Sleep finally gave up its hold on him, and Trip Tucker opened his eyes.
For a moment he let himself remain in place, smiling slightly at the gentle memories that washed over him as he inhaled the familiar smells of home. Even thoughts of Lizzie brought no pain in that brief interlude as he lost himself in recollections of the many years he had spent in this house. If he tried, he could almost hear her and Billy bickering over who got the last bowl of cereal, or Lisa whining about her latest social cause that no one else in the house cared about, or even his dad teasing his mom over breakfast.
It was a good feeling.
After a long moment, he pushed himself up from the bed and gave the room a quick glance. Unsurprisingly, T'Pol was seated before a lit candle, her eyes closed as she meditated. For a heartbeat, Trip studied her, admiring how the candlelight danced across her exotic features. Glancing at her lap, he nearly snorted with laughter at the sight of Flodot, his mother's house cat, curled up in the Vulcan's lap.
The feline's unlikely name came with a story that was almost too strange to be true. Discovered by Charles Junior when he was aiding the Florida Department of Transportation in determining whether a number of the state bridges were still safe for use, the cat had been half starved and suffering from a variety of ailments. Ever a big softie for stray animals, Trip's dad had spent a great deal of time and money in nursing it back to health instead of turning it over to Animal Control. Displaying his odd sense of humor, Charlie Tucker even named the cat after the very organization that he worked for.
“This way,” the older Charles Tucker had joked, “I'll never forget who to blame for dropping the damned cat into my life.”
Even more amusing, however, was how absolutely fascinated the cat seemed to be with T'Pol. Ever since she had first entered his parents’ home, the Vulcan had found herself stalked by the feline or under its curious scrutiny. Several times, T’Pol had nearly stumbled when the cat abruptly appeared underfoot, but, in the last day or so, the two appeared to have come to some sort of unspoken understanding. T'Pol would provide the feline with the attention that it desired, and Flodot would stop trying to trip the Vulcan.
Shaking his head in amusement, Trip quietly pulled on a robe and crept from the room, making sure to pull the door shut behind him. Moving as stealthily as possible, he made his way to the kitchen, where he checked the automated beverage dispenser. For a moment, he thought that he was reading the integrated chronometer wrong before finally shrugging and searching for a cup. Since he was up, he decided, he might as well stay up.
Within minutes, he found himself outside the house and in the back yard. Cradling the cup of tea in one hand, he wandered toward the man made lake behind the house and onto the small pier that jutted out over the water. He breathed in deeply, smiling at the many memories of summers here as he looked at the other houses that surrounded the lake. Dawn was already beginning to peek over the horizon, and he inhaled peaceful contentment before taking a seat at the edge of the pier. He lowered his feet into the lake and spent a few minutes simply enjoying the feel of the cool water as it lapped against his legs.
Only one thing was missing...
He sensed her approach long before he actually heard it, but said nothing as she slowly made her way across the short pier. Though she concealed it, he could feel her discomfort through the bond. Despite his best efforts, T'Pol remained uncomfortable around any body of water larger than a bathtub, no matter how safe it was. As she sat down next him, her legs instantly folding into the familiar meditative pose, he finally gave her a look. It didn’t surprise him to discover that she was completely dressed, wearing the civilian clothes that he'd actually become accustomed to seeing her in over the last couple of days.
“Mornin',” he said in greeting, basking at the flash of warmth that pulsed through the bond. As expected, she didn't reciprocate the nonsensical greeting. Instead, she gave the lake a discreet frown that caused Trip to grin.
“It's perfectly safe,” he pointed out, earning himself an annoyed glance. “We used to swim in it all the time.” He gestured toward the other houses. “The local kids still do.”
“It sounds unsanitary,” T'Pol commented, a wry tone in her voice. At his surprised look, she elaborated. “How many life forms excrete or decompose within a body of water this size?”
“None,” Trip replied with another smile. Pointing to cylindrical objects scattered at equidistant intervals around the lake, he explained. “See those? They're sterilizers designed to eliminate nasty microbes and the like. This is a man made lake, T'Pol. Nothing lives in it.” He grinned. “The sterilizers also keep the wanderin' pets from gettin' too close.”
“Fascinating,” T'Pol declared, her voice indicating that she didn't find it so. Her eyes seemed to scan the brightening horizon and Trip couldn't help but notice the tension that was once more in every line of her body. Tucker frowned at that and spent a moment deciding on the approach to take; in the end, he chose forthrightness.
“What's goin' on, T'Pol?” he finally asked, his own eyes now fixed on the rising sun. He caught her startled look and frowned. “You've been acting weird ever since you showed up at the hospital.”
“I have not,” she retorted, a hint of heat in her voice, and Trip gave her a disbelieving look.
“You held my hand,” Tucker reminded her, not unkindly. “In public.” The tips of her ears darkened slightly and she glanced away, eyes darting in a gesture that he recognized as discomfort. “I thought we agreed to be honest with one another.”
“I have not lied to you,” T'Pol argued, voice tight.
“But you haven't told me the truth, either.” Suddenly Trip was angry, and he glared at the placid lake, seriously considering throwing the cup. As if sensing his intent, T'Pol reached toward his hand and took the tea from him. She sipped the warm beverage and gave him that wide-eyed look of hers over the rim of the cup that always made him want to kiss her senseless.
Suddenly, he drew in a sharp breath of arousal as a memory of the previous night flooded into his mind's eye: The feel of her skin against him, the touch of her lips against his, the heat of her body as he was gloriously captured within her. Even now, many hours after the fact, he could still feel the phantom sensation of her fingers touching his face as their katras became one during their silent intimacy. Friction and movement hadn't been necessary as their minds – and their bodies – raced toward climax.
“Damn it,” he muttered crossly as he looked away and fought the urge to pounce on her once more. It was one of those oddities about his relationship with her that he still struggled to come to grips with; simply put, he couldn't stay mad at her. Every time that he was truly angry over something she said or did, memories of their more happy times together would overwhelm him, either moderating the annoyance or washing it away entirely. Even in the weeks and months after T'Pol's short-lived marriage to Koss or her almost callous treatment of him following her mother's death, Trip had tried to figure out why he forgave her so readily. It had later taken an amused Soval to explain that this was a benefit of the bond as it worked to restore equilibrium between the mated pair.
Fortunately, Trip knew that T'Pol experienced the same thing, so he didn't feel as if he were being controlled through some sort of Vulcan mojo. On several occasions, he'd seen her frustration at him mounting before she’d abruptly blinked in surprise, and continued on as if she weren't angry. With force of will, they could remain angry at one another; but Trip generally found it not worth the effort. T'Pol, on the other hand, excelled at holding a grudge.
“You're my mate,” Tucker muttered softly as he returned his eyes to the lake. “We're not supposed to keep things from one another, remember?” To his surprise, T'Pol looked away and did something he couldn't remember ever seeing her do.
“Your father's condition,” she began softly, “reminds me that you're going to die.” She glanced at him as he gave her a confused look. “I have no desire to live as a widow, Trip,” the Vulcan admitted, her voice thick with barely suppressed emotion. “Not for a single day.”
“Is that what this is about?” he asked in surprise. They had discussed this very matter at some length after Trip had returned from Columbia; despite the bond, they had forced themselves to weigh the pros and cons of continuing their relationship in a blunt conversation that Tucker had no desire to recall. After all, even if Trip survived to his life expectancy, she would outlive him by forty or fifty years.
“In part.” T'Pol frowned slightly as she put the empty cup down. “Your mother's description of Doctor Tucker's eating habits sounds suspiciously similar to yours,” she accused, almost glaring at him. Despite his better instincts, Trip barked out a laugh.
“If it makes you feel better, darlin',” he joked, “I'll let you pick out my meals in the future.” Too late, he realized that she would likely take him at his word.
And, indeed, she was giving him a measuring look. Trip sighed, knowing that he was going to regret saying that. They sat together in silence for a moment.
“So, what's the other thing?” Trip asked, hiding the smirk that threatened to cross his lips as she gave him another one of her deer in the headlight looks. “You haven't left my side, darlin', but you haven't exactly hidden the fact that something else is botherin' you.” A thought occurred to him and he narrowed his eyes. “In fact, you've been actin' more like a bodyguard than anything else.” Rather than answer, she glanced away again, and Trip felt anger stirring within him. “That's it, isn't it? You're tryin' to protect me again.”
“Yes,” came T'Pol's response as she returned to scanning the horizon. “I received a communique from Lieutenant Hayes' associates that indicated you were in danger.” Her tone was wry as she continued. “Despite my ... displeasure at your recent order, I made the decision to protect you.” She locked gazes with him. “You have an unfortunate tendency to be injured when away from the ship,” the Vulcan deadpanned.
“Do you really want to compare records, darlin'?” Trip almost snapped, suddenly feeling sick of it all. She didn't have to explain who on Earth wanted him dead since that list was pretty short. Why can't those goddamned zealots leave me alone? Angrily, he looked away from her.
“Trip.” T'Pol's voice was soft, but drew his eyes back to her face. He was putty in her hands whenever she used his nickname, especially when she used that tone of voice. “We will get through this. Together.” She offered him the half-smile that always lightened his mood, and Trip sullenly wondered when she'd broken him so thoroughly. Hell, Tucker, he groused to himself, she's had you whipped since she refused to shake your hand.
“Does that mean this place is crawling with Roughnecks?” he asked after a moment, wondering if he'd even see them. Probably not, he reflected, remembering the eerie ability to disappear that Eisler and his SEALs seemed to have mastered while planetside in the months of the Icarus Project.
“It's under control,” she replied coolly. Once more, T'Pol was every centimeter the Ice Princess, and Trip gave her a knowing look; he'd long since figured out that this was her way of concealing concern or fear. With a sigh, he lifted his feet out of the lake and stood, pulling her up as he did so. Seeing no reproach in her eyes, he leaned forward and gave her a lingering kiss.
“I still haven't forgiven you for cutting your hair, by the way,” Trip remarked as they began making their way back to the house, and he could feel her embarrassed amusement through the bond.
“I wasn't aware that I required your permission to do so,” T'Pol responded, allowing him to take her hand and hold it for the short walk.
“Well, you do.” He reached over with his other hand and tucked the hair behind her ear. “You cut it 'cause you were mad at me, didn't you?”
“I'm Vulcan,” she retorted quickly. “I do not get mad.” Abruptly, she gave him a sidelong look. “And it will remain this length until you rescind your absurd standing order keeping me aboard Endeavour.”
“Blackmail?” he grinned. “That's stoopin' pretty low, sweetheart.” T'Pol quirked an eyebrow in response, but did not reply.
Anna Hess chuckled.
Leaning back from her desk, she studied her handiwork with giddy approval. It was perfect. A wrench monkey by preference and training, she had always struggled with the written word. Throughout her Starfleet career, her written reports had been characterized as either poor or incomprehensible. Even when she had served under Trip, she had relied heavily on Mike Rostov to translate her rudimentary outlines into something legible.
But this ... this was her masterpiece.
“Riggs!” she bellowed as she stood up, putting memories of Mike out of her mind. He had been her best friend until his death, and even now, she found herself unable to think of him without getting depressed. “I'm heading to the bridge,” Anna continued as the lieutenant looked up from his station. He gave her a quick nod and returned to what he was already doing.
At the main door leading to the rest of the ship, Hess paused and gave Engineering another look, sighing at how foreign the entire setup looked to someone who had cut her teeth on Henry Archer's design. Even though she had participated in designing the new layout, and had been in command of the teams installing it, every time she entered, Anna expected it to look like the Engineering department on Enterprise or Columbia. Hell, she actually had a real office!
Shaking her head, she exited the engineering deck and headed toward the nearest turbolift. As she waited for the lift to arrive, she spent a moment thinking about the duty logs; there were three engineers that she trusted to keep their mouths shut about this project, but she wasn't sure if she could juggle the repair schedule without them. With a hiss, the lift door opened and she stepped in.
“Bridge,” Anna ordered, bracing for the abrupt acceleration of the lift. That was another one of the kinks that she had yet to work out of the newer systems. According to all of the tests they'd conducted, the lift should work normally instead of with these jackrabbit starts and jarring stops. Since the lifts actually worked, though, determining why they didn't work perfectly was low on the list of priorities.
Halfway to the bridge, the lift screeched to a sudden halt that sent Hess to her knees. Cursing under her breath, she climbed to her feet and reached for the comm button to inform damage control to relay this latest problem. Before she could hit the transmit button, however, the lift lurched into motion once more, causing her to stumble again. She pressed the button anyway.
“Hess to Damage Control,” she snapped. “I'm in the bridge turbolift and it just froze up for a couple of seconds. I want it fixed.”
“Copy, Commander,” Ensign Rostova's voice replied almost instantly. “What deck, ma'am?”
“Between C and D Deck,” Hess replied as the lift stopped. She held out a hand to keep the doors open. “Make this a priority,” the lieutenant commander continued. “We can't have the lift stalling in combat. Hess out.”
Giving the bridge a quick glance around, she frowned at the skeleton crew present. Lieutenant Devereux was the only other officer on the command deck, and she was busy at her station. Anna nearly smiled at how harried the lieutenant looked; although communications was the division least affected by this latest refit, Devereux had still been run ragged coordinating most of the repair teams with the drydock crews.
“Is Commander Eisler in the ready room?” Hess asked one of the two enlisted personnel present on the bridge. As the girl nodded in reply, Anna found herself wondering at what point Starfleet had started recruiting from grade school. The crewman wore the blue of science but looked sixteen, tops. Damn, Hess groused, I'm getting old.
Anna didn't bother hitting the announce button, instead opting to barge in on Rick. It was a calculated decision that she knew would irk the hell out of him, even though he wouldn't complain too much. As expected, Eisler looked up from the desk and glowered at her unannounced entrance, looking as though he had swallowed a foul-tasting stone. But then, he always looked like that.
“What do you want?” he demanded as he returned his attention to the computer screen in front of him. Without asking for permission, she dropped into one of the empty chairs – a nice, comfortable one – and sighed heavily.
“I'm getting old, Rick,” Anna announced, grinning at his sidelong look. “We're getting old.”
“Speak for yourself,” Eisler retorted in that low growl of his that was so damned sexy. Despite herself, Anna found herself once more wondering what he'd be like in the sack. She'd seen him mostly naked several weeks back when they had been forced to go through Decon together, and had found herself unable to tear her eyes from the scars that decorated his body. She sometimes thought he had been born in the wrong era, and should have been fighting alongside the Spartans at Thermopylae, marching with Alexander at Gaugamela, or crossing the Rubicon with Caesar.
His response was also an indication of how differently he treated her compared to the rest of the crew. Somehow, against all odds, he had become her best friend on this ship and, though he was unlikely to admit it, she knew he felt the same way. Of equal rank, they had such radically disparate ways of doing things that Trip inevitably teamed them up when he had a problem that he needed solved. Anna sighed again as she realized how similar her relationship with Eisler was to Tucker's friendship with Commander Reed. In her more introspective moments, she wondered if it was a universal constant that the Chief Engineer and Senior Tactical Officer would become friends.
“Are you here just to bother me, or do you actually need something?” Rick asked as he leaned back from the computer, a dark expression on his face. From what she could see, it was schematics for a weapon system of some sort, and she swallowed the urge to tease him about boys and their toys. After all, he could easily throw that back in her face by invoking her unhealthy attachment to Endeavour's warp core.
“I need you to sign off on a work order,” she replied instead as she tossed the PADD onto the desk. “It's not exactly ... official, but I wanted to follow procedures.” He gave her another curious look at the comment before picking up the data device and flipping through it.
“A door installation?” Eisler frowned, and she smirked, knowing exactly why he was confused: the work order was intentionally vague about where the door was to be installed.
“I want to install a door between the captain's cabin and the one on its starboard side.” At that, his frown deepened even further.
His hesitation was understandable. During the refit, personal quarters had been reassigned and, in one of her more brilliant schemes, Anna had arranged to put Commander T'Pol in the cabin immediately next to the captain's. Although she had managed to come up with a completely plausible and believable explanation for the change, Hess had later revealed to Rick that she had done so in silent protest to the silly no-frat policy that Commodore Archer had been forced to reiterate. That had been phase one.
This was phase two.
As one of the few people aboard Endeavour who had been there through most of the ups and downs that comprised the Tucker and T'Pol relationship, Anna considered herself to be something of an expert on the unlikely pair. Since she considered Trip to be an unofficial big brother, she had made the decision to do whatever was necessary to see that he was happy. If that required going against Starfleet Command, then so be it.
Even more amusing was that she knew that Rick privately agreed with her. When she came aboard Endeavour to replace Lieutenant Commander Drahn, Eisler had still been adamantly opposed to the relationship between Trip and Commander T'Pol. In time, though, he'd actually grown accustomed to it, particularly as the Vulcan continued to earn his respect. He couldn't officially support the relationship, of course, but in a rare moment of total honesty, he had admitted to Anna that the two senior-most officers were good for one another.
“Who are you going to get to do this installation?” he asked after a long moment of consideration, and she smiled at him. Gotcha, she smirked.
“Do you really want to know?” came her reply and he grimaced before shaking his head. “There are still a couple of his old crew from Enterprise aboard that can keep their mouths shut.”
Without further comment, he nodded and applied his thumbprint to the work order, officially approving it. He handed her the PADD and, in the moment that she reached for the data device, she notice the minute tremble in his hand.
At once, she felt her earlier joviality dissolve. He hadn't intended for her to learn of the Krupitzer's but, during a routine visit to Sickbay, she had overheard Doctor Phlox use the term while speaking with him. Rampant curiosity had led her to research the term. Rick had been livid when she’d cornered him about the disease and had demanded that she keep silent about it. To her knowledge, he hadn't yet informed the captain, but she had spoken extensively and off the record with Phlox about how she could help. The Denobulan had been grim in his assessment, but had urged her to provide as much moral support as she could in the coming months and years.
She sometimes wondered if the doctor was trying to play matchmaker once more.
Evidently seeing her expression change, he snatched his hand back, almost as if it had been burned. The scowl on his face was dark and terrible; had she not known him as well as she did, Anna might have even been mildly intimidated.
“Bad day?” she asked softly as she stood, and his expression lightened slightly. He nodded stiffly but made no further reply. Silently, she sighed at how difficult it was dealing with him; if there was one thing that Rick Eisler loathed more than personal weakness, it was someone else seeing it. Knowing him, Anna suspected he would pull a double shift now just to remind himself that he wasn't an invalid.
“Since the captain and T'Pol are off the ship,” Hess said suddenly, recognizing an opportunity to force him to relax, “we should do dinner in the Executive Mess.” To her complete surprise, he flushed slightly and she blinked before hearing the innuendo in her comment. She grinned wickedly at the opportunity to tease him and rose to her feet. “Nineteen hundred hours, Rick. Don't be late or I'll make sure that everyone knows you stood me up.” Anna paused at the doorway, hand above the release button. “I want some German bratwurst tonight,” she purred before exiting the ready room.
Before the door could close, she heard him sigh.
She sighed heavily as her husband stood before the headstone.
It had been moving ceremony, with the priest quoting appropriate passages from one of the many human religious books, and a Starfleet honor guard had been present to pay honor to a fallen comrade. The only thing missing in Feezal's opinion was an overcast sky. It should have been raining, especially if there actually was an all-knowing supernatural entity like the one that the priest spoke of. Instead, Sol burned brightly in the clear blue sky, almost as if in defiance to the somber events taking place.
“How did he die?” she asked softly in their native language. Startled, Phlox gave her a sharp look before exhaling heavily. Like her, he was dressed in dark hues that were the traditional Denobulan clothes of mourning. Even though she had never met the human recently laid to rest, Feezal had responded instantly when Phlox requested that she accompany him. His body language more subdued than she had ever seen it, her husband returned his attention to the headstone and studied the words carved there.
Jeremy Lucas. Beloved Husband and Father. Primum non nocere.
“I told you of his reassignment to Cold Station Twelve,” Phlox began, his expression downcast. It was an indication of how completely he had adopted Terran mannerisms that he responded in Standard English instead of Denobulan Prime. At her nod, he continued. “During the decontamination of the station, he was accidentally exposed to a number of the pathogens that the human Augments released during their escape.”
“That was three years ago,” Feezal commented.
“Yes.” Phlox began to turn away from the headstone. “The last two years have been especially difficult for his family.” She fell into step with him as they walked toward the cemetery exit. To his visible surprise, she took his hand in a decidedly human gesture of affection before giving him a slight smile and squeezing tightly. It was distressing to her how badly he appeared to need her touch in that moment.
“Humans traditionally have a gathering following a funeral,” she declared. She clearly meant it to be a question, and Phlox nodded sadly.
“My presence would not be appreciated,” he lamented, and Feezal frowned in understanding. Although Doctor Lucas' immediate family had welcomed both of them with open arms and had even encouraged them to stay, Feezal had seen the poorly concealed distrust and outright fear in the eyes of several of the other attendees, an unfortunate side effect of the continuing xenophobia on Earth. When Phlox had referenced his duties with Starfleet as the reason he could not attend the gathering, Feezal had assumed that he was speaking the truth; his recent comments, however, caused her to suspect that he had used his workload aboard Endeavour as an excuse to avoid making a scene with his friend's family. Now that she thought about it, though, Feezal also realized that Doctor Lucas' wife had clearly recognized his underlying discomfort with her grieving relatives.
“Thank you for coming, Phlox,” she had whispered before embracing him tightly. “I know who Jeremy's real friends are.”
At the time, Feezal hadn't quite understood what the comment meant. In her defense, she still struggled with comprehending human comments and innuendo. Unlike Phlox, she hadn't spent enough time among the Terrans to quite recognize many of their vocal idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, she completely misunderstood what they were saying or doing; her brief visit to Enterprise many years earlier had been proof of that when she’d realized that Commander Tucker hadn't been interested in having sexual intercourse with her. Phlox had later revealed some of the positively archaic stigmas that humans placed on sexual relations, and Feezal reflected that Terrans were nearly as bad as Vulcans when it came to that subject.
It was a sobering realization that she had misread her husband as she had, however. Though she hadn't actually thought about it before now, Feezal realized that she had never really been able to read Phlox's moods as easily as she read those of her other husbands. Most of the time, Phlox was a jovial, fun-loving individual, but, as she had learned over the years, he didn't take loss very well, and Jeremy Lucas had been a very good friend. Instead of engaging her husband with conversation and potentially angering him, though, she simply walked with him, her hand gripping his, hoping that it would be enough as he struggled to cope with his grief.
As they climbed into the waiting ground transport, Feezal studied Phlox for a long moment. He had lost weight since she had last seen him, and a cloak of grim resolve seemed to hang about him. It appeared completely out of place on a Denobulan of Phlox's temperament, and Feezal hated it. The stern expression on his face was also foreign to her, and she found herself missing his smile. Once, he had been happy and eager to spread his good cheer.
She missed those days.
“I received an employment offer from Alaan Kisen,” she declared as the autocab pulled out of the cemetery. Phlox gave her a wide-eyed look, clearly surprised at the non sequitur.
“Indeed?” he asked, the barest hint of a smile on his face. “That is a prestigious assignment.” Feezal nodded: employment at the Alaan Kisen medical facility would place her among the foremost medical minds that Denobula could put forward. Her continuing research into the slowly declining birth rate of her species was the reason for the offer, and she had to admit that having access to a larger number of Denobulans for her research was something she desperately needed for further advances.
“It would require a move to Denobula Triax,” she said. Her original request to transfer to Terra had been solely to be closer to her favorite husband and, given the darkness that seemed to be slowly overwhelming him, she was loath to give that up. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, she knew that he needed her.
“That may be for the best,” Phlox said, attention drifting to the passing landscape. “Our homeworld isn't a target for the Romulans.”
“Currently,” Feezal pointed out, and her husband nodded slightly. Once more, he sighed.
“Are you going to accept?” he asked as the ground transport began to accelerate.
“I am considering it,” she replied as she continued to study him. “It will give me an opportunity to expand my fertility research.” At her words, Phlox gave her a look that she couldn't begin to comprehend. He was silent for a long moment before reaching into the overnight bag that was at his feet. Extracting a human-style PADD, he pressed it into her hands.
“Read this, please” he instructed, an unusual emotion thickening his voice. With a confused frown, Feezal turned her attention to the data device.
Within seconds, she was absorbed in the research contained within it. In previous conversations, Phlox had intimated that Captain Tucker and Commander T'Pol were romantically involved, so she wasn't surprised to discover that they had turned to him when the subject of cross-species breeding came up. To her surprise, however, a number of genetic inconsistencies in Tucker's genome complicated the process. Based on her initial assessment of his progress, Phlox was being too conservative in his approach; at least three alternate approaches that he hadn't considered immediately came to mind.
“Can I keep this?” she asked as the autocab turned into the starport. “For study?”
“I had hoped that you might be interested,” Phlox replied, an actual smile on his face. She returned the smile, suddenly noticing that he was studying another PADD. Blinking in surprise, she realized that she hadn't even seen him extracting the second device. Noting her look, he gestured with the PADD. “One of Endeavour's officers is suffering from a terminal neurological disorder,” he revealed, the smile fading from his face, “and I'm trying to find a way to slow the disease.”
“If you wish,” Feezal offered, “I can assist.” She wasn't sure how much help she would be since human neurology was definitely not her area of expertise. To her surprise, though, Phlox's expression had transformed into one she had only seen a few times before: he was hiding something. She studied him for a moment and he glanced away, clearly trying to avoid meeting her eyes. “Phlox,” she began.
“I've arranged to speak with Doctor Soong,” he interrupted softly. Her eyes widened in mild shock; Phlox had made his opinion of the imprisoned geneticist clearly known the last time Feezal had spoken with him. “He understands human genetics far better than I ever will,” Phlox continued. “If I can enlist his aid, I may be able to reverse this disorder before it's too late ...” He trailed off and drew in a deep breath as the autocab slowed to a halt. The doors popped open and Phlox began to climb out.
“Give me a copy of your data,” Feezal said abruptly as she exited the ground transport. “I will have avenues of research at Alaan Kisen that you will not.”
The whine of an arriving shuttlepod drowned out his response, but she could see the grief that had cloaked him lift slightly. Tension drained out of her shoulders as he grinned broadly at her.
She had missed his smile.
His smile faded as the import of the admiral's comment sank in.
“This isn't a demotion, Jon,” Admiral Gardner was saying, and Jon found himself clutching the edge of the table with a white-knuckled grip. Anger thudded through his veins and the muscles in his face quivered under the force of his clenched teeth.
“Really.” Archer's voice sounded flat even to himself, but he was beyond caring in that moment. “It sure seems like it, sir.” The vid-image of Gardner frowned as he replied.
“Command trusts you, Jon, but we don't want to overwhelm you with work.” The admiral's expression was bleak. “I need you at Starbase One right now. Admiral Zu will assume the duties of Sixth Fleet commander until further notice.” Gardner studied Archer for a moment, almost as if he was about to make another comment.
“Will that be all, Admiral?” Jon asked tightly. He had to end this transmission before he said or did something stupid.
“For now,” Gardner replied before leaning back in his seat. “I'll forward you official orders within the hour.”
“Thank you, sir.” The admiral gave him another searching look before reaching forward and ending the transmission. In the moment after the screen went dark, Archer was venting his anger by smashing his fist into the wall.
“Sonuvabitch!” he raged, before jumping to his feet. His fists at his side, he glared at the small hotel room, wishing for something to hit. Anything.
“Jon?” Erika's voice drifted from the bathroom, and he gave her a heated look. At any other time, he would have admired how she looked while wearing nothing more than a damp towel, but the anger that was flooding through him at that moment was not easily assuaged.
“That was Gardner,” he nearly snarled as he began to pace the cramped room. “They're removing me from command of the Sixth Fleet.”
“Why?” she asked, eyes wide in surprise.
“It's Black,” Jon declared. “It has to be.” Frustration boiled up again, and he slammed his fist into the unyielding wall. For a heartbeat, the pain almost made him forget how angry he was. As he cradled his hand, Erika took several steps closer, her eyes studying him.
“Do you want me to call Captain Tucker?” she asked. “We can have dinner another night.”
“His name is Trip,” Archer sighed as he sat down on the double bed and glanced around the room. He had rented the room before Erika arrived, knowing that she would be uncomfortable sleeping under the Tuckers’ roof. For that matter, he would have felt pretty awkward sharing a bed with her in the Tucker house. “And we won't have many opportunities like this,” he continued. “I'll be fine.” Pushing the anger down as much as he could manage, he stood up and glanced around the room. “Have you seen my jacket?” he asked as Erika ducked back into the bathroom.
Thirty minutes later, they were climbing out of the autocab in front of the restaurant that Trip had picked out. Unsurprisingly, Tucker and T'Pol were already present and waiting outside; for a moment, Jon goggled at the sight of the Vulcan in human evening wear. She looked fantastic. With the shape of her ears concealed by her hair, she appeared to be nothing more than a stunning young woman out on the town.
“Wow,” Erika muttered as she took in T'Pol's appearance with poorly concealed envy. Jon almost rolled his eyes at the comment before he caught himself; he was sure that she wouldn't appreciate his finding humor in the moment and he didn't fancy trying to convince her that, in his eyes, she outshone the Vulcan. Sometimes, women were strange.
“Hey, Cap'n,” Trip said with a mocking grin as he offered his hand for Archer to take. Although Jon found himself slightly cheered at the utterance of his old rank turned nickname, his anger at Starfleet Command was still simmering within him and his return smile felt forced. As he shook Tucker's hand, he noticed Trip's expression change slightly. Jon sighed: his old friend would likely be grilling him later.
“Polly was starting to wonder if you were ever going to arrive,” Tucker continued, emphasizing the name that T'Pol was to be called during the evening. Out of the corner of his eye, Jon caught a flicker of annoyance crossing the Vulcan's normally stoic face, and found himself wishing he could have been present when the two had discussed the name.
“Our reservations were for nineteen hundred hours local,” T'Pol pointed out smoothly. She gave Archer the flat look he recognized as Vulcan disapproval. “It is now nineteen fifteen hours.”
“Blame Starfleet Command,” Jon groused as Erika took his hand. To their credit, neither Trip nor T'Pol reacted beyond sharing a quick glance. “Admiral Gardner wanted to talk to me.”
“It is now nineteen sixteen and we are still not seated,” the Vulcan replied and Trip chuckled. Shooting Archer a wicked grin, the engineer reached out to T'Pol and took her hand. Had he not known her as long as he had, Jon would have missed the minute flinch that she gave. Knowing how uncomfortable the Vulcan was with such blatant physical contact, Jon was surprised that she did not immediately pull her hand free as they approached the entrance to the restaurant. He could almost swear that he saw Tucker wince at least once, though.
Dinner turned out to be spectacular. Trip and T'Pol were in rare form as they bickered good-naturedly, and Erika looked on in baffled amusement as the two argued over subjects ranging from the texture of their respective meals to the quality of the live band – Trip thought they were great, but T'Pol found their skill only slightly above average. The war seemed to be a subject that was off-limits, and Jon quickly realized that they were making a conscious effort to avoid being Captain Tucker and Commander T'Pol for one night.
“You should have seen them aboard Enterprise,” he joked to Erika as the small party finished their meals. To his mild surprise, both of his friends had ordered vegetarian dishes, but Jon had noticed Trip cast a longing glance at his porterhouse when it arrived. The commodore briefly wondered what that was about, but decided against asking. “There were times that I swear they forgot I was even in the room.”
“I saw the same thing when he was on my ship, and it was just the two of us,” she responded smoothly, causing Trip to cough slightly as he choked on some wine. Erika leveled a mock glare at the other captain. “Did you know that the engineering team threw a party when you left Columbia?” she asked.
“Really?” Trip looked almost upset at that. “I guess I didn't make the best of impressions, huh?” He gave Hernandez a sheepish smile. “Sorry about that, ma'am.”
“You can call me by my first name, Mister Tucker,” Erika replied. “We are the same rank, after all.”
“I think I can do that.” Tucker grinned. “As long as you call me Trip. I look around for my dad whenever someone calls me Mister Tucker.” T'Pol gave him an odd look at that comment, and Archer found himself wondering what she was thinking. In that moment, however, a familiar tune floated from the band, and Jon gave Erika a look. She nodded instantly, a smile on her face, and the two rose.
“If you'll excuse us,” she said to their dinner companions, but neither appeared to notice.
“No,” T'Pol was replying to Trip's hopeful expression. “I do not dance.”
“But it's good exercise!” the captain was arguing as he continued to give the Vulcan his best hangdog expression. Rolling his eyes, Jon led Erika to the dance floor and promptly forgot about his two best friends.
As he held Erika to him, Archer wished that the moment could last forever. In those all too brief minutes, he wasn't a commodore in Starfleet, she wasn't a captain, and Earth wasn't at war for its very survival. They were just Jon and Erika.
Once the song ended, Erika excused herself to visit the 'powder room' – whatever that was – and Archer weaved his way through the couples on the dance floor. He blinked in slight surprise to discover T'Pol sitting alone at the table, and glanced around for Trip.
“Professor Tucker called him,” the Vulcan answered his unspoken question as Jon retook his seat. “I believe it is in regards to the arrangements for Doctor Tucker's release from the hospital tomorrow.”
“Ah,” Archer replied as he sipped his wine. He made a mental note to acquire a bottle of this vintage for later.
“Trip is concerned,” T'Pol began without preamble, “about your mood.” Jon gave her a surprised look and she quirked an eyebrow. “He suspects that your duty assignment has been changed, and that you are displeased over this change.”
“How the hell did he figure that out?” Archer asked, eyes wide. He blinked in shock at the barest hint of a smile that briefly graced T'Pol's lips.
“When he actually applies himself, Trip is capable of logical thought.” Her expression was once more a stoic one. “From your reply, I would assume he is also correct,” T’Pol continued. Archer nodded.
“I'm no longer the commander of Sixth Fleet,” he admitted softly, noting that both of her eyebrows shot up. “Admiral Zu will be assuming command.” The Vulcan crinkled her nose in what almost looked like disgust.
“That is illogical,” she stated. “The admiral does not have the appropriate level of training to command a fleet.”
“But he does have the rank,” Jon replied angrily. “It's the dark side of humanity, T'Pol,” he continued softly. “Politics at work.”
“It is an inefficient way to wage a war, Commodore.” He almost smiled at her wry remark.
“Four hundred years ago,” Archer reminded her, “human officers bought their rank instead of actually earning it.” He shrugged. “There's not a lot I can do about it.” Abruptly, he smiled. “Do you remember when you told me and Trip about your grandmother, T'Mir?”
“She was my second foremother,” T'Pol corrected as she raised an eyebrow. Over her shoulder, Jon could see Trip approaching. “Not my ... grandmother.”
“Right.” Archer gave her another smile as Trip retook his seat. “You didn't tell us how much you look like her.”
“My mother indicated that I share some similarities in appearance to T'Mir,” the Vulcan said cautiously.
“You could be her twin!” Jon declared, almost grinning at the confused look that the two shared. He glanced away, hoping to catch sight of Erika.
“Care to elaborate on that, Cap'n?” Trip asked and Archer smiled broadly.
“I dunno, Trip,” he smirked. “Most of the details are classified, but suffice to say I had a visitor a couple of days ago...” He trailed off as he finally caught sight of Erika. His eyes followed her return.
“Daniels.” T'Pol's tone was flat, almost annoyed, and Archer smiled again as he nodded.
“I thought that crap was over,” Tucker muttered. His disgust with Daniels' manipulations nearly rivaled Jon's.
“For the most part, it is. He just needed me to help him recruit a wayward Vulcan wandering around Pennsylvania in the nineteen fifties.”
“Mestral?” T'Pol sounded as shaken as she had ever sounded. “You recruited Mestral?”
“Actually, Lieutenant Reynolds did most of the talking,” Jon said with a smile as he signaled the waiter.
They were going to need more wine.