10

Walking back from sickbay, where Phlox had declared Brown well enough to be locked in the brig – which Müller had done promptly and with gusto – and where he had learnt that Archer was expected to wake up any moment, Trip felt like a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Yet something deep down gnawed at him. Finally he had to admit to his own self what this something was when he realised that his feet had carried him of their own volition in front of Malcolm's quarters.

It was the wee hours of morning by now, but he doubted Malcolm would be asleep. He rang the bell and had to wait no more than a handful of seconds before the door swished open and what looked like the ghost of Malcolm Reed appeared on the other side, leaning heavily on the frame.

"Am I disturbin' you?" Trip asked hesitantly.

"Since when do you feel the need to ask me that?" Malcolm replied pushing tiredly off to let his friend in. "I have long been used to having you show up at my door at any hour of the day or night."

"Yeah," Trip agreed, remembering a few times in the Expanse when, unable to sleep, he had found nothing better to do than keep his friend awake too. "How's your arm?" he enquired just to say something, jerking his head in the direction of said limb.

Malcolm looked at him blankly for a second. "Fine." Then he tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. "Trip, have you come to my quarters at – he glanced at the time – o-four-thirteen-hours to ask about my bloody arm?" he questioned.

Trip grimaced at the flashback his friend's words triggered in his mind. He looked longingly at the chair near Malcolm's desk. "Mind if I sit down?" he asked wearily.

"Of course not," the lieutenant murmured, dropping on his bed. "It's not as if I was in the right mood for sleep anyway."

Trip sat down and for a moment they were both absorbed, each in their own thoughts.

"How are you, Malcolm?" Trip finally asked, staring at his feet before raising his eyes to his friend.

"Fine. I'm fine. My arm is fine and I'm fine," Malcolm replied testily.

Trip bit his lip. "Sure," he said. "Could have fooled me, though."

Malcolm's face hardened as he replied, "Well, how do you expect me to be? I failed to detect a terrorist attack, got my Captain and First Officer almost killed, was accused of treason, found that I nurtured a viper in my bosom, had to fire on one of my own men and risked in the process to get a good friend killed," he enumerated in a hollow voice.

Trip braced himself and got it off his chest. "You forgot to mention that you also had to endure your best friend's suspicions," he murmured hoarsely.

He watched Malcolm closely and saw him struggle for an answer.

"Yes, if truth be told that too," he finally admitted, looking at Trip from behind one of his undecipherable expressions.

It was Trip's turn to struggle for words. What was there to say, really? Too much and nothing at the same time.

"I haven't come to ask how you are, actually. I've come to say I'm sorry I hurt you," he choked out. "Because I know I did."

There was a long pause. Trip cleared his throat before continuing. "I don't think I can explain exactly what went on with me… it's as if these past couple of days I was two different people," he added, feeling numb. "Trip never doubted Malcolm, but I'm afraid a couple of times the Acting Captain did doubt Lieutenant Reed," he forced out, knitting his brow in a desolate frown.

Malcolm rubbed his eyes and shook his head. Then he leaned back against the headboard letting out a sigh, and Trip saw his tension gradually ease away and his eyes grow less stormy.

"It hurt, I can't deny that," he said quietly. "But actually I hurt myself, that time when I obeyed Harris. Everything else has come as a consequence of that bleeding mistake. My bleeding mistake."

After a pause he added firmly, "Look, as a military man no one better than I can understand that you had your duty to carry out. You were in command in a difficult situation. You did what you had to do."

"That's what I've kept repeatin' to myself all the time. So why do I still feel so horrible inside?" Trip asked.

They fell silent, neither seeming to be able to find an answer.

"Because you care about our friendship, as do I," Malcolm finally said, thinking aloud. He took a deep breath. "So how about trying to put all this past us?"

"There is nothin' I want more right now," Trip replied with feeling.

Malcolm locked eyes with him. "Then it's a deal," he said with conviction, and Trip felt his own tension finally ease.

Silence fell between them again, but it was much more companionable.

"I'm sorry about Brown," Trip said after a while, regretting it immediately when he saw Malcolm's expression. "Ah, Malcolm, don't torture yourself over it," he added soothingly. "It wasn't your fault. You're not responsible for a person's choices. It doesn't reflect on your command style, I know your men have great respect for you."

"Damn!" Malcolm cursed softly. "He wasn't like that. I know it. He's just another victim of that blasted mission in the Expanse, of all the evil we had to… to breathe," he murmured.

Trip had never thought about the Expanse in those terms, but he had to agree that it was an interesting way of seeing it. "Yeah," he replied. "It could be. Evil has a way of engulfing you, not everyone is strong enough to fight back."

They sat in silence for another while. Finally Malcolm yawned, and Trip pushed himself up from the chair suggesting, "Perhaps we oughtta try and get some rest."

As they walked to the door the engineer commented, "I'll sure be glad when I'm relieved of command and can go back to bein' just Chief Engineer."

"It won't be long, I understand," Malcolm replied. "T'Pol apparently is getting better fast." He sighed and added numbly, "Hopefully Captain Archer will also come out of his coma."

"Any time now, says the Doc," Trip reassured his friend.

The lieutenant triggered the door open. "Even though I was at the receiving end of your stick a couple of times, I want you to know that I think you were a fine Acting Captain, Trip." He raised his eyebrows. "Captain Archer would have probably thrown me in the brig right away," he said jokingly. "He will be proud of you."

"Thanks." Trip grabbed Malcolm strongly by the arm, immediately releasing the grip when he saw him groan in pain and lean against the bulkhead.

"That's the second time you've done that to me, Commander," he grunted.

"Damn, I'm sorry," Trip murmured regretfully.

Malcolm gave him a pale smirk. "Yes, you said that the first time too."

"I thought you said your arm was fine," Trip complained with an annoyed frown.

Malcolm rolled his eyes and gave him a playful shove. "Get out of here now, before you find something else you need to apologise for."

"Night, Lieutenant," Trip said with a grin, starting to walk away.

"Night, Commander," Malcolm replied imitating him. "Even though it's almost time for breakfast," he grumbled to himself, commanding the door closed.


"May I intrude, Ensign?" Hoshi heard a clipped voice ask as she was looking out of the porthole in the observation lounge. She was off duty for the day and in her still slightly agitated state of mind found her quarters a bit claustrophobic.

"Of course, Lieutenant," Hoshi replied, turning to Malcolm.

The observation lounge was a favourite spot with the crew, but at the moment only a couple of people were there, and Hoshi had found a quiet spot at a table from which she could look at the stars streaking past.

After sharing the evidence against Asek with Prime Minister Teron and getting the Chief Advisor arrested they had finally broken orbit and had set a course to rendezvous with Columbia, which would bring Ensign Brown back to Earth.

Malcolm slid into the seat opposite to her. He looked out of the porthole for a moment, then turned to face her and said with a smirk, "Usually it's the knight who saves the damsel's honour, but this time it was the other way round. As Shran would say, I am in your debt, Ensign."

A smile tugged at the corners of Hoshi's mouth as she asked, "Couldn't we be just Hoshi and Malcolm for a few minutes? I'm off duty, after all."

"Of course," Malcolm replied self-consciously. "Old habits are hard to abandon. I'm sorry." He looked at the streaking stars again, seemingly needing to collect his thoughts.

"A simple 'thank you' is by no means enough for what you did, Hoshi, but I just… I can't seem to find better words to express my gratitude right now," he said gravely, turning back to her.

"Nothing wrong with a simple 'thank you', when it comes from the heart, Malcolm," Hoshi replied softly. "I'm glad I could be of help."

"Of help?" Malcolm raised his eyebrows in an appalled expression. "You solved the bloody case single-handed, Hoshi," he almost cried out. "How on earth did you crack their encryption?" he asked in awe. "I read those messages too and saw nothing strange in them."

"Where there's a will there's a way," Hoshi replied with a chuckle.

Turning serious she added, "I wasn't ready to believe you a traitor, Malcolm. When Brown left me another message for that Ensign Ashcroft so soon after he'd sent his last one… well, I just knew something was fishy."

She frowned as her mind went back to the moment she had seen the truth.

"I kept reading it over and over, all the time thinking 'there is no way that Lieutenant Malcolm Reed…' -- and then suddenly it was there under my eyes: Reed, Re-ed, Re that editor; and I wondered if it could be a coincidence. I checked the rest of the sentence, picking the beginning of every second word: of art volumes, remember the store near Edward? Ar-re-st-ed; 'Reed arrested'. I went back to the other messages and sure enough, with a bit of work, in the middle of what looked like ordinary chat, I found our evidence. The name of the contact, where he'd be; and then, in Brown's first reply, confirmation of 'mission accomplished'."

Malcolm shook his head. "It's hard to believe Starfleet has been infiltrated by xenophobes," he murmured. "I wonder how many more there are, beside Ashcroft and Brown. Some big-shot for sure, big enough to make secret contact with Asek and relay the information to Ashcroft, who in turn passed it to Brown," he reasoned. "And I wonder what Harris has got to do with all of this."

"Maybe one day we'll know," Hoshi said.

Malcolm reached out tentatively to cover one of her hands with his own. "I always thought you were an invaluable member of this crew, Hoshi. Even at the beginning of our mission, when perhaps you yourself doubted that you'd made the right decision in joining Starfleet," he said softly.

Hoshi's felt a blush creep up her cheeks and cleared her throat to counter it. "Well, it seems a good thing that I stuck around," she joked.

"Thank you for believing in me," Malcolm said with feeling. "It means a lot."

Unease suddenly crept into Reed's gaze and he quickly lowered it. "About what happened in the gym," he said tensing up. "There was nothing else I could do, Hoshi. It was risky, I know. Shooting with my left hand made it even more risky. But I knew Müller was there to back me up, ready to spring into action. I didn't dare wait any longer, Brown was not himself, any time he might have…" He looked up. "I am so relieved you were not injured," he murmured.

The door of the lounge swished open and Trip marched in.

"Malcolm, Hoshi," the engineer called in an ebullient voice. Noticing Malcolm's hand quickly release Hoshi's he faltered, "Uh, am I interrupting somethin'?"

The Lieutenant crossed his arms in a defensive gesture. "What is it, Trip?" he enquired matter-of-factly. "You sound as if your beloved engine is about to blow up."

Trip glared at him, deciding he'd have to tease his friend for looking as if he was proposing to the lovely linguist.

"I just came to give you the latest piece of good news: the Capt'n has decided to rejoin us," he announced solemnly. He was rewarded with sighs of relief and two very happy-looking faces.

"Come on," Trip added, smacking Malcolm on his shoulder – his left one. "Let's go celebrate. God knows we've lots to celebrate. 'Nough with this cooin', you two."

Trip reasoned that Malcolm's look of embarrassment was worth the retaliation he'd probably get from him. Hoshi was biting her upper lip, but the corners of her mouth were curved upwards, which was a good sign – of what exactly he'd have to find out.

Epilogue

A week had passed and life aboard the Enterprise was almost back to normal. T'Pol had been released from sickbay and was supposed to be able to go back to light duties soon. Captain Archer was chomping at the bit, impatiently waiting to be released to his quarters.

Sickbay was quiet and neat as Trip entered it. Suddenly he had a flashback of what it had looked like a little more than a week before, and a shiver ran down his spine. He hoped he wouldn't have to face any more crises like the past one.

"So, how's he today, Doc?" the engineer asked Phlox, who had turned to him at the sound of the doors opening.

"I'm as good as new," a voice said, floating out from behind a privacy curtain.

Phlox shrugged his shoulders and pulled the corners of his mouth dangerously close to his ears, silently moving his hands in a gesture that indicated that Tucker could go and visit his patient.

"Good to hear that, Capt'n," Trip said, pulling the curtain aside and peeking in.

"Thank you, Commander," Archer said cheerfully.

"Whatcha readin'?" Trip asked, noticing a padd in the Captain's hands. "Hope it's not somethin' Malcolm suggested."

Archer chuckled. "No, no monograph on Admiral Nelson."

Turning serious he said, "I've been reading the reports, and I'm proud of you, Trip. You did very well under the circumstances. I wouldn't have handled the situation any better."

"Well, I'm not so sure of that, but thanks Capt'n," Trip replied with a lopsided smirk.

"How's T'Pol?" Archer asked after a moment.

"A lot better. And meditatin' again," Trip replied with a meaningful look.

Archer frowned. "How's Malcolm doing?"

Trip rolled his eyes. "Fine. How else? You know him."

"How is he really doing, do you know?" Archer insisted.

Trip shrugged. "Ah, he'll be ok. He's got a lot to brood on, might want to be easy on him for a while, but he's tough."

"And you? How are you doing?" the Captain asked with concern.

"I'm even tougher," Trip joked.

"How's Hoshi?" Archer enquired after another moment. "She must be pretty shaken after what she went through," he murmured to himself.

Trip shot his Captain a funny look.

"Doc, he's fine," he shouted out to Phlox. "He's back to worryin' about all his crew, you can definitely release him from sickbay."

Phlox suddenly appeared beside him. "That's not a very scientific method for gauging the Captain's health, Commander," he said with a chuckle as he monitored his patient. "Hmm." He checked his readings. "Provided he promises not to do any work," he gave Archer a stern warning look, "I believe he can be allowed to rest in his own quarters."

"I promise," Archer hastened to say. "Besides, who wants to go back to work when I have such a fine replacement?" he teased.

Trip scowled. "Uh-oh, Capt'n. You rest and get well soon, 'cause I've neglected my engine long enough."

"Tired of carrying the burdens of command, Commander?" Archer asked.

"Ah, it's just that that chair of yours on the bridge is a hell of a lot more uncomfortable than I thought."

Archer grinned. "You're the one who adjusted it," he said, choosing to ignore the metaphorical meaning of Trip's words.

"Yeah," Trip replied. "But if I recall I made it to fit your -- well, you know what, Sir."

Archer's laugh turned into a grimace and he held his side. "Ouch, stop that, Trip," he complained. "If I bust my stitches you'll have to sit in it for a lot longer."

THE END