SPOILERS: "Zero Hour" and prior episodes in Season 3, and it may make little sense without them.

DISCLAIMER: All things Star Trek belong to CBS/Paramount. "Zero Hour" was written by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I personally feel T'Pol would not have invited Trip home to Vulcan (and that he would not have asked her what her mother knew about them) if they had not had some kind of relationship in progress. So … along with saving the universe and mourning Archer, I guess it's time they squeezed one in. So: a non-explicit sex warning for this one. (And no, there are no plans for an NC-17 version.)

This ends Season Three. If you've been reviewing all along, you probably already know I love you. If you've been reading without reviewing, I would really appreciate a note of some kind at this point to let me know what you think (especially since the frickin' traffic stats haven't been working since the new year). And I hope this sticks this time since this chapter also spent some time in ff purgatory today. Weirdness.

"You said you had good news?"

Trip turned around, immediately noticing that T'Pol's expression and posture looked painfully taut. He smiled. "Yep. We've figured out how to keep from frying the ship with that deflector pulse."

"Without weakening the pulse?"

"Without weakening the pulse. It does require Travis to maneuver on thrusters, but he can manage it."

"Are you certain? We're going to be a on a very tight timeline."

"He can do it. We just ran a simulation successfully five times in a row. It'll be fine."

She stared at him for another moment and then visibly slumped, dropping her gaze to the deck.

"That's good news, T'Pol," he said, a little puzzled by her reaction. "It means we're not dead yet … maybe not for a long time to come."

She nodded and said, "Yes, it's good news," and finally raised her eyes back to his. She looked so tired that he wished he could give her an encouraging hug – not that it would be the least bit appropriate in the middle of Engineering, or anything she'd welcome at any time. But it did seem to him, perhaps irrationally, that she was leaning in towards him a little, and he had to resist a strong impulse to at least squeeze her arm.

He wondered if he'd have had the fortitude to knowingly order the sacrifice of ship and crew.

"I'm going to route the controls on this up to the science station on the bridge and man it from there," he said, returning to the task at hand. "We won't have any power for targeting sensors either, so I'm going to need a set of good target coordinates to transfer to the array."

"That shouldn't be a problem," she said. "If that's all, Commander, I need to check in with Phlox." She began to walk away.

"T'Pol," he said.

She stopped and looked at him.

"It's going to work."

She nodded tightly and left.

He watched her go, a little miffed that she was clearly still so tense about the coming operation, until he realized she had no particular reason to relax. The sphere-builders had already transformed the space around the sphere. What if they started hurling anomalies around as well? What if half the Reptilian fleet suddenly dropped out of a vortex? What if Phlox's compound failed?

He sighed. Okay, so maybe this whole thing was still a crap shoot. But at least it was a crap shoot they had some chance of surviving.

x x x

Malcolm said, "We also lost Forbes – he died in combat on the weapon." He added softly, "Hoshi, you need to get to sickbay." He waited for her to straighten herself up from the stunned hug Trip had automatically returned – then gave Trip another sober glance and led her away.

Trip looked at T'Pol, who was a little bent over as if someone had kicked her in the belly. This was, as it happened, exactly how he felt.

Degra's fellow primate from the Council – had they ever learned his name? – came forward. "We're very sorry about the loss of your captain and your crewman," he said. "As well as your people on the station."

"The station?" Trip asked, with a quick look at T'Pol.

"Commander Dolim destroyed an orbital facility before we could stop him. I believe your captain called it ... Yosemite?"

"Oh," Trip said. "Yosemite Three." It wasn't a large installation. He frowned a little at his own indifference, but at this point those additional numbers were truly just numbers. "But Earth is okay?"

"It didn't take any damage at all. Your planet certainly is beautiful from space. I was also asked to pass along to you condolences from Commander Shran."

T'Pol shared a startled look with Trip.

"He was most helpful," the primate continued. "I doubt we could have succeeded without him."

T'Pol said, "That's … very interesting. I believe we should thank you for your assistance as well."

The man smiled sadly. "It was the least we could do. The Aquatics have agreed to ferry your ship to Earth if you wish. Will you allow us to escort you to them?"

"That would be most helpful," T'Pol said. She glanced soberly at Trip, then back at their guest. "If you will excuse us for a moment, I have a great deal of news to communicate with our crew."

"Of course," the man said, and departed.

Trip said, "I'm sure it's already spreading like wildfire."

"Indeed," she said, and tabbed the comm. button, asking Baird to set up a ship-wide announcement.

He put a hand over the comm. "Let them know Earth is safe first."

"Obviously," she said, with a hint of exasperation.

He smiled. "Sorry. I forgot how good you've gotten with this stuff."

She looked at him in puzzlement, as if she thought he must mean that sarcastically, even though his tone had been completely sincere.

He continued smiling at her until she seemed to realize that no barb was coming. Then she frowned and swallowed. "This is T'Pol," she said, and made a calm and complete announcement. Trip watched with increasing admiration as she hit all the right notes: She paused for a long moment to let the news of Earth's survival sink in. She managed to mark the passing of the captain and Forbes without making one loss seem less significant than the other. She explained how they would get home. She said that the captain had remarked in his last log entry how proud he was of this crew – and concluded by saying that their exemplary performance in this mission had clearly justified that pride.

But pride is an emotion, Trip thought. How had she had known that was exactly the right thing to say?

x x x

"You know, T'Pol's been great," Trip said. "You think there's any chance they'll let her stay in command?"

Malcolm sipped from one of the two shot glasses he'd brought to Trip's quarters, along with a bottle of single malt whisky from a 300-year-old distillery on the Isle of Skye. It was past midnight and they'd just watched out Trip's cabin window as the ship had slowly glided into position inside the Aquatic ship. They had raised a toast to their alien hosts, who were shaving over six weeks off their return trip, before Trip slumped down onto his bed and Malcolm claimed the desk chair. The bottle sat between them on the deck.

"I don't see how," Malcolm said. "She's not even officially a member of Starfleet."

"She said she was thinking of 'formalizing' her service with us."

"Did she?" Malcolm cocked his head. "Does that have anything to do with you?"

"I have no idea."

"Maybe they'll offer you command."

"I don't want it."

"No?" Malcolm sounded surprised. "That's a change, isn't it?"

"To tell you the truth, right now I don't know what the hell I want, other than the cap'n back, or a good night's sleep, or…" He sighed. "Or maybe another shot of that very fine whisky."

Malcolm poured them each some more and lifted his glass. "To Captain Archer."

"To Cap'n Archer," Trip agreed. "A real life hero who never wanted anyone to think he was a hero."

"I guess the real ones never do," Malcolm said.

Trip snorted. "Remember when we told those aliens on Risa we took turns being the captain?"

Malcolm shuddered. "Don't remind me. Though I won't mind too much if some actual beautiful women decide I'm a hero. We really did save the planet, after all. I think we've earned a little fun."

"Definitely." Trip raised his glass again. "To all the beautiful women in the universe who really are beautiful women."

"Hear hear," Malcolm said.

"Your father will have to lighten up on the Royal Navy crap now."

Malcolm grunted. "Oh, he'll probably manage to say something like in the Royal Navy, we'd never even THINK of stealing an innocent crew's warp coil."

Trip chuckled at Malcolm's impression of his father before retorting, "The Royal Navy wouldn't exist anymore if it weren't for that stolen warp coil. There's another one we owe you, Cap'n," he said, raising his half-empty glass, and took a swallow to finish it. "Maybe we should raise a toast to those aliens while we're at it. I hope they get home all right."

"To the Illyrians," Malcolm said, after sloshing a little more in each glass. After a long moment he added, "I'm sorry I didn't bring you a piece of the weapon. I didn't really have time to think about it."

"Forget about it." His request struck him as kind of childish now.

The door buzzed.

Trip said "Come in," and was not surprised to see the door admit T'Pol. "Well come on in!" he said, perhaps a little too heartily. How much had he drunk?

Malcolm stood up.

"At ease, Lieutenant," she said, and he sat back down. "I don't wish to interrupt…"

"T'Pol, You said I could buy you a drink in the 602 Club," Trip said. "But this single malt Malcolm brought over is actually a much finer drink than I would ever order there, because it's so damned expensive they probably don't even stock it. You should try it. You can practically taste the Scottish peat."

Her eyes narrowed. "Why would anyone wish for a beverage to taste like compressed decomposed organic matter?"

"It is an acquired taste," Malcolm said.

Trip scowled at him. He had just added "watch T'Pol try single malt whisky" to the list of things he wanted to do before he died.

"You only have two glasses in any case," she said, clearly content to dismiss the idea. "The Aquatics estimate arrival at the outer Solar system at approximately 1200. I believe that would make this an excellent time to rest and recuperate… or, I suppose, to drink." Her lip curled just slightly in muted disapproval.

"We were just toasting the cap'n," Trip said. "If you join us, that makes this an official wake, which is the least the man deserves. So come on, sit down. I've got another glass in the bathroom."

She hesitated and then sat down a little stiffly on the bed. Trip went into the bathroom and found the glass he used for rinsing his mouth. "Here we go. I washed it for you," he said and poured her a tiny sliver of whisky. "You know, I think I'd better add a splash in your case," he said, and went back to the bathroom for that, though he could tell from Malcolm's expression that he was pained at the idea.

He handed it over to her and they both watched her nostrils flare as she carefully swirled the amber liquid and took a sniff.

"She looks like an old hand," Malcolm said.

She took a careful sip and immediately started coughing.

Trip laughed. "Apparently not."

"The flavor is somewhat redolent of … petrochemicals," she gasped.

"Have you had those before?" Trip asked, still grinning, and took the glass back. "Never mind. Shall I get you some water?"

"Yes, please." She handed him the glass.

Trip drank down the little that was left in her glass and went back to the bathroom.

"Here you go," he said, returning, and sat down next to her on his bunk.

Malcolm said, "I'd better go. I want to check in on Hoshi before it gets too late."

"Does she like single malt?" Trip asked.

"I don't believe alcohol is generally recommended in cases of traumatic brain injury," Malcolm said, with a touch of asperity. He picked up the bottle and examined it with an aggrieved expression. "Not that there's really anything left, anyway."

"Don't worry, Malcolm. I'll buy you another when we get home."

Malcolm said, "In that case, we might as well finish it off with a final toast." He poured another slug in Trip's glass and his own.

Trip raised his glass. "To Cap'n Archer's excellent taste in first officers. You've done us proud, T'Pol."

"Hear, hear," Malcolm said, and raised his glass. "And to Hoshi as well, for being such a trooper."

"Yes, to Hoshi, too," Trip agreed. Malcolm sure was bringing her up a lot all of a sudden. What was that about?

As they each sipped their whisky, T'Pol sipped her water. "How have I 'done you proud'?" she asked curiously.

"You defeated the sphere-builders," Trip said.

"And you've kept Trip in line," Malcolm said. "That can't be easy."

"That much is certain," T'Pol said, and both men laughed.

Malcolm stood up and raised the empty bottle in salute. "Goodnight then," he said, and left.

Trip waited for T'Pol to rise and make her exit, or at least put more distance between them by switching to the chair, but she didn't. His heart started to thump. "Do you want to have that talk now?"

"No." She drank the last of her water and put the glass down on the floor. "I'd rather do this," she said, and leaned over to kiss him.

Yes, talking could definitely wait, he thought, and pulled her right onto his lap.

x x x

Later, he pulled up his blanket to cover them both. "That was awfully nice," he said. It hadn't been as frenzied as their last time, nor as awkward as their first. It had been more relaxed and more comforting, without being any less satisfying.

"Yes, it was most agreeable," she said. She seemed content to lie there, half draped over him.

He sighed in contentment, and perhaps also in fatigue. "I should nag you to have that talk now, but I'm too damned tired."

"You should sleep." She said it with an air of authority that might have annoyed him if it wasn't so true.

"What about you?"

"I am also quite fatigued. May I stay here with you?"

He almost laughed at the formality of her question – and out of delighted surprise that she had asked it. "Yes, you may."

"Thank you," she said, and sighed, and turned a little on her side, settling in. He knew he probably ought to get up and brush his teeth and do all that getting-ready-for-bed stuff, but she seemed willing to just stay right there under the blanket with him and so he stayed put. He reached up and turned off the light and lay there for a time with a warm Vulcan in his arms and the dim lights of the Aquatic ship shining in through the window until he thought he heard her breathing even out in sleep and then he let it claim him too.

x x x

Five hours later, he really needed to pee and he was thirsty and his head hurt and his left arm had fallen asleep.

The moment he tried to disentangle himself so he could address of any of those issues, she awoke. "Commander?" she said.

"I'm going to have to insist on Trip when you're naked in my bed." He kissed her quickly on the forehead. "I'll just be a minute."

He took care of his various issues as quickly as he could but it wasn't quick enough; she had put on the lights and was getting into her cat suit as he exited the bathroom. "Oh, c'mon, T'Pol, I told you I'd be right back!"

"I have rested sufficiently. I need to meditate before I go back on duty."

He blinked wearily, realizing that it would probably sound churlish to argue with her about that.

"Vulcans need less rest than Humans," she said. "I suggest that you return to bed and complete your sleep cycle."

"I'm all right," he said, a little peevishly. His thoughts were already running ahead to coffee and engines. With the Aquatic ship hanging there outside the window – not to mention a fully dressed Vulcan in his cabin – he was feeling damned naked, so he quickly got into a pair of underwear, and tugged down a clean t-shirt. It reminded him of how old T'Pol had asked for a dirty one. He'd never had time to send it over, of course. "How about dinner tonight?"

"We will be in Earth's orbit by dinner tonight," she reminded him. "Starfleet Command may well have other priorities for us."

Could their mission really be over that soon? Not that he was complaining about that. "I think after we saved the planet we should be able to set a few priorities of our own. So: How about dinner tonight?"

She regarded him for a moment. "Very well."

He smiled. "Can I give you a kiss goodbye?"

She looked a little taken aback. "If that is your wish."

"It is." He stepped over and gave her a kiss and a hug. She was a little stiff, which was what he'd expected. He lengthened the kiss until she started to respond. If he pushed it, could he get her to abandon that plan to go meditate?

But then it occurred to him that this was T'Pol and she needed to meditate and if they were ever going to make a go of this he needed to give her room to be who she was. "Okay, see you later," he said, with a last little tap on her cheek, and went back to his wardrobe to get a clean uniform.

She stood there for a moment, flashing him the Vulcan equivalent of an irritated scowl – yeah, he decided, he definitely could have had her again – and then turned on her heel and left.

Trip grinned at the closed door.

After a horrible year that included losing Lizzie and Jon and so many others – and part of his own brain, for that matter – as well as any remaining assumptions that the universe was organized in even the slightest way to reward justice or goodness, he probably ought to be feeling exhausted and lost right now.

But instead he felt like a new man.

And with any luck, they'd now have all the time in the world to figure this thing out.


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