18

Almost four hours later, Reed had two unexpected visitors.

"Malcolm, how is she?"

He turned around in his chair, surprised to see Commander Tucker and Captain Archer standing less than a meter away, just outside the privacy curtain. He hadn't heard anyone come in, but admittedly his attention had been elsewhere. Not wanting to have the conversation so close to Jean's bed, he got up and went over to join the other officers.

"As far as I can tell, sir, her condition hasn't changed much since this morning. She woke up a few hours ago and we spoke for a while." He shifted slightly, deciding that the two other offices didn't need to know about the kissing thing. "At first she wasn't quite herself, but after a little while she became more alert and aware. She didn't remember being stabbed, or anything after that part of the mission, and asked me to fill her in. However, Phlox came in to check on her and she fell asleep while he was there, so I didn't have the opportunity to tell her anything besides how she was injured."

Archer frowned slightly. He saw how nervous Reed was, but he didn't know that the lieutenant was on edge because of his recently-realized feelings towards the ensign. "Is there anything else worth reporting, Mr. Reed?"

Reed started slightly, then swallowed a cold lump of fear, forcing it back down his throat. He didn't want to… he couldn't tell the captain about kissing Jean. It was still so fresh in his mind and such a private, special memory. He didn't want to share it with anyone else; especially not if the someone else might reprimand him for fraternizing with a subordinate. Instead, he opted to give voice to a different concern.

"Well, sir, she has had a few… reactions to the pain medication which Phlox is giving her. Most recently, she was hallucinating. Phlox is keeping an eye on it, but to be honest, captain, I'm starting to get worried."

Trip and Archer shared an incredulous look. "Starting?"

Reed chose to ignore their obvious amusement and turned to face Trip, feeling an unaccountable flash of jealousy when he spoke to the engineer.

"Commander, if you don't mind my asking, I'm curious about something you said down on the planet. You and the ensign mentioned having a history, and if you wouldn't mind, I was wondering what you meant..." He had already heard Jean's side of this history months before, but he was interested, if a little wary, about Trip's version of events.

Trip shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other and even though Archer stepped in to save his engineer from any embarrassment, he couldn't resist grinning at his friend while he explained.

"Last year there was a bar near downtown San Francisco called the Blue Parrot where Trip and I would go sometimes, usually when the 602 was too crowded. Jean worked there as a waitress, singer, bartender... she did pretty much anything that needed doing. Said it kept her out of trouble. She'd spend a lot of time talking to us whenever we came in and Trip always flirted with her. She always managed to make him look pretty foolish… anyway, he never got anywhere with her, I think because his pickup lines were so awful."

Reed nodded, outwardly acting calm and only mildly curious, but behind his professional façade, he was ridiculously thrilled. He could just picture Commander Tucker's slightly inebriated attempts to flirt with Jean, and her amusing evasive maneuvers. The scene which Archer's description had conjured up was so comical that Reed couldn't stop himself from letting out a quiet chuckle.

Trip crossed his arms indignantly, turning to his captain with a look of wounded pride. "Cap'n, they weren't all that bad."

"Yeah they were, and he still has a crush on me over a year later."

Reed spun around in surprise, barely contained joy spilling across his features at hearing her actually sounding energetic and like herself. He swept aside the curtain in one smooth gesture and was by her side within moments. "Jean! When did... how long have you been awake?"

She shrugged slightly and offered a tired smile. "Just a few minutes. Your conversation was interesting, thought I'd listen in."

Her voice, which she'd managed to raise to almost a normal volume for her first comment, now dropped to a much quieter tone. In fact, the men had to come close to the bed in order to hear her properly.

The captain spoke first, asking her what all three of them were wondering. "How are you feeling?"

She laughed softly to herself, but it was a humorless sound. "Very tired and sore, but I get the feeling it'll be worse when Phlox takes me off the painkillers. Good thing I don't feel like moving, 'cause I doubt I'd get very far even if I wanted to try."

Trip moved to stand on the other side of her bed, directly across from Reed, and he smiled down at her, not noticing that Reed was watching him like a hawk for any signs of more than friendly affection. "We were worried about you."

She gave Trip a knowing look and a weak grin. "Did you really think you could get rid of me this easily? You aren't that lucky, Trip."

He grinned back, leaning one hand on the wall by the head of her bed. "Well, you know what an optimist I am..." Now that she was going to be alright he felt free to tease her. Unfortunately for Trip, she wasn't about to let him get away with it.

"Commander..."

"Yeah, Jean?"

She smirked up at him, giving her nose a mischievous wrinkle. "It's a good thing engineers don't need to have a good bedside manner, 'cause if they did, we'dve blown up months ago."

He laughed and shook his head, glad that she felt good enough to give him a hard time. Still grinning widely, he turned and nudged the captain slightly. "Yep, she's back alright."

With his customary perfect timing, Phlox came through the curtains to stand behind the officers. He cleared his throat slightly, causing the officers to turn around and Jean to crane her neck trying to see him. However, she couldn't see much from her horizontal position, and she had to guess at where he was standing.

"Gentlemen, I'm sure that Ensign Olenick appreciates your concern, but she needs to rest. You as well, Mr. Reed. Your six hour shift is nearly over, and I believe this is as good a time as any for you to depart. I must insist that you all leave now."

"It's alright, mom. They can stay for five more minutes." She raised her voice to a normal volume, but the men could all tell that doing it took a lot out of her.

Archer smiled and patted her arm gently. "We'll get out of Phlox's hair and let you sleep. But if you need anything, all you have to do is ask."

She smiled up at him and nodded. "Thank you, sir. Trip?"

Reed tensed slightly when the commander stepped closer to hear her, since her voice had dropped back down to barely a whisper. "I can't believe there was a faster way to get back to Sickbay and you didn't tell me about it."

"Oh? And what way was that?" His eyes were twinkling as he asked and he had to fight to keep from smiling. Knowing her, this should be good.

"All I had to do was click my heels three times and say 'there's no place like home, there's no place like home.'"

A sunny smile broke out on Trip's face as he repeated the last bit with her, shaking his head afterwards. "Now how could we both forget about 'the Wizard of Oz'? Sweet dreams, Dorothy. I'll look after Toto for you for a few days."

She smirked tiredly and nodded, but even the effort of doing that was enough to make her head sink back onto the pillow. "Thanks Tin man. Try not to rust."

Trip shook his head once again and quickly kissed her on the forehead, stepping back from her bed afterwards. "Listen ta Phlox. Try to sleep."

Reed bristled at that, even though he knew that the other man was only trying to be reassuring. Trip had a girlfriend and he wasn't the type to stray, but Reed still didn't like to see how easily, how comfortable the other man had been with making such an affectionate gesture on the spur of the moment. He hadn't even needed to be prompted. Reed knew that Jean wasn't remotely attracted to Trip, but he also knew that they both had similarly warm and ebullient personalities, while he, in contrast… Reed knew that he was far from being a social butterfly, but Jean had made it clear that she cared about him. In point of fact, she had said quite baldly that she liked him more than she liked Trip, and that she trusted him more.

She trusted him.

Reed closed his eyes. He couldn't tell her how he felt, not least because he wasn't sure what his feelings towards her actually were, apart from fondness. He wanted to kiss her. That much he knew for sure. He cared for her in a way he had never cared about a woman before. She made him feel special, needed, essential. She had seen him at his absolute worst and had never once said anything to him about it which might be construed as unkind. She was, in point of fact, the most extraordinary, intelligent, compassionate and loving person he had ever met.

Telling her any of this was out of the question, of course. She was much too vulnerable right now, too fragile for him – or any man – to try to start a relationship with her. Added to that was the fact that he had recently saved her life. It wasn't that he felt owed for doing that. In fact, since they were such close friends, he felt that by saving her he had done himself a favor, but he worried that if he declared his affections to her now, she might reciprocate out of a sense of duty and not because of any genuine feelings she had for him.

So, he was resolved to just be her friend. He smiled bitterly as Trip and the captain walked to the doors. It stuck him as almost funny that a few short hours ago, having a true friend seemed like the greatest blessing in the world, and that now being limited to having a friendship and not another, more… intimate form of relationship with her seemed unbearably stifling.

Captain Archer and Trip were walking through the doors, but Reed was reluctant to leave; he kept hovering near the curtains around her bed, finding little things to do so he'd seem busy.

Jean smiled at him, taking in at a glance his rumpled clothes, mussed hair and generally unkempt appearance. "So... I forgot to ask earlier. How long have you been here?"

He turned around slowly with a sheepish smile. "Hours."

She cocked an eyebrow at him, clearly skeptical of his claim. "And Phlox hasn't kicked you out yet?"

Another smile and a modest shrug as he came closer to her bed. "The doctor has tried to a few times and he was successful once, with some help from Commander Tucker."

She regarded the curtains thoughtfully before asking another question. "And how long have I been here?"

His smile faded slightly, remembering the endless waiting he had endured, the hours of sitting by her bed and hoping that she would pull through, that she would wake up and smile at him… "Almost two days."

"You didn't have to stay, y'know."

He sat down in his chair again after straightening her blanket. It hadn't actually needed to be straightened; he just wanted to do something useful with his hands. "I wanted to... I had to make sure you'd be alright. Besides, I gave you my word, and I wanted to be here when you woke up."

She blinked sleepily and smiled, reaching out to take his hand. "Well, thanks for watching over me."

He gently lifted her hand, bringing it back to rest next to her hip on the biobed. In the sizeable pause that followed, he saw her tense reflexively and then frown, seeming disappointed about something.

His hand shifted until it rested over hers, it's reassuring weight pressing lightly on her knuckles. He looked at her searchingly, frowning a bit at the traces of distress he read in her face. "Something wrong?"

Her eyes flicked up at him in surprise and then she shook her head slowly, weakly trying to pull her hand away from his. "It's ridiculous."

Reed tightened his hand slightly, enough to keep a hold of her, but he made sure that his touch stayed gentle. "Tell me anyway."

She sent him a desperate, almost pleading look, and he let go of her hand. He felt a bit hurt that she didn't trust him enough to share whatever was bothering her. After all, it had been only a day or so after they met during survival training that he had told her about his aquaphobia, and only a week after that when she rescued him from drowning and helped calm him down from the ensuing panic attack. As far as he was concerned, that had been one of his weakest moments, but circumstances had forced him to be vulnerable in front of her, and she had stepped up admirably, comforting him despite his efforts to push her away.

He smiled to himself, remembering that last part. He had tried to protect himself by keeping his problems to himself, but she had stubbornly refused to let him do it. Now, it was his turn to be the stubborn one and help her, whether she wanted him to or not. All he had to do was let her know that no matter what happened, he would be there for her. No easy feat for a man who wasn't used to showcasing his emotions.

"I promise I won't laugh at you."

Instead of answering right away, she fiddled with part of her blanket. It was a long minute before she said anything.

"I know that I'm safe in Sickbay. Rostin's men are all on Chalderon and the guards can't hurt me anymore, but... I know it doesn't make any kind of sense, but I'm afraid that if I close my eyes they'll come for me, and..."

She hadn't been able to look at him while she spoke, instead staring past him at the curtains, and her voice cracked as she trailed off.

Reed felt his heart soften, even as he clenched his jaw and his hands balled into fists. "Tell me what to do. How can I help?" Aside from decking those barbaric clots.

She chewed the inside of her lower lip, slowly raising her eyes to meet his.

He realized how strange it was that their usual roles had been reversed. Usually, he was playing the part of the uncooperative patient and she was the one trying to cheer him up. It always seemed so effortless for her, knowing just what to do or to say in order to get him to open up, and he decided to just use one of her lines.

He leaned forward in his chair, resting elbows on his knees and looking at her earnestly. "A friend once told me that trust goes both ways. She was absolutely right."

Her left hand came back out from under the covers. It extended towards him palm up, fingers twitching slightly in an invitation for his hand to join hers. A moment later his hand was holding her smaller one, giving a reassuring squeeze and coupling it with a smile to encourage her.

"I know it's silly, but d'you think you could stay here... just until I fall asleep?"

It was such a simple, innocent request that he couldn't help but smile at her. He squeezed her hand again, noticing how all of her muscles seemed to relax as he nodded his agreement. "No sooner said than done. I'll stay as long as you want me to."

"Thanks." It was a barely audible whisper. She let her eyes close and the tension left her face.

Their companionable silence was very brief as Phlox stepped through the curtains a few moments later and stood on the other side of Jean's bed, glaring at Reed. He practically hissed in annoyance, trying to be quiet so as not to disturb his patient.

"Mr. Reed! I have been more than patient with you for the past few days but there is a limit. She needs to rest and I cannot allow you to stay here keeping her awake any longer. You can come back tomorrow for a short visit if you agree to leave Sickbay at once, but..."

"Phlox... " her voice came out as a quiet croak but both men turned to look at her right away. She licked her lips and blinked drowsily when Reed filled a glass with water from a nearby pitcher and offered it to her, complete with a straw.

She nodded her thanks and put the straw between her lips, taking a few mouthfuls before she tried to speak again.

"He's just staying 'til I fall asleep. We're not talking or anything, promise. I asked him to stay 'cause I wanted some company. Wanted to know someone'd be right here, looking out for me."

Phlox looked at her, seeing his patient but also seeing a woman who'd been through a serious trauma and was seeking friendly comfort. He decided to relent. After all, he reasoned 'body and mind must both be cared for if a patient is to recover fully.'

Having thus convinced himself, Phlox nodded slowly and deliberately. "Very well, lieutenant, you may stay until she's fallen asleep, but I expect you to leave promptly afterwards."

Reed enthusiastically nodded his agreement and smiled more broadly than Phlox had ever seen him do in Sickbay.

"Thank you, doctor. You have my word, I'll leave straightaway."

Jean didn't bother to open her eyes all the way since it would've been far too hard, so she merely cracked a narrow slit to see the doctor. "Thanks, Phlox," she breathed, the words barely audible.

The slit closed when Phlox began to walk away and she conspiratorially whispered to Reed. "You and I really are his 'problem children', aren't we?" There was a hint of laughter in her voice.

He rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand, feeling the smoothness of her skin. He found it hard to believe that the small hand which he so easily held in his own had saved his life, and with the same blade that very nearly killed her. Reed sighed, not knowing how – or if – he would be able to content himself with just being her friend.

"Shhh. We can't talk, remember? You need to fall asleep."

"Sleep, right. That sounds good." She pressed her cheek into the pillow, mumbling to herself as she continued to drift off.

A minute or so later a bit of hair came loose and fell across her face, twitching across her cheek and making her fidget. It was obviously annoying her, but she was too asleep to know how to deal with it, so Reed got up from his chair and silently stepped towards her bed. Being careful not to rouse her, he reached across the bed and tucked the hair behind her ear with surprising gentleness.

He didn't move for a few moments, wanting to make sure that he hadn't woken her. When she stayed still, he relaxed, letting out a quiet breath which he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

Well, she's asleep and I'm standing up already. Best keep my word to Phlox, then.

He took another look, glad to see that she was sleeping peacefully. He gave her hand a final squeeze and then carefully uncurled his fingers from around hers, making sure that she was warm enough before leaving her bedside. He stopped and turned back to her just before he stepped through the privacy curtain, a relieved and affectionate smile drifting across his face.

"Goodnight, Matah Hari."