The crewmembers eating lunch in messhall exchanged knowing smiles at the sound of cutlery crashing onto a plate and someone uttering a small curse.
"I told you, Trip. It's too early." Malcolm handed the fork back to Trip. "You're expecting too much of yourself yet. It's been only four days."
Four days. Four days since he had risen from the dead. Trip knew he would never forget his first breath. Until then he hadn't been aware of how wonderful it was simply to breathe, even though his sore throat had still caused him a lot of pain at that time. It took several hours until he was able to speak in a normal voice again without croaking or going into a coughing fit after every other word. Having that tube removed had been an immense relief, and feeling his condition improve instead of getting worse and worse was an experience beyond description. Phlox of course had told him it could still be weeks until he regained full control of his body, but all of a sudden time hadn't been that important anymore. Trip had been simply glad to live, and moreover, to live in the prospect of recovering his health in the foreseeable future. But since he wasn't really the patient type it didn't take long until time became again quite important. Two days passed until Trip was at least able to move his head again, two long days during which his fears kept returning again and again. Fear of the paralysis proving resistant to the cure after all. Who knew if those aliens were right in their assumption that the cure was going to restore him back to full health once it had taken first effect? Trip never showed the panic he felt at the thought of being forced to live the life of a helpless person. Of never being able to take care of himself again.
Fortunately, though, he was too busy to indulge in brooding for long. Hoshi came by several times a day to give him massages, and T'Pol led him through special meditation exercises to help him stabilize his still rather shaky breathing. Malcolm and Travis assisted him with his physical exercises under Phlox' supervision, and Jon came to see him whenever he could. The Captain suspected Trip's fears, even though the engineer would never talk about them. But Jon kept assuring him the cure was going to take effect, and tried to distract him as best as he could. The second day of Trip's recovery Jon allowed the crew to come by for short visits, but ended up almost regretting his decision. Visitors were all but queuing in front of the sickbay doors, for everybody wanted to tell the Commander personally how happy they were to see him getting better. Later that afternoon Travis suggested they should draw numbers, and Phlox even threatened to lock the sickbay doors, but all in all there was a general feeling of relief in the air. The crew's mood had changed, and people started smiling again, laughing and joking instead of talking in quiet, somber tones.
Jon had taken Trip back to his quarters for the next night after Phlox had removed the tube, and even though Trip was glad to get out of sickbay, he was beginning to feel an amused sort of irritation at Jon's anxious concern. He didn't mind sleeping in his best friend's bed, but he didn't like Jon having to spend the night on the couch because the Captain felt he had to give up his usual sleeping space for him. So Trip was quite glad when Phlox finally allowed him to stay in his own quarters, and he even managed to persuade Jon to delegate the nursing job for once and get some much-needed rest.
That evening Malcolm helped Trip get ready for bed, and surprised him by setting up a cot against the wall opposite Trip's bed.
"I'll be there if you need me, Commander," he said simply, and Trip was grateful for Malcolm's unobtrusive way of offering help. Now he also knew why Phlox had so easily agreed to let him sleep in his own quarters. He'd been wondering, for usually Phlox wouldn't agree to discharge a patient who'd been on the brink of dying only forty hours ago and couldn't move at all. Trip supposed Malcolm had been talking to the doctor, promising him to keep an eye on the engineer, and Trip was grateful for that. Briefly, he remembered that there was still something they needed to talk about, but Malcolm seemed so happy and relieved in the face of his friend's recovery that Trip decided not to bring up this particular subject that day. It had been quite some time since he'd seen Malcolm so relaxed, and he didn't want to spoil the cheerful mood between them just now. Instead he simply enjoyed laughing and joking with Malcolm until he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
As he woke up in the morning, he realized with a happy start that he was able to turn his head, and by noon he already managed to lift it off the pillow. Things were definitely looking up. Now even Trip himself finally started to believe that everything was going to be alright. He began to gain new trust in life, deciding that fate might have let him off the hook, after all. Eventually he even allowed Phlox to help him into his wheelchair and secure him by fastening a strap across his chest so he wouldn't fall out. It was humiliating, but the thought of lying on that narrow biobed all day was driving him nuts. That way he was at least able to participate in everyday life on Enterprise again. Hess and Rostov took him down to Engineering, he paid a visit to the bridge and attended the senior officer's briefing later that day.
And even though he was still hardly able to move, regaining some of his former independence meant a lot to Trip. He started to feel alive again, and comfortable with the crew who seemed to fully accept him despite his inability to move. There were no stares and whispers behind his back, and no one smothered him with exaggerated friendliness. People simply offered help when they saw that it was needed, and otherwise behaved around him like they always did, accepting him as a respected member of the crew.
That morning Jon had gone on a first contact mission, ordering T'Pol and Hoshi to accompany him and telling Trip he had the bridge as if it was the most natural thing in the world. At first, Trip hadn't been sure he'd heard him right, but Jon had only shrugged.
"Why're you looking so surprised?" he asked. "You're my second officer, aren't you? So when T'Pol and I aren't aboard you have the bridge. See to it that you take good care of my ship." Jon grinned. "And yourself."
It meant a lot to know that Jon trusted him enough to give him the command even when he was sitting in that wheelchair. Actually, though, being Enterprise's acting Captain didn't really require him to do a lot more than simply sitting around. The ship was in orbit around the planet the away team was visiting, and the inhabitants didn't seem inclined to give them any trouble, welcoming the alien visitors as friendly as you please.
Still, even the usual bridge routine felt very exhausting to Trip, even though he wasn't going to admit it. He hated to admit any weaknesses, all but exhausting himself in his efforts to return to something like a normal life. The fact that he was now able to move his right arm a little helped his confidence a lot, and he insisted on trying to eat his meal unassisted, ignoring Malcolm's well-meant offers of help. He wasn't going to be fed like a baby any longer. Besides, Chef had said something about throwing a big party as soon as the Commander was able to eat on his own again, and this prospect was enough motivation for Trip to keep trying.
Soon, however, it became clear that his recovery was still going to take quite a lot of time. His fingers were still paralyzed, and even though Malcolm helped him close them around the fork, Trip didn't seem to be able to hold on to it for more than a few seconds.
"It's not going to work, Commander," Malcolm insisted as he picked up the fork for the fifth time, putting it back into Trip's hand. "Your fingers aren't responding yet, but I don't think I have to tell you that. You can't eat like that. Face it and stop being so bloody stubborn."
Trip grinned. "Now that's a saucy way of talkin' to your Cap'n, Lieutenant."
Malcolm grimaced. "Permission to feed my 'Cap'n' before he starves sitting in front of his full plate. Besides, my shift starts in ten minutes, and I seem to recall said captain is quite strict about punctuality."
Trip sighed and gave Malcolm one of his famous Tucker-stares. "Well, alright." Again, he let go of his fork, but this time he dropped it on purpose, resigning to the fact that there was no point in rushing things.
After assisting the Commander with his physical exercises, Malcolm helped Trip get ready and got him settled in bed before he left for his own quarters to have a shower and change. He knew Trip always appreciated their company, but felt the Commander needed some time for himself to sort out his thoughts without any of his friends hovering anxiously in the background. Of course they only meant well, but Malcolm could imagine that Trip was getting a little fed up with being constantly supervised. He'd also noticed that the Commander was getting increasingly impatient with his condition. He always wanted to do everything on his own like he'd used to before all of this had happened, refusing to make allowances for his body that was only slowly healing. Malcolm did his best to keep him from exhausting himself, but it was mostly an exercise in futility. Reed felt a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth as he thought of Trip's stubbornness. The Captain's decision to put Trip in command while he was on the away mission had helped the Commander's self-confidence a lot, and that was exactly what Trip needed at the moment. The engineer had finally brought himself to believe that he was really going to regain full control over his body, but he still needed a lot of emotional support to be able to deal with the situation. Malcolm tried to imagine how he would feel in Trip's place, being forced to allow others to wash and feed him, always having to rely on the help of people who were actually his subordinates. He shuddered. The mere thought of it was unbearable, and the way the Commander coped with the situation filled Malcolm with respect.
The realization that Trip wasn't going to be permanently handicapped had been a great relief to him, but still there was a feeling of guilt nagging at the back of his mind. Somehow he just couldn't get rid of that little voice in his head telling him he could have prevented this if he'd only protected his friend instead of running away.
Trip smiled a hearty welcome as the Lieutenant entered his quarters an hour later. He appreciated Malcolm's subtle way of allowing him some privacy, but he was glad to have his friend staying with him during the night. It was reassuring to know that there was someone there in case he needed help. Turning his head, Trip watched Malcolm as the Lieutenant lowered himself into the desk chair across the room. It was a good feeling being able to look at people beyond his direct range of vision without his eye muscles aching from the strain. He'd never realized before how wonderful it was simply to be able to turn one's head or lift it. Trip knew his attitude towards life had changed, and being able to move was something he was never going to take for granted again. Fate had given him one more chance, and he was determined not to waste it.
Looking down at his right hand, Trip once again tried to move it. When he saw the little finger and ring finger twitching, a smile spread on his face. Oh yes, things were looking up alright.
"Found something you can move again?" Malcolm asked, his lips curving upwards.
Trip nodded. "Yup. Guess I still need a sparring partner for tomorrow's training session. What d'you say?"
"Sure, Commander. How about doing a little jogging in the corridors?"
Trip paused for a moment, then looked up. "Why are you doin' this, Malcolm?"
"You mean tease you? So you don't exhaust yourself by trying to do everything on your own."
"That's not what I meant. Why do you help me?"
Malcolm gave Trip a confused stare. "That's a stupid question, Trip. I'm doing it because you're my friend."
"Really? So you're not here because you're feeling guilty?"
"Damn." Malcolm bit his lip. "So you were listening, after all."
"There's nothin' wrong with my ears."
"I thought you were asleep. I didn't mean for you to hear what I was saying."
"But I did hear it, Mal, and luckily so. It gave me a reason to go on livin'. So we could have a talk about this."
"I don't understand."
"There was a time when I wasn't sure whether I wanted that cure after all. I thought I couldn't bear goin' through all that humiliatin' misery all over again. I felt I didn't have the strength left, y'know? But I knew I couldn't jus' give up when I realized that there were still things I had to do. Like talkin' to a friend who's blamin' himself for what happened to me."
Trip regarded Malcolm who was still perched on the edge of the desk chair staring at him with an expression of dismay on his face, and sighed. "Malcolm, why don't you take that chair and come sit over here so I don't have to shout across the room all the time."
Obediently, Malcolm picked up the chair and set it down next to Trip's bed. What the Commander had just told him shook him to his very core. Could it really be that his muttered self-accusations had been the reason Trip had decided to hold on to life instead of simply giving up?
"I'm not helping you because I'm blaming myself," he said, sitting back down on the chair. "I'm helping you because you're my friend. The best friend I ever had in life. Your friendship means a lot to me, Trip. And it's a good feeling, being able to help a friend when he needs it."
"Well, I guess I can live with that." Trip smiled, but then his features grew serious again. "You're not really blamin' yourself for what happened, are you?"
"I... I just feel I shouldn't have run away down there," Malcolm admitted reluctantly. "It would have been my job to protect you. Really, Trip, I don't know what I would have done if you'd died. It's awful, seeing you like that. And I keep thinking I could have prevented this if I'd only tried."
"And how exactly would you have done that, Lieutenant? Mal, there were nine of them! Nine of those 3 meter tall humanoids. You'd've only succeeded in gettin' yourself captured as well. And then? They'd probably have injected you with the same serum I was given, and you could've kept me company in that lab of theirs. There would've been no one to get us out of there. I guess it would've taken the Cap'n some time to notice that we were missin'. And who knows, in the meantime the aliens might've just decided to inject us with that deadly cure in order to get us back to our feet. Or they might've simply walked away, abandonin' us in that building with no way to get out."
Malcolm shook his head. "I should have been better prepared from the start. It should never have come to this, those aliens overpowering us. It would have been my duty to know that the complex wasn't deserted, after all."
"And how were you supposed to know that? They had their bio signs cloaked, remember? Stop it, Malcolm. Don't go blamin' yourself for somethin' you couldn't have done anythin' about. You got me out of there. You didn't run away, you simply got out of danger for a while so you could come up with a plan to help me. You did nothin' wrong. 'Runnin' away means turnin' tail and abandonin' your crewmates."
"I would never-" Malcolm began, but Trip cut him off.
"And you didn't. I would trust you with my life, Malcolm. You're a damn fine Security Officer, the best I've ever known. So stop blamin' yourself. I'm damn proud of you for what you did down there."
"Really?" The corner's of Malcolm's mouth started to twitch.
"Really. Think about it. You rescued me from that alien lab and carried me all the way to the shuttlepod. And don't go tellin' me you were only doin' your job for you did much more than that. You proved yourself a true friend."
"Thanks, Trip." A tentative smile appeared on Malcolm's lips. Trip kept studying him closely, noting a strange expression in the Lieutenant's eyes.
"There somethin' else, isn't there?"
"No, why do you ask?"
"I know you quite well by now, Mr. Reed. And I can see that there is somethin' else botherin' you."
Malcolm shook his head, averting his eyes.
"Come on, tell me. Has it got to do with me? Maybe there's somethin' I can do to help."
Malcolm looked back at Trip, facing those kind blue eyes that were regarding him with an expression of affection and concern. He swallowed, seeking words to express his feelings.
"When I asked myself whether I would have been able to fight those aliens off, after all, make sure you were able to escape even if they'd got me instead..." He broke off.
"Yeah?" Trip gave him an encouraging look.
Malcolm heaved a sigh. "I caught myself thinking that I was glad I wasn't in your place. I... I feel terrible about it."
Trip gave Malcolm a long look, not taking his gaze off Reed's face until the Lieutenant finally lowered his eyes.
"You mean you're glad they got me instead of you?"
"No. Of course not, I just... Or maybe I am? It sounds awful, but... maybe I am, yes."
"And that's the reason you feel guilty, and accuse yourself of lettin' me down?"
"Come on, Mal. Look at me."
Raising his eyes, Malcolm saw that Trip had lifted his right hand off the bed and was now trying to stretch his arm, reaching out at him. Taking Trip's hand, Malcolm squeezed it lightly.
"I'm quite sure no one aboard would've wanted to be in my place," Trip said. "Not for a thousand of Hoshi's massages."
"Well, maybe not. But..."
"No buts, Malcolm. Stop doin' this to yourself. I know you're not feelin' glad that they got me. You're just glad you're not in my place. And it's okay to feel that way. Everybody would. Would be kinda abnormal for anyone to want to switch places with me. And you, Lieutenant Reed, might be actin' a little strange from time to time, but I never knew you to be abnormal."
Malcolm threw Trip a look of mock indignation. "Acting strange?"
Trip burst out laughing. "Oh yes you are. And you're a damn good friend, too. Now please tell me I talked you out of that guilt trip of yours; I don't wanna give another lecture like that."
"I never knew you were so good at lecturing."
Trip shrugged. "Must be a natural talent."
Malcolm stared at him. "Do that again."
"What? Give a lecture?"
"No, thanks, I guess once was enough." Malcolm grinned. "You just shrugged. With both shoulders. Didn't you notice?"
Carefully, Trip lifted his left shoulder. "It works!" A grin began to spread on his face. Malcolm nodded.
"You just wait, you'll be back on your feet in less time than we all thought."
Jon felt absolutely beat as he opened the shuttle hatch and climbed out into the hangar. Their mission had been successful, but also quite exhausting, and he found himself looking forward to a good hot shower and a few hours of sleep. Closing the hatch behind him, he took a quick look around. It seemed like today his officers weren't going to meet him in the hangar, as they usually did; the shuttle bay was empty. Well, never mind; he was going to the bridge anyway to relieve Enterprise's acting Captain from his current duties. Thinking of Trip, Jon felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. He was looking forward to seeing his friend again, and found himself hoping that the engineer was doing a little better by now.
"Reed to Captain Archer," came Malcolm's voice from the speaker on the wall.
Jon pushed the comm button. "Archer here."
"Welcome back, Sir. Would you, T'Pol and Hoshi mind coming down to sickbay for a minute?"
Jon's eyebrows drew together. "Sickbay? Is there something wrong with Trip?"
"There's nothing wrong, sir, but..."
"Spill it, Lieutenant."
"There is no reason to worry, Captain. Just come down here. And bring the ladies with you."
How often had he walked in here during the last few weeks only to have some more hopes shattered? Jon prepared himself for the worst as he watched the sickbay doors slide aside. What he saw, however, made his breath catch in his throat. Trip was standing in the middle of the room. Actually standing, both his feet firmly set on the floor. Travis and Malcolm had their arms wrapped around his waist and were holding his arms, and Trip was heavily leaning on them for support, but he was standing. Jon heard Hoshi take an excited breath, and was sure that T'Pol had at least one of her eyebrows raised.
"Trip!" he managed.
"Hi, Cap'n." Trip grinned, and Jon couldn't remember the last time he'd seen an expression of such pure happiness on the engineer's face. He took a step towards his friend.
"Wait, Cap'n. Stay right there."
Surprised, Jon came to a halt two meters away from Trip, and watched as his friend slowly began to move his right foot, pushing it forward centimeter by centimeter.
"You can let go of me now," Trip said, turning to Travis and Malcolm.
"No way, Trip." Malcolm shook his head. "It won't work. You're not up to that yet."
"Let me go!"
Malcolm and Travis exchanged a look that expressed their mutual exasperation at the stubbornness of certain Southerners, and carefully let go of Trip, hovering nearby to catch him if he were to fall. Trip shifted his weight onto his right leg and pulled the other one forwards. He only managed one unsteady step, then his legs gave way and he fell forward into Jon's arms. But it had definitely been a step. His first step. For a moment sickbay was absolutely silent. Jon was still holding Trip, and he felt a tear trickle down his cheek. Travis and Malcolm patted Trip on the shoulder, Hoshi was smiling happily, and the corners of Phlox' mouth had curved upward so that they almost reached his ears. And if Trip hadn't known better he could have sworn that even T'Pol's lips were twitching. Just a little.
I want to thank everybody who took this rollercoaster ride with me. I was playing with your emotions and you still stuck with me, reading and reviewing every chapter. I've never expected to get so many enthusiastic reviews. They all are very much appreciated. Thank you all.
There's a sequel to this story: "The Miles That Lay Ahead". It's a Trip and Malcolm centered story and you know what can happen if our favourite disaster twins are on tour.