Disclaimer: The characters and Universe of Star Trek do not belong to me. I am making no financial gain from this story.
A/N: Takes place in Season 2 a short time after 'Minefield'.
As Malcolm Reed strode along the corridor on that dread day, he couldn't help but think back to his first breakfast meeting with the Captain. He sighed deeply as he remembered how excruciatingly embarrassing it had been. He tsked to himself, lost in his thoughts and oblivious to the questioning glances he was receiving from the crew he passed.
Oh, this is silly, he thought. It's only a meal - a short meal - with Captain Archer, and I've known him for a year and a half now. It can't be that bad... can it?
Indeed, last time it had been an exceedingly short meal. No sooner had they settled down than the ship had reached a system worthy of exploration. Thanks to that he hadn't had to participate too much in an occasion that had been getting steadily more difficult by the minute.
Then they had struck that Romulan mine. So, instead of enduring breakfast with the Captain, he had been pinned to the hull by a mine, nearly killed by the Romulans and forced to face his own mortality. It had almost been a fair exchange. Admittedly, he had been ravenous by the time he had been extricated from his position skewered to the hull like some prize exhibit.
Oh, don't be so stupid, he berated himself. How can you possibly compare that situation with a simple meal with the Captain? Grow up, man! "Idiot," he muttered, earning a startled glance from the young Ensign he was passing. "Umm, not you, Ensign," he added over his shoulder.
Malcolm knew his faults all too well. In circumstances where his professional skills came into play, he understood exactly what was required, was decisive and got the job done. However, a simple social situation with his C.O. was alien and dangerous territory. Well - perhaps 'dangerous' was going too far? But 'alien'? - assuredly so. No amount of training and immersion in military and naval history had been able to help him there, except to warn: 'Don't do it - fraternization is A Bad Thing!' - a sentiment with which Malcolm agreed wholeheartedly.
The occasion of that first breakfast had been doomed from the start. Malcolm had been stupidly nervous, convinced that the Captain had invited him for some serious discussion concerning his shortcomings or the like. And then, when it turned out the Captain wanted to learn about his private life, Malcolm had clammed up. He resented that sort of probing from anyone whom he didn't class as a friend, and a close friend at that.
Malcolm grunted as he thought about the Captain's inexpert attempts at interrogating him. Archer had tried to use his rank and position to pry. Why should Malcolm tell him anything?! It was none of Archer's business what he did in his spare time or what sports he followed. Malcolm had been so unnerved by the Captain's 'twenty questions' that he had denied all interest in sports of any kind and no hobbies! The Captain must think him as dull as ditchwater.
He had interests other than work, of course he did, but he didn't want to talk about them to Archer of all people...
Then shortly afterwards Malcolm had become trapped on the hull, unable to escape and pumped full of some painkilling drug that also made him feel far too good. It had lowered his defenses as surely as a few glasses of beer would do. No - more so. It was more like half a dozen large tots of good scotch! He winced as he recalled his conversation with Archer. Malcolm had prattled on merrily about things he never told anyone. It had even prompted him to tell the Captain a few home truths. Malcolm felt the heat rush to his face as he remembered his insubordination. He distractedly ran a hand through his neatly combed hair. Then he realized what he had done and hastily tried to smooth it back into good order.
So engrossed was Malcolm in reliving the debacle that was the Captain's attempt at 'getting to know' him and the aftermath, that he was quite surprised to find himself already at the mess hall door.
He surveyed the morning crowd who for the most part were cheerfully getting their early morning meals. Travis was there and gave him a grin followed by a gesture inviting Malcolm to join him. Regretfully, Malcolm shook his head to decline and pointed to the Captain's dining room. Travis nodded in understanding.
Malcolm sighed. He hadn't told anyone about his inept behavior on the earlier occasion and he supposed Travis would think this would be a treat for him. Smiling ruefully at his friend, Malcolm forced his unwilling feet toward the door of the Captain's private mess. Had someone put lead in his boots overnight? It certainly felt that way.
But this time it would be different, he told himself, standing tall in front of the door. This time he had a plan, a strategy, as befitted the ship's tactical officer. He gave a self-satisfied smirk. He was sure it would work - he was ready for this ordeal. He was fully prepared.
He ignored the quiver of apprehension scooting around his insides and rang the doorbell with a firm thumb.
'Come,' came Archer's voice from inside.
Malcolm needlessly straightened his immaculate uniform, rammed his shoulders back and opened the door. Into battle, then - 'Cry God for Malcolm, England and St George'.
The door slid open to reveal the Captain seated facing him. The Captain gave a reassuring smile of welcome. "Good morning, Malcolm. Sleep well?"
"Yes, thank you," said Malcolm, wincing as he heard the telltale strain in his voice. He cleared his throat and pitched his tone a little lower. "How about yourself, Sir?"
"Like a log. Come in. Take a seat."
Malcolm did as he was bid and did his best to temper his body language to express ease and relaxation rather than the abject anxiety he actually felt. He gave the Captain a smile, but his mouth was dry and it didn't feel right. His short-lived confidence in his social abilities began to ebb.
"No PADD this time, Malcolm?" Archer said with another smile.
"Sir?" asked Malcolm with a frown. What had he forgotten to do?
"As I recall, at our last breakfast you wanted to go over some crew rosters." Archer poured them both orange juice from a large jug.
"Ah, yes, so I did. I wasn't sure what the purpose of that meeting was that time, Sir."
Archer grimaced. "Well, it was only breakfast, you know."
"Yes, Sir." Malcolm surreptitiously rubbed his sweaty palms on his thighs, readying himself for the impending trial.
"I hope this time we won't be interrupted. Umm. I'm sorry it took so long to rearrange this." Archer shifted uneasily in his seat. "I had to fit in some other officers as well, and of course, most mornings I eat alone anyway. Gives me a chance to go over the orders of the day."
"Yes, Sir. Of course," said Malcolm as it dawned on him that the Captain wasn't exactly looking forward to this either.
A steward entered with a couple of plates.
"I asked Chef to prepare a full English breakfast today, in your honor."
"Oh, thank you, Sir," said Malcolm, touched at this gesture. The Captain was certainly making an effort to make this a success. The plate was well-stocked – fried eggs, bacon, sausages, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms... even some baked beans. The bacon was streaky instead of smoked back and there was no black pudding or brown sauce, but it was a good spread nevertheless.
Archer was gazing at his plate in some bemusement. "I didn't realize..." he started, then looked up at Malcolm. "It certainly is... full," he said.
"Yes, Sir. Sets one up for the day." Malcolm spoke with confidence. Yes, this was a safe subject, he thought. The weather would have been better - more scope to that usually - but then, chatting about the air recycling system just wasn't the same.
Archer gave a quick grin and started to cut a sausage. "So, Malcolm. We didn't get very far at our previous breakfast, did we? Let's see if we can get through the whole meal this time, shall we? We don't want any interruptions like the last occasion!"
Archer smiled jovially but it was swiftly followed by a frown as he saw Malcolm's face fall. Malcolm, of course, was hoping for just such an interruption... well, maybe not such a dramatically painful one, but perhaps a hostile warship to deal with, or something of that nature...
"I'm sorry, Malcolm. That was a bit insensitive of me."
"To bring up what happened last time. I didn't mean to dredge up unpleasant memories right now. It's not the time or the place." Archer put down his fork and gave Malcolm a serious, sympathetic look, entirely concentrated on him.
Malcolm squirmed at the attention and was about to reply with a breezy 'that's not a problem, Sir' when he realized he couldn't admit the real reason for his dismay – the prospect of an uninterrupted meal. Instead he contented himself with a quiet murmur of assent, trying to look appropriately solemn. He dropped his eyes to his plate and hoped the Captain would resume eating again soon.
The two men made some inroads into their meal. The silence stretched. Malcolm saw the Captain darting quick glances at him - no doubt wondering how he might start the conversation in a way that didn't remind Malcolm of his gruesome injury and near death. And didn't mention sport. Or involve any hobbies.
Malcolm found the silence unnerving. It wasn't like the Captain to be stuck for words. A gulp of orange juice helped the dryness of Malcolm's throat but he still had difficulty in swallowing. His knife and fork had developed stubborn minds of their own judging by their embarrassing non-cooperation. Malcolm concentrated on the mechanics of cutting up a rasher of bacon. To his utter mortification, his fork managed to flick a piece of bacon via a lovely trajectory onto the floor. He paused a moment and then decided to ignore it.
Archer was still searching for a safe topic when, unbeknown to him of course, Phase 1 of Operation Bamboozle began.
Malcolm cleared his throat and gave a strained smile. "I understand your water polo team is Stanford, Captain. How are they doing in the league at present?" Malcolm had of course taken the precaution of already checking the team's progress. He wanted it to be an uplifting conversation. To his relieved pleasure, the Captain responded just as he had hoped.
"Oh, we're third and on a roll." Archer's face lit up in an unfeigned grin of pure happiness. "The teams above us have some tough games ahead and we're facing lower placed opponents. And we have a game in hand."
"Is it a close thing?" Yes, it was. There were only a few points in it.
"Oh yes. There're only a few points in it..."
They rattled on in this vein for some time - Malcolm asking his carefully prepared short questions and the Captain replying at great length, becoming ever more expansive as he thought that Malcolm was displaying a true interest in the beautiful game. Malcolm concentrated again on controlling his body language, utilizing his security training. Normally, of course, he would be the one studying the person being interrogated, but it worked both ways. He gazed at the Captain with rapt attention, forcing himself to concentrate and asking pertinent questions, ticking each one off in his mind.
The conversation continued on this topic during the first course, including a slight diversion into the rules and history of the game.
There was an interruption as the steward collected their plates and brought in toast and coffee.
Malcolm dived right back in again, heedless of the personal cost. "So, Captain, you were telling me you have an exceptionally good team this year?"
"Yeah. There's Millar and- " The Captain broke off and gave Malcolm a guilty look. "I'm sorry. We've been talking non-stop about my favorite sport. Perhaps we should have a change of topic?"
"No, Captain. That's okay. It's very... interesting," protested Malcolm - to no avail.
Archer gave a chuckle, "I think so too, but you can too much of a good thing!" He picked up a piece of toast and took a bite. "Um, So..."
Malcolm saw with alarm that the Captain was gearing up to get started on 'getting to know you'. Accordingly, he escalated to Phase 2 of his tactical initiative.
"I guess your father would have been delighted that you commanded the first Warp 5 space vessel, Captain. How long did he spend developing the engine?" Malcolm knew the answer to that one, of course - as did everyone who had studied warp engineering at even the most basic level.
Archer frowned a little. "I thought everyone knew that?"
Uh oh, tactical error there. Malcolm swiftly amended his question. "What I meant was, how long did he spend in his career on the warp projects - the earlier programs also?"
"Oh. Well..." and Archer was off again.
This topic took them to the end of the meal and they were still going strong. Well - the Captain was. Malcolm was itching to get away and was fighting an urge to flee the room. Deep breaths, he told himself, deep breaths, relax...
"Oh. Time to get to the bridge," said Archer, glancing at the chronometer in surprise. "Funny how time flies when you're enjoying yourself."
"Yes. Indeed," replied Malcolm, jumping up and shoving his chair back. He was barely able to contain his glee at having survived the experience without appearing a socially inept idiot. That is, except for the flying bacon incident, but in the scheme of things that was relatively minor. "Thank you for breakfast, Sir."
"Not at all, Malcolm. See you on the bridge."
"Sir," said Malcolm with a confident smirk. He had done it! His plan had worked!
Malcolm left the Captain's mess at a brisk walk, free at last, and consoling himself that, with luck, it would be another year and a half before he had to go through that again. He had been able to carry on a conversation with the Captain under the most extreme of conditions. And he had given away no personal information whatsoever. Mission one hundred percent successful. He gave himself a pat on the back for a job well done, although it had been arduous. Water polo was enough to send any sane person crazy or asleep or to the bottle, or all three. The Captain's father was a fascinating character, of course, but the Captain did go on so about him...
Malcolm smiled expansively at a crewman who stared after the armory officer with incredulity.
Archer gathered his things together and made to follow Malcolm to the bridge. That went well, he thought. Surprisingly well. He hadn't realized Malcolm had such a burgeoning interest in water polo. Perhaps this was a sport he could get him involved in? Every man needed a sport to follow, after all, and water polo was an excellent choice - there was no denying that. Hmm... He would have to organize things so they could have breakfast together again soon. Malcolm might even want to watch the new games when he got them – there was a batch due in next week. Malcolm had been particularly interested in some of the more obscure rules of the game, and with examples before them, it would be so much easier to explain...
With a broad smile, Archer strode off, already formulating his plan.
A/N: There is a companion piece - 'Operation Bamboozle' - that is related but is in a different approach and style.