End of the shift, at last.
As soon as his replacement appeared he rose from his station and left the bridge without a word. For once he didn't even look around. At a guess nobody was waiting for him to do so either. Right now, nobody wanted to lock eyes with anyone else. He couldn't remember a single day when the atmosphere had been so low.
He kept up the pretence until he reached his quarters. On a day like this it was more important than ever that the officers kept up an unmoved front. Any crew members he passed in the corridor would need to see that what they had done had been no more than what was necessary. The mission was everything. Everyone knew that. The mission was everything. The mission was everything. The mission was everything.
The instant the door hissed shut behind him his shoulders crumpled. His head went down and his hands came up, stifling the groan that seemed to be fetched up from the base of his guts. "Oh, God. Oh, dear God."
His clothes came off in a haphazard trail to the shower. For once he didn't care where they fell. He didn't put the lights on either. The mirror was something he could do without tonight. He wouldn't want to look at what would stare out of it.
Working by feel, he turned the water temperature up almost to scalding. The motion of his hands rubbing shampoo into his hair and gel across his body was almost frenzied, scrubbing and scrubbing against something that wouldn't wash off. The day's events kept playing across his vision, over and over again, like some hideous vid-recording he couldn't delete. He put his hands flat against the tiles and leaned his forehead against them, almost whimpering, while the uncaring water pummelled against his shoulders and washed away everything but the devastation.
He'd tried. He'd protested. It hadn't worked. Realistically it couldn't have worked, couldn't be allowed to work. Even as he'd forced the gasp past the shock and disgust that had knotted his throat he'd known that he was wasting his time. Now he wasn't sure that the attempt hadn't made things worse. Wanting to sacrifice billions of people's lives for a scruple... what did that make him? Selfish. Weak. And then, having made his feeble gesture, he'd let himself be overruled with barely a squeak of resistance. He had manned the weapons station exactly as he was ordered to, battering the small Illyrian ship into submission despite valiant resistance from her crew, while his captain boarded her and stole her warp coil, leaving the ship's company stranded in the Expanse and three years away from home with the meagre thruster power remaining to them. The gesture of 'payment' with trellium-D and food supplies so that they wouldn't starve on the way there had seemed less like compensation than mockery.
The water cut off suddenly. For a moment he wondered why, and then realised that he'd used up all his allowance for the night – water supplies had to be carefully conserved, and leaving showers running indefinitely was a wasteful luxury afforded to nobody. At least he was rinsed clean – externally, at any rate.
He hadn't even bothered to fetch a towel out of the cupboard so that he could dry himself before he stepped out of the cubicle. He grimaced in the darkness. He supposed he ought to dry off, get changed and go get something to eat – that was his usual routine. Tonight, however, his appetite seemed to have deserted him. If he skipped supper, he usually had trouble sleeping.
Sleeping? Who the hell did he think he was kidding? No sleep for him tonight. Not for a long while. Not until he could get his head straightened out. Not until he could forget what he'd helped to do. Not until he could wrangle some kind of peace with the torment that sat like a stone in the middle of his chest.
Maybe he should go to Sickbay, get Phlox to give him a shot to help him sleep. He needed his rest, and seldom got enough of it at the best of times here in the Expanse. A tired brain makes mistakes, and in his position he couldn't afford to make mistakes. Too much resting on him. (On the other hand, he thought ruefully, seeing him materialise in Sickbay voluntarily could easily give Phlox a heart attack.) No, that would be treating the symptom and not the disease. The disease...
He stumbled to the cabinet and drew out a towel. The cabin temperature settings were at his normal preferred level, but he wrapped the cloth around him and sat down on the bunk, shivering. The drips of water running out of his hair and down his shoulders felt icy on his bare skin, but he was too cold to forfeit the meagre warmth around his torso for even the couple of seconds it would take to rub his head a little drier. Cold with a numbing cold that had forgotten the steaming heat of the shower as though it had never existed, he sat on in the dark, and the cold grew on him and grew in him until his whole body shook with it as though he had a fever.
Suddenly he keeled over on to the bed and the dam broke. He began to cry, the harsh and difficult tears of a man accustomed to burying his hurts fathoms deep from view. He stifled his heart-rent sobs in the pillow, biting down on it until his jaw ached. At first it was a simple act of mourning for his diminished honour, which was a thing he'd taken pride in until today; but presently the simple relief of it allowed him to admit even to himself that this was the lesser grief. Worst of all he was grieving for the shattering of an illusion, for the fall of his God. Almost without his realising it, over the course of his service aboard this ship her Captain had slowly come to replace the father he'd never been able to love. Now that worship had been betrayed, his loyalty soiled and corrupted, and he wept for the breaking of his dreams.
Presently sheer exhaustion brought him to some kind of peace. He unwound himself from the blankets, into which he had coiled himself during the course of his paroxysms, and shakily reached for the box of paper handkerchiefs on his bedside table. It took only a couple of moments to blow his nose and scrub his face clean, but he was still glad for the anonymity of the darkness as he made his way to the wash-basin to splash cold water over his hot skin. At least now the lump of grief in his chest had dissolved somewhat; enough for him to get some sleep.
He was just drying his face again when the door chime sounded. He froze. Who could be calling at this hour? The rest of the alpha shift would have gone to their quarters or to the mess. He knew that Trip would be still down in Engineering, and unlikely to leave it for some time; that stolen warp coil was fitted and the engines restored to warp capacity, but the chief engineer would want to nurse his precious charges along for a while even if it meant working well beyond his appointed hours. The deck beneath his bare feet was still vibrating with the sensation that meant they were still a long way from producing the smooth power that they were designed to. The problems certainly weren't over yet.
"Who is it?" He tried to sound sleepy over the com link.
"It's me, sir. I'm really sorry to disturb you so late. I'm just really worried."
Hoshi. Hell's blazes. Why wasn't she asleep long ago? "Can't it wait till the morning, Ensign?"
A pause. "Well... yes, sir. I guess it can. Perhaps I'm just worrying for nothing."
Damn, damn, damn. Now he'd never get to sleep. Hoshi was a damned good officer; she'd worked hard to overcome her initial nerves, and now she was an invaluable member of the bridge staff, as well as a good friend. It was unlikely in the extreme that she was 'worrying for nothing'. He heaved a soundless sigh. He couldn't very well conduct a conversation in the dark, and the minute she saw his face she'd see the signs of wear and tear on it. Still, if there was some danger to the ship then his pride would just have to take second place. "Give me a minute to get dressed." A single damp towel wasn't nearly enough to preserve his modesty with a junior officer in his quarters.
A word brought the lights up, just at their lowest setting to prevent him being dazzled. He snatched up the trail of his discarded uniform pieces and draped them over the back of his desk chair, partly because he disliked having his cabin seen untidy (it hardly ever was, even when he was alone in it) and partly to give himself something to do that might help him regain his composure even a little before he opened the door. Then he quickly got out a set of loose leisure clothes and donned them before touching the door control. "Come on in." A quick glance showed him the corridor was deserted, and he was conscious of relief: a tide of gossip setting off about him and an attractive woman in his command chain might provide a little light relief for the crew, but it was a complication that at that moment he certainly didn't need.
Ensign Sato evidently understood his concern, for she stepped inside quickly. For all that the light was still low, it was plainly good enough for her to see what he'd rather she hadn't. One glance at his face and she coloured up. "Sir, if this isn't a good time..."
"If you're worried, just tell me about it." He tried hard not to sound curt. It wasn't Hoshi's fault that he'd been snivelling himself to sleep.
"It's ... it's the Captain." She hesitated, seeing him turn away, the shutters slamming down across a face that he knew had shown far too much of his feelings for comfort.
"What about him?" He came to a halt facing the wall, his arms folded tightly across his chest. His voice sounded remote even in his own ears.
"Well, I... I was a bit late leaving the bridge, and he... I saw him going from his ready room to the turbo lift. I've just never seen him look like that before. And... he's not in his room."
Why the hell should I care where he is? "You've tried to contact him?"
"Yes, sir. He didn't answer."
I'll bet he didn't. "I see." He paused. "Is it ... official business you need him for?"
The hesitation before she answered was telling. "No, sir. Not exactly."
He turned around at that and looked hard at her. The colour washed up in her face again but she returned his gaze steadily. Oh, Hoshi. Rushing in where angels would fear to tread. You'd do better to commit hara-kiri quietly in your quarters with a rusty knife; it'd be less painful.
Nevertheless, having the ship's captain go AWOL wasn't something that could be ignored. It didn't take much thought to realise that Hoshi would have been very reluctant to post a ship-wide call for a man who was supposed to have been in his quarters long ago. Reed walked to his computer and instituted a security scan of the vessel. Somewhat to his surprise, it turned up the runaway in a place that seemed singularly lacking in logic: Shuttlepod Two.
"But why should he go there?" asked Hoshi, puzzled.
"Do you know, I haven't the faintest idea." And I don't give a damn either. It's his ship, he can go where he bloody likes. After today, he can shove himself out of an airlock for all I care. He saw her flinch a little, and winced as he realised he'd used his worst and most lethal upper-class-Brit accent to achieve nothing much bar making himself look an even bigger arsehole than usual to someone who didn't deserve it. "Look. I'm sorry." He ran a hand through his hair. "I shouldn't have spoken to you like that."
"It's OK, sir. It's been a rough day for everybody."
"You do have a talent for understatement, Ensign." He heaved another sigh. "I'm sure the captain's fine where he is. His bio-signs are normal. He doesn't need a nursemaid, you know."
"No," she said softly. "But I think he needs a friend."
He opened the door cautiously, still wondering what the hell he was doing here. This was more in Trip's line than in his; Tucker had been the captain's friend for years, even if the exigencies of the mission had put something of a strain on their relationship lately. He was likelier than anyone else on the ship to know what to do in this situation, and to get away with doing it – except that the lucky bugger was still knee deep in dilithium matrices and plasma coolant and therefore had the best of all possible excuses not to go poking his nose into something that was extremely likely to get it bitten clean off.
At least Hoshi wouldn't get to be a witness to the savage ear-bending he was likely to get. He'd sent her back to her quarters, reassuring her that he'd make sure Archer was OK. He wouldn't say anything about her being concerned, in fact he wouldn't mention her at all. Perhaps he could come up with some excuse for wandering around the shuttle bay in the dead of night, though at that moment his tired brain couldn't furnish him with anything that sounded remotely plausible. Could he perhaps have forgotten a phase pistol in there on their last visit to a planet, and only just remembered about it? Apart from the fact that he sincerely hoped that nobody on the ship would believe him likely to be so careless, it was a working certainty that the captain for one wouldn't buy a word of it. Mr Stiff-Ass Methodical Brit, forget a phase pistol? Go tell it to the Klingons.
He had no illusions: the ice he was treading on now was of a thickness that should be measured in microns. The captain had whipped him to heel earlier with a quiet ferocity that had stunned him. The very last thing he wanted was to earn himself another dose of the same, but that was exactly what he was likely to get if Archer had deliberately set out to disappear for a while for some good reason of his own. It was largely in a desperate attempt to avert incurring his commanding officer's displeasure unnecessarily that he'd put his uniform back on before coming here. Strictly speaking, since he was off duty he could wear whatever he pleased, but he suspected that it was a good idea not to invite more trouble than he was already likely to get. Whatever else he could get bawled out for, it wouldn't be that.
He stepped softly and reluctantly down the stairs to the shuttle bay. The two craft sat silently side by side, their lights off and doors closed. Nevertheless he'd run another scan from the control room and he knew that the captain was still inside one of them. The readout had told him that none of the little craft's controls had been activated. To all appearances Archer was simply sitting in there, alone. Even his dog had been left in his quarters.
Trying to tread as quietly as possible, he walked up to the shuttle door. For a long moment he hesitated. Then, nerving himself, he keyed the control pad.
The man inside didn't even seem to notice that light had suddenly flooded into the rear of the compartment. He was sitting in the pilot's chair. Sprawling in it, rather. His attitude said that he was awake, but he didn't turn his head, even when the soft footfalls behind him must have told him he was no longer alone in the shuttle.
"Sir, are you all right?" The tense mumble broke an unbearable silence. He stood just inside the door, in the posture described throughout the British Armed Forces as 'at ease', though at that moment it was a singularly inapt description of how he felt. His spine was rigid with far more than the respect due to a senior officer.
The silence endured for a little longer, to be broken finally by a huff of a laugh that had no humour in it whatsoever. "I'm fine, Malcolm. Just fine."
That's my line, Captain. And you're a bigger bloody liar with it than I am. "With respect, Sir – " he swallowed – "shouldn't you be trying to get some rest?"
"You should be taking your own medicine, Malcolm. And that's an order." The dark voice was ever so slightly slurred. There was the faint sound of liquid sloshing in glass, and a gleam of light came and went on the side of a bottle, raised and lowered.
He tried vainly to moisten his mouth, which was perfectly dry. After today all the parameters had shifted, all the certainties had gone; this was like feinting against a cobra. Yesterday he'd have known to the millimetre what he could get away with under a captain whose laxity with inter-personal relations he had so frequently lamented. Now he was staring at being put on report for insubordination, if not being broken to crewman or drilled out of Starfleet altogether. "Permission to disregard that order, Sir."
After a moment the other man's chair swivelled around slightly. The light picked out a few millilitres of bourbon left in a bottle that had been full that morning. The knuckles on the hand that held it were white in the gloom. "Permission denied." The voice had gone flat and deadly: the cobra's hood was fully extended. "Return to your quarters – Lieutenant."
He lifted his chin and consigned his career to history. "No, Sir. I won't."
The bottle hurtled through the air, narrowly missing his face before it smashed into a thousand pieces against the side of the shuttle. "I gave you an order, Lieutenant!" Archer exploded from the chair and advanced on him with clenched fists, his face contorted with rage. "Get to your quarters right now, or you can go to the brig instead, under escort!"
"I've followed every one of your bloody orders today – Sir!" He stood his ground and yelled right back at the man he'd hero-worshipped like a fool. "I shot the guts out of that ship for you – Sir! I helped you steal their warp coil and leave them stranded out here – Sir! But I'll go to hell and be damned before I walk away from a friend who's too bloody proud to admit he needs me – Sir!"
The left fist swung viciously at him. Almost a litre of bourbon was helping the aim and the co-ordination, and Reed was stone cold sober. It was a rare occasion even when they were sparring in the gym that the captain managed to get a solid hit on him, and this wasn't going to be any exception. He grabbed the wrist as it flew past him and twisted the arm painfully. For a few seconds they grappled in silence, grey eyes blazing into red-rimmed hazel ones; then without warning he saw the tears welling up, enough tears to flood the ship. Archer's body went limp and he sagged to the deck, boneless and broken but without the mercy of oblivion.
Reed followed him down, holding him pitilessly when he tried to twist away and curl up into a ball. "Oh no you don't!" His grip was hard enough to hurt, and he meant it to hurt, because nothing gentle would have got through. After another short, brutal struggle he got the captain's face jammed into the angle of his neck, and he kept it there as though he were suffocating him while the tears ran and ran in total silence, soaking into the breast of his uniform. One arm was wrapped around Archer's body and the other around his head, the fingers of its hand thrust into his hair; their bodies were a tangled mess on the floor of the shuttle. After the first frenzied seconds of resistance the captain's hands stopped pushing and closed instead, clutching with a strength that would leave bruises. He said nothing – he was beyond any speech, and beyond hearing for that matter; he simply held on and wept, a man who had no-one else to blame and no-one else to hate.
Sober, Archer would never have broken. Drunk and alone, he would have passed out with the wound inside him still festering, left to warp and weaken him when he most needed to be strong in the days to come. Perhaps only here and now could he be human enough to fail, in the company of the one friend on the ship who understood that necessity sometimes wears the cruellest face of all.
Only later would Reed discover that one of his legs was pinned under the captain's weight. At the time he didn't even feel it. His own eyes prickling again, he found himself clumsily rocking the other man, his mouth pressed down into the disordered brown hair and muttering incoherent words of comfort to a man who was beyond any consolation. It's not you, it's the mission, you had to do it, nobody blames you, it's the mission, they'll be ok, it's the mission, you had to do it, it's the mission. It's the mission, it's the mission, it's the mission.
He never knew how long they lay there. It felt like hours before the soundless, shuddering convulsions gave way to the softer, uneven heaves of a more human grief, and longer still until that fell slowly into the broken, gulping sobs that come with the dying of the storm. Now for the first time he became aware of the utter impropriety of his behaviour, but somehow this too fell under the heading of necessity; the only thing now was to protect the captain's dignity as best he could. It was unlikely that Archer would be in any fit state now to walk back to his quarters; from the sound of his breathing, in the lengthening intervals between spasmodic sobs, he was teetering on the brink of sleep. Carrying him there bodily would be possible, if difficult, but the chances of doing so unobserved even at this hour were virtually zero. Leaving him here was unthinkable. Quite apart from anything else, it would hardly do much for crew morale to see a grey-faced, hung-over captain staggering out of the shuttle bay at whatever time he woke up the next day. The Expanse had no room for pity.
Gently he disentangled himself from Archer's grasp and lowered him to the deck. There was one other person on board who could safely be entrusted with secrets that belonged in the confessional.
Now discovering for the first time that the pressure on his trapped leg had crushed it bloodless and every muscle in it had gone to sleep, he limped to the shuttle controls and dropped into one of the seats, rubbing his thigh desperately as feeling surged back into it in a smarting wave of pins and needles. With his free hand he pressed the comm. button. "Reed to Sickbay."
"Phlox here." Considering that it was God-knew what hour in the morning by now, the doctor seemed remarkably prompt to answer the call. The suspicion darted into Reed's mind that it was wholly possible that the Denobulan had been waiting for just such a summons.
"I need you to come to the shuttle bay, Doctor," he said softly. "Alone, please. We have a – situation that needs your help."
"I'll be there in a moment, Lieutenant."
The link closed. He dragged himself up out of the chair and went back to the captain. Archer was still awake, if only just. The hazel eyes that sought his were sane again, and filled with shame. An apologetic hand fumbled up towards him. He caught it quickly. "Malcolm – I'm so sorry – ."
"You couldn't help it, Sir," he said softly. "Just glad I was here to help."
"If I get this thing done – it'll be thanks to you."
"Me and everyone else, Sir. And we couldn't have a better captain to follow." There were probably a dozen regulations against all this hugging and shoulder-patting, but right now he couldn't care less. Out here there were a lot worse things than the odd hug and a pat between ranks, and if that was what it took to get them to the other side of the Expanse then sod the regulations.
At that moment Phlox materialized in the doorway like a rotund and benevolent genie. "Ah. Captain. I rather thought something like this might happen."
"Not my finest moment." Archer tried to get up, but the white line which had appeared suddenly around his mouth announced that his stomach had decided that enough was enough. "I feel sick."
"So I should imagine." The shards of the broken glass were glinting in the light from the doorway, and the acrid smell of the spilled spirit was sharp on the air. The doctor stepped forward quickly, drawing a hypospray from his pocket. "This will cure that temporarily, Captain, at least until I have you safe in Sickbay. I have a gurney waiting in the corridor outside, and we can cover you up so that nobody we encounter on the way knows who you are. I'm sure we can rely on Lieutenant Reed to help me get you up to it." He pressed the hypo to the side of his patient's neck. "After that, you are suffering from a temporary indisposition that will require you to spend the night in the isolation unit."
"The ship's captain, drunk on duty," said Archer wearily. Here in the Expanse he never regarded himself as 'off duty' in any real sense; not when at any moment deadly danger could threaten the ship and everyone aboard her, and imperil the very survival of Earth.
"Even a ship's captain is only human." The great blue eyes were very kindly. "I don't know anyone on this ship who would want to be in your shoes, Captain. I believe there is some Human saying 'give yourself a fracture', hmm?"
Reed gave a choke of laughter as he bent to help his superior officer lurch to his feet. "You mean 'give yourself a break', Phlox. It doesn't mean quite the same thing."
"I must admit I always struggled to perceive the benefits." He slid an arm under Archer's other side. "Come along now, Captain. You'll feel much better for a good night's sleep."
"Don't worry about the mess. I'll nip down first thing and clean it up." Realising that the front of his uniform was a mess as well, soaked with tears and mucus, the Lieutenant hesitated for a second over how to account for it if he was seen: his care to present a well-groomed appearance was too well known. With a shrug he slid the zip down and peeled off the upper part of his coveralls, knotting the arms around his waist. It looked untidy, and wildly out of character, but hopefully there wouldn't be too many people about at this hour to notice. Some of the moisture had leaked right through the fabric, but not much, and it would be far less noticeable on the black undershirt.
Suddenly utter weariness rolled over the armoury officer like a wave. It was questionable whether he or Archer looked the worse for wear when, after a cautious survey to see that the coast was clear, they crept out of the shuttle bay and manoeuvred the captain on to the gurney. He rolled on to his side, a discreetly draped blanket covered him from view, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
"I can take things from here, Lieutenant," whispered Phlox. "If anyone were to see you accompanying me and the 'patient', it might cause unnecessary comment."
"You can manage when you get to Sickbay?" He was swaying on his feet, but got the question out somehow.
"If you succeed in reaching Sickbay, Mr Reed, I will ensure you stay in it along with the captain," said Phlox sweetly. "And I know how much you love being imprisoned in my lair."
"Ok. Ok. I can take a hint." He stumbled backwards, hands raised in surrender. "I'm history. I promise."
"Oh, Lieutenant," the doctor's voice came softly from behind him when he'd lurched a couple of steps.
"Wha'?" He had to support himself with a hand on the bulkhead as he turned.
"The turbo-lift is in that direction." The Denobulan pointed gently down the other corridor.
"Oh. Oh yes. Thank you, Doctor."
Beta'd by Volley - many thanks, D!
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