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Beta'd by Distracted, to whom all due thanks!
"Well, well, fancy bumping into you, Pinkskin!"
Oh, hell. Captain Archer closed his eyes. Of all the people he had to encounter at the end of one of the longest days of his life. Why couldn't he have left the meeting five minutes earlier, or stayed ten minutes later? His head was pounding. The last thing he needed to have to cope with now was the Andorian's bluff and overwhelming personality. Not to mention the bottles of Andorian ale that could be virtually guaranteed to be introduced into the proceedings given the slightest excuse – and the victory over the Romulans was one hell of an excuse, however pyrrhic it might have been.
"Shran. What are you doing here?"
"Don't sound so pleased, Captain, you might strain yourself." The ex-commander of the Kumari came up close and peered at him. "You look terrible."
"Cheer me up, why don't you." Jon stared desperately around the crowded plaza, trying to spot someone with whom he could plausibly invent urgent business and who'd be bright enough to back him up. He couldn't cope with Shran. Not while the glass was still there all around him, cutting everything off. Andorians and glass. Shran and alcohol and glass. No. No.
"As soon as I saw you that was just what I thought you needed. You, me and a few bottles of the best stuff in the house."
"Some other time. It's been a long day."
Shran, however, was as impervious as rhino hide. "So turn it into a short evening. Have a drink."
Humor him. It's the only way to get rid of him. Hell, maybe the underside of a table's the view I need right now. "Okay. But make it a short one."
They walked to Archer's quarters, exchanging small talk. The Andorian Imperial Guard hadn't entirely forgiven Shran for his loss of the Kumari, but the war had meant that anyone with experience was suddenly required to stand forward for their sins to be forgotten – at least temporarily. He'd been given command of the Hath, a rather more modest ship that was, quite frankly, a come-down, but he wasn't the type to refuse a chance to get involved in the biggest fight of his life. Unbelievably, it seemed he'd actually enjoyed it; from almost anyone else the assertion would have come across as bravado, but that wasn't the Andorian's style at all. And in typical style, he'd come through it with a ship that was practically undamaged and not a single fatality. The Devil, Archer thought moodily, was evidently still looking after his own.
"So why are you here? I'd have thought you'd be on the way back to Andoria by now." Jon moved to a cupboard to get out a couple of whisky tumblers.
"Helping out you pinkskins as usual. Actually, helping to transport casualties. Ours as well as yours – Earth being closer than Andoria." He unslung the pack from his shoulders and produced the inevitable tall decanters of pale blue fluid. "Starfleet was gracious enough to offer to treat the injured who couldn't wait till we could get them home."
"At least they owed you that much." Archer watched the tumbler being filled with a generous measure of the fiery spirit; the first, no doubt, of many he was doomed to drink that night.
"Don't fool yourselves. We knew if they took you and the Vulcans down, we'd be next. And the Tellarites wouldn't have stood a chance." Shran tossed back his first glassful and managed not to wince, though his eyes watered slightly. "The Andorian Government doesn't do altruism."
"Another case of helping us and helping yourselves, huh?" The reply was a little barbed, and his guest didn't miss it.
"I'm a soldier and I follow orders, Captain – just like you do. I don't have to like them." He poured another measure and glowered. "I believe you received a strictly unauthorized transmission shortly afterwards."
"Yes. Thank you." A thread of shame filtered through the exhaustion. Who am I to give lectures about 'helping yourself'? Jon tossed back his own glassful and didn't succeed in not wincing, though managing to swallow the whole amount in one go was an achievement in itself. He'd normally only sip at it. On an empty stomach he was going to pay for this, but suddenly that was just another item in the list of things he couldn't seem able to care about.
"I heard about your tactical officer." Shran's voice had gone gravelly suddenly. "I didn't know him well, but I know Talas thought highly of him. And Jhamel sends her regrets."
"I'll pass them on to his wife." Though what difference that was likely to make when nothing else had got through. The thought of Hoshi lying there small and hopeless and unresponsive in that hospital bed, suddenly caught him by the throat worse than the ale had. He pushed the tumbler across for a refill and downed that too. The liquid heated his throat like magma, but nothing could warm the bubble. The glass that it was made of was holding back a reality that was colder than the outer reaches of the universe. It couldn't break. It mustn't break.
"Our comm officer. Hoshi Sato. They married a couple of years before the war started."
"I thought Starfleet didn't approve of onboard romances."
"What Starfleet 'approves of' and what actually happens when men and women are stuck on a ship for years at a time can be two different things." He thought of Trip and T'Pol. God knew that was a fire and ice combination, but somehow they made it work. The ship's rumor mill probably had them down as having a relationship, but their marriage was a closely guarded secret; the Powers That Be had insisted on that. Now Trip had suddenly gotten it into his head that that wasn't enough. It could only be a matter of time before he made his move, and who knew what it would be. The only thing that could be guaranteed was that despite the current chaos, some small-minded busybodies with a little authority would make it their business to raise hell about it.
Malcolm and Hoshi. Trip and T'Pol. They'd found their 'special others', even if for one of them it carried a cost that hardly bore thinking of. That kind of happiness had always eluded him. He had the relationship with Erika, sure, but that was more along the lines of a friendship with benefits. When they were apart he rarely thought about her, certainly didn't miss her, and had never felt obliged to be faithful to her any more than he'd have expected her to be faithful to him. No 'Semper Fidelis' there.
He looked up and found Shran studying him. "She's having a baby," he blurted out. "In a couple of weeks." The tumbler came back to him refilled and he emptied it. All of it. Fast.
"At least she'll have something to remember him by." For all his bellicosity, the Andorian had occasionally given glimpses of a softer side. It was showing now. His gaze held an unexpected sympathy for a woman he'd probably hardly noticed in passing.
"We don't know." Archer watched the tumbler being filled yet again. "She couldn't handle it. I told her – she was on board the ship. I had to tell her." His speech was becoming something he had to handle with more care than usual; the syllables were already showing signs of wanting to arrange themselves in no particular order.
"He brought her on board the ship when you were going into battle?" Shran's eyebrows climbed, while his antennae stood upright like exclamation marks. "And you allowed it?"
"If he was okay with it, why not?" That was a prod in a spot that was already sore, and he snapped the reply as a result. "I tried to argue them out of it. She said she wan'... wanted to be with him. If we lost it wouldn't matter anyways. You know that."
The other man shrugged, and drank his own ale. "You're the captain." His tone implied that it wouldn't have happened on the Hath, but pinkskins probably didn't have the guts to control their wives. "So what happened to her?"
"Cat-a-to-nic seizure." Jon had to be very careful indeed with a word that seemed to have become five times as complicated as it had when Phlox had first used it. "She just – went away." Blue liquid washed down his throat again, though he couldn't remember giving the order to his hand. To his horror he realized that the heat of the magma and the cold of outer space were now actually touching either side of the bubble. The glass was brittle and so was he. Liquid was spilling down his face but it wasn't blue; it was clear and salt. "Forty-three of my crew. I couldn't keep them safe. I lost twenty-seven in the Expanse. It was only forty-two this time till…." He was rocking to and fro in the chair but he couldn't stop. "The bastard. He just had to make it a nice round seventy."
Seventy deaths under his command. Seventy letters of condolence. Seventy personnel files marked 'KIA'. Well, that's what his dad had invented the Warp 5 engine for. So his little boy could take seventy people out into space and get them killed.
Shran was watching him. At least the Andorian had the sensitivity not to bring up the subject of the crews of the ships that hadn't made it at all in a futile effort at consolation. One of the issues of today's meeting had been the initial assessments of casualties. Numbers. He'd had to think of them as numbers. Except that one number was now, suddenly, utterly beyond bearing.
The bubble shattered.
He shattered with it.
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