Log Rhythms - Season Two
"Excuse me, Ensigns. Could I have a moment?"
Lawless and Cutler looked up from their breakfasts in surprise. There stood Lieutenant Reed, mug of tea in hand and a pleasant, inquisitive look on his face.
"Of course," said Cutler, the first to find her voice. "Please." She gestured to a chair, and he sat.
"Thank you." He turned his gaze to Lawless who unconsciously sat a little straighter. Reed noticed and gave her a ghost of a smile. "At ease, Ensign. I just have a small request."
"Request, sir?" asked the puzzled engineer. She was stymied. Any engineering request he had could be made on duty, and she'd have expected him to go to Commander Tucker for technical assistance anyway. This surreptitious meeting over breakfast had her at a loss.
"I understand you're a very resourceful individual," continued Reed.
"Resourceful?" Lawless was desperately wishing she'd gotten a double espresso this morning instead of ordinary coffee; her brain was in serious need of a jumpstart. One look at Cutler's blank expression told her she was on her own. "I'm afraid I don't understand, Lieutenant."
"Stephanie told me all about the role-playing game."
He meant, of course, the prank they'd played on Cormack the past November. Lawless had started it all by getting her hands on documentary footage of her friend's old college band days. Apparently it was now coming back to haunt her. She shot another nervous glance across the table to Cutler. Liz looked back, equally apprehensive. It had been several months, but now it appeared Cormack was going to get her revenge.
But what does the Lieutenant have to do with it? wondered Lawless.
Reed was aware of the ensigns' nervous tension, but had no idea of its real cause. He simply needed a favor, a discreet favor, and he'd learned that Lawless was the person to talk to. "You have a reputation for being able to acquire information and objects not necessarily of standard Starfleet issue," he said suggestively.
How in hell did he find out about that?! Mae's mind shouted at her. I'm in so much trouble. She tried to maintain an air of nonchalance. Unfortunately, not having started with that air, it was impossible to maintain it. "Sir?" she asked in failed false-innocence.
Reed chuckled softly, surprising the two women even more. "Relax." He looked over to Cutler. "Both of you. I just want to ask a favor." Now he turned his attention back to Lawless. "I need to know if you can get something for me. If you'll stop by the armory later, I'll give you the details."
Still completely baffled, all Lawless could do was nod.
Tucker and Reed were taking the evening off. Both were satisfied with the progress of repairs in their respective departments, so when their duty shifts ended, they'd actually gone off duty. The whole evening was ahead of them, and they intended to spend it together.
Now Malcolm and Trip entered the ship's gym. Only crewmen Martinez and Zabel were there, sparring on the large mat laid out in the center of the room. They paid the newcomers no notice, and the officers skirted the mat to get to the weights.
"You go first. I'll spot you," said Malcolm.
"Okay," the commander agreed.
They set their towels aside, and Trip released a long weight bar from its holder. He set the bar for the weight he wanted and laid back on the bench. Reed positioned himself at the top of the bench, ready on the off-chance his assistance should be needed.
The two chatted quietly as they lifted, although it was the person spotting who did most of the talking.
They'd been working out for some time when Malcolm, taking a turn on the bench, asked about the repairs. He'd been trying to avoid discussing work, but as that was all anyone had been doing lately, there were precious few other topics to hand.
"They're about done," Trip answered. "It looked a lot uglier than it was."
"That's not what you said last week," Malcolm said between bench presses.
"That was last week. Now that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it doesn't seem so bad anymore."
Malcolm set the weight bar in its rests and sat up. He reset the bar to neutral before the two of them moved over to the hand weights. It would be much easier to talk now.
About that time, Martinez and Zabel finished up their sparring. Together they hung the large mat back on the wall where it was stored when not in use. Reed gave them a friendly nod, which both returned as they left. "Those two should try for the officers' exams next time around," he said.
"Yeah?" Tucker was selecting a pair of weights and glanced up only to see the door shut behind the departing security crewmen.
"Yeah. I expect they'd both pass with high marks."
"Have you told them that?"
"No. But I plan to at the yearly reviews next month." He chose a pair of weights and began some biceps curls.
"They pass and you'll have a lot of officers on your team."
"That's a lot considering the size of Enterprise's security force. You better look out, or they'll all be after your job," he joked.
Reed chuckled. "There are days I'd be happy to give it to one of them."
He remembered a moment months ago when a freezing Trip had attempted to climb up into the airlock of Shuttlepod One to give Malcolm a better chance of surviving until Enterprise arrived. Reed had pulled out a phase-pistol and threatened to stun his new lover if he didn't come back down. Furious, Tucker had responded with his own threat.
"Then go ahead and shoot me, but you better hope we don't make it, because if we survive the first thing I'm gonna do is bust your ass back to Crewman Second Class for insubordination!"
"Be my guest!" Malcolm had snarled back. "I could use a little less responsibility."
For an official 'first fight' as a couple, it had been a doozy. That had been a particularly bad time, of course. Usually their days were much more routine.
"Oh yeah? Which one?" asked Trip, breaking into the armory officer's thoughts.
"If you had to hand your department over to one of your team, who would you choose?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"Just curious." Trip shrugged with the shoulder not currently involved in triceps kickbacks.
"I've left the department in others' hands plenty of times."
"Sure, but I mean if you had to hand it over, not just leave it for a little while."
Malcolm paused in his reps to look at his partner. "Do you know something I don't?" he joked.
Trip laughed. "Course not. Forget it. It was just dumb talk."
"I don't know if I'd call it that. Random talk, perhaps."
The gym door opened then, and Cormack entered. "Hello, sirs," she said amiably.
"Evening, Stephanie," answered Reed with a smile.
Tucker only nodded a brief hello in the ensign's general direction.
"You're not by any chance bucking for a promotion these days, are you?" Reed continued casually.
"'Scuse me?" Cormack replied, taken off guard.
Reed laughed at her perplexed look. "Nothing. Just idle talk the Commander and I were sharing."
"Great. Like I wanted to hear that with the first year reviews coming up. Now I'm going to be wondering all the time. That's not good for yogic concentration, you know."
"You told me real yogis were free of anticipation."
"Do I look like a real yogi to you?" countered Cormack. Not expecting an answer, she looked at Tucker as she rolled out her mat. "Is he this deliberately obfuscatory with you, Commander? Because if he is, you must be the most patient man in the galaxy."
Malcolm laughed again. Trip just shrugged as he adjusted his hand weights for a new set of exercises. "Hadn't thought about it," he said flatly.
"Well if you haven't noticed it, it must just be me." She gave Malcolm a mock-annoyed grimace. "Thanks so very much."
Normally, Trip loved the sound of Malcolm's laughter. Here and now, it only made him angry. He wasn't mad at him for laughing; he was mad at the person who made him laugh so easily. "You ready to hit the bag?" he asked suddenly.
"I suppose," Malcolm replied. "Didn't you want to do more weight-training first?"
"Nah." Trip punctuated the statement by dropping the bars he held back into their cradles and locking them down.
Malcolm sensed something was wrong, but he wouldn't say anything while they had an audience. "All right." Before he could put his weights away, Trip was moving to the corner of the room that held the heavy punching bag. Malcolm locked down the weights and picked up his and Trip's towels before following the engineer.
"You'll want this," he said. He handed over a roll of cloth tape from his pocket.
Trip took it. "Thanks."
Cormack was prudently trying to ignore the men's conversation. She, too, could tell something was up, but it wasn't any of her business. Of course that didn't stop her worrying about it.
Wonder if this is what Mae was talking about the other week, she thought. The engineer had told her Tucker had been unusually short-tempered lately. Then she remembered her own brief encounter with him here in the gym only a day before Mae had mentioned it. And there was the commander's strange reticence when she'd run into him and Lieutenant Reed in the mess hall the morning they'd arrived at Paraagan Two. With everything that had happened since, she'd forgotten all about it. Now the memories came back with more significance.
Oh Goddess, Cormack thought in sudden apprehension. I hope there's nothing wrong between Malcolm and Commander Tucker. She couldn't know that, as far as Trip was concerned, the only problem was her.
"Lawless to Lieutenant Reed."
Malcolm took a quick look around the armory before answering. "Reed here," he said to the comm.
"I have the equipment you requested, sir."
"Do you it have with you?"
"Yes, sir. I can bring it down to the armory now if you'd like."
"Excellent. Thank you, Ensign." He closed the comm and checked the time. Good, he thought. Cormack and a team were running routine checks on the shuttlepods' armaments and defenses. It was a project that would keep her out of the armory all day and then some. He was the only one here this morning, just as he'd planned.
A few moments later, Ensign Lawless entered carrying a small silver case like those in which tools were kept for away missions. "Good morning, Lieutenant. Here's that equipment you wanted." She handed him the case, which he took and set on the table.
He released the catches and opened it. A satisfied smile quirked his lips. "Thank you," he said again, shutting it securely. "I owe you one."
"Actually, I have a suggestion on that point."
"What is it?"
Reed was dubious. "Information?"
"Nothing classified," Lawless hastily assured him.
"What sort of information?"
The engineer looked uncomfortable, but she was determined. "You know about the joke Ensign Cutler and I played on Cormack. And you know about the band she was in." Reed nodded. "I figured she wouldn't have told you about the joke if you didn't already know about the band. I don't know how you found out about it, but I won't ask you if you don't ask me. The point is," she hurried on, "we—Ensign Cutler and I—we're sort of expecting revenge. Maybe—if you hear something—you could pass it on?"
Reed was learning all sorts of interesting information in this little exchange. He found it fascinating. "It's been months since you two pulled that prank. Do you really think she's still stewing over it?" he asked.
"No," said Lawless unconvincingly. "But you never know, you know? Stephanie can be really resourceful. And devious."
While he couldn't deny the accuracy of her description, the lieutenant thought it might just as appropriately be applied to Lawless herself. Somehow he didn't think of Cormack as the vengeful sort, but he could be wrong. Ensign Lawless had known her far longer than he had. "All right," he said, mildly amused. "If I hear anything that sounds like she's plotting against you two, I'll let you know."
The dark-haired woman looked inordinately relieved. "Thank you, sir!" She turned to leave.
"What if I don't hear anything?"
"If I don't hear anything, I still owe you for this." He nodded at the case of 'equipment.'
"No, sir! Just knowing we have someone on the inside is payment enough, even if you never hear a thing."
Reed chuckled at her sincerity. "She really has you running scared, doesn't she?"
"No, sir," protested Lawless. "If I had somewhere to run, I wouldn't be scared at all."
The lieutenant allowed the door to shut completely behind the departing engineer before laughing out loud. Perhaps Stephanie is the vengeful sort, he thought. If so, this paranoia she's engendered is a clever way for her to exact her revenge.
"Afternoon, Captain," said Trip as he entered the ready room. "Got that update on the repairs." He handed over a datapad.
"Great! Have a seat," Archer replied, taking the pad.
Tucker pulled up the chair that sat in front of Archer's desk, turning it backwards before sitting astride it and resting his arms on the back. "So what was it like?" he asked, cutting to the chase.
"What was what like?" the captain answered question with question. He knew what his old friend was asking, but he felt the need to stall a little.
"Come on. You know what I'm talking about. The future. The 31st century. What was it like?"
Archer considered carefully before answering. "Dirty," he said at last.
"Trip, the future Daniels took me to wasn't the one he'd come from. The Utopia he lived—lives will live—" He paused and shook his head. "I think I hate temporal language mechanics." Trip chuckled. "Anyway," Archer continued, "it wasn't there. The future we were in was desolate, devoid of life, dirty. Bombed out buildings, rubble everywhere." He shook his head again. The image of the future he held in his memory was one he could have happily done without.
"But that's not going to happen now, right?"
"I don't know. Presumably not, if it really was my absence from the present time that brought it about."
"Yeah. That's part of it that I don't really get. How could one person make such a big difference?" He gave his captain a teasing look. "No offense."
Archer laughed. "None taken, and I don't know the answer to that, either."
"C'mon," Trip said again cajolingly. "Isn't there anything you can tell me?"
"There was something that might have interested you," the captain began.
"What was—is will be—I think I see what you mean," Tucker said wryly. He decided to go for the easiest form of the question. "What?"
"A whole library filled floor to ceiling with actual books."
"We have books." Trip was confused; he was sure there was something the captain wasn't telling him.
"Not like this," Archer insisted. "I've never seen such a huge collection of bound books in my life. It was amazing! There was one that caught my eye while we were trying to figure out what had happened. The Romulan Star Empire."
"Never heard of it."
"Neither had I, but Daniels didn't think it was something I should see."
Now Trip understood. "So you think it's important."
"Did you get a chance to look at it?"
"No. We had other things to worry about at the time. But I've been doing some research. I have the Vulcan database, plus the information we've gotten from some of the species we've met out here. If there's anything in our records, I intend to find it."
"You're going to tell me when you do, right?"
"Count on it."
The cabin door slid open and Stephanie stuck her head inside. "Hey," she said brightly.
"Hey," replied her roommate with a smile. She was sitting on her bunk studying a datapad. "What's up?"
"You want to get some dinner?"
"Sure." Liz placed an electronic marker in the text she was reading before turning off the pad.
"What's that?" Stephanie asked.
"Something Phlox recommended. It's a sort of Gray's Anatomy for Denobulans."
"Cool. Ready to go?"
They locked the cabin door and headed toward the mess hall. There was an unaccustomed bounce in Stephanie's step, and her friend wondered at it.
"What's got you in such a good mood?" Liz asked.
"Nothing in particular. I just had a good day, I guess."
"Does it have anything to do with the upcoming yearly reviews?"
"Hardly!" They entered the bustling mess hall and made a beeline for the food. "Oo! Fish and chips!" Stephanie immediately claimed a full plate and an empty glass.
Liz was close behind her with her own dinner as they got in line for the drinks dispenser. "So what is it?"
"I told you, I just had an especially good day. Root beer, very cold," she ordered, placing her glass under the dispenser.
"Hang on." Liz was struck with inspiration. "Has baseball season started yet?"
"Almost. They're playing exhibition games right now. The actual season doesn't get underway until week after next—the third of April, to be precise."
"So you just had a good day, huh?"
"Yep." Stephanie took her full glass and waited as her roommate's filled with sparkling water.
They claimed a table. "I'll get us condiments," offered Liz. "What do you want?"
"Tartar and vinegar, of course," Stephanie replied.
While Liz was getting these, Mae appeared. "Mind if I join you?"
"Of course not."
Mae sat, placing her meal on the table. "Thanks. Hey, you planning on doing anything special for your birthday this year?"
"Shh! and no."
"No one else knows when my birthday is, so shush."
"Since when do you not celebrate your birthday?" demanded Mae. "It was always a party back in training."
"Yeah, but I just want to have a mellow birthday this year."
"You always said you were looking forward to turning thirty."
"I am! I just don't feel the need for a party. I mean, come on. We're on a starship light-years from home. There's not a lot to party with."
At that moment Liz returned, carrying plastic bottles of tartar sauce, malt vinegar, and ketchup. "Hi, Mae." She set down the bottles and sat, reaching immediately to pick up the vinegar again. She began dashing it over her fish and chips.
Shooting Stephanie a "we're not done with this subject" look, Mae grabbed the ketchup bottle. "Oo! Ketchup!" she said by way of hello.
"You'll never get that bottle away from her," Stephanie warned her bunkmate. "The woman's a ketchup fiend."
Liz laughed. "I know. That's why I made sure to get one that was completely full when I saw her sit down."
"How thoughtful," grinned Mae. She opened the ketchup, held it at a very precise angle over her fries, and gently tapped the bottom.
"That's a regular science, isn't it?" Liz watched with an intensity bordering on fascination.
"And Mae's an expert," put in Stephanie. She herself was unceremoniously shaking tartar sauce onto her plate.
A slow ooze of red slithered onto Mae's fries. "It takes a sure hand to do this properly," she said in her most professorial tones. "You want enough to be able to slather the fries but you don't want them to drown in the ketchup. It's a skill acquired over many, many years. Oh!" Without warning the ketchup poured freely, creating a pool on her plate. She quickly tipped the bottle upright and froze, staring a little wide-eyed and stunned.
Stephanie and Liz froze, too, then all three burst into laughter.
"Have some fries with your ketchup," giggled Stephanie.
Mae saw her chance. "Be nice or I won't give you the birthday present I have for you!"
"Birthday?!" exclaimed Liz. "When's your birthday? It's not today, is it? Is that why you're in such a good mood?"
"You shit," Stephanie shot at Mae. She wasn't really angry, but she felt she had to say something. To Liz she added, "No and no. It's next week, actually—the twenty-ninth. Thanks so much, Mae, for mentioning it. I should have known you'd never forget my birthday," she said dryly.
"What are friends for?" the engineer replied with a grin.
"Slow roasting over a low flame until tender and juicy?"
"Or perhaps a nice friend biriyani. I hear it goes very well with mango chutney."
"Only if it's spicy mango chutney," countered Mae.
"I'm sure I can find some."
"Why didn't you tell me it was your birthday next week?" Liz broke in, suspending their culinary discussion.
"Because it isn't important."
"We celebrated my birthday, and Mae's. What made you think you'd get off the hook?"
"I don't want you guys to go to any bother," insisted Stephanie.
"We won't," Mae lied. "Trust me."
Malcolm settled deeper into the bunk. It had been a long day of work, and his tired brain was still racing with things that needed to be done. He was finally beginning to drift off when a random thought yanked him awake. He opened his eyes in the dark cabin, the only illumination the stars and the bedside chronometer. The former were there day or night; the latter told him it was past midnight.
"Trip?" he whispered. No response. He tried again. "Trip?"
"Mmm?" came the unintelligible mutter from the form beside him.
"Are you having dinner with Captain Archer on Wednesday?"
"Huh?" Trip had been on the brink of slumber when Malcolm's soft calling of his name pulled him back. The engineer rolled over to face him, bleary eyes blinking in semi-conscious confusion.
"Are you having dinner with Captain Archer on Wednesday?" Malcolm repeated.
"I'm planning ahead."
"Never mind." Malcolm realized from Trip's expression that the younger man probably wasn't even going to remember this conversation come morning. "Go back to sleep. I'm sorry I disturbed you."
Trip mumbled something Malcolm couldn't make out, then promptly fell asleep. Malcolm chuckled softly. He enjoyed watching the fair-haired engineer sleep. He loved the beginnings of laugh-lines Trip had at the corners of his eyes, but in sleep all his features smoothed out, making him appear vulnerable and innocent.
Malcolm leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on his lover's cheek. Trip snuggled closer to him without waking, making Malcolm smile. "Sweet dreams," he whispered.
"Is everything arranged?"
"Yep. She gave in to the whole party idea, but she said she didn't want a big fuss."
"And you believe her?"
"Yeah. It'll just be a few friends, a few presents, and lots of key lime pie."
"I'll take your word on it, although I'm dubious about the pie."
"Trust me. It's her favorite."
"All right. The Rec. Center at 2100 hours tomorrow, then."
"See you there," agreed Mae.
The comm closed, leaving Malcolm in silence. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. He'd left the details of planning the party to Ensign Lawless. It wasn't often he'd had the occasion to plan one and so he wasn't particularly adept at it, but he wanted Cormack's birthday to be fun. It seemed the least he could do for the first real friend he'd made on board Enterprise. Not to mention all the favors she's done me over the past several months, his minded added. The thought reminded him of something else.
He rose and left his cabin. A couple of minutes later he was ringing the bell at Trip's quarters.
"C'mon in," called the engineer. Malcolm opened the door and stepped inside. Trip was already dressed for bed in long, navy blue pajama bottoms and a loose gray T-shirt. Reed smiled at the sight.
Tucker looked up from his desk and returned the smile. "Hi," he said. He immediately shut down what he'd been working on.
"I'm not interrupting, am I?" asked Malcolm with a gesture towards the computer.
"Nope. I was just reading a new technical journal before turning in. It can wait." He rose and crossed the cabin to take his partner in his arms. He kissed him soundly. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" Trip asked lightly, once he'd broken off the kiss.
"My pleasure, you mean." Malcolm smiled wider. He could easily have sunk into that embrace, that kiss, and never come out again. He had to force himself to come to the matter that had brought him here. "I asked you the other night if you were dining with Captain Archer Wednesday evening."
"You did?" Trip was at a loss; he had no recollection of the conversation in question.
"It's all right. You were mostly asleep at the time."
"I wondered if you have an answer for me now you're awake."
"I do." Trip kissed Malcolm's cheek and then nibbled on his earlobe. Malcolm shivered at the touch of his lips and teeth.
"So?" he asked, trying desperately to keep on topic long enough to get an answer. After that, he was more than willing to let the blond man have his way with him.
"I'm not " Warm kisses trailed along Malcolm's neck to the edge of his collar. " dining with the Captain " Fingers tangled in Malcolm's dark hair. " tomorrow."
"The kisses or the information?" asked Trip softly, his warm breath caressing his lover's ear.
"Both." Malcolm closed his eyes to better enjoy the sweet sensations.
"Good." Trip continued to kiss Malcolm, moving along the shorter man's jawline to his lips. He paused there only briefly before continuing around to the other side. "I love your cheekbones," he murmured, pressing still more kisses on one to punctuate his point.
"They quite fancy you," answered Malcolm with a low chuckle, which Trip returned.
"So what's going on tomorrow night?" Trip asked between kisses. The matter was secondary, but part of his brain wouldn't let him concentrate on the important things until this question was answered.
Malcolm opened his eyes and looked at Trip, causing the younger man to pause. "Do we have to discuss this now?" he asked, hoping the answer was no. His erection was pressing almost painfully against the combined constraints of his underwear and uniform.
"No." Trip shook his head ever so slightly.
"Good, because you're doing a fair job of seducing me, although I'd recommend a little less off topic conversation if you want to succeed," he teased. They both knew it was idle talk. They could have been discussing hull plating or thermodynamics and Malcolm would have found it sexy at this point.
"Ah. You'd rather I discuss your impossibly high cheekbones some more?" Trip asked, kissing each in turn.
"It's a start." A smile quirked the corner of Malcolm's mouth.
"Or that darling little not-quite-smile you get when you're particularly pleased with something?" He kissed the smile next.
"I like your theme," whispered Malcolm when he regained his breath.
"Oh I could write a whole thesis if you want." Trip's strong hands grasped both of Malcolm's buttocks tightly, pulling him closer. Malcolm could feel his lover's hardness press against his own.
"Maybe another time." Their eyes met and held. "Right now, you could just make love to me."
"Now that's a theme on which I'm happy to expound. Wait right there." Trip quickly dimmed the lights to half. "Mood lighting." He called up a program on the computer, and rich, smoky jazz began to play. "Mood music." He returned to his waiting partner. "Now to find the appropriate outfit." With a smile shared by both men, Trip began the slow, sensuous process of undressing his lover.
It was at least two weeks since Reed had witnessed one of Tucker's swings of moodiness. As a result, the newest one hit him from out of the blue.
"What do you mean you don't feel up to going?" Malcolm asked.
"I mean I don't think I'd be very good company, that's all."
"You were up for it half an hour ago. What can possibly have changed in that length of time?"
"Nothing. I just don't feel like going." Trip knew perfectly well what had changed in those thirty minutes, of course; he'd found out who the party was for. You're being stupid, he thought. Either suck it up and go, or tell him what's wrong. But he couldn't. How do you tell the man you love that you don't like his best friend? He knew his jealousy of Malcolm's relationship with Cormack was unfounded and foolish, but he couldn't seem to get past it. Neither could he bring himself to share with his partner how petty and childish he was being.
Malcolm stood there, looking at him in confusion. "Stephanie's going to wonder if you're not there." An idea occurred to him. "Are you not feeling well?"
"You're not coming down with something, are you?" It had happened to Reed last year; it wasn't outside the realm of possibility it had happened to Tucker now. He sat down on the bunk next to him; the engineer edged away.
"Then what's wrong? You've been acting oddly off and on for weeks."
A sick, sinking feeling of realization suddenly hit Malcolm in the gut. Clearly he'd done it again—shut out the person he was with—and now that person no longer wanted him around. It was an old, old pattern, and he could hardly blame Trip for it. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised; he ought to have seen it coming. The signs were all there now that he thought back on it. But he'd thought it was different this time—he truly had. Everything had certainly seemed all right last night His face grew still as stone.
Trip knew that look. He hated that look. It was a look he'd hoped never to cause. Oh shit. Great job, Trip. Now you've done it. "Malcolm—" He stopped, not knowing what to say.
"I'm going to go," Reed said flatly. He stood and turned to leave the cabin.
Malcolm paused. Silence. "What?" he finally asked, not turning around.
Trip's heart ached and he was angry all at once. He ached to think he'd hurt Malcolm's feelings; he knew how fragile they were under that stoic demeanor. Equally, he was angry—angry with Malcolm for misunderstanding, angry with himself because he knew it was his own fault. "Fine. Go," he said sharply.
Reed said nothing. He crossed the few feet to the door and left the cabin.
Trip sat unmoving. Inside his head his brain was screaming at him to go after Malcolm, explain everything, make things right. But he sat there in angry silence, knowing he was the one to blame for this whole damned mess, but not making a move to fix it.
The part of his brain that had been screaming moments ago now berated him viciously. Dumbass. What the hell did you think was gonna happen? Huh? Did you think he was just gonna smile and say, 'Okay, sweetheart, you do whatever you feel is best'? 'Cause you're dumber than I thought if that's what you figured.
Shut up, damn it! he cursed the little voice.
But the little voice wouldn't be silenced. Get up off your butt and go after him! You know what he's thinking, don't you?
He didn't answer.
Don't you?! demanded the voice more vehemently.
He stood abruptly and opened his cabin door. Malcolm was out of sight. Shit. He knew where his partner was going, however. He rushed for the nearest turbolift, hoping to catch him.
The corridor was empty.
Shit, shit, shit!
He hailed the lift. He was going end this stupid misunderstanding tonight no matter what it took.
"C'mon, c'mon!" he muttered as he waited for the lift. The door hadn't even finished opening by the time he was inside and calling up the deck he wanted. "Hurry up, damn it!" he swore under his breath. Finally the lift was underway.
Agonizing seconds ticked past until he arrived at the deck. Once again, he slipped through the door as soon as the opening was big enough. He rushed by two startled crewmen without a glance. He had to catch Malcolm before he got to the Rec. Center.
Then he spotted him. The armory officer was barely two meters from his destination.
"Malcolm!" called Trip, not slowing his pace. Surprised, Malcolm stopped and looked at him. Trip practically skidded to a halt next to him. "I'm sorry. I'm not mad at you. I don't want you to go. I don't ever want you to go."
Suddenly realizing they were standing a potentially high-traffic area, he took Malcolm's arm and led him several steps down the corridor and around a corner. Malcolm allowed himself to be led away, staring at Trip in perplexed silence. That was fine by Trip.
Tucker was babbling and he didn't care. Words poured out in a barely coherent stream.
"I'm not mad at you," he repeated emphatically. "I love you. I've been a prick, and I'm sorry. It's not your fault; it's mine. It's me. It's—" Say it! "I don't like Ensign Cormack. I know it's stupid. She hasn't done anything to me. I don't even know what started it. She's been great to you—to us. I love you, I just don't like her," he finished in a rush. He looked at Malcolm, a mixture of hope and worry and apology showing on his expressive face.
Malcolm simply continued to stare at him. His brain was wildly processing what Trip had said. His thoughts spun until they lit upon the most important thing. "You still love me?"
"Of course I do! Damn it!" The quiet curse was directed at himself. He grasped Malcolm's hands in his own, made certain his eyes held his partners' just as firmly. "I never meant to make you doubt that, and I'm sorry if I did." He took a deep breath. "I just don't like Stephanie."
Trip waited as another tense silence grew between the two men. Finally he couldn't stand it any longer. "Say something, please! Call me an idiot. Tell me I'm crazy. Something!"
The rigid mask of Malcolm's face relaxed slightly. "You're an idiot," he said. "And you're completely mad."
Trip grinned. Everything would be okay now.
"And you're not off the hook," Malcolm added, seeing his expression change. His relief at Tucker's confession was tempered with confusion, frustration, and hurt, but now was neither the time nor the place to deal with it. "We're going to talk about this, and you're going to tell me what's been going on in a bit more depth. But not right now. I have a party to go to. Are you coming, or shall I tell Stephanie you send your regrets?"
The inquiry was so neutral Trip wasn't sure what to say. He couldn't guess from his partner's expression or tone of voice what answer he wanted to hear. The decision had been left entirely up to him. Damn, thought Trip. "I'm going to go back to my cabin," he said at last.
Malcolm gave a nod of acceptance. "All right."
"Will you come by after the party?" He was almost afraid to ask it.
"Yes, I will. Assuming it's not too late."
"It's never too late for you to stop by."
"For some things, no," agreed Malcolm with a small smile.
The gentle innuendo was music to Trip's ears. Everything really would be okay. "For anything," he countered.
"You say that now, but if I wake you up at 1:00 a.m. to have a heart-to-heart about this little matter, I wonder if you'll be so accommodating." It was a challenge, a mild one certainly, but a challenge.
"Well, I can't guarantee I'll be real coherent under those circumstances, but I'd sure as hell give it a try," the engineer offered gamely.
Malcolm smiled a little wider, tenderly mocking. "In that case, I'll see you tomorrow." Trip's face fell. "It's all right. I'm not angry with you, either. But go. I'll see you tomorrow for breakfast." He gave Trip a small, reassuring kiss. "I love you."
Trip heaved a sigh of heartfelt relief. "I love you, too. See you in the morning."
Malcolm nodded again and watched as Trip retreated to the nearest lift and was whisked away.
The armory officer took several moments to collect himself and put this incident behind him for the time being. It was Stephanie's birthday, and he was going to celebrate it with her and her friends. He'd hoped for Trip's reassuring presence that evening for a number of reasons. The engineer's easy-going manner made him a natural at group functions, while Malcolm was usually rather reticent and uncomfortable. It would have been nice having his lover there; even simply knowing he was in the room would have made the evening easier to handle.
That's not an option, Malcolm, he told himself firmly. You'll simply have to do this on your own. Stephanie is your friend. You'll do fine.
Taking a deep, calming breath, he steeled himself for what was ahead and entered the Rec. Center.
Music played in the background, and small groups of people chatted and sipped drinks. There was a little stack of presents on one table, and a cake and a number of key lime pies on another. Glancing around the room, he realized a third of his own staff were in attendance, as well as many others, including Ensigns Mayweather, Cutler, Sato, and Lawless. Then he spotted Stephanie. She was practically doubled over laughing at something Dr. Kyrin Douglas had just said. As she straightened up, she saw him.
"Excuse me," she said to the psychiatrist before hurrying over to the new arrival. "Hey, Malcolm!"
"Hello. Happy birthday."
"I hope you've left a few security personnel minding the store," he teased.
"One or two," joked Stephanie in reply. "I'm glad you're here. I was beginning to wonder if you were coming. You're usually so punctual, you had me worried." A puzzled look crossed her face suddenly. "Where's Commander Tucker? Isn't he with you?"
"Unfortunately he's busier than he expected to be and won't be joining us. He sends his regrets and his good wishes," Malcolm said evenly.
"Is everything cool?" she asked in a concerned undertone.
Stephanie wasn't convinced. "Really?"
"Yes," Malcolm insisted.
She eyed him doubtfully. "You're not just saying that?" She was suddenly very worried the suspicions she'd had the other week were correct.
"No, I'm not just saying that. Everything is fine," he assured her. "Now go mingle. You're neglecting the rest of your guests."
"You're really not just saying that because you don't want me to worry on my birthday?"
"Stephanie " He made the name alone sound like a threat.
"Okay! Okay! Have a glass of wine. There's Jo-Ris and Shiraz." At his inquisitive look, she added, "Both dealcoholized, of course. If you want the real stuff, you can use your own alcohol ration."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Hey, Stephanie!" called Travis, approaching from across the room. "Hi, Malcolm," he said as he reached them.
"Travis," Malcolm answered.
Travis turned back to Stephanie, asking, "What's this music that's playing? Liz said you'd know."
Stephanie paused a moment, listening. She was about to answer when Malcolm beat her to it. "Cordelia's Sisters," he said. "Their second or third album, isn't it?"
Stephanie nodded. "Yeah, it's the third one. 'Calling the Moon' is the name of it."
"I quite like that one," said Malcolm. "Particularly the title track."
"Yeah, Regan has a serious knack for poetry, and that one's one of her best, I think."
Travis gave Malcolm a surprised look. "How did you—? I didn't know you were into this kind of music."
"I'm full of all sorts of surprises," Malcolm replied enigmatically.
The song came to an end and a short silence fell. "Mae," Stephanie called out to the engineer. "You're falling down on the job, girlfriend."
"You didn't tell me what you wanted next!" argued Mae amicably.
"Play that new one Ryn and Gemma sent. That Rowan's Circle album."
"You got it!" She accessed the music library and peppy Celtic-Inuit punk fusion began to play.
"Rowan's Circle?" asked Reed.
"New band out of Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Guitar, bass, and fiddle. They're just hitting the national scene. I guess a demo came into Gemma's office, and she and Ryn thought I'd like it so they sent it for my birthday." They listened for several phrases. "They were so right! It's definitely good party music, too. C'mon, fellas," she said, clapping Travis and Malcolm on the shoulder, startling them both. "Let me buy you a drink."
Before she could make good on the offer, however, Liz intercepted them and cried out, "Toast!" She pressed a glass of red wine into her bunkmate's hand as Mae passed drinks off to each of the men. "To the birthday girl!"
Everyone but Stephanie raised their glasses and drank.
"Thank you, thank you," said Stephanie. "Now it's my turn." She held her glass up, pondering an appropriate toast. "To Mae and Liz. I have no idea how you pulled this off—particularly the key lime pies—but thank you. It means a lot to me. And to everyone who came to party with me. I know you're not simply here for the free booze, 'cause there ain't any," she quipped. Everyone chuckled. "I guess that means you must just like me. Cool. To you!" She gave another lift of her glass, which was echoed by everyone else, and they all drank once again.
"Presents!" shouted Liz. She grabbed Stephanie, divested her of her drink, and guided her to a chair. "Sit. It's time to open the presents."
"I told you guys I didn't need presents," argued Stephanie.
"You also told us you didn't need a party," interjected Mae, "but I don't hear you complaining." She grinned.
"Thank you," reiterated the birthday girl, dryly this time. It only made Mae grin wider.
There followed a wild mixture of laughter and tearing paper. The gifts were few and small, there being limited gift options aboard the starship. While the others watched Stephanie gleefully opening the presents, Mae sidled over to Malcolm.
"Where's yours, Lieutenant?" she asked under her breath.
"Waiting in her cabin. I dropped it off with Liz while Stephanie was out."
"You know what it is. Do you really think it wise to give it to her here?"
"Right." Mae nodded knowingly. "Good point."
With the presents unwrapped and the desserts consumed, it was time to head to bed. By ones and twos, people left for their cabins and a morning that would come all too soon.
"Gods, is it really that late?" Stephanie exclaimed, seeing the time.
"Unfortunately," answered Mae.
Everyone had filed out but the two of them, Malcolm, Liz, and Travis.
"You want help cleaning up?" offered Travis.
"Nah, thanks," Mae said. She and Liz were gathering up ribbons and scraps of wrapping paper that had somehow managed to get strewn like confetti all over the room.
"Yes, go," Liz answered this time. She paused in her cleaning to give him a good-night kiss. "Go to bed. You have to fly the ship in the morning."
"Okay. Good night. Happy birthday, Stephanie."
The birthday girl gave him a tired smile. "Thanks, Travis. Glad you came."
"Wouldn't have missed it. G'night." Travis departed, leaving the three women and Malcolm alone with the aftermath of the evening's festivities.
"You go, too," said Liz.
"Huh?" was Stephanie's eloquent reply.
"You go, too," her bunkmate repeated. "Mae and I will clean up the rest of this. Go on."
"It's okay. I'll stay."
"You'd best go," put in Malcolm. "Get some sleep so you can get up on time. You know how cranky your C.O. gets when you're late for duty. I'll help the ladies finish cleaning up here."
"You don't have to do that, Lieutenant," Mae said.
"Actually, I'm only planning on cleaning up that last piece of pie," he answered with a smirk.
"You should take it to Commander Tucker," suggested Stephanie.
Malcolm seemed to consider the question, then simply said, "No."
Stephanie chuckled, and the chuckle grew into a huge yawn.
"Go," ordered Mae, noticing the yawn. "You're wiped out. Besides, you shouldn't have to clean up after your own birthday party."
"Well okay. If you're sure it's cool."
"It's cool. Now get out of here."
"Thanks, guys." Stephanie gave Mae and Liz each a hug and a kiss on the cheek, but she knew better than to do the same to Malcolm, particularly in front of witnesses; it would have made him terribly uncomfortable. "You rock."
"We know," replied Liz breezily. "Now go on. You want to take the presents, or do you want me to bring them?"
"I can get them." Stephanie collected up the gifts. "Not a bad haul for being so far away from any sort of center of commerce," she joked. "Thanks again. Good night, all."
"Good night," said Malcolm.
"Night," said Mae.
"See you in a few minutes," said Liz.
Stephanie left the Rec. Center and headed to her cabin. Once inside, she deposited her presents on the desk, freeing a hand to turn up the light. A purple package sat in the center of her bunk. "What the—?" She sat and pulled the attached card from its envelope.
Slowly and with a mild sense of trepidation, Stephanie set aside the card and opened the package. Inside rested a pair of pajamas. Pink pajamas. Violently pink pajamas. The same color pink she'd had her hair for three years when she'd played with Daughters of Lear. "Oh my gods," she said, laughing. She held them up: long pink pants with the name Cordelia down the right leg; a pink tank top with a concert photo of the three of them printed on it in vivid color. "Oh my gods!"
Out in the corridor a mystified crewman paused, hearing peals of laughter coming from the behind the cabin door. He shook his head and walked on.