I've truly appreciated your comments to this story. Thank you all, especially those of you who have taken the time to review every chapter. Your feedback keeps me wanting to write more stories. Hope you'll find small Malcolm's most precious possession believable, hehe ;-)
It had been two days since Malcolm had been released to his quarters and allowed to go back on light duties, and he still had difficulty sleeping the entire night through. Maybe if he were finally granted to work a full day and get properly tired things would go back to normal, he mulled as he sat up in bed to check the time: two-fifteen in the morning.
Rubbing his eyes, he let out a resigned sigh; then dropped back flat again. He wondered if Trip was going through the same. He hadn't seen much of the Engineer lately; Trip had been back on full duty and quite busy, and the few times they had crossed paths it had been on the job, with no chance to speak freely.
Yes, he would have to go to Phlox and extort the permission to work full time. That would definitely make him feel better. Help him forget. Perhaps the crew would then stop treating him as if he was brittle. Not that he hadn't been touched by the warmth everybody had showed him in this circumstance: the Captain, Hoshi, Travis, the people of his department - yes, even Phlox. They had made him feel part of this large family which, he supposed, they really were. But now it was high time to be in command of his life again.
Malcolm tossed and turned in bed for a few minutes; then with a grunt he threw the blanket aside and got up. No use wasting time. He'd grab a cup of something and check reports, or carry out some more EM field research. Not even Phlox could stop him from working in his quarters.
When he entered the mess hall he was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn't notice the other person there until he turned from the drink dispenser, cup in hand, and raised his eyes. The lights were dim, but there was no mistaking who the shape in the semi-darkness was.
"Hi," Trip drawled, sprawled on a chair at the table near the porthole. A cup stood in front of him, but looked forgotten.
Malcolm raised his eyebrows. "Well," he said with a hint of irony. "Fancy bumping into you here at this time."
As he walked up to him and sat down, he took in Trip's dishevelled state. Not that at two-thirty a.m. an officer could be expected to be at his best; but there was something about his friend that strangely reminded him of his own reflection, when he had washed his face a few minutes ago and glanced at the mirror.
"How have ya been doin'?"
The accent might be thick but this wasn't a perfunctory question. The way Trip was looking at him, his blue eyes sharp enough to pierce him, told Malcolm this was a serious enquiry.
Malcolm brought the cup to his lips and took a sip to buy time, gazing at his friend over the rim. How had he been doing? Good question. Hell, wouldn't Trip know? Putting the cup down, Malcolm resisted the temptation to give his standard reply.
"Same as you, if this chance encounter is anything to go by," he said returning Trip's intense gaze.
Trip gave a lopsided smirk. "Nightmares?"
"Not specifically." Malcolm leaned back. "It's more like I can't relax properly. I should, because I'm not physically tired." He gave a sarcastic snort. "That, actually, might be the problem. Perhaps a double shift would do me good. I've had more rest than I can stand."
Trip chuckled softly. But Malcolm thought he still looked off-colour. "Is that why you're here in the middle of the night?" he enquired in turn. "Nightmares?"
Trip's eyes shifted away from him. "Nah, I'm fine," he said with a shrug. "Came for a cup of milk."
Malcolm couldn't believe this. Was Trip trying to play his own game? Tilting his head and narrowing his gaze dangerously, he said in a warning voice, "Only I, on this ship, am allowed to say I'm fine when I'm not, Commander."
Trip rolled his eyes. "I'm not havin' nightmares," he said, stressing the word. "Just… havin' a hard time fallin' asleep."
"What's on your mind?"
"I… keep thinkin' about those last moments on the planet," Trip eventually admitted, with a grimace.
Yes, Malcolm could very well imagine what a hard and lonely time that must have been. After regaining consciousness he had often thought about it and felt grateful that the roles hadn't been reversed.
"I'm sorry I wasn't in a condition to keep you company," he said truthfully, adding with a half grin, "At least I wasn't an annoying arse like that other time."
Trip shot him a very serious look. "You were in pain, and mutterin' things, and there was nothin' I could do to help you," he said tautly. "And I actually wished I could shut you up, 'cause it broke my heart to hear you like that, but to be honest especially because I knew that's how I'd end up too."
Malcolm shook his head. "That was only human and is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact I should thank you for what you did for me on that planet. For taking care of me till the end."
"Taking care of you?" Trip repeated with a sarcastic huff. "I didn't even recognise how dangerous it would be for you to be out in the open. I was in charge of the mission. You could have…" He passed a hand over his eyes.
"But I didn't," Malcolm said firmly. "And there is no way you'd have been responsible even if I had. Really, Trip, it would be ridiculous to think otherwise. Take it from someone who knows all about feeling responsible."
There was a long silence.
"You and I always seem to make it somehow, always get another chance," Trip finally commented. Something in his voice and in the way he looked at him put Malcolm on the alert.
"I must say, we're two lucky blokes," he cautiously agreed, wondering what the man was getting at.
Trip lowered his gaze a moment, before lifting it again. "This is probably none of my business, Malcolm, but… I think it's time you thought about bridgin' that gap you were tellin' me about," he said quietly.
Malcolm's muscles tensed automatically. Breaking eye contact, he grabbed his tea, wrapping his hands around the cup. Yes, it was time. It had been time for a long time, but that bloody wall between him and his father was so difficult to pull down.
"When you were out of it, in the pod," Trip continued, "I… overheard a few things you'd have probably wanted to keep to yourself," he said apologetically.
Malcolm tightened his mouth, feeling very vulnerable. If he were to allow anyone into his confidence it would be Trip; yet he'd rather be the one deciding what to reveal about himself and what not.
"Not your fault," he said, his voice dropping low.
"It was only a few broken sentences," Trip added, sounding ill-at-ease himself. "And I had my own troubles to contend with, so it's not as if I was payin' much attention… Still, I couldn't help hearin' them and understandin' who they were meant for."
Malcolm swallowed. He might as well explain a few things at this point. "There is a lot of resentment between my father and I," he said, forcing himself to keep his voice level. "I suppose in the state I was it just spilt out. It doesn't mean I don't… respect the man." Love, he'd wanted to say - because he did love his father - but he hadn't been able to say the word out loud. Another legacy of his rigid upbringing. Clenching his jaw, he murmured, "I'm sorry you were exposed to my bitterness. Not something I am proud of."
"Bitterness?" Trip's brow creased a little while his mouth curved up in an expression of gentle amusement. He shook his head. "There was no bitterness in your words, Malcolm. Quite the opposite."
That was the last thing Malcolm had expected. He stared at Trip speechlessly. It looked like his friend knew something about him that even he himself didn't.
"That's what I'm tryin' to say," Trip went on, "I think you're ready to bridge that gap: dress rehearsal went without problems."
A lump formed at the base of Malcolm's throat. Trip, being his usual perspicacious self, saw it and gave him one of his heart-warming smiles, which, invariably, had the power of defusing any difficult situation.
"I'll keep that in mind," Malcolm finally said.
The awkward moment was broken by the sound of the mess hall doors opening, and they both turned to see Archer trudge in, hardly the picture of Earth's first Warp-Five Vessel's Captain. As soon as he spotted them, he stopped in his tracks. "Can't a man have a troubled night in peace?" he asked with a weary sigh. "What is this, Nightmares Anonymous?"
"Welcome to the club, Capt'n," Trip chuckled.
"I thought you weren't having any nightmares, Commander," Malcolm commented in a straight face. "Just a hard time falling asleep."
Trip glared at the Lieutenant. "I'm not. 'Twas a figure of speech, Malcolm."
Archer rolled his eyes and stumbled on to the drink dispenser. "What are you gentlemen drinking?"
Archer's hand hovered over the machine's buttons for a moment. Then, muttering something under his breath, he let it fall and disappeared into his private mess, reappearing a moment later with a bottle and three glasses.
"Ya know, Capt'n," Trip drawled after Archer had settled at their table and poured them the Scotch. "Malcolm and I weren't overly worried on that planet. We knew we could count on you to come and save our hides."
"Well, you were wrong," Archer said darkly. He downed his drink in one shot.
Trip exchanged a frown with Malcolm. "Ah – I didn't mean to say…" he stuttered. "It doesn't matter that it was T'Pol who got us back in the end..."
"You tried your best, Sir, and even risked your life," Malcolm finished Trip's thought.
Archer shot the two officers a quick glance. "Yes, yes," he commented irritably, leaning back. "Spare me the speech on how illogical it is to feel guilty. I went through it already."
Suddenly Malcolm couldn't suppress a soft chuckle. Two pairs of questioning eyes immediately converged on him, surprise clear in them.
"Glad you're finding a funny side to all this, Malcolm," Archer said, raising his eyebrows and refilling their glasses.
Malcolm cleared his throat, quickly pulling his face straight again. "I'm sorry, Captain. It just occurred to me that, strangely enough, for once I seem to be the only one without pangs of conscience."
"Well," Trip exclaimed with a wide grin. "That's worth a toast." He raised his glass. "To the one and only mission gone totally wrong that hasn't left Lieutenant Malcolm Reed feelin' guilty."
"Almost totally wrong," Malcolm corrected.
Archer laughed softly, shaking his head and clinking his glass to the others.
"And now you two go and get some sleep," he said after a few more moments, sounding very much like a father sending his children to bed. "I need clear-headed officers on the bridge, not zombies."
"Speaking of which, Sir," Malcolm ventured, getting up, "If I may… I'd sleep much better if I were allowed to go back on full duty."
Archer gave him a long, assessing look. "All right, Malcolm. I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you, Captain."
"Don't forget to get some shuteye too, Capt'n," Trip called, as they exited the mess hall. "This crew needs you alert."
Malcolm winced at his friend's outspokenness, but all it earned him was an amused grin.
They walked along the corridor on B deck without hurry, both undoubtedly knowing that it would be difficult to obey the Captain's order: it was that silly time, not night, not morning, when it is too late to go to sleep and too early to get up.
Malcolm glanced at his friend: he seemed relaxed. Good old Trip, he thought, blessed with such an easy character. He should try and learn from him, just a little. Yes, perhaps it was really time he reached out to his father. In these past two years he'd been close to death a few too many times to shove the issue back into that corner of his mind where things were left in standby forever.
They came to a halt in front of his quarters. "Here I am, then," Malcolm said, pressing the release button. The door opened and he entered, turning to see his friend off. "Good night, Trip. See you…" He glanced at his watch and shrugged. "In just over three hours."
"Wait a sec, Malcolm." Trip put a hand out and stopped the door from closing again. "You've got to tell me one thing."
"What would that be?"
"What your most precious possession was, when you were a kid." Trip straightened to his full height probably to look imposing. "Come on, you owe me that."
"I do?" Malcolm let his eyebrows go drastically up.
"Well, ok, maybe you don't but… please?"
Crossing his arms over his chest, Malcolm tilted his head, considering the request. "This would be a major disclosure, Commander. I would expect something in return."
Trip narrowed his eyes and they held each other's gaze in a silent challenge.
"Alright," Trip finally yielded. "Shoot."
"I beg your pardon?" Malcolm's eyebrows shot up again at the choice of word.
"More power to the weapons array?" Trip suggested, disregarding the look on Malcolm's face. "A couple of engineers at your disposal for a whole day to sort out all the glitches in the Armoury...? Help in upgrading the cannons...?"
Putting on his Lieutenant Reed steely gaze, Malcolm said deadpan, "Movie night: I get to choose for two months."
Trip smirked unhappily.
"Good night, Commander." With an innocent smile, Malcolm pushed Trip's hand off the door.
"Wait a minute! Did I say no?" Sticking his tongue over his lower teeth, Trip shot him a frustrated look. "One month. Four movies."
"One and a half: six movies and not one less."
Trip sighed. "Alright."
Malcolm waited a beat, for effect; then said flatly, "A spider."
Malcolm nodded solemnly. "Big, black and hairy."
Trip's face scrunched up in a grimace of disgust. "A big, black and hairy spider was your most precious possession when you were a kid?"
"Very precious. Used it to scare off a lot of obnoxious people."
"Gawd, Malcolm!" Trip murmured, shaking his head. "And your mother let you keep a spider in the house?"
"She wasn't too fond of him, but so long as I didn't leave him around, I could keep him."
"What?" Trip made a face, like saying 'you must be kidding me'. "Siegfried?"
"Siegfried the spider, sounded good," Malcolm said with a shrug.
It was impossible by now to keep the corners of his mouth from turning up, so Malcolm tried to hide his amusement behind a smile of courtesy. "Well, perhaps we really ought to try and catch a little sleep now, don't you think?"
"Huh?" Trip looked like he was on another planet – well, starship. "Oh, yeah, sure," he said absently. With a last wary glance he muttered 'See ya' and turned to walk to his quarters. Suddenly he stopped. "You don't have anythin' like that on board, do you?" He enquired hesitantly.
"Oh, no, not to worry. Siegfried was given away eventually, and never replaced."
"Given away?" Trip shook his head as if to clear it. "Forget it. I don't wanna know," he mumbled, trudging on.
Malcolm let the door swish closed and leaned with his back on it, bursting into a liberating laugh. He wondered what Trip thought his most precious possession had been, probably something important like an old coin, or a memento from past Reed sailormen. Finally, he pushed off and went to his computer. His hands hesitated over the commands for a moment - perhaps he should leave his friend wondering what kind of a weird child he had been. Then, shaking his head, he pressed a few buttons and prepared to write a message. Ah -- he was getting too soft.
When Trip entered his own quarters he was contemplating the disturbing mental image of a small Malcolm petting a horrible, black spider. Trip wasn't too fond of insects and crawling creatures at large, but big spiders definitely gave him the creeps. Great, he mulled as he stumbled to the bathroom, now he might really get nightmares.
He washed his face and drank a glass of water. As he re-emerged into his room a few minutes later, he noticed he had received a message.
He checked the sender: Malcolm. What now? he silently ranted. Sitting down at his desk, he imputed a few commands and stared at the computer screen. A funny-looking spidery character looked back at him. Smirking, he shifted his eyes to the message below.
"Spiderman is quite high on my list. Also Henry the V and Braveheart, although – knowing how much you enjoy vintage titles – I wouldn't dismiss Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai.
P.S.: This will no doubt disappoint you, but I wasn't quite as weird as you must be thinking: Siegfried was rubber.
Malcolm relaxed back into his chair and smiled smugly to himself, picturing Trip's expression when he read his message. Who would have said that old Siegfried still had some use, after all this time…
Malcolm's smile fell. Yes, perhaps it was time.
With a deep breath he sat up again. Hands poised over the keyboard, he gathered his thoughts and courage; then began to type.