The sun glinted overhead, bathing the earth below with warmth and life that burned away the last remnants of early morning dew. A pleasantly cool breeze rolled out of the north, carrying with it the distinct smell of freshly mowed grass, and the sky was a pure, clear blue that seemed to stretch on forever. For June in Ohio, the day was quite comfortable, not too hot or too cold, and the lack of clouds for as far as the eye could see promised that the night would be equally lovely.
In the distance, a cheerful tune could be heard, and Jonathan Archer continued his slow walk toward the source of the music. Porthos was several steps ahead of him, ears twitching as he took in the unfamiliar sights, sounds, and scents. Every few moments, the beagle would dart forward until his leash would not allow him to go any further. Most times, the dog would then pause and give Archer an intent look, as if to say ‘hurry up,’ but on at least two occasions, Porthos rushed back to join his master, seemingly intent on tripping Jon with the leash.
The sidewalk led them closer to the music, now clearly identifiable as ancient jazz tunes, and Jon’s steps faltered as he finally caught sight of their destination. A fairly new-looking complex dominating the entire block, the Cochrane Academy was one of the region’s most prestigious high schools in the entire state, despite only having been in existence for fifteen years. Catering to the top percentile of students in the region, it had been Elizabeth Cutler’s alma mater.
And now, it was the site of her long-overdue memorial service.
Over a month had passed since her tragic but heroic death – forty days exactly, to be precise – and Starfleet bureaucracy had finally allowed her body to be removed from stasis and returned to her grieving parents. When Jon had learned of the planned service, he had contacted the Cutlers and requested permission to attend. At first, he had feared they would blame him for their daughter’s death – he blamed himself, after all – and had prepared himself for justly deserved recriminations from them. Instead, her parents had told him they were glad he could make it, especially since the late Elizabeth had spoken so glowingly about her commanding officer in the infrequent letters she sent.
That in and of itself nearly made Jon weep.
He was still coming to grips with his unexpected exoneration for the incident that claimed Trip and T’Pol’s lives, no matter how many times he went over the data himself. The official support of his actions at Ekos by the Vulcan High Command occasionally caused him to consider pinching himself, though Archer knew it had only been politics, especially after Admiral Forrest announced the identity of the new “diplomatic and liaison” officer who would be shipping out with Enterprise when she left Earth again. Part of Jon was openly aghast at the idea of Ambassador Soval being aboard the NX-01 for longer than a few days, although many of his concerns were eased by the grumpy Vulcan’s utter lack of bridge rank or authority, not to mention Soval’s evident dislike of the idea himself. He was to be an ‘advisor,’ nothing more, though Archer knew that was a fancy way of saying ‘minder.’ Given their many disagreements in the past, Jon had little doubt that he had many personality clashes and arguments to look forward to.
Still, as a replacement for Subcommander T’Pol, Soval was certainly no improvement.
“Captain!” the voice of Lieutenant Commander Reed brought Jon back to the present and he gave the approaching armoury officer a nod of greeting. Archer wasn’t surprised to see the other man – through the grapevine, he had heard that the crew of Enterprise was going to be attending en masse to pay their respects for their fallen comrade who had died trying to protect an innocent – but he was taken aback by the obnoxious, almost Trip-like shirt that Reed was wearing.
Clearly, Malcolm had taken to heart the Cutlers’ insistence that this gathering be treated as a celebration of their daughter’s life rather than a wake.
“Glad you could make it, sir,” Reed said as he approached. Porthos barked several times and lunged forward to offer his own eager greetings to the armoury officer.
“Meeting went longer than I expected it to,” Jon replied with a forced smile as Reed knelt awkwardly to pet the beagle. “Malcolm,” he said, causing the lieutenant commander to look up. “Admiral Forrest rejected my appeal,” Archer revealed grimly. “When we ship out next week, Commander Hernandez will be my first officer.”
“Yes, sir.” The armoury officer shrugged, as if the implied insult in his professionalism by Starfleet Command didn’t bother him, but Jon could see well hidden anger in the other man’s eyes.
“It’s nothing personal, Malcolm,” he rushed to explain. “Command is grooming her to take over the Challenger when she launches in two years and want her to get a little more experience under her belt.”
“And they think I’m not qualified,” Reed guessed, rising to his feet as he spoke. They began walking toward the school slowly as they continued their conversation.
“If they think that,” Archer said with a wry smile, “then they’re more foolish than we thought.” He clapped a hand on Reed’s shoulder. “You’ll still be third-in-command,” he added, “and I’ll be relying on you more than ever since Erika is so … green.”
“You can count on me, sir.” Malcolm snorted in amusement. “I guess it was too much to ask,” he said, “expecting to get full commander so soon after my last promotion.” Shaking his head, he added, “The officer corps would have gone ballistic.”
“They still might when you make commander a year or so from now,” Jon promised. The brightening of Reed’s expression was wonderful to behold, and instantly made Archer wonder if this was the first time since Trip’s death two months earlier that the armoury officer hadn’t looked like he had swallowed a rock.
“Any news on Commander Hess?” Reed asked abruptly, his tone pitched low. Jon’s good mood faded.
“Starfleet Command has transferred her back to Earth,” he replied. “Officially, it’s a lateral promotion. She’ll be taking over from Kelby aboard the Columbia.” Malcolm nodded.
“PTSD,” Jon said sadly. “Phlox told me that it’s a wonder we haven’t had more members of the crew react like that, what with the amount of stress we’ve been under since Enterprise launched.” He shook his head. “I wish there was more I could do for her,” he admitted, “but the doctors insist that this transfer is necessary for her recovery.”
“She’ll be missed,” Malcolm declared.
“Who will?” a feminine voice asked. Jon glanced to the source – an approaching young woman with strong features and a familiar-sounding accent – and his breath caught slightly in surprise.
“Hello, Lizzie,” he said as Elizabeth Tucker drew closer. She smiled.
“Hello, Jon.” There was no anger in her voice or expression, only a visible sadness that Archer recognized all too well. The youngest Tucker sibling stepped around the Reed-Porthos obstruction – the beagle was once more trying to get the armoury officer to pay attention to him and Malcolm didn’t seem to know how to react – and wrapped her arms around Jon in a friendly hug. “You’ve looked better,” she commented wryly.
“Felt better too,” Archer replied. She gave him an understanding look. “How are your parents?” he asked.
“Taking it one day atta time,” Lizzie replied. “Dad’s still pretty torn up,” she continued, her eyes watering slightly, “but nobody blames you.” She blinked. “Well, nobody but Melissa,” Lizzie added in reference to Trip’s older sister, “and you know how she is.”
“I do,” Jon said. Many had been the times that Trip regaled him of the eldest Tucker sibling’s radical politics and her insistence that Starfleet was Earth’s new imperialism cloaked in the guise of exploration. “And how are you doing?”
“As well as can be expected,” she answered. “I try to keep busy so I don’t have to think about it.” She watched with an amused smile as Porthos continued pawing at Malcolm’s leg. “Trip wouldn’t want me to waste my life grievin’ for him, especially since he died doin’ something he loved.” When the beagle whined loudly and piteously at Reed, she laughed. “Scratch him behind the ears, Mal,” she instructed. The armoury officer gave her a sour look that seemed far more familiar than Archer expected.
“You two know each other?” he asked. Once again, Lizzie laughed.
“Yep,” she said. “Seems my idiot brother asked Mister Reed here to look after me if something ever happened to him.”
“We were drunk at the time,” Malcolm said stiffly, although he knelt to scratch Porthos’ ears as instructed. “And in my defense,” he added, “I also asked him to look after my sister if duty called.” Lizzie grunted at the nonchalance in Reed’s reference to death, but Jon nodded in understanding. For men and women of their calling, dying in the line of duty was always a possibility, and no one knew when it would happen or how. Trip’s death – and T’Pol’s – was ample evidence of that.
“We ran into each other last week when I was in San Francisco bein’ wooed by Starfleet Command,” Lizzie said, crouching to take over the petting of Porthos.
“I understand congratulations are in order,” Jon said, referencing Command’s hiring of Lizzie to design a new memorial in honor of the members of Starfleet who had died over the years. It was primarily a political move, since having Trip’s sister on the project would be fantastic public relations in the wake of the tragedy, but having seen some of her past work, Archer knew she was up for the task.
“Thank you,” she replied. “That’s why I’m here, actually. I wanted to get some insight into who this Elizabeth Cutler was.” She smirked. “I’ve even talked your stuffy admirals into arrangin’ a fact-findin’ tour of Vulcan. I’d love to incorporate some of their architecture into my design.”
“T’Pol would like that, I think,” Jon said.
“I hope so,” Lizzie murmured. “I love Trip,” she added, “but I don’t think he’d approve if I turned somethin’ like this into a shrine to his memory.” The sadness resurfaced in her eyes. “I’m not the only one who’s lost a loved one,” she said.
“Wherever he is right now,” Jon said, “I’m sure he’d approve.”
“Captain Archer!” Rudolph – ‘call me Rudy’ – Cutler called out in greeting as they drew closer to the entrance of the high school gym. His eyes were bright and shiny with a mixture of grief and contentment, as if he had reached some sort of equilibrium over the recent tragedy afforded to his family. “I’m glad you could make it,” Rudy said.
“Call me Jon,” Archer replied as he offered his hand. “I just wish it were under better circumstances.” They shook – Rudy had a strong grip – and Jon gestured to two people with him. “My armoury officer, Malcolm Reed, and Elizabeth Tucker.”
“An honor, sir,” Reed said. He held himself erect and straight. “I’m sorry I failed your daughter, sir,” the Brit began, but Cutler waved it off.
“We’re here to celebrate Liz’s life,” Rudy interrupted, “not mourn how she passed.” He blinked away several tears as he continued. “Your Admiral Forrest let us read the mission report you filed, Commander Reed,” the older man said, “and my wife and I know you couldn’t have done more than you did.” Wiping away an errant tear, Cutler gave Lizzie a glance. “Tucker?” he asked. “As in Commander Tucker?”
“He was my brother,” Lizzie replied softly. The two gave each other a look that carried with it understanding and shared pain. Rudy’s lower lip trembled slightly as he fought to control his emotions, and Jon could see an identical reaction on the face of Trip’s sister. She took a half step closer to Malcolm, and the armoury officer shot a ‘what do I do now?’ look in Archer’s direction.
“Come in,” Rudy said before Jon could offer any suggestions – or decide if he should offer any – and preceded them into the bustling gym where the rest of Elizabeth Cutler’s family waited. Malcolm and Lizzie followed him, the lieutenant commander hesitantly giving the youngest Tucker sibling a quick, supportive hug. Breathing deeply, Archer pushed down his own grief, knowing that he needed to be strong for everyone inside. He would be their rock, no matter how difficult it may be personally, and would gladly do whatever necessary if it would make them feel better in this time of crisis.
And then, he stepped into the gym.