Chapter Four

A Message and a Bottle

Trip laughed and shook his head as he came out of the baggage claim area to find a slight, dark-haired man with changeable grey eyes holding a bunch of balloons in Enterprise blue and a sheet of bright red poster board in the shape of a heart decorated with sequins and glitter and edged with white paper lace that loudly proclaimed in bold, sparkly block text, COMMANDAH TUCKAH, your husband misses you! Malcolm was almost unbearably sexy in a pair of black linen trousers, belted at the waist to accentuate his trim figure, and a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the top two buttons open to expose his amazingly gorgeous forearms and slender neck. Far from being at odds with each other, Trip found the sexy look and silly greeting complemented each other perfectly. When he reached Malcolm to receive a warm embrace and a tender-turned scorching kiss, he knew he had scored a trifecta. In the sixty seconds it had taken him to walk from the baggage claim to the exit, he had been the beneficiary of the three most intriguing aspects of Malcolm's personality – silly, sexy, and sensual – all of which the man in question reserved almost exclusively for him.

"Lookin' like that an' greetin' me the way you just did, Mal, I almost hope you got us a room in town for the night," he murmured.

"Sorry, love, no." Malcolm was disappointingly all business as he exchanged the sign and balloons for Trip's duffel and suitcase. Knowing the briefcase might contain some classified Starfleet documents, he let his partner keep that. "But your father did make a point of telling me he soundproofed the loft."

Trip groaned and turned pink with embarrassment at the memory, more than a year old. On their last visit, he and Malcolm had found they had the house to themselves on a Sunday afternoon while the other members of the Tucker clan were out and about. Apparently, they had been too involved with their amorous activities to hear the rest of the family coming back from their various forays. They'd not come down until after four, only to be greeted by a herd of giggling children and embarrassed looks, ribald comments, and bawdy jokes from the adults.

"I'm tellin' you right now, Mal," he grumbled, "if they're gonna keep teasin' us about that…"

"I don't think that will be a problem, love," Malcolm interrupted, nudging Trip to the right toward their rental car. "Your father also told me quite sincerely that the loft is meant to be our home on earth until we decide to settle down and buy a house, and that we should feel free to do there anything we would do in a home of our own."

"That's easy enough for him to say," Trip grumbled. "He's never had to sit through dinner with twenty Tuckers who'd just spent the afternoon listenin' to him yowlin' like an ally cat in heat all afternoon!"

"You know," Malcolm said with a smirk, popping the trunk and loading Trip's luggage as he spoke, "I find it positively uncanny and absolutely delightful how well your father seems to know you. He said, when, not if, when, you objected to the idea that we'd ever have sufficient privacy to, as he put it, 'do what happy couples do,' I was to ask you how often you went camping or had movie marathons in the family room."

"He what?"

"He said I should ask you…."

"Yeah, I heard you!" Trip said with a grin, and sat on the edge of the open trunk looking gobsmacked. "Sonofabitch!" he gasped in surprise and then started laughing. "That horny old billy goat!"

"Trip!" Malcolm sounded half scandalized.

"Mal, I don't think you understand!" he giggled. "We must've slept downstairs or in the yard three, four nights a week! More often, when the weather was hot. Daddy said it was 'cause we didn't have A/C in our bedrooms! You just told me my parents were goin' at it like bunny rabbits the entire time I was growin' up!"

"Well, you are the eldest of six children…" Malcolm reminded him, blushing to hear his lover talk about the sexual habits of his de facto mother- and father-in-law so freely.

"Ohhh, man, y'know what else?"

"Hmmm?" Malcolm wondered if it was healthy for his partner to be so amused rather than repulsed by the frequency of his parents' assignations. He had always been under the impression that one was supposed to be quite put off by the idea of one's parents being sexually active, but then that idea had come mostly from popular culture, which was hardly a model for healthy family and sexual relations. Add to that his own repressed upbringing, and an open, freely-expressive family like the Tuckers could easily seem as alien to him as some of the cultures he'd experienced light-years away.

"They were usin' me as a babysitter while they were heatin' things up in the only bedroom with an air conditioner," Trip chuckled. "I'm never gonna let them live this down."

Malcolm was disturbed that his lover would seek to taunt his parents about their libidinous behavior so many years after the fact. It was disrespectful and somehow vaguely creepy. After their experience last year, he'd have thought Trip would be more respectful their privacy. Still, years of acquaintance with Trip's sometimes insensitive idea of humor had taught him that direct criticism was probably the worst tack to take. Trip would either realize immediately that he was in the wrong and be so thoroughly ashamed of himself that Malcolm would feel guilty for having chastised him, no matter how mildly; or he would insist it was harmless teasing, 'all in good fun', and dig in his heels, usually hurting the victim of his jibes and Malcolm and himself all the more until he finally understood why the thing he was doing was unacceptable. Then, he would realize he'd been insensitive, leading to the same damaging shame and guilt. Usually, Malcolm had found, it was easier to distract him, and then talk to him when the joke was less immediate, helping him to see that it wasn't so funny from the other side.

"You know, I do hope you realize how extraordinarily good your parents have been to us," he said. "I know my mother and father are so formally repressed that they make even the Victorians look positively licentious, but I get the impression that most of our colleagues, when they go home now, get little more than clean sheets, guest towels, and a family dinner, as if they did nothing more than work out of town and pop by every once in a while. In addition to providing us with our own private apartment, your parents have literally killed the fatted calf for us, more than once."

Trip smiled at the Biblical reference. When they'd moved to Mississippi, his parents had bought a small dairy farm, complete with cows, chickens, ducks, pigs, catfish in the pond, and a large kitchen garden. It wasn't a big spread, really, just a hobby farm for two still very active retirees, but it produced more than enough to keep his parents and siblings, and the nearest neighbors supplied with butter, milk, eggs, and fresh vegetables with the occasional pork loin, roasting chicken, or pack of T-bones thrown in, when it was time to butcher something, or filleted fish when Trip's dad had a yen to go fishing. To keep producing milk, the cows had to breed once a year, and his dad had started building a small beef herd with the young steers.

Charlie and Elaine Tucker hosted a family reunion for more than a hundred Tuckers and kin every year, six generations of them, from 100-and-some-year-old Auntie Mae, who was his dad's great aunt, to the youngest grandbabies of Trip's eldest cousins. It had only been dumb luck that their first visit home as a couple had coincided with the big party, and literally everybody had showed up to welcolm the newest adoptee into the clan. Seeing the 410-kilo steer carcass spinning on a giant roasting rack welded to a steel beam spit over mesquite coals in the barbecue pit had impressed Malcolm almost as much as the generations of Tuckers descending upon the farm like the Mongol hordes of the 13th Century had frightened him. Recognizing his reserved nature, Charlie and Elaine had been very careful to ease Malcolm into two-day event. They started by asking him and Trip to do certain chores for them, like peeling a whole crate of potatoes in the kitchen or mixing a 20-liter bucket of basting sauce on the back porch. The plan was to get them involved in something that didn't strictly require two people but wouldn't be overstaffed with three or four. Invariably one or two of the other Tuckers would volunteer to help, giving Malcolm a chance to meet his newly extended family a few at a time.

The strategy had clearly worked. Gradually, the shy man, who had started the weekend hiding in the loft looking for excuses to leave early for Malaysia, then followed Trip around like a timid shadow, finally loosened up enough to actually talk and even joke with people. But it wasn't until Charlie, claiming to have had a bit too much of his daddy's moonshine to be climbing a ladder after dark, had taken Malcolm's beer gently from his hand, replaced it with the handle of the new cotton fiber string-mop they'd bought for basting the steer, and asked him to 'Git on up there an' wet that beast down, wouldja, son?' that Malcolm had really felt like one of the family. He'd spent the rest of the night taking turns with the other Tucker men basting the steer and sleeping under a pile of old quilts on the porch swing or chaise lounge. By the next morning, he was happy to go off with Trip's brother Bert and Bert's husband Miguel to get drinks, ice, and chips, or as Malcolm called them, 'crisps', for the party while Trip stayed behind to help his sisters corral the kids for a family soft-ball game.

Trip smiled at the memory of Malcolm, giddy as a child standing on that ladder, eyes aglow as much from pleasure as from the light off the coals in the pit and with a grin to rival Phlox's, as he'd followed Charlie's instructions to dip the mop in the basting liquid and slop it over the entire massive slab of meat as Trip slowly cranked the handle that turned the spit. It was far and away one of his favorite memories, and he was endlessly grateful to his parents for all the consideration they had shown his nervous, anxious partner on that first visit home.

"Believe me, Malcolm, I appreciate everythin' they do for us," he finally said, getting out of the way so Malcolm could close the trunk, "probably more than you know. Matter of fact, I was thinkin' we should get them some kinda thank-you gift before we leave, this time."

"I think that's a lovely idea!" Malcolm agreed. "We should pay attention and see if there's something nice they might want or need, compare notes a day or two before we leave, and go into town and get it so we can give it to them ourselves instead of just having it delivered."

"Works for me," Trip said, as he came up to the passenger side of the car. It had been agreed without discussion that Malcolm would drive them to the Tucker farm as Trip, lulled by the sound of the road and the warmth of the sun, would probably doze off within a half an hour of hitting the highway. It was one of the ironies of faster-than-light space travel that only a seasoned traveler could appreciate. Trip had risen at 02:00 so he could check in by 04:00 and guarantee his seat on the six-hour long, 3,200 kilometer, 06:00 atmospheric flight from San Francisco to Jackson, via Houston, while Malcolm had been able to lie in until 09:00, enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the Jupiter Station cafeteria, and stroll into the passenger service launch bay at 10:30 for the forty-minute, 588 million kilometer trip to the Jackson Spaceport, arrive at 11:10, rent a car, drive the 1.2 kilometers to the airport end of the terminal, and still arrive in time to buy balloons and make that ridiculously sparkly greeting for his lover.

"Speaking of deliveries," Malcolm mentioned as he pressed the button that unlocked the car doors, "were you expecting anything from Shran?"

"Other than another warnin' about makin' sure I paid that debt of moonshine I owe him? No," Trip said, as he buckled his safety belt. "Why do you ask?"

Reaching down behind the driver's seat, Malcolm pulled out a package that had been wrapped in silver paper. "Because he had something delivered to Enterprise for you, by courier."

Trip took the package and felt it slosh suspiciously in his hands. He chuckled. "It's another liquor he wants me to try."

As Malcolm climbed into the car and buckled up, Trip tore off the paper and opened the box inside. Malcolm was just pulling away from the curb, and hit the brakes when he heard Trip's gasp.

"Holy shit, Mal!" he breathed in awe. "It's a bottle of Weytahn '55. Do you have any idea what this cost him? What it means to him?"

"I remember him telling us about how things were going for his people there after that cease-fire Captain Archer helped negotiate," Malcolm said. "He was so proud, he was almost in tears."

The '55 wasn't a vintage like with wine, but the name of the Weytahn distillery's top-shelf spirit, chosen for the year the distiller went into production. It wasn't a typical Andorian ale, but a premium liquor, sourcing the finest ingredients and manufactured with a proprietary distilling process that gave it a paler shade of blue than the usual variations of the beverage. There were other brands in the Weytahn family, and the Enterprise officers had sampled several of them, thanks to Shran's hospitality over the years, but he'd only ever talked wistfully about the '55, saying he'd sampled it once at a diplomatic function and didn't have words to tell them how special it was. They'd both always suspected he romanticized it because of his personal involvement with negotiating the treaty that allowed his people to live freely on the world they'd colonized, but they also knew that the Andorian's sentimentality also made it all the more precious to him because of that.

"Y'know, Shran told me the distillery actually numbered the bottles their first year in production." The liquid flashed like quicksilver in the light as Trip lifted the bottle from its nest of white tissue paper. He whistled softly as he turned the bottle over. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but…is that a number ten in Andorian script?"

Malcolm leaned over and looked. "Yes, it is," he confirmed. "I imagine this is something like having a decent bottle of Chateau Lafite to a wine collector."

"Well, what the hell would possess him to send me somethin' like this?" Trip wondered.

"I don't know," Malcolm said. "Is there a card?"

Trip rooted in the box, and pulled out a plain envelope, heavy, cream colored, real paper, like people still used for wedding invitations and birth announcements. Pulling the card out, he saw the simple words Thank you printed on the front in elegant calligraphy. Opening the card to read the message inside, he suddenly howled with laughter, making Malcolm jump.

"What?" Malcolm demanded, laughing without knowing why. "What does it say?"

Unable to speak, Trip just handed him the card.

The message was simple and brief, in Terran, but with Shran's distinctive, loopy Andorian handwriting. They'd all taken it as a great sign of respect that he had taken the trouble to learn to read, write, and speak Terran standard. It said, "From Pinkskin and the Smurf."

"I guess the captain did more than make soup," Malcolm observed. "But what is a smurf?"

This sent Trip into another paroxysm of laughter. By the time he had mastered himself enough to speak again, one of the airport attendants had come to wave them on their way, indicating they had been parked too long in the loading and unloading zone.

"I'm sure…Mama's got some vids…at the house," he chuckled to Malcolm, who was pulling away from the curb. "I'll show you…when we get there." Carefully, he packed the expensive liquor away and set it on the floor in the back of the car. Then, as Malcolm accelerated into traffic, he muttered, "I wonder what Shran would say if he knew Smurfette was the only blonde?"

The End

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