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High on Lullabies

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Title: High on Lullabies
Pairings: Reed/Sato, Tucker/female
Category: Drama
Rating: PG-13
 
Sequel to For the Sins of Thy Father
 
Summary: Happy endings have a habit of turning up in the strangest places. All you need to do is know where to look.
 
Author's Note: This got the higher rating due to Kate's backstory, which was inspired by a prolife talk with our sixth form in Spring of 2004. I would recommend searching out official websites if you want any more information on the arguments for and against stem cell research.

Chapter 1: Letters from Home

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Tell me why do I feel this way
All my life I've been standing on the borderline
Too many bridges burned
Too many lies I've heard
I had a life but I can't go back
I can't do that, it will never be the same again

-- Time to burn, The Rasmus

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

 

On Wednesday morning, Hoshi downloaded the mail and letters that had been sent to Enterprise that week. Most of them she then sent to the addressees directly from the communications station, but there were also a few that got delivered personally; most of the senior staff, for one, as well as a couple of the Beta-shift crew that she was friendly with.

After a few minutes, she counted the ones that she was left with; there was one for Captain Archer from Starfleet (probably more water-polo data), two letters for Trip from his mother and sister, one for Travis from the Horizon, three for Phlox (two from wives and another from Doctor Lucas). Even T'Pol had been sent one from the Vulcan Consulate. Two for Kate, both from Starfleet personnel. And...

There it was.

Hoshi smiled.

A letter from Malcolm.

She tucked it safely into a pocket, and scooped the remaining letters into one hand. She stood up to let the Beta shift ensign take the station and went over to the tactical station, almost painfully aware of the strained quiet in this particular section of the bridge.

Commanders Charles "Trip" Tucker and Caitlin "Kate" Aber were both silently fuming; Kate was determinedly working at her station, while Trip stood a little way behind her, arms crossed and the most indignant scowl plastered across his face.

"Commanders," Hoshi said cheerfully, nodding at each of the officers. She held out data chips to both of them.

Kate took her chip without looking up, and Trip shot the back of her head a dirty look.

"You've both got some letters from home," Hoshi told them. "Oh - Trip, is there anything you want passing along to Malcolm?" she added.

Trip considered this for a moment, having already pocketed his delivery. "Nope," he replied. "Nothin' in particular. Jus' say hi for me."

"Sure thing," Hoshi nodded. She turned back around to go for the turbolift, and behind her she could hear Kate and Trip begin to argue quietly again.

"...an' I'm tellin' you that's not possible -"

"It's perfectly possible."

"Yeah - if you wanna blow half the ship up in one go."

"Were you always like this with Lieutenant Reed?"

"No - some o' the time he actually listened to what I had ta say. After all, I'm only the chief engineer."

The lift doors closed behind Hoshi, and she winced as the bickering continued. She wasn't really sure who to feel more sorry for - Trip or Kate - come to think of it, she wasn't really sure why they seemed to hate each other so much, either. One of those things.

Travis and Phlox both gave her small messages to pass along to Malcolm as well, although the captain and subcommander declined this time around. It wasn't long before Hoshi was back in her quarters, and not very much longer before she started playing the letter.

There was silence for a few seconds before, "Hello love," Malcolm's voice said. He sounded completely worn out. "I got your last letter, and if you could please inform Commander Tucker that I haven't the slightest intention of hunting down floral prints for his grandmother, I'd be very much obliged." He chuckled dryly. "I must admit, she does sound like a charming lady; I'd just rather not commit myself in any way to weekly trips to fabric shops."

Another pause, and in the background Hoshi could hear a second, much quieter voice before Malcolm started speaking again. "The younger Starfleet personnel here are almost beyond belief," his voice informed Hoshi gravely. "I was supposed to be giving a group of seven a practical demonstration with a cannon assembly yesterday, and when I got there, there were an easy twelve or thirteen crowded into a tiny room the size of an airlock."

Hoshi laughed at the image of Malcolm and thirteen others packed into a room like sardines. "Of course," Malcolm continued, "there is an upside to all of this - I've now got a whole week to do nothing except figure out what on earth's wrong with one of the connector circuits for the pulse rifles." Only he could sound happy about that kind of prospect. "Besides, I - oh no..."

Hoshi sat up straight on her chair, slightly confused at this sudden turn of events. "Come on," Malcolm cajoled, "come on Mike, put it down... there's a good boy."

Of course. The message had been recorded on the Saturday; Mikey was staying with his father for the weekend. In the background of the recording, Hoshi could hear Mikey's indistinct voice saying something before Malcolm replied. "I don't care if it's 'deaded'," he said forcefully, "just put it down... Michael, phase pistols are not toys! I... do you want to talk to Hoshi again or not?"

That had evidently done the trick because Malcolm's next comment was, "Sorry about that, Hosh. It looks like Mikey's more like me than I care to imagine." Again he chuckled. "This is doing one good thing for me though; I'm actually beginning to feel sorry for my own father - I dread to think what I must have been like in the naval museums..." Pause. "Are you ready to talk to Hoshi, now?" he asked in a much softer tone of voice, clearly to his son. "Okay then," he continued, "up you get, onto the seat."

A few seconds later, and a much younger voice filled Hoshi's small quarters. "Hiya Hoshi," Mikey said shyly, and on Enterprise, Hoshi smiled. He was a sweet kid. "Miss Macintosh gave out the parts for the play this week," he said happily. "I get to be the chief elf." He sounded proud. "Daddy says I can send you some pictures that he and Mummy are going to take at the play." Hoshi didn't miss the way Mikey had referred to Malcolm, and inwardly she smiled. It looked as though the two of them were getting on okay... better than okay, by the sounds of it.

Then it was back to Malcolm. "I'm sorry this isn't a longer letter," he said apologetically, "but I've been reliably informed that I'm taking someone to the park for the afternoon."

"Yeah!" Mikey.

Malcolm chuckled. "Get your stuff together, then," he replied. "Or we'll never get there at all." Pause, and the sounds of someone scuffling along the floor. "Okay, he's gone for the moment," Malcolm continued. "Little terror, he's got me wrapped right around his little finger... rather like someone else I know." Hoshi smiled sadly. He meant her, and she knew it. "It feels strange not having you here," he continued. "I know I say this every time, but there you go." Hoshi could practically hear him shrug. "You know me," he added in an attempt at cheeriness, "eternal bloody sap. Look after yourself," he said tenderly, a direct contrast to a few seconds before.

The recording ended, and once again Hoshi felt the familiar rush of mixed emotions. She got up off the bed and sat down by her computer to begin recording her own letter. She picked up the padd that she had left on the table that morning, and flipped through its contents; various photos of Malcolm and Mikey in different combinations looked back up at her, and right at the end was one of Malcolm that had clearly been taken by Mikey - it was a little blurry and at an angle, but it was Malcolm.

It was that picture that she kept looking at as she began her letter, and all she could keep thinking about was the fact that she wanted to be home, where Malcolm was.

o o o o o

So if I reroute the submatrix through the secondary power grid instead of the main one, that will have a... an improved effect on accuracy, but a detriment on range?! How the hell am I supposed to counter that, then, unless I... wha?!

On Friday evening, a beep from the computer jerked Malcolm away from phase cannon blueprints and back into reality. He resisted the urge to let loose expletives as his train of thought quickly disappeared, and instead sat down at his computer to see what all the fuss was about.

Hmm. Three letters forwarded to him via Starfleet's deep space probes. The first one was short, and from Trip, and inwardly Malcolm groaned - he was fairly sure he knew what was going to be in that one.

And he was right. "Hey Mal," Trip's voice greeted him. "Just wonderin' if ya had any good ideas for killin' off armoury officers when their backs are turned." He made some kind of throaty, grunting noise. "I swear that Aber is goin' to be the death of me, but I'd like ta get her first. I'll take whatever you can think of... I'd better go, the Ice Woman wants me to go over some ideas she's got fer improvin' the weapon arrays..." Another growl. "No offence, but she's worse than you. At least you pretend to listen when I say somethin'. Ah well," he finished. "Hope to hear from ya soon. Say hey to the kids for me." End of message.

Malcolm couldn't help but chuckle at that one; by all means he'd certainly send his friend a few ideas, and come to think of it he'd probably have some fun thinking them up as well.

The second message was from Ensign Maritas. "Hey boss," she began cheerfully; she hadn't been disappointed not to have received the promotion Malcolm had recommended for her. "Hope things are going well for you back home, and that the padd-pushers are letting you blow some stuff up." She laughed. "God, I wish you were still here. Commander Aber is... well, put it this way. Even Phil doesn't like her, and you know what he's like." Pause. Malcolm could certainly agree with her there; Philip was one of the most amiable people he'd ever served with. "Then, of course," Maritas added, "you have the fact that she's already tried to demote Matt." She laughed ominously. "Commander's going to have a rebellion on her hands if she ain't careful... take care, boss," she said, changing tone and topic in an instant, "we here in the armoury keep thinkin' of ya. Oh, Matt and the others all say hi." End of that message.

This time, Malcolm laughed out loud. He was probably the only person who had liked the idea of Kate Aber being posted onto the Enterprise in his stead; for one thing, she was the only person with enough balls to tell Trip where to stick it when he got too annoying (which, granted, only happened very rarely), and she was, as Trip had once told him, apparently in possession of Evel Knievel's undead spirit. Kate and Trip were evenly matched, in Malcolm's private opinion; what he wouldn't give to see those two duke it out!

And the final message... it was from Hoshi. A little more subdued now, Malcolm started the recording, and smiled wistfully as Hoshi's quiet voice filled the apartment.

"Hiya Malcolm," she began soberly. "Thank you for the last letter - tell Mikey next time he's there that I would love to see some pictures of the play. And," she added, apparently as a considered afterthought. "What on earth are you doing leaving phase pistols lying around? Hmm? He's six years old, Mal," she told him forcefully. "Letting him near any kind of weapon at that age could do things to his head..." She paused for a moment. "Okay, forget that last part. With you as a dad, he'll end up a pyromaniac for sure." She laughed. "Just don't tell him I said that! Trip and Travis both send their platonic love, and Phlox says to tell you that he's considering giving up your biobed for public use again - apparently it's getting lonely without a certain armoury officer lying sedated on it week in, week out."

There was a small pause. "We're meeting up with a group of trading vessels in a few days, and apparently they specialise in exotic firearms. Not two words I'd usually associate with each other, but I'll see if there's anything there that'll get you going." Despite himself, Malcolm smiled a little forlornly at that, although he couldn't quite place why. "Oh," Hoshi added, "if you get any messages from someone called Theodora, it's about some translated texts my mother looked into for me during shore leave; could you pass them onto me? Thanks." Another pause. "Not bad," Hoshi commented absently, almost despondently. "It's all been about work so far. Hmm." Another pause. "I know it's probably wrong of me to say it, but it's not the same around here without you. And I'm not talking about my now empty bed. It feels... I don't know... it's just different. It's going to take some getting used to, I guess. Not so sure I want to do that, but another few years, who knows?!" Another, more agonising pause. "God, I miss you... there's a phrase Phlox uses to do with this sort of thing, but believe me it loses a lot in the English translation. Take care, Mal," she told him, echoing the sentiment from his last message. Then, "Love you."

The recording stopped, and for a while Malcolm simply sat there, staring blankly at his computer. He always got like this after a letter from Hoshi; like something big and black and hollow had just reopened yet again inside him and was refusing to go away.

He hated that feeling.

It told him everything was going to go belly-up if he wasn't careful.

It told him that if he wasn't careful, then he was going to lose Hoshi to somebody else.

Again, he hated that feeling. It made him want to go home, where Hoshi was.

It was around this time of the week that Malcolm briefly regretted choosing to stay on Earth, choosing to follow his head and not his heart yet again, even though now his heart was in both places; Earth and the Enterprise.

He sighed. Getting maudlin wasn't going to achieve anything. Talking to Hoshi might.

He leaned forward to the computer and input a few commands.

Then he began recording some letters of his own.

 
 
Chapter 2: Ship in a Bottle

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

They come from miles around
In avarice and love
To suckle on the blood
Of some forgotten god
Tell it like it is

-- Dead in the water, David Gray

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

 

On Monday morning, Malcolm's letters were waiting patiently somewhere in Enterprise's communications buffer, ready to be downloaded by the comm officer on duty.

The previous day...

"Get down!" Kate's barked order echoed down the corridor. Without thinking about it, Jonathan and Hoshi complied and ducked down behind a bulkhead, effectively out of sight and range of the incoming fire.

Kate had already whipped out her phase pistol and laying down crossfire specifically targeted to confuse the people behind the enemy weapons; deliberately creating near-misses meant that the two hostile marksmen were unable to pinpoint her exact location through the smoke and sparks.

Down behind the bulkhead, Hoshi winced involuntarily as she heard grunts of either pain or deep annoyance from both Commander Aber and the two Siriiyan firing at her - direct hits had clearly been traded between both parties, and judging by Kate's laboured breathing just a few feet away from her, Hoshi could tell that the older woman had been hit fairly badly.

In all honesty, she had no idea why the firefight had started in the first place: Captain Archer had been invited over to the lead Siriiyan trade vessel by her seemingly genial captain. Archer had taken Kate and Hoshi with him, and their hosts, who had claimed from the outset to be pacifists, had swiftly changed tack and taken offence at something that the Starfleet officers obviously had or hadn't done; a security complement had appeared from pretty much out of nowhere and after a few seconds had begun to advance on the away team, driving them back the way they had already come from the docking port. Aber had already managed to stun three of the Siriiyan into unconsciousness, but she was beginning to weaken.

Abruptly, the firing stopped, and a few seconds later Kate appeared from around the bulkhead, looking wildly around her until she located the captain and Hoshi. The unspoken message in her eyes was clear; silently Jonathan pulled himself to a standing position, then helped Hoshi up, both of them coughing a little.

Aber looked back up the corridor, then jerked her head back in the direction of their shuttlepod. Feeling a little light-headed, Hoshi allowed herself to be guided by the captain to the airlock and inside the pod. She turned her head back at the last second, and managed to catch a glimpse of Kate, still standing in the same place in the corridor, phase pistol in one hand, staring silently down at the two Siriiyan out cold at her feet.

Inside the shuttle, Jonathan took the helm immediately, preparing to separate the pod from the shop as soon as Kate was inside; she clambered in a few seconds after them, and sat heavily on the low bench at the rear of the pod. She had been favouring her left leg.

Hoshi went back and sat opposite the commander as the pod's docking clamps disengaged and retracted, and quietly took in Kate's heavy, almost forced breathing. The front of her uniform was covered with blackened scorch marks, and she was leaned forward, head down and staring at the deck plating inbetween her legs.

"Are you okay?" Hoshi asked eventually, in a quiet voice.

Kate looked up sharply, as if surprised by the question. "Me? I'm fine," she replied shortly. She then grew a little suspicious when Hoshi grinned and from up at the front, the captain audibly snorted. "What?" she asked, looking at first one officer, then the other, and then back again.

Hoshi bit her lower lip, still grinning. "Nothing," she lied.

"No," the commander retorted, clearly a little unsettled. "If I said something amusing, Ensign, I'd like to know what it is that I said."

Archer turned around in the pilot's seat to face the two women. "It really is nothing," he informed Kate gravely, "except that, well..."

"You sound like Lieutenant Reed," Hoshi finished for him. "Malcolm always used to say that he was fine whenever he got injured."

The armoury officer considered this for a few moments. She seemed about to say something, then apparently thought better of it, shooting Hoshi one last, strange look before redirecting her gaze to the floor underneath her feet.

The rest of the journey back to Enterprise continued in this same vein of silence. Kate reluctantly accepted the captain's support when it became very clear that she couldn't walk more than a few steps on her own. The three officers were only in decon for around ten minutes, and by the time that Phlox was able to check the injuries sustained by the armoury officer, it was obvious even to Hoshi that Kate wouldn't be able to stand up for much longer.

The doctor gave Commander Aber a loaded hypospray for the pounding headache and nausea, along with a cheerfully-noted warning to take things easy for a day or so; he had already bandaged up part of her injured left leg, which had been burned by weapons fire.

Hoshi watched the senior officer leave Sickbay in silence, only limping a little, and turned back to the doctor, who was now checking Captain Archer with a medical scanner. "...mild smoke inhalation - nothing to be worried about, Captain," he informed Jonathan with a wide smile. "It'll clear up quite well on its own without any medical aid."

"Thank you, Doctor," Jonathan replied distractedly, still watching the doors that Kate had just left by. "I think I'll go see how Commander Aber's doing," he added vaguely, making as if to get off the biobed.

Phlox pulled a trolley over from the adjacent bed and started to rearrange the equipment on the second tier. "That would be a good idea," he remarked absently. "The commander could well be in need of - what do you call it? A listening sheet?"

Jonathan and Hoshi shared a confused look before things clicked. "It's called a sounding board, Phlox," the captain told him with a smile.

"Ah yes... of course..." The doctor was now momentarily occupied with something else on the trolley demanding his attention. "Just mind how you go with her, Captain," he continued in the same sidetracked manner as before. "You wouldn't want to risk agitating her, not after... today..."

Jonathan nodded his assent, and then left Sickbay; Phlox didn't seem to notice his departure - if he did then he made no outward acknowledgement of it. Finally, though, he looked up again, his task apparently complete. "Ah, Ensign," he said brightly. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Hoshi shook her head. "No, not really," she answered, rubbing the back of her neck. "It's just... I guess I could use some friendly company right about now."

"Ah." The doctor nodded in understanding. Then, "If you could get those two containers down from over there, perhaps you could help me feed some of these animals."

She nodded, smiling, and the two of them set about satisfying the chirps and rumblings that were beginning to echo through the small medical centre.

o o o o o

By the time that Jonathan was standing outside the door to Kate's quarters, he wasn't so sure whether this was a good idea or not. However, he had come this far, and he did genuinely want to check up on the armoury officer's progress; this had been her first away mission on the Enterprise.

The first was always the toughest. Anyone could tell you that.

Feeling only a small amount of trepidation, Jonathan thumbed the small panel next to the door. There was no response from inside the quarters for a few seconds; the captain was actually considering turning around and walking away when without warning the door opened, revealing Caitlin Aber.

Her eyes widened for a split second before reverting to their usual neutral gaze. She silently stood aside to let the captain in, and as he stepped inside he used to opportunity to study both the room and its occupant.

He could only recall having come in here once or twice at the most in the past when it had been Malcolm Reed living within these four walls, and the difference between then and now was remarkable; where Lieutenant Reed had been anal to the point of severe extremity and assiduously maintained a tidy living space, it became clear that Commander Aber could not have been more different. There were odd socks lying here and there on the floor, and the bed looked as though Kate jumped on it at night rather than slept in it.

And as to Kate herself... she looked, as Malcolm would have so eloquently put it, completely bloody knackered. She had already stripped out of her uniform, and was now wearing a long shirt that nearly came down to her knees; the bandage was just visible underneath it, the white gauze a direct contrast to the navy green shirt. Kate's hair hung loose down her back in damp brown waves and she was towelling it dry with both hands.

"Can I help you Captain?" she asked after a few moments. God, she even sounded tired.

Jonathan watched her for a little while before answering. "I was just wondering how you were." It sounded lame, even to him.

Kate waved her towel around aimlessly. "As well as can be expected, sir," she answered calmly. "Be a while before I'll be able to get to sleep though - those painkillers even kill the exhaustion," she added dryly, smiling.

"Look, I..." Jonathan floundered for a moment. "It isn't always like today," he told the commander with an apologetic smile of his own.

She nodded. "I know that," she replied. "Shit happens."

"Yeah... Look, I... if ever you need someone to talk to," the captain began, sounding somewhat off balance, "then you know you can go find Phlox, or one of the other senior staff, -"

"Captain," Kate interrupted him, "I appreciate that. I really do. But I can't do that until people quit thinking I'm their natural enemy."

Jonathan looked at her. "That is not the case."

"Perhaps not," Kate acquiesced, "but it's been four weeks, and it still feels like I'm living in Saint Malcolm's holy shadow. Look," she continued, catching the sceptical look on the captain's face. "I know I'm probably being impatient about this, and my own attitude probably isn't helping matters any, but as far as this crew is concerned, Malcolm Reed is still their armoury officer, not me." She grinned humourlessly. "I'm even in his old quarters, and his shoes, by the sound of it."

It was true, Jonathan realised with a shock. Even he had to restrain himself from not calling out Malcolm's name every time there was something going up in the armoury, or if the weapons needed bringing online. "It'll take some time," he managed eventually, trying to assuage her. "That's all."

Kate nodded. "I hope so," she said. "God, I hope so."

"You've got the morning off tomorrow while your leg heals up," Jonathan told her. "I don't want to see you on the bridge or in the armoury until at least fourteen hundred."

"Fourteen hundred aye," Kate repeated, finally grinning. Then, "I... goodnight, Captain."

Jonathan left the quarters. "See you in the morning, Commander."

The door closed behind him.

o o o o o

Late Monday morning, Malcolm's letters were waiting patiently somewhere in Enterprise's communications buffer, ready to be downloaded by the comm officer on duty.

Hoshi waited patiently for all the mail to download into her console, where she began sorting it and sending it to the different people through the ship's internal system.

Helen Maritas was on tactical as Hoshi left the bridge, with another two letters for Commander Aber. Like the rest of the senior staff, Kate got hers delivered personally.

Aber wasn't in her quarters when Hoshi got there. Or maybe she's still asleep, her mind offered in an unexpected burst of early morning rationalism. She has got the morning off, after all. Well, it certainly made sense.

She left the letters with Philip O'Malley down in the armoury and went to the mess hall to get herself a drink, blissfully unaware of the events beginning to unfold back on Earth.

 

Chapter 3: Willing and Able

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Well tell me where it all went wrong
And tell me where you lost those damn songs,
I can't say I was surprised
I heard a drink was involved

-- Santa Cruz, The Thrills

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

 

On the day Malcolm's letter was downloaded from Enterprise's communications buffer, the noble lieutenant was desperately trying to juggle his time doing no less than three separate and demanding activities. Firstly, he was trying to finish the cannon modifications he had been working on at the end of the previous week. Then there was the oh so innovative concept of him being tailed by a crewman eager to "gain hands-on experience in a tactical environment". Malcolm would have told Admiral Forrest where exactly he could shove this idea of his, were it not for the simple fact that the man sorely outranked him. Also, were it not for the lieutenant's damnable sense of duty, he would also have told Ensign Igor Brusilof where he could shove it as well, although it wasn't his fault to begin with. Well... not really.

The third task clamouring for Malcolm's undivided attention (well, as undivided as possible, given the circumstances) was the stack of reports that he was supposedly delivering personally to the half-dozen or so other heads of department regarding said modifications to the phase cannons. By no later than fourteen hundred.

Malcolm was really growing to hate Monday mornings. And the sound of footsteps coming up behind him as he was trying to get some more work done (in peace!) was little more than growing testament to this.

"Lieutenant?" Igor's thick German accent was barely understandable at the best of times. Today was not one of them. "Are you busy?"

Malcolm bit down the first reply that sprang immediately into his head and instead turned around on his seat, forcing himself to display a professional, neutral expression. "Not at all, Ensign," he lied. "What can I help you with?"

Igor held out a padd. "I was thinking last night - what if there was some way to juxtapose the two syntheses of the phase cannon modulators without compromising the integrity of the armed range..." He trailed off, clearly uncomfortable under the lieutenant's gaze.

Malcolm took this statement in, trying to work out what on earth Igor was rabbiting on about (figuring out the accent was bad enough), then took the padd and started to scan through the contents, not entirely sure as to what he was going to find.

He whistled quietly. Granted, there were glaring errors here and there in the theory, and the ensign was decidedly lacking in his knowledge of the more delicate internal workings of a cannon but still... there was promise. There was lots of promise. Malcolm sighed with what could only be termed resignation. It seemed as though Forrest's "apprenticeship" idea hadn't been completely idiotic after all.

"It's good," he told the younger man, who immediately looked, well, amazed. "It's not brilliant, but it's good." He paused for a few seconds, weighing up the afternoon ahead of him. "Tell you what, Ensign," he said. "Come back at around sixteen hundred hours, and we can go through this in more depth and detail."

Igor looked flustered. "What do I do until then?" he asked.

Again, Malcolm had to forcibly prevent himself from replying straight away. A couple of deep breaths, and he instead said, "Go do some more reading on the cannon operations. Just to give yourself a bit of a head start on what we'll be doing, and it'll save some time later as well."

The ensign nodded eagerly. "Yessir. See you at sixteen hundred, sir." He took his padd back and disappeared out of the door, leaving Malcolm staring after him in mild disbelief. It wasn't until a couple of minutes had passed before he remembered that he had work to do.

He turned back to the desk and was about to dive straight back into blueprints again when...

"You know, some people would call that hero-worship," a voice said behind him. It was tinged with amusement.

Malcolm knew who it was. "And some people would call this another bloody interruption," he replied without turning around. "What's a fellow got to do to be able to work in peace and quiet around here?"

"Jump out of an airlock," James shot back with a grin. "In space, no one can hear you bitch."

"Very funny, Commander," Malcolm drawled, finally turning around again. "What can I do you for?"

James grinned. "Just coming to see how you're getting along with the cannon work," he answered easily. "Boys downstairs can't wait to see what the almighty Lieutenant Reed's cooking up this time!"

Malcolm grimaced. "Well," he replied pointedly, "they won't get to see anything unless I can get a few hours of peace."

"Aw," James laughed. "Brusilof that much of a bother to you?"

"I wasn't talking about the ensign," Malcolm shot back darkly.

The commander laughed. "Actually," he said after he'd calmed down, "I was wondering if you could use a hand. Twice as many heads can get the work done in half the time, you know."

Malcolm grinned wryly. "And with maths skills like that, it's little wonder you're head of department. Now," he continued, "are you going to stay and help, because if not you can bugger off with the rest of them and let me get this done."

"Now, now," James admonished, "no need to get snarky with me, mister."

Malcolm nodded soberly. "Would sir prefer that I kow-tow to him every time he comes into my office?" he enquired innocently.

"Only if lowly serf is willing to," James shot back instantly, and Malcolm grinned again. It was quite something that he was acting this relaxed around a senior officer, let alone while it during his duty hours. But then again, he amended, Brennan had made it clear from the beginning that he ran a very relaxed and informal department within Starfleet Headquarters while remaining within the protocol and guidelines set out by the chiefs. Added to the fact that Malcolm and James had family issues in common, it wasn't really any great feat that this level of informality had been reached within a month.

"Seriously, though," Malcolm reiterated. "Are you helping or not?"

James nodded. "Of course," he replied, and sat down at the end of Malcolm's neatly organised desk. He started to pass Malcolm various bits and pieces that he needed, and the pair lapsed into a comfortable silence as they began to work in earnest. Occasionally Malcolm would ask James to do calculations for him; other times they would attack something between them.

Eventually, however, James spoke up. "How are things going on Enterprise?" he asked, not looking up from the two padds he was working on.

Malcolm paused briefly before he answered. "Fairly well," he replied neutrally. "The engine and weapon modifications have gone down a storm with both departments, there have only been a couple of questionable first contacts, and I have it on the best of authority that my replacement is a marked woman."

James was caught by this last part, and he looked up, catching Malcolm's eye. "Caitlin was posted there because of her expertise and immediate availability," he told the lieutenant. "She wasn't picked for her social skills."

Malcolm acquiesced with a nod of his head. "Neither was I, as you may or may not know," he replied. When James looked confused, he elaborated. "I'm fairly sure that the main reason I got the posting the first time around was because I was believed to be a preferable person socially to either Caitlin Aber or Eugene Miller."

James raised his eyebrows sceptically. "Don't take this the wrong way," he said, "but who the hell thought that?"

Malcolm shrugged. "Trip put my name forward in the beginning, but as to the opinion, I haven't a clue," he replied honestly.

James pondered this for a moment before saying anything. "Caitlin got the posting this time around," he said slowly, "because she was the most qualified armoury officer available at short notice. Miller's up to his eyeballs in short term postings for another seven months or so."

"I know that," Malcolm told him, "but still, the fact that Commander Aber was turned down for the post originally may not go down too well with my old armoury staff."

James eyeballed him. "And from what you've said already, it hasn't," he stated flatly.

Malcolm shook his head. "Hoshi and Trip are the only two people to whom I explained the real reasons for the transfer here," he replied.

"So everyone else could just see Caitlin as some sort of a replacement for you?" James asked quizzically. When Malcolm nodded, he sighed, as if accepting the inevitable. "I think you're right," he said. "She's screwed."

"But that's exactly what I don't want to happen," Malcolm protested, setting his padd down on the desk. He sighed in exasperation. "But from what I'm hearing, that seems to be the case. I mean, think about it," he continued. "If we keep going at the rate we are, building and deploying more warp five starships - or even eventually ships faster than that - transfers and so forth are going to become more common, especially if there are things like families to consider, and especially considering the implications of deep space missions."

James nodded and smiled dryly. "So why don't people get used to the idea of transferring officers and personnel sooner, then?"

"Yes."

The commander inclined his head in agreement. "Brass have been talking about that recently," he said. "Possibilities of getting immediate families on ships." He shook his head. "But it's just not feasible - I certainly can't see it happening in the near future, or anywhere down the line." He paused again. "We seem to have got off topic... how're other things on Enterprise?"

Malcolm took his time answering. "From what I can tell, things are mostly going okay," he replied. "I'm still trying to get used to the idea of a long-distance relationship, but I suppose that's to be expected. I'll admit it doesn't seem right, or even fair, but still..." He shrugged again, aimlessly this time. "It's going to take a lot of getting used to."

"Well," James said brightly, "you've still got Igor."

Malcolm shot the commander a fish-eyed look and raised an eyebrow. "Is that meant to be a reassurance or a curse?"

James grinned wickedly. "Well, think about it this way," he replied "You've got it easy compared to Howarth."

"Engineering Howarth?"

"The one and only," James answered, nodding. "Anyway, the admiral saddled him with a bug-eyed blonde for the apprentice deal. She's got the raw talent, but she's also got the most nasal voice I've ever heard." He grimaced. "I actually feel sorry for Jeff," he admitted. "If I had to have Carter follow me around I'd invest in some seriously good ear plugs." He paused and appeared to reconsider. "Or maybe a good hit-man." He paused again. "If the worst gets to the worst, how good are you at knocking people off?"

Malcolm raised an eyebrow. "As good as I need to be," he replied.

James nodded in acknowledgement, and as if following some unspoken cue, the pair lapsed back into a comfortable, professional silence as they got the work finished.

o o o o o

Later that day, at around fifteen hundred hours, Malcolm had finished most of the work he had assigned himself. The numerous reports had all been delivered to the heads of department, and judging by the muffled sounds coming through the supposedly soundproofed walls in this place his proposed modifications had been met with by approval by the rest of the armoury and tactical department.

Malcolm had also spent the last thirty minutes or so looking over his shoulder incase the overly zealous Ensign Brusilof came back early from his reading. Malcolm wouldn't put it past him... he was certainly persistent enough to make it as an armoury officer somewhere in the future.

Although, considering all the things that Malcolm had been expecting to happen in the next few minutes (say, for example, the ensign...), perhaps the comm hail from the communications people wasn't quite so high up on the list.

"Norento to Lieutenant Reed."

Malcolm reached up for the comm. "Reed here," he said. "Go ahead."

Norento's voice was almost apologetic. Strange. "Sir, there's an incoming transmission for you," he said, sounding slightly tinny over the connection.

"Okay," Malcolm replied. "Route it through to my office."

"Yessir," Norento replied. A few seconds later, Malcolm's computer beeped as the transmission was re-routed.

"I've got it," Malcolm said. "Thank you."

"Not a problem, Lieutenant," he replied. "Norento out."

Malcolm sat down at the desk. Privately he wondered who on earth would call him at work - Earth being the literal place of origin - and it was with no small amount of trepidation that he opened the connection.

Instantly the screen activated, and the profile image of a man filled the screen. He was identical in every way to James Brennan; it had taken some time, but Malcolm knew better by now than to call him that. "Good afternoon, Nat," he said dryly.

"Malcolm," Nat replied.

Malcolm eyeballed James' twin. "And what is so urgent that I need to be called in the middle of the day?" he asked lightly.

Nat shook his head briefly, and for the first time the lieutenant could see the worry lines etched into the man's forehead. Malcolm's throat went dry. "What is it?" he asked. Nat ran a hand through his messy hair, but didn't say anything for a few seconds.

"Something's happened," he eventually replied vaguely, and he sounded completely exhausted.

"What?" Malcolm pressed.

Nat's face took on a strangely blank expression "Karen said to call you..." he said vaguely. "Mikey's in the med. centre."

Malcolm swallowed, his throat even drier now. "I'll be there as soon as I can," he promised hoarsely.

Nat nodded, and then the screen went dark.

 
 
Chapter 4: A Light-Year in Someone Else’s Shoes

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

There was a time when every door was open
The Universe was mine, or so it seemed

-- When The World Was Mine, Ronan Keating

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

 

By the time that he had managed to book himself into the last available seat on a public shuttle (thankfully, beating old ladies with sticks hadn't been necessary) and was halfway to the turbolift, Malcolm had the strangest yet very sneaking suspicion that he had somehow forgotten something.

But what?

"Ah... Lieutenant?" A voice floated up from behind him in an increasingly... familiar... accent.

Now he knew.

Malcolm stopped in his tracks. And sighed. And turned around.

"Ah... Ensign," he replied almost breathlessly, ware that he was most likely beginning to look panicked. "Yes... I... er... very sorry for the, ah... inconvenience, I... yes... erm..." He trailed off and motioned down the corridor with both hands, down the way he was supposed to be going. "I have to go," he babbled; it was his first coherent sentence. "So... ah... it'll have to be... some other time!"

If Igor was at all disappointed by this jumble of an announcement, he didn't show it - certainly, his only reaction was a fervoured nodding and a mumbled, "Is everything okay, sir?"

"That's what I intend to find out," Malcolm replied darkly, now visibly calmer now that he had managed to get his original point across.

The ensign nodded, but before he could say anything else in response the turbolift doors at the end of the corridor were hissing shut behind the rapidly retreating armoury officer. Igor stood there for a few moments, somewhat nonplussed and not exactly sure what he was supposed to do next; he had been explicitly told that he would be working in close proximity to Lieutenant Reed for a fortnight (if not longer), and now... Reed was gone.

Nobody else seemed to be around at all; well, he couldn't hear anything, and after a few moments of just standing there, Igor made his decision. He went swiftly back the way he had come, back towards where he knew Commander Brennan was currently going over design schematics with a group of engineers (the idea being that Brennan could give him something to do in lieu of Reed).

It was better than doing nothing, after all.

o o o o o

Monday evening on Enterprise saw Commander Trip Tucker amble into the mess hall, seemingly relaxed and happy. Well, this was the impression anybody watching him would have got. On the inside, Trip was seething; not something he usually liked to do right before a meal, but there were some things that really couldn't be controlled.

Like Kate.

She had had the audacity to show up in Engineering that afternoon, literally seconds after she had been allowed back on duty, and had immediately sought out Trip, ignoring offers of assistance from Lieutenant Bathurst or the other three crewmembers on duty at the time. She had marched straight up to him and asked him coldly if he had put the captain up to his "pity mission" the previous evening.

When Trip had replied (honestly) that he had no idea what she was talking about, Aber had, well, flipped. In the same cool tone of voice she informed the now muted engineer that she didn't need anybody pitying her, or taking it upon themselves to make sure that she was "doin' dandy", as it were... what were her exact words? "I assure you, Mister Tucker, whether you had anything to do with this or not, please, I urge you, prevent your friend from doing something that... that patronising again."

Hence the seething four and a half hours later.

Trip did the customary nodding and smiling to some of the engineering team as he collected a tray and a plate of hot food from the hatch, not really paying any attention to what was on the plate.

In his mind, it was just as well that Kate wasn't eating in here at the moment; he may well have been a perfect gentleman nine times out of ten, but there were some limits that Trip just wasn't willing to reach.

Like Kate.

There was an empty table in the far corner of the mess - one of the very few - and Trip sank down onto one of the chairs. He was only vaguely aware of an animated conversation in what sounded like German on the table next to him; it was something he tried to phase out as he started to eat his meal. But as he tried not to listen, he couldn't help but hear the language switch almost seamlessly from German to French to Vulcan and finally to what could have been just about anything.

Then there was a loud burst of laughter from the table, and finally Trip looked up and over. Hoshi was sitting there, snorting and giggling, while a male ensign Trip knew by sight looked on in vague amusement. A few seconds later Hoshi calmed down and noticed the engineer watching her. "Sorry Trip," she said breathlessly. "I - we didn't mean to disturb you."

"I wouldn't call it that," Trip replied as lightly as he could. "What was so funny?" he asked.

Hoshi smothered another grin and indicated her companion. "Oh, Tom and I were going through the Siriiyan syntaxes before we loaded them into the UT. I said something, Tom must have misheard what I said or I got it wrong because he then replied -"

"That I'm quite attached to my brain, thank you very much," Tom finished in a deadpan voice.

Trip took this all in, then turned back to Tom again. "Sorry," he said, "but -"

"Oh!" Hoshi had apparently recovered. "Tom's Gamma shift communications," she explained.

"Ensign Garrett." Tom held his hand out to the senior officer, almost formally.

Trip shook it. "Pleased to meet ya."

Tom nodded, then made to stand up. "I have to go," he said to Hoshi. "Meet you for breakfast?"

"Sure." She nodded.

When Tom had gone, Hoshi turned back to Trip. "So," she said. "What's wrong?"

Trip looked up, surprised by the question. "Nothin'," he replied. "Why? Should there be?"

Without saying anything, Hoshi shifted her tray onto Trip's table and sat opposite him. She shot him a conspiratorial look. "All due respect, Commander," she began, but was cut off.

"Any time anyone says that it's not goin' to be very respectful," Trip said. "Just tell me."

"Okay," she said. "You've had a face like a thundercloud ever since you walked in here. Now, are you going to tell me what's wrong, or are shall we play Twenty Questions until I've figured it out? Or," she added, "is it to do with your new arch-nemesis?"

Trip sighed and rested his head in a hand. Damn, but she was right. "She came down to Engineerin' today and accused me and the cap'n of patronisin' behaviour," he explained. "She's got it in her head that we're tryin' to undermine her before she's even begun ta settle in on Enterprise."

"But... you are, though. In a way."

He stared at her.

"Look," Hoshi elaborated, "maybe you're not guilty of everything she's accused you of, but you haven't exactly made fitting in here easy for her, have you?"

"Why am I gettin' the blame for all this?"

"You're not," she told him patiently. "But everywhere she goes at the moment she's only being reminded that hey, Malcolm Reed was a great armoury officer before she ever showed up. I think we're all to blame here," she added remorsefully.

"But the way she's actin' isn't doin' much good either," Trip pointed out.

Hoshi sighed, sounding exasperated. "Didn't you hear what I just said? Look," she went on, "have you tried putting yourself in her place? Walk a mile in her shoes?"

"Not a bad idea," Trip mused. "Then I'd be a mile away from her and I'd have her shoes. Hosh, you're a genius."

She sent him a dirty look. "I'm being serious."

"So am I," he replied, shrugging. Then, "Okay, you're right. I'll try and make more of an effort with the Ice Woman, but I'm not promisin' anythin'."

Hoshi grinned "Good boy."

"Thanks, Mom," he replied dryly. "Now, am I to goin' to be the only one makin' some kind of effort, or is this goin' to be a group activity?"

"I'll talk to Travis," she promised, standing up.

"Hey, Hosh." Hit by a sudden wave of something inexplicable, Trip ploughed on. "Join me for breakfast?"

"Sorry," she said apologetically. "I promised Tom I'd take him through Denobulan verbs. Maybe another morning."

"Yeah, maybe," he echoed. He watched her leave, and then an idea struck him. Weaving his way through the tables and various crewmembers eating, he reached the communications panel next to the door.

He hesitated for only a split second before hitting the button. "Tucker to Commander Aber."

"Aber here," she replied an instant later, and she didn't sound amazingly overjoyed about the call.

Trip gritted his teeth. "I was, uh, wonderin' if you'd join me for breakfast in the mornin'..."

o o o o o

A fool will believe anything if he or she listens to the voices in his or her head for long enough. While this may well not be the case with many people, it certainly was with Malcolm Reed during the hour-long shuttle flight he had just managed to catch on time.

He had successfully resisted the urge to fidget uncontrollably with the seat straps, the seat itself or anything else his fingers could reach; he had even managed to dampen the childlike instinct to call out and ask how much longer there was left of the journey every ten or fifteen seconds.

He could not, however, silence the voices in his head. They had certainly served him well in the past, probably contributing to what many people thought of as his paranoid instincts - but right here, right now, all they were doing was making a nuisance of themselves. These voices had latched onto the one real piece of information that they had been given - namely, that Malcolm's son was in a medical centre - and they were now having a veritable field day with the different possibilities that the sentence could possibly entail.

Malcolm couldn't help it; he was a worrier by nature, and right now those instincts were racing around and around in his head at warp bloody five. He'd been sat in the shuttle for all of thirty minutes thereabouts, and already he had envisioned a good sixteen or seventeen different worst case scenarios as to what he was going to find at the other end of this journey.

It therefore came as a bit of a jolt to the system when he suddenly found himself standing outside the right medical centre, with no real recollection of how he had got there. He vaguely remembered nodding politely to the two women who had been sitting in the seats next to him, as well as watching them vanish off into the creeping sunset, strangely satisfied when he knew they were going to be okay (the more he thought about it, the more he blamed his security training). He had also been vaguely aware of traipsing through the streets of the town, trying in vain to remember the instructions that Karen had given him the first time he had had Mikey for the weekend; something about the third left followed by a direct right followed by something or other involving somewhere called "The Virgin's Arms".

Either way, he was here and a few seconds later he was inside, and well and truly surrounded by clean white walls and the unmistakable smell of sterile cleanliness and something that reminded him of disinfectant.

Malcolm was beginning to remember why he had hated hospitals as a child. However, before he could progress any further down that mental track...

"Malcolm! Hey, you made it!" Nat's voice was quiet, but it could still be heard from the other end of the lobby.

Malcolm whirled around and came face to face with James' twin. "Tell me," he said breathlessly.

Nat simply nodded, and began to lead Malcolm through a miniature maze of corridors until they reached a tiny treatment room; part of the wall was filled in with glass, and it was this side of the wall that the two men stood, looking through to what was going on inside.

Mikey was sitting up on the bed, next to a white-jacketed doctor who had just removed a hypospray from the boy's upper arm. She then entered something into a larger version of a padd. Karen was sat on the bed as well, right next to her son, and she hugged him reassuringly when the doctor smiled and said something to her patient.

Back outside, Malcolm frowned. "I thought it was something bad."

Nat turned to face him. "Why'd you think that?" he asked.

"When you called me," Malcolm said. "I just got the feeling that something really bad had happened."

Shaking his head slowly, Nat said, "I was still tired earlier. That could have been it."

Malcolm smiled slightly, returning his attention to his son. "Callie still giving you trouble?"

"Little nightmare," Nat joked. "Three months old and she rules the house with a rod of iron and a few dozen stun grenades." He smiled softly. "Can't imagine life without her."

"How about Merron?" Malcolm asked. "I haven't seen him since Lissy's birthday."

Nat quirked an eyebrow in amusement. "I swear he's competing for some award in house-husbandry," he remarked affectionately. "He's really taken to being a dad."

"I can definitely see the appeal," Malcolm murmured quietly.

"Yeah."

A few minutes passed before Malcolm spoke up again. "So what is going on here, then?" he asked.

"Another allergic reaction," Nat replied. "It was worse when I called you, but it pretty much cleared itself up by the time you got here. Doc'll need to talk to you, though," he added, indicating the female medic with a jerk of his head.

"Oh?"

Nat shrugged. "I wasn't listening at that point. Something about a genetic comparison. And since Mikey got this particular genome from you, you're the needle's next victim."

"I can cope with that," Malcolm replied, just as the door next to them hissed open and the three occupants came out.

Mikey immediately attached himself to Malcolm with an exclamation of "Daddy!", something which was caught with something akin to amusement by Karen and the doctor, who quickly introduced herself to the lieutenant as Philippa Keller.

"Malcolm Reed," he replied, managing to offer her a hand through the mass of little boy attached to his chest.

She nodded, and shook the hand. "If you'd come thing way, Lieutenant," she replied, "there're a couple of things we need to sort out before this lad can go home."

Over her shoulder, Malcolm caught a mouthed I told you so, which he diplomatically ignored as he followed Philippa back into the small treatment room. As he set a reluctant Mikey down on the bed for a few minutes, he made a mental note to talk to Nat and Merron again in the near future. They may have had their daughter through a surrogate mother, but surrogacy had nothing on the Xyrillian techniques of conception.

 
 
Chapter 5: Working on a Feeling

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Long lost words whisper slowly to me
Still can't find what keeps me here

-- Haunted, Evanescence

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

 

On Tuesday morning, Kate Aber sat down in the mess hall with a couple of slices of toast and a glass of orange juice, although her mind wasn't really on what she was about to eat. Instead she was still a little bewildered by the behaviour of the crew in the armoury when she had gone in there to collect the progress report she was due.

Crewman O'Malley and Ensign Maritas were running a series of checks and diagnostics when Kate came in. The young Irishman looked up at her entry and smiled slightly. It was the first visible sign of pretty much anything that he had shown in her presence.

It was a little unnerving.

"Good morning, Commander," he said genially enough. "Will you be wanting that report?"

"Er... yes," Kate answered. "Were there any problems on the night shift?"

"No, ma'am," Philip told her.

Kate accepted the padd he had offered her and slipped it into a pocket. She didn't really know what else she was supposed to say.

"Have a good day," Philip added as she turned around and left. She acknowledged the comment with a quick nod, not trusting herself to look behind her. The armoury doors then closed behind her with a faint hissing sound.

Back in the mess hall, Kate pulled out the armoury report. She turned it over in her hands a few times without switching it on. It wasn't just O'Malley's behaviour that had been out of the ordinary this morning; several people from the science teams had nodded to her in corridors or else said good morning; Ensign Garrett had made space for her at the food hatch during a three am hunger craving, and it was this... this courtesy that had been mirrored just now with a male lieutenant over at the hatch.

She was still trying to figure out what was going on when a loud clatter in front of her jerked her out of her reverie. Looking up, Kate saw Trip Tucker grinning at her, his own breakfast sitting in front of him on the table.

"Mornin' Miss Aber," he said in an almost singsong voice. "Sorry I'm late."

"Good morning," she replied coolly, ignoring the half-hearted apology; if he was at all taken aback by the response, he didn't show it. Kate sighed and instead tried a different tack. "Why am I here, Commander?" she asked.

Trip shrugged. "Just havin' a little social breakfast with the new armoury officer," he told her. "There somethin' wrong with that?"

"Actually, there is," Kate answered. She elaborated. "Three weeks ago you were trying to shut me in an airlock."

"Yeah..." Trip rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "Not exactly my proudest moment, that. But you can't say ya didn't deserve it."

Kate sighed explosively. "Is there a point to this, Commander?" she enquired coldly. "Or should I just eat up and be on my way?"

"Yes, there is a point to all of this," Trip said, switching from jokey to serious in an instant. "But you gotta promise me you're gonna hear me out."

"Very well." Kate set the padd down. "Shoot."

Trip ran a hand through his hair, suddenly looking... well, nervous. "Right," he began. "I'm well aware that the past four weeks for you haven't exactly been easy. But -" here he held up a hand to forestall any interruption, "- the blame isn't entirely mine, nor anyone else's on this ship. If you want this crew to accept you as the armoury officer, then you're goin' ta hafta give some as well. Also," he continued, "I'll be one of the first to say that Malcolm Reed was one hell of an officer... but he's also one of the biggest headcases I've ever come across."

"Whereas if you listen to some of the enlisted crewmen, he's damn near infallible."

"No, he's not," Trip replied, shaking his head. "S'not my place to go into specifics, but I'll tell ya now that it took him at least six or seven months before he would even consider callin' me by my given name instead of 'Commander this' or 'Mister Tucker that'. Real proper military-style behaviour."

Kate cocked an eyebrow. "Let me get this straight," she said slowly. "You're telling me that Lieutenant Reed is a mere mortal just like the rest of us."

"Pretty much."

"Why?"

Trip stopped in his tracks and looked up again. "Huh?"

She sighed. "Why are you telling me this?"

Caught off guard, it took the engineer a minute or two to recover enough to speak. "I - I just thought that -"

"You thought what, Commander?" Kate interrupted coldly. "That I'd want to know how much of a screw-up that man could be at times? That I would possibly care what you personally thought of him?" She sighed again, much more forcefully this time. "If I wanted your opinion on my predecessor, I'd ask you for it. Now good day." She got up and stalked out of the mess hall, leaving her breakfast untouched.

Trip watched her back for a few seconds before leaning over the table and picking up the padd that she had left behind. It wasn't switched on, and he didn't really have any inclination to see what was on it at all. It wasn't even remotely tempting.

Trip twirled the padd around his fingers for a few seconds. He wasn't really sure what he was supposed to do next. Hell, he wasn't even sure why he'd arranged this breakfast meeting in the first place. He let out a deep breath he hadn't realised he was holding, and from somewhere behind him, amongst the general chitchat, he heard a familiar peal of laughter.

As he cleared both his and Kate's trays away, he noticed from out of the corner of his eye that Ensigns Sato and Garrett were enjoying an animated conversation. As he left the mess to head down to Engineering, Trip knew that in his mind there was something not quite right about the ensigns' interaction, but he couldn't figure out what it was.

It could wait, though.

o o o o o

At about three o'clock on Tuesday morning, Malcolm arrived at the same conclusion he always arrived at at times like this.

It was, in fact, at times like this that he missed Hoshi the most.

And he hated it when he got to thinking like this - it never did him any good, and all it did do was ensure that when he finally went back to bed and tried to get some sleep, he wouldn't be able to.

At the moment, Malcolm was lying flat on his back on the small sofa that came with the somewhat Spartan apartment, hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. It wasn't exactly comfortable, though; the sofa was a little too short for him to stretch out completely, so his legs were hanging over the end, and there was definitely something sharp digging into his arse, although he couldn't do anything about it.

Despite the early hour, his mind was racing, going over anything and everything that would hold his attention for longer than half a second. He had spent the early part of the evening with Nat and Merron and their daughter, idly watching the two fathers in action for a few hours before making his excuses and catching a public shuttle home. Three month old Callie - technically Carla - bore a not completely startling resemblance to Mikey when he had been that age (at least according to the photographs), and as he had watched the family, Malcolm couldn't help but mentally substitute himself and Hoshi in place of the two doting daddies - would the two of them ever have a child together, or even children?

Would Malcolm ever see her face to face again... ?

There was still another two and a half years to go until Enterprise's five year mission officially ended, but Malcolm also knew perhaps better than anybody that those two and a half years were not a cast-iron certainty. Anything could happen to prolong the mission, extend it in ways nobody could foresee. Anything could happen to the crew themselves - accidents, injuries...

Death...

He had received another letter from Hoshi that evening, a rather lengthy one this time; she had spent some time explaining some feud that was building up between Kate Aber and Trip Tucker (essentially filling in for Malcolm the gaps that he had regarding ship activity over the first four weeks or so), and the latter's attempts to help the former settle in some more - one of them being a two day campaign that had ultimately resulted in the new armoury officer being shut in an airlock for thirty minutes before being rescued by a pissed-off Archer who had randomly passed that section of the ship while walking Porthos.

Malcolm had spent some time trying to visualise the rebuking that must have taken place afterwards, and a part of him regretted the fact that unless he put in for a direct subspace transmission, he wouldn't know about anything on Enterprise until about three days after, given to the time it took messages to pass between the Echo probes (plus bureaucracy...).

All in all, it had been another half an hour of pretending that if he closed his eyes that Hoshi was sitting a scant metre or so away from him, relaying the day's gossip. It hurt.

He missed being able to know exactly what was going on with the people he knew... people he loved... and yeah, it hurt.

Malcolm chanced another look over at the chronometer. Three fifty-four, and he was still wide awake.

Damn, but it was going to be a long night...

o o o o o

The next few days on the Enterprise NX-01 passed without major incident, and even without minor incident, unless one counted Commander Aber "accidentally" shooting Trip in the butt during a target practice session (he had been crouched behind one of the consoles repairing some conduits while she was firing the blank charges). He hadn't been seriously injured, of course, but he later complained to an amused Jonathan that he couldn't lie on his back or sit down for two days straight.

On Wednesday, one of the Alpha shift engineers had come down with something, and was holed up in Sickbay for a few hours while Phlox synthesised a cure, and vaccinated the remainder of the shift for preventative measure (including Trip). Luckily enough for them, the side-effects only lasted a couple of hours.

On the Friday, the latest cache of letters from Earth were downloaded from the buffer and duly distributed throughout the ship by Ensigns Sato and Garrett; Hoshi had roped Tom into it after a problem emerged with the intercommunications network. While a combination of engineers and science personnel tried to fix the glitch, letters and mail for seventy-eight of the eighty-three crew were hand-delivered by the two ensigns.

The glitch also meant that at least for a few hours, ship communications were also down, and handheld communicators had to be used instead, although they too gave out after about half an hour.

None of this, of course, helped Trip. In amongst his usual Friday morning workload there had been a curt request of help from Kate, who had arrived in Engineering looking tired, irritable and frazzled. Leaving one of the ensigns in charge for the moment, he left the engine room with her to head off to the source of the problem.

"Look," Trip said eventually, "is this - whatever is, absolutely essential, 'cause, uh, we got our hands full right about now."

Kate didn't turn around (she was two steps ahead of the engineer). "I wouldn't have fetched you if it wasn't life-endangering," was all she would say.

"That's reassurin'," he muttered darkly. Fortunately, she didn't seem to hear him.

From the little information she had given him, Trip had so far determined that there was a problem with something connected to something else that connected to something to do with targeting scanners; their destination was a wall panel on C-deck, and they had to take a turbolift to get there.

o o o o o

Up on the bridge, Captain Jonathan Archer sighed. Normally, he wasn't given to such underhand methods of getting things done, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

The fact that he was the captain helped as well - nobody dared argue with what he had in mind.

To his right, Lieutenant Bathurst was working at the small engineering station next to tactical.

To his left, Sub-commander T'Pol was carefully monitoring internal sensors.

Again to his left, Ensign Sato was collaborating with Bathurst across the bridge.

After a few silent minutes, a crackling call came through the comm system. "Hess to Captain Archer."

Heaving a sigh of what could have been relief, Jonathan reached for the comm on the command chair, "Go ahead, Lieutenant," he replied.

"We've got the whole thing completely repaired, sir," she reported, "but be careful. Too much at once and it could go again."

"Understood, Lieutenant. Archer out." He cut the connection.

To his left, Sub-commander T'Pol looked up. "They are in position, Captain," she said calmly, her voice betraying nothing of the disregard she obviously bore at Jonathan's plan.

"Got it," Jonathan replied. "Anytime now, Lieutenant," he added tersely.

To his right, it took Bathurst a few seconds before... "Done, Captain," he said, getting back up again.

"If this doesn't work, I don't know what will," the captain muttered under his breath, reaching back for the comm button embedded in his chair.

Down in the space between C and D-decks, a turbolift had stopped moving...

 

Chapter 6: The Killing Time

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

I am
Little bit of loneliness
A little bit of disregard
A handful of complaints
But I can't help the fact
That everyone can see these scars

-- Faint, Linkin Park

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

 

There was no loud sound signalling some form of malfunction. There was no visual fanfare of any kind. In fact there was not much anything to prelude the main event.

Oh - aside from the minor, possibly even insignificant little detail of the turbolift coming to a rather abrupt halt inbetween decks C and D with a nicely muted screech.

Caitlin, the tactical officer, was naturally the first to react. "What the hell?" she cried out, looking around her wildly.

Unable to do anything else, Trip chuckled. "The turbolift's stopped," he informed her gravely, turning around on the spot to emphasise his point. "See?"

Kate whirled around. "Have you got a communicator on you?" she asked almost breathlessly. Trip shook his head and she made a high-pitched throaty noise. "Dammit."

Trip blinked, but before he could say anything, there was a staticky crackling noise from the direction of the comm system. "Commanders," a cheerful voice said. It was Captain Archer.

The two officers shared a look, and the captain continued. "We know the lift's stopped, and come of the engineering team are working on it. Communications, as you can probably tell, have been partially repaired, but this link is only one way for the moment." At this, Kate and Trip shared another look. Meanwhile, Jonathan was already continuing. "Until we can get this... situation sorted, maybe you two could take this opportunity to talk things over, and we'll keep an eye on you." Some more crackling, and the link went dead.

Letting out a long, hard breath, Kate stared at the comm. "Did you have anything to do with this?" she asked coolly.

"What?!" Trip pulled her around by the shoulder to face him. "Why the hell would I want to be trapped in a lift with you?" he demanded.

She acquiesced. "Fine, point made," she snapped. Then, "Any ideas on how to get out of here?"

Trip grinned, having literally just cottoned onto what was happening. "Just like Jonny said," he drawled, going to the back of the small lift and sitting down against the wall. "We start talkin' and he'll let us go."

Kate looked incredulous. "Captain Archer would actually stoop so low?" she asked faintly.

"Sure looks that way." Trip's grin grew even wider, and he patted the space next to him. "Come have a seat," he said genially, "I won't bite ya."

She narrowed her eyes, but didn't take up the offer. Instead she leaned against the door to the stationary lift and crossed her arms over her chest, regarding the still amused Trip with a cool, unblinking glare.

"I really can't believe you, ya know," Trip said suddenly, breaking the tense silence. "Really made an effort this week ta be civil to ya, an'..." he broke off, shaking his head. "D'you have any idea how hard it was for Phil to be nice to ya?" he asked sharply, looking up at the armoury officer.

Kate started to reply, before Trip's wording... "How do you know about that?" she demanded. "Oh wait," she continued, holding up a hand to silence him, "let me guess. Another round of Let's-pity-the-armoury-officer, was it?"

Trip stated at her. "You're unbelievable," he told her coldly. "An' let me tell ya this: carry on the way you're goin', an' it'll be the armoury rotation gettin' rid of ya. Nobody's perfect, Miss Aber," he added. "Sure, Helen's seems that way some of the time, an' Matthew's clumsy as hell, an' Philip and Clara are the gruesome twosome, but tha's no reason to take out whatever problems you've got on them. Tryin' ta demote Matt 'cause he slips an' falls sometimes, or gettin' pissy with Phil 'cause he's the youngest guy on the ship... whatever it is you've got goin' on up there, leave them out of it."

Kate raised an eyebrow. "You have no idea what you're talking about, Commander," she shot back emotionlessly.

"Don't I?" Trip asked.

The answer was swift. "No," Kate said shortly, looking down at the engineer both figuratively and literally. "You don't."

"Try me," he retorted. "Never know, you might just be surprised."

Caught off guard, Kate could only eyeball him suspiciously.

"C'mon," he said quietly. "Take a seat."

Reluctantly, she did so, so that she and Trip were opposite each other in the small space.

"I'll go first," Trip said, "then it's your turn. Okay?"

"Okay," she echoed faintly, unconsciously imitating the soft Southern accent, making the real Southerner chuckle quietly. Then he began.

o o o o o

The unorthodox working relationship that he shared with his direct superior meant that working Starfleet Weapons and Research had a lot of unexpected quirks that Malcolm Reed had never really experienced before. For one, he was on friendly terms with said superior, helped along by the fact that Malcolm was the biological father of James Brennan's nephew.

Another was that three days a week he worked from his apartment, mostly tinkering with existing equipment or tinkering with blueprints and designs for new or improved versions.

But, as with any kind of upside, there was a downside.

A loud clattering noise came from the kitchen, and inwardly Malcolm winced.

There was the downside... any second now...

"Lieutenant? Lieutenant?" came wafting through the apartment in a thick German accent.

Malcolm sighed. And got up. And walked over to the kitchen. What on earth has he done this time?

And did he really want to find out?

He reached the kitchen.

No, then.

o o o o o

In the situation room, Jonathan and Hoshi listened almost wordlessly to the monologue in the turbolift; they had abandoned the feedback from the security camera after just a few minutes.

At the moment Trip was talking about various events in his past that maybe he wasn't so proud of, so to speak, interrupted only occasionally by quiet questions from the armoury officer.

"You know," Jonathan said at one point, more out of a sudden need to speak than anything else, "Trip was stuck in a lift with Malcolm once."

Hoshi nodded. "He told me," she said seriously. "His first real impression of Trip was fifteen minutes with what he described as the Yank from Hell," she added with a half-grin.

"Was that before or after the interview?"

"During, I think."

"Ah." Jonathan paused for a moment, clearly a little uncomfortable with things. "Well... next time you write to Malcolm, pass on my best."

"Of course," Hoshi replied. "I'm doing that tonight."

"Okay. How - how are things back on Earth, do you know?"

Hoshi smiled wistfully. "He's settled in at R&D without too much of a hitch," she told the captain, "and that's going okay as far as I know. Trip's grandmother's in contact with him as well now - apparently he lives near a fabric shop she used to visit." Jonathan looked a little askance at this particular piece of information, but said nothing. "And... and he misses it - being here, I mean." She stopped there, not trusting herself to go any further with that line of thought.

Archer nodded quickly to cover the abrupt silence; uncomfortably, almost awkwardly, they both turned back to the comm system, where through the static and interference that hadn't yet been fully fixed, a female voice had just begun to speak.

And what she was about to say... well, neither Hoshi nor Jonathan would have ever expected it...

o o o o o

"In all honesty, I'm not really sure where I'm supposed to start," Kate said softly, her eyes unfocused and looking somewhere over Trip's left shoulder. "I mean, this all started before I was even born. Long before that..."

"Well," Trip offered in an equally quiet voice. "S'up to you."

"Yeah." Kate nodded. "Right. Well. I... my parents, if you ever meet them, are a nice enough couple. Mother is... was a nurse, and the last I knew Dad was a museum curator, but don't hold out on that. Once upon a time, they had a son. A little boy called Florian Edward Aber. Light of their life. Charming little fella, so I'm told."

Trip caught the odd wording of that last sentence, but said nothing, instead allowing Kate to continue at her own pace.

She did.

"Florian was destined for great things. When he was four years old his preschool teacher singled him out as an unusually smart boy - Mother and Dad immediately organised extra tuition for him, gave him every bit of support that they could muster together - which was a lot. Dad was a respected historian and Mother - well, she had connections back then. She knew who to contact to help her little boy.

"Then, something happened. Florian was laid down with some kind of bug just after his fifth birthday. You know the routine: bed rest, a whole team of doctors round trying to figure out what was wrong with him, let alone try and actually treat him. Eventually, though, they sussed it out. Poor little Florian was diagnosed with a debilitating hereditary disease that shows up in one out of about every four hundred million children." Kate chuckled dryly. "Even with modern medical advances, Florian would have died before his ninth birthday, although nobody was holding out for his eighth.

"As you can imagine," she continued emotionlessly, "the Abers' world was damn near destroyed. Lose their son? For the longest time Mother was in denial over it. Her precious little boy, dying? She couldn't cope with the idea, let alone the reality."

She broke off and met Trip's eyes for the first time. "You know what parents are like, I'm sure," she said to him. Again, he was put out a little by her choice of words. "They'll do anything for their child, anything they think'll help their precious little kid, no matter what. Well," she continued, "Mother and Dad found their anything. Stem cells," she said bluntly.

Trip must have looked confused, because she elaborated for him. "If a perfect biological match could be found for Florian, something that would match up to his genetic structure - enough to avoid rejection - then he could be saved. A few stem cells could be mutated into what was needed to save Florian's life. Of course, though," she added, "these cells couldn't come from just anybody. Even a biological parent would have too much genetic deviancy to be an ideal match."

She broke off and looked Trip directly in the eyes. "But not," she said pointedly, "a sibling."

Realisation began to dawn.

"If Florian had a little brother or sister, then their stem cells could be used to save the boy wonder's life, and all would be dandy and good with the universe again," she said, almost bitterly.

Realisation dawned, and hit Trip squarely on the head.

"Of course, this new sibling has to be screened. A, to make sure that they too are not carrying this disease, which would ultimately be defeatist, and B, that they are a perfect match for poor, darling little Florian, who doesn't have much time left by this point."

"Let me guess," Trip said. "You made it through the screenin'."

"Correct." Kate definitely sounded bitter now. "I was selected for my brain cells - or what would eventually be my brain cells, because they were as near a perfect match as you could get. I was due to be born three months before Florian's seventh birthday." She paused for a moment, and rearranged herself against the turbolift door until she seemed to be a little more comfortable again. "Except something happened," she continued. "Some kind of regression and the light of the Abers' life died suddenly, without warning, six months before his birthday. Nobody saw it coming, certainly nobody could understand why afterwards. The stress," Kate went on mirthlessly, "nearly did Mother in, and I was born prematurely, at six months. Postnatal care's fantastic - well, it was at my hospital - but it didn't stop me nearly dying several times during those first few months. Random infections, lung failure, brain failure at one point - you name it, it tried to kill me.

"Not that my parents actually gave a shit, of course. The four months I was kept in hospital, Dad only came to visit three times, and Mother once. They were still adjusting to life without their baby boy, coping with the loss of their little son." She laughed bitterly. "I wasn't needed any more," she told a stunned Trip. "I was brought into being to save Florian's life, but the little sod died before they could take from me what they needed. So what need did Mother and Dad have for me?"

"Oh my god," Trip whispered.

"Yeah, well. Welcome to my life." Kate leaned her head back against the lift door. "Or definite lack, thereof. At five months old, I was reluctantly named Caitlin Flora and taken home - or rather, taken to Florian's home. I grew up surrounded by a dead six year old, Mister Tucker," she told him. "Everywhere I went, everyone I spoke to, all they would talk about was little Florian Aber and what he could have been if he had been given the chance to grow up. That does things to a little girl, you know. She'll grow up thinking that something she did stopped her brother from growing up, and when she's old enough to form the words for herself, she'll think that she killed him herself, that she's the one to blame, not some random genome that only hit this family by chance.

"And when her parents will only think in terms of a dead boy, she'll stop trying to think altogether. She... she'll wonder if there is any kind of point to her life at all, if she couldn't do the one thing she was so clearly expected to." Trip paled, knowing deep down what was coming next. "She'll decide one day that hey, nobody's going to miss her if she goes... they'll only miss the presence of a person who should have saved their son but didn't. Couldn't. For whatever reason, she didn't do it. So she'll try and take her own life.

"But when push comes to shove, she can't do it. Now, is that another sign of weakness, or is there something else missing in her life? I'm still trying to figure that out, you know," Kate told Trip, switching back to first person narration. "Is anything I ever do going to match up to a six year old boy who died before I was even born? Is anything I ever will be going to mean anything to parents who refused to acknowledge me until I was nearly five months old and who still refuse to see me as anything other than a bunch of stem cells gone to waste? Come on, Commander," she pleaded, a hollow look in her eyes. "You'd said you'd be able to understand." Her voice began to break. "Understand, then. Tell me what I've got to do to convince myself that anything I do is adequate, let alone anything resembling good. Tell me why I keep lashing out at people simply because I can't cope with myself."

She made an odd, choking sound. "I've just laid my heart on the floor for you, Trip," she said using his name for the first time ever. "What are you going to do about it?"

Trip was, for the moment, speechless.

 
 
Chapter 7: Nous Tous Devons une Raison d’Ętre

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Do you see a brighter day for me?
Another day?
A day?

-- Honest questions, Daniel Bedingfield

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

 

"Here we go... you feelin' any better now?"

Kate accepted the steaming mug with a tired smile. "No," she admitted. "But thank you for asking."

"You're welcome," Trip replied with a smile of his own. Then he looked uncertain. "Look, I..."

"Don't worry about it," Kate said, interrupting him. "I don't want to talk about it. I don't particularly want to go into why I did the things I did when I was younger and I sure as hell am not going to try anything stupid now. I'm a big girl, Trip," she added. "I can take care of myself." The words "even though nobody else has" went unspoken, although they echoed through the quarters like a foghorn.

Trip nodded quickly. "Okay," he told her. "And you can take the cap'n at his word," he added. "Nothin' from today's gonna go any further."

She nodded in response and pulled her legs closer to her on the bed, making space for Trip to sit down as well. He did so, shifting some odd socks out of the way first. "It had better not," she said softly. "If I hear anything about Florian on ship scuttlebutt I will personally hunt the captain's dog down and kill it in full view of the captain."

Trip paled. "You're not serious, are ya?" he asked nervously.

"No," she replied. "But he'd better be."

"Jon's a man of his word," Trip told her. "If he says somethin', ya tend ta believe it."

Kate nodded again and shifted her position on the bed, creating more space for Trip. "Okay. I trust you." She closed her eyes, missing the... fleeting expression that passed over the engineer's face as she said it. "And thank you for the coffee," she added, tightening her grip on the hot mug. And when Trip began to smile she added, "You know I don't drink coffee, don't you?"

"Oh." Trip's smile faded. "Sorry."

"It's okay," she said. She smiled slightly. "I appreciate the thought."

They then lapsed into a less than comfortable silence that wasn't broken or interrupted for some time, not until Trip suddenly looked up from something he had been staring at on the floor. "Ya can't keep goin' on like this, you know. Lashin' out at people, tryin' to hide from somethin' that wasn't your fault ta begin with. I... ya just can't."

Kate watched him for a moment before replying. "Which is precisely where the stumbling block arises," she told him. "I've been doing this for most of my life; maybe it's a little late for me to try to learn something new."

"Okay." Trip was unfazed. "Okay, then. What you said back in the turbolift, 'bout searchin' for some kind o' meanin' to your life - somethin' you've done without anybody else."

"Yes..."

Trip turned on the bed to face her, and took the coffee from her hands. "Start here," he said earnestly. "Right here, on Enterprise."

Kate closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she visibly seemed much more uncertain. "Do what?" she asked him. "What do I do?"

Again, Trip was hit by a wave of something - something he would only later be able to describe as some kind of protective instinct. Carefully, he set the mug of coffee down on the decking next to the bed and put his hands on Kate's knees, leaning on them slightly. "Semantics," he said dismissively. "We'll figure somethin' out."

"We?" She sounded faintly sceptical.

"Yeah," he shot back, nodding once. "But for the moment... there's a movie showin' tonight in the mess hall. You're comin' with me. Lennie'll cover ya in the armoury for the evenin' - her date's laid low in Sickbay for a couple more days, an' there's no reason for ya not ta come," he finished almost triumphantly.

"Okay..." Kate trailed off. "What film are they showing?"

Trip shrugged. "Haven't a clue," he replied, "but it can't be as bad as the one they showed seven or eight months ago." He shuddered theatrically. "Can't get much worse than all the sappy moonin' goin' on in that film."

Kate smiled wryly. "You never know," she said. "Romance can always plumb to new depths."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Trip stated darkly.

They both chuckled, and it was only then that Trip realised that he still had a hold of Kate's legs.

o o o o o

A little later that afternoon, and several dozen light-years or so away from Enterprise, Malcolm Reed was scowling. While it had proven itself a worthwhile activity on several occasions in the past, Malcolm did not usually partake of scowling in the general here and now - after all, it was relatively pointless when a simple glare or dirty look would suffice.

But at this precise moment in the here and now however, Malcolm had discovered that there was more than ample reason for him to scowl.

He was rapidly beginning to discover that his assigned apprentice, Ensign Igor Brusilof, was roughly as co-ordinated and precise in movement as, say, a menstrual bull wearing a blindfold in a bone china factory.

But make no mistake, though - Malcolm held very little against Igor - in much the same way, it could perhaps be said, that he held nothing against Matthew Rose; the only man in the universe capable of spraining a knee during pistol maintenance - the same man who held the dubious distinction of sending the good lieutenant rolling down the side of a hill during a routine survey mission.

No - Malcolm did not have anything to say against Mister Brusilof.

Except, perhaps, that next time he came to Malcolm's apartment when Malcolm was working from home, Malcolm would securely bolt and fasten down anything that could be moved even a thousandth of a micrometer.

Having to clear up half the contents of the kitchen from the floor was proof enough, perhaps, that such measures would indeed be taken in the future. All the man was doing was making coffee for himself - how an activity like that could lead to pots, pans, plates, mugs and some foodstuffs covering a previously pristine floor was now one of the few mysteries of the universe that could perhaps never truly be explained.

Come to think of it, Malcolm was still scowling when, at around seventeen hundred hours, there was a knock at the door. He finished stacking the last of the plates away in the kitchen, then crossed through the small apartment and opened the door.

Down at the bottom of his line of vision, there was a small blur of motion and "Daddy!" as something once again attached itself to Malcolm's leg, much like a small blond-haired limpet. Picking said limpet up, Malcolm turned to face the other occupant of his doorway.

"You look pissed off," Karen said jokingly, bluntness getting in the way of a greeting.

By now though, Malcolm had learned to take it in his stride. "You don't look so happy yourself," he answered, trying (and failing) to get Mikey to shift his position on his shoulder. "You want to come in?"

Karen nodded, and a few seconds later the door closed shut behind her.

o o o o o

The movie was due to start at seventeen hundred, to accommodate someone's birthday celebration later on, and by the time that Trip and Kate arrived from their respective departments most of the seats in the converted mess hall were taken. They got seats in the back row, and not a moment too soon because almost immediately the screen up at the "front" of the mess lit up with the opening credits.

There was general confusion among the crew for a few seconds, as all they could see on the screen was what looked like an early twenty-first century airport lounge, with people greeting each other; all of this without sound.

Then a male voice sporting a crisply uppercut British accent cut through the quiet hubbub. "Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport..."

While many of the women in the audience (almost as one) leaned forward in anticipation, inwardly Trip Tucker groaned.

o o o o o

Malcolm left Mikey in the small second bedroom of the apartment doing something with a couple of colouring books, and returned to the small living area. Karen was curled up on the small sofa, and leafing idly through a couple of Malcolm's old technical manuals.

He stopped at the doorway and watched the older woman for a moment. There was a sense of utter familiarity about the way she was sat on the sofa, and the way she was acting generally... it reminded Malcolm of the way she had acted in his small flat several years before, literally a couple of weeks before he had moved in with her. Something about it...

Karen looked up from one of the manuals and the spell was broken. Malcolm came over and sat at the other end of the sofa from her, automatically straightening a couple of the battered cushions as he did so. "Was there anything you wanted to... talk about?" he asked after a couple of minutes, missing the strange look that had flitted over her face.

She nodded. "I wouldn't know where to begin, though," she admitted quietly. She started fiddling with some stray threads from one of the cushions.

"Well, start from the beginning, and we'll see where things go from there," Malcolm suggested practically. Karen nodded again and began to speak.

o o o o o

"General opinion's started to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that," the British bloke continued, and rather than look at the screen, where more emotive "reunions" were taking place, Trip instead looked around at the other crewmembers in the audience. Kate, next to him, watching the screen; a few seats beyond her were a couple of the night shift bridge crew that Trip knew by sight but couldn't quite put names to - one of them was Spanish and the other was definitely Antipodean, but he couldn't get any more specific that that, not without being able to see their faces clearly (and in a better light).

"Seems to me that love is everywhere." Well, Trip could certainly agree with that; there were at least three couples in the audience that he could make out from looking at the backs of people's heads, and at least four more that were either about to get together or should, according to Enterprise's grapevine (more commonly known as Travis Mayweather, Helen Maritas and Hoshi Sato).

"Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there." And speaking of comm officers... there she was, about four rows in front of the two commanders; the way she was seated showed that she was definitely there with the person... no, the guy sitting to her immediate right. Dark haired, and Trip could make an educated guess as to who it was.

"Fathers and sons..." Involuntarily, Trip thought of Malcolm back home, wondered almost idly what his friend was doing right at this moment. "Mothers and daughters. Boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends." Did two years or so count as old friends?

Meanwhile, the British guy was still talking. "When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge." It never happened like that, did it? "They were all messages of love." Damn right they would have been, Trip thought fleetingly, taking another look around at the people seated in the mess hall. If you're never going to see someone again, then you're going to tell them what you really think, or feel, aren't you? He caught another sight of Hoshi and the guy she was with, and amended that last thought: If you're light-years away from someone for reasons beyond your control, then you're going to make sure that person knows how you feel, pretty much no matter what.

He paused for a second, a part of him shocked at what the little voice in his head was saying, and Trip instead averted his gaze to the person next to him; Kate seemed to be enjoying the movie, although it was only a couple of minutes into the show - if that - and again he was hit with a wave of something that he couldn't quite put a name to.

"If you look for it," the voice over continued in the same smug British accent, "I've got the sneaky feeling that love, actually, is all around..."

o o o o o

"He's not contesting me over access or custody issues. He doesn't make a fuss about access hours at the moment, and from what I can tell he won't any time soon." Karen sighed, apparently unable to out a verbal finger on what was bothering her. "It... it's as though he's just switched off completely." She broke off and looked over at Malcolm. "Does that make any sense to you?"

He considered it for a moment, and then nodded, thinking of his own father and the senior Reed's relationship with his wife, Malcolm's mother.

"Great, though, isn't it?" Karen continued. "Six, nearly seven years, and he thinks that he can just switch it off like there was nothing ever there to begin with. I mean, I know it was partially my fault in the beginning - I held off vital information about you and me," she added wryly, a wistful grin coming and going in the space of about a second, "and that would have come to the surface sooner or later, no matter what the outside influences happened to be." She laughed mirthlessly. "Welcome to my life, Mal," she said acerbically, getting up off the sofa, "and I really have said more than I intended to."

"How much were you going to say?" Malcolm asked, getting up as well.

She shrugged. "Hello to you, bye-bye and see you Sunday evening to Mikey, have a good weekend to the both of you then bugger off back home for a night in alone." She shrugged diffidently. "Yeah, that sounds about right." Karen made her way over to the front door and opened it.

Before she could leave, however, Malcolm called out after her. "Look, I - Karen, if you ever need someone to talk to," he began, "well - you know where I am."

She smiled, genuinely this time. "Thank you," she told him. "I appreciate that. See you Sunday."

"See you..." Malcolm trailed off in nothing as the door closed inbetween the two of them, and for a couple of minutes he simply stood there, until a noise from the bedroom pulled him back into reality with a bump, and he went to go see what his son was getting up to.

o o o o o

Jonathan Archer spent much of Friday afternoon and evening holed up in his quarters, mulling over the events of the day. He had had mostly the best intentions in mind when planning to confine Commanders Aber and Tucker in a small space together so they could work through their differences without them spilling into everything else, but not once - at no point in the proceedings had he imagined that something like this would have come out.

He had listened in sick fascination to Kate's monologue in the turbolift, having shooed Hoshi away early on, before anything deeply personal had come out.

And oh boy had it been deeply personal.

And at the risk of feeling pathetically shallow, the turbolift incident was not the only issue clamouring for the attention of Enterprise's captain; he had literally just received a curt message from Admiral Forrest stating that he would be receiving a transmission from the captain of a Vulcan ship called the T'Lera; just what the Vulcan captain would want to talk about was beyond Jonathan for the moment. But then again he wasn't really focused on that; he had a copy of a medical report and a slightly longer personnel report under the name of Caitlin Flora Aber. He had flipped through the first one, noting absently that as far as Starfleet doctors were concerned, Ms Aber's only real problem was a recurring ligament problem that centred around her right knee and flared up only occasionally.

Her superior officers, however, were another matter entirely. Enterprise was Kate's first posting on a starship, although she had previously been on varying cargo and warp three 'sluggers', a tactical crewmember in each instance. And in each instance there had been reports filed on her; the adjectives used to describe her varied from the likes of stroppy and moody to the other extremes such as dangerously introverted, sadistic and insolent towards others of the same or a lesser rank to herself; senior officers were treated with a level of disdain that barely stayed on the right side of subordinate.

It was a pattern that, at least up until this morning, had been repeated on Enterprise, in every detail, right down to the last derisive look and silent meal, and Jonathan could only hope to himself that his stunt hadn't made matters any worse than they could already possibly have been.

He was still about three-quarters of the way through Kate's personnel report when the comm beeped. Jonathan set the padd down and activated his end of the connection. "Archer."

"Sir, you've got an incoming transmission on a Vulcan frequency."

Jonathan sighed in irritation. "Route it through to my ready room," he replied shortly.

"Yessir," the voice replied. "Bridge out."

A second later his computer beeped as well, and repressing a sigh, Jonathan called up the rather stern-looking image of a Vulcan.

"Captain Archer, I am Captain Marek of the T'Lera," he began without preamble.

"Yes, I was told you would be calling," Jonathan replied, clasping his hands together in front of him. Anything to stop any fidgeting. "Is there something I can help you with?"

"As a matter of fact, there is, Captain," Marek said with just the barest hint of poorly-concealed disdain. "My communications officer reports receiving transmissions - in Vulcan - from a human ship. Since, of course, you are the only human vessel to have made it this far out of your system, I assumed that you were the source of these... messages."

Jonathan considered his response for a few seconds before he actually spoke. "To my knowledge, Captain Marek," he began as diplomatically as possible, "there has not been any reason for any of my crew to be sending you any sort of transmission -" here he smiled, although it was a little forced, "- but rest assured I will look into it, and I'll let you know what I find out."

"Very well," Marek replied. He reached forward and terminated the connection without saying anything further, leaving his human counterpart staring in confusion at his own blank screen for a few moments. As far as he knew, there were seven people on Enterprise who could speak Vulcan; T'Pol of course, Hoshi, the other three communications officers, one of the science lieutenants and an engineer. He checked the chronometer; most of the crew were in the mess for an early movie night and doubtless T'Pol was busy doing something or other - she would resent any kind of interruption anyway.

Jonathan sighed, and leant back heavily on his chair. Tomorrow. It could wait 'til tomorrow.

Whatever it turned out to be.

o o o o o

After the movie finished, Trip walked Kate back to her quarters. There was no mention of the day's events, or the movie itself - in fact, there wasn't a lot of talking at all between them, if at all.

And if Trip was honest with himself, the movie hadn't been all that bad (Phlox in the front row had certainly been enjoying himself...) - the message cards were a nice touch, although in his private opinion the British PM and the tea lady seemed too over the top for his liking, but it was something that the (predominantly) female audience had seemed to wholeheartedly approve of.

They reached the door to her quarters, and still in silence Trip listened to Kate say good night and see you in the morning to him; something that seemed to come out of her automatically, as if she had been trained at some point in reclusive politeness - a reminder of her parents?

He didn't say anything when she smiled and thanked him sincerely for something she didn't mention but they both knew about, and he didn't say anything when he smiled back - something he didn't say but they both knew anyway; that he would help her if she needed it.

And he still didn't say anything when Kate leaned forward and kissed him quickly on the cheek before retreating into her quarters, leaving Trip to stare at the closed door for a few seconds before returning to his own quarters and to his bed.

It had been a long day.

 
 
Chapter 8: Like Being God with Alzheimer’s

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

Though we're worlds apart
You and I know what it's like
With the devil in our heart

-- The Wasteland, Elton John

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

 

Saturday morning dawned brightly on the Enterprise, due mostly to a glitch in the lighting relays (and giving at least two dozen people a bit of a shock at oh-four-hundred).

As usual, Trip was down in Engineering early - he wasted no time in getting the unusually lengthy list of complaints and general reported glitches and problems; the sheer scope and breadth of these problems would likely keep him busy until Armageddon. Or the end of the shift.

Whichever came first, really.

He scrolled through the padd he had been given, and began to yell out to various engineers what they were going to be doing for the next few hours: Bathurst got the three jobs going on E-deck, Hess was lumped with the doors on C and D-decks and so on and so forth. This left him with the three separate problems as reported by Doctor Phlox, and he was about to grab his stuff and head up there when...

"Good morning, Trip."

It was Kate, and it took the flustered engineer a few seconds to spot her before realising that she was, in fact, right behind him. "Damn, you startled me," he said. "Ben's comin' ta sort out the problems in the armoury, if that's what you're here for."

She raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Stretched thin this morning?" she enquired calmly.

Trip snorted. He started scrabbling around for the tools he needed. "We've got three downed engineers," he began gravely, "eight dodgy sets o' couplin's, four malfunctionin' scanners, two threats of engine failure since oh-six-hundred, five squeakin' showers, nine jammed doors an' a partridge in a pear tree." He considered that last statement as he straightened back up and faced the armoury officer. "All told, I think it's an average mornin'."

"Ah yes," she replied, "and on the first day of Christmas the night shift gave to me..." She quirked a sarcastic half-smile. "It's a classic."

Trip stared at her for a moment, then grinned. "One, you're about three weeks out. It ain't the first day o' Christmas for a few more weeks yet. An' two - you didn't get anythin' inspirin' from your own night shift?"

Kate considered the point for a moment. "It's the first of December," she shot back calmly, "and that seems to be more than enough for the people in the mess this morning." She paused. "Three near catastrophic accidents with the cannon simulations, two tired armoury crew and one calm and civilised conversation between myself and Crewman O'Malley."

Trip perked up at that, and he started heading for the door to Engineering, indicating for her to join him (she did). "How'd that one go?" he asked.

"Better than I thought," she replied, the relief evident in her voice. "He half pulled me to one side of the torpedo launcher and apologised for his behaviour over the last five or six weeks."

"An'..."

Kate sighed. "And I told him to stop being an idiot, that I was the one who needed to apologise to him," she replied as they turned the corner towards the turbolift. "So I did. He accepted the apology, and we came to an agreement."

Trip stopped in the corridor. "What was that?"

She shrugged casually. "He'll get the others to be civil to me if I give the different personalities in the armoury a chance to show they're better than they look at first glance," she said as she took a different turning to Trip. He watched her leave; the strange feeling that he had felt yesterday in her quarters came back with a vengeance, and it was a couple of minutes before he realised exactly where he was supposed to be.

And it was while he was in Sickbay with a toolbox and a scanner that he was joined by somebody he couldn't quite see through the mass of conduits and wires blocking his vision.

It was Hoshi. "Morning, Trip." She sounded a little agitated.

Remembering last night, and the mental argument he had had with himself about it since waking up, Trip scowled. "Mornin'," he replied shortly, focusing all of his attention on one of the connections in front of him. "Shouldn't you be up on the bridge?"

"Not for another couple of hours," Hoshi told him. "I switched shifts with Tom. There were some things I needed to do this morning that couldn't not be done."

And there it was again. He had fought against it during the movie the night before, and for some time before that, but now something inside Trip just snapped. He set down the tools he was using and manoeuvred himself enough so that he was facing Hoshi. "Look," he began, his voice surprisingly cold, "I don't know what kinda game you think you're playin' right now, Hoshi, but trust me it ain't worth it."

She looked puzzled. "Trip, what are you talking about?"

Anger started to build up inside Trip and he stood up, quickly dwarfing the younger woman. "If you're gonna mess Malcolm around," he said, getting louder and more insistent with every word, "then would ya at least have the decency to tell him first?!"

Hoshi shook her head. "Mess him ar-" she broke off, staring up at Trip with something unidentifiable in her eyes. And when she spoke again, her voice was just as cold as his had been only moments before. "All due respect, Commander," she snapped, sounding uncannily like Malcolm, "but I do believe you're talking out of your arse. You have no idea what you're talking about." And with that she stormed out of Sickbay, bypassing the doctor without so much as an acknowledgement or courtesy.

Watching her leave, Trip was hit by a sudden wave of... of guilt, something that was only made worse by the dirty look he received from the Denobulan as he began to feed his bats.

o o o o o

Saturday morning also dawned rather brightly in Malcolm's apartment, although for perhaps more natural reasons than there had been on Enterprise. However, in this instance, natural could have referred to the cold December sun shining through several of the windows and casting shallow shadows on the sparse furniture inside. It could also have referred to the pervading chilly air that seemed to simply waft through the different rooms in spite of any kind of change to the thermostat.

Or, of course, natural could also have referred to the little six year old boy bouncing on his daddy's bed at around nine in the morning, having already pulled back the curtains (although it was still dark outside) and was now trying to wrest away the quilt as well.

Keeping his eyes closed, Malcolm tried and failed to pull the quilt back from his would-be tormentor, and scant seconds later he heard the high pitched squeal of victory from somewhere near the foot of his bed.

"Okay, okay," Malcolm laughed. He opened his eyes, letting them adjust to the bright light. "You got me." He held his hands up in mock defeat and sat up on the bed. "What time is it?"

"Don't know," Mikey answered cheerfully. "But your computer beeped and made me wake up."

Malcolm frowned. Certainly much of his work things were in the next room along from the small one his son occupied at weekends, but nothing would make a loud enough noise to... unless...

"Come on, then," he said, taking Mikey under the arms and picking him up. "I'll get you some breakfast, and then we can see what's happening, okay?"

Mikey nodded energetically in response, and twenty minutes later, after having been fed something that could have been scrambled eggs but was also equally likely to have been something completely different instead, Malcolm found a few spare minutes to sit down at the computer and download the message he had been sent via the Echo probes that had been deployed by Enterprise while he had still been her armoury officer and routed through the different levels of bureaucracy here on Earth as well.

And when he had finished listening to the letter, there was some small part of him that wished he hadn't opened it in the first place. He still wasn't entirely certain why he had been sent the message in the first place, but Malcolm liked to think that he could guess at the motives behind him being sent it at all.

And after he had had some coffee and the remainder of the breakfast on the table, he began to feel a little better about things.

But not by very much.

After all, there was only so much that could be done from a small apartment in San Francisco with a six-year-old boy clattering around his bedroom like a miniature hurricane.

But he still appreciated knowing. It was a nice gesture, even if he couldn't do much from here.

o o o o o

In her quarters on C-deck, Hoshi took a look around her. The bed was still there, perfectly made this morning after pulling the cover shift for Tom. It would be hard for the bed not to be perfectly made, she thought wryly. It hadn't been slept in for over a day, and probably longer than that, now that she actually thought about it.

There were a couple of padds strewn on the otherwise clear floor, although she had no compunction to pick them up. Her computer was switched on, and the last letter she had received from Earth - from Malcolm - was still there, waiting, no doubt, to be played again, although that wouldn't happen just yet.

Inwardly, Hoshi was still seething from the... the... the... incident in Sickbay, and a part of her wanted to seek Trip out right now and hurt him. A lot. Make him regret what he had said to her... what he had suggested to her - what he had thought of her, of what she was capable of doing.

Well. Enough was enough. It had to happen now, or not at all. Shaking from what was probably badly repressed anger, Hoshi sat down at the desk, and replayed Malcolm's message. The words soothed her, giving her a reminder that at least somebody still gave a shit about her feelings, even though it looked as though Trip didn't any more.

Hoshi flipped through the letter, skipping chunks of it until she found the clip she was looking for. And all of a sudden, Malcolm's tone went from quietly humorous to downright worried and concerned.

"Do you ever get the feeling that you know exactly what's happening to someone, and however much you know about it, however much you know you can do something to prevent it - you just can't? I... it's happening right under your nose, and all you're missing is that one little piece of something - anything - that will let you get off your arse and actually do something about it?"

o o o o o

In his ready room, Jonathan finished scrolling through the lists of transmissions and communications in and out of Enterprise over the past couple of weeks.

There was nothing. Well, nothing that he didn't know about - there were the usual communications through the Echo probes - letters to and from home - and the odd interactions with aliens and alien vessels, but there was absolutely nothing on the list that Hoshi had compiled for him that he didn't know about, or was not previously aware of.

Jonathan sighed, running a hand over his face. Something wasn't right here, he knew it. One of the links in the chain had gone walkabout, and for the moment he didn't know where to look for it.

He was missing something. But what?

o o o o o

Hoshi walked around her quarters again, completing what was maybe the sixth or seventh circuit of the enclosed space, thoughts tumbling around in her head, giving her little respite.

No.

This ended now.

o o o o o

"It's a bit like being God, really," Malcolm's voice continued, "except that this time the Big Guy's got Alzheimer's, or at least something similar. I know what's happening, I know what I should do, but still... there's something missing and without that something - whatever it is - I can't do anything but let the fence I'm sitting on dig into my arse until maybe it's too late." He sighed, and the sound echoed around Hoshi's quarters. "I just wish I knew what it is that I'm not seeing."

The clip of recording stopped, but by that time Malcolm had been "talking" to nothing.

The quarters were empty.

o o o o o

Jonathan stared at the list, although he didn't know how long for. Hoshi had assembled it for him, he knew, going through the communications log with her usual precision. He had gotten two of the science team to search Enterprise's systems for any evidence of any coded or hidden Vulcan language transmissions. Naturally, there were none. He had even had the two lieutenants search for evidence pointing to transmissions that had later been erased from heir hiding places, but that had again drawn nothing but blanks.

He was going round and around in circles here, and it was a damn small one at that. And he was starting to get dizzy. Everywhere he looked, he came up against the same damned brick wall that he had faced a few minutes before, or however long ago it had been when he'd tried to go down a similar route.

Jonathan had fallen down the rabbit hole and there was no way back out again.

He looked through the list again, determined to find whatever it was that was evading him, hiding from him and refusing to be found.

Hoshi - the communications officer - had put the list together. No. There had to be something Jonathan wasn't seeing just by looking at a list of dates, times and content compiled together on a padd in his hand. Except that... there wasn't just a list on the padd, there was something else as well...

Suddenly things began to click in the captain's mind and things suddenly began to become much clearer. Leaning backwards in his chair he reached for the comm panel and attempted initiate the link.

Seconds later, and there was no response from Ensign Sato.

o o o o o

Further down the ship on C-deck, Trip was pacing backwards and forwards in one of the corridors, trying to get some things clear in his own head. First and foremost was Hoshi.

She was someone Trip counted among his friends, and for one of his friends, he had realised that he had been treating her like, well, shit. Jumping to conclusions... there had been plenty there to imply that there were conclusions to be reached, but not necessarily the ones that Trip had reached.

He felt as though he was being incredibly selfish, really. Malcolm was his friend, Trip was the person he had begun to trust long before he had fallen for a certain communications officer, therefore at some almost childish level, Trip felt as though he was the person with the right to monopolise Malcolm's time, his friendship, his trust, his... everything. Even though Malcolm was now worlds away from him, Trip still felt an almost protective instinct towards the lieutenant; even though Trip didn't know if or when he was going to see Malcolm again, he still wanted to keep an eye out for him, like he had early on in their friendship - the bugger here was that Trip knew full well that he had conceded that protective right more than six months before.

It was like being caught with his hand stuck in the cookie jar, really, but the difference this time was that no amount of pulling or twisting would get the cookie jar off his hand any quicker. Still following the same analogy, Trip reasoned that he had to find someone else to get his hand out of said cookie jar. The only problem with this solution was that this particular someone else probably wanted nothing more to so with him, given... recent happenings.

But still, he had to try, and seconds later he got his answer. Nobody home. He tried using the comm system, trying to track down the someone else that way, but again there was no answer.

The cookie jar tightening its hold of Trip's hand, the commander reached for the comm again, but this time it was to contact someone else. "Tucker ta Cap'n Archer."

Pause.

"I think Hoshi's gone missin'."

There was another, perhaps more ominous pause. "She's not missing, Trip."

"Then where is she?" Trip asked.

Jonathan sighed, the sound audible even through the comm system. "I... I can't explain it right now, Trip," he said, "but trust me, I will. Archer out." The connection went dead.

Trip stared at the comm panel for a few seconds, the cookie jar now coming close to cutting his hand off altogether. Why - why did he feel as though he was missing something here?

o o o o o

Back in the ready room, Jonathan initiated a two-way visual communication from the computer on his desk. He didn't want to do this - hell, he wasn't going to get anything out of doing this, but it was something he had to do. He was the captain, and sometimes things like this fell way away from his jurisdiction. It still felt as though he was calling the shots, but he didn't have a script, or know who the cast was, or even when the final curtain was going to fall.

Eventually, though he got an answer.

Of sorts.

"Captain Archer," the face at the other end of the link said. "I presume that you have found the source of this... inconvenience." The way in which he said it told Jonathan that he knew full well what had been going on all along - the Vulcan version of yanking someone's chain then, perhaps?

He bit back the immediate response that came to mind. "Yes," he answered evenly. "And... tell her my answer is yes. I accept."

The Vulcan captain inclined his head to one side. "I will see to it that she is told."

"There - there's one more thing." When he received nothing in reply Jonathan ploughed on. "Tell her - tell her I wish her well."

Captain Marek nodded, and seconds later the connection terminated and the screen in front of Captain Archer went blank.

 
 
Chapter 9: Hell is just a Sauna

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

while my heart is a shield and I won't let it down
while I am so afraid to fail so I won't even try
well how can I say I'm alive

-- life for rent, Dido

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

 

Sometime fairly early the next morning, Trip arrived on the bridge in search of Kate and some diagnostics results he had been promised from the previous day, much of which had been taken up with completing and checking up on the various repairs and fix-it jobs that he and the engineering team had been called upon to do; Trip hadn't had the time either to find Jonathan or Hoshi, and he still wanted to talk to her.

The captain must have been in his ready room - the command chair was empty - and as Trip crossed the bridge he spotted a dark head working determinedly at the communications station. He turned towards it, meaning to apologise to Hoshi when he saw who was working there.

"Good morning, Commander." It was that other ensign. Tom Whatever-the-hell-his-name-was.

Caught off guard, Trip could only manage a, "Uh... mornin', Ensign," before crossing fully over to the tactical station, where Kate was. "What's goin' on?" he hissed to her, coming around to stand behind her - much like he used to when it was Malcolm sitting there.

Not looking up from what she was doing, Kate replied equally quietly, "You don't know?"

"Clearly not," Trip retorted sarcastically. "Did I miss somethin' in the memo - you gossipin' an' not includin' me?" Even from the angle he was at, Trip could still see Kate silently raise a single eyebrow.

"Perhaps," she replied, sounding rather philosophical, "you should ask the captain."

Trip looked around him, just in time to see Jonathan emerge from the ready room; the older man somehow managed to look pissed off, calm and bone tired all at the same time, and it was not a combination Trip much envied. "Is, uh... s'Hoshi sleepin' in this mornin'?" the engineer asked brightly, looking to nobody in particular. He didn't miss the look that passed between the helm, tactical, science and communications stations, and Trip looked around him again. "Okay," he announced caustically. "Looks like I'm missin' somethin' here. Anybody care ta fill me in?"

To his utmost surprise, it was T'Pol who answered him. "Ensign Sato has... is returning home," the Vulcan science officer said, clearly as delicately as she was capable of managing.

"She's what?" Trip asked.

Jonathan sighed from the command chair. "She resigned her commission, Trip," he said. "She's left Starfleet and she's going home. To Earth."

Trip took a step forward and held his hands up. "One sec, Cap'n. What the hell did I miss in the last twenty four hours?" He shook his head. "Somethin' like that does not jus' happen like - like..." Failing to find the word he was looking for, he instead snapped his fingers. "Like that," he settled for. "I mean, were ya plannin' on tellin' me any time soon?"

It was a few seconds before comprehension dawned in the captain's sleep-encrusted eyes. He nodded and let out a surprisingly deep breath. "There was an announcement yesterday evening," Jonathan told Trip seriously. "Ensi... Hoshi asked me to let everybody know after the shuttle redocked with Enterprise."

"An' I missed this announcement... how?" Trip was determined not to let this get away from him. Or anyone else, for that matter.

"You did imply that you were very busy yesterday," Kate's voice piped up calmly behind him. "Perhaps you were... out of range."

Trip didn't turn around - even if he had, he suspected she would have been smirking - but instead looked down at Jonathan in the command chair. "What about at dinner last night?" he demanded.

The captain shrugged. "I assumed you knew," was all he would say before quickly redirecting his attention elsewhere. Back up by the tactical station, Trip thought about it. True enough, he had been knee deep in diagnostics, scans and squeaky doors on F-deck for most of the day, but still... what kind of an excuse was a heavy workload for not being told that the ship's resident language geek was leaving, only to be replaced by...

Oh shit.

Trip blanched as the very last piece of the puzzle fell neatly into place, hitting him on the head several times in different places before slotting in neatly and staring smugly up at him from the complete picture.

He turned around again and caught another look at the back of Ensign Garrett's head.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.

Did he mention oh shit?

Trip did - really, he did - feel like a shit. But before he could say or do anything else - or anything at all for that matter - Tom spoke up from the communications station. "We're being hailed, Captain," he said tersely, if not a little tensely. "It's the Siriiyans."

From his vantage point, Trip was the only person to see Kate shudder.

o o o o o

Most of the rest of Saturday had been taken up with an impromptu rehearsal; Mikey's Christmas play was in just over two weeks, and the little boy was adamant that while Mummy was "helping good", only Daddy could do a proper Father Christmas voice.

So this left Malcolm playing Santa for most of Saturday afternoon. Assuming, of course, that every half hour or so, Santa left his Christmas duties to check on armoury diagnostics he was running from his living room.

But hey.

In his role as the chief Elf at the North Pole, Mikey had quite a number of lines to learn - this was only topped by Santa himself (played by Mikey's friend Toby) and the two little children who get caught up in Santa's sack (played by the not-quite-identical-twins Hanna and Rufus).

Sunday, however, brought an entirely new challenge for Malcolm. Determined to get his lines exactly right, Mikey had given up his script and had now demanded that his father read the lines for every single other part in the play - with different voices, naturally - so that the chief Elf (aka Mikey) knew exactly what he had to say and when he had to say it.

Secretly, Malcolm was really enjoying himself. His own notion of a beatific Father Christmas had been disabused at the age of three by his own father (who had told his three-year-old son not to waste his time with fairytales and myths), so the chance to help his own son live out a part of what should be everybody's childhood was, well, quite an experience, and it left Malcolm's own inner child (normally a pyro to the core...) with a profound sense of satisfaction at watching Mikey talk animatedly about Christmas at home with his mummy and sister.

Christmas last year on the Enterprise had been a bit of a damp squib, especially considering that most of the day itself was taken up with extensive repairs to the starboard warp nacelle, although the crew had more than made up for it over New Year's - certainly the discovery of Phlox's medical report (a little letter back to Denobula about human hangover treatments) for that week would have seemed to indicate that, if nothing else.

Madeleine was busy with her own family this year - her little girl was due to be born on the big day, at the last Malcolm had heard, and as far as he knew his parents weren't going to be celebrating this year at all. Which kind of left Malcolm in a bit of a quandary. He knew that he would be made more than welcome by Karen's family if he were to show up there for turkey and veg, but it still wasn't the same as... well... as...

Never mind. Malcolm shrugged the thought from his mind, left the latest set of diagnostics and scans to it, and sighed in resignation. Just call me Santa Mal...

o o o o o

The Siriiyan captain on the bridge's viewscreen wasn't the same captain they had encountered before, but that seemed to make no matter for the alien.

And when he spoke, his voice was loud, harsh and got right up Trip's ass. And probably the asses of a few other people on the bridge as well. Not bothering to introduce himself, he instead launched off with, "Captain Archer, I believe you are the man we have been looking for."

Jonathan was already on his feet. "That would probably depend," he said carefully. "After all, you already seem to know who I am."

The alien captain inclined his head forward. "My cartignia informs me that that is the case," he replied.

Jonathan shot a quick look at the comm station. After a few agonising seconds... "First officer," Tom supplied. "I think."

"Why wouldn't that show up on the UT?" Trip wondered, mostly to himself. But beside him he noticed Kate's shoulder's tense and square up, although once again she remained silent.

Meanwhile, Jonathan nodded. "Well in that case you had better tell me why you're here," he said, "as I still am none the wiser."

Again the alien inclined his head. "As I said, my cartignia produced a very detailed report on you and some of your crew," he told the human captain. "As you may or may not recall he was present during the... trade mission you initiated with another ship in our fleet, the Laseyegnia. The trade mission that ended somewhat... abruptly."

"That's one way of putting it," Jonathan replied tightly, still on his guard.

"Indeed," the alien said. "However, this is not the full reason that I have come to find you. Again returning to the report my cartignia put together, he made the observation that one of the crew of your ship was an extremely skilled markswoman."

Jonathan's eyes flicked briefly towards the tactical station, but he didn't do anything else. Following the quick movement, the Siriiyan took full stock of Kate's resolute expression, as well as her refusal to look anywhere other than at the screen in front of her. "Yes," he said, returning his attention to Archer again. "She's the one." He laughed suddenly, the noise much higher-pitched than his voice, and involuntarily Enterprise's bridge crew (with the exception of T'Pol) flinched. "Captain Archer, I commend you on your choice of tactician. That officer of yours is quite the talk of our fleet." Without warning, his whole demeanour changed. "Which is why I must apologise to you for - this."

The Siriiyan nodded curtly, and a split second later Enterprise was rocked by an explosion, sending sparks flying across the bridge and cutting part of the power. A second, smaller shockwave, and this time the tactical station itself exploded, sending Trip rocketing backwards into the situation room and landing hard on his back, leaving him out cold. Smoke filled most of the bridge, and everyone in sight craned their necks around - not daring to move from their positions - to try and see through the thick grey smog hanging around Kate's position.

Jonathan struggled back to his feet. Leaning heavily on the railing around T'Pol's station, he glared in the direction of the viewscreen. "What the hell was that for?" he cried out, pleasantries and politeness thrown to the wind.

Instead of replying or saying anything else, the Siriiyan captain leaned forward towards his own screen, and a second later Jonathan was left staring at a blank screen - the alien had cut the connection. Jonathan staggered forward, holding onto his side and eventually collapsed back onto the decking, his face contorted by the pain. Seconds later he too was unconscious.

Moving around from her seat, T'Pol waved an arm towards Tom. "Hail Sickbay," she ordered calmly, "and inform Doctor Phlox to have a team of medics standing by. Ensign Mayweather," she continued, changing her attention to the helm. "Do we still have engines?"

It took a few seconds for Travis to respond, unable to clearly see the blinking equipment in front of him. "No, ma'am," he reported. "Port nacelle's venting gas, and starboard's all but gone completely. We're dead in the water."

She nodded, and began to usher the rest of the bridge crew into action; the uninjured crew began to carry both Commander Tucker and Captain Archer towards the turbolifts, one at a time - Phlox was waiting one deck down with emergency medical kits.

After a few minutes, the smoke surrounding the Kate's station has dissipated fully, leaving the tactical area's damage open for display - computers and monitors were covered with black sediment that could have been caused by the proximity of the explosion, and one chunk of the tactical station was gone completely.

But of the tactical officer herself, there was no sign.

Until Tom, finally allowed to leave the comm station where he had been monitoring the rest of the ship and the incoming damage reports, walked around the back of the station, ignoring warning looks from the Vulcan science officer.

Crouched in a foetal shape underneath what was left of the tactical station, and hidden from view by chucks of metal and debris, Kate's body was covered in the exact same sediment that now decorated most of her surroundings. When Tom reached out to touch it, it flaked away from her - like a powder - and fell lightly to the decking, leaving behind traces of a blue Starfleet jumpsuit underneath it.

"Sub-commander," Tom called out urgently. "Sub-commander!"

T'Pol came around the station and looked down at the female commander's position. "Call Sickbay again," she said, sounding much more subdued this time, "and alert Doctor Phlox."

Tom didn't move from his position on the floor, but instead reached out again and began to flake more of the black, filmy powder from Kate's still form. When he had finished, he reached in once more and felt for a pulse, something - anything that would indicate that she was still alive.

Aber's skin felt cold to the touch, cold and stiff and unyielding; patches of the exposed skin were red raw and flaky, and even some parts of her uniform had been worn right through - here and there patches of undergarments and occasionally more raw skin could be seen. The effect was as if something had literally eaten its way through Kate's skin and clothes. Moments later Tom realised that he himself was shivering as well, although it wasn't cold. Under T'Pol's almost questioning observance, the young ensign kept trying to find a pulse on Kate's neck.

Finally, he felt something. The smallest of movements in the veins and arteries in her neck, and he smiled out of sheer relief. He began to pant, although he wasn't short of breath.

Seconds later, unbelievably, the commander began to move, and in front of both Ensign Garrett and Sub-commander T'Pol, began to stretch out slowly and stiffly, and then began fingering the collar of her jumpsuit absently.

"Are you alright?" Tom asked her.

Kate jumped. It was as if she hadn't been aware of anybody else around her, much less the young ensign crouched not half a foot away. Slowly she turned to face Tom, then craned her neck upwards, as if she instinctively knew someone else had a somewhat higher vantage point on proceedings. Well, she was an armoury officer after all.

She turned back again and began to inspect herself, wincing almost involuntarily when she rubbed the backs of her hands - they were bright red and the skin was peeling away under her moving fingers. Lightly rubbing one patch of skin on her right hand, she answered Tom. "I feel fine," she said croakily, "but I know I'm probably not. What - what happened?"

Tom looked back up at the senior officer before replying. "The Siriiyans fired something," he told her, "and the second time it happened - the second time it happened the explosion was right here." He tapped the decking with one hand.

For the first time, Kate took a proper look at her surroundings. "Oh shit," was all she said at seeing what was left of her station. She missed T'Pol's raised eyebrow and Tom's mildly surprised expression at that pronouncement, but she was already occupied with other things. She held out an arm to Tom, and between them they managed to get Kate standing up, although she leaned heavily on both the ensign and the railing next to the damaged consoles.

"Where is everyone?" she asked, looking around at the empty bridge.

To her surprise, it was T'Pol who answered her. "Captain Archer and Commander Tucker are currently receiving treatment for serious injuries in Sickbay," the Vulcan informed Kate. "The other bridge crew have more minor injuries, but still require varying degrees of treatment."

Kate nodded absently, and fingered her collar again. "Damn, it's warm in here," she said under her breath, and beside her Tom smiled wanly. "Oh shit," she added. Then, "Bastards. Bloody, bloody bastards."

"To whom are you referring?" asked T'Pol.

Still leaning on the railings, Kate said, "Those Siriiyans. What about Trip and the Captain?" she asked, turning back to face T'Pol. "You said they were seriously hurt."

"The injuries sustained are within the doctor's ability to treat," T'Pol told her, and the armoury officer accepted the answer as the comfort it was intended to be.

Kate looked sideways at Tom. "Damage report, Ensign."

He look flustered for a second, then regained his composure. "Last count was thirty-four reports of minor and non-threatening injuries, not counting Captain Archer and Commander Tucker," he said slowly. "Both warp nacelles took damage, and as you can tell, the bridge'll take a while before it's fit for proper use again."

Kate nodded, taking the information in. "What about the Siriiyans?"

T'Pol answered. "Sensors have not yet detected a warp trail leaving this area of space," she said.

Kate got the hint. "Well then," she said, looking at Tom with a tired expression. "I think it's time I had a little chat with their captain. With your permission of course, Sub-commander," she added as an afterthought. When the Vulcan nodded, Kate jerked her head to the communications station. "Do your stuff, Mister Garrett."

Tom nodded uncertainly and crossed the bridge again. Seconds later, "They're responding, Commander, Sub-commander," he said.

"Well, then," Kate said. She slowly worked herself off the railing and hesitantly took a few steps towards the command chair, and sank onto it heavily. "Let's get this show on the road."

Almost instantly the image of the Siriiyan captain appeared on the screen again. "Captain Archer," he began, "I -" He stopped short at the sight of the human female in the captain's chair. "The markswoman," he said, the surprise in his voice clear. "Where is Captain Archer?" he asked.

Kate narrowed her eyes. "In our medical bay receiving treatment for injuries caused by you," she replied coolly.

"Who is the highest ranking capacitated human officer on your ship?" the alien demanded.

Kate didn't hesitate. "I am," she snapped at him, ignoring the dull throbs of pain that were beginning to course through her limbs.

"Then I will deal with you," the Siriiyan said.

"Wrong," Kate said coldly. "I will deal with you." The alien stopped short at her cold tone of voice, and she smiled thinly. "Let's begin with a few introductions, shall we? I'm Commander Aber, effective first officer of the Enterprise. And you are...?"

"Captain Poye of the Laseyegnia," the Siriiyan replied. "You place yourself in a difficult position, Commander. Your ship is in no position to -"

Kate cut him off with something that could have been a growl, drawing the attention of both the other officers on the bridge. "Wrong again, my dear captain," she told him calmly. "The only position I find myself in is between two options - do I retaliate immediately for what you have done to my ship, or do I draw it out?"

"You would fire upon my ship?" Poye asked, genuinely astonished at Kate's short speech.

"Why not?" she asked. "You fired on mine at least twice - that I recall. You seriously injured our captain and chief engineer, not to mention nearly three dozen other crewmembers needing smaller treatments." She smiled again, although it didn't reach her eyes. "I'd say that's more than enough for me to return fire."

"Firing weapons achieves nothing."

"Then why fire on Enterprise?" Kate barked.

"Because of you, the markswoman," Poye said. "The last encounter between our peoples ended in a single death on our part. For that death I was required to create an even balance once more. A death of your for a death of ours."

"An eye for an eye," Kate whispered to herself. She looked back at the Siriiyan on the viewscreen. "If you killed me then your balance would be even."

"Yes."

"Because I pulled the trigger?"

"No." Poye seemed genuinely surprised. "Because of your position on the ship. Commander," he said, "there is such a thing as genuine necessity. Killing you would have had the maximum impact on your ship - such was the death of the chief engineer dead by your weapon. Without him, his ship was crippled for weeks. Without you, your ship would be in much the same position - crippled without their markswoman."

"And if Captain Archer dies in Sickbay from injuries that you caused," Kate replied, now ignoring the build-up of emotions inside of her, "if he dies, that will have a greater impact on this crew."

"No," Poye countered. "The first officer of any ship is trained to take command in a crisis. That is their job. Captain Archer will not die. Neither will your chief engineer."

"How can you say that?" Kate demanded, getting up and gripping tightly onto the railing beside her.

Poye's answer was simple and precise. "It was a death meant for you. By the laws of my people I am required to take from you what you took from us. A death for a death."

"No," Kate whispered. "No," she repeated, louder this time. "I am not going to die again. My punishment is life, Captain Poye," she told him, taking slow, hesitant steps towards the helm. "My punishment is to keep on living although I am already dead inside. Now," she added, "you can take that and go, or you can leave it and get ready for a few torpedoes. What'll it be?" she asked.

The Siriiyan watched her for a few seconds, his face unreadable.

"And if it's any consolation," Kate added, quieter this time but no less audible to anybody, "the face of your 'death' has haunted my dreams for weeks, and probably will do for some time to come. My punishment is life," she repeated. "Life and the ability to never forget. I don't know about you, but that's more long-lasting than death any day, wouldn't you agree?"

"I will take your answer," Poye said slowly, "with the premise that you will never forget what you have done to our people."

"Likewise for you," Kate replied. "And your guarantee that our officers will live."

"As I said, it was a death intended for you," Poye told her. "It will not kill them."

"Good enough for me."

"Until next we meet, I wish you safe skies." With that the screen went blank.

Finally the pain and exhaustion overtook her, and Kate collapsed next to the helm station.

 
 
Chapter 10: This is the Last Time

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

make me high on lullabies a melody for me to sway
say you'd come and stop the rain

-- Sway, Vanessa Carlton

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

 

Trip couldn't stop pacing. Up and down and all around the narrow confines of Sickbay. He just couldn't keep still for more than a couple of seconds before something happened. All the while ignoring the headache that was growing bigger and bigger with every step he took. Ignoring warning looks from Doctor Phlox, Jonathan (who was just about awake but told to stay on his bed), and T'Pol, but then again she always looked pissed with him, so that was one wasn't really a biggie any more.

Trip had long since stopped looking at the other casualties who had been brought into Sickbay: he'd found it too painful to look at all of them: too many of the biobeds' inhabitants were from Engineering and the tactical teams, plus the other unlucky few who had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Eventually, though, enough was enough. Trip stopped mid-stride, narrowly avoided knocking into a ransacked medical kit, and changed direction to where it looked like Phlox and T'Pol were standing vigil over Kate's bed.

The armoury officer was still unconscious: at some point in the proceedings, before Trip had woken up, Kate had been changed from a tattered and hole-ridden uniform into the more standard sickbay overalls, and with the short sleeves, the damage was all too clear. Kate's arms, neck and face were all covered with a red, eczema-like rash, and in some places the skin was gone altogether. T'Pol and the doctor were still deep in conversation, and as Trip slowly got closer, he could begin to hear words like "biological sediment" and "erosive capability". Combine this with "unknown factors" and the picture suddenly began to look very grim indeed.

"So, Doc," Trip said, as brightly as he could manage. "Is she gonna be alright?"

Phlox looked up, but didn't meet his eyes. The joviality Trip had come to expect from the Denobulan was long gone. "According to Ensign Garrett's report, Commander Aber collapsed on the bridge whilst suffering extreme pain and discomfort," he intoned, indicating with a jerk of his head the young communications ensign who was now doubling up as a makeshift nurse at the other end of sickbay. "As yet I've been unable to determine the exact nature of the sediment that the commander was coated with, and until then I can offer no immediate effective treatment."

Trip ran a hand through his hair. "It can't be that difficult, can it? I mean, her station goes boom, out comes the black stuff. Looks like it's been eatin' through everythin' it landed on, if ya believe T'Pol's analysis of the bridge." A Vulcan dagger glare was thrown his way. And duly ignored. "All I'm sayin' is, is there nothin' ya can do, like skin grafts or somethin' where it's really bad, and give her somethin' to help her wake up that bit quicker. She might even have some answers for you," he added lamely, as the doctor watched him with a blank expression.

It stayed like that for a couple of moments. Then: "Very well, Commander. If you'll pass me that hypospray immediately behind you, and the ampules on the rack - there..." Trip handed him the relevant items. "Sub-commander," Phlox continued. "You may be better placed on the bridge with the emergency crews. It would be good for a member of the command staff to have a presence there."

T'Pol quirked an eyebrow, inclined her head gracefully, then turned and left Sickbay. Trip turned back to Phlox. "What have you got that I don't, Doc?" he asked, bewildered. "Every time I try that I get the evil eye."

To his surprise Phlox actually chuckled as he loaded up the sprays. "It's all in the tone of voice, Commander," he said conspiratorially. "As my third wife would no doubt tell you, should you ever have the opportunity to meet."

Flashes of Feezal appeared in front of Trip's eyes, and he shook his head. "I don't think I'd be able to cope with another Mrs Phlox," he replied lightly.

Doctor Phlox simply smiled. "If you're sure, Commander. Gereya is a charming woman, and highly skilled in her profession." He put the rack of ampules on a shelf behind Kate's bed, and pressed the spray in his hand to her neck. There was a slight hiss as the medicine went in. "It should only take a few moments, Mister Tucker," he said softly. "If you need me, I'll be attending to Captain Archer and the others." That was as discreet as it was going to get, apparently. Well, that plus the privacy curtain that suddenly appeared from out of nowhere and blocked off most of the other people in Sickbay. Definitely discreet.

But it didn't matter. Trip positioned himself at the foot of Kate's bed, and waited. It took less than a minute for Kate's eyelids to slowly flutter open, and a few more seconds before they came round to focus on him. She smiled.

Trip smiled back. "Good to see ya, Commander," he quipped. Then, "Mind tellin' me what the hell you thought you were doin' back up there? Tom told us everythin'," he added, trying to sound at least semi-harsh, but it was too difficult. Too much adrenaline and sheer honest-to-God relief flooding his system to sound harsh.

Kate nodded slowly. She opened her mouth, but all that came out was a raspy cough. She stopped, took a deep breath and tried again. Success. "I found something out," she whispered to him, the strange little smile still on her face.

Trip raised his eyebrows. "That was what the grand show was for?" he exclaimed. "For God's sake, Kate, ya nearly died up there? What the hell are you on? You gotta be high on somethin' to do somethin' like that!" He shook his head. "Not even Malcolm would do somethin' that crazy, that..." He broke off as a new understanding dawned. He chuckled mirthlessly. "Damn, what I'd give ta see what they teach y'in tactical officer school," he said.

Kate laughed, which quickly turned into another cough. "I found something out," she repeated, still whispering, and taking her time between words. Another, much deeper breath. Preparing herself for something.

Trip cocked his head to one side. "What was it?" he asked, sounding much gentler.

For what seemed like the longest time, Kate stared up at him from the biobed. "I matter," she stated simply. "And although it's not for the reasons I'd hope for, someone somewhere out there's glad I'm alive."

Trip's throat constricted, remembering the conversation in the turbolift - forced, yes, but unimportant... never. "Of course you goddamn matter," he said, coming round to the side of the bed, and taking the vacant chair by Kate's side. "What d'you think I've been tryin' to drum into ya since... since then? A hundred an' one ways to eat pecan pie?"

Kate chuckled, but this time didn't cough. "Damn, but I should have looked a little closer to home," she said.

"Yeah, then maybe ya wouldn't be injured and in here," Trip retorted. He took Kate's hand in his own and held it up for her to see. "See this?" he asked. "I wouldn't've said it a coupla months ago, but I'm glad you're alive. Glad you're here, glad you're fillin' Malcolm's shoes, cause, uh..." He broke off again and cleared his throat. "Cause... I can't imagine anyone doin' that better than you, an' I'm sorry it's taken so long for me ta see that."

Kate didn't say anything to that, just closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, they were glistening, and Trip realised. She'd been trying to hold back tears. Another wave of the feeling he'd felt before, after that damn English love movie, came back to him in full force, and it temporarily overwhelmed him.

"C'mere," Trip said softly, reaching up to wipe the tears away with a gentle thumb. Then, with a surge of something unlike anything he'd ever felt before, he got up, leaned in, and kissed Kate on the lips. It was gentle, chaste and only lasted a few seconds. Trip pulled away slightly, and looked down at the armoury officer. Her eyes were closed again, and all of a sudden a dry tongue darted out of her mouth and tasted her lips. Kate opened her eyes, looked up at Trip, and smiled. "That was unexpected," she rasped.

"I've never been one ta conform to people's expectations of me," Trip replied with a smile. He sat back down again, all the time keeping hold of Kate's hand.

"Now, that much is obvious," Kate shot back, the sarcasm in her voice a clear indication that she was beginning to feel better.

Trip smiled, ran a hand through his hair. "Phlox is gonna wanna talk to you about that stuff they found you caked in," he told her. "And I'm goin' t'have to start sortin' out repair teams and stuff for the nacelles. And then there're the Siriiyans, I -"

Kate interrupted him with a brief grip on his hand. "They won't do anything," she said firmly.

Trip opened his mouth as if to protest, but caught the look on Kate's face. He nodded. "Okay. I'll tell Jon."

"Trip." Kate sounded almost urgent. "Will you be here when Phlox lets me get out of here?"

Trip smiled and stood up. "Always," he told her.

"One more thing," Kate insisted, and Trip sat back down. "One more thing I want to say, then you go do your thing with repairs, okay?" He nodded. She took another breath, and tried to put what she was feeling into words. "At the risk of sounding sappy, this is going to be the last time I refuse to live." It wasn't exactly what she was feeling, she knew that, but... it was close enough, she thought. This would be the last time she let things happen to her instead of the other way around.

And judging by the growing smile on her engineer's face, he got the message as well.

o o o o o

She had pointedly ignored the shuttle pilot on the way from Spacedock to their destination. The pilot - who had introduced himself as Randy Devers - had witnessed her... enthusiasm at meeting the Starfleet personnel on this side of the airlock and, much like everyone else, had probably assumed that she hadn't seen another human in over a year. (Actually it was closer to four days.)

Instead, she had stuck to staring out of the viewport next to her seat, watching the line of the sun's horizon slowly but steadily cross the North Atlantic in an eerie tandem with their shuttle. All the while she knew that this was probably going to be the last time she ever saw a scene like it. Closer into mainland America, and she could see the lights that dotted the high rises and open areas: Christmas lights, and where she was headed, it was now late Sunday evening.

It took less than two hours to cross the continent, an impressive feat given the battered look of the shuttle, which had clearly seen better days, or at least looked as though it had. And now, this much closer to her destination, she could see the tall buildings of Starfleet Headquarters. She smiled, when she saw them - some smart alec had left some of the lights on in the office-like arrangements of windows so that Starfleet HQ now wished everybody in eyeshot a "Merry Xmas, folks!", one word per 'line' down the tall building.

They had to slow down considerably now that they were entering residential areas, and twenty minutes away from HQ, Randy announced rather gruffly that they'd reached their destination. She'd smiled then - a deliberate smile pointed at him - paid him, and got out of the shuttle, staring up at the high rise in front of her. The odd lights-on here and there, but not too many. She left Randy and his beat-up shuttle to it, and entered the building, choosing to take the stairs to the fifth floor.

When she finally emerged into the darkened grey hallway, she heard voices. Muffled voices, but voices nonetheless. She quietly rounded a corner and watched from the shadows, as a woman older than herself exited one of the apartments, a couple of bags and a small boy in tow. From this distance, she couldn't make out their faces or their features, and just watched as they disappeared off towards the elevators. Finally, she moved again, and crossed the last few carpeted metres that lay between her and her destination.

o o o o o

Malcolm watched Karen and Mikey disappear off into the darkness from the inside of his front door. Karen had stayed for just over two hours, chatting with Malcolm while Mikey had sorted his things out in his little bedroom. He smiled to himself as he shut the door, and went back through to the lit living area. It still amazed him that after everything that had happened, everything that he had put Karen through, and that Karen in turn had put him through, that they could still talk like normal adults, still talk as if they were friends. Karen had also invited him to join the family for Christmas, or in her words: "Get your arse over to mine the day before Christmas Eve. Nat and Merron'll put you up for a couple of nights, and you can try some of my famous turkey a la kitchen floor." Followed, of course, by a bright grin. One of friendship.

Malcolm suspected that that was what he needed right now. A friend. Someone in the flesh he could talk to. Brusilof was still too... too much to be anything other than a royal pain in the arse at work, and even though the apprentice scheme had ended some days ago, the young German was still tailing Malcolm around like a little puppy. Malcolm was still a little too wary of anyone else other than James to try and to the sociable thing, and for the moment that still suited him.

He sighed and rested his palms on the work-surface. Let his head drop between his shoulders and listened to the sound of himself breathing in and out.

And because of his, he jumped at least a foot in the air when the doorbell rang.

Cursing himself for letting himself get like that, Malcolm stormed to the front door and pulled it open, nearly yanking the thing off its hinges. The instant the door was open, however, he suddenly found himself stumbling backwards with an armful of...

"Hoshi?!"

She buried herself deeper into his neck and grunted, and Malcolm finally put his arms around her, drawing her into a tight hug. He planted a soft kiss in her hair, and after a couple of minutes they let go of each other, and got a good look at each other. Hoshi smiled widely, something Malcolm was so sure that he himself was mirroring, and finally his senses caught up with his brain. He indicated the hallway of the apartment; she stepped past him, and Malcolm shut the door behind the two of them... and there his brain stopped short. Two of them... damn, but that sounded right.

He caught up with her in the living room, where evidence of both Mikey and Karen remained: two tea mugs on the coffee table, and some toys and tiny t-shirts strewn about on the floor. Hoshi turned around to face him. "I've left Starfleet," she stated without preamble.

Malcolm literally did a double take. "What, no hello?" he managed weakly, and finally his brain caught up with his mouth. "What do you mean, you've left Starfleet?"

Hoshi held her arms open wide, and Malcolm noticed for the first time that she was wearing civilian clothes: dark grey trousers and a green jumper underneath a long black coat. "I quit," she replied. "I told Captain Archer exactly where he could shove the job of communications officer now that the love of my life was no longer on the Enterprise, and that I wanted out."

Malcolm slowly raised an eyebrow. "You told him that?" he asked, more than just a bit sceptical.

She grinned. "Well, the first part of it was in Klingon," she giggled, "so I don't know what exactly he thought I was saying to him, but he got the message, and that was the important thing." She stopped speaking, and moved closer, into Malcolm's personal space. "Wanna be back here," she mumbled. "Home's not home if you're not there." She let Malcolm draw her into another hug, and lay her head on his shoulder. "Sorted everything out before I left," she said. "My replacement's an up-and-coming linguist with a fetish for dire zombie movies, but he's particularly good with Denobulan conjugations. A bit too good, I think - Trip accused me of having an affair with him."

Malcolm leaned back. "He did what?"

Hoshi smiled. "Don't worry about it, Mal. I told him he was wrong, and he knows it's not true anyway. I think he was just frustrated because Kate was giving him the cold shoulder and he was missing you. He needs someone to poke fun at, and you can't be it anymore."

"Hmm." Malcolm leaned back into the hug, resting his chin on Hoshi's head. "Still might have to do something about that, though," he mused out loud. "If Commander Tucker messes with you, then he's messing with me, and he knows too well that isn't the best of ideas."

Hoshi giggled again. "If you do talk to him about it, I want to listen in on it."

The conversation hit a natural lull at that point, and they were both more than happy to just hold each other for the moment, forget about everything else and very much live in the here and now.

"Mikey'll be thrilled to meet you," Malcolm murmured eventually.

He felt Hoshi move underneath his head. "Yeah?"

"Of course," Malcolm replied. "Karen'll like you too. And Callie's the most adorable little..." He broke it off, and hit his forehead with a hand. "Bugger!"

Hoshi watched him, concerned. "What? What is it?"

"I'll have to talk to Karen," Malcolm said. "She invited me over to her's for Christmas, and now I can't, because..."

"Mal," Hoshi interrupted. "Just ask her if she can make another seat at the table." She smiled, almost shyly. "I'd like to meet your family."

"My..." Malcolm stared at her. Then smiled. "You're my family, Hosh... and they'll probably love to have you," he admitted. "It'll save Merron dragging up someone from his side of the family as a pity-date."

"One, who's Merron, and two, would he actually do that?"

"Merron is Karen's brother-in-law, and yes, he loves any chance he can get to make a fool of me," Malcolm replied with a grin. "Of course, I do the same to him. It's an interesting relationship..."

Hoshi smiled. "I've missed you, Mal."

"Missed you too, Hosh," he replied. "You staying the night?"

Hoshi shot him a dark look, then softened up. "Can I stay forever?"

Malcolm smiled.

o o o o o

Trip felt something stirring beside him, and instinctively tightened his grip. It was dark in his quarters, and it was somewhere between three and four in the morning, ship's time. Kate was having another nightmare. Trip pulled the quilt up a bit closer around her, and started rubbing her back with small circular motions, all the while whispering to her and holding her close.

He didn't like to think about the kind of nightmares that plagued Kate on an almost nightly basis, and he had tried not to, but in the three days since she had been released from Sickbay, she had had several each night. Neither of them would say it out loud to each other, but it was only the fact that Kate was sleeping in someone else's arms that the 'mares actually went away and she could get at least a few hours of sleep every night, and Trip a little less than she.

Half asleep as it was, Trip continued the routine of soft whispers and soft back-rubbing through the long shirt she was wearing, and eventually Kate calmed back down into sleep. Lying on his back with Kate spooned up against his side and her head buried somewhere in the crook of his shoulder, Trip stared off into the darkness for a few minutes while he was still awake. He knew better than anyone the demons that still haunted this woman, and he had made it his own personal mission to make sure that one day she would be rid of each and every one of them. This was going to be the last time she ever had to be alone, he would make sure of it.

Goddamn it, he loved Kate.

Lost as he was in these thoughts, it was a little while before he recognised the insistent beeping of the comm.

"Garrett to Commander Tucker."

Grunting, Trip eased himself out of bed, checked on Kate's sleeping form one last time, then padded across the room to the comm panel. "Tucker, an' keep it down."

"Sorry, sir," the contrite voice whispered back. "It's just that we've got a live transmission coming in from Earth for you."

"Live?" Trip repeated.

"Yessir," Tom's voice told him. "It's on a Starfleet frequency."

Trip pondered for a moment. "Route it through to my quarters, Ensign."

"Yessir. Garrett out."

A couple of seconds later, Trip's computer sprang to life. Turning the monitor's glare away from the bed, and making sure that the volume was turned right down, Trip activated his end of the connection, far too belatedly wondering if his attire of shirtless pyjama was entirely appropriate.

As it was, a face quickly appeared on the screen... in full Starfleet uniform.

Trip swallowed, his throat suddenly very dry indeed. "Mornin', Malcolm."

Malcolm raised an eyebrow. "Interesting uniform, Commander," he said crisply. "Now, I'm to understand you've levelled some accusations of a personal nature against the..." There was a pause. "The reason for my existence, the one true light of my life," he finished. There was a twinkle in the lieutenant's eye, and in the background Trip could just about make out feminine sounding laughter.

He grinned widely, then put on his most officious voice, mindful not to disturb Kate. "Well, Loo-tenant, it's kinda like this..."

 

-- end

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