Author's Note: My first real fanfic; be gentle...

Disclaimer: Not making a dime off of this, they belong to Paramount, they don't belong to me, because if they did, we'd have ended the series with the Romulan War starting off not that...tripe.

As he entered the sickbay, Jonathan Archer could not help but notice that the low light setting matched his mood. Phlox barely looked up from his desk at his entrance, then quickly returned his attention to the data before him; at a glance, Jon felt his heart tighten; never before had he seen the Denobulan so...disconsolate.

Glancing at the biobed, Archer was unsurprised to find Commander T'Pol at Trip's side. As far as he knew, she had not left and he simply didn't have to heart to order her to her quarters. Just looking at Trip was physically painful: electrical burns covered most of his body and the artificial respirator that kept his seared lungs functioning hissed at regular intervals.

"Captain," Phlox said by way of greeting though he did not look up again. A dozen different PADDs were scattered on the desk, each flickering with use. On the screen before the doctor, Archer could see an internal diagram of the Chief Engineer and, though he was no physician, could tell that things were bleak. With nothing else to do, he took up a place by Trip's bed opposite his Vulcan first officer.

T'Pol was a silent statue, her features impassive, but Archer had known her long enough to see the hints of frayed control. He wondered how long it had been since she had slept and wasn't aware that he had vocalized his thoughts until she responded.

"Seventy-two point three hours," T'Pol said in a flat, unemotional voice. Archer did some rapid calculations in his head - she had been here since Trip was brought in.

"You need some rest, commander," he said in a soft voice. She and Trip had been intimate once but that was in the past. Wasn't it?

"No." Her voice remained calm and her eyes never lifted from Trip's burned face.

"I could make it an order, T'Pol." Her eyes finally met his and he was shaken at the emotion lurking there. She was Vulcan, dammit!

"And I would disobey that order. Sir." Back to Trip her gaze went. "I will not abandon my ashal-vey." He frowned at that; the word was Vulcan but one he did not recognize. Her hand twitched, as if desiring to take Tucker's, but she did not. Behind them, Phlox cleared his throat, drawing Archer's attention. Discretely, the Denobulan gestured to him and Jon nodded. He left T'Pol to her silent vigil and joined the doctor who was studying new readouts. Without looking up from the new data, Phlox spoke.

"Captain, if you order Commander T'Pol out of the sickbay, Commander Tucker will die." There was no doubt in Phlox's voice.

"Can you explain?" Archer glanced back at the biobed; T'Pol had reached out, touching Trip's face ever so gently to brush an errant hair back into place. It was an image that he would take to his grave. He quickly returned his eyes to the Denobulan, feeling like he had intruded on something personal.

"I'm afraid not, captain." Phlox sighed heavily, tossing the PADD he studied back to the desk in clear frustration. "Three hours ago, I ordered Commander T'Pol to her quarters for rest; I even went so far as to have Lieutenant-Commander Reed present to escort her." He nodded to the doorway. "She had barely crossed the threshold before his vital signs flatlined. They leveled out once she was at his side again."

"How's that possible?" Jon glanced back: T'Pol was once again a living statue with no hint of her emotions. The Denobulan shrugged.

"There are...many things about Vulcan physiology that have not been explained." It sounded suspiciously like dissembling to Archer and he wondered if Phlox knew something about the two. Jon restrained a sigh.

It was this sort of thing that he absolutely loathed about being The Captain. No matter how long he knew someone, how close he had been, or what their rank was, a vast gulf always existed between them and The Captain. As The Captain, he could not have favorites, could not be told secrets for fear that he would have to act on them. The relationship between Trip and T'Pol - the one he thought had ended years ago - was a perfect example; everyone aboard, including Jon himself, had known something was going on between the two but as long as it was not officially brought to The Captain's attention, it remained an open secret. One everyone loved to gossip about and wonder. As long as it wasn't in front of The Captain.

"Very well," Archer said after a moment's reflection. "Put her on medical leave and I'll sign off on it." Phlox gave him a short smile and picked up a PADD; unsurprisingly, the paperwork was already filled out. Without even looking over the reasons specified, Jon signed it and passed it back to the doctor. "Is there anything else I can do?" He glanced back at his stricken friend, felt the tears trying to gather.

"You still have a speech to prepare, captain." The Denobulan looked up again. "I will do what I can." He returned his attention to the tests and Jon felt another overwhelming sense of grief surge up from his chest but, with almost Vulcan-like control, he pushed it down and rejoined T'Pol at Trip's side.

They stood in silence for a long time, staring at the man that both of them loved, willing him to wake up and crack a joke or make a smart-ass comment that annoyed her Vulcan poise. Finally, Archer spoke, his voice thick with emotion.

"Watch over him, T'Pol," he said. "Help him…however you can." She nodded once and Jon strode away. As the door slid open, he heard a soft whisper, a whisper that he knew he was not meant to hear.

"Please wake, t'hy'la."

Gliding silently through the darkness, the NX-01 approached the blue orb that was Earth. It was to be her final voyage, her last journey through the endless night, and her captain found himself reflecting bitterly on the injustice of the universe. His best friend was in sickbay, dying a slow and miserable death, and Starfleet Command was more concerned about organizing a damned party. The Enterprise herself was to be decommissioned after 10 short years of service and he knew that Starfleet planned to promote him, to give him a desk job that would forever tie him to Earth.

Already personnel from Starfleet Medical were standing by, waiting for Enterprise's arrival, but he hoped they would be unnecessary. It had been something of a surprise when Ambassador Soval had contacted Enterprise and offered Vulcan assistance but Jon had eagerly accepted the offer; the best medical minds Vulcan had were on their way and, for the first time in his life, Archer prayed for their success. He closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed the bridge of his nose; his head ached and he knew that he needed to finish his speech but he just couldn't find the motivation. The comm whistled and he reacted without hesitation.

"Archer here."

"We have an incoming transmission from Starfleet Command, captain." Lieutenant - soon to be Lieutenant-Commander - Hoshi Sato's voice was calm and Jon nodded before he remembered that she couldn't see him. He sighed again.

"I'll take it here, Hoshi."

"Yes sir." He turned to the vidscreen as Admiral Gardner appeared. Before Archer could even open his mouth, the Admiral was speaking.

"How's Commander Tucker, Jon?" Archer responded with as much good cheer as he could muster. It wasn't much.

"Not good, sir." He hesitated, wondering how much to mention. Not T'Pol's...connection. No, definitely not. Despite the good terms Starfleet was currently on with Vulcan, there was still some lingering suspicion, not to mention scattered pockets of xenophobia. "Doctor Phlox and Commander T'Pol are working on treatments now and Soval has arranged for Vulcan aid." Gardner nodded as Archer spoke. "He's pretty messed up though..."

"Trip's a fighter," Gardner interjected. "And I've just received an offer from the Andorian government to assist in any way they can. Shran pulled some strings, burned a few bridges, but he's got his people moving." Gardner offered a smile but Jon did not return it. "Believe it or not, the Andorians have actually begun to coordinate with the Vulcans and offered to share their medical database. This could have long-term benefits." Archer nodded his thanks but his heart was still heavy. At least something good will come out of Trip's death, he mused sadly. The thought darkened his already black mood even more.

"Thank you, sir. I'll let Doctor Phlox know." He waited. Discussing Trip's condition was clearly not why Gardner had commed. The Admiral continued.

"Keep me apprised of his situation. That's not why I contacted you, though." He offered a grim half-smile at Jon's unsurprised expression. "There have been some minor adjustments to the make up of the conference that I need to pass on to you. First..."

Keeping his face smooth and voice even took more work than he had expected and, not for the first time, Archer wished he had T'Pol's training.

Admiral Gardner finally signed off nearly an hour and a half after he called and Jon eased back in his chair, rubbing his temples. They had been interrupted once when Hoshi had informed him that the Vulcan medical frigate had arrived and Doctor Varik was joining Phlox in the sickbay. He had tried to get Gardner to call him back then but the Admiral had continued his discussions of the upcoming conference, either ignoring or unaware of Archer's clear lack of focus on the subject. His head still pounding, Jon contemplated buzzing sickbay for a status report but hesitated before deciding against it. If they were busy on a solution, he didn't want to interrupt. Instead, he buzzed the bridge.

"Sato here."

"This is Archer. Has Phlox given us a status report?"

"No sir." Hoshi paused ever so briefly. "Do you want me to call them?" Once again, Jon found himself shaking his head at her.

"No. I'll head down there myself." He paused. "I do have some translations for you, though."

"What language, sir?" Archer smiled at her sudden interest. Languages and Hoshi were inseparable.

"Vulcan. Thela. No, thila..."

"T'hy'la, sir?"

"That's it."

"Uhh..." Hoshi paused and Jon could almost sense her confusion. He contemplated telling her where he had heard it but decided against it; she was smart - he knew she'd figure it out. "It's a Vulcan endearment, sir, which has multiple meanings depending upon what part of the word is accented. It could mean 'friend' or 'life-long friend' or 'lover'. That sort of thing."

"So it's a Vulcan equivalent of 'darling'?" Archer asked with a sad smile, memories of Trip calling T'Pol that once or twice surfacing. Equally pronounced was his memory of her initial distaste at the expression; he wondered if she had ever gotten accustomed to it.

"Yes sir." Jon could almost hear her smile; she was clearly recalling Commander Tucker's use of the word as well.

"One other, Hoshi. Ahshal vay. No that's not right, assa-"

"Ashal-vey?" Once again, she plucked the word from his memory, her accent perfect. There was something else in her voice though, Jon realized. She sounded...surprised.

"What's it mean, Hoshi?" There was a long pause and, for a moment, Archer thought they had been disconnected. "Hoshi?"

"It''s a term of endearment also but is only used by married couples. Bonded couples. The closest translation would be…darling beloved." Jon sighed, thanking her and signing off; he suspected that she had heard someone use it recently. Clearly, The Captain had once again been the last to know.

He made his way to sickbay and was unsurprised to find several Vulcans in rapid conversation with Phlox. Archer glanced at Trip's bed and froze in shock. T'Pol was no longer at Trip's side.

She sat on his lap.

Sat on the diagnostic table over his lap to be more accurate. She was hunched over, her forehead touching his and the fingers of both hands upon his face. He recognized it as a mind meld immediately; what was she thinking? He had taken two rapid steps forward when Phlox seized his arm and dragged him back.

"Captain!" The Denobulan held his arm with an iron grip. "Do not interrupt!" Archer shot him a dark look.

"Then explain what the hell she's doing!" he snarled. What happened if Trip died while she was melded with him? Would she die as well?

"She has melded with her mate to share her strength with him," the male Vulcan said calmly, studying him with that dispassion he hated so much but envied even more. The word thundered through Archer's brain: mate. "Fascinating that she was able to bond so strongly with a human." The other two Vulcans, both female, nodded in agreement.

Jon pulled his arm from Phlox as he studied the still forms of his two best friends. Mate. much for The Captain not being able to notice it.

"And if he dies while she is...melded?" The Vulcan lifted an eyebrow at him, and then responded flatly.

"She will die as well."

"Was this your idea?" Archer asked, containing his anger with some effort.

"Commander T'Pol suggested it," Phlox interjected. With a nod to the lead Vulcan, he continued. "Neither I nor Doctor Varik could find fault with her reasoning."

"It was a logical decision," Varik commented. "Had he perished, she would have soon followed regardless of what steps were taken." He turned his eyes back to Archer. "You disapprove?" Jon felt his anger melt away, replaced by embarassment. He shook his head.

"No." Another glance at the two steadied him. "I trust Commander T'Pol; if anyone can convince Trip to hold on, it's her." Almost simulataneously, all three Vulcans raised an eyebrow at the comment; at any other time, under any other circumstances, it would have been funny. "Is there any progress?" Phlox smiled then, an immense inhuman smile.

"As a matter of fact, there is." He grinned again and, as he began to explain, Jon Archer felt the blood drain from his face. They wanted to do that?

"They want to do what?" Admiral Gardner's face was red, his eyes wide with shock, and Jon offered him a slight smile. It was unusual to hear his initial thoughts about the procedure coming from someone else.

"It's a variation - an Andorian variation - of the Denobulan rapid clone growth." He hesitated ever so slightly but pushed on before his superior could interrupt. "Doctor Varik proposed it and Doctor Phlox agreed."

"I've read the report on...Sim," Gardner said, clearly uncomfortable and Archer found that he couldn't blame him. He still questioned many of the decisions that he had made in the Expanse and Sim's fate was near the top of that list.

"The two are different, sir. Doctor Varik insists that the...donor clone will not have sentience." He exhaled and felt the stress headache return. "I don't understand the specifics of the procedure but both of the doctors insist that many of Commander Tucker's internal organs are too badly damaged and must be replaced. I've given them the green light, sir."

Gardner frowned and, for the briefest of moments, Archer thought that he may have overstepped his authority. His concern for Trip brushed that fear aside like so much dust and, at that moment, he realized that he honestly didn't care what the Admiral thought; if Starfleet demanded his resignation over this, he would gladly, happily turn it over. As long as Trip was okay. As long as his friend was alive. His feelings must have shown in his face as Gardner's frown deepened.

"Well," the Admiral said after a moment. "Once Starfleet medical takes a look at him, we'll consider approving this officially." Jon hid a wince.

"Actually, sir, Commander Tucker was transferred to the Vulcan medical frigate less than an hour ago." The red in Gardner's face reappeared. "On my authority."

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?" Gardner almost snarled. He hated to be the last to know things and Jon knew he wasn't going to like the rest.

"Yes sir. Commander T'Pol went with him. I've placed her on emergency medical leave."

"On what grounds?"

Jon hesitated. He did not want to do this, hated that he had to, but could find nothing else to say.

"Have you heard of a Vulcan mating bond?" he asked in as casual a manner as possible.

Rain beat a steady drumbeat on the window overlooking San Francisco bay but he barely noticed. Sipping scotch, he stared into the night, seeing nothing but aware of everything. Around him, Starfleet officers and ambassadors spoke, exchanging war stories or swapping tall tales. Nearly all of them knew where he was, but a discrete group of officers and crewmen protected The Captain once last time. Lieutenant-Commander Hoshi Sato chatted with newly promoted Commander Reed and the two ran interference beautifully; each time an officer or ambassador made to approach The Captain, one of them would intercept the VIP and gently, if none too subtly in Reed's case, steer them away. Lieutenant-Commander Travis Mayweather stood with several of the Enterprise's junior officers; they barely made an effort to look like they were enjoying themselves and anyone who even glanced at them could quickly determine their real role.


Commodore Jonathan Archer appeared to notice none of it. He was lost in the rain, staring at the night and doing something he had not done for a long, long time.

He was praying.

He wasn't entirely oblivious though. He heard Malcolm intercept Admiral Gardner with concerns about integrating the MACOs into Starfleet, something about a Security division, and was ruefully amused when Hoshi deflected the Tellarite ambassador with a string of insults that clearly impressed the ambassador's retinue. Ambassador Soval's whispered greeting to Travis and the sound of soft boots approaching warned him that someone had breached the inner defenses. The Vulcan's reflection in the window loomed behind him.

"Live long and prosper, ambassador," Jon said quietly without looking back. In Vulcan. Soval raised an eyebrow but gave no other indication of his surprise.

"Peace and long life, Commodore. I bring news."

Archer's head snapped around at that and he narrowed his eyes. Waiting. Hoping. Praying.

"The procedure was a success but Commander Tucker's injuries were too severe." He offered a PADD to Jon and his lips quirked in an almost smile. A Vulcan smile. "Commander T'Pol asked me to give you her resignation; she returns to Vulcan. It is my understanding that she is to be married."

The data was all there. Archer thumbed through it quickly, barely scanning the content, and reached the end; without hesitation, he input a secondary command, bringing up additional information. Relief flooded through him as he looked over it, relief so intense that he felt tears in his eyes. He killed the hidden data and looked up at Soval with gratitude on his face. How did this happen? I'm trusting a Vulcan? The universe was a strange place. He smiled then, a smile that was a signal to all of the i Enterprise /i present.

"I am to understand that her husband is join our warp engine development team. He is something of a 'miracle worker'." Jon almost laughed out loud.

"Thank you, ambassador." The Vulcan inclined his head.

"It is unfortunate that I was the bearer of bad news. I grieve with thee." They shared a secret look and Jon turned to face his assembled crew. Inside his chest, his heart soared. Everything was going to be okay.

Trip was alive.