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"Not all stories are without an end, Chakotay."

"No, not all."

"Will you tell me one that does? Before I sleep?"

"About Neelix ...and Kes?" I ask, wondering if it would be too much.

She turns to look at me quickly. "I can't think of anything I'd rather hear more."


TITLE
by Gilly Hoyle


Neelix eyed Jaybin warily. He trusted the Kazon about as far as he could throw him, but he badly needed the iron ore he was offering. Without Jaybin's ore, he wouldn't be able to trade with the Frenaar for scrap engine parts and without their engine parts, he wouldn't be able to trade with the Brelk for Dilithium. Without Dilithium, his little ship would grind to a halt and he wouldn't be able to reach the fabulous waste zone Temmlix had told him about. His fingers itched as he thought of all the things just waiting to be investigated, claimed and traded away for bigger and better things. He sat back a little and considered. Maybe he'd pushed this over-inflated Kazon oaf as far as he could and it wouldn't do to make him angry. He might call off the deal altogether or just take what he wanted by force. "Alright Jaybin, you win." He sighed and rubbed at his chin. "I can see you're a man who drives a hard bargain and I have places to go, people and things to see. So, I'll trade you eight hex-weights of Draal Wheat for ten hex-weights of Iron-ore and not a hex-weight less!" He spat on his hand, extended it to the Kazon and they shook on the deal.

An hour later, Neelix was still hanging around in Jaybin's tent, kicking his heels and waiting for word that the ore had been delivered to his ship. 'By Twixit, it's hot!' He thought. Reaching inside his jacket he pulled out a silver flask, unstoppered it, lifted it to his lips and drained the last tiny mouthful of water it contained.

"Are you still thirsty?" A low, sing-song voice asked.

Neelix spun around and found himself gazing into the most delicate, beautiful face he'd ever seen. Creamy, translucent skin, a rosebud mouth and huge, luminous blue eyes ringed with thick lashes - all topped off by hair the colour of freshly churned Vrashka butter. In that instant, the world ceased to exist and Neelix fell head over hairy feet in love. With his tongue suddenly thick and clumsy, he managed to stutter,

"Ah....um...ah...hello...ah...thirsty? Yes...ah, I am, actually....very."

His eye's delight smiled, nodded and said, "Then I'll get you a drink. You won't tell Jaybin, will you?"

"N..n..no!" His voice was stronger, but it still quavered a little bit.

The vision of lovliness pretended not to notice and smiled warmly at him until he thought his racing heart would pound itself right through his chest and fall to the floor at her dainty feet. He watched spell-bound as she turned away, crossed to the other side of the tent and disappeared behind a tall screen. A moment later she reappeared holding a large flask. Praying that his voice and tongue would co-operate, the intrepid trader tried again. "I'm.... I'm Neelix and I'm very pleased to meet you."

"Yes, I've seen you here once before, Neelix. My name is Kes and I'm very pleased to meet you, too." She smiled as she took his flask and filled it to the brim from the larger one. "Hurry, Jaybin won't be long - he normally has a nap at this time."

Neelix took the flask back and nodded gravely."Thank you, Kes. You're.... you're very kind and.... and brave." He took a long drink, his eyes never leaving hers.

When he'd had enough and lowered the flask, Kes took it from him, filled it again and murmured, "Try to ration this because I won't be able to give you anymore."

"I will, thank you." He said, as he tilted his head to one side and eyed her curiously. "You're Ocampa aren't you? What are you doing here with the Kazon?"

She sighed and nodded sadly. "I came to the surface about a month ago. Jaybin's men captured me almost immediately. They tried to force me to show them the way down to our city.... they starved me and beat me, but when that didn't work they decided to keep me as a jashleeq....."

Neelix was horrified. "A jashleeq!" He shouted. "A slave? Those beasts! Those barbaric beasts!"

Kes shushed him in alarm. "Please! Please keep your voice down. There are Kazon everywhere and I try to stay out of sight... out of mind."

If the thought of such a delicate, defenceless flower being beaten and abused by Kazon thugs made Neelix's blood boil, then the thought of her - of anyone being a slave, caused a red mist to cloud his vision. With tremendous effort, he managed to keep a tight rein on his temper. If not for her - if not for her safety, he would have stormed out of the tent, found Jaybin and knocked him clear into the following week! Gently placing a hand on each of her shoulders, he spoke quietly, but through gritted teeth. "I give you my word, sweet one.... no matter how long it takes, I'll find a way to get you away from here and back to your home... back to your people."

Kes looked away and shook her head. "No.... please.... it's alright. There are too many of them and they patrol constantly. I... I wouldn't want you or anyone to be hurt or die, trying to rescue me."

Neelix cupped her chin with his left hand and gently turned her face towards him. "I know you wouldn't, but I don't think it'll come to that. Listen.... I've just been tipped off about a waste zone not far from here and....." Seeing confusion in her eyes, he let go of her chin, took her free hand in his and explained. "Way above your planet, there are trade lanes.... routes that tradeships use to get from one place to another. Some of those ships just grind to a halt - either because they're old and beyond repair or out of fuel and they're abandoned. Anyway, as I said, I've been told exactly where to find just such a waste zone. I'm on my way there as soon as I finish this trade run and get the Dilithium I need. Maybe I'll find something of value out there, something that Jaybin would be willing to trade you..... your freedom, for."

Kes couldn't speak. She wanted to, but it had been so long since anyone had been kind to her. Blinking away tears and leaning forward, she placed a soft kiss on his right cheek before stepping back to smile shyly at him.

Just as Neelix smiled a goofy smile and his fingers caressed the spot where he could still feel her kiss, there was a sudden commotion at the entrance to the tent. It was the unmistakable sound of Jaybin's voice - loudly issuing orders. Kes darted behind the screen to replace the large flask. In a trice, she reappeared, smiled goodbye and quickly slipped out the back way.

It all happened so fast. She was gone, but there was so much more Neelix wanted to say to her.

Jaybin strode into the tent, glared at the Talaxian and barked, "What are you still doing here? Our deal is done! My men have off-loaded the wheat and the ore was delivered to your ship over twenty minutes ago." He threw himself down onto a large pile of cushions and pulled off his boots. "Begone! Get out, before I decide to change terms and write new ones in the sand with your blood!"

Neelix didn't need telling twice. Gritting his teeth and picturing Jaybin's excrutiatingly painfil death, he nodded stiffly and ducked out of the tent. Outside, his eyes screwed up against the harsh, relentless sunlight as he scanned the horizon for the familiar outline of his ship. Spotting it, he moved out towards it as quickly as he could, eager to be on his way. The sooner he got Dilithium, the sooner he could go and find something - anything, to offer Jaybin for Kes. As he thought her name, her face appeared in his mind's eye and he sighed, happily. Sweet, kind, beautiful Kes. Someone to love. Someone to believe in. Someone to fight for. A face to daydream about on endless, star-filled nights while he endured his own company. For the first time since the terrible cascade weapon had reduced his home-world and his family to ashes, Neelix had someone to care about. He had a hope and purpose. He had Kes.

A loud shout suddenly broke through into his reverie. Turning, he saw several armed Kazon running towards him, and in the distance just behind them, he saw Jaybin standing in front of his tent, yelling and waving his fist. Words drifted lazily on the breeze.

"...Water....thief! Want him..... his head!"

For a split second, Neelix squashed the impulse to run. He looked at his ship, then back at the nearest running Kazon to guage his chances.

Slim.

His mind screamed at him to move, to at least try! Before he knew it, he was running - running like the wind towards his ship. The sand and grit he kicked up as he ran got into his eyes and mouth, half-blinding him and making him gag, but he pounded on - not even daring to look back. Two hundred yards..... he'd never make it! A hundred and eighty yards..... he was a dead man! A hundred and sixty yards.... stealing water from a Kazon was worse than calling him 'Dog-breath' to his face.... he was going to die - slowly! A hundred and forty yards..... probably staked out ontop of an ants nest! A hundred yards..... In the blazing sun! But Kes... Kes was depending on him. He just had to make it or she had no-one! His throat was on fire and his lungs felt as if they were about to implode, but he reached deep within himself and found one last spurt of energy. As he covered the last thirty yards, he looked up to see that the Kazon had left the cargo door open. He risked a glance behind him. Oh, Great Maker! They were almost right behind him! Fear and adrenelin gave wings to inspiration and he fumbled in his pocket for the cargo door remote. He had one chance. Offering a prayer to any deity that would listen, he punched the remote and surged forward across the last five yards - throwing himself through the closing door and into the hold. He lay there in relative darkness, gasping for breath, coughing-up and spitting out sand, watching the door slowly, slowly close as the lead Kazon got nearer and nearer. After what seemed like an eternity, the door finally sealed itself - just as the hapless Kazon thunked into it, firing off crude, breathless curses and threats.

Neelix just wanted to lie there and recover - let his eyes become accustomed to the gloom after the harsh sunlight, but he knew he had to get his ship up off the surface quickly. Staggering to his feet, he got his bearings, lurched his way through the litle ship and collapsed into the pilots seat. He quickly flicked several switches, punched some buttons and tapped a few guages.

"Come on, old girl. We've outstayed our welcome!"

His ship juddered and shook, but lifted off. Looking out of the aft viewer, he cheekily waved goodbye to the Kazon who'd chased him and crowed, "Sorry, boys. Better luck next time!"

As soon as he made orbit, he laid in the co-ordinates for his first stop. "Frenaar, here I come!" It wouldn't be long now.... two weeks at most and he'd be on his way to explore the waste zone and find something to buy Kes' freedom. His fingers started to itch as he thought about all the things of value people might have left behind.

Who knew what wonders he'd find out there.

* * *

"I miss her so much, Chakotay."

I ruffle her hair and kiss the top of her head. "I know, Kathryn. I know."



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