A short story that almost wrote itself. A bit darker than usual, but there is light in the end.

Thank you to Roaring Mice, by great beta reader, and to all of you who will read and review.

Commander Tucker got out of his seat the moment the engine was being powered down, and opened the hatch with a jerking movement. He looked lost in his own world, and exited the shuttlepod without a thought for rank. Archer let him go; he supposed this was no time to be fussy over protocol. He watched him walk towards the decon chamber and turned to Reed, who was instead standing diligently near the hatch, waiting for his Captain to go out first.

Reed's stillness had been a stark contrast to Trip's fidgeting on their entire, silent way back to Enterprise. Malcolm's eyes were still on his own hands, as they had been for most of the flight. He was looking unblinkingly at the sticky brown substance on them, apparently unable to take his eyes away. His uniform was torn in spots and blotted with it, a large stain standing out in the front and covering most of the right side of it.

Archer studied the void expression on the man's pale face and almost reached out to touch his arm. "Are you all right, Lieutenant?" he asked softly.

"Fine, Sir," Reed replied in a rough baritone voice, raising eyes that told another story.

"Go ahead," Archer said. "In the decon chamber you'll be able to clean up a bit."

Reed pursed his lips and nodded. He took a step, swayed and collapsed to the floor.

Malcolm resurfaced from unconsciousness against his will. He was being pulled up from this comfortable darkness by a number of noises and blurred perceptions, and even if he'd had it in him to fight this unwanted return to cognizance there was nothing he could do. The fact was, he vaguely knew that when he finally broke to the surface conscious thought would not be kind to him.

Someone was near him; he felt a presence. So he warily opened his eyes. Trip. He was sitting on a chair beside his biobed, and their gazes locked. He looked tired and dishevelled, as if he'd spent some time there. And troubled. They just looked at each other for a long moment, neither wanting to break the silence, perhaps neither knowing exactly how.

"Why didn't you say you were injured?" Trip finally asked, quietly. His tone was level; not cold or confrontational, but devoid of emotion, as if all feelings had been sucked up from the man.

Malcolm felt his pulse accelerate. "I…" he faltered. His voice was feeble and his thoughts were still scrambled, but he remembered well what had happened. He swallowed hard. "I didn't feel it," he answered. Hell, what an idiotic thing to say.

A flicker of something broke Trip's impassiveness briefly. "You didn't feel a blade goin' in your side?" he asked. Disbelief, though restrained, was clear in his voice.

He'd felt it all right. Flashes of broken memories suddenly assaulted Malcolm's mind, and he shuddered and closed his eyes tightly against them.

In the crowded square, for whatever reason, that alien had been over Trip in an instant, blade raised and glinting in the planet's eerie light. Malcolm had seen it reflected in a shop window and turned to see his unaware friend about to be stabbed to certain death. There had been no time to grab a pistol; he had thrown himself with all his might against the attacker and engaged in a hand-to-hand fight that turned out to be the most vicious he had ever sustained. The man had been strong and driven by a fury that seemed as insatiable as it was unwarranted. As they tumbled, closely locked to each other, Malcolm had indeed felt the blade cut through him, but there had been no time to dwell upon it. And by the time it was all over… he'd been so numb with horror that he'd all but forgotten about his wound. All he could think of, as he had lain spent and breathing heavily on the ground, was that he had let the frenzy of that man infect him, had been caught in a whirl of ruthlessness, and that in the matter of minutes he'd killed a person, a perfect stranger, in a brutal manner, almost pleased when he had managed to turn the weapon against the assailant and driven the blade furiously into the alien's body. All he could see was Trip standing shell-shocked a few meters away, and the brownish blood on his own hands and uniform. He hadn't even realised there was some red mixed with the brown.

"I did feel it," Malcolm amended at length, opening his eyes again to find Trip's piercing gaze on him. "But then I… forgot about it." He frowned. "The adrenaline… It numbed me, I suppose." He swallowed again past a painful lump, and saw Trip's eyes track to his throat.

There was a long silence.

"How do you deal with it, Malcolm?" Trip stuttered in the end, throwing helpless hands up in the air. His usually clear blue eyes were dark with confusion.

Malcolm forced himself to hold his friend's gaze, even though he badly wanted to avert it. "It was…" He frowned, looking for the right word to describe what had taken place on that damn planet. In the end he gave up. "I'm sorry you were shocked," he murmured.

Shocking, maybe that was the word he had looked for. He blinked, surprised at the surge of emotion that unexpectedly rose within him and wanted a let-out. He knew, though, that he would not allow that. Reeds don't cry. By now the technique was well mastered.

"I'll manage," he said tautly, in answer to Trip's question.

Trip's brow creased, and he narrowed his eyes; then shook his head. "That's not what I meant. How do you deal with death; with being so close to it all the time?" he asked with a grimace. "How does one decide to get into your profession," he went on, "Knowing they'll have the power to…" He didn't finish his thought. Didn't really need to.

What kind of person are you? That was what Trip had really wanted to ask. Malcolm stirred, unable to keep still under his searching gaze. He shifted position, letting himself roll from his left side onto his back, and feeling for the first time something pull in his right side. Phlox must have him on a hefty dose of meds, for the pain was quite bearable, not much more than mild discomfort, really. Still, he almost winced, holding back at the last moment; as if by negating his wound he could cancel also what had caused it. As if by hiding his physical pain from Trip, the man would forget what he had seen.

He thought about his friend's questions. He wanted to give him truthful answers. "Death is an inevitable presence in our lives," he eventually said, his voice low but steady, as he focussed on the white ceiling above him. "From the moment we are born she is there, patiently waiting for us in the distance. From that first wailing we start walking towards her. And there is no telling when she'll decide to start walking too, to meet us midway. I'm not really any closer to death than anyone else."

He dared not turn to see Trip's reaction to his words. Trip, the inveterate optimist, the man with the unfailing smile on his lips – except when he, Malcolm, succeeded in wiping it off them – must be utterly dismayed at this philosophy. Silence stretched.

"As for having the power to kill…" Malcolm went on, trailing in confusion.

He had never wanted to dwell on the issue, pushing it to the back of his mind every time it had peeked into his thoughts. Why had he got into this profession, anyway? Family tradition, he supposed. Not only, though. The need to feel in control, to prove he wasn't weak. A latent aggressiveness too, if he was honest, fostered by the stifling upbringing he had received. But he had never thought of himself as a brute. And now? No, he wasn't like the man on that planet, he told himself. He had plunged the knife with vicious strength but… Hell, he had taken a life but only to save another one.

"I didn't get into this line of work to be a legalized killer, if that's what you're asking," he said, emotion creeping into his voice. "I like to think my job is more about saving lives than taking them."

He turned his head slightly, wanting to cast only a glance and read Trip's expression; but Trip caught his eyes and captured them, and he suddenly felt like a fish in the net, struggling to breathe. His friend looked much too upset.

"How many people have you killed?" Trip asked outright. His voice wasn't accusing; rather cold, but not accusing.

Why was he interested in knowing? Malcolm felt irritation stir deep within him. What could a number tell him? Certainly nothing of how he felt about it. Why, all of a sudden, this morbid curiosity, which didn't even suit the man? He didn't know how many people he had killed. Blessedly few, and he tried not to remember them. Although none in such a violent way, none in the heat of a hand-to-hand combat that had left him covered in blood.

"I'm no sodding cowboy. I don't keep count," he replied coldly. "And if it were even only one, it would be one too many," he added as rebelliously as his feeble condition allowed him. "I don't take pleasure in taking other people's lives, whatever you may think." He turned away, hurt. All the more so because he wasn't sure that last statement counted for today; he wasn't sure about the truth any more.

He heard Trip's breath catch, as if he had been startled out of a trance. And he just might have, for his next words were more like his usual self, warm and gentle. "Damn, I'm sorry, Malcolm," Trip murmured, laying a hand on his arm. "I wasn't implyin'… I mean, you saved my life down there. It's just that…" Trip didn't sound able to put his thoughts into words. "Would you look at me?" he suddenly asked, in fact almost begged.

Malcolm turned to haunted eyes, and Trip added softly, "It's that I'd never seen you the way you were down on that planet. It…"

"Horrified you?" Malcolm suggested tautly, putting the word into Trip's mouth.

There was an uncomfortable pause. "Yeah, it did," Trip admitted hesitantly.

Malcolm was grateful for the honesty. "It was horrible," he croaked. What else could he say? That thrusting that knife in had given him a sort of ferocious satisfaction? And had it, really? Or was it simply relief, for the alien's death meant his life? Damn, he was so confused!

He closed his eyes and the scene played out against the backdrop of his eyelids once again. His breathing quickened, and he brought a hand to his face, hiding behind it.

Trip squeezed his arm gently. "Tell me what happened," he said, deadpan.

Not 'would you like to talk about it' or 'why don't you try to explain what happened': 'tell me what happened', as if he didn't know. Not a gentle offer to listen, no: a sodding outright request to speak. Almost an order, in fact.

Malcolm felt like telling Trip that he wasn't up to it now, that he needed to rest. Where was Phlox with his strict sickbay rules, the one time he needed him?

The words tumbled out of his lips almost without him knowing. "I felt movement behind me, my sixth sense… I don't know… Saw the knife reflected in the window, coming down… You'd have been dead, that much I know… I dove… We fought." Malcolm broke off. Trip had been there, he had seen it all. That's not what he wanted to hear. He heaved a deep breath and searched deep inside him for answers, as his friend waited patiently.

"We are out here," he began again, softly, because opening his heart had never come easy to him, "In a fragile little vessel in the middle of the universe, light years away from Earth, eighty-three of us. I believe…" He paused. "I believe I may have become more… fierce in my determination to keep us all safe."

He removed his hand and watched Trip closely for any reaction, but all he could read in his friend's face was eagerness to understand.

"You know me," Malcolm continued, after a moment. "I don't get close to people easily, but now, with this crew…" He pursed his lips. "When I saw that blade plunge, my mind short circuited… it was so gratuitous… you had done nothing to provoke that alien."

Trip was still silent, waiting for more.

"The fight was vicious." Malcolm let out a mirthless huff. "Well, I don't need to tell you that. You saw it. He was damn strong, and when I felt the knife pierce my side I thought that was it - that I'd die on that planet, failing you and the others. But then something snapped in me. The sheer pointlessness of it all got me so angry…" He pursed his lips. "I found strength I didn't know I had. That man's cruelty contaminated me, and when I managed to turn the knife against him… I can't say I didn't feel … good about it." He closed his eyes. "I wasn't myself. I hope I wasn't myself," Malcolm finished in a near whisper.

He was overwhelmed by exhaustion. Darkness threatened to take over him but he didn't mind; in fact he felt like abandoning himself to it, to escape the real world for a while.

"You were desperate, driven by the need to protect me. I'm sorry it was to protect me that this happened," Trip said gently after a long pause.

Malcolm was already slipping away, but the notion that Trip thought any of this might be his fault appalled him; he couldn't let him think that he was responsible for what he, Malcolm, had done. He struggled to speak, and in the effort to fight back unconsciousness his breathing got laboured.

"Malcolm?" Trip called worriedly. Malcolm heard him get up from his chair, and managed to crack his eyes open. "Want me to get Phlox?" Trip asked.

Malcolm shook his head faintly. "You just happened to be the one," he croaked out. "I'd have done the same for the last crewman of this ship."

Trip squeezed his arm again and smiled. His lips turned up only slightly, but it was like a warm ray of sun breaking through the clouds, and Malcolm suddenly realised how Trip's uncharacteristic grimness had affected him. His conscience would still take a while to process what had happened, but Trip's smile was the beginning of an absolution.

"And there I thought I was special," Trip joked.

Malcolm lost his fight against trying to keep his eyes open but managed to breathe out, "You are… can't imagine baring my soul to T'Pol or the Captain… or the last crewman of this ship." He heard Trip chuckle.

Phlox finally did materialise, for Malcolm also heard his distinctive voice. By then, however, he was too far gone to distinguish words, sinking blessedly back into that darkness where memories, thankfully, can - albeit briefly - be lost.