He woke the next morning with a woman curled up against his back.
"T'Pol?" he asked sleepily, confused. "I thought..."
"That was some nightmare you had last night," she said, caressing him.
He stretched to meet her caresses happily, even as his brain puzzled over the oddity of her speech pattern. "Some nightmare?"
Her hand found what it was looking for and caressed it with determination.
"Actually, sweetheart, I don't think I'm up to that," he said, gently pushing her hand away. He really did feel weaker than usual and a little dizzy, even lying down. "I'm not feeling so hot. Maybe I could lie in for a little while this morning?"
"Of course. I will bring you the device. I looked at what you accomplished yesterday. I believe you are approaching a real breakthrough. You could stay in bed and work on those equations."
He rolled over to stare at her. She was as breathtakingly beautiful as ever, staring at him with those big brown eyes. "You know, darlin', I ... I really don't feel up to that right now."
He saw a flash of hardness in her eyes that had never noticed before, and felt a twinge of panic: what if that other T'Pol was right? But then she leaned forward and kissed him tenderly on the forehead. "Of course, Trip. I'll bring you some breakfast in bed, and then you can sleep in. How's that?"
He blinked, relieved. "Thank you, darlin'. I don't know why you're so good to me."
She kissed him again and left to go downstairs. He sighed and lay there, staring up at the old cypress beams that crossed the ceiling. He really did feel rotten. Was this it?
T'Pol's voice came out of the shadows in the corner of the room. "You're feeling ill because you are ill. You haven't eaten or moved in days. You must come back to yourself. On the ship."
Trip pulled himself up against the pillows and peered into the dimness. Catsuit T'Pol was perched on the old chair. "I thought I told you to leave me alone."
"You slammed the door but you didn't lock it," she said. "There's a part of you that knows I'm right."
He scowled. "Even supposing I agreed to go back, how the hell would that work? It's not like I didn't try, back when I first got here."
"What you see around you is clearly a construct of your mind," she said. "Theoretically you can simply think yourself back to where you belong – in sickbay, on Enterprise. But the device may be interfering somehow. I believe I could help you, if you would let me. I..." She paused; the other T'Pol was returning.
"I hope this will make you feel better," his T'Pol said, setting a bed tray up in front of him. She'd laid out a slice of pecan pie, milk, coffee. The alien device sat on the tray next to his plate.
"What's that doing here?" he said testily.
"Just in case you feel up to it later, my dear," his T'Pol said lightly. She brushed the hair back from his forehead and leaned in to give him another kiss. "I know how much you enjoy an engineering challenge."
"He's not going to give you any more information," old T'Pol said, rising up from her chair in the corner. "It's time to let him go."
His T'Pol stiffened. "Who is this person?" she demanded of Trip.
He sighed. "Isn't that obvious?"
"What is she doing here?"
"Let him go," old T'Pol said. Her voice had lowered dangerously and Trip raised his eyebrows. If he didn't feel so ill he might have found it intriguing that a fantasy of another kind seemed to be coming to pass right in front of him.
His T'Pol gave him a sharp, surprised look. The Enterprise one also looked over at him with some disgust. "A cat fight?"
Trip sighed. "Look, it's a guy thing. Anyway, you Vulcans have kalifee. I'm not nearly as bloodthirsty as that."
"No?" his T'Pol said, and picked up the butter knife off his breakfast tray. "I am." She raised the knife menacingly towards her counterpart, who immediately assumed a defensive stance.
"T'Pol!" he said, shocked. "Put the knife down!"
"I will not allow her to interfere," the woman who had been his T'Pol said coldly.
"If you harm her you won't get another word out of me," Trip said. He knocked his breakfast tray aside and struggled to disentangle himself from the sheets.
"Your mission is fatally compromised," old T'Pol said evenly to the woman who was steadily backing her up into the corner on the other side of the bed. "It's over. Let him go."
"We don't let anyone go," the woman said. "It hardly benefits us if our efforts are detected."
"Your mission is in all likelihood pointless," T'Pol said. "The device we found had been drifting in space for over two centuries."
"That is not my concern," the woman said. "If he's not going to give us anything else, then it's time for both of you to die." She raised the knife and rushed T'Pol.
With a desperate groan, Trip launched himself out of the bed and onto the woman he'd spent the last ten years of his life with. "No!" he yelled as he took them both down onto the floor, half-believing that she would become compliant again if only because he insisted.
She stared coldly up at him and suddenly he stiffened in pain and shock.
She'd jammed the butter knife into his back.
"No!" T'Pol screamed. She dove over them both, grabbed the woman's head and, with an audible crack, broke her neck. Trip stared down in horror as the face of his wife transformed into something completely alien but still undeniably, horribly dead. And then suddenly there was no air. He choked and coughed up blood, splattering it on the creature below him.
T'Pol lifted him up off the alien corpse, applying pressure on his wound with one hand and cradling him with the other arm. "Don't believe this, Trip," she said urgently. "The knife is no more real than she was. Come back with me now."
"Can't," he gasped.
"You have to. Come back with me now or we'll both die."
"Don't know how. Go back without me."
"I can't," she said. "You're going to have to trust me." She lifted his hand up and spread his fingers on her own face. "Your mind to my mind," she said.
He tried to pull his hand away. She wouldn't let it go. "I'm in your mind," she hissed. "Why won't you come into mine?"
He stared up at her. This was something she just couldn't understand: That he didn't want to see and know and understand once and for all why she wasn't willing to be with him. Why she didn't love him. The room was beginning to fade around them, to darken, and he was so cold.
She sounded frantic. "Please, Trip. Your mind to my mind. Your thoughts to my thoughts. Please!"
She never said please. Thank you, but never please. Hard to say no when she put it like that. Gasping for oxygen, surrounded by darkness, he reached for her thoughts.
x x x
Suddenly the room was gone, and the cold and the dark, and she was cradling him on the hot concrete of her mother's courtyard on Vulcan while the fountain gurgled and bells chimed in the hot breeze.
He blinked and took a deep breath. The pain was gone, but he still felt woozy.
"What are we doing here?" he said, squinting against the bright sun.
She looked around. "I'm not sure. But I have often pondered how our lives might be different if I had simply introduced you to my mother that day as my... " She hesitated.
"Boyfriend? Bond mate? Friend with benefits?" He didn't try to hide his bitterness.
T'Pol said quietly, "You have tried so many times to discuss our relationship, but I never let you. I don't know why you didn't give up much earlier. I don't know why I was so surprised when you finally did."
"I never gave up. I just decided the next move was yours." He sighed. "And you never made it."
"I am sorry," she said heavily.
He lay with his head in her lap in the hot Vulcan sun and in the odd tranquility of the moment decided that he really had nothing left to lose; why not know the worst and be done with it? "I know you didn't set out to torture me, T'Pol. Maybe, as long as we're both here, we could just settle this? Show me why we can't be together so I can understand it. Then maybe I can just, you know, finally let it go."
"I can't do that."
She sounded so upset he thought she must have misunderstood. "I'm not talking about dying or anything. I'll go back with you. I just ... it's not fair, T'Pol."
She closed her eyes in obvious pain. "I know."
He wanted the truth. "Do you love me?"
"Yes, I love you."
But that had surely been too easy. "Do you want to be with me?"
"Yes." This time her voice was softer.
He stared up at her. This was a weird angle from which to have a conversation of this import. And he still couldn't really tell where he stood. So much for the magical all-knowing certainty of the Vulcan mind melds he'd occasionally fantasized about having with her. "Okay, so do you mean, I'm this human you happen to find moderately attractive to hang out with as long as we're on the same ship, or do you mean we can be together forever?"
She hesitated, and his heart contracted. Of course it couldn't be that easy. There'd be reasons, no doubt very good, eminently logical reasons why it wouldn't work. He rolled away from her and lifted himself to his hands and knees, an effort that raised a cold sweat on him. He was going to be sick. Perhaps having this kind of discussion right here and now wasn't such a great idea after all.
She clambered after him. "Forever, Trip," she said, pulling him back into a tight embrace. "But first you have come back home."
He nodded, too sick even to fully take in what she'd said. "Whatever you say."
x x x
There was a kind of low hum and then the hum blossomed into a roomful of discreet sounds: Phlox talking, the chirps and rustlings of various creatures. He felt hands on his face and knew they were hers.
"He's awake," T'Pol said.
"It's about time!" Phlox said, rushing over.
Trip fought to open his eyes, blinking to clear them. T'Pol stared down at him, her face solemn, but he could feel joy and relief coursing through the bond.
"Hey," he said, staring back.
"Hey," she echoed softly.
"Thanks for coming to get me." He was disappointed to realize he still felt extremely ill.
"Any time," she said.
Trip started to grin but had to jerk his head aside so he wouldn't throw up on her, though all he produced were dry heaves.
Phlox clucked. "T'Pol, thank you for efforts. Now if you could give me some room to work..."
"Of course, doctor," T'Pol said, and backed away. She toggled the com on the wall. "Captain, you wanted to know if Commander Tucker regained consciousness."
"I'll be right there!" Archer said.
Phlox pressed a hypospray into Trip's neck and he felt better immediately. "All you really need is some sustenance, Commander," Phlox said.
Their attention was taken by a growing low whine coming from the device that still sat clutched between Trip's hands.
"It's going to self-destruct," Trip said with horrible certainty.
"Give it to me," T'Pol said.
He lifted it up, and she took it far too gingerly from of his hands, watching him anxiously the whole time. "What are you waiting for?" he yelled. "Get rid of it!"
She stared at him for another moment then took off running.
He felt his heart pounding along with hers as she ran down the corridors to the transporter. Then anxiety, then relief. She had succeeded. Thank God. He would have felt pretty bad if he'd screamed at her like that just before she got blown up.
"I don't hear any explosions," Phlox said nervously.
"Explosions?" Archer said, just walking in. "It's nice to see you conscious, Trip."
Trip grinned. "Thanks, Cap'n. It's okay, Phlox. She beamed it off in time."
Archer said, "Beamed what off?"
Phlox answered. "The device. It was showing signs of a possible auto-destruct."
T'Pol walked back into sickbay. "Lieutenant Commander Reed reports the device detonated two hundred meters off the port bow. We will attempt to retrieve as much debris as possible but it may be difficult."
Trip sighed. "I guess we may never know where it came from now."
"These devices seem to be well-designed to prevent detection," Archer said. "Hoshi says the Rigellians found a similar one not far from here some fifty years ago. It killed one of their engineers and then exploded before they could find out much about it."
"Seems like a pretty inefficient way to gather warp drive intelligence," Trip said. "How do they make any use of the data they get if the things keep exploding when they're done?"
"Perhaps it was transmitting data during the process in some way we didn't recognize," T'Pol said. "Or perhaps it was programmed to self-destruct if the data it gathers wasn't sufficiently useful. We don't know if anyone was even left to receive the data. I didn't recognize the alien race we saw in your mind."
"That could have been just another disguise," Trip said. "Or my subconscious brain's idea of what a dead alien on the floor ought to look like."
Archer and Phlox exchanged a glance. "I guess I'm looking forward to reading your report, Trip," Archer said.
Trip grimaced. This one was going to take some finessing.
"Enough talk, Commander," Phlox said. "Time for you to start eating." He adjusted the bio bed for sitting. "What'll it be? Chicken soup? Pan-fried catfish?"
"Scrambled eggs and toast and coffee," Trip said.
"I'll get it," T'Pol said, and left, surprising all the men present.
"Did she really just volunteer to go get food for me?" Trip asked.
Archer laughed. "I think she's awfully glad to have you back. It sure is good to see my two senior officers working well together again."
Trip smiled but felt a twinge of misgiving. He just hoped that was true. And that the room around him really existed. And that T'Pol really was bringing him eggs and toast.
And that she really had said "forever" ... and meant it.
What a blessing it would be to believe that he was home at last.
Author's note: Some of you may have noticed that this story owes some debt to Jeri Taylor's superb TNG episode "The Inner Light," although has nowhere near its dramatic stature. As for this one, hope you enjoyed it. Leave me a review! Feedback of any kind is most welcome.