It felt like the
end of an era.
Enterprise was ninety minutes out from the Vulcan transport that would take Commander Charles Tucker – soon to be private citizen Charles Tucker – on to T'Pol's homeworld, possibly for the last time, and Jon couldn't shake the feeling that something about this entire scenario felt wrong. He knew the official story, had actually seen the recording of Trip punching that jackass Admiral Harris from Intelligence in the face, but still … his gut was telling him that he was missing something. Something big. If Erika was here, she'd see it at once.
At the moment, he was sitting in the captain's dining quarters, waiting for Trip to arrive so they could have one more toast before Tucker officially resigned from Starfleet. It had taken every bit of Jon's gravitas to talk Command into letting Trip serve as an attached mentor for the new acting-Chief Engineer for Enterprise, the former Chief Petty Officer but now Lieutenant Rostov. Everyone, including Rostov himself, knew this was just a temporary measure until Starfleet got their crap together and figured out who would step in to handle the position now that Taylor had been reassigned to Challenger in the wake of Kelby's tragic death. And with Discovery scheduled to launch next month … the Admiralty was still wrangling over who would command the NX-04, so God only knew when they'd assign a new chief engineer.
Jon's intent had been simple: get Trip aboard and find some way to repair the tattered remnants of their relationship. He'd seen firsthand how Reed continued to blame himself for the way Malcolm's friendship with Travis had deteriorated to the point that it no longer could really be called that thanks to the very bad call Reed had made during the Expanse mission and Jon didn't want to see the same thing happen to him and Tucker. In the nine days since the former chief engineer came aboard, they'd made some decent progress – conversations no longer ended with both of them irritated at each other and unable to express why – but still, they were a long way from the close bond they'd had when Enterprise first shipped out. If only they had more time…
"You're fidgeting, sir." Malcolm sat quietly in his chair, smirking, and Jon realized that he had been drumming his fingers against the table in an unconscious gesture. Archer scowled before leaning back and studying his first officer. He still didn't know exactly what it was that Reed and those MACOs had done on the moon last month or why Malcolm had been so insistent on obliterating the derelict mining facility, but when Starfleet said nothing about the expenditure of nine rather expensive photonic torpedoes, Jon had deduced it had something to do with that anti-Terra Prime operation that had gone down. Which, now that he thought about, had been developed by the same admiral Trip had evidently punched out during a classified briefing. The admiral who had also once been Malcolm Reed's commanding officer many years ago, though the record on Reed's service from that time was mostly expunged. What a very interesting coincidence. He made a mental note to compare notes with Erika when he spoke with her again later this week. Providing, of course, they scheduled time to actually talk instead of skipping straight to bed.
"I received official confirmation from Command about Hoshi today," Jon said rather than vocalize the theories tumbling around in his head. He nodded when Malcolm frowned. "They're reassigning her to the Academy full-time."
"Bollocks." Malcolm shook his head. "Well, we knew it was only a matter of time," he said to which Jon nodded bitterly. Less than a quarter of his current crew had shipped out with Enterprise when she first launched and ever since the Xindi mission, Starfleet hadn't shown any hesitation in transferring his people. If he'd been remotely paranoid, he'd think that they were trying to ensure that the Expanse crew was too spread out to do much damage if he had to go rogue again because Command couldn't get their heads out of their butts. Hell, they'd even split up the alternate Enterprise crew!
The door hissed open before he could respond to Reed's remark and Trip entered. Jon almost winced at the packed bag that Tucker set aside as well as the civilian clothes he wore. Thankfully, he was no longer on the unhealthy side of thin, instead looking fit and healthy. If anything, he looked healthier than Jon ever remembered him appearing.
"Sorry I'm late," Tucker said as he took his seat. "Had to talk Rostov off a ledge." He flashed a very brief smile that was gone almost before it appeared "If he asks," he added, "could you let him know that Starfleet is considering Commander Stiles as a possible chief engineer?"
"Stiles?" Jon frowned. "Isn't he the captain of the Ganymede?"
"No, not him. The other Stiles." Trip considered. "His cousin? Nephew? Something like that." He shook his head slightly. "He's … I hesitate to call him a legend because that implies positive things."
"He can't be that bad," Malcolm offered.
"Stiles managed to make a training reactor go into meltdown during his initial certification." Jon blinked.
"Is that even possible?" he asked, horrified.
"Apparently." Trip shrugged slightly. "As long as Rostov thinks that clown might replace him, I think you'll get a hundred and ten percent from him. Maybe a hundred and fifteen if you push your luck"
"I'll keep that in mind." Jon stood and reached for the bourbon on the table. "Hard to believe you're resigning," he said as he tipped generous splashes into each glass. "Why exactly did you punch the admiral?" Almost instantly, Trip's vaguely amused expression vanished and was replaced by that carefully blank mask he'd taken to wearing these days. At the same time, Malcolm intentionally glanced away, his own face studiously empty.
So … Reed was in on it too? The pieces started falling into place and were adding up to something that Jon didn't like.
"I don't quite recall," Trip replied. It was an obvious lie – Tucker's already really good memory was positively photographic these days – but Jon didn't call him on it as he offered one of the glasses. Trip accepted and gave it a frown. "Afraid I don't have much tolerance for alcohol these days," he said.
"Too busy doing other things?" Malcolm asked, his tone both knowing and slightly teasing. Trip gave him a flat look.
"Like dodging bullets or hiding from insane military commanders, yeah," Tucker replied. "There was also the random alien bear attack or trying to keep a forty-year old ship from falling apart on me." Jon smiled.
For a moment, it was almost as if Trip had never left and things hadn't gone crazy. He knew it wouldn't last – none of them really knew how to interact with one another for longer than a few minutes; inevitably, someone would misstep and say something they shouldn't have which would then lead to uncomfortable silences that were at least better than angry glares – but he simply let himself enjoy it while it lasted. It was just too bad T'Pol was not here; according to Trip, she'd accompanied Soval to Vulcan a week and a half ago to resolve some sort of family crisis, though Archer now had his doubts about that excuse.
"Well, for what it's worth," Jon said as he held up his glass, "you will be missed, Mister Tucker."
"Here, here," Reed said as he lifted his own glass.
"Just avoid punching any Vulcan admirals," Archer finished, once more noting the look in his first officer's eyes that always meant Malcolm knew more than he was admitting. Reed was usually exceptional at hiding things but when he did not agree with the methodology behind something, he had a tendency to not do as good a job as he should at keeping things under wraps. "You have something lined up, I'm guessing?" Jon asked.
"I have something in mind, yeah." Trip sniffed the bourbon then downed it in a single gulp that instantly caused a grimace. "I just know I'm going to pay for that later," he said.
They chatted for a while longer but kept the subject matter light – the chances that the Coalition would last or who was the most likely to command Discovery when she launched – and it was pleasant enough. Trip was less vocal or as opinionated as he once had been, and he listened with a laser focus that once again reminded Jon of T'Pol. When he did speak, it was calm and collected, which was still something Archer was getting used to. And when Malcolm rose to his feet about ten minutes before they were scheduled to meet up with the Vulcan transport, Jon once again noticed how utterly aware Trip was of Reed's every movement. It was in his posture, the deceptively relaxed way he sat while constantly keeping Malcolm in his peripheral vision. Having seen Reed do the exact same thing ever since Trip rejoined the living, Jon had finally given into his curiosity and asked his first officer about it.
"That's difficult to explain, sir," Malcolm had told him. "My instincts recognize the commander as a very dangerous threat." That alone had been surprise enough but Reed had continued. "His reflexes are still tuned to … I guess you would call it life-threatening danger, so a part of him perceives me as a threat as well which is why he tenses. Once he adapts to a life not surrounded by danger, things will be less awkward."
Trip Tucker. A 'very dangerous threat.' It hardly seemed possible. If Jon had not observed firsthand how much T'Pol herself had changed, how her fellow Vulcans treated her as if she was some sort of degenerate or freak, he might have been angry at her for what she'd done to Trip but, after a great deal of self-reflection and some off-the-record conversation with Phlox, Archer had finally understood how much the two had changed each other. The only thing to do was accept it and move on.
"I should check in with the bridge," Malcolm declared as he offered his hand to Trip. With only a heartbeat of hesitation, Tucker took it. "Stay safe, Trip," Reed added. There was the slightest hint of emphasis to his words and, had Jon's suspicions not already been roused, he might have missed the very discreet way Malcolm passed something to Tucker. Whatever it was, it fit easily in the hand and Trip expertly palmed it.
"I hope you know what you're doing," he said once Malcolm had departed. Trip glanced at him, no expression on his face but one of his eyebrows quirked in a hauntingly familiar gesture. Did he even realize how many of T'Pol's mannerisms he'd taken on? Archer made a face. "I'm not an idiot, Trip," he pointed out bitterly. "I know who Harris is, who he represents."
"Good." Trip's expression didn't alter but he seemed to relax slightly. "Don't be surprised when you get a time-delayed message. I know better than to trust Harris, even if T'Pol is there to watch my back." That was just enough of an admission to make Jon hesitate. "We're going into this with our eyes open, sir." After a moment, Jon gave Trip a questioning look but Tucker shook his head. "I can't go into specifics, not here." He pursed his lips. "Malcolm knows the op."
"Of course he is." Was that irritation in his voice? Jon hoped not. Enterprise's ambient sounds changed – they'd slowed from warp. "If you need us, we'll be there."
"I'll keep that in mind." Trip stood and Jon followed suit.
"And you look after T'Pol," Jon ordered. He offered his own hand and was pleased that Trip took it without even the briefest of hesitation. "Keep her safe."
"I'll do my best," Tucker replied, this time with a wry smirk that was so familiar. "But you know how hard that can be." Jon laughed.
And twenty minutes later, he stood on the bridge of Enterprise and watched the transport carrying his friend spring away at warp speed. He only hoped it would not be the last time he ever saw Trip.