Log Rhythms - Season Three
Stephanie stood outside the door to Stellar Cartography, waiting. At two minutes past midnight, the door opened and the person she sought emerged. "Hey," she said.
Bonnie let out a startled, "Hey."
Before Bonnie could ask one of a dozen obvious questions, Stephanie went on boldly. "I owe you an apology. Can we go somewhere and talk?"
Bonnie was exhausted, and she knew they both had to get up extremely early the next morning. She also knew she wasn't going to say "no". "Yeah. Forward observation lounge okay?"
The two walked in silence to the observation lounge and found it empty. The lights automatically came on to half power as they entered.
When the door closed behind them, Stephanie turned to Bonnie. Her heart raced and her stomach felt as if it were stuffed full of malevolent butterflies. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been so nervous.
Bonnie remained silent. She had her suspicions as to what was going on, but she made no sign. Whatever the other woman had to say, Bonnie had no intention of making it easy for her. She crossed her arms over her chest, impatient but determined to wait this out.
After a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, Stephanie spoke. "I talked to Doctor Douglas today."
About damned time, thought Bonnie, but she said nothing more than, "Oh."
Stephanie could see she was on her own. There would be no reprieve from her lover, and in truth she didn't feel that she deserved one. "I suck," she said bluntly, just as she had so many times in her private log entries lately.
Bonnie couldn't let that comment pass. "I agree, but I'd like to know why you say that."
"I've been such a bitch to you lately."
"You haven't been a bitch," countered Bonnie coolly. "You haven't been emotionally available enough to be a bitch. Bitch I can deal with. You've been " She searched for just the right word. " gone."
"I'm sorry." Stephanie turned and walked toward the window, shoving her hands into the pockets of her jeans. Despite the light in the room, she could clearly see the Jupiter Station dock arms that held the ship. Activity was slower at that late hour, but there was still plenty of movement out there.
Stephanie hesitated. Even after talking with the ship's counselor, she found it hard to let the truth out now. In one afternoon she had gone from feeling selfish and callous to feeling like a complete idiot. She wasn't sure yet if it was an improvement. But if it helps me fix what I screwed up, it's worth it, she thought. I just hope I can still fix it.
She continued to stare out at the spacedock. She could just make out Bonnie's uniformed reflection in the transparent aluminum window, but deliberately avoided focusing on it. "I'm an idiot. I got so caught up in my fear that I shut myself off from you--from everyone."
"We've all been afraid since the attack," Bonnie interjected flatly. "Most of us found ways of dealing with it."
"That's not what I was afraid of. I was afraid " Stephanie hesitated. "I was afraid there was something wrong with me."
Finally Bonnie was confused enough to show a bit of emotion. She frowned and let her arms fall to her sides. "What are you talking about?"
Stephanie didn't answer directly. "Now I realize how stupid I was. You deserve better than I've treated you since the attack."
There was nothing Stephanie could say to that so she went on, seemingly at random. "I've seen the images. I've heard the numbers. Seven million people. Mae's mom, Trip's sister, Juliana's entire family. Hell, Griffith didn't even find out until yesterday that a cousin of his was killed. And all I could think about all the way home all I could think was What about baseball?"
Silence long enough that Stephanie finally couldn't stand it any more. She turned to face Bonnie, pleading, "Say something!"
"Baseball?" Bonnie was numb with incredulity. "You shut me out for two months because of baseball?"
"No! Not because of baseball. Not exactly."
"Then what, exactly?"
Now that it was out, Stephanie was desperate to explain. "Because I thought I cared more about the fact that the season was cancelled than that seven million people were killed! I thought I was this horrible, selfish, totally screwed up freak."
"I know that now! But since I didn't tell anyone, I blew it completely out of proportion in my mind. I couldn't get any sense of perspective."
"Why the hell didn't you tell anyone? Why didn't you tell me?" demanded Bonnie. She wasn't sure if she should be pissed off or hurt.
Stephanie hung her head, knowing that what she was about to say would sound ridiculous and juvenile. "I was afraid you'd hate me."
Bonnie decided that pissed off was good. "And you thought it would be better to jerk me around for two months instead?"
"I never thought of it like that," admitted Stephanie. "I never thought about your point of view. I'm sorry."
"You should be. I needed you, and you weren't there for me."
Now it was Stephanie's turn to be confused. "Huh?"
"Jesus Christ! You really have been living in your own little world, haven't you? Until just now, I thought I must be the most selfish bitch ever. Now I realize I'm the second most selfish bitch ever," said Bonnie in disgust. Before Stephanie could respond, she went on, pacing the room as she ranted. "I know I didn't lose anyone. Okay? I know that. But that doesn't mean I didn't need some support over the past two months. You've been there for Mae since she found out her mom died. You've been there for Liz helping out with all the wedding shit. You've been there for Lieutenant Reed I don't even know why he needed you!" She paused only long enough to catch a breath. "I needed you, and you were there for everyone but me. Why weren't you there for me, too?" Her tone was both furious and beseeching.
Stephanie met Bonnie's hurt and angry glare. She knew she had to say something before Bonnie assumed she wasn't going to and stormed out. Desperate, she said the only thing she could think of that might save her. "I can't change what I did, but I swear to you I'll do everything I can to fix what I screwed up."
Bonnie relaxed marginally. "Then the first thing you can do is tell me who fucked you over so bad that you didn't think you could trust me."
Stephanie was even more confused at that. "I Huh? No one, I don't think."
Bonnie's face darkened. "So it's just me? You just didn't trust me?"
"I didn't trust anyone!" exclaimed Stephanie defensively. Then something struck her that she hadn't quite grasped when talking with Kyrin. "I didn't trust me."
"I don't understand."
"I don't really get it myself, but it's the best I can do at the moment." Stephanie could only hope it was enough.
Bonnie thought it over for several tense, eternal seconds. "Then at the moment," she said at last, "I can accept that. You're still on my shit list. You know that, right?"
Stephanie nodded mutely.
"We should get some sleep," Bonnie said then. "Big day tomorrow. Starts early."
"I know. Can I walk you home?" Stephanie offered, sure she sounded completely lame.
Bonnie shrugged. "I guess so."
Thrilled for even this small concession, Stephanie opened the door, and she and Bonnie headed off towards Bonnie's cabin.
If dawn actually broke on Enterprise, Trip and Malcolm would have risen with it. As it was, they simply rose very, very early.
Malcolm stood at the mirror, tying a black necktie over his blue shirt. He muttered to himself, "I can't believe after all these centuries we're still expected to wear these things occasionally." He fought with the knot, finally pulling it out and starting again.
Trip watched him from his seat on the edge of the bed. He was in his uniform and ready to go on duty, but had decided to see his lover off at the launch bay first. "You want a hand?" he offered, although his own skill with neckties was dubious at best.
"No, thank you. I've got it now." Though his voice was a bit strained, Malcolm had indeed mastered the tie. He snugged the knot and made sure his collar was smooth. Then he claimed his jacket from the closet and slipped it on. "Are you sure you won't come with me?" he asked. Despite all previous failure, he had to try one last time to get Trip to change his mind.
Trip rose and shook his head. "I can't. They need me in Engineering."
I need you with me, thought Malcolm, but kept silent. He had no desire to play the emotional blackmail card; Trip had enough to deal with already. "All right. I'll give Travis and Liz your regrets. And Madeline," he added pointedly.
"Thanks," replied Trip, not taking the bait. They left the cabin and caught the nearest turbolift. "Tell Madeline I'm sorry I couldn't meet her this time. Maybe next time we get home."
Malcolm's tone was even, but Trip could hear the tension in it. He hated disappointing Malcolm like this, but he couldn't bear the thought of meeting Madeline right now. How can I tell him that if I can't see my own little sister, I don't want to see his? he thought bitterly.
They stepped out of the lift and followed the corridor toward the launch bay. Just before they reached the doors, Malcolm paused and put a hand on Trip's arm.
"I'll try to come back early tonight," he said.
Trip didn't meet his eyes. "You don't have to. I'll be working late so I can take tomorrow off." His voice caught in spite his efforts to keep it steady.
"I'm going with you to Florida tomorrow," Malcolm reminded him, his tone quiet but firm.
"I know. Thanks."
Malcolm gave the corridor the tiniest glance to be certain they were alone before gently kissing Trip good-bye. "I'll see you tonight."
"Okay. See you."
"Make sure you eat something today. Engineering can spare you long enough for a meal."
Reluctant but unable to stall any longer, Malcolm turned and entered the launch bay. Trip stayed behind in the corridor only until the door shut behind Malcolm, then he turned and headed off to Engineering.
Inside the bay Reed climbed into the runabout--the small, high-speed transport Jupiter Station provided when ships were in dock. "I'm sorry if I've kept you waiting," he said to the three other passengers--Captain Archer and Ensigns Cormack and Fraser. Like Reed, both women were dressed in the only formal wear they had.
"You're not late, Lieutenant. We're all just impatient," Archer informed him in a lighthearted tone, although his tense expression told a different story. The Captain was on his way to meet with Admiral Forrest and Ambassador Soval.
Reed decided not to comment further. He looked toward Ensign Tanner at the helm. "Are we expecting anyone else?"
Malcolm pulled the hatch shut and took a seat.
Tanner opened a comm. "Runabout ready for launch."
Donnelly's voice came back to him. "You're cleared. Launch when ready."
With Enterprise at Jupiter Station, those members of the crew currently on Earth were billeted in the dorms on the Starfleet Headquarters Campus. Now Stephanie stood behind Liz in the tiny room she'd been assigned, doing her friend's hair.
"Do you have everything you need?" she asked.
"I think so," answered Liz. She listed off the necessary items. "The necklace is old, and so are the shoes for that matter. The ring Travis and I picked out for him is new. I have that here." She patted the small purse on the table before her. "My dress is blue. I still wish I'd had time to get a proper dress."
"You look gorgeous in blue," interjected Bonnie from her seat on the bed.
Liz smiled, but couldn't turn her head to share it. She continued listing items. "The earrings are borrowed. Thanks for loaning them to me. I'll get them back to you as soon as I can."
"Don't sweat it. I know where you live," Stephanie quipped.
"Other than the sixpence, which hasn't even been legal tender since the mid-twentieth century, I think I have everything."
"Good." Stephanie tucked one last bobby pin into Liz's hair. "Your hair's done. What do you think?" She picked up the small mirror that stood on the desk and held it up so her bunkmate could see her reflection. She'd done Liz's hair in a simple but elegant French twist, leaving just a few artfully draped locks framing her heart-shaped face.
Liz looked into the mirror, turning her head left and right to see all she could. "It's perfect. Thank you!"
"I'm so nervous!" Liz exclaimed suddenly, putting the mirror down. She turned in her chair so she could take Stephanie's hands in her own. "You're so wonderfully calm. I think you're the only thing keeping me from all-out panic." She looked over at Bonnie, including her. "Thank you for that. Both of you."
Stephanie smiled at her friend. "That's what we're here for."
"I'm just sorry Mae's not here," Liz added sadly.
"Yeah," agreed Stephanie, suddenly sober. Mae and Ari were at that moment on their way to Mae's brother's house. The Lawless family was having a small private memorial now that their daughter was home. "Here." Stephanie squeezed Liz's hands affectionately and then released them, happy to be able to turn the subject back to more cheerful things. Reaching across the desk, she picked up the bag of make-up and placed it before Liz. "You do your make-up, and then I think we're ready to go." She looked at Bonnie, who nodded in confirmation.
Stephanie gave Liz one more smile of encouragement. Then she sat down next to Bonnie, not quite touching the other woman, but close enough to feel the warmth of her in the air. Cautiously, she slid her hand over and placed it lightly over Bonnie's. To her immense pleasure and surprise, Bonnie didn't pull away. In fact, she turned her hand over so they could lace their fingers together, and then gently squeezed Stephanie's hand. They waited in silence until Liz was done with her make-up.
She turned in her chair to face them so they could see the result. "How do I look? Okay?"
"Beautiful," Stephanie said, smiling. "Let's go."
"How do I look? Do I look okay?"
Malcolm met Travis's wide-eyed, near-panicked expression in the full-length mirror. "You look fine," he assured the nervous young man.
"You're sure? I don't know." Travis examined his reflection critically: shiny black shoes, well-pressed charcoal slacks, deep purple shirt. "I should have gotten a tie, at least. How long would it have taken to get a tie? Or a suit!" He turned to Malcolm frantically. "I should have gotten a suit!"
"You're fine," Malcolm said again firmly. "Here. If it will make you feel better " He loosened his tie and pulled it off over his head. Then he slipped it over the taller man's head, and proceeded to adjust Travis's collar and the tie until he was satisfied with the result. He turned Travis toward the mirror again. "Better?"
Travis nodded thankfully. "Malcolm, you're a lifesaver."
Malcolm chuckled and undid the top button of his shirt, happy to no longer have the necktie constricting his throat. "That's what friends are for," he said dryly, although his amused tone was lost on Travis. "Come on. Liz is waiting."
"Give me one minute on my own, okay?"
"As long as you're not going to run off," Malcolm teased, smirking.
His joking comment at last caused Travis to relax enough to smile. "I won't."
"I'll be right outside the door," Malcolm added sternly, a hint of mock warning in his voice. "I'll know if you try anything."
"I won't," insisted Travis, laughing now. "I promise."
"All right." Malcolm left the small antechamber. Several uniformed people passed him as he waited there in the hallway. This was the Starfleet Headquarters JAG building, and it was a busy place. Travis and Liz had been lucky to find a judge with an open slot on her docket who could perform the brief civil ceremony for them.
The call startled him and he turned to see Stephanie emerging from the nearest courtroom. She hurried towards him.
"Do you have it?" she asked as she reached him.
"I do." He reached a hand into his inner coat pocket and produced a small silver coin.
Stephanie took it eagerly, hazel eyes shining with glee. "Your sister is an absolute gem. I love her." Unexpectedly, she kissed Malcolm on the cheek. "That's for her. Oh! Sorry!" She used her thumb to clean off the smudge of lipstick she'd left. "What would Trip say?" she joked.
Malcolm chuckled, although deep down he doubted that Trip would notice even if he came home with lipstick in all sorts of suspect places. "You can thank Madeline for the coin yourself if you'd like. She had an inescapable meeting this morning, but I'm seeing her afterwards, before she has to head back to London." Indeed, Madeline had arranged the meeting specifically so she could be in San Francisco to see her brother. The fact that she had managed to procure a sixpence to complete the bride's rhyme was simply an added bonus. "You're more than welcome to join us."
"That'd be cool," declared Stephanie. "Thanks."
"How's the bride-to-be?"
"Okay. Nervous, but good."
"How about Phlox?" Malcolm asked with a smile. Liz had enlisted the Denobulan to give her away. Her parents lived in New Berlin, and civilian travel between the Moon and Earth was still sporadic and unpredictable.
"I believe the appropriate term would be 'pleased as punch'," grinned Stephanie.
Malcolm laughed. "I'm glad to hear it."
Stephanie gave an authoritative nod. "As it should be." She grinned again. Holding up the shiny sixpence, she said, "I've gotta get this to Liz. She'll flip! See you inside."
As Stephanie disappeared into the courtroom, Travis emerged from the antechamber.
"Ready?" Malcolm asked him.
"You know," Travis said instead of answering directly, "Nausicaan pirates, Klingon battle cruisers, even navigating that neutronic wave front None of it was as scary as this."
"Ah, but none of it was as rewarding as this will be," intoned Malcolm sagely, hoping he sounded like he had the vaguest clue what he was talking about. He certainly didn't have much experience by which to prove it was true; his parents were hardly the best example.
Travis paused and met Malcolm's sincere blue gaze, unaware of the doubt hidden behind it. "Thanks. Let's go."
It was a small but enthusiastic group who stood before the admiral in courtroom number three.
As promised, Phlox walked down the aisle with Liz on his arm. He then waited with her for Travis to follow so he could hand Liz off to her groom. Phlox stepped aside to stand next to Malcolm and across from Bonnie and Stephanie. They all turned to face the judge.
"Good morning," the tall, fair-haired woman said with a warm smile. "Thank you all for being here. I'm Admiral Austin. I was honored when Captain Archer contacted me and asked me to perform this wedding, and thrilled that my schedule allowed it. In times like these, it's a joy to have something to celebrate. Will the happy couple please come forward?"
Travis and Liz took a step towards her, and she went on.
Stephanie tried to pay attention. This was her bunkmate, after all--one of her closest friends. But she found her mind wandering as she stared at the judge. Damn that woman is tall. I wonder if she played basketball in college. What was the last wedding I was at? Was it Ryn and Gemma's? Oh my gods, I think it was. That was what? Eight years ago? No. Seven. Seven years ago? No, eight. Whatever. Man, that was a party. I wonder if anyone else has ever tried to mix Pagan and Hindu traditions like that. Hand-fasting and henna. What a hoot! Kick-ass music and dancing, too. She smiled at the memory.
Liz caught her expression and smiled back at her excitedly, abruptly yanking Stephanie's mind back to the present.
Yikes! Better pay attention! She focused on Admiral Austin and did her best to listen.
Directly across from Stephanie, Malcolm was having similar thoughts. I wonder if my parents' wedding was like this. It was a military wedding, I know. I've seen the pictures. I don't think I'd want to be married in a courtroom. It would be too much like being put on trial and summarily sentenced.
When did I decide I want to be married at all? he wondered suddenly. He blinked twice in surprise at his own thoughts. I do want to be married, Malcolm realized. I want that promise of permanence, of He almost laughed out loud. of security. How wonderfully absurd. Nothing is really permanent. Nothing's genuinely secure, in spite of how hard I might work to make it so. I never thought about it quite like that before. I know Trip wants to be married someday. He wants children, too. At least, I assume he still wants all that. After what's happened recently, who knows? He'd be a wonderful father. I could only hope to be half as good at it, I'm sure
"Do you, Travis Eugene Mayweather--" the judge said, snapping Malcolm's attention back to the business at hand.
Malcolm gave a tiny start. How did we get here already? Is that Travis's middle name? He determined to pay closer attention.
Why didn't we get Liz a bouquet? thought Bonnie idly. This place needs some cheering up. Flowers would have been easy and should have been obvious. Her eyes wandered around the cold white walls of the courtroom. It's almost as sterile as a hospital. We should have done something to liven it up. Like the judge said, it's a celebration after all. I suppose the reception tonight'll be lively enough. Not huge. Not super fancy. You can't do a wedding justice when the world is at war, but that doesn't mean you can't show your friends a good time. She smiled. And now that Stephanie's pulled her head at least part way out of her ass, I intend to make tonight a very good time. Damn it, we need to do some serious celebrating--now more than ever. The world deserves a bit of happiness, even if it's just a couple of drinks and few hours of really good sex to make you forget all the shit that's going on.
"Do you, Elizabeth Moira Cutler--"
Crap! Good thing I'm just here for moral support and set-decoration. I'd have missed any cue that came my way. She slipped her hand into Stephanie's, but kept her eyes on the action. Stephanie started slightly at the touch and gave Bonnie a tiny glance, but the auburn-haired woman seemed intent on the ceremony. Stephanie smiled, enjoying the feel of her lover's hand in her own.
Phlox marveled at the proceedings. This is fascinating! So different from what I'm accustomed to, he thought happily. Denobulan weddings were by nature large and expansive affairs that lasted for several days. Here before the judge were only the six of them.
At least this is a colorful wedding. After consulting several members of his staff he'd been concerned that everyone would be wearing black and white. On Denobula people were expected to wear their most festive and brightly colored clothes for weddings, and everyone did--regardless of reason or fashion. A black and white Denobulan wedding is impossible to imagine. Why I remember at Feezal's third wedding, I think I wore twice as much as I needed to just because I was so excited for her, he fondly reminisced. Fortunately it was the rainy season or I'd have been far too warm. Today he'd decided to mix what he'd learned about human traditions with his own. He'd donned a pair of black pants and a bright orange shirt with long sleeves and what he'd discovered humans called a Mandarin collar. Over that he wore a jacket of vibrant floral print. Seeing the rich colors on the rest of the wedding party--Travis's purple shirt and Malcolm's blue one, Liz's blue dress, Bonnie's dark green dress, and Stephanie's rich burgundy top--he smiled and decided he'd chosen well.
"By the power vested in me by Starfleet--"
Good heavens, thought Phlox. Isn't that supposed to come near the end? It can't be done that quickly!
But when the admiral pronounced them wed, he realized it was indeed done that quickly.
Travis and Liz kissed as the others applauded and Stephanie shouted a cheerful "Woo-hoo!"
"Thank you," Liz said, laughing. She gave her bunkmate a hug. "I'm so glad you could be here."
Stephanie looked across at Malcolm. "Well, I had to twist my boss's arm a little, but I knew I could get him to give me the day off. He's a pretty cool guy."
Malcolm just smirked back at her. She didn't know it, but it had been a very difficult decision on his part. When he'd promised to stand up for Travis, he hadn't thought about the fact that Stephanie would likely be doing the same for Liz. It left him with a dilemma because with the two of them here it meant the highest-ranking security officer back on Enterprise was Ensign Young. Malcolm had argued with himself for some time before reaching the conclusion that he simply could not order someone not to attend their best friend's wedding--particularly not when he would be in attendance himself. Young had proved himself worthy in the past, and his most recent behavior indicated that he was well on his way to earning back the trust he had lost. Malcolm had decided that it was better to find out now whether or not he could once again rely on the ensign than to wait until they were back out in space.
At the moment though, all he said was, "That's high praise indeed."
Admiral Austin cleared her throat. "I'm sorry to put a damper on the fun," she said kindly, "but I have a trial in this room in twenty minutes."
"Whoops! Time to go," Liz announced. They made quick work of signing the marriage documents. Then she grabbed Travis's hand and pulled him towards the door. He followed willingly.
Phlox went after them while Malcolm hung back to say quietly in Stephanie's ear, "She's got him wrapped 'round her finger already."
"Yup. It's a proud sight," quipped Stephanie in faux solemnity.
"Absolutely," agreed Bonnie with a slightly wicked grin.
Malcolm shook his head, chuckling. "I knew there was more than one reason why I prefer men."
The trio laughed and headed out into the corridor where the others waited for them. As a group, they walked outside into the mid-morning sunshine. "We're all still on for a drink at the 602 Club tonight, right?" Travis asked, stopping in the flagstone plaza.
"We wouldn't miss it for anything," grinned Stephanie. She took Bonnie's hand and squeezed it slightly. "Right?"
"Right," Bonnie echoed.
"I'll certainly be there," replied Phlox, "although I'm afraid I won't be able to stay very long. But thank you both very much for letting me be a part of your, hm, special day."
Liz smiled broadly. "It wouldn't have been right without you."
Travis looked at Malcolm. "What about you, Malcolm? You're gonna be there, right?"
"For a while, yes," agreed Malcolm. He looked at Phlox, pleased not to be the only one planning an early exit from the festivities. "I'll probably be heading out about the same time as you, Doctor." He turned back to Travis and Liz. "But I have news for you that will hopefully make up for our early departures." The couple looked puzzled. Malcolm explained, smiling. "Captain Archer is sorry that he couldn't be here, so he arranged for a surprise. Unfortunately the earliest it could arrive is this evening." He paused for effect and got the response he desired.
"Well don't keep us in suspense!" exclaimed Travis.
"You're not going to say that and then not tell us," Liz added.
"I might," Malcolm began with a teasing smile, "but I won't. Liz, there will be two extra guests at tonight's gathering. Their shuttle from New Berlin is due in port at 1940 hours."
"New Berlin?" Liz echoed. A huge smile suddenly lit up her face. "Mom and Dad!" She practically bounced up and down as she turned to Travis and grabbed his hands. "You get to meet my mom and dad!" she exclaimed gleefully. She turned back to Malcolm. "I didn't think I'd get to see them this visit. Thank you so much!"
"Thank the Captain," he said, thinking how that was twice today he'd been thanked for someone else's efforts.
"We will, but you're getting a hug right now just for being the messenger." Liz let go of Travis and embraced the startled Malcolm.
When she released him, he said in mild embarrassment, "You're welcome. Now I have somewhere to be very shortly."
"So do we," smiled Travis. "We'll see you later."
The newlyweds made a quick exit, leaving their friends smiling knowingly after them.
Malcolm turned to Stephanie. "Do you still want to come with me?"
"Yeah, if that's still cool," Stephanie said.
She looked at Bonnie. "We're going to meet Malcolm's sister. You want to come?"
"I think I'm going to pass," Bonnie replied. Despite having begun to sort things out with Stephanie, she still wasn't entirely happy with the way things stood. And she also still wasn't comfortable with hanging out with Lieutenant Reed in such a personal situation.
Stephanie gave a worried frown. "Are you sure?"
"But I'd really like it if you came along." She tried to keep her tone light, but had only marginal success.
Bonnie guessed at her deeper meaning, but didn't feel comfortable responding in the public setting. "I just need to do something else right now. Okay?"
It wasn't entirely, but Stephanie nodded. "Okay." She forced a smile. "I'll see you at the club tonight."
"Absolutely." Bonnie kissed her on the cheek. She smiled her good-bye at the men. "See you tonight." She turned and headed off back towards the dorms.
Curious but not wanting to pry, Malcolm turned instead to Phlox. "How about you, Doctor? Care to join us?"
Phlox shook his head. "No, thank you. Regretfully, I have business to attend to. But I'll see you all tonight."
Once Malcolm and Stephanie were alone they resumed their walk across the plaza and off of Starfleet grounds. They turned north and headed for the café where Malcolm was to meet Madeline. "Is everything all right?" Malcolm asked, his tone polite but concerned.
Stephanie guessed what he meant. He was an observant person; he undoubtedly noticed the awkwardness between her and Bonnie. "Yeah. Mostly. It will be." Stephanie changed the subject. "Is Commander Tucker meeting us at the café, too?"
Malcolm's face darkened a little, and Stephanie immediately regretted her question. She knew the men were going through a rough patch right now. Without his lover to talk to, Malcolm had come to Stephanie for a confidante more than once as Enterprise had made its way home. She didn't know everything, but she knew enough to know better than to ask what she had.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything."
"No. It's not your fault," Malcolm replied, a weary note in his voice. "It's a fair question, and if circumstances were better he would be here."
"Wouldn't the Captain give him the day? Everyone gets two while we're home. Couldn't he have taken one of his today?"
"There's a great deal of work to do."
"That's not an answer."
"No. It isn't." To Malcolm's relief, Stephanie recognized his statement for what it was; she didn't pursue the matter.
"So what did you think of the wedding?" she asked instead.
"I'm afraid I didn't pay much attention," admitted Malcolm, chagrined but happy for the change of topic.
"That's too bad. I was hoping you could fill me in on the details."
They paused at a street corner and waited for the light to turn green. "Didn't you listen either?"
She shook her head. "Nope. There were rings, something about undying love. I remember a kiss, but mostly I kept thinking about my sister's wedding, and about how tall Admiral Austin was."
Malcolm laughed, a genuine amused laugh. It felt good. "She was tall, wasn't she?"
"I'm short, so most people are tall to me, but she sets the record. I think maybe I've seen Klingons taller than that." She pretended to give the matter serious thought. "And the Estvali would definitely top her, but that's about it."
They walked in silence for a while. It was Malcolm who broke it.
"We're going to Florida tomorrow."
Stephanie didn't have to ask who "we" were. She just waited, wondering if he would go on.
"Trip won't take his second day of shore leave. Not even if we're here for a month. Just tomorrow. We have clearance to take a shuttlepod to Florida, although there's nowhere safe to land. We'll just fly back and forth over the area until he's ready to leave."
Stephanie thought carefully before speaking. "Do you need a pilot?" she asked quietly, not looking at him.
Malcolm stopped, and she came to a halt next to him. He understood what she was offering, and the idea was almost painful. "I can't ask you to do that."
He shook his head. "I can't let you give up your only other day of shore leave for us. I'll pilot the shuttle myself--assuming Trip will let me." He suspected Trip would want to do that himself.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, but thank you. It means a lot to me that you'd even offer."
She shrugged, embarrassed at his blatant gratitude. "It's what friends do."
"I don't know. I think that's above and beyond." They started walking again. "You're a bit of a dichotomy," Malcolm went on, glancing over his shoulder at Stephanie. "You know that?"
"You've listened to me talk about my problems countless times since the attack. I have no doubt you've done the same for Mae and Liz and probably Juliana. You've been patient and generous beyond the call." Stephanie started to protest, but he waved a dismissive hand at her. "I know you're planning to visit your family. Offering to pass up that chance on behalf of me and Trip is more than either of us deserves."
Stephanie shrugged and said nothing.
"You'd do that for us, but when you need help you tend to keep it to yourself."
"No I don't."
Malcolm looked at her with a challenging expression. "Should I list the occasions?"
"Okay," she admitted. "Sometimes I do. What's your point?"
"Only that perhaps you should give your friends a bit more credit. We're stronger than you think."
Stephanie frowned in puzzlement. "I don't understand."
"You think we can't handle our own problems and still help you with yours. But you said yourself it's what friends do. I don't know what's been gnawing at you since the attack, but I know it's caused a rift between you and Bonnie."
Stephanie was startled. She hadn't thought he was that observant. Of course when I never had a conflict any time he wanted to talk, no matter what the hour, he probably figured it out, she told herself sarcastically. How stupid am I? Really?
"You know that if you want to talk to me about it I can handle it, right?" Malcolm looked at her sidelong, unaware of her internal rebuke. "All right?" he said when he got no response.
Stephanie abruptly stopped walking and found a bench under a tree to sit down on. Taken aback, Malcolm followed and sat next to her. He was shocked to see she was fighting back tears. What on Earth did I say? he puzzled worriedly. He didn't think anything he'd said could have evoked such a strong reaction. He reached into a pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and gave it to her.
Silently Stephanie took it and dabbed at her eyes. "I should've worn waterproof mascara," she joked, although her humor was half-hearted at best. She turned and looked at her friend. "Thank you," she said sincerely. "You're right. I'm not good at asking for help--especially when I see people around me who I think need it more than I do. If I were better at it, Bonnie and I wouldn't be having the problems we're having." She offered the handkerchief back, and Malcolm shook his head.
"Keep it," he said.
"Thanks," she repeated. "We should go. Your sister's probably at the café already."
Malcolm shook his head again. "She'll be late."
"How do you know?"
"She's always late. It's her most un-Reed-like characteristic," he informed her with a mildly disdainful tone.
Stephanie chuckled. "You're awful."
He smiled at her. "If that's what it takes to make you laugh." To his horror, tears sprung up in Stephanie's eyes again. "Now what have I done?" he demanded almost frantically.
"Nothing. You're just being a friend, and right now you have no idea how much I appreciate that."
"You are my friend. And if that's not enough, I owe it to you. And not just for the time you spent listening to me talk about Trip over the past two months."
"Now you've confused me."
"You don't think I've forgotten about the fire in the armory, do you? Or more precisely, about how badly I treated you after the fire?"
Stephanie briefly considered denying that he had treated her badly, but they both knew it would be a lie. "No. I don't think either of us is going to forget that."
"No." Malcolm sighed heavily and sat back. He looked up through the leaves of the tree, appreciating the way the light made them look luminous and particularly verdant. It was going to be a very warm day. "You asked me why I immediately jumped to the worst possible conclusion about your actions."
Stephanie gave a wry half-chuckle as she remembered. "I told you you'd have to swim back when you jump to conclusions."
"You did. I still need to read that book." He looked straight ahead as he went on. "I'm not accustomed to trusting people."
"Well, duh. It's your job not to, eh?" Stephanie fiddled absently with the damp handkerchief.
"You don't understand. I've been betrayed in the past, as melodramatic as that sounds. It wasn't by anyone you'd know," he added, concerned that this time she would be the one to jump to the wrong conclusion. "It was before I joined Starfleet--someone personal rather than professional. He taught me not to rely on anyone but myself, and to expect to be disappointed in people. I think I learned the lesson too well." He fell silent, rested his elbows on his knees, and watched the passing traffic and pedestrians with a distracted eye.
Stephanie thought about Malcolm's unexpected admission, this unsolicited glimpse into his very private life. It was clearly difficult for him to talk about, and she felt flattered that he'd shared even that much with her. She didn't know the details of what had happened, and she didn't want to. She had a feeling that if she knew who'd hurt Malcolm that badly, she'd feel compelled to find the guy and do bodily damage to him. Preferably something involving the guy's genitalia, she thought angrily.
She didn't know what to say. There really wasn't anything she could say that would express how she felt at that moment. Instead of trying, she offered him something of herself in exchange. "If this were a normal year, we'd be going into the All-Star Break right now."
Malcolm looked at her with a puzzled and expectant expression. He knew what the All-Star Break was, but he had no idea where she was going with the information. He said nothing and waited.
She continued. "When I was a kid, my dad and I always watched the All-Star Game together. The year they played it in Vancouver, he took a whole week of vacation so he and I could attend absolutely every event humanly possible. We had a twenty-game season ticket package from when I was six. We never missed one of those games until the year he died." She paused and dabbed at her eyes again with the handkerchief. "I haven't attended an Orcas game since. I've watched them on TV and I've listened to the broadcasts whenever I could. But I can't go to a game without him. I gave away the last of the tickets I had for that season. It wouldn't have been right to go alone, or to take someone else and see that person sitting in his seat. And now " She paused, momentarily unable to continue.
She was silent so long, caught up in her memories and pain, that Malcolm wondered if she'd forgotten he was even there. "Now?" he prompted gently.
"Now there's no baseball to go to." Stephanie made a sound that was either a choked sob or a bitter laugh. Malcolm wasn't sure which. She wiped her eyes again. "I know I'm stupid, but I can't get over it. With everything that's happened, you'd think I could find something more important to focus on, you know? It's not like the game itself was destroyed. It's just one season, and it'd hardly even started when Earth was attacked. It's just That " She fought back a sob without success. "That was the one constant thing I had left of my dad, and it's gone."
Not sure what else to do, Malcolm put an arm around her shoulders. Stephanie leaned against him and wept.
Several passers-by gave them curious or sympathetic glances, but no one disturbed them. People weeping spontaneously in the streets was an all too common thing these days.
Eventually Stephanie cried herself out. She sat up, sniffing, and wiped her eyes. "I bet all my mascara's gone now," she joked between sniffles.
Malcolm released her from his embrace, teasing, "Not gone, necessarily. I think it's all on my handkerchief or my jacket now."
Stephanie laughed, a note of apology in her tone. "Yeah. I guess so. Sorry about that."
"Don't worry about it." He glanced surreptitiously at his watch. "I don't want to rush you, but--"
"But you're going to be even later than your sister, right?"
"If we don't hurry, yes," he admitted.
"You should go. I'm not in a fit state to make a decent first impression at this point." Her eyes were puffy, her nose red, and her cheeks blotchy and streaked with mascara despite her efforts to mop it all up. "I'm so gorgeous when I cry, I know," she joked self-deprecatingly.
"Madeline won't mind," Malcolm assured her.
"Maybe not, but I would." A realization had come to her as she'd poured out her heart and tears on Malcolm. She no longer felt like an idiot about the way she'd behaved. "Besides, I think now would be a really good time to go talk to Bonnie."
The two rose.
"Are you sure you'll be all right?" Malcolm asked. He didn't like leaving her on her own just then.
"Yeah. I'll be fine. Better than fine once I tell Bonnie what I just told you."
Now Malcolm understood. He nodded. "I'll see you later then."
"602 Club, 1900 sharp," Stephanie replied, her smile contrasting with her formal tone. "Aye, sir." She turned and headed back towards Starfleet Headquarters.
Malcolm checked his watch again. "Damn," he muttered. At this rate Maddy would indeed beat him to the café, and if she did he would never hear the end of it. He set off at a quick clip that was just shy of a jog.
He reached the café and went inside. Before he'd even had time to look around for his sister, a voice to his left said a bit smugly, "You're late." He turned to see Maddy smirking at him from a table near the window, blonde hair shining in the sunlight and a playful twinkle unmistakably turning the blue eye and the green eye into a matched set. He joined her.
"I assure you it won't happen again," he replied, trying to hide his chagrin at his tardiness.
"Which is why I intend to savor the occasion." Maddy rose and she and Malcolm shared a hug. "It's good to see you," she went on, resuming her seat. "Even though you're late." Maddy gave him a satisfied half smile and sipped her tea.
Malcolm sat opposite her, his own smile mirroring hers as he shook his head. "All right. Live it up now, and pour me a cup of tea."
Maddy laughed and waved over a waitress. After requesting another pot of tea, she looked across the table at Malcolm. "You're on your own."
"I told you I would be."
"I had hoped that that might have changed. I want to meet this fellow who's won you over, and make sure he's good enough."
The waitress brought Malcolm's tea at that moment so he was temporarily saved from responding. He thanked the young woman. When she'd gone, he met his sister's inquisitive gaze and said simply, "God forbid."
Maddy just laughed again. "Here." She passed him her menu. "Decide what you want to eat. I'm starving."
Mae and Ari stood on the sloped sidewalk in front of a classic San Francisco house--tall and fairly narrow, with a steep staircase leading up to the door. The terraced rockery on either side of the concrete steps was filled with brightly blooming flowers.
Minutes passed as Mae just looked at the house. She reached out a hand, which Ari quickly took. He raised it to his lips and gently kissed the back of it. "Ready?" he asked her softly.
"Not really." But Mae started forward, Ari's hand firmly clasped in her own. Before they were half way up the stairs, the front door opened.
Mae's father stood there. He looked well, but tired. Mae paused and took in the sight, from his gray hair to his loafer-shod feet, his wrinkled khakis to the Oxford shirt under the old, stretched out cardigan sweater he always wore in her mind's eye. He was perfect.
"Hi there, Pumpkin," he said as Mae and Ari finished their climb. Mae released Ari's hand at last and embraced her father without a word. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly until she was ready to let go.
Time stood still.
Ari waited silently to one side on the small front porch. He'd never been in a situation even remotely similar, and he had decided from the start to simply be the cliché "strong, silent type". He would provide quiet support in whatever way he could.
Finally Mae released her father and took a half step back. "Hey, Dad," she said, subdued.
"Welcome home," he answered. "Why don't you and your friend come in? I know the others want their chance at hugs." He gave her a soft smile, which she returned.
"You're never subtle," she said with a chuckle.
"Nonsense," he replied with mock offense. "I'm known for my subtlety. Even the theatre critics say so." He looked over at Ari and smiled. He held out a hand. "You must be Ari."
Ari took his hand and shook it firmly. "Yes, sir. You must be Mr. Lawless."
"Oh lord, don't start that. Just call me Jim."
"Jim," echoed Ari. "I'll do my best to remember that, sir."
Mae's father chuckled and looked from the young man to his daughter. "I like him," he informed her in a stage whisper. "Come on inside."
Inside the house they were met by August and Rebekah. "Hiya, Mae," her brother said, hugging her. "It's good to see you."
Bekah embraced her next, and then Mae made the introductions.
"Guys, this is Ari Cohn. Ari " She reached out and took his left hand like a security blanket. " this is my brother August and his wife Bekah."
Ari shook hands with each of them. "It's nice to meet you at last."
"You, too," said August with a genuine, although tense, smile. "I just wish circumstances were better."
"Can't argue with you there," agreed Ari.
"Where's Sam?" Mae asked, not quite ready to focus on "circumstances" yet.
"Asleep," Bekah replied. "But he'll wake up soon, if he stays true to form."
"Good. I want to see him. Last time I was here he was still small enough to fit in a shoebox."
August laughed. "Only a woman would immediately make that connection."
Mae rolled her eyes. "That's such a stereotype--" she began.
Bekah interrupted. "--that I regularly reinforce. Sorry." But her smile was unapologetic. "Why don't we go into the living room and sit down? It's an absurd understatement to say 'You've had a long flight', but you have. A very long flight."
"Actually " Mae looked around uncertainly. She still held Ari's hand in her own, and he wondered if she was aware of it. "Where's Mother?"
Her father answered. "In here." He led the group into the living room, and Mae found what she was looking for.
On the mantel was a framed photo of her mother. In it she wore a cream-colored suit and stood next to a man in charcoal gray. It was obviously from the recent wedding. Next to the photo sat an ornately glazed urn. Mae stood for a moment, at a loss for which to reach for first. She decided on the photograph. Only then did she release Ari's hand in order to pick up the picture. "They look good together," she said.
Bekah ushered Ari to a seat on the sofa as she replied. "It was a nice wedding."
"His family's nice, too," put in August, taking a seat in a Victorian-style, high-backed chair. "They didn't object at all when we wanted to hang on to Mother until you got a chance to say good-bye." Bekah came to stand near him, silent and supportive. A long dark curl escaped the clip at the nape of her neck, and she tucked the errant lock into the still-bound hair. It stayed for maybe two seconds before sliding back out. This time she let it be.
"Nice," echoed Mae absently. She put the photo back and looked at the urn again. She placed one hand on it, feeling the cool porcelain against her palm. "So where's Franklin Ostram?" She didn't know what else to call him. She’d never met him and so felt odd calling him by his first name. "Mr. Ostram" sounded ridiculously formal, like someone out of a Jane Austin novel. Neither could she call him her stepfather, or even her mother's husband. That left her with one option besides "the chinless politician."
Jim sat on the end of a velvet-covered chaise and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his thighs. "With his family," he replied. Mae looked over her shoulder at him quizzically. "She'll join him, and then their ashes will be scattered together. It's a long story, Mae. Sit down and we'll tell you, if you really want to hear it."
"Can I get anyone anything?" Bekah asked suddenly. "I have iced tea that I brewed fresh this morning."
August smiled up at her. "That sounds great." He knew she wanted to give them some time alone. She'd said so last night.
Ari sensed the need of the immediate family to be alone together. He rose. "Can I give you a hand?" he offered.
"Thank you." Bekah lead him into the kitchen. As Ari passed Mae at the mantel, he put a supportive hand on her shoulder. Mae placed her hand over his for a brief moment, silently acknowledging and thanking him in that one small gesture.
The kitchen was a brightly modern contrast to the dark woods and warm fabrics of the living room. "Wow," said Ari in surprise. He blinked in the sunlight that streamed through the windows in the breakfast nook, over the kitchen sink, and in the back door.
Bekah chuckled lightly. "We love the traditional Victorian style that goes with the house, but neither of us wanted that in the kitchen," she explained. "It's one thing to recline on a chaise and read a book in front of the fire. It's something else entirely to cook on a coal-fired iron stove." She crossed the room to a high cabinet near the sink and began to remove five tall glasses. "The tea is in the fridge. Could you get it out for me, please?"
"Sure." Ari opened the refrigerator and found the tea in a large glass pitcher. He withdrew it and placed it on the counter next to her.
"How has Mae been?" she asked him as she set the glasses on a tray.
"As well as could be expected, I guess," Ari replied, not sure what else to say. "Can I help pour?"
"I've got it, thanks."
Ari sat down at the small table in the breakfast nook and watched her pour tea into the neatly arranged glasses. There was something oddly comforting in the ritual. "It's been a long time since I had a drink that didn't come out of a tube in a dispenser," he commented.
"Is it awful? I mean, the drinks from a dispenser."
"No. It's fine, really. The coffee is actually pretty good. It's just nice to see where the drink is coming from for a change."
"Oh! I forgot ice. Isn't that silly?" Bekah glanced at him over her shoulder. "Would you mind?"
"Of course not." Ari rose and went to the fridge again. This time he opened the freezer and brought her the container of ice he found there. He handed it to her, saying, "Mae didn't talk about her mother much."
Bekah didn't meet his eye, seeming intent on putting ice cubes in each of the glasses without splashing. "I'm not surprised."
Ari took the now empty pitcher and set it in the sink out of her way.
"Hiroko didn't do a great deal to endear herself to her children," she went on, a hint of bitterness in her voice.
Ari started in surprise. He hadn't realized until that moment that Mae had never even told him her mother's name, and for whatever reason he had never asked. He tried to keep his surprise to himself. Fortunately Bekah was deliberately focused on her task and didn't notice. "No?" he said, leaning against the counter as casually as he could manage.
"I shouldn't say anything."
"You already have."
She shot him a sidelong glance as she returned the ice bucket to the freezer. "Yes, I have." She paused and leaned back against the fridge, careful not to dislodge the finger-painted artwork magnated there. "She was a good person, but from my own experience with her, I think she simply wasn't cut out to be a parent."
"Mae said she took her and August to baseball games," Ari said.
"Mm-hmm. When she was in town and bothered to make the time. I'm sorry." Bekah shook her head. "I have no right to judge. She's never done anything to disappoint me personally, and Sam is still young enough that by his next birthday all he'll remember of his obachan are photographs and whatever stories we tell him."
"And what stories will you tell him?" asked Ari, aware that he could well be crossing a line into things that were none of his business.
Bekah didn't appear to mind. "We'll tell him whatever he wants to know," she answered matter-of-factly. Then she went on more intensely. "August has this casual way he talks about his childhood, but the things he says sound so miserable to me. That's what upsets me."
Ari frowned in puzzlement. "I don't understand."
"He says he doesn't harbor any resentment or disappointment, but no matter how long I live I don't think I'll believe him completely." She looked at Ari critically. "You don't have any experience with absentee parents, do you?"
Ari thought about that before responding. "Not personally, but I'm familiar with others who have that in their history--besides Mae, I mean."
Bekah nodded. "I think it's almost worse than being gone entirely. For your children to know that you're around somewhere but that you can't find the time to spend with them is far more hurtful, in my opinion, than simply being dead. Does that sound too callous to you?"
"No. But I'm not the one whose mother was recently killed."
She gave him a wry, mirthless smile, and met his gaze intently. "Which is why I said it to you, but never to August or Mae. Do you understand?"
"Thank you." Bekah stood up straight and turned back to the fridge. She pulled out a bowl of lemon wedges and went to the cupboard as if she'd never paused after putting away the ice. "I'll get the sugar, if you wouldn't mind bringing the tea tray?"
"No problem." Ari picked up the tray and followed her back into the living room.
Jim was still on the chaise, and August still in the high-backed chair. Mae had taken a seat on the sofa. Ari put the tray on the table and went to sit beside her. Her eyes were red, but she didn't appear to have been crying this time. He put an arm around her shoulders and she leaned gratefully into him.
"Okay?" he asked gently.
"Yeah. Okay," she replied. "Thanks."
T'Pol waited patiently outside Soval's office at the Vulcan consulate. It was unusual for the ambassador to be late for an appointment that he had personally scheduled, but she knew he was meeting with Captain Archer and Admiral Forrest today. Humans could often disrupt one's schedule.
She looked around the reception area. It had been some time since she'd been to the consulate, and she was mildly surprised to find she was no longer as comfortable here as she had been in the past. After two years aboard Enterprise, it was almost as if the consulate was too quiet.
The outer door opened and Soval entered. The aide seated at the reception desk looked up, as did T'Pol. She stood. Soval acknowledged her presence with a nod and strode into his office without a glance at his aide. T'Pol exchanged a curious look with the young man at the desk, and then followed the ambassador.
"Shut the door behind you," Soval said without looking back. He walked to his desk and sat. T'Pol did as instructed and came to stand before him. "Sit down, Sub-commander."
She sat across the desk from him. When Soval didn't go on, she asked evenly, "Was your meeting with Admiral Forrest and Captain Archer satisfactory?"
Soval came as close to glaring as he ever did. "It was not," he answered tersely. He paused, choosing how he wished to proceed. "You are undoubtedly aware of Archer's claims of time-travelers and adversaries from the future."
"What is your personal assessment?" He rose and paced back and forth behind the desk--a clear sign that he was highly agitated.
T'Pol found his actions intriguing. "My assessment is on record. I see nothing to be learned by repeating myself."
"I know what is on record," Soval almost snapped. He stopped pacing and held her gaze with his own. "I want to hear what you haven't put on record."
She considered carefully as she replied. "The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined that time travel--"
He cut her off. "I am aware of the official stance. I am asking for your opinion as a member of Archer's crew." He looked pained as he said it.
"Captain Archer," T'Pol replied, deliberately using his title, "is convinced of the reality of time travel. In my opinion, he has provided sufficient evidence for the Vulcan Science Directorate to consider the possibility that he is correct."
"He has no proof," insisted Soval.
"No. However, if you didn't believe his arguments have at least some credence, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Soval eyed her intently, and sat down once again at his desk. "Your time with the humans has colored your judgment."
"My appointment to Enterprise was by your order."
"I have never claimed to be infallible."
T'Pol quirked an eyebrow. It occurred to her that Archer would argue that statement, but she knew there was nothing to be gained by pointing it out to the ambassador.
Soval visibly brought his emotions under control. "Now is the appropriate time to consider your next assignment. The High Command believes your skills and knowledge would be useful at the Ministry of Information."
"An interesting choice." T'Pol continued in a thoughtful, even tone. "I began my career with the Ministry of Security. I currently work under the Vulcan High command through the Science Directorate. Now I'm expected to work for the Ministry of Information. What, exactly, does the High Command believe my skills and knowledge to be?"
Soval's brow furrowed in an impressive imitation of a human frown, although he would have been displeased to know it. T'Pol had only previously noticed the look when the ambassador dealt with Captain Archer. She found it fascinating in the current circumstances.
"What are you implying, Sub-commander?" he asked, tension in his voice.
T'Pol returned his frown with her most impassive expression. "Nothing, Ambassador."
True to his nature, Malcolm arrived at the 602 Club precisely on time. To his surprise, he found the others were already there. He was glad. It meant he only had to explain once why Phlox wasn't coming after all.
"Malcolm!" called Travis, spotting him from across the room and waving him over.
Malcolm smiled and waved back as he made his way through the unusually light crowd. He pulled over a chair and sat down between Travis and Stephanie, who shifted to make room for him at the small, round table. "Quiet night for a Friday," he commented, glancing around.
"It's early," Bonnie replied. "You want a drink?" Without waiting for a reply, she flagged down a waitress who appeared pleased to have something to do besides wipe down the bar.
"We took the liberty of ordering nachos," Stephanie informed him.
"Excellent." Malcolm was especially fond of the club's nachos--particularly their guacamole.
As if she'd read his mind, she added, "With extra guacamole. I love their guac."
"Where's Phlox?" asked Liz, glancing towards the entrance. She was eager to introduce him to her parents once they arrived, but she couldn't do that if Phlox wasn't there. "It's not like him to be late--or to miss a chance at good food."
The waitress appeared at that moment. She smiled broadly at Malcolm. "What can I get for you?"
"Guinness, please," Malcolm answered her.
"One pint of Irish tar coming up," she said lightly. She looked around the table. "Everyone else doing okay? Can I get anyone a fresh drink?" She received a mix of "no thanks" and shaken heads. "All right. I'll be right back with your beer." She smiled again, and winked flirtatiously at Malcolm.
"She's new," he said when she'd gone. "It's been a long time since a waitress hit on me in here."
The others laughed, but Liz still wanted an answer to her question. "Do you know where Phlox is?"
"Unavoidably detained. I spoke to him about half an hour ago. It seems his meeting with Admiral Forrest and Captain Archer has been extended. He asked me to pass along his regrets."
"That's too bad," said Liz, trying unsuccessfully to hide her disappointment. She was trying to be casual about the whole thing, but she really wanted the evening to become the party she felt it should be. It's our reception, she thought. It should be fun. "Do you still have to leave early?" she asked Malcolm in the hopes his plans had changed.
"I'm afraid so." He didn't go into further detail, and no one asked. They respected his privacy, and Malcolm appreciated it beyond measure.
"You'll stay long enough to meet my folks, though. Right?" It was a toss-up whether Liz was more excited to see her parents or for them to meet Travis and her friends.
"As long as their shuttle is on time, I expect so."
The waitress returned with Malcolm's drink and set the froth-covered glass on the table in front of him. "Everyone still good?" she asked with yet another sunny smile.
"We're good, thanks," replied Stephanie, smiling back while secretly wishing the young woman would leave them in peace. "We'll shout if we need anything."
"Righty-ho! Your nachos will be up any minute." She cheerfully departed.
Stephanie mimicked the woman's grin in a slightly manic fashion, her eyes frighteningly wide. "I'm so happy I could just explode!" she said in a fair imitation of the waitress's chipper tones.
Bonnie smacked her on the arm only half in jest. "Be nice. She brings the drinks. Even yours."
"She's just so damned cheery. It's a little irritating."
"It's a wedding reception. We should all be cheery." Bonnie's eyes scolded, although her tone remained pleasant.
"Sorry." Stephanie turned to Travis and Liz. "I'm sorry. Bonnie's right." She raised her glass of tonic and lime, and the others lifted their drinks in automatic response. "To weddings, bright futures, and long lives."
"Hear, hear," chimed in Malcolm. He took a sip of his Guinness, hiding briefly behind the foamy top and taking that moment to survey the others as they, too, drank to the toast. Both Travis and Liz practically glowed with happiness. Their smiles were radiant and when they looked at each other, as they did now, he could see the depth of love in their eyes. Stephanie said something then that Malcolm didn't quite catch, but whatever it was made the others laugh. He smiled and pretended he'd heard; it mattered less what she'd said than the reaction it evoked.
Liz turned to her new husband and said, "Let's dance."
"There's no music," Travis protested.
"So put a credit in the jukebox, and pick something."
The 602 Club boasted an old-fashioned jukebox, complete with neon tubes that glowed red, blue, and orange. Its inner workings were all digital, but it had that classic look that made one believe it had spent its earlier existence in a diner on Route 66.
Travis rose from his chair and Liz stood up next to him, one hand resting gently on his arm as if she couldn't stand to be out of physical contact with him. He fished in a pocket and came up with a one-credit coin. "Any requests?"
"Something romantic," Liz replied quickly.
"We get three plays for a credit."
Liz looked at the others for input. "What would you guys like?"
"How about something to swing to?" suggested Stephanie. "One of the classics from Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller."
"That's two. Bonnie, Malcolm?"
Bonnie shrugged. She didn't plan to dance, so she didn't really care what they played. "I'm fine with whatever."
Liz turned inquiringly to Malcolm. "You choose," he instructed her. "It's your day. Bride's choice."
"All right, but after the first song I expect someone to dance besides us, no matter what we pick," Liz informed them all. Then she and Travis crossed to the jukebox, and before long a romantic ballad began to play. The couple held each other close and danced slowly, so wrapped up in one another that they completely forgot that they were the only ones on the floor.
The few other patrons in the bar glanced at them, and most smiled. It was good to see people celebrating something, and it was obvious to even the most casual observers that these two were newlyweds.
"Nachos!" declared the waitress exuberantly, appearing from nowhere and setting the huge plate on the table. "And extra guacamole." She transferred the small bowl from her tray onto the table in between Malcolm and Stephanie.
Stephanie eyed it all hungrily. "Perfect." She gave the young waitress a sincere smile for the first time since they'd sat down. "Thanks!"
"You're welcome!" She set a stack of napkins and small plates next to the guacamole, beamed electrically, and left them to it.
Stephanie passed around plates, and the trio helped themselves to the food. They munched and drank in companionable silence, watching the happy couple enjoying their traditional first dance.
When the song ended and a peppy swing-era tune began, Liz looked over at her friends expectantly. "You wanted it," she called to Stephanie, grinning. "You'd better dance to it."
Stephanie grinned back and turned to Bonnie. "Come on." Wiping greasy fingers on a napkin, she rose and held out a hand. Bonnie hesitated. "What? C'mon." Stephanie gave her lover a perplexed look.
"I'm not much of a dancer," admitted Bonnie reluctantly.
"You don't have to be. I'll lead." Stephanie held out her hand a bit farther, and added coaxingly, "Please? You don't want to disappoint Liz."
Bonnie gave in. "Okay, but if I step on your toes, you have no one to blame but yourself." She rose and took the offered hand, and Stephanie lead her out onto the dance floor to join Travis and Liz.
Malcolm smiled and sipped his beer contentedly. It felt good to relax, enjoy the company of his friends, share a drink and a laugh. As he watched them dancing, his smile deepened. He was glad to see that Stephanie and Bonnie appeared to have settled their differences. And Travis and Liz were obviously on cloud nine. He wished Trip were with him--for his own sake and for Trip's. It would have been good for Trip to be there to share in the festivities, to see people laughing and getting on with their lives.
Malcolm shook off his encroaching melancholy. He refused to let himself dwell on his partner's absence. Time heals all wounds, or so they say, he thought. I hope whoever "they" are that they're right, and that tomorrow's visit to Florida will give Trip what he needs to start that healing process.
The music changed then to another swing-style tune that if possible was even more upbeat than the previous one. Bonnie startled Malcolm by suddenly flopping back into her chair, winded. "Save me, Lieutenant!" she exclaimed, laughing.
Malcolm was puzzled, but Stephanie's immediate appearance beside them answered his unspoken question. "That was only one dance," she complained to Bonnie. "O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?"
"When you start quoting Shakespeare at me, yes!"
"You're no fun at all," pouted Stephanie, but with a gleam of mirth in her eyes. Putting on her best sad puppy dog expression, she turned to Malcolm. "How about you?"
Her antics made Malcolm feel lighthearted in a way he hadn't in months. He smiled and quoted back at her, "What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?"
She looked accusingly at Bonnie. "See? He's not afraid of Shakespeare." She turned back to Malcolm. "Are you?"
"No," he replied, "but that has nothing to do with dancing." He didn't consider himself a very good dancer, although neither was he especially bad at it.
Stephanie turned on the pout to maximum, her lower lip just barely shaking in a pathetic quiver. "Please?" She batted her eyes at him in a way that managed to be both woeful and optimistic all at once.
Malcolm relented, chuckling. "All right. One dance." He took a large swallow of Guinness as he stood, steeling his courage.
"Don't worry," Stephanie instructed, all signs of her sulk vanished. "I'll lead."
"That's what worries me," he quipped.
Laughing, Stephanie lead him out onto the floor.
Bonnie watched them go, taking the moment to catch her breath. She was happy to let the others jump, jive, and wail without her for the time being. She downed what little water remained in her glass, helped herself to more nachos, and sipped at her lemon drop as she glanced around the club. This is a light crowd, she thought, remembering Malcolm's earlier comment. Especially for a Friday.
She was distracted from her musings by a movement across the bar. She turned to see what was up, and to her delight and surprise she spotted Mae and Ari just coming through the door.
"Hey!" she called out, waving them over. There'd always been a possibility that they would stop by since Mae's family was right there in San Francisco, but Bonnie hadn't really expected it. She smiled as the couple reached the table. "It's good to see you." She rose from her chair enough to hug Mae.
"It's good to be here," Mae said as she returned the hug, and then sat in the chair Stephanie had occupied earlier. Ari sat beside her in Malcolm's recently vacated seat.
Mae wore a flowing, summery skirt and a light top that she'd borrowed from Rebekah. She hadn't come home planning to attend the wedding reception, but as the day had gone on she'd felt a driving need to see her friends and celebrate a beginning rather than mourn an ending.
"You look so cute! Where did you get those shoes?" Bonnie demanded. "They're fabulous!"
Mae laughed. "You mean they're ridiculous," she corrected. They were flashy pink pumps with absurdly high heels that made her as tall as Ari. "And they're my sister-in-law's. She has a frighteningly large shoe collection, and she happens to wear the same size as me."
"Lucky you!" Bonnie looked at Ari. "You're looking pretty sharp yourself."
"Thanks." He shrugged a little, but smiled at the compliment. He'd picked the clean-cut outfit of cream slacks and brown oxford and loafers that morning in the hopes of making a good first impression on Mae's family. He hadn't expected it to become post-wedding wear, but figured no one would mind that he wasn't really dressed up for the occasion. "Where's everyone else?" He looked around and answered his own question when he spotted them on the dance floor. "Ah."
The music came to an end, and four dancers returned to the table. Greetings and hugs were exchanged with the new arrivals. "I didn't expect to see you," said Liz, resuming her seat. "I'm so glad you're both here!"
"Yeah," agreed Travis, also sitting once again. "It's great that you guys could make it."
With all five chairs filled, Malcolm and Stephanie were left standing. "You stole my seat," Stephanie informed Mae in mock offense.
"You'll need a new one then," her friend replied smugly.
Stephanie took it in stride, happy to see Mae smiling even if it was at Stephanie's expense. She laughed and turned to Malcolm. "Help me pull over another table, eh?"
"Sure," he answered.
There was the usual scraping of tables and chairs as the group rearranged themselves, the furniture, and the food and drinks. Once everyone was settled, the ubiquitous and bubbly waitress popped up beside them. "Looks like this is turning into quite a party. Who needs a drink?"
"Cosmopolitan," Mae answered immediately.
"I'll just have whatever amber you have on tap, please," said Ari.
"And more water," put in Bonnie, holding up her empty water glass. "And another lemon drop." She traded one empty glass for another.
"I'll bring a pitcher of water," the waitress assured her, taking the empty martini glass from her. "And some more glasses. You still okay with just the nachos?"
Again Mae piped up quickly. "Can I get an order of the ahi appetizer?"
"You sure can! Anyone else? No? Okay! I'll put that order in and be right back with those drinks." She bounced off.
Mae grinned after her. "I like her. She's perky."
Bonnie shot Stephanie a wry look to which the blonde woman replied by sticking out her tongue.
"We obviously missed something," Ari said, bemused.
"Stephanie doesn't like the waitress," explained Bonnie. She deliberately echoed her bunkmate's words in explaining, "She's perky."
Mae looked across the oddly arranged tables at Stephanie. "You don't like perky?" she inquired, a mischievous look in her eyes.
Stephanie took the bait willingly. "I like perky tits, not perky people."
Bonnie pretended to be concerned. "Should I be worried that you're going to leave me for Sub-commander T'Pol?"
Everyone laughed. Even Malcolm chuckled at her query, despite the fact that it involved a superior officer. He found himself again wishing Trip were there. This was just the kind of banter his lover enjoyed--or used to enjoy.
Once again he willfully shook off the creeping melancholy, and forced a smile that soon became genuine as Stephanie began postulating theories on just what it was that made T'Pol's breasts so perky.
"I swear there are anti-grav units involved! I just wish she'd share the technology!" she declared, inducing more laughter.
"You're lucky she's not around to overhear you," Travis chided, although he laughed as hard as anyone.
"She might be," put in Liz with a smirk. "Vulcans have outstanding hearing."
Stephanie feigned worry and half hid behind Bonnie. She looked stealthily around the bar and of course saw nothing to confirm her faux-fear. She let out an exaggerated "Whew!", garnering her more laughter. She grinned goofily and tossed back the last of her tonic. "Yes, I'm this silly even without the benefit of alcohol," she joked. "You should have seen me after a couple of drinks back in college."
"I think I speak for everyone when I say they we don't ever need to see that," teased Malcolm.
"I am maligned!" Stephanie exclaimed playfully, and stuck out her tongue again, completely negating her claim.
There was a wicked gleam in Bonnie's eyes as she spoke up. "Don't put that out there unless you're prepared to use it."
Stephanie eyed her lasciviously. "Oo! A challenge!"
"Whoa!" exclaimed Ari, laughing. "Get a room!"
"Or at least take it out back," quipped Mae, squeezing his knee under the table. Ari's eyes widened and he tried to hide his surprise as her hand traveled up his thigh to more personal territory. He darted a glance around the table, but no one else appeared to have noticed anything unusual. His gaze finally came to rest on Mae, who returned it with a suggestive smile.
The waitress returned at that moment and served up the drinks. Mae smiled at her, using her free hand to take her cosmopolitan from the young woman. "Thanks."
The waitress set down Ari's beer and he echoed Mae's thanks with an odd note in his voice. He was unnerved by Mae's boldness, but also excited. Her actions were completely unexpected, and after the day they'd had with her family he'd thought sex would be the last thing on her mind. Clearly, happily, he was wrong. He was dubious about her suggestion of taking things "out back"--a comment he knew was meant for him--but if he were honest with himself, he had to admit that he wouldn't say no to it.
"I'll be back with your ahi shortly," the waitress told Mae.
"No hurry," Mae replied pleasantly, as the waitress departed. Mae's hand played over Ari's zipper as she spoke, but nothing of her actions was betrayed in her face or voice. Ari hoped no one asked him a question, because he was sure he wouldn't be able to keep it together. He admired Mae's continued cool as she turned to Liz and Travis. "I'm sorry we couldn't be there this morning. How was the wedding?"
Liz blushed and gave Travis a slightly guilty look. "Actually, I don't remember much," she admitted, chagrined.
Travis let out a relieved sigh. "I'm so glad you said that. It's all a blur to me, too." They laughed.
Mae looked around at the others. "What about you guys? You were there. You must remember what happened."
The others looked furtive and fell suddenly silent.
"Yeah," Stephanie said finally, drawing out the single syllable. "You'd think so, wouldn't you?"
"This is a problem," commented Liz, amused. "My folks are going to ask the same thing when they get here, and we're not going to have an answer for them, either. We'd better come up with something."
"Unfortunately," said Malcolm, not looking the least disappointed or upset, "I won't be able to assist you. I need to get going." He finished his beer as the others protested, and then rose to his feet, tossing several credit notes on the table to put towards the tab. "Liz, Travis, congratulations. Stephanie, thank you for the dance."
"You're welcome, and thank you," she replied.
"But next time, I'm leading." The others chuckled. "Good-night, all."
Calls of "good-night" and "see you tomorrow" followed him out the door.
Malcolm took a deep breath of warm evening air, smiling. While he'd enjoyed himself thoroughly, there was only so much socializing he could handle before he reached his limit. He was glad to have an excuse to leave the party early.
Then the "excuse" itself rushed into his mind, and his smile faded. He shoved his hands into his pockets and began to walk in the direction of Starfleet's shuttle port. Tomorrow was going to be a rough day. He could only hope that however rough it might be for Trip--and for himself--that it would all be worth it.
The shuttlepod flew slowly over the devastation that only a few months before was Florida. As Malcolm had predicted, Trip had insisted on taking the helm, although now he transferred control to the computer, setting it to maintain position over what had been roughly the center of the panhandle. Now it was a nothing but a washed out, muddy area that only occasionally rose above sea level. Through the center of it, running north-south, was a trench so deep that the water that filled it was a dark, cool blue. It was a stark contrast to the muddy gray-green of the shallower water to either side.
Remnants of civilization were visible here and there--a torn bit of roof, the twisted girders of a toppled skyscraper. A battered yacht had lodged on one of the hummocks of land. It looked defiant perched there on a tiny piece of wrecked earth, surrounded and buffeted by unkind ocean but refusing to surrender to it.
Trip stood and stared out the front port. He leaned one forearm on the transparent aluminum, and then rested his head on his arm. His hand on the window clenched into a tight fist.
Malcolm stood beside his lover, close enough to reach out and touch him but controlling the urge. The silence in the pod was tangible. "I'm so sorry," he said softly.
Trip pointed at a spot that looked no different to Malcolm than any other amid the desolation. "The house was over there. Less than a kilometer." He looked to their left and pointed at another indistinguishable bit of ruin. "See over there? That was the old movie theatre. When we were kids, if I didn't take my sister, she'd scream like a banshee."
Despite his own grim certainty, Malcolm asked, "Are you certain she was here when this happened?"
Trip sighed as if the bleakness of the land below was echoed in his heart. Malcolm's own heart ached at the sound. "Someone would have heard from her if she wasn't."
Malcolm didn't argue. It was what he'd thought for nearly two months, and he was secretly glad to hear Trip say it aloud. He hoped it meant that his lover had at last admitted the loss, and that he might finally be able to mourn and begin to heal. Trip's next words killed that hope.
His voice was cold and hard. "We have to get whoever did this." Trip turned to Malcolm, and Malcolm was taken aback by the hatred in his lover's eyes. "We have to find them, and stop them from ever hurting anyone again."
"I'm sure we'll find them," Malcolm said in as calm and even a tone as he could. He found Trip's intensity unsettling.
"And stop them," reiterated Trip. "There's no point in finding them if we aren't ready to stop them absolutely."
"Trip " He hesitated, almost afraid to voice what he was thinking. "You sound as though you're talking about genocide."
Trip's face was expressionless, his eyes icy. His reasonable tone was a frightening, stark contrast to his words. "If that's what it takes, then I'm all for it."
Malcolm had thought his heart couldn't sink any lower or ache any worse. In that moment, he discovered he was wrong. He said nothing, but turned to look out again at the torn face of Earth. He pained him to see it, but at that moment it was less sickening that looking at his lover's cold, hard face.
Neither man spoke as they stared out the port. Eventually, Trip sat once more in the pilot's seat. Malcolm took the silent cue and sat, as well. Trip took control back from the computer, banked the little craft to the left, and headed up out of the atmosphere.