The four silver rectangles denoting her new rank of captain felt
heavier than they should have and Erika found that she could not tear
her eyes from them. It was hard to believe that they had back on
Earth for two full days already and her ears still rang from the
sheer volume of the applause that had greeted them when they stepped
back onto Spacedock. Seeing Admiral Forrest there, leading the
cheers, had been a big enough shock but when President Gomez stepped
forward to give a clearly prepared speech on the heroism and valor of
Enterprise's crew in the wake of impossible odds, Erika's
brain had stopped working. And from the stunned expressions on so
many of her crew … of Enterprise's crew, she wasn't the only
one struggling to comprehend that the Xindi conflict was officially
Her door annunciator chimed and, automatically, Erika straightened, giving her dress uniform another glance to ensure nothing was out of place. There were new medals there that had not been awarded in over a century and she swallowed the strange sense of displacement that threatened to overwhelm her. Why couldn't she relax? They were back home. The mission was over.
"Enter," she called out, turning to face the door. It slid open, revealing Jon who looked as sharp as ever in his dress uniform. Erika started to take a step toward him and then hesitated. He must have noticed from the way he smiled.
"Looking good, Captain," he said brightly. She flushed slightly then – damn him for being able to make her feel like a teenager again – before forcing herself to meet his eyes. Any retort she'd planned died on her lips the moment Admiral Forrest followed Jon in.
"As you were," the admiral said even before she managed to go to attention. He glanced around the cabin with a fond smile. "A bit larger than I expected them to be," he remarked calmly before chuckling. "I bet you could cram the entire command deck of the Saratoga in here."
"Not the entire deck," Jon replied wryly. The admiral shook his head before giving Erika an approving once-over.
"I wanted to personally give you your orders, Captain," Forrest said as he held out a PADD. "I know you've become attached to Enterprise but I'm afraid that if I gave her to you, Jon might shoot me." Erika stared at the words on the PADD without fully understanding what she was reading. She blinked.
"Challenger?" she said hesitantly. "You're giving me Challenger?"
"She's a good ship," Jon said with his broad smile.
"You'll need a solid command crew to fill her out," Forrest remarked, his words immediately causing Jon's good cheer to falter slightly. "I know you don't want to lose any people, Jon, but we're going to have to pull some Enterprise crew and spread them around the fleet. Right now, they're the most experienced deep spacers we have."
"Yes, sir." Jon could not have sounded more unenthusiastic if he'd tried and the admiral smirked.
"I'll expect the two of you in my office by oh-nine hundred tomorrow so we can discuss some command transfers." He offered his hand to Erika. "Congratulations, Captain," he said again.
The moment Forrest exited her cabin, Erika collapsed onto her bunk, eyes still locked on the PADD. When she'd first been assigned to Enterprise, she'd known that she was being groomed for higher command but since then, she'd learned enough to know that she wasn't ready for this after all. Not by a long shot.
"Hey." Jon crouched before her, his expression concerned. "You okay?"
"Not really, no." She swallowed. "I'm not sure if I'm ready…"
"You are," he interrupted quickly before grimacing and taking a seat next to her. "Stupid knees," he muttered under his breath. "I wouldn't have recommended your promotion if I didn't think you were ready." Erika gave him a dark look. "Hey, Soval agreed with me. I was there when he told the Admiralty that not promoting you would be the 'height of illogical behavior.'" Jon's voice dropped an octave as he quoted the Vulcan but if he was trying to sound like Soval, he failed miserably.
"At the Sphere," Erika said a moment later, "I didn't know what to do." She shivered and then leaned into Jon when he draped an arm over her shoulders. "I just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide."
"But you didn't." Archer gave her a knowing look. "You held it together and brought Enterprise home." His eyes turned inward. "Hell," he added, "you did a better job than I did." She gave him a look but he refocused on her. "Just keep doing what you've been doing, Erika," he said.
They both became aware of how close they were to each other at the same time. Once, an eternity ago, one or both of them would have backed away, hid behind the convenient shield of duty, and the moment would have passed. This time, though, their eyes met and Erika saw nothing but longing and the same bone-deep loneliness that clung to her shoulders. Later, she would insist that she was the person who made the first move, but in truth, she had no idea which of them initiated their first real kiss in a decade. Hunger flared and then they forgot all of the reasons why this was a bad idea.
And it was just as good as she recalled.
"I've missed that," Jon murmured much later. Her bed was really too narrow for the two of them, but Erika didn't mind that much as she luxuriated in the familiar feel of his skin against hers. She smiled.
"Seducing me isn't going to stop me from trying to steal some of your people," she replied through a slight yawn. He wouldn't fight her over Kelby, she suspected, even though he respected the engineer's talents but Travis? There was no way he would give up the newly promoted Lieutenant Commander Mayweather without a long, brutal fight. "You still haven't told me what happened to you." Jon sighed.
"A lot of it is still classified," he began, wincing when she elbowed him sharply. "We caught up to the weapon right before it passed through the anomaly that took it back in time." Erika's eyes widened. "We didn't realize that until we were assaulting their central power core. So Woods took down their shields and … and Columbia rammed the weapon." His voice caught, reminding her that A.G. had been his good friend even if she'd never been able to stand Robinson for longer than a few minutes. "Afterward, we got to an escape pod."
"So you were here the entire time." Jon nodded.
"We had casualties and injuries – Malcolm was pretty messed up – and it took a while for us to get back to civilization." Jon frowned. "I made the call to stay out of sight until we … until our younger selves made off with Enterprise." He made a face. "Hard to believe I'm using that in an actual sentence. 'Our younger selves.' God."
"Daniels?" Erika asked.
"Haven't seen him," Jon replied instantly. From his expression and his body language, he was telling the truth but was most definitely holding something back. Erika guessed that he'd seen something on the weapon that he either wasn't cleared to tell her or hadn't told anyone. Whatever it was, he was seriously spooked. In fact, Erika had never seen him like this before. Rather than push him on it, she changed the subject. He would tell her when he could.
"So why aren't you a commodore?" she asked. It seemed a logical question. Everyone aboard Enterprise had been hit with the promotion stick, some more intently than others. Rostov, for example, had been given a battlefield commission at the rank of Lieutenant Junior-Grade, and scuttlebutt was that Cole's promotion had been confirmed by General Casey himself. Like Travis, both Hoshi and Taylor had been jumped to Lieutenant Commander. Even Kelby had his old rank back, though Erika doubted he'd advance much beyond that for a while.
"Turned it down," Jon said. "I belong on Enterprise," he added before smirking. "Pretty sure Max was relieved when I asked to stay a captain." Erika grinned.
"Good," she said. "Because if you had taken the promotion, it would have been against regs for us to do this." She slid closer to him, lips finding his. For a time, the concerns and worries of her new rank fell away.
It was good to be home.