You haven't forgotten about Drown Malcolm Month, I hope! It's not easy to do the job with originality, but I couldn't let the month go by without trying... :-) This is set before the episode where Archer learns about Malcolm's acquaphobia.
Grateful thanks to RoaringMice, who beta read and suggested a fitting ending, when I was really stuck!
The lake's surface was perfectly inert, not a ripple disturbed its lifeless stillness. Not an insect buzzed by, or bird soared above it; not the slightest breeze stirred a leaf on the trees. In the dead of night, the lake was, in truth, dead.
Lifelessness could pose no threats, could it?
Malcolm took another, determined step forward. Perhaps it could, considering the many ghosts – no more alive than this expanse of water – that haunted his subconscious.
But not tonight.
Trip's subconscious was gently pushed aside as his mind drifted somewhat closer to the surface. Suspended between sleep and wakefulness, in the boundary where dreams can't quite be distinguished from reality, he could only vaguely acknowledge sensations, for thought was still safely tucked away.
A sensation of coldness. The water's indistinct darkness threatened to send a shiver down Malcolm's spine in spite of the warm air, but he fought it off. He took the last step to the waterline and lazily lowered on his haunches. Reaching a flat hand out, palm down, he let it hover as close to the surface as possible without disturbing it.
Disturbing the water. That was a new concept. Normally, it was the water disturbing him. Normally, its presence so close by – though still and silent – would be enough to put him on edge.
But tonight it was different.
Perched on the edge of awareness, Trip revelled in his comfortable relaxation, his worry-free state. The air was fresh-smelling, with hints of earth and grass.
It was redolent of other times, other places. Trip followed its path into memory and then dream, sinking deeper, into oblivion.
Three paths of yellowish light were beckoning him. Three: the perfect number. Three moons forming an arch, like an eyebrow lifted in challenge on the face of the universe. Malcolm let his gaze trace the yellow trails across the water all the way up to the bright spheres.
Yes, tonight it was different.
Trip's mind rose up from the depths once again, floating close enough to the surface to know that he was in no hurry to break through to it. Why disturb this peaceful abandonment? He was so pleasantly weightless; indeed until he moved a muscle he would not know that he still had a body.
The silence was complete, almost imposing; if he put an ear to it, he could hear it behind the soft rhythm of his breathing; stillness so all-encompassing he felt he had no right to shatter it.
Malcolm could remember the moment when his world had shattered. A moment frozen in time. A memory so fresh you'd think it had just happened. His father's disappointment was forever etched in his mind; his own feelings forever etched in his heart with painful chisel work. In that moment, suddenly old beyond his age, he had known nothing would ever be the same again. He had betrayed expectations. Expectations. A word. A probability. An intangible nothing. He had betrayed nothing and yet he was a traitor.
Malcolm closed his eyes, deepening his breathing to push the memory down, down and back into its cage, where most of the time he managed to keep it locked.
Trip shifted position and was locked in an uncomfortable embrace. He struggled against the light blanket he had covered himself with, more for cosiness than a need to keep warm. The movement finally pulled him back to full awareness. Having broken the spell, he yawned and limply rolled on his back, lifting a hand to rub his sleepy eyes.
Lifting one bare foot, for a moment Malcolm kept his balance on one leg; then slowly put the foot down, piercing his quiet enemy. Concentric ripples sped away, like intruder alerts. Malcolm allowed the second foot to follow. Ankle-deep in water, he felt the soft, muddy bottom give way a little under his weight. Calmly, he twisted back to watch his footprints on the shore, nice and neat. As if somebody had disappeared.
Turning back to the yellow paths, he waded forth; one step, and then another. The cool wetness gradually seeped up his sweatpants. Ignoring the unpleasant feeling of soggy material against his skin, he went on, arms wrapped around his bare chest.
Trip's chest heaved as he took in a deep breath.
Cracking his eyes open, he saw that it was dark. Still a few hours before dawn.
Letting the air slowly out, he allowed his eyelids to droop closed again, quite content to heed once more the sweet pull of unconsciousness.
Something came to tug him the other way.
He could feel the slight tug of a weak underwater current, right at the bottom, near his feet.
Now the water was up to his lower ribcage. Malcolm stopped. He was walking right into a lake, an alien lake, at night, alone.
A smile crept up his face. His heart was beating loudly with excitement, making him feel alive. He pushed forward, feet shuffling tentatively in the soft mud, legs pushing against the friction of the water.
Tonight there was no fear, no turning back.
The bottom sloped suddenly deeper and he felt the liquid rise to his chest; he opened his arms for balance.
Tonight was different.
Something was different. Trip didn't quite know what. He would have shrugged it off and turned on the other side, if it hadn't been for a nagging voice that told him he should not.
He forced his sluggish senses to focus. Complete silence still surrounded him, almost threateningly. Maybe that was what had kept pulling him back from the arms of Morpheus; maybe he'd become so used to having the throb of a warp engine in the background that this stillness had disturbed his sleep cycle. Mind you, there was always Malcolm's snoring, which largely compensated for–
Wait a second… Trip held his breath and then it struck him: the emptiness, the absence.
As he pushed to a sitting position, he already knew that he was alone. Indeed, Malcolm was no longer there. The tent's opening had been unzipped and a sliver of yellowish light was seeping through the narrow gap.
He probably left to relieve himself – Trip reasoned. One of the drawbacks of spending an evening drinking around a campfire.
Dropping back down flat on his back, Trip smiled at the memory of Archer suddenly appearing from the Shuttlepod with three bottles of beer hanging from each hand. He and Malcolm had shared a surprised glance – had the man hidden the beer on the vessel beforehand, or had he just asked to have it beamed down? Their faces had soon mellowed into a smile of approval: it was only appropriate that they toast their one-night shore leave. It wasn't very often one got to sleep off ship.
Trip had loved the Captain's idea of camping out on the planet they were studying, while the science teams returned to the ship. Green eyes narrowing, Jon had said, "Maybe I'll ask Malcolm too. He'd probably worry if we were to stay here by ourselves. We don't want him to toss and turn all night."
In the end it had turned out a quiet, companionable evening; and Malcolm, surprisingly, had seemed almost at ease in the Captain's presence. He had probably appreciated having been asked to be of the party, and felt he had to try his best to be good company.
Trip's thoughts were drawn back the present. Well, Malcolm may not have tossed and turned all night, but if he had got up because of nature's call, he was really taking a bit too long.
On the other hand he might have heard a noise and felt he had to investigate it – his conscience nagged. He is the Security Officer; a light-sleeper.
It was no good. Trip blew out a frustrated breath. Now that he knew the man was up and about, he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep before he'd made sure everything was okay. Indeed, technically it was his duty.
With a sigh, he pushed to a sitting position again; then crawled out of the tent.
It was a beautiful night, with the planet's three small moons providing quite a bit of light. Trip looked up at the pretty sight they offered, grateful for the added brightness; he had always found it eerie to be out in the open after dark, when all you could perceive were shapes and shadows; when even the most charming places could be changed into nightmarish landscapes.
Rising to his full height, Trip shifted his gaze from the three bright spheres and scanned the meadow on the edge of which they had set up camp, at the foot of a rock face. Extending between a forest and a rather large lake, with rock on one side, it was a gently sloping stretch of land big enough to park a Shuttlepod on. Trip could make out the vessel pretty clearly, right in the middle of the field. It looked undisturbed. Archer's tent also looked undisturbed, a few meters to the left of his and Malcolm's. In the distance were the ominous, looming shadows of the first line of tall trees. Trip hoped he didn't have to go seek Malcolm in there. Even with three moons, he wouldn't be crazy about the idea.
His hands went to his hips. Where the hell was the damn man?
A sound made him turn abruptly to the only place he had not thought of checking.
He almost burst out laughing. A night dip was the last thing he would have expected; especially from Malcolm. Rigid Reed really had set his formality aside this time.
"Hey, Lieutenant," Trip said in a loud whisper – for Archer was sleeping nearby – as he started down to the shore. "You're not in the buff, are you?" That would be something.
Malcolm didn't seem to have heard him. Trip grinned widely; he should get his camera, while the man was unaware of him. He turned about; but that nagging voice spoke again, pulling him to a halt.
Swivelling slowly, Trip studied his friend, and his smile gradually fell. Something wasn't adding up. Although he had spoken softly, in the silence and with the presence of water he was sure his voice had carried quite far; plus Malcolm was always very aware of what was going on around him. Yet there he was, standing chest-deep in the water, some ten metres from the shore, with his back to the land, motionless. Indeed, the man must have been quite still for a while, because despite the light of three moons, Trip hadn't noticed his presence until that faint splashing noise.
Trip frowned. Come to think of it, this really wasn't what he would expect Lieutenant Malcolm Reed to do, alone at night, on an alien planet. There probably was even a rule in the Starfleet book forbidding it.
"Malcolm?" he called, allowing his vocal chords to vibrate, this time. He retraced a couple of steps back towards the shore.
Malcolm turned abruptly, his rotating arms ruffling the surface and breaking the yellow stripes of reflected light into a myriad of wavelets. He blinked; he looked surprised. He took in his surroundings and seemed to tense.
Trip frowned. Had the man been sleepwalking? As far as he knew you weren't supposed to wake up someone who walked in their sleep – which was what he had just done, dammit.
"Easy," Trip said, a bit too loud and urgently, raising his hands, palms out. If he wasn't careful he'd end up waking the Captain. More softly, he added, "Everything's okay."
That may not be true; but he figured the best he could do at this point was to try and calm his startled friend.
Malcolm's eyes shifted from the water back to him, wide. He seemed frozen in place.
And then, in the bright light of those three yellow moons, Trip thought he saw… It almost looked like… He blinked. Surely he must be hallucinating; T'Pol had found no traces of…
The perfectly flat surface boiled.
"Behind you! Get away!" Trip screamed.
Tentacles twined around Malcolm's chest. The man's hands flew to them, and he tried to pry them away, his face contorted in a grimace of distress.
With a bubbling of water he was gone, pulled under.
Trip made to take off towards the water, but a firm hand caught him by the arm.
"Archer to the Bridge."
Out of the blue, the Captain had materialised; like Trip, he was in regulation briefs and T-shirt. He had his communicator in one hand and a phase pistol in the other.
"We've got to help him!" Trip cried out, heart thumping loudly against his ribcage.
"Not before we know what we're dealing with, and that's an order," Archer said firmly, though his eyes spoke of deep conflict.
Trip dragged his gaze away from the Captain and turned it back to the lake. Amidst splashes and churning water, a fierce struggle seemed to be going on.
"Go ahead," an unmistakable voice said.
"T'Pol, scan the lake immediately, something has attacked Malcolm, something big," Archer urged.
Breaking free from his grip, Trip staggered right down to the water's edge. He passed both hands through his hair, cursing under his breath; mad at Archer, at himself. Yes, even at himself; because after his first instinctive reaction, fear now had him in its grip and he didn't think he'd be strong enough to run to Malcolm's rescue. Horrified, he watched an arm appear, only to be dragged back under the surface by a sinuous appendage. His breath caught, and he felt nausea rise in his throat.
"Captain, I am not reading any biosigns, other than yours and the Commander's," T'Pol's voice said, tension lacing it despite her Vulcan control. "As you know, instruments show that the planet's fauna is not–"
"Instruments are wrong!" Archer cut her off in frustration.
Trip shot a glance over his shoulder and saw him aim the phase pistol at the water. Swivelling, he placed himself in the line of fire. "The water is conductive!" he choked out, hands raised in a stopping gesture.
Archer pushed him resolutely aside. "I know! But it's on stun, lowest setting."
"Captain," T'Pol's voice floated out of the communicator. "What is happening?"
A second later a red beam hit the churning water. Archer kept firing for what seemed like ages; then lowered the weapon.
The silence that ensued was more ominous, possibly, than the frantic splashing that had preceded it. The surface of the lake was once again unbroken, though an irregular motion of waves held witness to the struggle that had disrupted the peace of that idyllic scenery.
Trip exchanged a worried glance with Archer. Neither spoke. They scanned the water with desperate eyes, but it was dark and impenetrable, and no form, human or otherwise could be seen.
"Captain," T'Pol's voice sounded again, prompting a reply.
Archer brought the communicator to his lips. "T'Pol, scan the lake for Malcolm's biosigns," he said in a low rumble.
Trip could read the man's tension on his face.
"I cannot find them," T'Pol's said after a brief pause. "The water must be blocking readings. I would caution against going into it. It is logical to think that---"
"Yes, but logic won't save Malcolm!" Archer burst out, cutting her off once again. His face twisted in a grimace of contrasted feelings. T'Pol's words had to have made an impression, though, for he didn't look ready to jump in, at least not yet. "It must be close to two minutes now," he said tautly, eyes stubbornly searching the water.
Trip was numb. He couldn't think of anything to say; or do. He considered himself a fairly brave man – after all, he wouldn't be serving on a deep-space mission if he were faint-hearted; but to dive into the dark waters of an alien lake where some large, mysterious and dangerous creature lived took more courage than he felt he had. He had also always considered himself an instinctive person; but now all of a sudden he felt as prone to follow impulse as a Vulcan. Going in is likely to end up costing more lives than the one it is supposed to save, the voice of reason insisted, expanding in his mind. Coward, his conscience whispered, peeking timidly from behind the big painful lump in his chest.
Trip winced and looked down at his feet, and his heart skipped a beat.
"Capt'n…" he stuttered, pointing to the water. Near the shore, where it was shallow, moments before it had been perfectly transparent; now something was staining it. Could it be…
"I'm going in," Archer decided, throwing the communicator and phase pistol on the grass.
And that's when they saw him: an immobile form, floating face down, some ten, twelve meters from shore.
Archer cursed and took off, taking a few big leaps before diving head first. A second later Trip was following him, suddenly unmindful of the dangers that might lurk in the dark.
With a few, powerful strokes, the Captain reached Malcolm and turned him face up. "He doesn't seem to be breathing," he cried out to Trip, who wasn't as fast a swimmer as the ex-waterpolo player.
When Trip caught up with him, Archer was already swimming back to shore with Malcolm's listless body in tow. Eyes glued to the lifeless face, Trip helped bring the Lieutenant back onto firm ground, supporting his head and neck.
"CPR," Archer tersely instructed, placing his hands flat on Malcolm's chest.
Trip silently bent to breathe into Malcolm's mouth.
"Come on, Lieutenant," Archer said tautly, as he rhythmically compressed the man's chest. "You're not dying on this planet, you hear me?"
Trip forced himself to do his part and ignore how unresponsive Malcolm felt under his fingers. Every time it was Archer's turn, his eyes kept going back to the pale face.
"Dammit, this is no way to go," Archer growled, dripping water with every compression. "Come back to us, Lieutenant; that's an order!"
But Malcolm remained still and very white, except for the angry stripes that marked his chest and shoulders, where that creature had attached itself to him.
They were both starting to lose hope when the inert body finally twitched. Archer quickly turned Malcolm on one side, panting heavily as he patted his back. Immediately, Malcolm started bringing up water, coughing and sputtering, and it was a good few minutes before he was more or less done. Finally, he lay spent and trembling like a leaf.
"Trip, get a blanket," Archer ordered, still out of breath.
When Trip returned, Malcolm was sitting up, hugging himself tightly; Archer was speaking with Phlox.
Trip draped the blanket around his shivering friend's shoulders. Malcolm winced as the material touched his injured skin, but immediately pulled it closer, darting Trip a quick acknowledging glance.
"You okay?" Trip mumbled, still quite shaken.
Malcolm nodded. He didn't seem to be able to control his trembling.
Archer flipped the communicator shut and joined them, lowering onto his haunches.
"Phlox wants you transported back on Enterprise, Lieutenant," he said, placing a fatherly hand on Malcolm's shoulder. "He's waiting for you."
Malcolm's face, so very much younger and defenceless than they were used to, wet hair matted on his forehead, turned to the Captain. "Aye, Sir," he managed, through chattering teeth.
"See you soon in Sickbay."
Archer got up, and he and Trip stepped back. It wasn't long before Malcolm had disappeared.
For a long moment they couldn't break their immobility, feeling the exhaustion left by the drop in adrenaline. But though the air was warm, they were soaked; and soon a shiver was travelling down Trip's spine.
"You okay?" Archer asked hoarsely, unknowingly echoing Trip's own question to Malcolm.
Trip found himself nodding just as the Lieutenant had; but then something snapped in him. "Actually, no," he amended tautly. "I'm not okay. But I wouldn't expect, or even want to be, after what just happened."
Archer's green eyes bore into him. "What the hell happened, anyway?" he asked frowningly. "Why was Malcolm in the water in the first place?"
"I'll be damned if I know." Pulling on the back of his neck with one hand, Trip tried to gather his thoughts. "I woke up and he wasn't there, and when I went to look for him..." Pensively, he concluded, "He didn't look like himself; he almost seemed to be sleepwalking."
Archer considered the words for a moment. "Come on," he finally said. "Let's get into something dry. Then we'll break down the tents and get back to Enterprise."
Trip took a step and a reflection caught his eye. There was an object in the grass, near the spot where Malcolm had lain. He picked it up. "A knife," he said, showing it to Archer. "It must be Malcolm's. It's wet." It was a pocket knife with a handle in wood that had seen better times. In the commotion it had gone unnoticed.
Archer took it and turned it in his hands. "So now we know why the water was stained," he reasoned. A pale smile appeared on his lips. "Trust Malcolm to hold onto his knife even when…" His smile fell. "Unconscious," he concluded, though Trip could tell another word had crossed his mind.
T'Pol caught up with Archer and Trip at a fork in the corridor as they strode towards Sickbay. She exchanged a glance with them, and they walked in silence for a few steps, before she spoke.
"It was unfortunate that the instruments were wrong, Captain," she said, a hint of something making her voice less Vulcanly impassive. "They still do not register any life forms larger than a rodent, on the planet."
Archer let out a sarcastic snort. "So much for our state-of-the-art technology," he commented. "That thing down there was certainly larger than a rodent."
"How's Malcolm?" Trip enquired, wanting to move past this useless point of discussion. More than one hour had passed since the man had been transported back to the ship.
"When I left Sickbay, the Doctor was treating some burns on the Lieutenant's skin."
Trip winced as the image of sinuous tentacles wrapping around Malcolm's chest replayed in his mind.
In Sickbay Phlox was at his desk.
"Doctor," Archer said, entering.
Phlox cast a look over his shoulder and rose. "Ah, Captain. I was expecting you."
His voice sounded reassuringly cheerful – though admittedly with Phlox that might not mean much. As he turned to face them he broke into a Denobulan smile.
"Lieutenant Reed will be fine," he said. "Thanks to you and the Commander, I might add. You revived him with commendable speed and efficiency."
It hadn't felt so to Trip; but tension finally began to seep away from him, and Archer visibly relaxed for the first time.
"No brain damage, no sign of heart problems, not even a hint of lung infection," Phlox went on happily. "I had to treat some nasty burns on Mister Reed's chest and shoulders, however; caused by an acid substance that creature secreted. I will keep him in Sickbay under observation, at least for one night."
"May we see him?" the Captain asked, casting a glance to the drawn privacy curtain.
"See him? Yes, of course," Phlox said. "But you won't be able to speak to him. I gave him something to make him rest."
Phlox led the way to Malcolm's biobed, and for a moment they watched the pale man sleep, his soft, easy breathing chasing away any residual worry. Then the Doctor herded them out and closed the curtain again.
"How about you and the Commander?" Phlox enquired, his blue gaze assessing. "Anything to report to your Doctor?"
"We're okay, Doc, thanks," Archer replied for them both. "A bit of rest and we'll be like new."
As they walked away, Archer cast T'Pol a side glance.
"I was surprised to find you still on the Bridge when I paged from the planet," he said. "It was rather late."
T'Pol returned the glance, eyebrows going up. "I was... unable to sleep. If it weren't illogical, I would say I was sensing that something was about to happen."
Trip watched Archer frown at the words.
"As soon as you have finished collecting the last data, take us out of orbit," the Captain said darkly. "Something is strange about what happened; about Malcolm's behaviour, about that lake. I don't want to risk any more 'accidents'," he said, stressing that last word.
"Understood," T'Pol acknowledged, gracefully tilting her head.
O-eight-hundred. Trip pressed the companel on Malcolm's door and waited, growing more ill-at-ease with every second that ticked by. Maybe he shouldn't have come. Maybe Malcolm was resting. Maybe he should go away.
The door suddenly opened and Malcolm was there, loose shirt worn outside dark jeans.
"I passed by Sickbay and..." Trip cocked his head, leaving the rest unsaid. "Mind if I come in?" he enquired, forcing himself not to shy away from grey eyes that looked uncharacteristically insecure, making him feel even more like an intruder.
"No…" Malcolm stuttered. He stepped aside, and Trip walked past him.
"I was surprised Phlox had released you already," he said, getting to the desk and turning. He took a long assessing look at his friend, not caring that he was being obvious. He was pleased by what he saw. If one disregarded those troubled eyes, Malcolm looked okay.
"He had no reason to keep me," Malcolm replied, still at the door. "He monitored me while I slept, and said I passed all the tests."
At least someone had slept. Trip heaved an inner sigh. He himself had tossed and turned in his impossible quest to find a comfortable position. Or had it been his impossible quest to find some peace of mind?
"I'm off-duty, though," Malcolm went on, finally stepping closer. "I'll have to go back twice a day for treatment."
He seemed to be looking for something to say, anything that would fill the silence, because for sure it wasn't like him to talk about anything that had to do with his health.
"Those..." He faltered, wincing. "They secreted some sort of acid. They burned my skin."
Trip's eyes shifted to his friend's partly unbuttoned shirt, to the bandages that could be seen under it. He grimaced. "Hurts?"
Malcolm's mouth curved downwards. "Phlox is making sure it doesn't." He gestured to the chair as he lowered himself carefully on the bed.
Trip didn't need to be asked twice. By the time Archer and he had got back on Enterprise and in their quarters, it had been nearly o-three-hundred, ship time. He had taken a shower and had looked forward to a few hours of shuteye, but... Every couple of snores he had found himself sitting front-row at the movies – and the choice of horror film hadn't been to his taste. Four hours of disrupted sleep didn't leave you very rested.
Picking up the single data pad that was placed right in the middle of Malcolm's uncluttered desk, Trip began to fiddle with it, balancing it on one side.
"Have you talked to the Capt'n?" he asked, glancing up as he fleetingly wondered if Archer had managed where he had failed: sleep.
Malcolm licked his lips uneasily. "Not yet." His eyes darted away, to some spot on the deck-plating. "I'm not looking forward to it," he admitted, in his dark voice.
Well, at least the man felt comfortable enough in his company not to hide his feelings – Trip mused. It was good to know that their friendship had progressed to the point where the reserved Lieutenant was willing to let him cast a glance over the fence. Maybe coming here had been a good idea after all.
Tautly, Malcolm concluded, "I wouldn't blame the Captain if he kicked me all the way back to steward."
Trip frowned. It was all so confusing. Images of Malcolm turning abruptly to his voice, looking surprised to find himself where he had been, flashed before his mind's eye.
"What happened down there?" he asked, directly. "I mean, it's not like you to be careless; and takin' a swim all alone in an alien lake at night is not exactly a thoughtful thing to do."
Malcolm's eyes shot up, flashing with some strong emotion. "I didn't go for a swim," he said animatedly. "Bloody hell, I would never…" Leaning forward, he clasped the edge of the bed. "When you called me I suddenly… I had been dreaming," he concluded, in a mutter.
Trip had thought about it a lot, and had decided he wasn't buying the idea that someone could sleepwalk into a lake without waking up.
"Malcolm, you were chest-deep in water…"
Malcolm passed a hand over his face. When he re-emerged, he looked painfully lost.
"It wasn't really a dream," he croaked out. "It was something… different." He frowned. "I was aware of what I was doing – sort of – and yet… I couldn't help it. I woke up in our tent, and it was as if someone or something was calling me; I had to go in the water. Like a challenge. I remember feeling... good about it."
Silence fell for a moment. Trip had not seen this coming. He thought Malcolm's words over.
"Do you think it could've somethin' to do with that creature?" he wondered at length. Nothing could be ruled out.
The answer came fast and with startling vehemence.
"I don't know. I don't bloody care." The grey eyes scrunched shut. "I only want to forget. And I can't."
Trip had never seen Malcolm's emotions so close to the surface. It made him feel uncomfortable, as if he was trespassing into some private land he had no right to step on – or even see.
"Hey, give yourself a little time," he said gently. "You nearly died down on that planet. In fact, technically you did."
Suddenly Malcolm was up on his feet; as if by pacing he could outrun his thoughts.
"It all happened so fast," he said, getting to the far wall and turning. "I didn't know what was going on… what had pulled me under… I thrashed about, struggling against those…"
They were broken sentences, troubled flashbacks.
"And all I could think of was that my lungs were on fire, and I was about to…" Stopping, he concluded almost to himself, with a soft huff, "Drown, light years away from–"
This time, with a self-conscious glance in Trip's direction, he cut himself off.
The account didn't help Trip's guilt one bit.
"Malcolm, I'm sorry," he blurted out tautly. "My first reaction was to jump in to help you. The Capt'n stopped me; said we didn't know what we were facin'."
"The Captain was right," Malcolm quietly asserted. "No point risking any more lives."
But Trip couldn't stop there.
"And then I got numb with fear," he forced out, seeking Malcolm's gaze. "My friend was fightin' for his life and I was frozen, I couldn't move. I've been feeling terrible ever since; like a damn coward."
There, he had said it.
Malcolm blinked. "Cowards die many times before their deaths," he croaked out abstractedly. "The valiant never taste of death but once."
Trip bit his lip, wincing, and the grey eyes refocused on him.
"You're no coward, Trip," Malcolm said quietly. "It's something my father used to tell me all the time." His mouth curved in a fragile smile. "If you hadn't got up to look for me in the first place, if you had turned on the other side and gone back to sleep, I wouldn't be alive now. Phlox said you and the Captain gave me CPR," he added, a cloud passing over his face.
Those frantic moments were going to be hard to forget.
"The Capt'n set his pistol on stun and fired," Trip began; it was his time to recall. "And after a couple of minutes we saw you, floating face-down in the water." He watched Malcolm tense up, but it wasn't by keeping things inside that they would manage to move past this experience. "When we got you on dry ground, you weren't breathin'."
They looked at each other, each fighting their own demons.
"I was in some dark place, the famous tunnel," Malcolm mumbled. "And light was at the end. I wanted to go to it, but something was holding me back. I think there were voices."
"One voice, the Capt'n's," Trip corrected, deadpan. "Cursin' and tellin' you to get back."
And now it was Malcolm wincing, and Trip hurrying to explain, "He was only scared we'd lose you."
Closing the gap to the bed, Malcolm let himself drop despondently back on it. "To think that he had finally seen my point; that he should include Security with an away party," he commented with a bitter huff. "Now he must be convinced for good that it's better to leave it – or at least his Security Officer – on board."
"Nah," Trip dismissed.
He heaved an inner sigh. Weren't they all back, safe and sound? That was the important thing.
He narrowed his gaze. "So," he enquired, with a sudden change of tone. "Who defeated the monster in the end, you or the Captain?"
He had actually wondered, while he was tossing and turning in bed.
Malcolm looked up blankly. "How am I supposed to know?" he blurted out. "At some point things just got blurred."
"I guess it was the Capt'n, then," Trip concluded innocently. He rubbed his chin to hide a smile when he saw Malcolm frown as he rose to the bait.
"I'm certain I did quite a bit of damage," the Lieutenant said stiffly. "At least as much as that bloody beast did to me. Good thing I had my trusted knife." On the coda of that, his face twisted in a smirk of displeasure. "I'm only sorry I lost it. It was a present from my grandfather."
Trip raised eyebrows à-la-T'Pol; then unzipped a leg pocket and, stretching his limb, reached into it. He couldn't hold back a grin seeing Malcolm follow his movements uncomprehendingly.
"Ya mean this little toy here?"
"I'll be damned, yes!"
Trip handed Malcolm the knife he had found on the grass, pleased to see his friend finally shed some of his sombreness.
Opening it, Malcolm passed a loving finger flat over its blade. "You oiled it," he said in surprise, flicking Trip a grateful glance.
"It was all wet; and it looked old; I figured I had to take good care of it for you."
The grey eyes mellowed, losing some of the edge that had been there.
"Now, if only you volunteered to give Archer a report in my place," Malcolm muttered under his breath.
Trip rolled his eyes. "Come on, Malcolm, what are you afraid of? You did nothin' wrong. Somethin' strange went on down there; it's obvious. We'll never even know what," he added with a snort.
"Besides, the Capt'n is probably just as nervous about talkin' to you, as you are bout talkin' to him."
That got Malcolm's attention. "What do you mean?" he asked, intrigued.
Trip debated for a moment if he should reveal what he knew. Would it be a breach of confidence if he told Malcolm?
Ah – what the heck; why not give the Lieutenant a little leg up, for once.
"I know the Capt'n feels bad about firin' into the water," he said, with a meaningful dance of the eyebrows. "He's afraid that's what endangered your life."
"Nonsense," Malcolm countered right away. "It was the only sensible thing to do."
He was frowning, though, looking to be turning the words in his mind.
The bell rang.
Trip cast a look towards the door. "Well, I guess you get a chance to tell him that," he said, waving a thumb. He rose, echoing Malcolm's groan with a chuckle.
"Capt'n," Trip cheerfully greeted his surprised C.O., opening the door in Malcolm's place.
"Trip…" Archer cast a nervous look past him. "Fancy meeting you here."
Malcolm joined them at the door. "Good morning, Sir."
"Malcolm." A forced smile appeared on Archer's face. "Glad to see you up and about." He cleared his throat. "Phlox told me I'd find you here, and I thought I'd see how you were doing. May I come in for a moment?"
"Of course, Sir. Please."
Trip shifted his gaze from one officer to the other, gauging their degrees of nervousness. Right now Archer definitely looked at a disadvantage.
"Well, I'll leave you two," he said, with innocent thoughtfulness.
"Yeah. See you later, Trip."
As Archer walked towards the desk, Trip gave Malcolm a quick wink. "Don't be too hard on him, Lieutenant," he whispered. "He's still your Captain."
A narrowed-eye look pinned him down, before the door slid shut.
Trip started along the corridor, laughing softly. He could imagine the tongue-tied conversation that would take place between those two. Captain, I am prepared to face any punishment as you see fit… Actually, Lieutenant, I have come to apologise…
T'Pol swivelled in her chair and leaned over to access her special viewer. The lake appeared, its colours softened by a thin morning mist. Still and peaceful, it bore no evidence of the drama that had played out on its shores just hours before.
Repressing a sigh, T'Pol focused on her job. She had meditated longer then usual the evening before, yet still felt strangely uneasy. She would collect the last data needed from the planet and…
Her spine stiffened, and she almost blinked, a frown coming to crease her brow. She watched for a moment; then, fighting a shiver, straightened and pushed the viewer back into its recess. It wasn't what she had seen – she wasn't sure she'd actually seen anything – it was more of a feeling… No, that wasn't logical.
But nor was it logical to deny the truth of what she'd… sensed. Ill intent. Violence. Malevolence. And a being well aware of their – of her – presence.
"Ensign Mayweather," she said.
The Helmsman turned to her.
"Break orbit, quarter impulse. Go to warp as soon as possible."
"What course, Ma'am?"
T'Pol looked into the questioning dark gaze. She lifted her eyebrows.
"Away from this planet, Ensign."
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