It had been a long flight.
Nine hours had elapsed since their departure from Starbase-1 and, though he had concealed it behind a mask of bored indifference, Lieutenant Commander Heinrich Eisler was eager for the flight to be over. The seats in the small shuttlepod had clearly not been designed with extended trips in mind, but he was far too proud to shift or fidget. An Eisler, Rick told himself, was unaffected by trivial matters such as a comfort or, in this case, the lack thereof. Junior officers or enlisted men, like Ensign Hayes or the five E.M.s that were crowded in the shuttlepod with them, could move around, or verbally complain about their discomfort, or just change their posture to relax muscles held rigidly in place for nine hours. An Eisler could not. An Eisler would not.
But he was tempted.
Beyond the cockpit of the shuttle, he could see the Endeavour and, mostly as an exercise in distracting himself from the stiffness of his spine, reviewed what he knew of it. The newest of the NX-class ships, she had been in service less than two months and had already seen action at Pacifica. Her crew was quite possibly the best ever assembled, with all but five of the surviving Expanse veterans serving aboard her. Compared to her sister ships, she was also the most heavily armed, carrying twice the payload of either Atlantis or Challenger and nearly three times what Columbia or Discovery bore. She was also among the fastest of the NX-class ships, capable of maintaining a steady warp factor of 5.8 for several hours.
And she was the only NX-class that had nonhumans aboard.
The murmur of conversation grew in the shuttle as the six replacements chatted with each other in voices that were louder than absolutely necessary. Even if he had not already known that they were Security detachment, it would have been easy to recognize them as soldiers. Five men and a single woman, they carried themselves with a casual aggression and their conversations were littered with slurs, insults, and acronyms whose meanings would escape most.
But not an ex-MACO company commander.
It was still a difficult transition for Eisler. He'd served in the Military Assault Command Operations for ten years now, rising to the rank of captain, but everything had changed with the Romulan attacks. Starfleet and the MACOs had merged almost overnight, with men like Eisler given an intensive crash course in starship operations and inserted into the command structure. He should be a major right now, not a lieutenant commander. Once more, he felt his jaw tightening as he considered his new duties; MACOs had a name for Starfleet personnel, and it burned him that he fell into that category. He was one of them now.
A fucking deck ape.
"Shuttle Echo-Two, this is the Endeavour. Stand by to release control to ALS." The comm crackled to life suddenly, startling the soldiers into silence; Rick had little doubt that this had been the pilot's intention, and he had to mentally salute the man for shutting them up without making it an order. He hadn't seen much of the pilot when they’d boarded and, for all he knew, the man was little more than a crewman.
Regardless of his rank, the pilot was efficient. Rick hardly felt the shuttle dock and knew that the automated landing system was only partially the reason. Without even glancing back to check on his passengers, the pilot began running through the post flight check and gave the all clear signal to disembark. Ensign Hayes shot Eisler a glance, his eyes seeking instructions, and Rick gave him a short nod, permission to assume command of the E.M.s. At his gesture, the ensign quickly organized the other five, speaking in short, clipped sentences. He was only a few years older than the other soldiers, but spoke with quiet authority. They moved from the shuttle in an orderly manner, the ensign in the rear.
Rick hefted his own gear - two duffel bags and a long case that contained his personalized pulse rifle - and followed. It was something of a struggle - the rifle case was more than a little awkward and both of the duffel bags topped thirty kilograms - but he persevered. Eislers always persevered. At the hatchway of the shuttlepod, he paused and took in the launch bay. This was the first time he had ever actually set foot on an NX-class ship and he was amazed to realize just how cramped the bay actually was. Two crewmen were hard at work on the other shuttlepod and he could not help but notice the battle damage it appeared to have recently suffered. The six soldiers that had preceded him from the pod were already moving through the hatchway, past the two senior officers that stood there. Each soldier saluted sharply as they passed the two, a crisp gesture that brought the right hand up to the right eyebrow; before the MACO integration, such a military sign of respect would probably have never been seen on a Starfleet vessel. As Eisler approached the two officers, he studied them with a critical eye.
The female was junior, a commander according to her rank scheme, and wore the blue Science Starfleet uniform while the male, whom he recognized as the captain, wore the gold of Command. Exotically beautiful, the commander was clearly a veteran; several small scars, nearly invisible to the naked eye, decorated her exposed skin and there was a distance, a coldness in her eyes that came only from extended combat operations - Eisler had seen it too often in the eyes of his MACO comrades to not recognize it. Somewhat shorter than he, the woman was slight without being thin, and her balance was absolutely perfect, lending her the appearance of someone about to spring into action. She seemed perfectly comfortable with the taller male's presence, indicating a close personal friendship or, if the rumors were true, something a lot more intimate.
She was also Vulcan.
The captain accepted her presence without hesitation and, from the way he stood, seemed to expect she would always be at his side. He was of slight to moderate build and perhaps a meter-eight in height, but he had a presence about him that was nearly tangible. Like the female, he bore a number of barely noticeable scars from what had clearly been a difficult life, and the distance in his eyes was even greater than hers. Though Eisler had never met him, he recognized him at once.
“Lieutenant Commander Heinrich Eisler reporting for duty, sir,” he said in greeting, dropping the duffel bag he carried in his right hand so he could give a proper salute. Captain Charles Tucker gave him a half-smile and returned the gesture in a way that indicated he was unpracticed with the motion.
"Welcome aboard, Commander," Tucker said as he offered his hand. He spoke with an accent that Eisler had heard only once before. “Sorry we couldn't pick you up at the Starbase itself.” Rick nodded as he shook Tucker's hand, gratified that the man actually had a grip. He understood why they hadn't made the trip; with the Romulan propensity for ambushes, having the Endeavour lurking at the edge of the system and ready to go to warp in order to respond to a distress signal was tactically sound. Even if it required nine hour flights in a cramped shuttlepod. “This is my first officer, Commander T'Pol.” The commander gave Eisler a nod of greeting and did not offer her hand. Vulcans never did.
“Ma'am,” he replied with little more than a brief nod himself; he'd never cared much for Vulcans and doubted he'd have much in common with this one, even if she was his XO. His greeting came out a little sharper than he intended, though - a factor no doubt of the extended trip and his own bone-deep exhaustion - and internally, he winced. If even half of the rumors about these two were true, he'd just put himself on Tucker's shitlist, and that wasn't the smartest thing to do when reporting to a new CO. Shooting a glance at the captain, Rick was momentarily surprised to realize the man wasn't even looking at him.
“Well I'll be a sonova...” Tucker muttered before brushing by Eisler, his attention focused entirely on the pilot emerging from the shuttlepod. Rick frowned and gave the pilot a once-over, noting almost immediately his suspiciously furtive actions: keeping his head down and features concealed under a billed cap, the pilot was giving poorly disguised glances at the three. Instantly, reflexes honed by five and a half years of black ops kicked in and Eisler moved into a flanking position beside his new commanding officer, dropping the second duffel bag and the shockproof rifle case to the deck as he moved. He sensed rather than saw Commander T'Pol do the same on Tucker's other side. At least she had good instincts.
“Sure as hell wasn't expectin' you, sir,” Tucker suddenly said as he stopped in front of the pilot, and Eisler gave him a look. Sir? The pilot sighed - loudly - and discarded his cap before turning to face them. Rick nearly gasped in surprise.
“That was kind of the point, Trip,” Commodore Jonathan Archer said with a wan smile. “I'm here on official - if undocumented - Starfleet business.” He accepted Tucker's outstretched hand and the two exchanged hearty grins.
“Commodore,” the Vulcan greeted, her voice cool, her features expressionless, yet Eisler couldn't help but notice that she seemed ... softer somehow.
“Starfleet blue looks good on you, T'Pol,” Archer said with a completely open smile that stripped years from his face. He gave Eisler a brief look and Rick realized he was still balanced on the balls of his feet, poised and prepared for violence. He forced to himself to relax under Archer's gaze. The commodore gave him an approving nod and spoke, his words aimed at Tucker. “We need to talk, Trip. In private.”
“I shall escort Commander Eisler to the quartermaster to begin his in-processing,” T'Pol offered almost immediately and Tucker gave her a look that Rick couldn't begin to decipher.
“That sounds like a plan, Commander. And then, you're to go straight to sickbay for that check-up Phlox scheduled.” She blinked and, had she been human, Eisler thought she would sigh. Tucker suddenly smiled and looked at Commodore Archer. “And that's an order,” he said, his smile broadening into a grin as Archer shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“Not going to let that go, are you, Trip?”
“Not a chance, sir.” It was clearly a private joke.
"The quartermaster is this way," the Vulcan said, her voice brooking no dissent, and Rick followed her from the launch bay, mildly surprised at how easily she hefted one of his duffel bags.
He wondered what other surprises were in store.
There were no surprises on the scan.
"You may get dressed," Phlox told her as T'Pol emerged from the imaging chamber. Without a word, she began donning the Starfleet uniform in quick, economic motions. Her decision to begin wearing them had been one based in psychology; as long as she had worn her colorful jumpsuits, many of the Starfleet officers and crewmen continued to see her as a Vulcan first. While he had to compliment her on such an effective use of psychology, Phlox continued to worry about her health - the jumpsuits had been thermal-lined and helped her cope with the cooler temperatures humans preferred.
It was somewhat amusing that Captain Tucker also routinely complained about her change in wardrobe.
"The fracture in your pelvic ring appears to have healed rather nicely," Phlox told her with a slight smile. "Have you experienced any residual pain?"
"No," T'Pol replied as she zipped up the Starfleet uniform. "There has been a noticeable loss of lower body strength despite the physical therapy."
"That is to be expected," he pointed out. "You were bedridden for nearly three months." She gave him an accusing look at that; the enforced bed rest had been at his direction. "The severity of your injury demanded a slower than normal recovery plan." He studied her vitals for a moment longer before continuing. “I have compiled a new therapy program for you that should have you back to full strength in a few weeks." Standing in silence, he made additional notes to her medical record before finally looking up at her, his eyes narrowed. As he spoke, his voice was hushed; this was meant for her ears only. "How is your emotional control?"
"Adequate." She was clearly uncomfortable admitting this, but just as clearly realized that he had a need to know. "In recent weeks, I have experienced momentary flashes of uncontrollable anxiety, centered around ..." She trailed off and he gave her a discreet nod, recognizing at once that her distress had revolved around Captain Tucker's well being. Knowing the Vulcan propensity for personal privacy, he allowed his eyes to communicate his understanding as he spoke again.
"Not surprising given Endeavour's recent mission profile." Phlox nearly sighed. "The neural pathways damaged by the Pa'nar and the trellium have not regenerated despite my best efforts." She said nothing, simply stood before the biobed and awaited his next words. He felt as though he had failed her. "There has been no additional degradation but ... but the damage remains." T'Pol gave him a short nod; she knew better than he did what it meant to her. "However, I see no reason you cannot assume full duty status."
"Thank you, Doctor." Her tone was flat but he knew her well enough to see that she was eager to resume full duties. Offering her a PADD, he continued.
"This contains the new physical therapy plan in addition to a suggested nutritional regimen. I expect you to have gained at least two and a half kilograms by your next check-up." T'Pol gave him another blank look before turning to the door.
"I am cleared for all activity?" she asked and Phlox frowned. It wasn't like her to ask a question that he had already answered.
"Yes," he replied hesitantly, wondering why she would ask. A flicker of something ... predatory flashed briefly in her eyes as she glanced away.
"Please inform Captain Tucker that he is overdue for his six month physical," he said abruptly with a smile that was broadening by the moment. "Tomorrow morning would be good." He made a mental note to have pain meds standing by.
Just in case.
"I will relay your request to him," the Vulcan said with no hint of what she was thinking. She gave him the slightest of nods and glided from the medical facility. As the door slid shut, Phlox chuckled; tonight would be a good night for the captain.
His amusement faltered as his thoughts turned to Charles Tucker.
By rights, the captain should not be alive. He should not have survived the silicate virus that nearly killed him over two years ago, should not have been up and walking around the next day. It had turned into something of a minor obsession on Phlox's part, and he had spent countless hours poring over the data and running hundreds of simulations, but the results were identical no matter what variables he plugged in.
Tucker should not have survived.
The radiation therapy would have worked, but not in time; both Sato and Tucker had been too far gone when it was implemented, their bodies too badly ravaged by the silicate virus. Every single simulation told him the same thing, told him what he already knew: they should not have survived. But they did.
And Phlox had no idea why.
To complicate matters even further, Phlox had later detected minor genetic changes in Tucker but not in Sato, changes that he could find no scientific reason for. At first, he had discarded the data as the result of errors on his part or scanning errors due to residual radiation from the therapy (that should not have worked). He kept his eye on the two though, studied their medical records with a focused determination and gradually began to believe that he was in error.
The incident with the Romulan holoship had convinced him he was not.
Exposed to levels of radiation that should have been lethal - would have been lethal to any other human - Tucker had walked out of Sickbay that day, healthier than he had any right to be. Then-Lieutenant Reed had spent more time in Recovery than Trip Tucker, and the engineer explained it away as having built up a resistance from working around warp reactors all his life. Phlox had briefly considered enlisting T'Pol's aid in deciphering the growing mystery, but his observation of the young Vulcan caused him to reconsider that plan. It was patently obvious to him that the two had been intimate a number of times and, from their strained interactions, he had begun to suspect they were a bonded pair, so he kept his suspicions to himself.
And then, after baby Elizabeth died and the two commanders began to grieve, Phlox discovered the most amazing thing: Tucker was aging more slowly than a normal human. The Denobulan had no idea if it was a side effect of the mating bond or if it had something to do with those genetic anomalies, and honestly didn't know how to ask. Vulcans were notoriously private and it had taken him nearly a year to get T'Pol to admit to having formed the bond in the first place. So far, he'd discovered no direct correlation between the mating bond and Tucker's slow aging.
But that didn't mean that it wasn't there.
It was enough to give him a headache. Phlox sighed, turning his attention back to more important matters. After baby Elizabeth died, he'd told Tucker that Human-Vulcan offspring were possible, and he had meant it.
That, of course, hadn't been taking Tucker's genetic abnormalities into account.
"Doctor?" The pained voice of Lieutenant Commander Drahn echoed loudly through the med-bay as the door slid open, and Phlox glanced up from his research. Cradling his left hand, the Andorian chief engineer stood calmly. Phlox shook his head in amazement; Drahn was worse than Tucker ever was ...
"Another burn, Commander?" The doctor grabbed his portable scanner and approached. "You really should be more careful." The Andorian gave him a look that was nearly identical to the one Charles Tucker had given him so many times in the past.
"Easier said than done," Drahn replied. It was amazing how quickly he was picking up human idioms. "Sometimes, I think this ship is trying to kill me."
"Let me see that hand," Phlox said with a broad grin as he slipped into his unofficial role as ship’s counselor. "You look tired..."
He was tired.
It wasn't a new experience for him; since accepting the promotion and assuming command of Endeavour, Trip Tucker could count on one hand the number of full nights’ sleep he'd had. In the weeks after the battle at Elysium, he had lived in either T'Pol's hospital ward or Endeavour's Engineering deck, subsisting on three hours of sleep and what seemed like fifty liters of coffee a day while trying to get the NX-06 out of Spacedock. He'd hoped things would settle down after the Endeavour launched.
Naturally, they hadn't.
These days, it seemed as if something always came up, usually at the worst possible moment, and was almost always bad. If it wasn't receiving new orders from Starfleet Command at zero-three in the morning or a reactor coolant leak in Engineering at twelve-thirty hours, it was a distress signal from the shipping lanes at zero-one or a possible Romulan sensor contact at oh-four-thirty.
Even now, as he was returning to his quarters for some much needed sleep, three different problems were spinning around in his head and, as was all too common, none of them could be postponed.
Eisler was at the top of his list. As the new tactical officer and third in command, the German ex-MACO had some big shoes to fill: Commander - now Captain - Stiles was one hell of an officer and Challenger was getting an excellent CO. Mentally, Tucker ticked off the things he needed to do with Eisler, ranging from briefing him on his duties to introducing him to the rest of the command staff, not to mention getting him acclimated to Tucker's command style. Trip also wanted to get a better feel of the man's attitude regarding Vulcans; Eisler's less than warm reception of T'Pol earlier had not escaped his notice, although he'd been too distracted to call the tactical officer on it.
Right under that was dealing with the ongoing feud between the COB and Lieutenant Li. He'd not been able to learn the specifics of their problems - neither the Master Chief nor Li were very forthcoming - but their problems were becoming his problems; having the senior enlisted man and the damage control officer at one another's throats all the damned time was getting tiresome. Both had been transferred to Endeavour after the Challenger had been nearly crippled at Pacifica, and rumors of a failed romance between them there had reached even his ears. Li's battlefield promotion to officer could not have helped if those rumors were correct, and her near-celebrity status back home for the heroism she'd displayed at Pacifica could only exacerbate the problem.
His chief engineer wasn't exactly helping matters either, and Trip idly wondered if he had driven Archer as crazy as Drahn was driving him. The Andorian had an obsession with speed that bordered on the obscene, and the experiments he wanted to run gave even Trip pause. They'd butted heads on so many occasions lately that he was almost convinced Drahn was doing it on purpose just to see what would happen. At least the Andorian was even more accident-prone than Trip had ever been; in the two months since launch, Drahn had been in sickbay at least once every single day and Trip had done nothing to discourage the injury pool that had quickly sprung up among the junior officers.
Archer's unexpected presence only added to the load and, for someone who had insisted that they needed to speak in private, Jon had been surprisingly closemouthed regarding the mission.
"I need you to take me to the Vigrid system," he'd said once Trip had gotten him set up in guest quarters. "I'll tell you more later."
"I'm gettin' too old for this crap," Tucker muttered under his breath as he neared his quarters. The door slid open and he entered, already starting to unzip his uniform. A wave of heat washed over him as he passed through the entryway, and T'Pol glanced up from the desk where she sat. Her presence wasn't a surprise - she'd pretty much moved in once they’d left Spacedock - but the image on the viewer caused his stride to falter.
It was obviously a recorded message; the subspace buoys that allowed interstellar communications were invariably the first targets of a Romulan assault, thus limiting direct contact. But simply the image of T'Pol's ex-husband sent a jolt of alarm through Trip. She gave him a look of curiosity as she deactivated the viewer and, through the bond, he could sense she was distracted.
"Somethin' up?" he asked with false nonchalance.
"Merely a routine message regarding my marriage," T'Pol replied absently, her focus returning to the three PADDs scattered before her. For a moment, he admired the view - T'Pol in silk PJs was always a beautiful sight, especially Triaxian silk.
"Don't tell me you gotta go back and get married again," Trip finally said with a forced grin. He'd meant it in jest, but the moment the words left him he winced with remembered pain. Even without trying, he could recall that day with perfect clarity, could remember how astoundingly beautiful she had looked in her wedding dress, could still see the sadness in her eyes, could still feel the brush of her lips against his cheek. He blinked away the memory, and found her half-turned, staring at him with knowing eyes.
"You are my mate, Trip," she replied softly as she offered her right hand to him with two fingers extended. "I belong to you." She shivered as he touched her fingers with his own, despite the warmth of the cabin; he kept it hotter than he preferred, mostly out of deference to her desert upbringing. That, and he really liked seeing her in her PJs. "There will be no one else for as long as I live. Koss was just being ... polite." Tucker raised an eyebrow at that. "He is to marry another and wished to inform me so that I may make ... arrangements if necessary." She leaned forward and kissed him softly, her fingertips still caressing his.
"If there's any belongin' goin' on here, sweetheart, it's the other way around." He gave her a sheepish grin. "You must think I'm bein' silly," he muttered as she returned her attention to the work in front of her. T'Pol gave him a sideways glance and, though there was no hint of it on her face, he could feel her amusement.
"I do not," she declared before looking again at the PADDs. "You were just being ... Trip." He chuckled as he began to strip off his uniform, wincing slightly as the muscles in his back and legs protested slightly. Perhaps those extra kilometers on the treadmill this morning had been a mistake. "You are tired," T'Pol said abruptly, and he looked up to find her studying him with affection in her eyes. He loved it when she looked at him like that.
"Yeah." The uniform went into the hamper; she'd long since broken him of his habit of just tossing his uniform onto the floor until washday. "Tough day." He dropped down on the bed and, for a moment, just let his entire body relax. It felt wonderful. "Think you're up for..."
"Neuropressure?" She finished for him. He smiled again. She'd read his mind. Literally. Amusement flickered across her face as she stood up from the desk and approached the bed. "Not tonight," T'Pol whispered softly and he gave her a surprised look. She leaned forward, intent clear on her face, and captured his lips with her own. Through their bond, Trip felt her arousal spike and nearly groaned as it surged through him. As their tongues dueled, her fingers danced across his face, each touch a promise. She pressed forward, nearly climbing into his lap, and he felt his self-control slipping. Damn, but she was heaven to kiss.
"Darlin'," he gasped as he pulled away. Her mouth crawled down his neck and he felt her teeth against his skin. "Stop ... gotta stop ..." As she kissed her way back to his lips, her hands slipped lower, finding their way to his underwear. He had to stop this. Now. "Phlox ..." he panted under her unrelenting assault, hoping that she would recall the doctor's orders to avoid sexual intimacy while her body recovered. Damn it all, she was supposed to be the logical one! Their eyes met and he felt her open up her memories, felt her draw him into her mind, saw the Denobulan give her a clean bill of health. Her need, her desire, her want hammered at him and, with a broadening smile, he willingly drew her to him. If Phlox said they could ...
"Archer to Tucker." The comm echoed loudly in the relatively Spartan quarters, and Trip wondered where he could hide Jon's body after he killed him. He felt T'Pol's laughter in his mind as he rolled off of the bed and staggered to the comm panel, half bent over. How had she managed to get his briefs twisted around like that?
"Tucker," he snapped as he hit the transmit button. Yeah, he was addressing a senior officer but ... dammit ...
"I took the liberty of having Chef Killick prepare dinner." Jon's voice was entirely too cheerful and held that hidden tone of command; he was giving an order without actually giving one. "I'd like you and T'Pol to join me and Phlox for dinner, if you don't mind."
A phase pistol to the head was too good for his so-called friend, and it left a body behind.
"I can brief you on the mission at the same time," Archer continued. Transporter set on wide dispersion to beam the body into space? That might do the trick. "Say, thirty minutes?" No body, no crime.
"Sure thing, sir. Thirty minutes." Trip released the comm button and glanced back at T'Pol. She rose from the bed, now shamelessly nude, and gave him a look that he understood at once; his thoughts of homicide, however justifiable they may seem, had clearly reached her and he couldn't tell if she was amused or not. Taking in her mussed up hair and gloriously flushed skin, he cocked a smile at her. No jury in the galaxy would find him guilty.
“Share a shower?” he asked, and she raised an eyebrow before giving him that subtle smile that she allowed only him to see.
They were going to be late.
They were late.
Trip and T'Pol entered the Captain's Mess nearly an hour after Jon had commed Tucker, without even a word of apology for their tardiness. It wasn't hard to figure out why they were late; between griping Jon out for slacking off on his recovery regimen, Phlox had relayed that he had lifted the Vulcan's light duty restriction and Archer had little doubt they had been making up for lost time. The Denobulan gave both of them an appraising glance as they entered, noting without comment that their hair was still damp; he didn't even try to hide his amusement.
Archer wasn't doing such a great job either.
"My ship, my rules," Tucker said in response to the unasked questions, before in true Southern gentleman style he made sure T'Pol was seated and served. Archer grinned even more when he realized that his old friend was having the same mushroom risotto as the Vulcan instead of the steak that Jon himself had. Only T'Pol could get him to eat rabbit food and enjoy it, he thought to himself as he cut into the T-bone.
They spent most of the meal catching up: Jon filled them in on how Hoshi was doing and the strategic overview of the war while they gave him a front-line perspective that he couldn't get from reading reports in his San Francisco office. Midway through their discussion, Phlox was summoned to sickbay to deal with an injury - something about the chief engineer and plasma burns - which left the three of them alone.
"So," Archer said after dessert was served. "I suppose you're wanting to know why we're heading to Vigrid."
"There has been some speculation on the mission's objectives," T'Pol replied flatly, giving Trip a look that left no doubt who had been doing the speculating.
"Starfleet has instructed me to open a dialogue with the Boomers," Jon explained as he sipped his coffee. "They need protection, we need bodies and ships."
"Toldja," Trip muttered to T'Pol as he finished his pie. Fighting a smile, Archer glanced away, suddenly finding a need to need to look someplace, anyplace else.
She hated it when he was right.
She wouldn't tell Trip that, of course, probably wouldn't even think it, but, after nearly seven years, Archer figured that he knew T'Pol pretty well. Even without looking at her, he could visualize the tightening of her face, the subtle grimace she always made when the realization sank in that Trip's ... instincts had prevailed over her logic. She would frown ever so slightly before shooting Tucker a brief glare as if it were his fault that she had been wrong, that, once more, he had guessed the correct answer without having all of the facts. Trip rarely tried to hide his amusement, didn't make an effort to conceal the smirk on his face as she glanced at him, and, on most occasions, would make a smart-ass comment that would spark an argument.
This was just such an occasion.
He tuned their argument out, paid no attention to their words or the passion in their voices, and allowed himself to reflect on the unlikely relationships that had sprung up since Enterprise had first launched. The year in the Expanse had seen the biggest changes in all of them, indelibly altering the survivors in different ways. No one had emerged unscathed but for some, like T'Pol and Tucker, the change had been for the better. It had brought them together, forged a bond between them that only death could break, a bond that Jon could barely comprehend. He'd seen their mutual attraction in the beginning, had noticed - and used - how well they worked together despite, or perhaps because of, their constant bickering. For a time, he'd harbored a romantic interest in T'Pol himself and unexpectedly found himself in an unspoken, unacknowledged competition with his best friend. When the mission into the Expanse began, he withdrew to focus entirely on the mission, ceased monopolizing T'Pol's time with "ship's business" and, like a moth to a flame, she had drifted right back into Trip's orbit. Their relationship struggled for a while, through her undesired marriage, her mother T'Les' tragic death, Trip's transfer to Columbia and finally the death of an unexpected child. He had honestly been worried that T'Pol's injuries would cause them problems and was glad to see how wrong he had been.
If anyone deserved happiness, it was these two.
"Before I left," Jon said into the momentary silence; their argument had turned into a staring match as it always did now. It seemed that they had forgotten he was even present. "Hoshi told me some things about the two of you." Trip at least had the decency to look embarrassed as he returned his attention to Archer.
"Like what, Cap'n?" The old nickname fell from his lips without Trip even being aware of it, and Jon felt himself unaccountably cheered at hearing it.
"Commodore Archer is no longer a captain, Trip," T'Pol said with the closest thing to a smirk Jon had ever seen.
"Old habit," Tucker replied. "Sorry." He didn't sound sorry and Jon didn't mind anyway.
"As I was saying," Archer interrupted before T'Pol could respond; sometimes she could be as bad as Trip was with their verbal foreplay, especially when she was in a playful mood as she was tonight. That was a weird thought: a Vulcan in a playful mood. "She confirmed that she knew the two of you were ... uh ... bonded before Elysium." The unique couple exchanged a glance and he wondered what they were discussing as he continued. "How many knew? Off the record."
"Just three," Trip said. He reached for the coffee pot but hesitated when T'Pol discreetly shifted in place. Without a word, he grabbed the water instead and Jon bit back a comment about Tucker being housebroken, deciding to reserve that for a later date. "Phlox, Malcolm and Hoshi," Trip finished.
It hurt that they hadn't trusted him and Archer knew it showed on his face. Trip seemed to realize that he deserved an explanation.
"Telling Phlox was ..."
"... necessary," T'Pol finished for him; they had been doing that all night and Jon doubted that they were even aware of it.
"Yeah. I mean, I'm human-"
"My human," T'Pol corrected in a soft voice and Trip gave her another look even as Jon grinned. He felt an unexpected surge of emotion that she would let him see this side of her.
"-and there's not a whole lot of information on how humans take to bein' bonded to Vulcans." Jon nodded; it made perfect sense to bring the doctor in on this.
"Logical," he commented, trying to keep the hurt from his voice, but Trip had known him for far too long to not hear it. For that matter, so had T'Pol. "Why Malcolm?" It wasn't the question he wanted to ask, but grown adults didn't ask if one friend - even if that friend was no longer among the living - had supplanted another in 'best friend' status. Not if that adult wanted to keep at least a modicum of self-respect.
"Uhhh ..." Trip was stalling, his face flushing with something that could only be embarrassment. T'Pol shot him a glance and Archer thought he could see amusement in her eyes. "Malcolm's involvement was-"
"Inadvertent." Yep, T'Pol was amused. Jon's curiosity was abruptly piqued; anything Trip didn't want to talk about had to be good.
"Yeah. He found out by accident." Tucker refused to make eye contact as he rushed on, clearly hoping his old friend wouldn't push. "Malcolm brought in Hoshi to help spread disinformation and how did he put the other part, T'Pol?" Jon jumped in first.
"Wait. How did Malcolm find out?"
"Ummm ..." Again, Trip stalled. And again, T'Pol stepped in to elaborate, her eyes dancing.
"Commander Reed interrupted us during intercourse."
"Dammit, T'Pol!" Trip's face turned bright red as Jon started to snicker.
"You were going to lie to him," she replied calmly.
"I was gonna make something up, yeah!" Archer's snicker was threatening to degenerate into a full-blown laugh. "I sure as hell wasn't gonna tell him that Malcolm walked in on us during sex!"
"I believe your expression at the time was 'barged,’ not walked."
"This I have to hear," Archer commented between chuckles. Trip shot him a look that promised vile retribution if the matter wasn't dropped. Ignorant of his embarrassment or more likely amused by it, T'Pol continued.
"Mister Reed entered Trip's quarters fearing for his safety." At Jon's surprised look, she elaborated. "Enterprise had only recently repulsed an Orion boarding party and there were concerns that some stragglers were still aboard." Jon remembered that; it had been three or four months after little Lizzie had died and a large number of the crew had still been on edge, none moreso than the chief tactical officer. At least this explained why Malcolm had gotten even more ... British around T'Pol at the time. Tucker suddenly snorted with laughter.
"You should have seen his face, Jon! He jumped into my quarters with his pistol drawn and just froze!" He made a face, eyes bugging out and mouth hanging open; Archer could easily imagine Malcolm Reed's face making those very same facial contortions. The two humans started to laugh.
"Commander Reed did turn an interesting shade of purple," T'Pol commented with laughter in her eyes.
"And then," Trip choked out through his laughter. "And then ... T'Pol looked at him ..." He broke down, laughing so hard that he couldn't continue.
"I merely asked him to reschedule his appointment with Commander Tucker to a more appropriate hour," T'Pol deadpanned. Their laughter echoed around them and, for the first time in a very long time, Jonathan Archer felt as though he had come home.
It was a good feeling.