Every part of his body ached.
It was certainly better than the other option – death always seemed to ruin a person’s day – but not a second passed without Trip longing for the pain to just go away for a while. He was on his feet again and capable of walking mostly without difficulty, but each step still sent a spike of agony up his side. T’Pol continued to insist that this was a positive development, that it was his body letting him know when he had pushed himself too far, but Trip didn’t care. He just wanted things to get back to normal.
Right now, as he continued his third circuit through the lodge, he could see T’Pol seated in her meditation space, eyes closed and her breathing regular. Something fundamental had changed between them since the bear attack, but Trip remained mystified as to exactly what it was that had altered. T’Pol was different now … but, at the same time, she was exactly like she had been before which he had to admit really didn’t make much sense, no matter how true it was. She watched him when she thought he wasn’t paying attention, and the look in her eyes when she studied him … well, it was confusing as hell. Sometimes, Trip thought he saw longing, sometimes it was fear, but generally, it was confusion.
Which didn’t reassure him one bit.
For his part, it was already hard enough to look her in the eyes, knowing just how much of a burden he’d been over the last month since she apparently saved his ass from being a snack for the Ekosian Yogi Bear, no matter that he honestly couldn’t remember much beyond waking up after that weird shared dream in the white room. Not only had she rescued him from certain death, she’d also tended his wounds, kept him hydrated and … cleaned him.
Flushing, Trip pushed away from the doorway leading into the living quarters that originally belonged to him but had, at some point, become a joint domicile. He continued his limping circuit, struggling to suppress the memory of waking in his own filth because his muscle control wasn’t quite what it should have been. T’Pol hadn’t complained even once while she wiped him down with a warm, wet cloth, and when certain portions of his body had instinctively reacted to the feel of her hands on his bare skin, she hadn’t even blinked an eye before continuing to ensure his cleanliness without even mentioning his obvious arousal. At the time, Trip had been torn between being mortified by his treacherous anatomy and being soothed by the feel of her warm hands, but now, nearly two weeks after the fact, he was utterly convinced that he saw her lips twitch up into a slight smile.
The realization that she had to be aware of the effect she had on him bothered Trip more than he really wanted it to and made him wonder if she sometimes did things just to get a metaphorical (or literal, in some cases) rise out of him. She’d certainly made some cracks when they were aboard Enterprise implying that she was aware of his sex drive – he vaguely recalled her commenting about one of his shirts when they were above Risa – so did this mean she was just being a tease? Hell, did Vulcans even tease in the first place? Or was it just his Vulcan who did this sort of thing? He was going to have fantasies for months about the sight of her leaning over his crotch, wet cloth in hand, and somehow, he just knew she had to be aware of that fact.
Wait a damned minute, he told himself sharply. She’s not my Vulcan. Hell, he didn’t have the first clue where he actually stood with her anymore! It was as if she was waiting for something from him and he honestly had no idea whatsoever how to proceed. If he’d learned anything from her in the last nine and a half months – eight and some change in human months, his brain whispered – it was that she loathed discussing emotion for any reason, so telling her how he felt? Well, that was right out.
Something tickled at the back of his brain and Trip glanced in the direction of their … his room. Exactly as he suspected, T’Pol was emerging from her meditative trance. Her long hair was pulled back and tied together in a tail that fell to mid-back, and Tucker took a moment to admire her profile. In recent weeks, the color of her hair had lightened, changing from the dark, almost black to a softer brown. Even her eyebrows seemed sharper, more angular, but Trip wasn’t sure if that was just his imagination or some other facet of Vulcan physiology that he didn’t understand.
“You appear better.” T’Pol’s remark jolted him out of his musings, and Trip flushed when he realized she was studying him. It wasn’t the usual, dispassionate observation he’d grown accustomed to while they served aboard Enterprise, but rather something warmer. If she’d been human, he’d call it affection at the very least.
“Feeling better,” he replied. She nodded before rising to her feet in a smooth movement that showed no hint of the earlier muscle spasms she’d been suffering. In fact, now that he thought about it, she’d seemed more stable and centered than he recalled her being since before they crashed on this miserable planet. Her hands didn’t shake and, as far as he could tell, she wasn’t having headaches as often as she had.
“How is your pain?” T’Pol asked as she drew closer to him, her eyes locked on his face.
“Manageable,” Trip answered. When she frowned, he shrugged … and then winced at the tug of still healing muscles around his chest. “I’m not saying that I don’t hurt,” he admitted, “but at least I’m mobile.”
“Have you finished your stretching exercises?” the Vulcan asked calmly. She began circling him, her eyes tracking him from head to toe, and Trip tried not to flush at the feeling of being sized up like so much meat.
“Did ‘em twice,” he replied. “I was bored while you were meditating.” Abruptly, he realized that she had spoken to him in the local Ekosian dialect and he had replied automatically in the same language. Trip narrowed his eyes and gave T’Pol a sidelong look.
“How is your memory?” she continued, this time slipping into Vulcan. Trip grimaced, but responded in the same language, recognizing the return of the unlamented Taskmaster T’Pol. He wondered what the next stupid human trick would be.
“I still have a large, empty hole in my mind,” he said softly. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember a single thing from the point he woke up and fell onto the floor, to two weeks ago when he finally regained consciousness for longer than a few seconds. Oh, sure, there were some disjointed flashes of sensation and images that he suspected were memories, but none of them made any sense to him. Why would he remember seeing two T’Pols in Engineering? Or think of his arm being completely trapped, like it had been gnawed off or the nerves had been severed? He shook his head. “If it was as bad as you said it was,” he added, “I’m not sure I want to remember.”
“Hiding from the truth is still hiding,” T’Pol said simply, her expression transforming for just a heartbeat into one of sadness. Trip stared at her for a second and was momentarily disconcerted when she returned his examination with equal forthrightness. God, a man could get lost in those eyes. He wet his lips and tried to push the errant thought away.
“Something happened,” he guessed hesitantly. T’Pol’s eyes widened fractionally, but it was enough of a sign to let him know that he was correct. “Something happened between us.”
“Trip,” T’Pol began, her tone and body language both placating, but Tucker interrupted her before she could verbally twist him into knots.
“See!” he exclaimed sharply. “When did you start calling me Trip?” To his complete surprise, T’Pol didn’t try to change the subject, or distract him with one of her usual logic puzzles, or simply ignore his argument. Instead, she inhaled deeply and sighed before pursing her lips.
“You are not … incorrect in your assumption that something occurred,” she admitted slowly. For another long moment, she was silent and Trip swallowed the lump in his throat at her clear reluctance to continue.
“Did I do something?” he wondered, fighting back the surge of sudden fear that strangely did not feel like it was entirely his. When T’Pol gave him a sharp glance, he groaned. “Oh, God,” he muttered. “I did do something, didn’t I?” Tucker’s imagination ran wild – what could he have done or said that was making her so skittish? He had the terrible vision of him having a wet dream while moaning her name, or vomiting on her boots. No, none of those were bad enough, not if the thoroughly freaked vibes emanating from T’Pol were any indication.
“It is not something you did, Trip,” she stated, her eyes once more locked on his boots, “but rather something I may have … inadvertently done to you.” Her body language screamed worry and borderline despair, though Trip suspected that very few people would even realize it.
“I’m not pregnant, am I?” he asked with a forced smile. T’Pol glanced up, her own lips curving slightly.
“Vulcans procreate in the same manner as humans,” she said. “Only the females can become pregnant … barring certain bowls of pebbles, of course.”
“Well that’s good to know,” Trip muttered. The pain in his side became too much to completely ignore so he began hobbling toward his bed. T’Pol reacted instantly, offering her arm to him for additional support. She said nothing else even after he sank down onto the thin mattress. “Hiding from a truth is still hiding,” Trip said when the silence became too much for him to handle. T’Pol’s head came up sharply at the words she’d used against him earlier, but there was no heat in her expression, only confusion and fear.
And into the silence, Trip’s stomach growled.
Both of T’Pol’s eyebrows shot up at the volume of the sound and she gave him a tight frown before glancing in the direction of their go-bags. Even without her saying anything, he knew what she was thinking. They had finished the last of their food yesterday afternoon and T’Pol had already planned to go foraging later today. When they arrived at this lodge, they had discovered some canned foodstuffs and, while the food inside wasn’t particularly tasty, it was edible, so she’d theorized that it was logical nearby lodges – the closest being five or ten kilometers away – would have similar stores. Before he’d gotten himself jumped by the angry bear, they’d made plans to raid those other lodges in the hopes of finding useful materiel.
“You need food,” she said as she turned away. Trip bit back a scream.
“Dammit, T’Pol,” he snapped. “I’m not a mind reader!” The Vulcan paused momentarily in front of the overturned crate where their phase pistols were generally stored, and then turned her young-old eyes on him once more.
“This is not a short conversation, Trip,” she said calmly. “You are still recovering and need as many nutrients as possible,” she continued as she secured her pistol at her side, “but we will talk once I return.” Trip’s expression darkened.
“Not sure I like you going out there alone,” he muttered. When she glanced at him once more, he quickly added, “Too many bears.” T’Pol’s right eyebrow climbed.
“I will be careful,” she said simply. “You should try to rest.”
A moment later, she was gone.
He was under no illusions that he could get any rest with her out there, alone, in a forest full of carnivorous bears that apparently attacked on sight and … dammit, there he went again. Grimacing, Trip forced himself off of the bed and inched toward T’Pol’s meditation space. He slowly lowered himself into as close an approximation of the proper posture that he could manage, wincing as each movement sent another blast of fire through his chest. Leaning back against the wooden wall, he began the stretching exercises once more, hoping against hope that all he needed to do was loosen his muscles a bit.
No matter how he tried, though, Trip couldn’t stop wondering what it was T’Pol wanted to talk about. A dozen different scenarios, each more outlandish and ludicrous than the next, came to mind, and Tucker silently cursed when he realized just how counterproductive this was. Whatever was freaking T’Pol out had happened during the period of time he couldn’t remember. The easiest solution, he decided, was to force his brain to start functioning like it was supposed to.
With that in mind, he straightened his posture and began breathing like T’Pol had taught him to. In seconds, he had slipped into the first stage of the meditative trance and he drifted there for an eternity that could not have been truly longer than thirty minutes. Here, he could still feel the pain making his body ache, but it no longer seemed to be important and he pushed farther back into his memory, relying on the various mental tricks T’Pol had shown him over the last several months. Once again, he was assailed by images and sensations out of context – engineering on fire, T’Pol’s fingers on his face, the feel of the bear’s claws as it tore through his skin – and once again, Trip wasn’t able to put everything in its proper order.
And suddenly, T’Pol flooded his awareness.
Flee! The order and the accompanying emotions – fear, panic, anger – slammed through him, jolting him out of the trance so harshly that he nearly jumped. Trip was up, on his feet, and reaching for his phase pistol before he was even aware that he was moving. His earlier sluggishness and pain was gone, washed away by the sense of impending danger that grew with every second. There was no time to think, no time to try and figure out what was going on, and Trip bounded across the lodge to where the two bags were stored, suddenly glad that T’Pol continued to insist they be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. He hefted first her rucksack – it was the heavier of the two – and then his, before darting toward the back door. With the phase pistol at the ready, he exited the lodge and sprinted toward the footpath leading down to the lake.
Exactly ten seconds later, two large trucks rumbled up the main road in front of the cabin, disgorging two squads of armed soldiers wearing the uniforms of the Tandos Alliance. Five of them raced toward the lodge, smashing through the doors and windows with the appearance of men expecting resistance, while the rest fanned out to establish a perimeter.
Hidden behind one of the larger trees, Trip fought to keep from panicking as he watched the Alliance soldiers rip the lodge apart. Clearly, they were in search of someone and it didn’t take a genius to figure out whom that someone was. His hands began to shake and he drew in a careful breath. With unsteady hands, he extracted the binoculars from his pack and raised them to his face. He swept over the soldiers, freezing the moment his eyes fell upon someone he recognized.
The former farmer looked ill at ease in the Alliance uniform and was gesticulating wildly as he spoke with another man. When the other man – the officer, Trip suspected – shook his head, Undil pushed something in his face, something that made Trip’s blood run cold.
It was T’Pol’s head scarf. These bastards had T’Pol. He tightened his grip on the phase pistol and slowly took aim at Undil.
But a moment later, he realized that he could still feel her. She was there, in his mind, a soft tug in that direction, away from the lodge. Trip lowered his weapon, confused but suddenly feeling the pieces fall into place. This was what she was afraid of. It had to be. She’d done one of those mind meld things that Tolaris the shitbag did to her and it probably saved his life.
Time to return the favor, Trip decided. He flipped open the phase pistol, pulled one of the energy connectors loose, then closed the weapon back up. With a tight smile, he raised the pistol once more, this time taking aim at the empty truck farthest away. The weapon whined softly when he squeezed the trigger – he could only pull this trick two or three times before the power cell burned out – but there was no visual sign of the energy stream as it flashed out and burned a jagged hole into the truck’s fuel tank. With a boom, the gas ignited and tore apart the tank, ripping the truck in two and sending the cab tumbling into the other vehicle. Panic set in at once as the Alliance soldiers scrambled to put out the fires.
And without a sound, Trip shouldered his two packs and melted away into the woods.