He found T'Pol exactly where he
expected her to be.
Picking his way across the sandy beach, Trip took a seat alongside her, noting how she barely reacted beyond a subtle flicker of her eyes in his direction. She continued to stare silently at the dark ocean, breathing slowly and regularly as she watched the waves wash up onto the sand. It almost made him smile – he recalled her doing something quite similar during their brief exile on that Ekosian island so very long ago – but he was too tired from his latest round of social conflict to do more than exhale angrily.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" his father had demanded in a confused voice. "You don't smile or laugh. Hell, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were a goddamned Vulcan!" It was only the most recent such conversation and the irritation at having to explain – or at least try to explain – was rapidly driving him insane. Why was it so hard for people to understand that life had gone on for him too? Bad enough that half of them looked at him like he was some sort of freak for even being with T'Pol …
"I am sorry," the subject of his musing said abruptly. To anyone but him, her expression would have been called detached but he could see the turmoil there which shouldn't have surprised him. After all, she was experiencing the same sort of reaction from those of her species. Hell, her own mother had been visibly appalled when T'Pol introduced him.
"Not your fault," Trip replied. "I'm just as guilty as you are." He smirked. "If you want to take all of the blame, though, I'm okay with that." She lifted an eyebrow before allowing her own lips to curve up slightly.
"I will accept the blame when we interact with your family," T'Pol said wryly, "if you do the same with T'Les." Trip blinked.
"Are you insane?" he asked softly. "Your mother scares the hell out of me!" They shared a brief, vaguely amused look and Trip leaned back in the sand, simply enjoying the warm sensation in the back of his mind that was T'Pol's affection. It was better than a laugh or a smile, but for the life of him, he couldn't figure out how to actually explain it to his family without going into details they didn't need to know about. He'd never really thought of the Tuckers as bigots – his brother was married to another man, after all, and his older sister claimed she was a witch in the service of the Earth-Mother Gaia, whatever the hell that meant – but right now, he just wanted to hit them all with large, heavy rocks. The way they looked at him or, even worse, the way they watched T'Pol with suspicion and distrust in their eyes … God, it made him furious. He swallowed the irritation, pushed it down, and made a brief mental note to check in with Phlox at the next available moment about how to handle this. As the doctor had pointed out during the last horribly in depth examination, emotion suppression was fine for Vulcans but wasn't a good option for a human. The last thing he needed to do was to get an ulcer or give himself a heart attack from stress.
"I received a communication from Fleet Command," T'Pol said moments later. She had slipped back into her native tongue. "They have expressed a desire to debrief you regarding your work on the T'Muna-Doth." Trip nodded.
"I got the same request," he replied, also in Vulcan. "Starfleet Command sent a follow-up to me and I read between the lines; seems like the Admiralty almost wants me to outright refuse to meet with them." He frowned slightly – the tension between Earth and Vulcan was almost tangible these days and he still didn't know what it was all about. From a few overheard conversations and a bit of digging into the official record, he suspected it was the High Command's utter lack of assistance during the Xindi mess but all of those fascists had been kicked out or thrown in prison.
"Will you?" For the first time since he'd joined her on the beach, T'Pol turned to look at him.
"Ignore their request? No." Trip offered her a very tiny shrug. "I have never been to Vulcan. I would like to see your homeworld." A sudden flare of raw emotion – approval, desire, happiness, worry – pulsed across their magical connection and he smirked at the sheepish glint that flickered in T'Pol's eyes at her momentary loss of control. "I will need a native guide, of course."
"Of course." T'Pol returned her attention to the sea. "Mother has extended an invitation to both of us as well." This time, there was no denying her wariness and Trip briefly considered asking her when she'd spoken to T'Les. As far as he knew, the last time they'd chatted was before he and T'Pol left San Francisco to come here. He discarded the question almost before it occurred to him.
"Here you are." Lizzie's voice was, as usual, louder than it had any right to be for such a tiny little woman, and Trip glanced up to watch his sister stomp through the sand. It never ceased to amuse him that, for someone born and raised in Florida, she'd never been able to master the skill of walking across a beach without kicking sand everywhere. When they were growing up, he'd called her Lizzie Kong as a result, thought he'd always wanted to find a way to work in Godzilla in a way that wasn't hard to say. Lizilla just didn't flow…
"Here I am," he replied without moving from where he reclined. He felt T'Pol tense slightly, but Lizzie surprised him again.
"I did not mean to interrupt," she said in surprisingly fluent Vulcan. "If this is an awkward time, then…"
"No," T'Pol interjected, watching Lizzie with no real expression on her face. "Commander Tucker and I were not discussing anything private."
"Commander, huh?" Lizzie smirked slightly at Trip as she took a seat in front of both of them. "On behalf of my ignorant family," she continued, once more addressing T'Pol, "I wish to apologize for the confusing reception you have received." Trip blinked – what that hell was this? The Elizabeth Tucker he remembered was a combative little brat who had to be dragged kicking and screaming to anything resembling an apology! "Since the attack on Earth by the Xindi," Lizzie continued, "there has been an unfortunate increase in xenophobic sentiment and to my great dismay, my family … our family has not escaped these illogical beliefs."
"There is no offense where none is taken," T'Pol replied slowly. Her eyes flickered to Trip – he could feel her surprise and offered a slight shrug – before returning to Lizzie. "I must congratulate you on your mastery of my native language," she said, returning to English.
"It's better than mine," Trip offered.
"As is her English," T'Pol added.
"If you keep this up," Trip said, "I'm going to go rent a boat and take you out on the ocean." T'Pol gave him a look. "And it'll be a little boat so you can really feel the waves underneath you. All of the waves. Including the really big ones. Maybe we might get lucky and find a squall to sit out."
"When we arrive on Vulcan," T'Pol retaliated, "I will arrange for you to attend a kolinahr ceremony." Lizzie winced at that, though she kept smiling and her eyes were dancing. From what he'd read about such ceremonies, Trip suspected he'd be bored senseless and there was nothing worse than a bored engineer.
"Détente?" he offered and T'Pol accepted with a slight nod.
"Why are you two going to Vulcan?" Lizzie asked when it became clear they weren't going to continue.
"Debriefing," Trip said. "The High Command is probably…"
"High Council." T'Pol corrected softly.
"…worried that I'm going to reveal all of their secrets from working on a Vulcan starship phased out of service forty years ago."
"Thirty-nine," T'Pol interjected. Trip gave her an irritated look that she returned blandly.
"It's nothing major," he told Lizzie. A flicker of emotion with a distinctive alien taste to it momentarily caused him to falter – so, T'Pol was a little worried. Maybe it was major after all – but he easily concealed it from view. "When did you start speaking Vulcan?" he asked in a blatant change of subject.
"When I visited there," his sister replied. Her good cheer suddenly looked forced. "A little bit after you got yourself killed in action," she added tightly. "I wanted to study the buildings, see if I could incorporate some of the features in my designs."
They sat there for some time, with Lizzie somehow managing to make T'Pol (and Trip himself, if he was honest) feel more welcome than at any time since they'd returned to Earth. His sister asked questions about everything, though she somehow knew where to draw the line in regards to her line of inquiry. Anything that remotely touched on the relationship between him and T'Pol was off-limits and Lizzie respected that … or at least she did a really good job at faking respect. Trip knew her well enough to see that she desperately wanted to ask some things that neither he nor T'Pol would be comfortable answering. She even managed to hold her tongue when Trip shucked his jacket and draped it over T'Pol's shoulders without asking for permission once the sun started to go down and the temperature dipped dramatically.
"Are you coming back to the house?" Lizzie asked once night had fully set in. All along the beach, lights activated, illuminating the stretch of sand well enough that even T'Pol could navigate without trouble. Her discomfort with the darkness seeped across their mental connection, though, and Trip knew she wouldn't be comfortable until they were indoors again.
"No," Trip said flatly. He was still seething over a couple of things he'd overheard – his brother and dad discussing ways to 'deprogram' him, or his mother complaining about not wanting her friends to know about Trip's 'weird fetish for alien women' – and knew that if he did step back through the door of his parents' home, he would say or do some things that he would regret. T'Pol glanced at him and he could taste her sudden worry.
"What should I tell dad?" Lizzie asked. She looked about as uncomfortable as T'Pol did. Trip shrugged.
"You know what? I don't really care right now."
"Trip." T'Pol placed one hand on his arm, only intensifying their magical connection, but he ignored her concern.
"You heard the kind of crap they were saying," he said. "If I go back in there, I'm going to punch him in the face."
"Trip, you have to understand, the Xindi attack … a lot of people are really angry and scared right now." Lizzie didn't look like she fully believed the excuse but, to her credit, she was making the effort. That didn't surprise him either – she'd always been a better person than he was.
"And that gives them the right to take it out on T'Pol?" All of the anger and frustration he'd been suppressing since he first woke up aboard Challenger and started dealing with everyone looking at him like he was doing something wrong with T'Pol bubbled forth. "Newsflash: she wasn't even on Earth when a completely different alien species decided to attack us." He scowled. "And if she had, I know her well enough to know that she'd been one of the first people to throw themselves in the fire to save as many lives as she could. But because she's not human, the … the bigots in our family look at her like she's some sort of thing!" He crossed his arms. "So to hell with them. I don't need that kind of crap in my life."
"Trip." This time, T'Pol sounded pained and, all at once, he could feel how his flash of rage had washed over her. Closing his eyes, he turned away and concentrated on the sound of the ocean. Breathe in, breathe out. Be the water. Calm and relaxed. "Please inform your parents that Starfleet Command summoned your brother back to headquarters for further debriefings."
"Yeah." Lizzie's voice was soft and sad. "That sounds believable." She was silent for a long moment but Trip barely noticed. He was too busy trying to be water, to be calm and placid and not ready to rip someone's damned arm off and beat them to death with it. "I'm sorry," she said. "The two of you deserve better than this."
"We will adapt, Ms. Tucker," T'Pol replied.
"Call me Lizzie. Or if that's too much, Elizabeth will do."
"Elizabeth." Even with his eyes closed, Trip could feel her move. It would be the ta'al, he knew. "If it is agreeable," T'Pol said slowly, hesitantly, in Vulcan, "I would instead refer to you as the sister of my husband." Trip could almost hear Lizze's sharp inhalation.
"I would be honored," she said in a breathless voice. "Go," Lizzie said a heartbeat later. Her smile could be heard in her voice. "I'll work on the family here. You go handle the numbskull there."
"Numb … skull?" T'Pol sounded alternately confused and bordering on actual laughter.
"As I understand it," Lizzie added, "he was dropped on his head a lot when he was a baby." Startled confusion coursed through their bond, though T'Pol almost immediately realized that it was a joke if he understood the sensations that followed.
"Are you well?" she asked softly once Lizzie had departed. Trip blew out a frustrated breath.
"Evidently not," he replied. "Sorry about that. Didn't mean to lose my temper."
"We will adapt," T'Pol repeated. She shifted closer to him. "I do not wish you to sever ties with your family because of me."
"You're not the problem," Trip pointed out sourly. He took her hand, interlaced his fingers with hers, and smiled softly at the frisson of illicit enjoyment he felt pulse off her. "Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here."