A/N: 490 Earth days have passed since chapter 1 (since TnT are no longer on Ekos, I've abandoned that time-keeping method). It's September, 2153.
Frustrated didn't begin to describe her mood.
Erika stood before the main viewscreen of the command center, her expression tight as she fought to control her temper over Jon's latest declaration. Less than a week had passed since the incident with the alien, Tarquin, and she still hadn't quite shaken her sense of unease over how the telepath had been handled. Yes, Tarquin's demand that they leave Hoshi behind permanently had been beyond the pale, but Lieutenant Commander Reed's action – to shoot the alien before he even realized he was in danger – had been unnecessarily violent in Erika's opinion. Reed hadn't hesitated in the slightest when he drew and fired, and it was only after the fact, when Tarquin crumpled to the ground in an unmoving heap, that the tactical officer even checked his phase pistol to verify that it was set to stun.
So far, Erika hadn't reported the incident to Jonathan – the only Enterprise crewmembers aware of Reed's action had been herself and Sato, and Hoshi was certainly looking at Reed differently as a result – but that was mostly because she wasn't entirely sure whether the tactical officer had been wrong to do what he did. Tarquin had essentially tried to blackmail them into leaving Hoshi behind and God only knew what sort of horrors the alien had in mind for her if they had. What would it have said about them that they were willing to sell one of their own into what amounted to slavery for a sliver of possible intelligence that might or might not even pan out?
He who fights with monsters, the old saying went, might take care lest he thereby become a monster. Could they have even considered such a course of action without it seriously impairing the moral certitude of their current path? Erika didn't know … and in the silence of her cabin late at night, she had to admit that Reed had only done what she herself had wanted to do when Tarquin made his demand.
Still, she made a silent note to keep a closer eye on Reed in the future.
Armed with the information they'd obtained from ransacking Tarquin's home while he was unconscious, Enterprise had departed the system and was now only hours away from the coordinates of a Xindi colony that was already turning out to be nothing like they had expected. While there were curious energy readings emanating from the planet in question, there weren't any indications of defenses otherwise.
Far, far worse, though, was Jonathan's declared intention on being part of the team they were planning on sending to investigate.
"Commander, Major," she said softly, her eyes locked on Jon, "clear the room, please." The captain frowned briefly at her words, but Reed and Hayes sprang to obey immediately. Soval gave her a single bland look, complete with raised eyebrow, before turning and striding away as if the decision to leave had been his idea alone. Within seconds, Erika was alone with her former lover. "Are you insane?" she asked sharply. "This is a recon mission, not something the captain needs to oversee personally!"
"My decision is final," Jon said darkly. He continued to stare at the viewscreen and Erika couldn't help but to notice just how exhausted he appeared. For a long moment, she hesitated – over the last month or so, she had notice how he was distancing himself once more, although this time it was different somehow; there was less guilt and more fear. These days, he was jumping at shadows and looking at people as if he wasn't sure if they were really themselves. Erratic was the word Erika herself would use when describing him.
Dangerous was another.
"This mission is too damned important to be screwed up by you trying to prove something," she finally declared. Exactly as she expected, Jon's head snapped around and his eyes narrowed, but she continued. "I don't know what's got into you lately," she said, "but we don't have the time to rush off on a mission to prove to everyone how brave you are!"
"I'm fine," Archer said through clenched teeth.
"You're not fine," Erika retorted instantly. "You're not sleeping or eating. You're on duty twenty-four, seven and if I need to find you, ninety percent of the time, regardless of what time it is, you're in here." At his frown, she drew in a deep breath and locked eyes with him. "If you keep this up," she said softly, "the first officer is going to have to officially note your behavior." Jon recoiled at the implicit threat – identifying his out-of-character actions in the ship's log would be the first step in removing him from command, no matter how repugnant the thought was to her. He was silent for a long time, but when he finally responded, it surprised her.
Because he sighed.
Archer's entire body language transformed, as if he was finally allowing himself to take note of the exhaustion riding his shoulders, and he lifted one of his hands to cover his face. With his other hand, he braced himself on the computer console and slumped forward slightly.
"That might be for the best," he murmured. "I'm not sleeping because I can't sleep." He shook his head and sighed again. "I've been seeing and hearing … things," he admitted softly.
"What sort of things?" Erika asked.
"Things that can't exist," Jon replied. "Dead people mostly. Trip, T'Pol, Cutler … a few others." Hernandez blinked.
"Have you spoken to Phlox?" she asked, even as she made a mental note to check with the doctor herself. The last thing they needed was a commanding officer on the verge of a mental breakdown. Even as the thought occurred to her, another came on its heels: this was the Delphic Expanse and they had seen all sorts of weird things in the last two months. This could be one of those anomalies like the one that made all of the clocks count backwards last week or the scare Crewman Burris had with the transporter the week before that…
"No," Archer said. "I've been ignoring them mostly." His lips tightened. "But seeing them, hearing them … well, they've made me … re-examine some of my previous decisions over the years."
"That's why I'm here, Jon," Erika said calmly. Inside, her heart was racing – how the hell did you ask someone if they were crazy? For that matter, what were you supposed to do? – although she did her best to keep it from showing on her face. "Talk to me, not to ghosts." A wry smile flickered across his face.
"It was easier with T'Pol," he admitted. "She and I weren't … we hadn't …" Erika smiled and dropped a hand on his shoulder.
"I know," she said. "But I'm here, whenever you need me." He nodded and they stared at one another for seconds too long. Suddenly desperate to get the conversation back on track, Erika reached for humor. "This would have been a lot easier if you brought Porthos along," she said with a grin. "At least then, you'd always have someone who could listen." To her surprise, Jon didn't smile or laugh or chuckle. Instead, he went completely still – she could feel his muscles tighten underneath her hand – and his expression turned blank. He gave her a look she couldn't begin to decipher before grunting softly.
"Well, isn't that interesting,"he murmured under his breath, his words clearly not intended for her ears. The steel in his voice made her drop her hand and look at him with wide eyes. In the span of a single second, the hesitant, self-doubting man was gone, only to be replaced by a grim, battle-hardened man she barely knew.
An angry man, she realized, though she didn't know why.
"Who are you recommending we send on this mission since I'm sidelined?" he asked flatly, his eyes once more riveted on the viewscreen. It took Erika a long heartbeat to catch up.
"Travis to fly the shuttlepod," she answered slowly, "Reed to command the ground team, and however many MACOs he thinks he needs."
"No," Jon said with a shake of his head. "That's too much force and they might decide to conduct a ground assault because an opportunity presents itself." He frowned. "And I'm not sure how wise it is to put Travis and Malcolm in the same room these days." He gave her a sidelong, questioning look.
"Sorry," Erika said in response to his unspoken question, "I don't know what's going on between them." She had a few theories, some that made more sense than others like the idea of a love triangle between the two bickering officers and the attractive MACO sleeping with one of them, but sadly, she had nothing concrete yet. Jon grunted but his eyes brightened.
"Use the Suliban pod instead," he decided. "Travis to pilot, plus two others to watch his back." He stared at the screen for a moment. "Hayes," he said. "Send Hayes plus one other." Erika nodded.
"What about Soval?" she asked.
"Good call," Jon said with a nod. "Check with him and let all of them know that this is arecon mission, not a ground assault."
"And you?" she asked as Archer turned away. "What are you going to be doing?" The smile he flashed was wolfish and dark.
"Looking into some things," he said calmly, even as his eyes glittered with hidden anger and confusion. "Tell Malcolm that I'd like to speak with him." Erika hesitated for a moment but finally gave Jon a nod.
"Aye, sir," she said. Erika slowly walked toward the door, pausing only briefly to give Jon another look. He was intent on the main viewer, although this time, he had brought up a deckplan of Enterprise and, if she wasn't mistaken, it looked like he was studying bio-signs. The expression on Archer's face was unyielding, resolute … frightening. She didn't know this man, didn't recognize the simmering fury that bubbled just below the surface, and she was suddenly very afraid that one day soon, she would look into his eyes and see a stranger.
It made her shiver.
But first, she had a job to do.
A/N: Yes, I suck. Motivation remains elusive. Work remains crazy.
Wish me luck...