When he opened his eyes, all he could see was white.
For a long moment, Trip stared at his surroundings with a growing sense of disbelief; the last thing he recalled with any clarity was collapsing onto his crappy bed, too tired from T’Pol’s insane training regimen to even move, and closing his eyes, so the sudden change in environment was jarring. He pinched himself – hard – but nothing changed apart from his arm now hurting and he spun in a circle, looking for something, anything that would indicate a way out. It was typical of his luck that, stranded on a planet with locals apparently intent on obliterating themselves and only a gorgeous Vulcan woman who seemed utterly oblivious to how she affected him, he would find himself in this kind of mess.
“Maybe I’m dreaming,” he mused aloud, his voice sounding odd though that might have something to do with the wide open space. Over the years, he’d had a number of lucid dreams and this certainly did have the surreal feel of one of them, as long as he ignored how … substantial he felt. Closing his eyes, Trip focused on his mental image of Engineering. He had the strangest sensation then, like motion without actually moving, and when he opened his eyes, he was staring at Enterprise’s warp core.
Laughing out loud – this was the most interesting dream he’d had in years! – he reached out and patted the drive assembly, surprised at how solid it felt. Drawing in a deep breath, Trip was surprised to smell the familiar scents of warp coolant, plastic and iron. This was amazing.
A sharp intake of breath caused him to twist in place and his grin broadened at the open surprise he saw on T’Pol’s face. She was standing just past the lip of the door, dressed in the scratchy clothes she’d been wearing for the last few weeks instead of the catsuit he had expected to see her in. Trip shrugged – this was a dream, after all, and he’d seen her dressed like this for months now so of course his subconscious would give her the clothes he was more accustomed to seeing. Besides, the dress was far more flattering than that ugly as sin carpet suit she’d worn aboard Enterprise, even if it didn’t hug her curves quite as well.
And, if he hadn’t already figured out that he was dreaming before, the naked emotion on her face was a dead giveaway.
“You cannot be here,” she said, her eyes wide. Trip grinned.
“Engineerin’ is my domain, darlin’,” he replied. The endearment fell from his lips as if he had used it a million times and he laughed again at the expression on her face. “Gotta say, though,” Trip added, “I’m a little surprised you’re actually wearing clothes for a change.” The imaginary T’Pol shot him another look of surprise and he shook his head. “Usually when you show up in my dreams, you’re naked.” A green flush crawled across her face. “And horny,” Trip added with a bright grin.
“You cannot be here,” she repeated. Panic was starting to appear on her face and Trip’s good humor began to recede as a sense that something wasn’t right began to twist his stomach into a knot. His smile faltered. “How is it that you are here?” T’Pol demanded, her nostrils flaring and her eyes narrowing.
“This is a dream,” Trip answered hesitantly, even as he began to wonder if that were truly the case. “I just … wished real hard.” He wet his lips. “This is a dream, right?”
In response, T’Pol whirled away, murmuring something in Vulcan that sounded like a cross between a prayer and a curse. She sank into that uncomfortable-looking meditative posture she always used and began breathing in a distinct pattern. Around them, engineering faded away and their surroundings returned to the overwhelming white space that Trip had woken up to. It suddenly seemed hostile and sterile and totally alien and oh God he was going to be sick.
“This is a dream,” Trip repeated. He knelt and touched T’Pol’s shoulder, causing her to immediately flinch away from him.
“You cannot be here,” the Vulcan said for a third time. Fear was in her voice and on her face as she looked at him, and Trip felt his stomach plunge to his feet. If this was a dream, then it was quickly turning into the most terrifying one he’d ever had and that included the one with the clowns riding sharks he’d had when he was nine.
“You’re real, aren’t you?” he asked hesitantly. “You’re really T’Pol …” Fear coursed through him then, so overwhelming in intensity that he staggered away from her. Almost at once, he realized that it felt … different, like it wasn’t his fear at all. His eyes widened in sudden comprehension. “What … how … why …” The questions died half-formed on his lips as his eyes locked with hers, and he saw his confusion mirrored back at him. She didn’t understand either! Anger washed away his fright, and T’Pol rocked back as he sprang back to his feet and screamed a wordless cry of terrified rage. This was just so … typical!
“Trip.” He automatically glanced back to where T’Pol still sat, freezing at the sight of her visibly wincing and pressing her fingers to her temples as if suffering from a powerful headache. “Please control your emotions,” she said through clenched teeth. “Your outburst was … painful.”
“What the hell is going on?” Trip demanded sharply. At her flinch, he took a deep breath and sank down onto his knees in front of her. When he spoke next, he made an effort to rein in his temper. “This isn’t a dream, is it?” he asked.
“I do not think it is, no,” the Vulcan replied. She frowned. “I have full control of my faculties, as do you, so it is logical to presume that this is some sort of … telepathic connection.”
“How the hell-” Trip snapped his mouth shut when she recoiled, and clenched his eyes shut. “How is this possible?” he asked. His eyes snapped open. “Could it be the Pa’nar?” T’Pol pursed her lips.
“That is a … possibility,” she mused before frowning again. “There is … an alternate explanation,” she said finally. Trip nodded for her to continue. “On Vulcan, there is a dissident group who call themselves Syrranites,” she said, the revelation causing Trip to blink in surprise. Who knew that the Vulcans had internal problems too? “They teach that all Vulcans are capable of telepathy, and that the High Command has suppressed this knowledge. This … situation would seem to lend credence to their argument.”
“You can read my thoughts?” Trip swallowed, suddenly unsure how to react. If she knew about the kinds of dreams and fantasies he’d had about her from the first moment she entered the captain’s ready room, then he was in a whole lot of trouble. Do not think about decon, he told himself. Whatever you do, do not think about decon and how badly you wanted to throw her down and… stop!
“If I can,” T’Pol replied, evidently ignorant of his racing thoughts even though Trip thought the white space had turned a little blue, “I do not know how.” She sighed heavily, a reaction that he found totally out of character for her. The more he thought about it, though, the more he realized that she had been openly displaying emotion from the moment she appeared in his imaginary engineering. Comprehension came at once – this was the true T’Pol, the inner T’Pol before her instinctive control suppressed any hint of emotion. She was frightened and worried and so frustrated that Trip thought she might explode at any moment.
“Then how…” He trailed off, unsure about how to phrase his question.
“I do not know,” T’Pol answered nonetheless. “You went to sleep, I meditated, and then followed suit.” Her eyes widened. “Physical contact,” she said abruptly, the emerald blush returning to her face. “The Syrannites claim that Vulcans are touch telepaths and I ... I was cold.” Despite the situation, Trip couldn’t help but to grin.
“So,” he guessed, “you’re snuggled up to me?” As her blush deepened, his smile widened. “Shouldn’t you have bought me dinner first?”
“I was under the impression that you preferred bowls of pebbles,” T’Pol retorted smoothly. At his laugh, her own lips quirked upward. Trip decided against mentioning it, though; they had other things to worry about without him calling attention to her momentary lapse of control.
“So how do we get back?” he asked instead. “As scenic as your brain is,” he continued with a gesture that encompassed the featureless whiteness, “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to stick around.” God only knew how much he did not want to stumble on any memories she might have of the captain. Something of his thoughts must have reflected on his face, because T’Pol frowned tightly. She didn’t say anything, though, but instead closed her eyes tightly.
And just like that, Trip found himself back in his bed.
The transition was so startling that he jerked awake and tumbled out of the too narrow bed, smacking his head on the wooden floor below. He cursed loudly but froze the moment he realized that T’Pol was leaning over the bed and looking at him, her ears sticking up through the disheveled hair that now fell to the middle of her back. The shirt she was wearing had twisted around while she slept, and was now bunched up just under her breasts, revealing her taut stomach. She looked so unbelievably sexy in that moment that it hit Trip like a physical blow.
He rolled to his feet, making sure that his back was to her so she couldn’t see the state he was in thanks entirely to her, and headed toward the door of the lodge. The wooden floor creaked underneath his weight, but he ignored the sound. In the two and a half months they’d been hiding here – seventy-four local days, the part of his brain that refused to switch off reminded him – he’d gone over every square centimeter of the old cabin and now knew the layout so well he could navigate through it blind-folded.
Which he had several times, thanks to Taskmaster T’Pol and her insane training.
His erection hadn’t subsided by the time he threw on his shirt and headed for the door, knowing that T’Pol’s eyes were watching his every move. Trip was surprised that she remained quiet – she usually had something to say when he went off alone like this – but gave thanks to minor miracles and darted through the door, pausing only briefly to send a quick, gruff, “Goin’ swimmin’,” in her direction.
Outside, he breathed in the crisp, early morning air and began walking briskly toward the footpath leading down the hill and to the lake that had turned into his own personal refuge since they arrived here. At any other time, he would have even enjoyed the sights along the way – the almost pristine forest was brilliantly lush, with leaves so green that, if they were on Earth, would make him suspect paint. Even the lodge they’d claimed was beautiful in its own way, reminding him of his late grandpa’s hunting lodge in Washington state that it sent another pang of homesickness through him. A one-story construction, it had three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a direct line to the well behind it. The outhouse was the only drawback, and he could only guess how badly it must stink to T’Pol.
The lake was five or six kilometers away from the cabin, but Trip wasn’t even breathing hard when he arrived even though he’d jogged the entire way. T’Pol’s slave-driving demands when it came to his training admittedly had some benefits – he was in the best physical shape of his life – but her work ethic was even stricter than his and he doubted that vacation was even in her vocabulary. Eventually, Trip had been forced to put his foot down – he needed a day off to just relax, or his brain might explode – and they’d reached a compromise that the deep-rooted Baptist in him approved of: every seventh day, training was off-limits.
Trip blew out a frustrated breath as he stared at the lake. Light from the rising sun played upon the water, sparkling like tiny jewels dancing on the surface, and he inhaled deeply in a vain attempt to clear his mind. For a moment, he seriously considered diving into the water – it would be the same thing as a cold shower – but decided to deal with his problem in an older, more traditional manner. It didn’t take long – thanks to T’Pol’s damned mental training, he had perfect recall, and just last week, he’d accidentally stumbled on her bathing in the lake. He’d been completely unable to look away as water dripped off her curves and ran down the length of her toned body, and just the memory spurred him toward completion.
Afterward, when he discovered that masturbation hadn’t completely relaxed him – that damned image of T’Pol kept popping into his head, along with the memory of her nude body draped over his in the Zeon house, not to mention the sounds she sometimes made during particularly effective neuropressure – he stripped out of his clothes and dove into the lake. The shock of the cold water made him gasp, but accomplished exactly what he’d hoped for. With strong, sure strokes, he swam, momentarily losing himself in the rhythmic motions. He’d forgotten just how much he loved the water.
“You must never allow yourself to become so focused on a single task that you become distracted.” The memory of T’Pol’s voice jolted him back to reality, and Trip winced. He flip-turned in the water and increased the pace of his strokes. Within seconds, he was back at the shore and he pulled his underwear on quickly.
“You’re an idiot, Tucker,” he said aloud as he finished dressing. T’Pol was Vulcan, dammit. She probably didn’t have the first clue about what she was doing to him and nothing would change until she did know. Trip frowned and began walking toward the footpath. How would things change if he told her? Sure, she had started to let her emotional control slip around him more frequently, but as far as he could tell, that was just a symptom of the Pa’nar, and it never ceased to embarrass her – although she insisted that she wasn’t embarrassed since that was an emotional reaction – whenever that happened. Hell, he wasn’t even sure how to begin the conversation in the first place! They’d been on this stupid planet for eight human months or so and he still didn’t know how her damned mind worked. He knew she trusted him, thought some of his jokes were funny if the occasional smile she let slip were any indication, but he had absolutely no idea what she thought about him personally. God, that woman had him tied up in knots and she apparently didn’t even know it!
Trip was so lost in thought that he didn’t realize that he’d taken the wrong path until he was a dozen meters or so away from the lake. Cursing softly, he turned in place in an attempt to identify exactly where he was, and in doing so, caught sight of the bear.
Oh, it wasn’t exactly a bear – the shape of the head was a little different, and its eyes were larger – but it was close enough that Trip identified it as such. The creature seemed to see him at exactly the same moment and Trip automatically reached for the pistol at his side.
The pistol that was, at this very moment, still in the hunting lodge.
With a roar, the bear-creature sprang forward, moving more quickly than something its size should have been capable of, and Trip threw himself to the side. Claws ripped through the shirt and into his side, carving a vicious trail of liquid agony.
And the bear attacked once again, its paws slamming into Tucker’s side and sending him sprawling. He hit the ground hard, fighting to stay conscious as his entire back felt like it was on fire. Breathing was difficult and all he could smell was blood. He tried to move, tried to make his arms and legs obey, but the pain … oh, God, the pain. It was too much and Trip realized that he was going to die. I’m sorry, T’Pol.
The ground shook as the bear-creature sprang toward him.
So Trip closed his eyes and let the darkness swallow him.