Thank you to everyone who's read this story, and especially those who've left comments. This, alas, is the final chapter. Enjoy!
Malcolm stood before the mirror in his quarters, adjusting his uniform. He had some time before his shift started, but wanted to make some extra effort toward his appearance. He'd lost weight during his time in sickbay, and nothing he had to wear seemed to fit any longer, but he'd done the best he could with what he had, knowing that his superiors would have to forgive him if he looked a bit sloppy. Fingers fumbling the pip he was trying to fasten to his collar, he dropped it onto the floor when his door chime went.
Sighing dramatically, he picked it up, then walked to the door.
It opened to reveal Trip there, in uniform, with Hoshi standing directly behind him. The man looked Malcolm up and down, and raised an assessing brow. "Nervous?"
"Commander," Hoshi said sharply, shoving Trip in the upper arm. She gave Malcolm an apologetic look.
"Yes, well..." Malcolm waived the two of them in, and returned to the mirror. "It is my first day back, and last time I had a 'first day back', things didn't go quite as well as I'd hoped." His fingers trembled a bit as he tried to fasten the pip, but he finally got the tiny thing on.
"But this time, things are different," Trip said from somewhere behind him.
"Indeed," Malcolm replied, raking quick fingers through his hair. This time, Phlox was limiting him to short shifts for the first few days. But that was immaterial. More importantly, this time, there were no dreams, and he was well on his way to recovery. Amazing that it was his exposure to the Eisilium that apparently had caused all this: the dreams, his sickness, everything. In fact, Phlox had said that the substance had actually heightened his fears, both causing the dreams and making his reactions to them far stronger than they might have been if he'd been well. And once he'd actually been exposed to a situation that would have triggered fear even in a person who wasn't aquaphobic, his body had been pushed over the edge of... something, and, between that and the escalation of the illness itself... Malcolm blinked hard, trying to cease the flow of those memories.
He turned to see that Trip sitting in his desk chair, feet propped on his bedrail, while Hoshi had settled on the bed itself. He approached them and sat in the only seat left available in the room, beside Hoshi on top of his blankets.
"I wanted to thank you," Malcolm said, feeling a bit awkward. He wasn't used to speaking to people like this, but he felt that he must.
"No problem," Hoshi said softly.
At the exact same time, Trip asked, "For what?"
"I know you were there, and that you..." Malcolm rubbed the bridge of his nose absently. He'd pieced together most of the story, between what he'd been told afterwards and what he could actually recall, but there were holes there, big ones, gaps in his memory, and things that he did remember that seemed off, somehow. "Actually, I'm not sure I remember everything."
Hoshi nodded. "You were kind of..." She shrugged.
Trip added, "More than 'kind of.'" He shrugged, mimicking Hoshi's gesture with a smile.
Malcolm winced. "I suppose so, yes. But if not for you, I -" He stopped himself from saying more, unsure of how exactly to phrase it.
He'd have been lost. His friends, knowing him as they did, had found the trail, and it was only that he'd opened himself up to them, that allowed them to do it. And Hoshi, especially. If he hadn't had those dreams, if he hadn't been off duty, he wouldn't have opened himself up to Hoshi, and - and God, Trip -
Trip punched him gently on the knee, breaking into his thoughts. With an odd smile, Trip said, "And Phlox wouldn't have got to try that old Earth medicine."
"Sorry?" Malcolm asked, the word slipping out before he could stop it, because in reality, he was not sure he actually wanted to know.
"You should have seen him," Trip said, dropping his feet to the floor and leaning forward across his knees. "The man was in his glory, actual metal needles in each hand, some sort of blood processing machine rigged up, and you with tubes going out one arm, in the other."
Hoshi looked a bit uncomfortable. "Well, that was after he'd already tried that scanner thing."
"Which didn't work," Trip said.
Hoshi nodded. "And you yelled at him."
"Yeah," Trip said, seeming pensive. "Maybe I owe him an apology."
"That might be nice," Hoshi said, without a hint of sarcasm.
Trip gave her an awkward grin.
"Are you two quite done?" Malcolm asked, feeling as if he was watching a tennis match.
"Yes?" Trip said, obviously unsure of where Malcolm was going with this.
"Because I feel as if I'm watching a scene from..." Malcolm paused. "You know, that film you'd shown the other night. What was it called?"
Both stared at him, puzzled.
"Godzilla?" Trip asked hesitantly.
Malcolm shook his head. "You know, the one set in New York, with the two people, and 'I'll have what she's having'," he said, quoting the line.
"When Harry Met Sally?" Hoshi asked, raising her brows in surprise.
"Right, right," Malcolm said.
"That was two months ago," Trip said with a frown.
"Oh," Malcolm replied. He felt at a loss, like his feet had gone out from under him, and he shifted uncomfortably. "I suppose I've missed a few."
"Tonight's another," Hoshi volunteered from beside him, her voice pitched in such a way that it was obvious that she was trying to keep it light. Her eyes, though, they told a different story. "It's 'Dreams are Toys'. And speaking of which..." She stood and, first giving a significant look to Trip, she glanced down at her watch. "I'm supposed to help set up." She looked from one to the other of them. "You guys going? It starts in a half hour."
"Dreams?" Malcolm asked. "I'm not sure." Although he had enough time before his shift to see at least the start of the thing, he'd quite enough of dreams.
"I'll meet you there," Trip said.
Hoshi left with a wave and another pointed gaze, leaving just Trip and him.
Malcolm knew that something was coming, and sure enough, as soon as the door shut, Trip said, "What exactly do you remember, from when you were sick?"
"After I'd drowned, or before?" Malcolm said, trying, and failing, to make a joke of it.
Trip simply said, "After."
"Oh," Malcolm said, exhaling the word in a huff. He looked out at the room. "Not much, actually. I know I was in sickbay." He met Trip's gaze. "I know you were there. And Hoshi. But other than that?" He shrugged, because it was true. He remembered pain, and water, and voices - Trip's voice, and Hoshi's. But other than that?
"You'd said something about dreams, while you were sick."
Malcolm crossed his arms and stared at his friend. "Did the two of you plan this?" He wasn't exactly accusing; he simply wanted to know.
"What?" Trip looked genuinely surprised. "We did talk about it, yes, but this isn't a plot or anything. We just want to make sure that you're really okay." He grinned as if to soften his next words, but the smile was without humour. "You kind of have a habit of saying that you're fine, and meanwhile, you've got a pillow on your lap hiding the fact that your leg's been chopped off and you're actually bleeding to death. Know what I mean?"
Malcolm huffed a mirthless laugh. "Right, sorry. I'm not used to -" He cut himself off, leaving the rest unsaid: that he was normally such a professional bastard, he avoided making friends at work. That because he was Starfleet, his entire world was now work, and that meant -
"Malcolm?" Trip said, breaking into his reverie.
Malcolm looked up.
"I'm fine," Malcolm said automatically. Then, realising what he'd just done, he slowly raised one brow.
Trip twisted his lip in a wry smile, and leaned into the space between them. "You'd said the dreams were trying to warn you."
"I don't remember saying that," Malcolm said, biting his lip in thought.
"It was when you were... Well, you were kind of out of it."
Malcolm gave a half smile at that. "Out of it" was certainly a good way of describing how he'd been.
"So, what were you dreaming of?" Trip asked, expression gone completely serious.
Malcolm felt his smile fall away, and he broke eye contact. Honestly, he'd been trying not to think about all that. The dreams had gone; he'd not had one since. Phlox had said they were part of his illness, and he'd tried to believe that. But for the subject matter, perhaps he could have. He took a breath, and on the exhale, said, "Drowning."
"You're kidding, right?"
Malcolm shook his head and met Trip's gaze again. "No"
Trip gave him a look that made him deeply uneasy, and, pressing his hands into the bed, he curled his fingers into the duvet beneath him, anchoring himself there.
"You sure you didn't dream all that later, after you drowned?" Trip asked.
"I'm quite sure," Malcolm answered, voice quiet but firm. This time, he forced himself to maintain eye contact. "I've always... I have a phobia. Of drowning. Of water." He shook his head. "The dreams were from that," he said firmly, perhaps trying to convince himself as well as Trip. "The illness amplified feelings I'd always had."
"So you've always..."
"Yes," Malcolm said. Too restless to sit any longer, he pushed himself up and began pacing. He could feel Trip's eyes on him as he moved. "I've always had that fear, but I've also always been able to handle it." He glanced at Trip. "Well enough, anyway. There were a few situations where I'd had to - where I was forced to be in situations, but I was usually able to avoid them." He stopped and turned to face Trip. "I'd reckoned that, on a deep space mission, at least..." He smiled wryly. "At least there I'd be safe."
"But you weren't," Trip said softly.
"Apparently not. No. But in my past experiences, when I had to face such situations, I did so. I'd simply get through it, because I had to. But this time, I couldn't."
"You could have told me," Trip said, looking up at Malcolm from where he sat on the chair. His posture, his expression, his tone, everything about the man showed pain and hurt. "When we were on the planet, you could have told me. I might have been able to -"
"What, Trip?" Malcolm said, his tone a bit harsher than he'd intended. "Protect me? I don't need -"
Trip stood slowly and met his gaze, eye to eye. "No, you don't. But I might have been able to help you. As a friend."
That stopped him. He stood there a moment, staring at the man in front of him.
Trip was right. Ah, bloody hell. He was complete crap at this friendship thing. The man was right.
"You're right," Malcolm said simply, in echo to his thoughts. He sank down onto his bed and, sliding back on it, slouched against the wall.
Trip stood over him a moment. His brow creased into a slight frown. "Since when do you call me 'Trip'?"
Malcolm straightened in shock. If he'd overstepped -
Trip obviously saw his anxiety. "No, no. I've been trying to get you to..." Trip sat beside him, taking the space vacated by Hoshi. He quirked his lip in a smile. "It's good."
Malcolm let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding.
"Ever had dreams like that before?" Trip asked.
Malcolm cocked his head and glanced sideways at the man. "What do you mean?"
Trip gave him a strange look. "You know, where what you dreamed, later came true?"
"No," Malcolm said, thinking about that for a moment. "Do you think this is what these dreams were doing?" The logical thing was no, these dreams were simply borne of his illness and fear. But in reality...
Trip stared out at the room. "I had an aunt, had dreams like that."
"So you believe in that sort of thing?"
Trip smiled vaguely. "I'm not sure, no. But I don't deny it, either. Stranger things have happened, even on Earth, and out here?" He turned to face Malcolm. "Who knows what we'll encounter."
"And maybe something - the mineral, or the illness it caused - opened your eyes, if you catch my drift." Trip gave him an odd smile. "Who the hell knows? But if stuff like that starts happening again - weird stuff, you know - tell me about it. Don't keep it to yourself." Trip dropped his grin. "And yes, I might tease you some, but I will listen."
Malcolm realised that the man was right. If he'd told someone about those dreams, and how he hadn't been sleeping... If he'd told someone, maybe Trip, of his phobia... He had drowned in that water, and almost in himself, and it had taken his friends - friends that he'd only opened himself up to due to his illness - to pull him from the depths and into the light.
They'd saved him.
"Got it?" Trip asked.
Malcolm nodded, at a loss for words.
"Good. Now, enough of that touchy feely shit," Trip said. He reached over Malcolm's head and snagged the controller for the monitor, flicking it on. The screen on the desk came to life. "Football," Trip said firmly, staring at the screen as he scrolled through the menus. He waved the remote in the general direction of Malcolm's refrigerator. "Beer."
"Trip, I'm on duty in less than an hour," Malcolm said with an awkward frown.
Trip raised one brow, ala T'Pol. "I didn't mean for you." Then he smiled.
And with that, Malcolm knew that this was truly the start of a beautiful friendship.