3

They broke into two teams and started to explore the forest, agreeing to meet at the shuttlepod in an hour. Trip and Archer went south, staying near the water, while Jean and Reed volunteered to go further into the woods in a northwest arc.

Jean and Reed went five hundred meters or so into the forest, walking around and taking scans of the local plant and animal life. After about half an hour they drifted a few meters apart. Reed was usually pretty quiet, but he hadn't said anything at all since they left the beach.

A strange rustling kind of noise behind one of the large plants attracted her attention. She started towards the sound, but then decided to scan the area before going any closer. As she took out the scanner she smiled to herself, realizing that some of Reed's cautiousness must be rubbing off on her.

The scanner picked up one human biosign behind the large plant. She put the scanner away and walked towards him, being careful to tread softly on the undergrowth. When she came around the trunk she saw that Reed was sitting on the ground and leaning against its base. His chin was propped up with one of his hands and that elbow was resting on his raised knee. It seemed like he was deep in thought, and every so often he'd shake his head slightly.

She came closer, trying to be silent so she wouldn't startle him, but when she'd almost reached him a twig snapped under her foot. Right away his head whipped around and she froze, caught in his surprised stare. A flash of something other than surprise passed over his face, but before she could say a word, he looked down at the ground. She studied him for a moment and then sat down next to him.

They sat together in silence for a few minutes before he spoke.

"Am I a coward?"

She looked at him sharply, more than surprised. "What?"

How could he even think that? Her face softened as she studied him closely. He was looking at her steadily and seemed to really want her opinion.

She shook her head, sighed, and linked her arm through his. "Of course you aren't. Sir, you're one of the bravest people I've ever met. I've known that ever since you risked your neck to pull me out of quicksand. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself in danger to protect other people, and you do that almost every day."

Some embarrassment crept into his face, but a smile started tugging at his mouth. He looked away from her and then back again critically. "Not every day. Most days I don't do much aside from running scans and performing routine system checks."

She rolled her eyes and gently poked him in the ribs with her elbow. "And how many of those system checks involve equipment that isn't weapons or related to the weapons systems? It takes guts to do what you do. I don't understand how you can't see that. "

He began to nod and then slowly shook his head. "Still, that" he gestured towards the lake, very thankful that trees were obscuring their view and they couldn't see the shoreline anymore, "that has to count against me." After all, how brave could he be if he couldn't keep his head on a mission?

"Facing your fears and doing what you have to in spite of them is brave, and that's exactly what you did today. You kept yourself together under some damn stressful circumstances. That's something you can be proud of. Everyone's afraid of something. People who aren't afraid of anything are the ones I worry about."

He stared straight ahead, not looking at her. "I suppose."

"Hey," she touched his arm again. "At least you like stickers."

When he'd first told her about his aquaphobia, one of the things she'd done to reassure him was telling him about a guy she met in college who had the silliest fear she'd ever heard of: he was deathly afraid of stickers. 'Your fear isn't silly,' she'd said to Reed. 'It's based in reality and it's something that could realistically harm you. You have absolutely no reason to be embarrassed. He, on the other hand...' She'd trailed off, trying to hide a grin. 'Him I'll laugh at. I mean, stickers! Honestly...'

He smiled, hastily clearing his throat. "Thank you. And I'm sorry for disappearing on you like that."

"Don't worry about it, sir, and please stop apologizing. Besides," she flashed him a secretive smile and her voice dropped to a whisper, "this never happened."

That coaxed a laugh out of him before he looked down at his hands, but then he caught sight of his scanner lying on the ground. Seeing the scanner instantly reminded him of their reason for being in the woods and on the planet in the first place. The smile began to fade from his face as he reluctantly picked up the scanner, dusted it off carefully, and then put it back in his pocket.

"Well, ensign, I suppose we should be going."

She watched him hesitate briefly and then stand up, and was a little surprised to find that she didn't want to go back to exploring just yet. It had been nice just sitting and talking to Reed, and, even if it hadn't lasted for more than a few minutes, she'd enjoyed spending time with her friend. True, they saw each other every day, but that was always in the context of being crewmates. It wasn't often that they could simply interact as friends.

"Yes sir, I suppose we should." She realized that her reluctance had shown in her voice, but found that she didn't really care. So he knew. So what? He didn't exactly seem thrilled about having to get back to business, either.

Reed's hand was extended in front of her, offering to help her up. She reached out to take it and a second later was on her feet again. Her mouth curled into a lopsided grin and her eyes shone mischievously. "Wanna play hooky?"

Reed's eyes went wide. "What?"

"Well," she scuffed her foot on the ground, suddenly regretting her suggestion. "We could keep talking for a little while, if you like. The captain and Trip won't be too worried if we're a few minutes late for the rendezvous. I miss just talking to you. It seems like we just grab an occasional conversation in the mess, and then one of us has to run off again."

For a fleeting moment, Reed was tempted to stay. She'd hit the nail on the head, seemingly echoing his thoughts. He also missed having good conversations with her. He enjoyed their easy friendship and regretted that over the past month it had taken a backseat to their other shipboard duties. Still, he knew that they should get to the rendezvous on time. It was better to not make the captain worry at all. The way their mission had gone so far, Archer might very well assume the worst.

He shook his head, wanting to avoid that eventuality but still reluctant to leave. "We should go, ensign." He softened slightly at her accusatory, puppy-dog expression. "We can always talk on the ship, we'll just have to make the time."

She nodded her assent, then picked up the medkit to signal her readiness to go. "Alright, sir. As long as I have your word."

He shook his head, marveling at the fact that she still trusted him even after his performance earlier that day. Simply incredible.

Reed smiled gently, holding up his right hand, palm out and three fingers extended in the Eagle scout salute. "Scout's honor."

They'd been heading away from the tree for about a minute, when she suddenly laughed quietly and shook her head. "Funny."

"What is?" He looked over at her curiously as a tight knot formed in his stomach, fervently praying that she wasn't laughing at him.

"It's just... " She looked up at him with her eyes sparkling. "I never thought I'd have to talk sense into you. Ever. I just always assumed it would be the other way 'round, like just now. I am the silly one..."

He smiled at her and nodded, letting out a relieved breath as the knot disappeared. "Well ensign, you are less sensible than I am most of the time."

There was a brief flicker of something behind his eyes when he spoke, but she wasn't sure what it was. She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment before touching his arm. "Did you think I was laughing at you?"

His pace slowed and he turned to her in surprise, wondering how on Earth she did that. "I was... concerned for a few moments."

When he looked over at her again, she seemed hurt. "Sir, I'd never do that to you." He nodded and began to pick up the pace, figuring that was what she'd say to anyone in this situation.

A glance at him as they sped up showed that his face was set in a rigid mask of professionalism. She sighed, reminding herself that Reed wasn't used to having close friends. To get through to him she would have to make sure he knew that she really meant what she was saying.

He wasn't just Malcolm Reed anymore, the man she'd become good friends with during survival training. Now he was Lieutenant Reed, ship's Armory officer, and to reach her friend she'd have to break through the tough shell that he'd spent so much time building up around himself.

She stepped in front of him, planting her feet and forcing him to stop. "Malcolm… I would never do that to you. You trusted me today and I take that very seriously. Please believe me. I won't jeopardize that trust by doing anything to hurt you. Ever."

His face relaxed and the mask slid away. "Thank you, ensign. I... I really appreciate it." He looked down at the path as he spoke, intently studying what appeared to be an alien pinecone, but then glanced up at her curiously when she linked her arm through his and gave a gentle tug.

"C'mon sir. We're supposed to rendezvous with the captain and Commander Tucker at the pod in ten minutes."

Reed nodded, enjoying the feeling of walking arm in arm with her. "Right."

They headed to the rendezvous and he smiled when she brushed up against him after a few meters, thinking that maybe trusting someone once in a while wasn't such a bad thing.