Disclaimer: Star Trek (plus all its intellectual property) is owned by Paramount. No infringement intended.
This story has not been beta'd, so all mistakes are down to the author.
"No, thanks. I have work to do."
Malcolm spoke flatly. His gaze didn't lift from the PADD in front of him.
He was quite sure that Trip was inclined to argue the point, but that somebody – Travis, at a guess – shook his head, closing the issue. Well, thank God for that. He did have work to do. And when it was done, since the captain insisted that all the senior staff had to take the evening off, he could have a peaceful couple of hours in his quarters, catching up with the latest research and development. He'd have preferred to spend them in the Armoury, going over the latest upgrades, but he could guess that Archer would take a dim view of that it if came to light.
One thing he wasn't going to do was go to the Christmas Party.
The ship's Security Officer going to a party, for God's sake. Somebody had to keep their wits about them on Christmas Eve. Exactly how many hostile alien species celebrated Christmas, pray? And anyway, he was hardly the bloody socialite of the year at the best of times.
He rose from the table, leaving the others to get on with the planning.
End of the shift. Now he had a long evening to fill, but at least he could fill it in his own way. He'd taken the precaution of stocking up with a large plate of sandwiches at lunchtime, and carrying them back to his quarters so he could eat them in peace while he worked; in view of the extra pressure the galley staff would be under the following day, the captain had announced that it was hardly fair to expect them to produce a cooked meal and a buffet the day before, so everyone had to make do with cold food on Christmas Eve. Even someone who wasn't going to be having any of the bloody buffet had to suffer, Malcolm thought morosely. He wasn't a fussy eater – life in the Reed household would certainly have cured him of that if it had ever occurred to him to try it – but he did like a hot meal in the evening. Well, if the worst came to the worst he could always nip down to the shuttlebay and heat himself up an emergency ration pack for supper. There were always some stored in there.
The door closed behind him. His quarters were neat and tidy and functional. Unlike Trip's, which he'd had the misfortune to visit recently. No plastic sprigs of holly pinned up anyhow, no impression that a tinsel factory had gone critical. No prints of chatty Christmas messages from home cluttering the notice board here. There were no messages from home. He hadn't expected any, and he hadn't received any.
He peeled back the foil and helped himself to a sandwich which he ate while he brought up the duty rosters. After that he stripped off his uniform and went into the shower. His computer was playing music softly in the background, but rather than Christmas carols it was Górecki's 'Symphony No. 3' – a suitably sombre piece of music for what was, after all, supposed to be a serious mission.
In due course he emerged, towelling his hair dry, and dressed himself in leisure clothes. He sat down at the computer and began scrolling through the rosters; there were some changes that needed to be made, since a couple of personnel had gone sick and one member of staff had asked to be allowed to take study leave for a training course. It took a bit of sorting, but eventually he had it fixed. By which time he found himself yawning, more inclined for a nap than for a meal.
This was rather unlike him, but he'd had a busy day, and maybe an hour's kip wouldn't hurt. He set the alarm on his chronometer carefully; if he slept too long he wouldn't be able to nod off when he actually ought to be going to sleep. When he woke up he'd head to the gym for half an hour and then eat. After that, the rest of the evening was his.
He lay down on his bunk, pulled a blanket over himself and put his head down on the pillow. He fell asleep almost at once.
Saint Matthew's Church; he hadn't thought of it for years. The massive stone arches lost long since in the early winter darkness, and the heating failing miserably to counter the biting cold of the December evening. The vestry, smelling of mice and old hymn books, with the tall dark wooden cupboards for the vestments and the dusty, diamond-shaped panes of glass in the narrow windows. And himself among the rest of the choir, one of the few who neither whispered nor giggled as they waited to file out for the service to start.
Candlelight glinted on the processional cross. The dry smell of incense always made him want to sneeze. As they filed through the double doors into the church he caught a momentary glimpse of his reflection in the glass: a thin, dark-haired boy, grey eyes wide with awe.
The organ music had been playing softly, a fantasia on Greensleeves, but as the crucifer emerged from the shadows the music changed and swelled into the marvellous old Adeste Fideles.
There was never a large congregation in Saint Matthew's, but people turned up for the Christmas Carol Service still. The soft glow of the candlelight caught the blurred mass of colour in the pews, clotted with faces he couldn't make out. Under the strong, rolling notes of the organ he caught the rustle of people turning to their places in the hymn booklets. You'd have thought they'd have had them open ready, he thought a little reproachfully.
He'd sung the carol so often he knew the words by heart. He could concentrate on keeping his head up and his voice projecting clearly. Aunt Sherrie would be in the congregation and watching him, and he had to do his best.
The service wore on. All the old carols, that went back centuries beyond the wars that the old church had survived: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing; God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen; Joy To The World; O Holy Night; Away In A Manger; Once In Royal David's City; See Amid The Winter's Snow; and last of all, his secret favourite, Silent Night. His friend Laurance sang the first verse solo, his voice ever so slightly tremulous at first till he got into his stride with it and filled the church with his pure, unearthly treble. In the light of the candle he held, Laurance's usually mobile, mischievous face was that of an angel.
And in the pin-drop hush afterwards, the youngest member of the choir emerged, bearing the missing piece from the Nativity Scene that had been set up in the Lady Chapel at the beginning of Advent. In good daylight it was just a plaster cherub with not very realistic pink painted skin and unlikely blond curls, but in the subtle candlelight it was the Christ Child come to earth. He watched its progress with held breath, as one who witnesses a miracle.
For him, this was the heart of Christmas. Not the jangle of outworn seasonal muzak in overcrowded shops or the piles of cards arriving on the porch mat, not the huge decorated tree he was forbidden to touch or even the magnificent turkey dinner the cook would produce the next day. Gifts were not part of the equation in the Reed household, so he never thought of those; they were something other children received. His Christmas was that moment in Saint Matthew's Church, when the mundane became magical and it seemed that even the impossible could happen.
The shrilling of the alarm on his chronometer shattered the silence.
He awoke to find tears in his eyes.
He pulled himself together with the aid of a couple of shots of whisky. He was aware of course that alcohol is not the solution to anything, but he couldn't think of any other remedy. The dream had been so vivid that he could almost smell the incense. He and Maddie had always been left with Aunt Sherrie while their parents attended some Navy 'do' or other. He'd never even thought of asking if they could miss the party to come to church and listen to him sing in the choir instead. He'd known what the answer would be.
The silence in his quarters that had seemed so comfortable an hour ago now seemed like a horrible parody of the wonderful and infinite silence in St Matthew's. Even the thought of the updates from R&D couldn't reconcile him to it, and the sorrowful notes of the Górecki recording when he switched it back on only exacerbated his sudden appalling sense of loss.
With something like a sense of desperation he plunged out of his cabin, heading for the gymnasium. Exercise – a good workout always made him feel better. If he flogged his guts out on the running machine he'd outrun his desolation, surely...
Just as he reached the turbo-lift he heard Trip calling him. "Malcolm! Wait up!"
Crap. He couldn't pretend to have suddenly and conveniently become hard of hearing, and Trip was still his senior officer, even if they were both now off duty. Reluctantly he came to a halt.
Tucker came up to him, and seeing his expression he realised with a sinking heart that his forebodings were accurate. The subject of the Christmas Party was going to be brought up again; in fact, considering the time, it was probably about to start. The chief engineer was in what he probably fondly imagined to be festive attire. That shirt ought to come with a health warning. Or at least a dimmer switch.
"Malcolm, we're all gonna have a great time. There's a real Christmas buzz goin'. I hate you not bein' with us. You could just come down for half an hour, just to have a mince pie or somethin'. It's not too late to change your mind," said Trip persuasively.
"It's not too late to change that shirt, but I don't suppose you will either," snapped Malcolm. In happier times the retort would have been imbued with a humour that the other man would have instantly detected and responded to – the issue of Trip's shirts was one of their favourite bickering topics – but there was no humour in him now.
"Whoa! Forget I asked!" The American backed away, hands and eyebrows raised. "Well, you know where we are if you change your mind anytime!"
Great. Now remorse for his bad-tempered and unjustifiable response to an act of kindness was added to his burden. He watched Trip walk away down the corridor and tried to find some words that would make amends, but couldn't.
He didn't think there were any.
The gymnasium was deserted.
He stripped down to tank top and shorts and began warming up. He worked hard in his cardio exercises, then started stretching until the muscles hurt. Then, as soon as he was thoroughly loosened up, he got on to the running machine and started it up, jogging steadily for the first couple of miles. He increased the tempo, pushing himself harder. Faster still. His legs pumped, keeping up the pace with relative ease even now. He upped the settings again, desperately. Now he was really having to work, his feet pounding on the treadmill, the sound of the impacts and his panting breaths echoing around the empty gymnasium. He stumbled once or twice and managed to recover. He kept up a little longer, feeling his muscles starting to burn with the build-up of lactic acid, and then somehow his ankles got tangled up with each other. In a split second the machine had propelled him backwards and deposited him in an ignominious sweaty heap on the floor, gasping for breath.
His vocabulary on such occasions was wide, and fortunately right now it was unconstrained by the presence of either members of the opposite sex or Starfleet personnel, before whom he needed to maintain a certain level of conduct. He picked himself up gingerly, checking for damage. A few bruises, that went without saying, but mostly all that had been hurt was his dignity.
He switched the machine off and sat down on it, staring at the floor. If he ran till he gave himself cardiac failure nothing would change. He was utterly alone.
And whose fault was it?
I hate bloody parties, he argued with himself. I don't know what to say. I just end up standing around like a lemon, watching everyone else having a wonderful time.
So why would it be like that here? his other self demanded. It's not as if you don't know anybody. And it's not as if they don't want you there. At least you could just go down and say hello. That's not against the sodding Regulations, is it?
Fraternisation. Senior officers shouldn't get familiar with crew. Bad for discipline, he retorted.
Oh, yes, of course. Being in the same room with them while they eat some party food and have a few dances. I can see how that would cause a total breakdown in the chain of command.
"Sarky git," he muttered.
And you haven't even got the excuse that you weren't asked, the other voice went on inexorably. You've got the best friend you've ever had in your life and you won't even go somewhere that makes you a bit uncomfortable for half an hour to please him. Wonderful. You know, if you keep this up you won't have any damned friends at all. And when that happens, don't come crying to me.
He shifted uneasily. It's not that serious. I'll apologise to him next time I see him.
You should apologise to him now. And you should go and have a drink and eat a mince pie and forget you hate parties, and you never know – maybe you might actually find you're enjoying yourself.
He was silent for a while. But it's not Christmas for me. It's just not. All that – noise and talking.
No. The other voice agreed instantly. It's not. But it might be friendship. And maybe friendship's one of the things Christmas ought to be about. Especially out here. We're all we've got.
I may be a bastard, but I'm right. AND you know it.
Sighing deeply, he got to his feet.
If anyone tries to make me wear a paper hat, you're going to hear about it.
Anyone seeing him walk back to his cabin would have thought he was walking to his own execution. He had to shower again, of course; he couldn't possibly turn up sodden with sweat. He wanted to fit in – well, even maybe just a little; he had no illusions – not clear the room.
Restored to respectability, he inspected his wardrobe rather dismally. He hadn't included the necessity for going to parties when he'd packed his suitcase. But perhaps that would do.
He looked at his reflection. Maddie had said the shirt would suit him; something about the colour matching his eyes. He suspected from the luxurious feel of it against his skin that it was expensive. She'd bought him the trousers too, and if this was fashion he could do without it – they were so close-fitting they could hardly have been tighter if they'd been sprayed on to his arse. Cautiously he squatted, just to make sure they wouldn't split if he moved unwarily at any point; happily no catastrophe occurred, so they must be stronger than they looked.
Aftershave, you idiot. He could almost hear her yelling at him. Gloomily he opened the unused bottle and applied it. Anti-perspirant deodorant was one thing, and highly appropriate and necessary, but aftershave, for God's sake. Anyone would think he was likely to pull.
More to put off the moment of doom than anything else, he began tidying the little pile of PADDs on his desk. They weren't absolutely straight. And now that he came to handle them, they weren't sitting properly either. There was something underneath them that he hadn't noticed before: a small, flat, padded paper package with a sprig of holly printed on it.
Puzzled and wondering, he picked it up and shook it gently. From a security point of view this was, of course, a Very Bad Idea, but the chances that he was in receipt of an extremely small bomb with a picture of holly on the wrapping were admittedly rather remote. It was technically possible the ship was harbouring a highly selective and seasonally-minded assassin (perhaps someone from an extremely pro-Christmas-party terrorist organisation?), but it was unlikely. A tiny, metallic rustling came from within.
If it had been a bomb, his unsteady fingers would have set it off. Since it wasn't, they made short work of the adhesive tape.
There was no message.
A cross and chain spilled on to his palm and lay there, glimmering. The perfectly plain cross reflected the light in exactly the same way the ship's hull did.
His fingers fumbled with the ring-bolt clasp. He wasn't used to wearing jewellery, but whoever the donor was should see he'd found it and was – utterly and absurdly – grateful.
Another button of the shirt would have to come open to make it visible on his chest. He made the necessary adjustments, ran a comb through his hair, and inspected his reflection again.
You'll do, Mal, said Maddie. Now get down there and TALK TO PEOPLE.
Um. Dressing was one thing; talking was another. Or at least LISTEN to them, then, scolded Maddie, sensing a nascent rebellion and crushing it. He swallowed. Well. He could do 'listening' if he had to. He'd give it a go.
Butterflies were trying to stage a mass takeover in his guts by the time he reached the Mess. Maybe he could just slip in very quietly; he was used to stealth operations after all. Hopefully nobody much would notice him. He'd see if he could catch Trip on his own for a second and say how sorry he was for being a miserable git earlier. Then he could just grab some grub and fade into the darkest corner.
Dry-mouthed, he pressed the door control.
The party was in full swing. Relieved, he made to slip in unnoticed.
"MALCOLM!" Trip's bellow was even louder than the music. It was even louder than his shirt, and that was saying something. "COME ON IN!"
If there had been a hole in the deck plating he'd have sunk into it gratefully. As it was, he had no option but to stand there while the chief engineer, the captain and half a dozen others fairly rushed at him and dragged him in as though fearing he might make a run for it if they didn't grab him fast enough.
Hoshi was among those who converged on him, and he noticed too late that there was a bunch of mistletoe suspended above the door. Well, for Hoshi he'd make an exception, but if Trip tried anything there were going to be some unseasonable fisticuffs. Besides, T'Pol wasn't known for her sense of humour. And he suspected that the adjective 'possessive' did apply to Vulcans.
Fortunately Hoshi monopolised him and the mistletoe for some agreeable time, and the male members of the assembly confined themselves to cheering his scarlet embarrassment. And yes, apparently she thought the shirt suited him.
Food? Well, that buffet looked amazing. And even the music wasn't as bad as he'd expected. Now if he could just avoid noticing that several members of his staff were apparently already intrigued by the discovery that his trousers looked like they'd been applied with a spray-gun, he might even actually get around to enjoying himself.
– Dance? No, Ensign, certainly not. Hoshi, no, I don't –
Honestly, I –
Well, OK. Yes, I had noticed it's Christmas.
Just one, right?
Told you so.
Oh, shut up, I'm enjoying myself.
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