My fic for Drown Malcolm Reed Month. :-) Hope you'll enjoy and review.
Grateful thanks to RoaringMice for beta reading.
The setting darkness was making the experience all the more unsettling. It veiled his enemy in just enough mystery to cause his mind to magnify its threat, because although Malcolm could not see the river, he could hear its thunderous progress down the valley, reflected and amplified by the sheer rock on the other bank.
He could hardly bring his hands to his ears to muffle the noise – not with Archer and Trip and T'Pol there to witness his unease – so the sound drilled his mind mercilessly as they walked along the path that ran half way up the bare incline which on this side of the watercourse formed its steep embankment.
Archer quickened his pace and came to walk, casual-seeming, right beside him at the lead of the away party. The Captain, of course, was aware of his 'little problem', and Malcolm had no difficulty seeing through him: the man had come for an unobtrusive check, to make sure he was all right. Malcolm shot him a glance, not certain if it contained more gratitude or annoyance. A lot of both, actually, but the darkness would have covered.
While he tried to ignore Archer's assessing gaze, Malcolm silently cursed that single incredible moment of folly when he had told the Captain about his aqua-phobia; it had happened in the abandonment of knowing that his life had come to its last glorious end. Thanks to the very man, however, it hadn't; but the unexpected gift had carried with it a painful burden: his Commanding Officer, the person who had chosen him to be strong and fearless, and defend his ship and crew to the best of his ability, now knew of his disabling flaw; of this irrational weakness of his, this uncontrollable fear.
"How long yet? It's gettin' darn cold. I think tonight I'll have Plomek soup to warm myself up."
Trip's playful – if shuddering – voice interrupted Malcolm's thoughts, and he was grateful for the distraction. Maybe he could forget for an instant that he was squeezed between a steep slope and a river in flood.
"Plomek soup is a morning meal," T'Pol felt it necessary to specify, her usual calm and aristocratic tone shaking too.
"The clearing where we landed should be no more than a kilometre ahead," Malcolm said, answering Trip's question. He felt a wavering in his own voice, but it was the cold, definitely the cold. They were all freezing. The temperature had dropped abruptly after sundown, and their Starfleet uniforms were pitifully thin against it. He didn't dare think how cold their Vulcan First Officer must feel, being used to a warmer environment.
They had not anticipated coming back this late; but the ship wreckage they had detected on this uninhabited world had proven more difficult to gain access to than they had expected, and once inside they had each got lost in the fascination of exploring it. By the time they had re-emerged, the last rays of the sun were tingeing the horizon in breath-taking, if ill-suited, colours.
"Hell, another kilometre?" Trip cried out with theatrical despair. "It didn't feel this far, on our way in."
"That's because you were looking forward to tinkering with an alien engine then," Archer reminded the Engineer as he dropped back again to join him at the rear.
Malcolm quickened his pace to fight the shivers that were beginning to shake him. "And it wasn't this bleeding cold," he spat out, eliciting a snort from his Captain. "Sorry, Sir," he added immediately over his shoulder, never pleased when he forgot himself in front of a superior officer. Make it three.
"You're forgiven, just for this once, Lieutenant," Archer chuckled from behind. "After all, I couldn't have put it better myself."
It happened so fast that, even hours later, it would still be something of a blurred nightmare in Malcolm's memory.
One moment he was walking at the head of the group, the next Trip was shouting a warning and shoving him from behind while a bolt of energy crossed the air; but the worst was that he had lost his balance and footing, and was sliding inevitably down the incline towards the only death he truly feared.
Panic froze his voice worse than the low temperature had his limbs, robbing him even of the liberating outlet of a cry, or of a proper and quite appropriate final curse of Royal Navy make. And then he was under, locked in the trapping embrace of his nemesis's icy cold arms; the muted gurgling much more terrifying than the open roar that had echoed off the rocks.
He'd always thought it was nonsense what people said, that in those final moments you could watch your entire life projected like a movie against the backdrop of your eyes; yet, incredibly, it was so. The green grass of their back yard; a toy long forgotten; Madeline sitting at table across from him; school with its full palette of emotions; his father's gaze, disappointed, angry, loving; a boat, rocking him; summer camp; his mother, soft in that warm, woollen sweater of hers, holding his child-sized body close; the ocean, and all that it separated; Starfleet; graduation; Enterprise; green gazes and blue; pointed ears and almond eyes…
God, did it have to end like this? In this cruel, bloody pointless way? No act of heroism, just a sodding slip of the foot?
Trip had seen a pair of bright orbs. For the briefest of moments they had looked like two huge fireflies, glowing among the shadows that surrounded them; his mind had barely registered the phenomenon that the two spheres had jumped forward. There had been just enough time to push Malcolm out of the way of their collision course and let out a warning cry. Archer had promptly extracted his phase pistol and fired. A second later the two orbs were gone; so was their Armoury Officer.
"Malcolm…" Trip stammered, unsure of what had happened; because whatever had happened had happened too fast, the darkness making things even murkier.
Archer turned brusquely around. "Where is he?" he asked tautly.
"I saw the Lieutenant lose his balance." Concern made T'Pol's voice a touch louder than normal. "I believe he slid off the edge of the path."
"Oh, damn!" Trip cursed. He felt guilt claw at his heart. Wanting to push his friend out of harm's way, he had instead plunged him into a swelling river? "Malcolm!" he called, cupping his mouth with both hands as he peered helplessly down into the intimidating darkness. His voice was lost in the roar of the water. He turned to Archer. "Captain…"
Archer wasn't paying him any attention. He had grabbed T'Pol by one arm. "Contact Enterprise," he said urgently. "Have them try to locate our biosigns and transport us out."
"Us?" Trip wondered with a grimace. Suspicion dawned in his brain, but not fast enough: a moment later Archer had let himself slide off the path too and disappeared from view.
Archer had angled his fall so that it would presumably have him enter the water ahead of where Malcolm had. As he slid down the incline, though, collecting such an assortment of bruises that would probably make Phlox's creatures throw a party, he had enough time to wonder if he hadn't been a bit rash. He had acted on impulse, because of what he knew about Malcolm; maybe he should have used some Vulcan logic for once, and waited to see if Enterprise could pick up Reed's biosigns. It was really a bit irrational to jump into this river, hoping to end up, by mere luck, near the man. But he hadn't even given it a thought. Maybe because, unlike his Armoury Officer, ever since his Stanford days he had always considered water a friend, not something to be feared.
Well, no way to stop himself now.
Suddenly there was nothing under his butt; he plunged weightlessly, feeling his stomach rise in his throat, and crashed into the water. There, in that subdued world where any movement was a battle against forces too formidable, a little voice with a familiar drawl began to whisper annoyingly in his mind. Who did he think he was, to attempt such a stunt? They would both die, and that would be his accomplishment.
Survival instinct and a wicked desire to prove the voice wrong made him flail his arms and kick his feet furiously against the strong current, to gain at least the surface. It was then that, quite miraculously – for this, indeed, must be proof that Someone was looking down on them with a merciful eye – he bumped into something he recognised immediately; something that, like him, was being carried helplessly away by the rushing river.
Archer grabbed the uniform and pulled Malcolm's body close; and it came, worryingly, without a fight. But he wasn't going to fail now. Not now. They had sunk like stones to the bottom, but pushing fiercely against it Archer made them both shoot up, regaining the surface a moment later.
Something – hope reborn, or the cold air – suddenly revived the Lieutenant; Malcolm clutched him rigidly, coughing and spluttering, and gulping in air; and instantly became as likely to float as a tin soldier. Archer, who was gulping in air himself in hungry breaths, felt Reed pull down again, and worked desperately to avoid it. He managed, but knew that without some co-operation he couldn't keep them both afloat for long.
"Malcolm," he sputtered in between breaths, "you've got to help me. Try to relax!"
There was more spluttering and thrashing, and a single panicked word. "Can't."
Reed was a bundle of taut muscles, weighing a ton, and Archer began to fear they would both drown.
"You've got to trust me, Lieutenant," he urged as he struggled to help the man and fight the current. "I jumped into this river to save you, damn it, not to die with you!"
Whether responding to his convincing tone or – more likely – to his use of rank, Malcolm's struggling subsided. Archer passed an arm around his chest and grabbed him more securely; he still felt tense. "Lean back against me," he gasped, realising he could not gain the shore in such turbulent waters. "I won't let you drown, I promise."
Archer could feel that Reed's self-control was tenuous, but the man had a proud streak in him, which won in the end. He let his head fall back, and they abandoned themselves to the current, floating away rapidly towards the unknown.
He'd made a promise, and did his best to keep Malcolm's head out of the water, but it wasn't easy; a few times they did go under, and Reed undoubtedly drank because he was coughing his lungs out, too out of breath to thrash about, if he even had wanted to. A few minutes later, finally, the current became less strong, and Archer was able to swim them towards the shore. There was a low and weedy tract of water, and he stumbled to his feet, dragging a gasping and sputtering Malcolm along as they splashed through it. Finally the last of his strength left him, and they collapsed on the muddy bank. Malcolm's body jerked to one side as he went on coughing up water.
With an effort, Archer pulled back to his knees and patted the Lieutenant's back. "That's it," he panted breathlessly. "Spit it all out."
When it was over, Archer fell back on his heels, hugging himself tight. Malcolm's breathing was wheezy; not a very harmonious sound, but a beautiful one all the same. They were both shivering so badly that their teeth were chattering, and neither found his voice to utter a word. Reed, though, rolled and turned his head to him, his gaze unreadable in the darkness.
Come on, Enterprise, Archer silently urged. The transporter grabbed them as he was still formulating the thought.
As Malcolm floated yet one more time out of unconsciousness, he desperately tried to chase away the uneasy sensations that still lingered about him. The last few hours had been a succession of fitful sleep and confused wakefulness; of nightmarish memories, coughing and fever-induced ravings that had robbed him of real rest.
Instinctively, he brought a hand to his chest in the vain effort to remove the weight that pressed down on it, making the simple act of breathing a raspy and difficult affair; at least, he mused as he cracked his eyes open, he felt for the first time a bit more with it. He was in sickbay, which meant that that part, at least, had been no hallucination; and at some point a mask had been placed over his mouth and nose.
Malcolm turned to the quiet voice coming from beside his bed: it belonged to a man with expressive blue eyes; the man who had almost killed him. He too, then, had been no hallucination. But right now his mind was conjuring up the image of a dripping and shivering Archer.
Lifting the hand off his chest he pulled at the mask. "The Cap--"
A bout of nasty coughing cut him off, and Trip's own hand came promptly up, guiding him to replace the breathing device.
"He's fine," the Engineer said when the coughing had subsided. "A few bumps; and the Doc had to warm him up a bit – you both. He's restin' in his quarters." He shot Malcolm a concerned look. "You, on the other hand, inhaled some water and caught a bug. Some kind of pneumonia-like virus."
Ignoring Trip's warning glance, Malcolm stubbornly pulled off the mask again, long enough to wheeze out, "Lucky me." As his hand fell back down on the sheet, he watched his friend give him a pale smile, and wondered how long the man had been sitting at his side. He had vague memories of his being there through the feverish hours before.
A frown suddenly chased all pretence of lightness from Trip's face. "This was all my fault," he said tautly. His eyes grew uneasy as he stuttered, "When I pushed you I never thought that you'd..." The unfinished thought ended in a grimace.
Malcolm still didn't know exactly what had happened. Battling his weariness, he reached once again for the device covering his face. "Why did you, anyway?" he wheezed out, before giving in to another fit of coughing.
Trip patiently helped him once more with the mask. "You're gonna get Phlox runnin', if you're not careful," he admonished with what wanted to be a conniving glance but turned out a bit too worried to be that. After a sigh, he explained, "I saw two… round things flyin' your way; they were bright, and fast, and I reacted on impulse."
Malcolm raised his eyebrows and shrugged, hoping to convey the idea that he realised what had happened had been nothing but a stupid fatality. Trip had actually acted to protect him.
"After you got transported back you lost consciousness. You've been runnin' a high fever," Trip went on, with a frowning glance at the vitals on the monitor above the bed. "But the Doc says the meds are workin'; they're slowly clearin' your lungs."
Well that was one piece of good news; although Malcolm was more worried about something else. There was Archer to face and speak to, and he wasn't looking forward to that. But face him he would. He'd face him, and once again the deep murmurs of his conscience. He felt his eyes drooping closed again, and welcomed the drowsiness that would let him escape his thoughts.
"Try to rest," Trip said softly. "You haven't much, up to now." He squeezed his arm, muttering to himself in an uncharacteristically dark voice, "I'm sure glad you're both still alive."
You can say that again, Malcolm silently echoed as his eyelids finally fell.
Archer had debated with himself whether to go to sickbay or just place a call to enquire after his Armoury Officer's health. He knew that, provided Malcolm was even up to a visit, the man would not feel comfortable about it; but maybe just for that reason the sooner they talked, the better. Reed needed to get this over with and move on. So here he was now.
"Ah, Captain," Phlox upbeat voice greeted him. "Have you had a good rest?"
Archer let his eyes speak. "I slept like a log," he replied. He cast a glance at the privacy curtain further away. "How about Malcolm?"
Phlox jerked his head in a positive nod. "He got better through the night. His fever is lower, and he's breathing significantly more easily. He's recovering faster than I expected," he said almost in surprise. With a sigh, he added, "A bit too fast, actually; he's back to his old intolerant self."
Archer chuckled softly. "Am I allowed a short visit?"
"Go ahead. He was awake, the last time I checked on him."
Archer was already moving off when Phlox's voice stopped him.
"Oh, by the way. I ordered Commander Tucker to get a few hours of sleep: he was here almost right through the night." Phlox tilted his head. "I believe he was experiencing some guilt for what happened to Mr. Reed. I let him stay. I figured it would be good for both of them."
"Yeah. Thank you, Doc."
Malcolm would have surely appreciated Trip's company, Archer mused as he approached the curtain. His own visit, on the other hand, promised to be awkward. Well, it was necessary, he reminded himself once again. With a forewarning clearing of the throat, he pulled the curtain aside and peeked inside the enclosure. Reed's bed was raised, and he turned to the sound, immediately straightening up as he donned the protective cloak of form.
"At ease, Malcolm," Archer said before the man could speak, with a smile he hoped would set an informal tone instead. "I just came by to see how you're doing."
The grey eyes darted away, but not fast enough. Self-consciousness had already showed through them. "Not bad, Captain. Thank you." Reed replied, his voice hoarse with more than a lung condition. He looked back, assessing him discreetly. "You, Sir?"
"I slept better than I've had in months."
Letting his eyes travel over his officer's face, Archer mulled that Malcolm did indeed look like a man who had had a bad night.
Reed had averted his eyes again, fixing them on his hands. "You shouldn't have risked your life to come and get me, Captain," he said quietly, face taut.
"I thought you had changed your mind about my style of command," Archer commented, tongue-in-cheek. There was no amusement, though, on the face that turned back to him.
Malcolm's mouth tightened for a moment. "You felt it necessary to come after me because of what I told you that time. That is not how it should be," he said darkly.
Maybe it was the fact that out of uniform and this pale Malcolm didn't resemble much the stubborn, proud, reticent, and hard-to-get-to-know Lieutenant Reed, but Archer found it unexpectedly easy to discuss the matter.
"I don't care how it should be, Malcolm," he simply replied. "I care about not losing any of my crew." He waited a beat, till those shifting grey eyes had returned to him again, before adding, "It's true: I jumped after you thinking that you'd be in trouble. But I would have probably done the same thing if Trip had slipped, or T'Pol. I do tend to act on impulse, as our Vulcan First Officer likes to remind me."
There was a moment of silence but it was pensive, more than tense or even awkward. It appeared Reed had worked things out beforehand, preparing himself for his visit.
Malcolm narrowed his gaze, pursing his lips. "I never imagined aqua-phobia would be a problem in space," he forced out, in a rare and surprising moment of confidence.
He looked troubled; and Archer suddenly realised he wasn't any more about what had happened, but about what might happen in the future. Reed had escaped a life in the Navy so he could forget his weakness, and now it had caught up with him even here, throwing him off-balance and coming to threaten his professionalism. Yes, that's what weighed on Malcolm's conscience, the fact that his phobia might make a dent in the armour he had painstakingly built for himself and cause him to fail in his job.
"It's not likely to be very often," Archer reassured him. "But even if it should again... we have to rely on each other, especially here in space. We trust in you, to keep us safe; you'll have to trust in us."
Malcolm frowned. "Last night, going against all my instincts, I trusted you with my life, Captain," he said in a deep voice.
The double entendre was almost funny in its blatancy. A look of dismay appeared on Malcolm's face. "I don't mean to say that you shouldn't be tr…"
"I know what you mean," Archer butted in, with a soft chuckle. He had a flash of the two of them in the water, Reed managing to dominate his panic, allowing him to take control. "It's good to know that you have faith in me," he said, turning serious.
Malcolm shot him an unguarded look. "I knew my life was in good hands," he said quietly. "You had saved it once already." A bout of coughing suddenly racked him, and he turned to the other side.
Phlox appeared. "The mask, Lieutenant," the Doctor said sternly, motioning to the device hanging on a pole near the bed.
With a smirk of unhappiness, Malcolm complied, reaching for it.
"Doctor's orders," Archer said with a helpless shrug of his shoulders. He patted his Officer's shoulder, and got ready to leave.
"Captain…" Malcolm fiddled with the mask for a moment; then lifted steady eyes on him. "Thank you, Sir; for everything."
There was one thing to say about Malcolm: sometimes, when he felt it was needed, he knew how to put aside his reticence and pride, and then you could spy his feelings through those blue-grey eyes like through crystal-clear waters.
Archer tilted his head, a mischievous smile playing on his lips. "No problem, Lieutenant," he replied. He let his eyebrows go up dramatically. "As Shran would say: you're in my debt. It's as simple as that."
Reed's mouth finally curved into a smile.
"Get better soon," Archer said. Over his shoulder, as he moved off, he added, "And we'll drown all this in some Andorian Ale."
As the curtain fell back behind him, a raspy voice commented, "That's one type of drowning I don't fear."