Author Notes: Once again, thank you for the wonderful feedback - it's nice to know when people think my writing's worth reading! Hope you enjoy this last instalment!
Trip had been on his way to the mess hall to grab breakfast when he almost collided with Phlox. A quick rapid exchange of words, and Trip was running. Hoshi had called Phlox from the mess hall, apparently having come in for breakfast and seen Malcolm asleep at one of the tables. Predicting what could happen as more people began coming in, but not wanting to touch the man to wake him up, Hoshi had quickly contacted Phlox.
When they burst into the hall, Malcolm was no longer asleep. He was doubled over in what looked to be a hell of a lot of pain, clutching his head, and clearly not at all aware of what was being yelled. What perhaps surprised Trip the most, as he stood momentarily frozen, was the sight of the diminutive Hoshi furiously wrenching a much bulkier armoury crewman away from Malcolm, trying to break the concerned handhold he had on the man's shoulder. She was successful just moments before Phlox hurried over, quickly depressing a hypospray into Malcolm's neck. It took effect almost immediately, as Malcolm's whole body went limp, and Trip barely darted forward in time to catch him and lower him to the floor, "Damn, Doc, how much juice did you put in that thing?"
The normally cheerful Phlox sighed grimly, "I thought it prudent to knock him out as soon as possible. We should get him to sickbay."
And then for the first time, Trip expanded his awareness of the hall to beyond just Malcolm, Hoshi, and the now rather contrite-looking Crewman Parish. There wasn't even that many people there...definitely not the fullest he had ever seen the mess hall.
So much for Malcolm's empathy gradually dissipating over the week...
They now stood in sickbay discussing options with Captain Archer also present; T'Pol was on duty on the bridge. Jon had been out walking Porthos when he had gotten the call, and now the ever excitable beagle was staring up at them from his master's feet. Malcolm had woken up not too long ago thanks to some of Phlox's magic potions, and had explained what he thought had happened. Trip couldn't blame him – he would have been going crazy staring at those four walls for so long too. Hell, he didn't think he would have even lasted for the three days Malcolm had.
Phlox shook his head, "At this point, I would strongly advise returning to Betazed. They might be able to help, and give us a more accurate timescale of how much longer this intensity will last." They had left the planet's orbit not long after the incident, both the Vulcans and Starfleet keen not to create any further incident that might impede relations. They had been due to return after Malcolm had recovered, in the meantime keeping in long distance communication range of the planet.
"I'm beginning to think you're right." Jon nodded, sighing. Malcolm, for his part, sat a few beds away from the discussion, his head still hurting like hell, and not wanting to get too close. He didn't really seem to be following the conversation, slightly zoned out as he stared at the opposite wall. Jon turned back to the group, "But we're still at quite a distance away – could you do anything over communications?"
"I could send them readings of Lieutenant Reed's more recent scans – it would mean they would be fully prepared when we arrive."
Jon nodded, "Do it."
"And until then?" Trip asked.
"We'll just have to try and stop our Lieutenant from going on any more wanders. Perhaps set aside areas during the night where he could go to get out of his quarters? Though I would not feel comfortable him being unaccompanied."
"I know. I don't like this place either." Malcolm's voice floated over to them, completely unexpected and not entirely making sense. The three turned to see Malcolm still sitting on the biobed, but instead of his legs dangling over the edge like before, he was now sitting cross-legged, with the head of a certain beagle in his lap. Porthos yipped in agreement to his statement. "It's the smell, isn't it? Medical facilities always have the same damn smell...I suppose it's worse for you."
Porthos wagged his tail, rising to place his paws against Malcolm's chest. Malcolm grinned tiredly, "Sorry, I can't play. I'm stuck here." There was a pause, "Yes. It's not fun at all."
Trip was having serious trouble trying to keep from laughing at the bizarre scene. Malcolm had never really interacted with the beagle before, and yet here he was, having a one-sided conversation with the dog's emotions. Jon's face was split into a huge grin, "Are you two okay over there?"
At the sound of Jon's voice, both human and dog looked up, realising they were the subject of scrutiny. Porthos yapped out a joyful bark in return, quickly catching Malcolm off guard with a large lick down the left side of his face before jumping back down to join his master. Malcolm made a good-natured sound of disgust as he wiped his face with his sleeve, shrugging as he smiled with the other men's amusement, "Dogs are easier."
Trip snorted, "Feeling better?"
Malcolm shrugged, "I suppose as well as I can be expected to feel all considering. Can I leave now?" He might have been desperate to escape his quarters, but that didn't mean he wanted to stay here for any longer than necessary. Phlox's menagerie of creatures, for one, was much more noticeable than they had been before. The simplest of emotions, of course, but that didn't make them any less perceptible.
"I'm afraid there are rather too many people about between here and your quarters for me to feel comfortable releasing you, Lieutenant." Phlox shook his head.
"But I can't stay here all day!" Malcolm blurted it out without thinking, the sudden idea of being in close proximity to Phlox's completely dizzying emotions for so long making him feel really quite ill.
"Malcolm, Phlox knows what he's doing." Jon said gently, but Malcolm was already unfolding his limbs and slipping ungainly to the floor, clearly very determined.
"No! I'm sorry, sir, but I'm not staying here. I can't."
Phlox strode forwards, automatically with his hand out, "Lieutenant, I must insist-"
Malcolm almost leapt backwards, thankfully hitting the wall with his back, preventing him from going over completely, "Don't touch me!" Quieter, he shakily repeated, "Please don't touch me."
Obediently, Phlox took a step back, "I apologise, Lieutenant. But you must see why it would be bad for you to leave. We would only have a repeat of what happened this morning, and you would find yourself back here again anyway."
Desperately, Malcolm tried to achieve some form of equilibrium, clenching his fists against the wall and gritting his teeth. Just breathe. Calm down. It didn't help – Phlox was still too close, a crashing maelstrom of emotional contradictions.
And then rescue came in the form of Trip, "My quarters are closer. We could restrict access to a quick route there without too much disruption." Phlox wavered mentally with uncertainty as Malcolm wavered physically with yet another emotion to add to the mix, "C'mon, Doc, he's clearly not going to be able to last out a whole day here."
"Very well." Phlox sighed, and moved away.
Jon indicated to Trip, "Get on with clearing a route; I'll go and speak with T'Pol about our course change – Porthos!"
The beagle had darted forwards again, and Malcolm felt a wet nudge at his hand. He smiled down at the bundle of energy, the must simpler emotions washing away the remnants of the more complex Denobulan's. "Thanks." He murmured, before Porthos turned completely and skidded in an uncoordinated manner on the polished floor back to the captain.
Dog concern was so much nicer than human...
When Trip came back to his quarters after shift, he found Malcolm asleep on the couch, a PADD held limply in his hand. After only a moment, Malcolm began to stir, and Trip knew it wasn't because he had been making too much noise. He sighed, once again being reminded how hard this must be for his usually so emotionally reserved friend. The PADD clattered to the floor as Malcolm shifted and sat up, blinking dazedly. Trip bent to pick it up, briefly glancing at it, raising an eyebrow with incredulity, "Work? You're doing work? Does the phrase down-time mean anything to you?"
"After three days of novels, you'd be sick of them too." Malcolm replied dryly. "And the armoury won't run itself."
"Yes it will – that what your team is for!"
Malcolm snorted, "Please, you're saying that you could bear to be apart from your precious engine for this long? With nothing really tangible to stop you from going there?"
Trip paused, "Okay. Point taken. You up for some food? Chef said he'd send some down if I gave him a buzz."
Malcolm shrugged, "I'm not hungry."
Trip looked him sceptically, "Uh huh." This was shortly followed by a flicker of mischief before a long pause, and then-
Malcolm yelped, "What the hell was that?"
Trip shrugged innocently, "Phlox keeps banging on about trying to control our emotions around you, so I thought I'd try the reverse. I personally am very hungry."
Malcolm glared, "Yes. I noticed. And now, apparently, so I am. Though seeing as I've never experienced a craving for..." He trailed off, focussing, before his glare intensified, "Pecan Pie? Seriously? Is that all you ever think about?"
"It's all my stomach ever thinks about, yeah. And now you won't have an excuse not to try it!"
"With all due respect, Trip, I hate you."
"You're very welcome." His friend gave him a lop-sided grin, before flopping down without any grace next to Malcolm, careful not to touch him. Even if Malcolm could handle his company, he didn't want to overload him.
Malcolm was grateful. At least someone still had the capacity to treat this whole thing as if it wasn't so abnormal.
It was day six, and they were only a few hours from Betazed. Since the incident in the mess hall, the crew of the Enterprise had fallen into a routine. While no one other than T'Pol and Trip had really had prolonged contact with their armoury officer, quite a few people had seen him, especially at night. Whether it was the dulling of the drug, T'Pol's meditation techniques, or simply Malcolm getting more accustomed, he had found himself much less restricted when there were fewer people about. He had been able to walk around more, visit the gym, and actually be active. He still hadn't returned to the mess hall, not wanting to tempt fate, but all in all, he was coping.
That didn't mean he wanted to keep the empathy, though. The prospect of hopefully being actually alone in a crowd was so close now...
Ambassador Brina had been very eager to make up for the massive faux-pas committed by her sons, and had arranged for him to meet with one of their planets most skilled specialists. Trip and T'Pol would accompany him to the planet, while Captain Archer conducted a video conference from the ship with the Ambassasor.
It seemed like an age since he had last been on the planet, but soon enough, he was sitting in a private medical facility, something that reminded him much more of a psychologist's domain than a hospital. Doctor Laner had been asking him questions for about fifteen minutes now, all the while keeping hold of both Malcolm's hands – a rather unsettling experience in itself, seeing as how he had been consciously avoiding physical contact for nearly a week. T'Pol and Trip both stood off to the side, waiting for the Doctor to be finished.
Finally, he released Malcolm's hands, smiling, "The compound seems to have begun breaking down nicely. You should expect to feel residual spikes of empathy for another few days, especially from prolonged physical contact, but I see no reason why this would impede you too much. Perhaps one more day in relative isolation, and then you might begin resuming a more normal routine."
Trip grinned, "That's great news!" He then frowned, an expression mirroring Malcolm's, "What's wrong?"
The Betazoid regarded the human with mild curiosity, "You know, you have adapted incredibly well, though at this stage in the compound's cycle, I would not have predicted you to notice."
"He wasn't finished." Malcolm supplied to Trip and T'Pol, who clearly hadn't understood what was going on.
"I'm afraid your natural level of empathy will be now much higher than you have ever experienced before. The compound has already affected certain areas of your brain, training it to be much more open."
Malcolm and Trip both blinked in confusion, "But I'm not Betazoid – our species doesn't have empathy."
"Actually, Lieutenant, all sentient species have a certain form of empathy. It is what allows us to interact on a social level." T'Pol supplied.
"Your Sub-Commander is correct." Laner nodded, "It is not something you need to be concerned about. I am not suggesting you will still be able to feel the emotions of others, and it will not affect you in any detrimental fashion. Rather, you will likely have a much better idea of the nuances of emotions from other people, your ability to read them, if you will."
Malcolm swallowed nervously, "Okay..." For once he was thankful that the compound hadn't dissipated completely yet, for the Doctor's confidence was helping quell his own worries.
And then there was a wash of comfort from a different direction – Trip really had gotten good at emotional projection in the last few days – "Look at it this way, Mal, you'll be able to confirm if you're being overly paranoid or not when Jon does something stupid in a first contact."
"Indeed, an increased ability to 'read people', as Doctor Laner phrased it, would actually be very beneficial to your position on the Enterprise." T'Pol, ever the pragmatic one.
"If you have any concerns, feel free to contact me." The Doctor smiled, "But otherwise, I think you're free to go."
"Thank you, Doctor." Malcolm hopped off the bed, secretly hoping he really wouldn't need to.
Another week after leaving Betazed for a second time, a firm friend in the making despite the shaky start, and things were relatively back to normal. Malcolm had finally been able to resume work, and after convincing Crewman Parish, that he really, honestly, did not hold a grudge for his actions in the mess hall, life resumed its pace.
Malcolm, personally, didn't really notice an increased empathy like the Doctor had predicted. He was just glad the whole ordeal was over.
His friends, on the other hand, were observing a marked difference.
It wasn't anything bad, of course, and it was only really the senior personnel who knew him well enough for it to be quite a big point of discussion. Jon was perhaps the most affected by it, Malcolm having always been rather distant from him, worried about close interaction with his commanding officer. But now? Perhaps it was partially due to his prolonged isolation, but when one of his friends asked him to join them to spend time out of shift, he was much more likely to say yes. He was less stiff, less guarded around them, as if he knew that there was a real friendship there, and as if he knew that Captain Archer didn't have some strange ulterior motive.
No one pointed it out to him, preferring just to let him work it out for himself. Trip especially took advantage of it, while Jon preferred to take it slower, inviting Malcolm to join him, Trip and T'Pol for breakfast more often. T'Pol, meanwhile, had offered to keep up the meditation with Malcolm once a week, saying that it made sense to continue the controlling exercise if she ever hoped to teach him Vulcan fighting styles; again, no one commented that she had never mentioned anything like that before. It was as if what had happened to Malcolm had acted as a proxy for bringing T'Pol more out of her isolation as well.
Porthos, for his part, enjoyed the much more relaxed, familial atmosphere that he sensed spreading throughout the ship he called home. It meant he had more friends to play with.
And it was about time, too.
Author Notes: So what did you think? I had so much fun writing this! Especially T'Pol, who I usually avoid. Once again, I'd like to thank my beta, who had far too much fun chatting to me about where this fic could go. I'd like to hear any final thoughts you have, and thanks for reading!