No matter where he stood, Elizabeth
Cutler's eyes followed him.
The statue loomed high – the real Cutler had never been that tall or that chiseled, and she certainly hadn't been crafted from clay or brick – and watched over the deuterium colony like some sort of guardian angel. Whoever had sculpted this representation had thoroughly captured her essence – she was smiling, as if she knew something no one else did and was more than willing to share her secret if you just agreed to be her friend – and try as he might, Trip couldn't tear his eyes away from it. He'd heard the story about how she sacrificed herself to save one of the local boys from Klingons and every time he stepped out of the T'Muna-Doth, he found himself staring at the statue while wondering if this too was his fault.
Today was no different. Repairs were almost complete and they already had a full tank of deuterium thanks of the grateful locals who were, for some bizarre reason, not relocating, despite the damned Klingons and what sounded like constant raids. Krapp – not a day passed that Trip didn't find that name hysterically funny, even if he kept it to himself – and his ilk were no longer a problem; to a man, they had committed suicide while secured in the makeshift prison. This had not surprised T'Pol in the slightest.
"As I said," she'd told him, "they are considered strange, even among other Klingons." A tiny glimmer of satisfaction trickled through their strange psychic connection, which almost made Trip ask her what her history was with this House of Krunk, but he'd shelved the Q&A for the time being since it wasn't all that relevant, not with all of the other insanity they'd discovered.
Mister Morales had turned out to be a wealth of information, even if almost all of it was terrible. The Xindi attack and all those dead was easily the worst – Trip couldn't help but to think first of Malcolm's family and then Hoshi's, but his thoughts always went to all of the other people he'd served with or had known who were from that part of Earth; there was Andy Sanada in the Warp Five program, and Togo Kikuchi who had been one of his best friends in college, right up until that jerk slept with Trip's girlfriend, and Jackie Li who gone through officer training with him, and …
The list, as it turned out, was a lot longer than he wanted to think about.
On top of that, he and T'Pol had listened to Morales' strange tale about the crew of Enterprise vanishing along with the NX-01 – according to the Boomer, the explanation for this varied: they had either been assigned a covert mission intended to prevent another attack or had actually stolen the starship for reasons yet unknown. Morales himself preferred the theft story mostly because it had more style and flare, even if he admitted that the Starfleet mission was more probable.
"What do you think?" Trip had asked T'Pol shortly after they first heard the news. She'd frowned.
"I do not know," she'd replied. "It is entirely within Captain Archer's personality to abscond with Enterprise without Starfleet Command's approval."
"It is." Trip had frowned then. "But with Soval going along with it?" He shook his head. "That hardly seems likely."
T'Pol had not bothered responding to that, although honestly, what could she say? They didn't have enough facts, just a whole of rumor and wild guesses from a stranded Boomer whose entire livelihood had beenError. destroyed by Klingons when they shot down his ship. Morales was almost as desperate to get off this planet as Trip was, though Tucker wasn't sure if that was because the man's wife hated this rock or her sister did. If he were a betting man, Trip would say that it was the latter, mostly because Rosa Mazaheri was very vocal about what she liked and disliked.
And to his barely hidden disgust, Trip was firmly in her 'like' categories.
Once, he might have been flattered at her constant attempts to corner him when he was alone – she definitely wasn't unattractive by any stretch of the imagination and as an engineer herself, they at least had a few things in common – but now, the woman just irritated him. Trip wasn't sure if it was T'Pol's unstated (but very apparent) dislike of Ms. Mazaheri, or if it was because he was so easily able to see through the woman's stupid, immature games for what they were, but each time he had to interact with her, Trip's skin crawled. He minimized the amount of time he spent in her presence, scowled at her when she flirted, and generally just ignored her, but dammit, she seemed to take that as a challenge.
"Teban tells me you've agreed to take us back to civilization," Ms. Mazaheri said abruptly. They were both outside, working in the T'Muna-Doth's shadow, although she was supposed to be cleaning the intermix chamber while he worked on the injectors. As usual, though, the woman was leaning against the ship's hull in what was obviously intended to be a seductive manner. Trip glanced once at her and frowned slightly.
"We're not going to get anywhere if these repairs aren't finished," he said flatly, returning his attention to the task in front of him. The ball of emotions in his mind that were T'Pol tightened – she was suppressing another flash of rage, even though she was on the other side of the colony with Morales and his wife, although to be fair, Trip didn't know if it was because she could sense Mazaheri's latest attempt to get him in bed or if it was because Morales was being his usual overly emotive and talkative self. God, he hoped he hadn't been that irritating when Enterprise first launched.
"There's plenty of time," Mazaheri said. She gave him a smile. "I never know what to call you," she continued. "Teban and Karrin are still using your rank … but surely there's something more … intimate we can call you."
"Commander will do," Trip replied. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught her expression falter slightly. A stunning woman like her? She probably wasn't accustomed to men ignoring or outright rejecting her. "Have that intermix chamber cleaned by the time I get back," he instructed as he hefted the damaged injector port over one shoulder and turned away.
Warm air caressed his face him as he walked away from the T'Muna-Doth, and Trip inhaled deeply, letting the pleasant heat bake away at least some of his simmering frustration. He needed to talk to Morales, to find a way to curtail the man's sister-in-law's flirtations before T'Pol lost her temper and broke some bones or tore out the irritating woman's throat. Hell, at the rate that woman was going, Trip wasn't sure that he wouldn't be the one who snapped.
He cut across the colony to the blacksmith under Cutler's steady gaze, nodding a greeting to the old man sitting there. At the moment, T'Pol had the functioning UT chip, so Trip was forced to use hand gestures to convey his request, but within seconds, he was hard at work, filing down the lump of dried sealant that was causing so much trouble with the injector port. Once again, he was cleaning up the messes left behind by Subcommander Tykath – by the looks of it, the dead Vulcan engineer had repaired the injectors at least three times and each time, did just the bare minimum amount of work necessary. God, it was a wonder the T'Muna-Doth hadn't just fallen apart before they even encountered the damned Orions! Honestly, he thought Vulcans were supposed to be more evolved than this…
The world fell away while he worked, though thanks to T'Pol's training he never quite lost track of everything going on. He was aware of the five different locals who made unnecessary visits to the blacksmith, trying their hardest to not actually draw attention to themselves while at the same time desperately wanting to talk to him, or the three kids who were staring at him as if they expected him to grow wings and fly. When Karrin Morales slipped into the smith's little outdoor shop and took up an unobtrusive spot that was both out of the way but within line of sight, Trip almost groaned. He didn't stop working, though. There simply wasn't any time to waste.
"Is there something I can help you with, Mrs. Morales?" he finally asked as he eyed the results of his labors. It wasn't perfect, but it was a damned sight better than what Tykath had done.
"Just a few words, if you please." She spoke with a curious accent that he couldn't quite identify; her sister had traces of it as well, but appeared to have made more of an effort to train it out of her voice. "I wanted to apologize." At that, Trip glanced up and looked her. Like Rosa, she was an attractive woman, with dark hair, darker eyes and complexion that was just a few shades shy of being considered caramel. "My family keeps … misstepping with respect to you and the subcommander." She offered a shy, tentative smile. "Teban does not know when to shut up and Rosa … well, I love her, but my little sister is an idiot."
"You don't put idiots in charge of engineering," Trip pointed. He blew on the now smooth injector port to clear away the errant sealant parts he'd filed down.
"She's not that kind of idiot," Mrs. Morales said with another slight smile. She glanced away briefly. "I've seen the way you and the subcommander watch each other," she said. "Rosa … she's blind to that sort of thing. Sometimes intentionally so when it involves someone she's interested in." There was a slight edge to her words that hinted at bitter feelings. Trip made a mental note as he chose his next words carefully.
"It's going to be a very long trip for everyone involved if she doesn't stop with the seduction games," he declared calmly. Inside, he was tense – it didn't surprise him that Mrs. Morales was sharp enough to recognize why he wasn't interested in her sister; what really interested him the most was how she planned on using this knowledge. There was always the possibility of lingering xenophobia, even with Boomers. "Especially if I'm forced to lock her up in the cargo bay." Karrin Morales' eyes widened slightly but her alarm vanished the moment she realized he was joking. Which he was.
"I'll talk to her," she promised.
"Good." Trip finished his examination of the injector port and finally decided it would have to do. He straightened. "I would appreciate it," he said calmly, "if you spoke with your sister sooner than later." Mrs. Morales nodded her understanding and turned away, clearly intent on doing that now. Trip gave the injector port another look before offering a sort of half-bow of thanks to the owner of the shop – the grizzled old man grinned broadly and returned it before going back to work on whatever it was he was making – and setting out for the T'Muna-Doth himself. His legs were much longer than Mrs. Morales', but he intentionally moderated his pace so she would reach the ship long before he did.
"The last of our supplies will be loaded by dusk tomorrow," T'Pol informed him when he finally reached the ship. Her eyes flickered very quickly to where the two human women were standing and Trip could sense her mild surprise – and relief, though he didn't quite understand why – regarding what the two women were talking about. "Will we be able to launch?"
"We will." Even if I have to do all of the work myself, he added privately. By his calculations, they would be lucky to reach Earth (or Vulcan)-controlled space in seven months with their current speed … and he intended to minimize as much of that time as possible. If Mrs. Morales could get her damned sister in line and Ms. Mazaheri was at least a vaguely competent engineer, they could probably reduce that to five months. Four if they were very, very lucky … but he already knew that wouldn't happen, not with how the universe loved toying with them. T'Pol must have caught at least the thrust of his emotions as she lifted one eyebrow. "Meditation tonight?" Trip asked abruptly, which threw her slightly. She frowned slightly, studying him in an attempt to determine if he was teasing and then relaxing when she observed that he was not. Almost regally, T'Pol inclined her head slightly in a very tiny nod.
And then, very discreetly, they touched fingers in the ozh'esta. Trip could feel how wound up she was, could almost taste her suppressed fear that he would lose interest in her now that an attractive (and willing) human woman was present, and he gave her an incredulous look. T'Pol shrugged – it was only a slight shift of one shoulder and he doubted she was even aware that she'd done it – and glanced down, embarrassment coloring her cheeks and neck slightly. Ah. Vulcan emotions running amok again. She couldn't help the patently illogical direction that her thoughts ran, even though she knew perfectly well that he had less than zero interest in an immature girl who thought she could hide her crippling self-loathing and doubt by sleeping with as many men as possible.
"How does one hour from now sound?" Trip asked. T'Pol nodded.
They parted, each to their duties, but the warm bundle of emotions in the back of his brain reminded Trip that they weren't parted. He smiled ever so slightly and went back to work.