed over Paris face was so difficult for her to interpret, and the emotions she sensed were cloudy and confusing. He seemed at once contrite and defensive. An undefinable need ached in every thought, yet his words revealed only his concern for her. "If you want me to talk to him. I will. I want to. But Chakotay has gone out of his way to keep me out of circulation. I think as much to keep me away from Neelix as to punish me. But if it will make things easier for you, I'll go see him now."

There was a prolonged moment of silence as she sifted through thoughts and emotions, both his and hers, coming far too fast. Kes did not know what to say to ease the barren expression on Tom Paris' face.

"He loves you very much." Paris said quietly, the longing on his face painful. "He's very lucky."

"He's also very angry. At you. And jealous. But Neelix is no fool. He knows he turned his back when I needed him. He regrets that. Believe me, Tom, he understands, even if it is hard for him not to feel hurt and anger."

"And you" Paris took a single step toward her. He looked as though he wanted to reach out, but he held his hands carefully at his sides. "I wanted to see you. To ask how you were. But Chakotay has had me on every grunge detail on the ship. If I haven't been crawling through a Jeffries' tube on my hands and knees, I've been checking out every seam of the ship from the inside of the bulkheads. I wasn't trying to avoid you."

"I didn't think you were. I'm well." Kes smiled, saw some of the darkness lift from his eyes. "And you, Tom. I've been worried about you."

Paris grinned, that slightly crooked, ever so charming grin she'd seen so often, the one that said little about how he felt, but hid a great deal. He shrugged. "I'm okay, Kes. I got off a lot easier than I thought I would, though I may never see a normal duty shift if Chakotay has anything to do with it."

Kes, moved closer to him, sensing he was not being entirely truthful. "I've heard what the other crewmen are saying, Tom."

The grin faded, but did not completely leave Paris' face. He shook his head with resignation. "Don't worry about it. It's nothing new."

"But some of it has been...viscous. What they've said when they thought I wasn't listening."

"Don't worry about it." Paris repeated, his voice firm. "They'll forget about it as soon as some new gossip comes along. In the meantime, they aren't hurting me." Paris studied her intently. "And I don't think any of them really meant to hurt you as long as their favorite target is available."

"They've always talked about you as though you were some vile intruder. If you want I could say something to the Captain..."

"No." Paris cut her off sharply. Then he grinned again. "Look, Kes, I might not get a chance to talk to you again anytime soon, and I don't want to spend the time talking about rumors. I was coming off duty, and realized you were here. You seemed so preoccupied. I didn't want to bother you, but I had something I wanted to give you." He reached out his hand.

Kes hesitated, then took it. A shiver went through her at his touch, warm fingers curling around her own, making her feel like a one year old out on her first date.

"Close your eyes," he said.

When she did, he carefully guided her through the cluttered bay to the darkened corner in which he had been standing. Stopping, he took her by the shoulders and turned her. "Sit." he said simply.

She did, then gasped as she started to tilt backward. Startled she opened her eyes to find him on one knee, in front of her, holding her hands and grinning. "Its, unstable," she burst out.

He laughed. "No, its a rocking chair."

Leaning over the side of the chair, she studied the curved pieces fitted to the legs of the chair.

"Why?" she asked puzzled.

"Old Earth tradition."

"Tradition?" she asked.

Kes ran her hands over the smooth surface of the chair's arms. They were made of a finely grained wood. Polished to a soft sheen. The seat and back padded with thick cushions.

Still grinning, Paris let go of her hands and gently rocked the chair backward and forward several times. As chair moved, the left rung creaking rhythmically with the motion.

Kes, laughed, "It squeaks."

"Part of the charm."

Experimentally, she moved the chair and found the sensation oddly soothing. "So tell me of this tradition," Kes prodded him gently.

"My mom had one. She got from her mom. It had been in the family for several generations. You sit in it when you feed a baby or you rock them to sleep in it. Human babies seem to be comforted by the rocking motion. I thought you might like one so I replicated it. The human half of your baby might also find it soothing."

"Oh, Tom," Kes felt the tears begin to well in her eyes. She brushed them away with her hand, but not before he'd seen.

"Did I say something wrong?" Paris reached out and touched her cheek with the back of his fingers, then took both her hands firmly in his.

Kes shook her head, not trusting her voice, nor her heart. How did she tell him he might have sacrificed his second chance for nothing.

"Talk to me, Kes." Paris said more firmly.

"The baby," Kes got no further. Paris was no empath, she knew that, yet his face reflected the anguish she had felt for the last two days.

"Something is wrong." His voice was flat, lifeless.

Kes nodded. "The child is growing, as any Ocampa baby should, but...the nervous system, is not. It has hardly begun to develop. Its growth rate is more like that of a human embryo."

"Nervous system?"

"The brain stem and central nervous system. The doctor does not think they will have developed beyond the most rudimentary state before the child is ready to be born. It will be microencephalic. With very little chance of survival." Kes heard herself speak the words, like an executioner pronouncing a death sentence, distant and removed. And she watched Paris bravado crumble. He sat back on his heels, for a moment his eyes closed, and she wished for all the world she could grab her words back again. When he opened his eyes, she could read the sadness, yet her senses told her he wanted to ease her pain.

"Why?"

"The doctor thinks it is a simple matter of genetic incompatibility."

Paris snorted a short derisive laugh. "I've seen far more incompatible species mate and successfully produce children."

Kes shrugged. "He also thinks it is because of the radical difference in growth rate between Humans and Ocampa. And possibly," Kes swallowed the lump of guilt that choked her, "because I entered the elogium far too early. I was just too young." Kes felt herself tremble with the effort to remain calm. She would not cry. She would not.

"And there's nothing he can do?"

"No," Kes' voice was barely a whisper. She had been through all this with the doctor. All the tests and all the possibilities. Any drug that would stimulate growth of the nervous system would result in growth far too generalized to produce the needed brain tissue. And the same drugs might radically alter the development of the remaining fetal tissue. She looked at her hands, lying idle in her lap, and felt the wracking sob building in her. She could have controlled it and would have, except for his arms, circling her, drawing her down to him. His touch, so warm, and gentle, and so well remembered, crushed her self will, and she began to cry, cradled, protected.

He stayed with her.

*******

Tom Paris moved through the corridors of Voyager, unseeing and uncaring, wandering just to wander, to move, to pace. He had stayed with Kes until her tears faded to muffled sighs, then he had escorted her to her quarters, breathing a silent prayer of thanks that Neelix was nowhere to be found. He'd gotten her a cup of warm herbal tea, tucked her into bed, and sat, stroking her hair until she had finally succumbed to fitful sleep. When he was sure she would sleep, he left her quarters and went directly to Sickbay, with the intention of grilling the Doctor on every aspect of Kes's pregnancy. He had learned practically nothing. Citing the confidential nature of the information, the Doctor had refused to answer most of his questions, but Paris had gleaned enough from inference to be sure of one fact. There was little chance Kes's baby would survive. Her child, their child, he told himself, was doomed before it was even born, and the fact gnawed at him. Scraping against emotions already raw from the turmoil of the last three roller coaster weeks, the news struck deep and hard.

Without intending to he found himself at the entrance to the mess hall. When he realized where he was, he noted with relief, the place was empty. The last thing he needed or wanted now, was the whispered chatter of any of his 'fellow' crew members. He was exhausted. His mind had run in ever tightening circles of anger and despair as he had wandered the corridors of the ship, until he was numb. He had been hungry at the end of his duty shift, but his hunger was forgotten. Having used all of his replicator rations to fabricate his gift to Kes, he knew he would have to face Neelix eventually if he wanted to eat, but not now. He turned to leave, when a hand fell on his shoulder spinning him around.

"So you still haven't found the courage to face me." Neelix bristled with anger, his eyes alight with a smoldering jealousy. "I was wondering if you would ever bring yourself to show up here again."

Paris backed off a step, the last thing he needed, was a confrontation with Neelix. He wouldn't do that to Kes. She needed them both right now.

"Look, Neelix, I didn't come here to argue."

"Then what did you come for," the little Talaxian challenged, placing one hand against Paris' chest and pushing him. "To rub my nose in your sexual prowess. To remind me that you were more than willing to mate with Kes, knowing it was too early in her life to safely enter the elogium. I was right about you from the start. You are just a walking hormone." The Talaxian pushed Paris again, harder, into the corridor.

Paris was vaguely aware of other crewmen stopping to watch. He braced his feet and stood his ground as Neelix continued his assault, pushing Paris farther into the corridor. He could feel the disgust in the alien' voice, reflected in the stares of those around them, and he fought his own rising anger. Part of him noted how absurd they must look, himself disheveled from a long night shift, and Neelix attired in his gaudy apron and floppy chef's hat. He would have found the situation amusing under other circumstances, but now, Neelix's anger fed his own sense of frustration. He wanted to lash out at something, to vent that helpless anger somewhere. Why not here, and now, Neelix was spoiling for a fight. How could he be in any more trouble than he already was. Reaching out he grabbed the Talaxian by both wrists.

"Don't, Neelix," Paris said in a low voice through clenched teeth.

"Why not," Neelix was livid with rage, "Why not? We all know about you. Know you can't be trusted. Kes was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, but you proved your as untrustworthy as everyone said you were."

"Look, Neelix, for Kes' sake, don't start something--"

Neelix snorted with contempt. "For Kes' sake! For Kes' sake? You didn't think of her welfare before you volunteered your stud services--"

Paris exploded. Twisting his body and applying force to the wrist he still held locked in his grip, he dropped Neelix to the deck plates, knocking the wind from the alien and pinning his arm behind him. Neelix struggled, spitting curses, levering himself to attempt to create an advantage.

"You're going to listen to my side," Paris hissed in his ear. "If I have to beat it into you."

"Mr. Paris."

Paris did not respond. Every sense was focused on Neelix, his anger and his determination to justify his actions to the Talaxian, blotting out everything. He did not release Neelix until a hand grabbed him by the back of his collar, jerked him to his feet, spun him around and slammed him against the bulkhead. Only then did he register the source of the voice. Chakotay clenched the fabric at the front of his uniform in an iron grip, pinning him to the wall. The bigger man's weight held him, the first officer's face inches from his, icy black eyes burning into his own.

"My office, Mr. Paris." Chakotay's voice was low, the tone harsh.

Released from Chakotay's iron grip, Paris glared, first at the Indian then an Neelix. Damn he thought to himself, the heat of anger cooling, Now what have I done. Resolutely, not stopping to see if Neelix was injured, he turned his back on the alien, Chakotay and the watchers, and walked, stiff backed towards Chakotay's office.

*****

Eighteen days, and counting. Not that he'd been counting. Okay, he'd been counting. He hadn't yet resorted to scratching marks on the wall to track the passage of time, but another day confined to his quarters and he would be. As it was, he'd probably gotten off easier than he should. Whatever powers were watching over him, and he suspected it was the Captain, he'd pulled lighter punishment than he'd expected. Janeway, in her own subtle way, had chosen to nursemaid him through this one. He didn't think it was anything he'd done. It was probably because of Kes. Whether she would admit it or not, the captain was very fond of Kes. Who on board ship wasn't. But Janeway's affection was almost maternal. And Kes had enough to contend with, she didn't need him screwing things up and making it worse. Janeway was just making it easier for her. Helping her through a tough time, like every one else on board was trying to do. He seemed to be the only exception. Everything he did, made things worse.

Jumping Neelix was bad enough, but understandable, and well provoked. If he'd just kept his mouth shut, instead of aggravating Chakotay further. He tried to block out the scene in the commander's office, the heated words, that almost came to blows. The first officer had tried to keep him out of trouble, but he managed to find it anyway, in his own inimitable way. Instead of recognizing Chakotay's sternness as an effort to help, he'd taken it as a personal insult, and as a result of his insubordinate behavior, he'd ended up confined to quarters. He hadn't given Chakotay many options. Tuvok's security people escorted him to and from duty shifts, and the rest of the time, he was here, until the sight of the barren interior of his own quarters became more mind numbing that his cell block at Auckland. It was for his own good, Chakotay told him. Until Neelix cooled off. Until he could think straight himself.

But, and the thought ate at him like a festering wound, Kes needed him. More importantly, he needed her, needed to talk, to understand what had, and was happening to them, and to their child. Not that Neelix would have given him the opportunity. The Talaxian clung to Kes like mold on old bread, never letting her out of his sight, doting over and waiting on her. Part of him was glad she was not alone, that someone who loved her was nearby to care for her. Whenever he tried to make contact with Kes, Neelix was there. Paris had spoken to her once, briefly, in the mess hall, under the baleful eye of Neelix and the vigilant stare of security. She had assured him she was well. There had been no change in the status of the baby, though the Doctor had attempted an experimental growth stimulator used in the cloning process in hopes of stimulating tissue growth.

Kes' words reported with clinical coolness, but Paris had seen the sadness in her eyes. It seemed like ages since he'd heard her laughter, or seen anything but worry on her face. He wanted to touch her, hold her, share her anxiety. Instead he stood with his hands at his sides, inwardly cursing his inability to help, all too aware of the eyes watching their every move. She had kissed him, lightly on the cheek. The tender brush of cool lips against his skin was almost more than he could abide. But his eye met Neelix' glare, and he nodded, certain his apparent indifference aggravated the Talaxian as much as overt affection would have.

He had requested, and been granted, the right to access the Doctor at any time to request information about Kes, and was assured he would be contacted when the child was due.

In the meantime, he fell back on old habits, passing time in anyway he could, telling himself he was not going stir crazy, that if he was good, he would get to go back to the bridge one day. That dear old dad wasn't waiting on the other side of the door. But then, maybe he had been wrong. Maybe nothing his father had ever done to him was as bad as what he had managed to do himself.

*****

Paris lay in the darkness, staring at the cascade of stars rushing past the view port. It had been several hours since the baby had been born. After the doctor had informed him of the birth, he had gone to Sickbay, only to find Kes asleep, Neelix at her side, and the baby, surrounded by a stasis field and so much equipment he couldn't even get a look at her. He had retreated, quietly, having no intention of causing Kes any more grief.

He wasn't sure which had hurt more, Kes, sleeping with Neelix in attendance instead of himself, or the child, a fragile mite, unmoving and apparently lifeless. The Doctor informed him the child would be kept in stasis in the event a medical solution could be found.

Lying in the darkness, he listened the hushed vibration of Voyager's systems hurtling them through the darkness. Lost in thought, he didn't hear the door chime, but he sat up, startled as the door itself swished open. Rolling off his bed, Paris glanced at the open hatch, surprised to find Neelix' distinctive shape silhouetted against the light in the corridor beyond. The alien stood silently, shifting from one foot to the other.

"Why, Neelix," Paris said, sarcasm dripping from the words, "Whatever brings you here?"

"Kes."

Paris laughed. "Kes? I didn't think that was a topic I was allowed to discuss in your presence."

"I didn't come to discuss her. I came to find her."

"Find her?" Paris asked, concern washing away his brashness. "Isn't she in sickbay?"

"No. I left briefly, and when I came back, she was gone, and so was the baby. I thought she might be here. She had asked for you."

Paris could almost feel the effort Neelix put into the words. The hurt in his voice was almost palpable, the anguish on his face undeniable.

"Look, Mr. Paris," Neelix rushed on, "I...I may have been wrong about you. I may have treated you too harshly. I see now, what you must mean to Kes. I need your help to find her."

The normally loquacious Talaxian stumbled to find the words to ask for his help. Paris didn't need to be asked twice. He knew where Kes would be. Pushing past Neelix, he ran down the corridor to the lift, the ship's cook close on heels.

"Do you know where she might be?" Neelix asked breathlessly, as the lift doors closed behind them.

"Yes."

They rode in grim silence, then when the lift stopped, Paris once again broke into a dogtrot that left Neelix panting in his wake. At the door to the hydroponics' bay, he stopped so abruptly Neelix plowed into him.

"Here?" Neelix asked. "Is she here?"

Paris held up his hand listening. From the darkness at the far end of the cavernous bay came a soft squeaking sound. Neelix started to slide past Paris, but the lieutenant stopped him. "Neelix, I need to talk to Kes. Alone."

The Talaxian hesitated, his mouth opened as if to lodge a protest.

"Please," Paris said softly.

Neelix mouth snapped shut. He closed his eyes as if in pain, then he nodded consent and stepped out of the way.

Paris entered the bay, allowing the doors to close behind him, waiting as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. He heard the rhythmic creaking again, and a muffled voice. Moving farther into the bay he saw Kes, illumination from the grow lights casting an eerie halo around her. She was totally absorbed and did not hear or sense him. Cautiously, he thought her name. As he did, she turned to face him, and smiled.

"Come see your daughter," she said simply.

Paris took a step closer. "You shouldn't be up yet."

"I'm fine, Tom. Childbirth is not as difficult for Ocampa as for Humans."

"But the Doctor said the baby was is stasis."

"She was." Kes continued to rock, her eyes on the bundle in her arms.

Paris knelt slowly in front of her, eyes on her face. Kes, seemed oddly at peace. The sadness that had crowded her face for weeks, dispelled, if only momentarily, by the rapture of new birth. Paris wished he shared her calm. His insides churned with a desperate fear. He wanted more than anything to see Kes happy, but he wanted more to see this child live.

"Why did you take her out of stasis," Paris demanded, trying not to let the desperation he felt edge his tone.

"To hold her."

"She'll die. The doctor said she couldn't live outside a stasis field."

"She wasn't living in it," Kes said simply. Looking up, her eyes liquid with suppressed tears. "Tom, please understand. Life is so short for my species, compared to yours. It wasn't anything I'd ever considered before. There is very little hope that anything will ever be done for her in either of our lifetimes."

"We don't know that." Paris interrupted. "We've already run into species with medical abilities are so far ahead of ours. The Vidians--"

"No, Tom. She won't last that long. Even in stasis she was failing. The doctor could prolong her death, but he couldn't prevent it." The silent tears flowed freely down Kes face, dropping to the quiet bundle she cradled in her arms.

The look on her face was heart wrenching. Paris reached out, caressing her face with his hand. She leaned into his touch, weeping softly.

"I didn't want her to die surrounded by insensitive machines. I wanted to hold her."

"How long?"

"Any time." Kes continued to rock. The only sound filling the room was the creaking of wood, and muffled tears.

After what seemed an eternity, Paris reached out, and gently eased the swaddled infant from her mother's arms. Sitting on the deck plates, he turned the blankets away from the baby's face. She was startlingly beautiful. Her tiny features perfectly formed, the oddly sloping forehead and undersized cranium the only indication that anything was wrong. She appeared to be asleep. "She's beautiful," Paris said, fighting back the tears that choked his own voice. Time enough for that later.

Kes reached over, taking his hand in her own. "Yes, she is. And she should have a name before she's gone."

"I'm sorry, Kes." Paris blurted the words he's held back too long. "I never meant to hurt you. If I had known it would end like this."

"I would have asked you anyway." Kes said simply. "There's nothing to apologize for, Tom. Stay with us. For however long it takes."

"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. Besides, we need to find her a good name."

Kes smiled, through the tears that once again streaked her face, then she sat back, the chair gently rocking, his free hand clasped in her own. Paris held his infant daughter, a tiny miracle, if a short lived one. A miracle he had barely dreamed of. There was so little time for her. But enough time. Caressing her tiny features, he kissed her on the forehead, then passed her back to Kes, who drew her close, nodding. Sitting, they waited in the soft light, together.

(end)