The door slid open with an ominous hiss.
Holding a PADD before him as if it could afford him some protection, Malcolm Reed stepped into the captain’s ready room. As he expected, his commanding officer was standing before the viewport and staring at the streaking of the stars beyond, a bleak expression on his face. Archer’s eyes shifted slightly, jumping from the stars to Malcolm’s reflection in the viewport before quickly returning to the starfield.
“Report,” the captain ordered.
“We’ve altered course, sir,” Reed replied quickly. “Ensign Mayweather estimates eight to ten days to the deuterium colony,” he added. Archer nodded, but offered no reply. Instead, his gaze seemed locked entirely upon the darkness beyond the viewport. Dark circles ringed the captain’s eyes, aging him a decade or more, and Malcolm realized for the first time how old the other man appeared. Shame bubbled up within Reed’s stomach, and he bit back a soft curse when he realized that Hoshi had been right when she intimated that the captain desperately needed someone to talk to.
“He just lost two friends, Malcolm,” the communications officer had said during breakfast. Travis, who never seemed far from Hoshi’s side these days, nodded in silent agreement as Sato continued. “I’m worried about him,” she had admitted, the words of concern causing Mayweather to grimace slightly and look away, though Hoshi didn’t seem to notice. “All he does is study the data from that planet over and over,” she pointed out. At the time, Reed had still been struggling with his own grief over Trip’s apparent death – despite Phlox’s continued assertion that the two errant officers were alive, Malcolm couldn’t see how they would have survived, and he’d been a pessimist for too long to grasp at straws – but now, seeing the captain like this, he had to admit that Sato was right.
Perhaps sensing Malcolm’s silent appraisal of him, Captain Archer shifted his attention from the starfield and slowly turned to face Reed, frowning slightly.
“Is there anything else, Mister Reed?” Archer asked, the formality of his words as big an indication of his mood as his physical appearance.
“Actually, Captain, there is,” Malcolm replied. He straightened his back, once more wishing that he were a couple centimeters taller. “The senior officers are concerned about you, sir.” At the captain’s obvious surprise, Reed pressed on. “You aren’t sleeping, you aren’t eating-”
“That will be all, Lieutenant Commander,” Archer snapped, glowering darkly as he spoke. Malcolm frowned.
“With all due respect, sir,” he retorted coolly, locking gazes with his superior and refusing to back down, “it will not.” The captain blinked in surprise at Reed’s sudden aggression. “You said it yourself, Captain: as officers, we’re supposed to set an example for the rest of the crew. How does killing yourself with guilt look to everyone?” Archer looked away, remorse stamped upon his face, and Malcolm played his trump card. “The crew needs you, sir.”
For a moment, Reed wondered if he had gone too far. In the time he’d served under Archer, he’d learned that the captain did not like being told that he was wrong – T’Pol particularly had suffered the brunt of the man’s wrath in the early days of Enterprise’s mission. To Malcolm’s surprise, however, Archer’s harsh expression crumpled and he dropped into his chair, exhaustion so obviously riding his shoulders that Reed wanted to yawn.
“You’re right,” the captain murmured with a deep sigh. He leaned back in the chair and stared at the ceiling. “It’s a bad habit of mine – to get so focused on something I forget about everything else.” Archer smiled – or grimaced, Malcolm couldn’t quite tell which – and sighed again. “Target fixation, they used to call it,” he said. “I relied on Trip to slap some sense into me.”
“Say the word, sir,” Reed said with a forced smile of his own, “and I’ll be glad to slap you around. For the good of the crew, of course.”
“Of course,” Archer repeated, the grim despair that had been surrounding him easing fractionally. “Thank you, Malcolm,” he said, before narrowing his eyes and studying Reed for a heartbeat. “You’re the last person I’d have expected to stage an intervention,” the captain remarked, and Malcolm shifted awkwardly.
“Ensign Sato suggested I say something, sir,” he admitted. Archer chuckled.
“Well, she was right.” The captain gestured to the nearby couch, and Reed hesitantly took a seat without actually relaxing. “Since Trip is gone,” Archer continued, staring at the blank monitor before him, “I’m going to need someone to remind me when I’m getting tunnel vision.”
“I can’t replace Commander Tucker, sir,” Malcolm said softly, swallowing the lump that lodged in his throat.
“No one can,” Archer replied, blinking rapidly. He looked away from Reed, and Malcolm guessed that the older man was fighting tears. It was, after all, what he was doing. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” the captain whispered.
“Phlox doesn’t think he’s dead,” Reed pointed out. His breath caught at the sharp look the captain pinned him with.
“Do you?” Archer demanded. Almost at once, Trip’s voice echoed in Malcolm’s ears: you’re a regular grim reaper. Reed tried not to wince.
“Yes, sir,” he said in response. He forced another smile on his face. “But then,” he added, “I thought we were going to die on Shuttlepod One too.” Malcolm shook his head. “If he were here, Trip would tell us to stop being so bloody cynical.”
“And T’Pol would argue with him,” the captain interjected, sudden amusement in his eyes. “She’d quote some ridiculous Vulcan rule or procedure that would piss him off.”
“Verbal foreplay,” Reed said automatically. He inhaled sharply the moment he realized what he had said – the rumors about the captain’s interest in T’Pol weren’t new, and Malcolm didn’t know how the older man would take to him implying that Trip had been interested in the Vulcan that way. Archer’s sudden bark of laughter came as a surprise.
“Sometimes,” the captain admitted with an actual smile, “I just wanted to lock them in a room together so they could figure out whether they wanted to kiss or to kill each other.” He chuckled. “You should have seen them eyeing each other when she told us about T’Mir.” Reed held his tongue, unsure what to say, but Archer didn’t seem to notice as he lost himself in memories. “I shouldn’t be surprised, though,” the captain said. “Trip always was attracted to difficult women.”
They sat there in silence for a long moment, and Malcolm struggled to find something to say that would break the tension rapidly growing between them. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the captain’s expression tightening, and could see the slow return of the dark mood that had been the entire point of Reed’s visit. Say something, you silly bugger, Malcolm told himself. Hoshi would kill him if he didn’t try to get the captain out of this funk.
“Sir?” Archer glanced up at his comment, and Reed drew in a breath before continuing. “How did you and Commander Tucker meet?” The captain smiled slightly.
“He didn’t tell you?” At Malcolm’s head shake, Archer leaned back in his chair once more. Reaching down to open a drawer on the desk, the captain pulled out a bottle and two small glasses. He spoke as he tipped a generous amount of what smelled like bourbon into the shot glasses. “Now, that is a story worth telling.” He offered Reed one of the glasses, and Malcolm cautiously accepted it.
A moment later, Captain Archer began speaking, and Reed found himself relaxing. For a wake, it wasn’t half bad.