Warnings: Very mild slash. One scene with some gore

Disclaimer: I don't own it, I make no money from it. Not written for profit, simply for pleasure.

x-x

Trip sat on the couch in the dark study, the only light in the room that drifting up from the padd propped on his bent legs.

"Autumn began today," he wrote. "Well, not really - it's just past Labor Day, so there's still a couple of weeks before Fall actually starts. But tonight I saw the first batch of leaves falling past my window..."

He stopped writing and stared out the window into the night. He could see his own face reflected on the dark glass, the light from the padd slight enough that, if he didn't focus, he could still see a young man staring back at him.

Leaves drifted past the porch light, blown by the breeze, and he watched them tumble across the deck. When he was real young, he'd always felt like Fall was the start of the year, rather than January. Fall was usually a time for introspection, for thinking back over what you'd learned last year, and what you'd done over the summer. Even now, he usually found his thoughts drifting back to the past at this time of year.

Trip shut off the padd so that he could see out into the darkness. The breeze ruffled the leaves on the porch, and, through the open window, he could tell that the evening air was crisp - the first time that season. This was the best time of year, he thought, with the change of seasons bringing such a drastic change in the weather, unlike in Florida, where the shift from Summer to Fall was often more subtle and gradual. He loved nights like this, so cool, great for sleeping, while the days were still warming up to near-summer heat. He sniffed, noticing something on the breeze. There was smoke on the wind, too - someone was burning a fauxwood stove, adding even more to the Autumn-like atmosphere.

He let the padd fall to the seat beside him and simply sat on the couch, staring out the window as the leaves drifted past. He'd been on Enterprise for so long, he'd almost forgotten about the scents of Earth, of home. Scents and memories. He rubbed his hand along the arm of the couch, its soft texture playing across his fingers and palm.

It was a funny thing, though, memory. Thinking back, so many of his memories would come to him, so crisp, but others had faded with time and distance. He glanced up to one of the pictures lining the wall across the room. In the light from the porch, he could just make out the features of the folks pictured - but he didn't need the light. He had those faces memorized. Him with his sister, mom and dad, back in Florida. His eyes moved to another picture. The Enterprise crew, from their first year out - Hess, Reed, Hoshi, Travis, the others. He chuckled slightly. They'd all been so damn young. And here he was now, fifteen years later. God, he was Archer's age - well, the age Jon had been that first year. He squinted, trying to make out the other faces in the image, some of them harder to remember, their names escaping him. "Ensign Leeanne?" he said aloud, a softly murmured question as he looked into one young face.

He heard shuffling behind him, and felt a warm hand on his shoulder. A soft voice said, "Lennae."

Malcolm released his shoulder, walking around the sofa and taking the seat next to him. "Are you okay?"

Trip nodded, shrugging. "You just get here?"

"Yeah, sorry. Stuck in traffic. Is that the letter?" Malcolm asked, nodding towards the padd.

Trip nodded, picking it up and running a hand across its surface, then placing it on the coffee table in front of him. How many times over the years Malcolm had seen him like this? Well, enough to simply ask "Is that the letter?" in his distinctive tones.

Trip had noticed that Malcolm's accent had changed over the years, moving from a distinctively clipped British to a slightly softer, more American influenced version. He wondered if Malcolm realised it. Probably not. Trip supposed his own accent and speech patterns had changed as well. Their time living in the Northeastern US had influenced them both.

He wondered if Malcolm missed England.

Trip missed Florida. But he couldn't - after the Xindi attack, after the end of Enterprise's mission, he just couldn't -

Malcolm must have seen something on Trip's face, because he felt an arm across his shoulders, then a gentle tug. He allowed himself to be pulled and simply rested there against Malcolm.

Trip stared out at the drifting leaves. How many times had he sat there, watching them fall, Malcolm at his side as he struggled to put his thoughts down on paper? And thank God. Thank God that Malcolm was there, because but for the grace of...

As he thought back, Trip actually wished that some of those memories were a bit less crisp.

The week had been pretty much peaceful on Enterprise, which in its own way was unusual. No first contacts planned, no tense negotiations to struggle through, just a normal maintenance schedule facing him that September day, their fifth year out. Trip sighed happily as he placed the device on the table in front of him, and began working on a routine repair of some worn wiring.

It was a wonderful thing, to be here in Engineering, his crew bustling around him. And it was a wonderful thing, to be working on something that had worn out due to simple use and time, rather than been blown apart, or smashed, or...

"Trip?" The captain's voice came from the comm. on the wall.

Trip pushed back his chair and stood, smacking his palm against the button. "Yeah, Cap'n?"

Archer's voice sounded again, and Trip could tell that he was eager. "We've been contacted by some people, calling themselves Plakians. They aren't in the Vulcan database. We're planning a trip to their ship. Care to come along?"

Five years in, and Archer still got excited about first contacts. Even after the Expanse, and the Xindi. How could that enthusiasm not rub off on him? "Absolutely," Trip said with a smile. "Meet you in the shuttle bay."

As Trip entered the bay, he saw Archer, Malcolm, and Hoshi standing next to the shuttle. As Travis walked past him, heading in their direction, Trip could hear Malcolm in mid-request.

"...Additional security for this mission, Captain."

"Not this time," Archer replied. As Malcolm opened his mouth to protest, the captain continued. "The Plakians specifically stated that they need us to keep our party to five people or fewer, for environmental reasons. And I only got five by promising that Travis would remain in our shuttle."

Hoshi piped in. "Their ship is pretty small, Malcolm."

"So why can't we meet on Enterprise?" Trip asked, finally reaching the group.

The captain looked to Trip. "They offered to have us over there. And," he said with a smile, "I'd really like to see that ship."

As Malcolm argued his point, Travis stepped next to Trip, whispering. "You've got to see their ship. I've never seen anything like it."

"Cool, eh?" Trip replied.

Travis nodded just as Archer said, firmly, "Just the five of us, Lieutenant."

Malcolm replied with a nod and a sharp, "Sir."

Typical, thought Trip. Malcolm always seemed to be asking for more security, and the captain always seemed to blow him off. It was almost a running joke at this point. Not that either of them was wrong. As the captain began speaking with Hoshi, Trip caught Malcolm's eye. He raised one eyebrow, and Malcolm responded by rolling his eyes dramatically.

The short shuttle trip was fairly uneventful, broken only by the briefing that Archer and Hoshi conducted en-route. And the briefing was exactly that - brief - since they knew next-to-nothing about these people.

As Travis manoeuvred the shuttle towards the small Plakian ship, Trip could clearly see the odd angles and strange curves that made up the tiny vessel. That ship was so small, no way it fit more than fifteen, twenty crewmembers, if they were the size of humans. He let his eyes run over the surface, the light from their shuttle revealing it to be - lilac? he thought. No, wait - maybe rose. Actually, the color kept shifting the closer they got. He had no idea what their hull was made of, and he felt his excitement build at the prospect of getting inside that ship.

As they docked at a port and the view outside the ship disappeared into shadow, Trip turned and began to help Malcolm assemble their supplies, neither of them speaking as they moved.

They worked well together, he thought, watching Malcolm from the corner of his eye. And the more he'd gotten to know Malcolm over the years, the more he'd found he liked him. Their relationship was certainly still contentious - after all, Trip was never one to back down from a good argument, and he had certainly met his match in fire in Malcolm. But a friendship had grown despite - no, perhaps because of that spark.

Trip handed an item to Malcolm, who slipped it inside one pocket. Over the past year or so, they'd been spending more time together - especially after Terra Prime, and the baby. Trip paused for a moment. Malcolm glanced to him, so he smiled slightly and started working again.

The more time he spent with Malcolm, the more time he wanted to spend with the man. Lately, especially, he'd find excuses to stop by - just foolish things, usually - drinking, watching vids, playing cards. He found that he enjoyed Malcolm's snarky sense of humor, and his sarcasm. But the man had an intensity and a depth of feeling that anchored that humor and gentled it. Malcolm also seemed to know without being told when Trip thinking about the baby, or his sister, or any of the other personal things that would bring him down, and Malcolm would just be there for him. It meant a lot.

More recently, Trip felt like there'd been a shift in their relationship - it was subtle, but it was there. Malcolm would brush past him, seemingly on purpose, or sit beside him on the bed rather than in desk chair, things like that. He suspected Malcolm was testing him, seeing how he'd respond, if he'd be interested.

Trip wasn't looking for a relationship right now, and certainly not with a man. Still, he allowed this change, those little touches. He wasn't sure why.

Malcolm's hand brushed his, and he quirked a smile. Maybe he was testing himself.

Trip's thoughts were interrupted when they finally docked and the door opened to reveal one Plakian, holding out a small, silver device. The Plakian began speaking, and the device translated his words into English. The man - if that's the gender he was - was basically humanoid, just shorter than Hoshi, and quite slim, with dark, chocolate colored skin, mostly covered by a soft-looking, ivory uniform. He waved them forward, and as they entered a low, thin hallway, Malcolm fell into step behind the alien.

Turning a corner, the corridor suddenly widened into a room-like space with a large window, two other hallways leading off it. As the alien indicated that they should wait, three other Plakians entered the small space from one of the corridors, and one began speaking gruffly, the first man's device translating what he was saying.

As the gruff man went through a formal introduction, and Archer began introducing each of them in turn, Trip was struck by how on-edge he felt. There was something about this alien, about this situation, that was making him wary. He glanced at Malcolm and saw that his friend seemed on guard.

As Archer introduced Trip, and then Malcolm, the man smiled, revealing several rows of sharply pointed teeth. "Ah, an engineer and an armory officer," he said, staring them both up and down. Turning to Archer, he asked, "How much?"

"Excuse me?" Archer replied, as if he wasn't quite sure the words had been translated correctly.

"I could use either one, or both," the alien replied. "If our currency isn't acceptable, I'd be willing to trade...well, I have a helmsman that might be serviceable, and access to several tonnes of foodstuffs..."

Trip looked from Archer to the alien in shock. He glanced at Malcolm, only to catch him moving slightly to place himself in front of Hoshi, who'd been standing closest to the aliens.

Archer interrupted before the man could go too far. "My officers are not available. We don't believe in -"

"Ah, ah, I understand," the alien replied over Archer.

Things happened so fast that Trip barely had time to react - the aliens moved, weapons coming from nowhere, so quick that Trip thought he was seeing things - Hoshi raised her communicator to contact the ship - he heard Travis' voice as she tried to warn him - an alien swerved his weapon towards her - Malcolm moved to block it - there was a flash. The room shook and, with a huge roar, their shuttlepod moved in front of the window, its weapons aimed directly at the nearest Plakians, and Archer grabbed one of the alien weapons, aiming it at the leader, while Hoshi buzzed conversation into the communicator.

And the world tilted on its axis,
And time slowed to a crawl,
As Trip watched Malcolm fall to his knees.
His eyes locked on Trip's as he slumped to the side,
Collapsing limply onto the floor.
Trip stood there, frozen, as the room buzzed around them.
Surprised, he thought. Malcolm had looked surprised.

He blinked, and it was like the world slid into fast-forward again. He dashed to Malcolm's side and knelt, placing a firm hand against Malcolm's neck, and his cheek near Malcolm's nose and mouth. There was a weak pulse beneath his fingers, and he could hear a raspy, wet-sounding wheeze as Malcolm inhaled. Straightening up, he scanned his friend's body, and saw a char mark on the left side of Malcolm's uniform, where parts of it were burnt away, and the flesh beneath, some burnt, some missing. He looked away quickly, taking a deep breath.

What kind of weapon could do that? He didn't even know how to handle such a wound. Shaking, he placed a careful hand on Malcolm's arm. "Please, God," he whispered, offering a soft prayer as his eyes closed.

He felt someone kneel beside him and heard voices nearby. There was a hand on his shoulder and he opened his eyes to see Jon there, saying something to him. After a moment, he realised that Jon probably wanted him to help lift Malcolm and get him back to the shuttle.

Right, right, he thought, moving his hand away from Malcolm's arm. He helped Jon lift his friend, trying as hard as he could not to look at Malcolm: at his pale face, the bruised circles around his eyes, the blood now dripping from his nose, and that wound.

Trip realised that he was sitting on the floor at the back of the shuttle, at Malcolm's side. Malcolm was just - well, he was just lying there, on his back on the floor, one of the emergency blankets pulled over most of his body. His pale features stood out against the darkness of his hair. The smudge of blood from his nose swept darkness across one cheek.

He heard Hoshi nearby as she spoke to Phlox in sickbay, and looked up just as Travis cast a scared glance in his direction, which he was sure was matched by his own.

Trip stared down at his friend, helpless and more than useless. The shuttle rocked slightly, and Malcolm's head lolled to the side. Trip shifted along the floor, sliding until he was behind Malcolm's head. He lifted his friend's head just slightly and pillowed it on his thighs.

He combed shaking fingers through Malcolm's dark hair. He could feel the heat from Malcolm's body on his fingers, his thighs, and it was reassuring. There had been so much loss, so much death - Lizzie, the baby, and so many bad choices on his part - the Congenitor, T'Pol, the Visserans. God, his friendship with Malcolm was the best thing that he'd done - not professionally, but personally - in his whole time on Enterprise, maybe even before that.

He placed one hand on Malcolm's chest so he could feel his friend's breathing, the chest rising and falling steadily, if shallowly. If he lost him, if Malcolm died, he'd be...he stopped, trying not to think about that.

Adrift, lost. He'd lose not only a friend, but also a part of himself.

It took him a moment to realise that Malcolm had stilled under his hand.

Then he shouted, and the shuttle exploded into action - Jon jumping up from the copilot's seat, Hoshi frantically speaking with Phlox on the comm., Trip himself beginning CPR, and Malcolm, the focus of the maelstrom, completely still and silent in its eye.

Trip was unsure of how much time had passed, him shocking Malcolm with defibrillator, then steadily pumping Malcolm's chest, Jon doing rescue breathing, the whole world focused on one still point, before they finally docked at Enterprise. There was a whirr and bustle around him and Phlox and his crew took Malcolm, with Jon, Travis and Hoshi following. Trip stayed on the floor of the shuttle, looking out after them as they moved away.

He came to himself a bit later, still kneeling where they'd left him. Oh, he thought, looking at the medical debris around him, the remnants of their struggle scattered on the floor of the shuttle. Unthinking, he stood unsteadily, and made his way back to his room.

He sat on his bed, staring into space. Eventually, he found himself thinking of the last time Malcolm had been in this room, what, two days ago? Malcolm had stopped by because he'd wanted to see if Trip was available to...to what? Trip couldn't remember. What he did remember was that he'd been too busy. He had to work on some schedules or some other foolishness. At the time, he felt like they needed to be done just then. Now, he wished he could go back to that moment and...actually, he wasn't sure what he would do, what he wanted. He just knew that he wanted Malcolm back. If he could just have that -

The comm on his wall rang, and he stood and answered it in a clipped, "Yup?"

"Trip, can you come to sickbay?" Archer asked.

Jon sounded tired, Trip thought as he clicked off without responding. He ran a shaky hand through his hair. Then he began the walk to sickbay, trying not to think about what he'd find there.

Trip entered sickbay and saw a curtain drawn around one of the beds, Jon sitting in a chair nearby, hunched over his knees. At the sound of the door, Jon looked up. Unsmiling, he stood and approached Trip.

"Malcolm?" was all that Trip was able to ask.

Jon simply nodded, his eyes haunted. "He's out of surgery." He glanced towards the curtained area. "Phlox isn't sure."

"Can I see him?"

Jon placed a hand on his arm. "You may want to wait."

Trip shook his head. "I need to see him," he whispered, his voice shaking.

"He doesn't look good."

"Please," Trip said, surprising himself with the plaintiveness of his tone.

Jon cocked his head to one side, then nodded.

Trip stepped forward and parted the curtain, letting it fall shut behind him. He stared down at Malcolm. The lights overhead emphasised the planes of Malcolm's face, giving him a pinched look. Slowly, Trip allowed his eyes to take in rest of scene: IV lines snaking into catheters placed in the backs of Malcolm's hands, skin already bruising around the needles; medical devices going beep, Trip with no idea what half of them did; Malcolm lying, bruised and beaten, on his back on the bed, still, so still, his injuries hidden underneath the light coverlet. And, maybe most shocking of all, the violation of a ventilator tube taped to his face, the tube forcing his lips apart, snaking into his mouth, down his throat, his lips dry, the machine beside him controlling his breathing.

Trip sank into the chair nearest the bed and simply sat there, gazing at Malcolm's profile, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest, listening to the rasp as the machine breathed for him.

Trip heard a noise, and he raised his head. Someone had lowered the lights and placed a blanket over him. He straightened up in the chair and glanced over at Malcolm, starting when he realised that the ventilator was gone - how had he slept through that? Rubbing a palm across his stubble, he kept his eyes trained on Malcolm. He was relieved to see Malcolm breathing on his own, although he still looked like complete and utter shit. There was a mask over his face, oxygen, Trip was sure.

He heard the noise again, a moan, and Malcolm stirred. There was movement nearby and the curtain was pushed aside as Phlox entered. He nodded to Trip, and then his complete focus was on Malcolm. After some time, the doctor turned to Trip with a slight smile.

"He won't be able to talk," Phlox said. "His throat will be quite sore from the tube. He may drift in and out a bit, and he'll get tired quickly, so..."

Trip nodded. Phlox left, and Trip stood, going to Malcolm's side. Malcolm didn't move, lying there with his eyes closed, but he didn't seem asleep. "Hey, Malcolm," Trip said.

Malcolm's eyes opened, at first bleary, then focused clear and sharp. He saw Trip, and a faint smile appeared beneath the oxygen mask.

With that, Trip realised in a rush just what it was that he wanted. He grinned and, cautious of the tubes and catheters, reached out and grasped Malcolm's hand, squeezing gently.

Turning away from the window, Trip looked at Malcolm and smiled. Malcolm looked exactly the same as he had during their Enterprise years - older, with a bit of grey at his temples, his face more lined, but his eyes were still the same. Grey, like smoke, they were still sharp, like his own feelings for the man.

After all these years, that feeling had changed, of course, as had their faces, their bodies, but it was still intense. Like the scar on Malcolm's side, it had changed, but was still there despite the passing of time.

The edges of things, Trip thought. Some do fade with time, others get crisper, the feelings sharper.

Malcolm smiled, then leaned forward and gave him a soft peck on the lips. "I'm going to bed, if that's all right?"

Trip nodded. "Sure. I'll be up soon."

As Malcolm moved off, Trip picked up the padd again. He began to reread his letter to no one, or to his sister, or to his daughter, never to be sent. "Dear Lizzie..."

x-x

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