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Author - Shouldknowbetter | Genre - Action/Adventure | Genre - Drama | I | Main Story | Rating - PG-13
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Rating: PG-13, Action/Adventure, Drama
Summary: An accident in Engineering leads Enterprise to investigate some unpleasant rumours.
This story is part of a series. You may want to read them all:
2. Illicit Trade
7. Cry Havoc
There were a few more seconds of confused shouting and frantic activity over the comm. then, “Cap’n,” Tucker sounded breathless, “plasma pressure’s still rising. We can’t shut down the fuel flow.”
“Evacuate, commander. That’s an order.”
“Have done mostly,” was the response then there was a background shout. “Shit! Cap’n, lock down engineering. Now!”
“Trip!” Archer yelled but there was no answer and the captain’s lips compressed. “Lt Reed, do as he says; close emergency bulkheads. T’Pol, what’s the pressure doing?”
“It is currently in excess of 200% of normal levels; and rising.”
“Are you sure venting plasma would ignite the nebula?”
There was time for no more. They all felt the rumble of an explosion through the deck plating as over the comm. system they heard it, together with a scream, abruptly cut off.
“Trip!” Archer hit the button on his command chair. “Bridge to Engineering. Report.”
“No good, sir,” Reed reported. “Comm. to Engineering’s down.”
“T’Pol, any life signs down there?”
She tried to check but shook her head fractionally. “Radiation levels are too high for sensors to penetrate.”
Archer was already out of his seat, heading for the lift. “Get damage control parties to Engineering and have Phlox meet us there.”
The science officer gestured to Sato to comply and took a step forward. “I will accompany you.”
“No. Stay here and coordinate repair and rescue. Malcolm, with me.”
The two men departed and T’Pol moved calmly to the centre seat, already organising activities in her well disciplined mind; and if there was a small part of her that was desperately anxious for a certain engineer, it was well under control. Probably only one person on the ship would have noticed that she was worried sick and he wasn’t there.
A tense thirty minutes later, the comm. line to the bridge activated. “Archer here.”
The Vulcan woman reached sedately for the control. “Yes, captain?”
“We’ve got the plasma leak sealed. Have Mayweather start to move us out of the nebula on manoeuvring thrusters.”
“Very well.” She struggled with the question she wanted to ask and gave up. She didn’t think that she could mention his name without giving away … something. “Can repairs be effected?”
“I don’t know yet.” Archer sounded sick and T’Pol swallowed. He was dead then; and in the long term that was undoubtedly best for her peace of mind and body, but just now she wanted to howl.
“Do you require assistance?”
“No. Archer …”
“Captain,” Sato cut in before he could sign off, her gaze on T’Pol accusing, “are there any casualties?”
“Two fatalities, two seriously injured.”
Briefly T’Pol closed her eyes. She didn’t want to hear it said, not now, when she was in full view of people who thought she had no feelings to be hurt. Why didn’t Sato just leave it?
“Who’s dead?” The other woman sounded much as T’Pol felt; she had always suspected the human comm. officer of being inappropriately fond of Enterprise’s chief engineer. “Is Commander Tucker …?”
“Lomax and Singh,” was the brief answer. “Trip and Maynard are badly hurt. Phlox thinks they’ll be OK but he’s not certain. Archer out.”
Sato gave T’Pol another defiant look and returned to her board, leaving the first officer a moment in which to compose her increasingly erratic thoughts.
It was very late in Enterprise’s night. The ship had been edged cautiously out of the nebula and was now lying almost dead in space while her crew drew breath and wondered what to do next. At least their ship was no longer in imminent danger of self-destruction, but she was in no state to go anywhere and with her chief engineer in sickbay and his second dead they were temporarily stuck.
T’Pol finally left the bridge to a relief crew and headed towards sickbay. They knew by now that Tucker was going to survive but she had an entirely irrational need to see him for herself. Perhaps even, if he were unconscious and no one was looking, to touch him. She didn’t think he would mind; they were friends and human friends touched each other. He would never know how much she needed the contact. All her logic and lifelong habit of repression couldn’t suppress that need and she had been denied all day. Every time she thought she had an excuse to visit sickbay or simply a few moments to herself to slip away without anyone noticing she had been thwarted. Now most of the humans were asleep and she could indulge herself.
It was an unpleasant surprise to find Sato just leaving sickbay as she arrived. T’Pol managed a grave nod as the ensign scuttled away. Jealousy was irrational, of course, but …
“Ah, Sub-Commander T’Pol.” Phlox sounded resigned. “I’m afraid if you want to see Commander Tucker, I must refuse. He has had quite enough visitors, thank you.”
All female of course, T’Pol thought viciously and glared at the Denobulan. “I assure you, doctor, that my business with Commander Tucker is entirely professional.”
“Then you certainly can’t see him.” He was ushering her from the room. “He is on sick leave until further notice.”
T’Pol gritted her teeth and sought urgently and unsuccessfully for an excuse. ‘We were supposed to have dinner together’ did not sound dignified nor in keeping with her Vulcan heritage. “Then perhaps you will see that he gets this.”
She held out the PADD that she had had the foresight to bring and the doctor took it dubiously. “A damage report? Really, sub-commander …”
“He will wish to know.” Otherwise Tucker would lie in bed fretting that the damage was worse than it was, although the report could well make him attempt to return to duty too soon. She turned away and came face to face with Archer. “Captain.”
“T’Pol,” he acknowledged. “Everything OK?”
“As far as I am aware.”
He nodded and continued on his way, straight past Phlox and into sickbay. T’Pol stared after him. It wasn’t fair!
“Really, captain,” Phlox said as he pursued Archer across the room towards where Tucker was stretched out under a protective hood, “I would like Mr Tucker to get some rest.”
“Two minutes, doctor.” Archer closed a hand on Tucker’s uninjured shoulder; the other was covered with dressings although the burns down one cheek had been left open to the air. “Trip, how d’you feel?”
“Fine.” Tucker sounded distinctly spaced. “What did Phlox give me?”
“Must be good stuff,” the engineer mumbled then frowned. “What’s the damage?”
“Third degree burns to the left side of your body.” Archer’s fingers tightened reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Phlox says he can save your boyish good looks.”
“I meant to Enterprise!”
“Sorry.” The captain’s lips twitched. Of course Trip would be more worried about his ship. “Engineering’s a mess but nothing we can’t fix.” Given access to repair facilities they didn’t have. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Sub-Commander T’Pol brought you a damage report, commander,” Phlox had been hovering to supervise Archer’s visit, although he moved out of reach of Tucker’s questing hand, “which I may allow you to read in the morning.”
“Spoil sport,” the injured man muttered and yawned, wincing as it pulled at the burns on his cheek. “Nice of T’Pol to bring it. Why’d she not come to see me?”
Phlox frowned; perhaps he had overdone the pain-relief compound. “You are in no condition for professional consultation, commander. I sent her away, as I am about to do with Captain Archer.”
“Oh.” Tucker yawned again, barely opening his eyes after. “Was she pissed?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Don’t worry, Trip, we’ll keep her out of your way until you’re feeling stronger.” Unlike Phlox, who thought that Tucker was anxious to avoid the Vulcan, Archer had some quite different suspicions and the slurred, sleepy reply didn’t reassure him.
“Damn. Gonna have dinner. Thought maybe …”
“Get some sleep, Trip.” His captain decided to ignore the rambling. “That’s an order.”
“’Kay. Tell T’Pol sorry, hmm?”
“If you want.” The other man seemed already asleep and he turned to Phlox. “Is he OK?”
“Oh, yes. The commander was in considerable pain so I gave him a strong dose of Belerian mushroom extract. Some confusion is to be expected.”
“And Lt. Maynard?”
“She will also be fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, captain? This is a medical facility, you’ll remember?”
“I can take the hint, doctor. See you tomorrow.”
“Goodnight yourself, captain,” and the Denobulan returned to his study of human reflexology.
Staring intently at the flame in her mind’s eye, T’Pol knew that it was not working. She just could not achieve the proper degree of concentration and she knew why. Reluctantly she opened her eyes to focus on the real flame before her. She couldn’t meditate because her well regulated mind kept wandering off to wonder how Tucker was, whether he regretted not having dinner with her, whether perhaps they might have played pool afterwards and if she could have contrived to play badly so that he would have put his arms around her to correct what she was doing. She broke that thought off quickly but not before her body had reacted with interest to the idea of having Tucker’s pressed against it. She thought she had conquered her foolish infatuation with Enterprise’s chief engineer but she hadn’t. The belief that he was dead had shattered the walls she had erected around her feelings for Tucker and she could not yet even start to rebuild them. The quite inappropriate affection she had for him was still there and this time she could not blame her own physical weakness for the admission. She should have realised that morning when she had been so pleased to see him alone for the first time in weeks, but she had deluded herself that it was just friendship.
She had awoken in a state of mind that she could only describe as restless, just as she had for the previous few days. She had put it down to frustration – well controlled, of course – over their lack of progress in studying the nebula they were visiting and had set off for the mess hall in search of camomile tea only to halt rather abruptly at the sight of Tucker, alone for once, pouring over a series of PADDs while he absent-mindedly consumed a large quantity of … something. It had always struck her as entirely illogical that she enjoyed Tucker’s exuberant and often irrational company but she did and somehow, between away missions, duty shifts, much needed meditation and Archer’s demands on her free time she had barely seen him for weeks; and she had missed him, although purely as a friend, of course. Would he mind if she joined him? She had wondered if he was avoiding her but that surely was her own guilt speaking; he could not know of her brief descent into sentiment. It would only be for a few moments whilst she drank her tea and if she didn’t disturb him, someone else would. “Commander,” she sometimes wished she found it as easy as the humans to be informal, “may I join you?”
“Sure!” He looked up with a smile that she thought held genuine pleasure and shoved the PADDs to one side. “Haven’t seen you in ages.” The smile slid into a teasing grin. “You done screwing up my ship yet?”
“If you are referring to our scans of the nebula, no; and Captain Archer may query whose ship it is.”
He shrugged unrepentantly. “I hope you’re getting something real useful out of this, because you’re causing us a whole lot of trouble in Engineering.”
“I do not understand why. This nebula is interesting but far from unique.”
“I don’t know either.” He selected one of the PADDs and shoved it across to her. “My best guess is that there’s something out there resonating at a frequency that disrupts the power grid.”
She scrolled rapidly through the data. “I will attempt to isolate the phenomena.”
He shrugged again. “Don’t let it interfere with your real work. It’d just satisfy my curiosity.”
“How much longer do you believe we can safely remain in this vicinity?”
“Another 24 hours, maybe. You gonna be through by then?”
“I believe another 8 hours will be sufficient.”
“Great!” There was a fractional pause. “What about dinner tonight? Celebrate the end of my headache.”
“That would be … pleasant,” and quite unexceptional. She often dined alone with Archer and Tucker was no different.
His smile mocked her gently. “Don’t bust a gut, T’Pol. You can turn me down if you’ve got something better to do. Meditating, maybe, or analysing those scans of yours.”
“I believe I can spare the time. The captain is dining with Ensigns Sato and Mayweather.”
“Yeah.” Tucker was frowning.
“Engineering to Commander Tucker.” The hail cut across their conversation and Tucker grimaced. “Commander, please report to Engineering.”
“Hell,” he muttered. “Bet that’s your damn nebula again.” He stood, gulping coffee as he did so, then paused, looking down at her, still with that faint frown. “Better go.” Briefly his hand brushed her shoulder. “Meet me here at 1900?” She nodded and he left hurriedly, leaving T’Pol to finish her tea and to reflect that she really should remind him that Vulcans did not like to be touched.
In response to the vivid memory, T’Pol shivered even as she once more tried to focus on the flame before her. Just because she desired Tucker’s body was no reason to allow her meditations – very necessary meditations - to be affected. She had come very close that day to losing control and that could not be allowed. She had to meditate, not sit here wondering what it would be like to have Charles touch her bare skin, to touch his, to have him lie with her. Probably she would not like it anyway. Mating had always sounded to her like a messy, awkward and unsatisfactory procedure, so why did she become aroused when she thought about Charles? Why did her body ache to have his inside it? She didn’t know and never would. She could not have a human lover. She did not even know if he found her attractive in a way that would provoke the appropriate reaction. Not that it mattered. She could never have him as anything other than a friend; and he was a friend. She should be grateful for that and for his survival and forget all her other foolish thoughts and yearnings. She was Vulcan. She would prevail.
The atmosphere in the situation room nearly 48 hours later was grim even though Tucker had rejoined his colleagues for the meeting; at his own instance rather than with Phlox’ approval. Keeping a close but discreet eye on the engineer, T’Pol thought that he looked far too ill to have left sickbay, a view Archer evidently shared since he initially tried to make the younger man leave.
“Forget it,” Tucker had said wearily and with little respect. “I’m still your chief engineer. I need to be in on this.”
“Are you up to speed on the situation?”
“Yeah, T’Pol’s kept me informed.” He interpreted Archer’s frown at the science officer. “She was right to, cap’n. I needed to know.”
“OK, but I want you back in sickbay as soon as this meeting’s over.” Tucker nodded agreement and shifted a little, probably, T’Pol speculated, to ease his left leg. It hadn’t been as badly burnt as his arm that was still immobilised across his chest but must still be stiff and sore, as must the healing burns on his cheek. She had followed Phlox’s reports on his condition – unobtrusively, of course – so she knew that he would recover fully but he was still in need of pain medication and … Guiltily she brought her errant attention back where it belonged as Archer opened the meeting.
“So, if you’re fully informed, Commander Tucker,” he was jibing at his friend’s stubbornness and they all knew it, “why don’t you tell us where we stand?”
Tucker was still too ill to respond with his normal humour. “Stand is about right. Enterprise isn’t going anywhere fast. Half impulse, maybe, if you don’t want to change direction too quick. We can’t go to warp. The engine needs a complete overhaul to check for micro-fractures before we fire it up again and the main structural integrity generators aren’t right. They need to be stripped down and re-built.” He sighed. “Sorry, cap’n.”
“Not your fault, Trip,” Archer said firmly. “You couldn’t have anticipated the effect of that nebula.” He looked over at T’Pol, equally firm. “No one could. What we need to do now is consider options. Any ideas?”
Reed grimaced. “It’s a long way to Earth at half impulse.”
“That may not be necessary.” T’Pol crossed to the bank of monitors at the rear of the room. “I have researched the problem.” A couple of deft touches brought up a schematic. “This is Freeport, private venture space station less than two days from our current position. They provide limited repair facilities but they may prove adequate.”
The engineer moved slowly to the monitor, scanning down the information available. “Maybe.” He sounded even more exhausted than before. “Enough to get us closer to home, anyway.” T’Pol watched anxiously as he leant against the wall; he was going to collapse at any moment unless Archer concluded quickly.
“If it’s privately owned, I guess the facilities don’t come cheap?” the captain queried and T’Pol shook her head briefly.
“No. However there is a small Vulcan consulate on Freeport. They may be able to arrange finance.”
“I’ll contact Starfleet and ask them to speak with the Vulcan government.”
“Captain,” Mayweather had been fidgeting for some minutes, “I’ve heard of Freeport. It’s got a really bad reputation.”
“For what?” Reed demanded, alert to trouble at once, and the helmsman shrugged.
“You name it, Freeport does it. Drugs, sex, guns. I’ve even heard it turns a blind eye to slavers.”
“Highly unlikely.” T’Pol was scathing. “If such rumours were true, Vulcan would not retain a presence there.”
“We’ll bear the warning in mind, Travis,” Archer assured the young man, anxious to encourage his rare participation in discussions, “but I don’t think we have a choice at the moment. Set a course, at the best speed Engineering can give you. Trip,” he added over his shoulder as he headed for the main bridge, “sickbay. Now.”
“Sure,” the other man muttered, but his eyes were closed and from where she stood, T’Pol could see that his skin had taken on an even more pronounced shade of grey. She stepped closer. It wasn’t self-indulgent, merely professional concern.
“You require assistance.” She made it a statement, not a suggestion, but for once he might have agreed anyway.
“That’s probably a good idea.”
She didn’t even have time to reach out for him, never mind to place an arm around him – purely for support purposes – when Archer was back, clearly having overheard the exchange. “Sorry, Trip.” He already had a hand on the other’s shoulder. “I wasn’t thinking. Let me give you a hand.”
“I recommend that I consult with Lt Reed and Ensign Mayweather on possible security measures while we are visiting Freeport.”
“Good idea. Let me know your conclusions. Come on, Trip.”
T’Pol glared after the retreating pair, Archer’s arm around Tucker. The captain should have allowed her to escort Charles. Now that she had a moment to reflect, she was by far the more logical choice. She was much stronger than Archer and also shorter so that Charles could have leant comfortably on her. It was very unfair; and extremely illogical of her to think so.
The director of Freeport was most affable, so much so that Archer was almost grateful for the two stoic Vulcans on his side of the table. The head of the Vulcan consulate had proved to be a grey-haired man who accepted the necessity of aiding humans with less than the usual condescension. Archer actually found himself warming slightly to the man whose grave courtesy seemed genuine; perhaps mixing with many other races in a place such as Freeport encouraged a more tolerant attitude. Archer was certainly grateful for Lakan’s astute bargaining since the director was clearly a master at offering good terms in the one hand whilst slapping on prohibitive duties with the other. But at last a deal was agree that Archer hoped would not bring the wrath of Earth’s government down on his head and the director turned to other services. “And will your crew be taking advantage of our leisure facilities, captain?”
“That would not be wise,” Lakan observed. “Freeport is undoubtedly less safe than the environment to which you humans are accustomed.”
The director must have caught the flash of resentment that Archer could not quite suppress. “We will accept personal credit chips.”
“I’ll take it under advisement.” Common sense told him that Lakan could well be right but he wasn’t prepared to admit that to the Vulcan. “We’ve been in space some time without a break.”
“I assure you that all our customers have a good time with us.” The director was still affable as he escorted them out of the office. He caught Archer’s eye and added significantly, “A very good time.”
“I’ll be sure to pass that on.” Archer had a hard time keeping a straight face. “Thank you for your help, director.” He waited until they were out in the corridor before allowing a chuckle to escape. “Well, I guess some of the crew might want to ‘release some tension’. I wonder if Trip’s feeling up to it.”
T’Pol turned to Lakan and disregarded protocol to ask a brief question in Vulcan to which she received a dignified nod in answer. “Captain, with your permission, I wish to visit with the members of the Vulcan enclave here.”
“Of course. As long as you think its safe enough.”
She gave him a cool look. “I do not think that will be an issue. Good day, captain.” She strode away at Lakan’s side, fuming internally. Humans! She would visit with her fellow exiles, engage in reasoned debate and remind herself just how foolish, inappropriate and plain disgusting it was to be infatuated with a human male who didn’t have a scrap of respect for her species. Just a handsome body and a kindness she had never received from her own people. Perhaps one of Lakan’s people would be unattached and prove compatible enough to offer her the lifelong contentment she had once been advised to seek. At least that was an option still open to her. Storan’s pride had prevented him from a public admission that his intended bride preferred a member of an inferior species to himself so no one else knew of her weakness.
There were six members of Freeport’s Vulcan enclave and, as was traditional in such situations, they ate communally in reflective silence. T’Pol realised that most of her reflections were on the usefulness of dinnertime conversation. The human habit of exchanging pointless information was often irritating, but in this case she could have continued her discussions with the group’s high-energy physicist. To do so now would be rude but later there was to be a lyre recital and again discussion would be impossible.
It came as a shock when the silence was broken by the other woman present. “You have been long on the Earth vessel, Sub-Commander?”
“Fifteen months, one week, three days.”
“A great deal of time to observe them.”
“And your conclusion?”
“They are impetuous, overly curious, inclined to meddle in affairs not their own.” T’Pol hesitated but it would be dishonest not to continue. “However, they do have some redeeming qualities. Captain Archer has demonstrated himself to be a capable captain.”
“I have studied many species in my time here,” the woman had been introduced as a physician, “but I have never had the opportunity to meet with humans. Perhaps, T’Pol, you could arrange for me to meet some.”
“I believe that will be possible, M’Lek. Captain Archer is proud of his ship. He welcomes visitors.”
The other woman bowed her ebony head a gracious inch, ignoring a raised eyebrow from Lakan. “I will await the visit with interest.”
T’Pol was left with a faint sense of unease. Why had Lakan appeared to disapprove of M’Lek’s interest?
Within half an hour of bringing M’Lek on board Enterprise, T’Pol had deduced that the other woman had no interest in the ship but a keen one in the humans; particularly the men. She had also made an observation; human men found M’Lek attractive. She had not been positive of that until they visited the armoury and she had seen Lt. Reed’s pupils dilate and his respiration rate increase when M’Lek stood close and asked a series of naïve questions about Enterprise’s armament that the officer had at least answered professionally. But that observation only increased T’Pol’s unease and led her to suggest, as they left the armoury, that their final stop should be sickbay where M’Lek could consult with Dr Phlox on issues of human physiology.
“I think not.” The dark skinned woman was positively sauntering along the corridor and T’Pol could sense her … enjoyment? “I am familiar with Denobulans.”
“I meant that you could ask about humans.”
“I prefer to make my own experiments.”
“Why, yes. Ones that they will enjoy, I assure you.” T’Pol quashed her thoughts. She had lived with humans too long. The other woman could not possibly have meant that remark in the way T’Pol had initially interpreted it. “They are intriguing, are they not?”
“Humans. And quite … attractive … in their enthusiasm.” T’Pol gave her a shocked glance. If she didn’t know better, she could have been led to believe that the other woman was one of the disgraceful V’tosh Ka’tur. “We still have Engineering to visit, I believe.”
“Indeed.” T’Pol seethed silently. Undoubtedly Tucker would not have had the intelligence to obey the doctor’s instructions and remain resting in his quarters. He was far too irrational.
Tucker was in Engineering, left arm supported in a sling and the burns on his face still visible but looking much healthier than the last time T’Pol had seen him and a great deal more cheerful now that he knew they could repair Enterprise. “Hey.” The smile he threw at T’Pol as he looked up from the schematics he had been studying did something strange to her stomach then he noticed M’Lek behind her and it was definitely pain she felt as he appraised the other woman. “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Dr. M’Lek, attached to the Vulcan consulate of Freeport.”
The physician seemed to approve of what she saw for she held out her hand. “Humans touch hands on meeting, I believe?”
“Shake hands,” T’Pol amended icily. “This is Commander Tucker, Enterprise’s chief engineer.”
“Trip,” he offered as he took the proffered hand, grinning. “The name’s Trip.” T’Pol gritted her teeth; he had said that to her too.
“Trip?” M’Lek released his hand but immediately ran two fingers over the back, raising an eyebrow as he jerked back, startled. “You know something of our customs?”
“Uh, no, not really.” Just that Vulcan’s don’t touch and that that particular gesture was the equivalent of a kiss. But he hadn’t started it so why was T’Pol glaring at him like he was public enemy number one? “Um, if you’ll excuse me, ladies, I’ve got … things … to do.” He backed off as fast as his stiff leg would allow. Damn, but he should have stayed in his cabin; and to think that he’d actually been pleased to see T’Pol too.
“How intriguing.” M’Lek was watching the retreating engineer with fascination and T’Pol was furious. How dare the other woman touch Charles when she had been denied the opportunity for days and days? “He is so very undisciplined, his emotions so plain to see. Is he mated?”
T’Pol stalked to the exit. “That concludes the tour, M’Lek. I suggest you now return to the station. I will escort you to the docking port,” and if the woman tried to return, T’Pol would personally blow the airlock on her.
“I don’t like the look of this place.” Reed was looking round suspiciously, appraising the customers of the drinking establishment.
“It’s just a bar, Malcolm.” Tucker tried not to sound irritated but failed. He hadn’t wanted to come, but Archer had leant on him until he had given in as he always did eventually. He didn’t agree with his captain’s assessment that he was working too hard, but he had recognised the invitation for the olive branch it was. Their friendship had almost disintegrated after the severest bollocking Tucker had received in his long association with Archer and it hadn’t been helped by the fact that, for once, Tucker knew he hadn’t been at fault. If Archer was attracted to his first officer, it was none of his chief engineer’s business, and neither was it cause for a reprimand for over familiarity. He had acted like a perfect gentlemen towards T’Pol when she had been ill and it wasn’t his fault she had been so confused that she had pushed Archer away and clung to himself instead. But now Jon had made a peace offering and Trip had always been a sucker for peace offerings. It would be good to have his friend back, particularly if ….
“Here.” Archer appeared out of the crowd, handing over a couple of bottles and keeping one for himself. “It sounds as if it might be beer,” although he grimaced as he tried a sample. “Tastes as if it could be something else.”
Conscientiously, Reed set his bottle aside. “Do you think we should stay here, sir? It doesn’t look too safe to me and we’re not armed.”
“It’s just a bar.” The captain echoed Tucker’s comment of a moment before. “Relax, Malcolm. Want me to make it an order?”
“No, sir,” but the armoury officer continued to survey his surroundings and not in the manner of a man checking out the local talent.
Archer shook his head briefly in amused resignation and turned his attention to the other man. “That goes for you too, Trip. You’ve been flat out in Engineering for the last five days. If you don’t want me to tell Phlox you’re ignoring his orders, you’ll take a break.”
“I thought you’d already told him.” Tucker set down his untouched drink and rubbed his immobilised left arm, wincing. “He keeps nagging.”
“Not me. Is that still painful?”
Self-consciously, the engineer pulled his right hand away. “Yeah, I guess.”
“I thought that mushroom compound the doctor gave you pretty much deadened everything.”
“I stopped taking it. Couldn’t think straight and the dreams were weird.” A few had involved Enterprise’s science officer and Tucker definitely didn’t want that sort of dream. He was already far too fond of T’Pol for his peace of mind and he wasn’t going down that route. Not with Archer looking that way himself. The handsome, resourceful, stable captain just had to be a much more logical choice if T’Pol wanted that sort of relationship with a human and they had been spending a lot of time together over the preceding weeks.
“You should have said.”
“I did!” A look of hurt crossed Archer’s face and Tucker relented. “I told you I didn’t want to come, cap’n, but you didn’t exactly drag me here kicking and screaming, did you?” He swallowed some of the drink to be friendly and pulled a face at the taste. “That’s weird. Hey, Malcolm, relax, will you?” If he brought the captain’s attention to the fact that the armoury officer was still on surveillance, it might take the heat off him for a few minutes. “Have a drink.”
As anticipated, that prompted the inevitable, “I don’t drink on duty,” earning Reed a frown from Archer although the Englishman failed to notice, still scanning the room. “Sir, I think we should leave.”
“Why, Malcolm?” Archer sounded mildly irritated. He didn’t often get to spend time with Tucker off the ship.
“I think there’s trouble brewing. See that group by the door? They’re looking for a fight.”
“Well, we’re not. Don’t worry; that’s an order. So, Trip,” he turned back to his friend, teasing, “I’ve heard this place specialises in some pretty exotic forms of entertainment. Feel up to investigating a few?”
“Exotic, huh?” Tucker had contrived to swallow enough of the non-beer to cheer himself up a trifle. There were plenty of other women out there and none of them had pointy ears and a hard stare. “Think they can live up to Amsterdam on a Saturday night? Now that’s exotic.”
Malcolm drifted away as the other men continued to rag each other. Archer and Tucker had known each other for so long that, quite unintentionally, they tended to exclude everyone else from their conversation once they got going. Plus Malcolm always found the concept of an off-duty captain a little unsettling. Plus there was going to be trouble whatever the others thought, equals Malcolm had a duty to see that his fellow officers remained safe. So he casually edged closer to the door and none too soon either as the fight he had predicted broke out. A member of one group shouted a bit too loudly at another, a few drinks were thrown, then a bottle, then the two sides closed with each other and shortly after, in Malcolm’s opinion, the fight was going to become general. He turned to head back to his colleagues to urge them again to leave, accidentally jogged someone’s drinking arm and a moment later a punch was thrown at him that he had to block and then he was in the thick of the fight. Damned unfair! He had time to see Archer shoving Tucker into an out of the way corner then he had to duck a few more uncoordinated blows; good thing he was sober and the rest of the clientele were not.
Malcolm had just about managed to worm his way to the edge of the fight when a small scream made him glance sideways to where a very drunk male was trying to pull up the skirt of a rather attractive young woman. They weren’t obviously part of the general brawl but Malcolm’s blood was up and he didn’t believe he was stretching the point too far to tap the man’s shoulder and then drop him with a well-timed punch to the ear – or what passed for an ear. The woman gave him a doubtful look as he backed her towards a wall but went where he indicated, a boot disposing of another couple of drunks. “Sorry about that,” Malcolm muttered once they were in a small island of calm and he had time for embarrassment. “I hope he wasn’t a friend.”
“Oh.” More embarrassment. “I … uh … I …”
Suddenly she smiled and she was rather more than attractive. “Please, don’t apologise again. I can do without that sort of client.” She took a practised glance around the bar. “I believe this latest escapade may be over. Let me buy you a drink to demonstrate my gratitude and you can tell me all the latest news from home. It’s been a while since I met a fellow human.”
“Oh, um…” Malcolm briefly wished that Tucker was around to help him out then rapidly revised the thought as the woman’s smile widened. He didn’t want the other man’s easy charm on view at all. “That’s very kind of you.”
Tucker’s fist contacted the rear of Archer’s shoulder with rather more force than he had intended. “I can look out for myself, you know!”
“When you’re stiff, sore and one-handed?” his friend countered then half turned back as the fighting seemed to subside as quickly as it had arisen. “Don’t get defensive, commander, I was only thinking of Enterprise. Don’t want my chief engineer out of action again.”
“Sure!” Tucker growled in response, not deceived in the slightest and peered past his captain. “Where’s Malcolm?”
“Probably enjoying himself.”
The engineer grunted in reluctant amusement. “Yeah. That guy really gets off on a fight. Idiot!”
“Captain Archer. Commander Tucker.” The smooth voice drew the attention of both men and they turned to find themselves addressed by the resident Vulcan physician. “I trust you are both unharmed?”
“We’re fine, thank you, Doctor M’Lek.” Archer had snapped effortlessly into diplomatic mode. “I’m surprised to find you away from your enclave.”
“I appreciate the stimulation of meeting new people, new races. Very few of my species have had the opportunity to study yours … closely.”
“You should talk to Sub-Commander T’Pol,” Archer suggested. “She’s had the opportunity the last year or so. I’m sure she could fill you in.”
“Indeed.” M’Lek was watching Tucker. “You seem to know a great deal about Vulcan customs, commander. Are you and T’Pol very close?”
Tucker flushed, both angry and embarrassed. “We’re friends! She’s told me a few things.” Usually when he had inadvertently butted into her private and very complicated affairs.
“Fascinating. Do you know how rare that is, Commander Tucker? Our customs are not for out-worlders to know of.”
“I don’t repeat confidences.”
“And rarer still for a Vulcan to trust a member of another species.”
“I think T’Pol’s learnt that she can trust Enterprise’s crew,” Archer cut in, not entirely sure where the conversation was going but aware of Tucker’s growing anger and his own dissatisfaction.
“Commendable … on both sides. But I prefer to draw my own conclusions.” She turned her cool, assessing gaze onto Tucker again. “Would you join me for dinner tomorrow, Commander Tucker? I believe there is much we might learn from each other.”
“I don’t think that’s gonna be possible, doctor.” Tucker was backed into the wall. “I’ve got a whole lot of work on just now.”
“Oh, go on, Trip.” Much to his friend’s annoyance, Archer was supporting the woman’s suggestion. “You need a break. An evening off Enterprise’d do you good.”
“Excellent.” M’Lek took Tucker’s acceptance for granted. “If you come to the Vulcan enclave at 1700 your time, I will await you. Good evening, Captain Archer, Trip.”
She glided away and Tucker cast Archer a disgusted look. “Gee, thanks, cap’n. I really needed that!”
“Ah, come on, Trip, what’s your problem? She’s damned attractive. I’ve never known you turn down a date with an attractive woman before.”
“So? You like T’Pol, don’t you?”
“No! Not that way!” That was a road he definitely wasn’t travelling. “We’re friends.” Friends could still spend an evening together; as long as the other person never realised how much effort it took to keep it purely friendly.
“Then just be friendly with M’Lek.”
Malcolm was having a wonderful time. It was ages since he had been in the company of a lovely woman with a sense of humour who wasn’t part of the command structure and therefore off limits. He had quite forgotten that brief ‘client’, right up until the moment when she laid down her empty glass and stepped right up to him, placing a hand on his chest as her voice seemed to drop a full octave. “Wouldn’t you like to continue this elsewhere, Malcolm?”
“Oh.” He gulped, embarrassed all over again. “I … I don’t really care for … um …”
“Bought sex.” Her expression hardened as she stepped back and his face contorted.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean … I’m sure …”
She gave him a pitying look. “You’re right, Malcolm, I am a whore. I’m sorry if I offended you. Goodbye.”
“Wait.” He bounded after her. “Look, I didn’t mean I thought … It’s just … Could I buy you dinner?”
She halted, studying him carefully. “Now why should I let you do that?”
“So I can grovel and apologise some more?”
Reluctantly a smile pulled at her mouth. “You might persuade me, Lt Reed. What other inducement can you offer?”
T’Pol was at the docking port to meet Archer, Tucker and Reed when they returned, her expression disapproving as she met Archer’s enquiring gaze. “I heard that there was trouble on the station. I trust you are unharmed, captain?” and if Charles had been hurt, she would hold her captain personally responsible. She had been carefully composing a logical argument for why it would be unremarkable to suggest to Tucker that they ate together that evening and then Archer had got in with his invitation first. Charles hadn’t even wanted to go; she had witnessed a part of their argument on the subject.
“We’re all fine, sub-commander.” The captain brushed off her question. “Anything to report?”
“I’m for bed, then. ‘Night, people.” He left, followed by a still smirking Reed, leaving Tucker staring thoughtfully at T’Pol.
“Commander?” she asked coolly and he seemed to come out of his introspection, flicking a quick look around him.
“I need to ask you something.” He jerked his head away from the remainder of the returning crew who were still mingling, chatting and exchanging stories. “In private.” She followed him, intrigued, noting that he still wasn’t moving easily. Archer should have allowed him to rest, not dragged him out to consume alcohol. Then he halted in a deserted section of corridor, checking both directions before leaning in slightly to ask in a lowered voice, “Do Vulcans date?”
T’Pol was sure nothing showed outwardly, but internally she could not deny that the sensation she felt was excitement. He was going to ask if they could become more than friends. And she wanted to. Wanted it so much that it threatened to overset all the logical reasons why it was impossible. “Why do you ask?” Surely that was encouragement enough. He knew her well enough to know that ‘No’ was the real answer to his question.
“M’Lek asked me to have dinner with her.”
The stab of pain was so intense it actually took T’Pol a moment to formulate a response. There was no reason to be hurt. They were friends, he had merely come to her for advice. It wasn’t as if she had been unaware of the other woman’s interest. Just because she could never have him did not mean that every other female in the galaxy was likewise deprived. “I believe she is interested in humans.”
“Why’d she pick on me?”
She glared at him to hide the pain. “She is attracted to you.”
He practically recoiled in shock. “She’s Vulcan!”
The knife in T’Pol’s guts twisted further. Even the thought of a Vulcan woman finding him attractive filled him with disgust. “I believe you have a saying, ‘there is no accounting for taste’.”
“But … she can’t, can she? Only if it’s the right time or something.”
“You know nothing about my species.” The hurt was turning into anger that she could not quite suppress. She turned away before she lost control entirely. “If M’Lek wishes to disgrace herself, I would rather not know. Good night, commander.”
T’Pol stalked away leaving Tucker little the wiser but slightly more regretful that one Vulcan in particular would never consider a relationship with him. He’d pretty much convinced himself that waiting seven years for sex just wasn’t an option, but now it seemed as if that might not after all be a hard constraint.
Tucker did his best to forget he had a date the next evening. He contrived to be only a quarter of the way through a complex diagnostic at the end of his shift and was contentedly ignoring the changeover going on around him when a familiar hand fell on his shoulder and he jumped. “Cap’n!”
“Trip, shouldn’t you be getting ready?”
“For the engine trial tomorrow? Sure.”
The hand propelled him firmly away from the console. “For your date tonight. Go get spruced up, commander. Can’t have you letting down the ship, never mind the human race.”
“Ah, hell, cap’n, I don’t want to go.” Tucker resorted to honesty and an appeal to friendship. “If you think M’Lek’s so pretty, why don’t you go?”
“Because she asked you. Relax, it’s just a date. You’ve had hundreds.”
“Yeah, but none with Vulcans.”
“What’s the worst that can happen? That you’ll have to eat vegetarian?”
“Jeez, I hadn’t even thought of that one.” He started for the exit. “OK, I’ll go; but if it kills me, I’m gonna come back and haunt you.”
Unlike Tucker, Reed had been looking forward to his date all day. He even sloped off duty early to get ready with barely a twinge of guilt; somewhere along the line he must be owed some time. His disappointment when Caroline didn’t turn up was therefore acute, outweighing humiliation at being seated at a table for two with no one to talk to. Cursing his stupidity, he ran their encounter of the previous day over and over in his head, searching for any sign that she had been setting him up but he couldn’t find any, not once he had apologised for his admittedly large faux par. He had a good memory and he didn’t think that he was so gullible as to have distorted the incident to fit his own desires. Caroline had liked him and her acceptance of his offer of dinner had been genuine, therefore something had happened to prevent her turning up. He knew that Enterprise’s crew laughed at him for his pessimistic outlook, but in his experience it paid to expect the worst. It was quite possible that something had happened to Caroline and it was up to him to find out, otherwise he would regret the inaction to the end of his life. Decisively, Reed rose to his feet and strode out of the small restaurant, ignoring the affronted proprietor. He would find out where his dinner date was or he was no tactical officer.
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