Nothing was the same.
He tried to keep the strange feeling from showing on his face but from the way everyone reacted to him, Trip knew he was not successful. Taylor had initially been positively giddy when the captain took him to engineering, but her excitement faltered more quickly than it should have and was promptly replaced by an unusual combination of confusion and resentment. Even when he tried to head it off by complimenting her on the solid work she was doing, Trip could see his efforts were less successful than they should have been and instead had the opposite effect. He was almost grateful when the captain suggested they move on.
Unfortunately, the weirdness didn't stop there. Hoshi was exuberant but reserved (and a little depressed about something, though she hid it really, really well), watching him with sharp, questioning eyes, as if she expected him to suddenly sprout a third arm. Rostov was even worse – and how weird was it seeing him with lieutenant's rank instead of enlisted? – and stared at him with open suspicion.
No. That wasn't correct. He was simply wrong-footed by Trip's presence and how different he was now, as if the last two years, almost two and a half, had never happened. Every single one of them was expecting him to be the old Trip, the one that they had thought was killed and, in a very real way, had died on Zeon. They were all struggling with the changes, even the captain, and when they instead realized that time had not stood still for him either, no one knew how to react. Well, no one but Phlox.
"It is absolutely wonderful to see you again, Commander," the doctor gushed. He offered a very wide grin. "I never believed you or the subcommander were dead!"
"He really didn't," Jon said with a tired smile. Trip wondered when his former commanding officer … when his friend had gotten so old. No one else seemed to notice, but then, they'd been acclimated to it, had probably never noticed the gradual transformation from the vibrant Starfleet officer to this tired and weathered man whose eyes hinted at dark and terrible secrets. The weight of command and unspoken knowledge hung heavy upon Jon's shoulders, and to his utter disgust, Trip didn't know how to respond.
"Thank you," he said to the doctor, forcing a slight smile that felt strange on his lips. I've spent so much time with just T'Pol that I've forgotten how to speak to other humans. The three Boomers – two now, since Mrs. Morales died to save her husband and her sister – did not count, mostly because he'd frankly minimized the amount of time he spent around them, not just because of how he always felt guilty about leaving T'Pol alone but because he had so little in common with his fellow humans. Now, in retrospect, he realized that he should have made more of an effort.
"Once you are settled," the doctor continued brightly, ignorant of or probably more likely blatantly ignoring Trip's discomfort, "I would like to do a full workup for you." He shared another broad smile. "It is not that I distrust Doctor Yuris, far from it, but I do have the benefit of knowing better what your baseline should be."
From sickbay, they headed for the bridge. There were MACOs stationed here, strangely enough, though the watch crew – none of whom were in any way familiar to him, even with all of T'Pol's memory-enhancement training – took their presences for granted. Everything felt more … militarized, as if they were balanced on a knife's edge and waiting for the next attack. It was, sadly, a very familiar feeling and one Trip wasn't sure he'd managed to set aside.
More interesting than the battle readiness of the crew, though, was the MACO commander who tried to lurk in the background without attracting his attention. Trip recognized Amanda Cole from high school almost at once, though her eyes certainly weren't like that back when she and Lizzie were hanging out, nor did he recall her being quite that graceful on her feet. Automatically, he evaluated her balance – it was exceptional, as good T'Pol's or Malcolm's, and from the way her eyes tracked over everyone present, she would be a dangerous opponent – and in that single moment when he looked at her, he noted how her muscles tensed.
It was a subtle thing, with her shifting her balance slightly as if she was preparing for imminent combat, and Trip wasn't sure if she was entirely conscious of her reaction. Even more fascinating, though, was how Malcolm remained completely aware of Cole's every movement, despite the fact that he wasn't looking at her. The instant she ramped up into fight mode, so did he. Interesting, that. It implied an awareness that came from very close interaction and familiarity, intimacy even, and from the way they intentionally moved around the bridge to always keep the other in at least their peripheral vision, there really seemed to be just one explanation. Trip wondered if the captain was aware of what was going on between these two and, at a glance, realized that yes, Jon did know. From Archer's body language, the relationship between Reed and Cole amused and irritated him at the same time, as well as making him slightly envious. Forcing his own body to relax – and how frustrating was that? He was supposed to be an explorer and an engineer, not another scary bad-ass – Trip gave them both another look and a nod, noting the identical frowns that crossed their faces, before following the captain into his ready room.
"I just can't get over how quiet you are," Jon said once the door slid shut. "A couple of years with only T'Pol as company will do that to you, I guess." He clearly meant it as a joke but his tone and the way he held himself were all wrong, so it fell flat. Archer grimaced then and rubbed his temples, as if warding off a headache. He'd done that a lot in the last couple of days and whenever he had, Malcolm had frowned. "Look at us," Jon stated softly as he collapsed into his chair. "It's like we're strangers!"
"In a way," Trip replied, "we are." He sat, trying to make himself comfortable in the chair. Memory flared – once, an eternity ago, he'd been slouching here, totally at ease with the man sitting across from him, and then the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen entered. At the time, his first thought had been simple enough: wow. "Two years is a long time, sir."
"And a lot has happened since then," Archer admitted. He slumped back in his chair. "For all of us." He frowned. "Speaking of things happening," he continued, "I glanced over the report you sent to Starfleet. You know they're going to want one just from you, right?"
"They can ask," Trip replied calmly. "There's nothing more to add. That's the exact same report we're sending to the High Command." Too late, he realized that he'd used 'we' while referencing himself and T'Pol. He considered the slip for a heartbeat, then decided against expanding. It wasn't like they were hiding much of anything.
"The High Command is gone," Jon said. "I don't know who's in charge these days … I think it's T'Pau?" The name didn't mean anything to Trip, and he wondered if T'Pol knew who she was. "Anyway, they're a Council now." Archer flashed a weak grin. "Still the same old Vulcans, though!" When Trip didn't react – he didn't know how to react really; was the captain trying to make a joke or was this yet another subtle inquiry into the exact nature of his relationship with T'Pol? – Jon's good cheer faltered again. They sat in relative silence for a moment, surrounded by Enterprise's familiar hum while both struggled to find the right thing to say.
Is it going to be like this with everyone now? Trip wondered sadly. He could see that Jon wanted to ask him something, probably about T'Pol and the whispered rumors that Trip wasn't supposed to be aware of yet, but didn't know how without sounding crass. For that matter, Trip had no idea how he would respond if Archer decided to go for bluntness – it was frankly none of Jon's business and he knew that addressing the relationship even obliquely would upset T'Pol – and he found himself tensing. He had questions himself, like what had happened in this war with the Xindi or why Soval was assigned to Enterprise. Mostly though, all he wanted to do was get out of here, find T'Pol and lock the damned door. There were too many damned people here, constantly watching him and waiting for him to do something that he didn't know how …
"You mentioned in your report that you thought the Romulans were responsible for destroying the comm-buoys we left behind?" Jon's question came out of nowhere and, from the way he was intentionally trying to look nonchalant, Trip knew something was up. Did he know the truth that T'Pol had remembered linking them to the Vulcans? Tread carefully, Trip reminded himself.
"That's T'Pol's theory, not mine," he said. "She recognized the energy signature from that minefield incident."
"Oh." Once again, Archer made an effort to look uninterested which had the exact opposite result. He was still a terrible liar, Trip mused. The door chirped before the captain could speak again and Trip tried not to feel a stab of relief at the interruption. Why was this so hard? "Enter," Jon called out, his own expression one that looked guilty.
"You wanted to know when we were within range of a communications buoy, sir," Malcolm said as he stepped through the hatch. He was tense, eyeing Trip warily with the same sort of caution Tucker remembered from his youth when his brother dared him to harass the sleeping alligators. Reflexes honed to razor-sharp fineness by Taskmaster T'Pol had already taken over his own muscles and Trip realized that he sitting awkwardly, poised on the verge of action. He'd already taken note of a half dozen ways to get out of this vulnerable position should his opponent make even the slightest move toward him – there was a PADD on Archer's desk within easy reach; thrown accurately, it would slow Reed down just long enough for Trip overbalance his chair so he could fall backwards and roll to his feet. From there, he could …
Stop. This is Malcolm. He's not a threat.
But he was. Reed was watching him warily, the exact same kind of calculations flickering in his eyes. They stared at one another, each struggling to contain the instincts that were screaming about the potential threat only a handful of steps away. Trip's heart began to beat faster – logically, he knew that Malcolm wouldn't attack first, but those hard months of constant action, of having to constantly walk the tightrope of absolute awareness and readiness … it was so very hard to flip the switch and turn those reflexes off. Trip did not feel safe here, not without T'Pol present and backing his every move, and his discomfort was only ramping up the urge to do something…
Thankfully, the universe took mercy on him and Jon's computer beeped.
"This is Archer," he said. Trip did not recognize the voice that responded.
"Sir, we have a priority one transmission from Starfleet Command marked your eyes only." Jon sighed.
"I'll take it here." He glanced up. "Sorry to cut this short, gentlemen…"
"It's fine," Trip said as he stood quickly. Malcolm very nearly took a step back from him, but arrested the motion, and Trip gave him another quick look. "I should check back in with Phlox anyway," Tucker added, seizing the first thing that came to mind as an excuse.
"I'll see you there, Commander," Reed offered as he triggered the door release. "I apologize," Malcolm added the moment they were alone in the turbolift. "You're wired and still in survival mode." His insight was a little surprising and Trip inhaled carefully, mentally cycling through one of T'Pol's breathing exercises. He felt control returning but found he could not quite fully relax in Malcolm's presence. This is ridiculous.
"Yes," he agreed after a moment. "This does still feel a little like a dream to me." He felt Malcolm's glance and started to tense up again. Dammit. This was going to get old really fast.
"The subcommander taught you well," Reed stated as he returned his gaze to the closed doors. "Suus Mahna?" he guessed.
"With a bit of Krav Maga that the Vulcans absolutely insist they did not steal from humanity," Trip replied wryly. For a moment, things were as they used to be and Malcolm offered the tight smile Tucker remembered, but it passed too quickly and they stood in awkward silence the rest of way to G Deck.
"Are the guest quarters to your liking?" Malcolm asked as the door whisked open. "As first officer, it is my duty to ensure you are comfortable and I thought you would appreciate the aft guest quarters for the view of the nacelles." Trip paused in mid-step – there had been a knowing tone to Reed's question – and glanced over his shoulder.
"I'm sure they're fine," he replied, knowing but not caring that his response implied he hadn't bothered setting foot in the aft cabin, before resuming his stride. "Say hello to Amanda for me."
Despite his desperate urge to move faster, to get to the forward cabin that he and T'Pol were sharing were he knew he'd feel at least partially safe, Trip forced himself to keep to his normal pace. His skin felt too tight and he paused each time he passed a door just long enough to ensure that it was completely sealed and no surprises were lurking on the other side. When the door slid shut behind him and he saw T'Pol sitting upon the floor in front of the small couch, Trip felt relief blast through him so powerfully that both of them staggered slightly. He glanced down in irritation when she very briefly opened her eyes to look at him, and then quickly stepped closer. Taking a seat in front of her, Trip concentrated on his breathing. Why was this so damned difficult? All of their efforts had been intended to get back here but it was taking every gram of concentration to talk to other people without panicking.
"I too am finding it difficult to readjust," T'Pol said softly.
"It shouldn't be this hard," he muttered. T'Pol tilted her head slightly and gave him that non-smile of hers.
"We will adapt," she stated calmly.
Trip hoped she was right.