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§ Epilogue §

"Wait up, Malcolm," Trip called, seeing his friend about to disappear behind a bend in the corridor.

This had been Malcolm's first day back on full duty, and Trip had meant to pass by his quarters to check on him, so he was glad to have bumped into the man.

Malcolm glanced over his shoulder and turned, stopping to allow Trip to catch up with him.

"You had supper this late?" Trip asked frowningly, noticing that Malcolm could only have come from the mess hall. "You're not supposed to work overtime on your first day back, Lieutenant," he rebuked him.

"Supper?" Malcolm's brow creased. He looked back towards the mess hall doors. "No... I had my meal with Hoshi and Travis a little earlier on."

Trip grinned. "Ah. Good-night snack, then."

"Was there something you needed, Commander?"

Trip was sure that if it weren't for his recent injuries, Malcolm would have crossed his arms over his chest. As it was, the man only tilted his head and switched on the impenetrable gaze.

Trip rolled his eyes. "Not specifically, Lieutenant."

They resumed walking.

"Happy to be back on duty?"

"Bloody hell. I'll take realigning the targeting sensors over visiting sickbay twice a day any time," Malcolm replied with conviction.

"How's your arm?"

Malcolm rubbed it unconsciously with his right hand. "I wouldn't want to take on a Klingon in hand to hand just yet, but it's all right. It won't take me too long to get the muscles back to where they were before this accident."

Trip smiled. "Hmm, sounds like it's the right time for me to spar with ya, might even get to floor you for once."

"Wouldn't count on it," Malcolm replied with a snort.

"Is that a challenge?"

A grimace immediately appeared on Malcolm's face. "I wish. But if Phlox finds me combat training I hate to think what he would do to me. My broken bones may be back in one piece, but I'm supposed to go easy on them for a while."

"Well, it only makes sense," Trip said soothingly. Seeing his friend take what he thought was the wrong turn, he stopped in his tracks. "Aren't you goin' to your quarters?"

Malcolm stopped too, and turned to flash him a tight smile. "Ah… no. Actually I was on my way to the Captain's."

Trust Lieutenant Reed to jump right back into the thick of it, Trip mulled, studying the man with a frown. Malcolm's shift should have ended a couple of hours before and here he was, still thinking about work.

"Catch you later, perhaps?" Malcolm asked a little awkwardly.

Just then a familiar trotting sound reached their ears, and they both turned to see Porthos appear. The beagle ran up to them with a couple of greeting barks.

"Shut up, Porthos," a disembodied voice said, "You know you're not supposed to make noise in the corridors. A moment later, Archer came into view.

"Trip, Malcolm... So that's what Porthos got excited about." His green eyes twinkled with mirth. "Meeting his partners in crime..."

"Now, that's not fair," Trip complained, as he watched in amusement the Lieutenant stand straighter than a dry spaghetti and greet their Captain with a polite 'Good evening, Sir'.

Crouching down, Trip tried to play with Porthos, but the beagle ignored him and instead went to Malcolm, climbing with his front paws up on his legs. Malcolm lowered his eyes uneasily; then bent a little stiffly and patted him on his head.

Archer traded a grin with Trip. "I think you've made yourself a new friend, Lieutenant," he said with a chuckle.

"Captain…" Reed straightened up again and cleared his throat. He licked his lips. "I was coming to see you, Sir."

Archer's eyes turned suddenly serious. "Is there a problem?"

Trip winced. "Aren't ya getting' a bit paranoid, Capt'n?" That earned him a withering look, but his attention was drawn back to Malcolm who, as always, in their C.O.'s presence had turned from a staunch warrior into something of a reserved and discreet man.

"No problem, Sir," the Lieutenant hurried to reassure his Captain. He swallowed. "I… just wanted to thank you. I really should have done so before." He lowered his eyes and darted Porthos, who was still half-way up his legs, what Trip thought was a conniving look.

"What for, Lieutenant?" Archer enquired, looking a little puzzled.

Raising his gaze from the beagle, Malcolm quietly replied, "For sending Porthos down, Sir. It was… generous of you. He could have been hurt."

Trip smiled inwardly. This man kept surprising him. Malcolm might feel uncomfortable showing his feelings, but that wouldn't stop him from getting past his reticence and letting them get a glimpse of his more emotional self, when he felt it was the proper thing to do.

"A member of my crew was already hurt, Malcolm," Archer said, frowning, "I was only glad there was a way I could help, even though not in person."

Malcolm pursed his lips, his blue-grey eyes softening. "Porthos conducted himself admirably, Captain," he said a little hoarsely. "And I was grateful for what he did down there for me."

Trip knew there was an admission hidden in between the words which had been difficult for the Lieutenant. And he had no doubt Archer did too.

"Did you hear that, boy?" the Captain called to his dog, who only spared him a look. "Just don't you think I'll promote you to rescue dog, now," he added, chuckling. "Will you leave Malcolm alone?"

Malcolm bent down and gave the dog another couple of affectionate pats. "I owe you, Porthos."

"You could always take him for a jog every morning, Lieutenant," Archer quipped. "As a matter of fact," he amended, "I don't know how much he'd appreciate that. But I certainly would."

"Actually, Captain…" Malcolm rubbed his chin. "I had something else in mind." He unzipped a pocket and produced a small, capped container. "Permission to break the rules, Sir?" He raised his eyebrows expectantly.

Trip suddenly realised why Porthos was giving Malcolm his undivided attention. And what the man had been doing in the mess hall at this hour.

"That's not C-H-E-E-S-E, it is?" Archer asked sternly.

Reed averted his eyes briefly. "Not as good as a hypospray of painkiller, but I thought Porthos would like it better."

"If he gets the you-know-whats you're going to take him to Phlox, Lieutenant," Archer warned playfully. Shifting his gaze from Porthos to Reed, he added, "Permission granted."

Malcolm uncapped the container and crouched to give the beagle his reward.

"I was headed for the mess hall," Archer said, watching Porthos make a quick meal of his treat. "You gentlemen care to join me for a glass of something? I think I still have a bottle of Andorian ale somewhere."

Trip exchanged a look with Malcolm which, he belatedly realized, wasn't lost on their Captain.

"What's the matter?" Archer enquired. "I thought you liked it. You never returned that bottle I lent you a few months back."

"Ah… strong stuff, Capt'n," Trip said, scratching his head and wincing.

"You could always have some chamomile tea, Commander," Malcolm suggested in an innocent voice.

"Maybe we both should." Trip scowled at Malcolm for a moment before realising again that Archer was studying them both, looking from one to the other with a perplexed frown.

"Is there something I should know?" he asked.

Neither Trip nor Malcolm found their voices to reply.

"Alright. Forget I asked," Archer said, with a sigh. "Come on," he added, passing in between his officers, "If it isn't Andorian ale, we'll find something else."

Trip followed the Captain for a second with his gaze; then turned to Malcolm. Their eyes met.

"Shall we, Commander?"

Trip shrugged. "After you, Lieutenant."

As they walked along the corridor behind Archer, Trip silently shook his head. This must be the first time a member of Starfleet owed his life to a bottle of liquor.

"You do realise that you'd probably be dead by now if it weren't for Andorian ale and us getting smashed that night, right?" he murmured to his friend.

Malcolm cast him a sideways glance. "I doubt it," he said, keeping his own voice low. After a couple of steps he added, "But all the same: did we finish that bottle?

"I'm afraid so," Trip whispered back. "Why?"

"Might be wise to get smashed again... you never know..."

Trip stifled a snort.

There was a groan, and they both turned towards their C.O, who was still walking away. "Come on, Porthos," Archer said. "We really don't want to know."

THE END