Malcolm took a deep breath and pressed the door chime for the captain's ready room. Hearing Archer's muffled "Come in," he opened the door and stepped inside.
"Malcolm," said Archer. "Is it 1300 already?" The captain looked tired. Dr. Phlox had patched up the cut on his head, but he still appeared a bit worse for wear after the previous day's fight with Silik.
"Yes, sir," Reed said.
"Okay. I could use a break from this " He gestured hopelessly at his computer. " anyway. I hope I never have to write a report like it again. Suliban, Temporal Cold War. I don't want to imagine what Starfleet brass are going to make of it."
Archer looked up at the lieutenant standing stiffly in the middle of the small room. He considered the younger man's expression, noted the serious set of his jaw. "What did you want to see me about?" he asked.
"I wish to file a complaint, sir."
It was too late to back out now even if he'd wanted to. Reed had made up his mind, and he wasn't one to change it on the spur of the moment. "Against you, sir."
Archer was startled but, to his credit, kept his reaction minimal. He sat a little straighter in his chair, leaned his forearms on the edge of the desk, clasped his hands together. "Proceed," was all he said.
Malcolm had practiced several times before coming here. It had taken much of the previous evening to come up with wording he felt expressed what he needed to say but kept to the right side of the delicate line between "formal complaint" and "insubordination." When he reached the end of his short speech, he tried very hard not to hold his breath. He'd said what he needed to say; now, he had to stand there and wait for the hammer to fall. It was a long wait.
After a lengthy pause, Archer said, "You're right." Reed said nothing—he was too shocked to come up with a coherent response. The captain leaned back in his chair. "I should have informed you about Silik and Daniels at the same time I informed Commander Tucker and Sub-Commander T'Pol. But hindsight is always 20/20, and there's nothing I can do to fix it now."
Reed continued to stand there in silence. He didn't know where Archer was going with this, couldn't even fathom a guess.
"It's possible that, had you known, you might have prevented Silik from killing Daniels. It's also possible you might have been able to capture Silik. However, we have no way to know, now, what the outcome would have been. I accept the responsibility for the actions I took." He considered his Tactical Officer who was looking more and more puzzled by the moment. Archer sighed. "Sit down, Malcolm."
Reed sat, still not quite sure what was going on. He'd expected to be dismissed (probably rather abruptly) after making his statement. He hadn't anticipated his Captain's exhausted tone and admission.
The two men looked at one another across the table. It was Archer who broke the silence. "You are the finest Tactical Officer in Starfleet. I have complete faith in your ability to do the job I recruited you to do."
"Then—" Malcolm stopped short. He wanted to ask why. Why hadn't he trusted him this time? But the Captain was the Captain, and he wasn't required to explain his actions to a subordinate.
Archer knew. It was the same question he would have wanted answered, were the circumstances reversed. "Why?" he said. "Why, instead of telling you at the beginning, did I tie your hands behind your back, but still expect you to do your job?"
Malcolm couldn't meet his gaze. It wasn't what he'd said, but it was a fair summation. He finally looked up, met Archer's gaze with his own. "Yes, sir," he said.
"Because I made a mistake. I'm a fallible human, just like everyone else on board. Well " He gave a wry, mirthless smile. " nearly everyone else." And then he said something that surprised Reed immensely: "I'm sorry, Lieutenant."
"Sir," he tried to protest, "that's not what—"
"I know. But I needed to say it." There was silence as each man considered the officer across from him. "Was there anything else?"
"Then you're dismissed. I'll see that your statement of complaint is included when I transmit my report to Starfleet."
"I " Reed briefly considered protesting, withdrawing his complaint—but only briefly. "Yes, sir. Thank you, Captain." He rose and left the room.
Now it was over, Reed felt a weight had been lifted off his back. He allowed himself a small sigh of relief as he headed across the Bridge to the lift.
He was officially off-duty for the remainder of the day. He'd completed his own mission report; everything was running smoothly in Tactical. What to do with the rest of the afternoon? It was an easy choice and, as he stepped into the lift and the doors closed, he pressed a button and requested Main Engineering. They may have lost the device the captain had used to pass through the bulkhead, but they still had Daniels's holographic imaging device, albeit damaged. Most importantly, they had the sensor enhancements Daniels had installed to track Silik. Reed was itching to take a look. It didn't hurt that it was also an opportunity to spend time with a certain handsome Chief Engineer.
The lift paused in its descent to pick up a passenger. "Commander," said Malcolm, pleasantly surprised. "I was just on my way to see you."
"I was kind of looking for you, too," said Trip, a slight hesitancy in his tone.
Reed noticed the uncertainty. "Is something wrong?"
"Uhh Yeah." Unexpectedly, Trip reached out and pressed a button, bringing the lift to a halt between decks.
I'm dreaming, again, thought Reed. Or I'm hallucinating. Either way, it's turning out to be a better day than I ever could have hoped. "Commander?" he queried.
"I need to apologize." Trip's tensed shoulders slumped a little. Embarrassed, he admitted, "I'm not real good at this, but I'm—I'm sorry about yesterday."
"The whole thing with Daniels and Silik and me snapping at you about the power fluctuation when you were only trying to do your job."
"There's no need to apologize. It wasn't up to you to tell me about Daniels or Silik. That was the Captain's decision."
"Yeah, and I bet he's kicking himself about it now."
Malcolm knew it was true, but it wasn't his place to reveal what had happened between himself and Captain Archer just minutes ago. Instead, he gave a small shrug and said simply, "You know him better than I do."
"Anyway, I was wound up with—well, everything, but I didn't have to yell. Sorry."
"Apology accepted," Reed said, not really knowing what else to say.
Trip seemed to relax a little at this. "I'm not big on discord among the crew, in case you hadn't noticed," he joked. "Especially when I'm the cause of it. I like a smooth-running team."
Malcolm gave one of his subtle half-smiles, remembered the conversation he'd had with the Chief Engineer not long ago on the self-same topic. "I seem to recall something like that."
Trip smiled in return. "Yeah," he agreed. "How's Ensign Cormack, anyway?"
"Couldn't tell you," Reed answered with a grin. Both men chuckled at the past misunderstanding.
Tucker reached for the release on the lift, saying, "You were headed to Engineering?"
"Yes. I thought you could show me around those sensor enhancements Daniels installed."
The lift resumed its downward journey. "I'll do what I can, but I'm pretty much lost, myself," admitted Tucker.
"I'm sure we can figure them out between the two of us."
"You haven't seen them yet."
Reed only had moments left before they arrived at their destination. "Trip, I was wondering," he began. His successful interview with Archer had given him the confidence boost he needed. "Were you planning on catching the movie tonight?"
"Hadn't thought about it," said Tucker with a shrug. "What are they running?"
"No idea, but it couldn't be worse than the last one. I thought I'd check it out. Care to join me?"
The lift slowed. "Sure. Why not?" The door slid open to their deck. "What time's it supposed to start?"
"2030 hours." They stepped out, headed down the short corridor toward Main Engineering.
"Great. You want to grab dinner beforehand?"
Malcolm's head swam. Did he just say that? Stay calm, he ordered himself. "Sure. Sounds good. Say 1930 hours?"
"Sounds good," echoed the engineer, smiling. They arrived at Main Engineering. "Now, let's see if we can figure out just how these sensors work."
Reed had no idea how he got through the rest of the afternoon. He and Tucker spent the time going over the strange new systems with a fine-toothed comb. Unfortunately, they had little success deciphering anything, but that didn't stop Malcolm enjoying the time with Trip. Two of my favorite things in one place, he thought at one point, meaning the tantalizing new technology and the even more tantalizing engineer. Throw in the opportunity to blow up a hostile alien vessel, and I'd call it a near-perfect afternoon.
They finally gave up for the day when, after four hours, they were little wiser than they'd been at the start.
"I don't think we're going to get any further today," sighed Trip.
"Agreed," said Malcolm. "It's a shame, because we're not going to be able to keep these enhancements forever."
"I know. An extra twenty megawatts is okay for a while, but the power grid wasn't designed to handle it for long. Maybe we can give it another go tomorrow."
"Good idea. Right now, though, I think I'm going to go relax for a while. This was supposed to be my day off, after all," Reed added with a slightly ironic smile.
"I thought this was what you did to relax," quipped Tucker.
"Among other things," Reed quipped in return. Not bothering to elucidate, he headed for the exit, saying, "Meet you at the mess hall?"
"1930 hours. I'll be there."
That was an hour ago. Now, Malcolm stood in the middle of his quarters, staring blankly at his options. "It oughtn't be that hard," he muttered. It wasn't as if he had a wide selection of civilian gear to choose from. Still, he was having a very hard time deciding what to wear.
The door chimed suddenly. "Yes?" he called out.
"It's Cormack, sir," came the voice from the other side. "You left a message for me to come see you?" She sounded uncertain, and he couldn't blame her; he'd never asked her to his quarters before.
"Yes, absolutely," he said with relief. He opened the door, ushered her quickly into his cabin.
Stephanie eyed him. He was dressed in his blues—and only the bottom half, at that—and his hair was damp and disheveled, as if he'd just washed it and only bothered to towel it dry. "Is there something you wanted to tell me?" she asked.
He looked at himself, grabbed a robe. "Sorry," he said, pulling it on.
Cormack had to laugh. "Malcolm, it's okay. Just tell me what's up?"
He looked at her almost shyly. "I need your help."
"I have a date."
"A date?" Realization struck her, and she smiled widely. "With Commander Tucker?" she asked hopefully.
"Yes. Although, to be quite honest, I don't know if he realizes it is a date."
"What do you mean?"
"I asked him to join me at the movie tonight."
"And he suggested dinner before."
"Then he must know it's a date!" exclaimed Stephanie.
"I wish I shared your conviction. But—" he added to forestall any arguments "—that's not what I needed you for."
The ensign looked around the cabin, noted the limited array of civilian clothes littering its surfaces. "Can't decide what to wear, eh?"
Malcolm sighed resignedly. "No."
"Okay. You're in luck. I'm good at this—at least when it's for someone else. What were you thinking?"
"I can't think. That's why I called you."
She gave a snort of laughter. "Sorry, sorry," she said quickly at his indignant expression. "It's just so Never mind. Been a while since you had a date, huh?"
He gave her a look. "I have no intention of telling you just how long, so don't ask. Suffice it to say I'm a bit out of practice at the dating scene."
"Fair enough. Okay." She picked up the first shirt she saw, handed it to him saying, "No."
Malcolm hung it back in the closet.
"What you need is that delicate balance. You want to look hot without looking like you're trying to look hot. Additionally, you want to be comfortable. So " She picked up another shirt, handed it to him. " again, no."
Reed started to protest that the shirt in question wasn't the least uncomfortable, but she was narrowing down his choices, so he kept quiet.
Stephanie looked at him intently. "Your eyes are blue, yes?" He nodded. She had a shirt in each hand, held first one then the other in front of him. "I love the black," she said at last, "but wear the blue. They both bring out your eyes, but the black will look like you're trying."
He took the rich, cobalt blue shirt from her. Tossing his robe on the bunk, he pulled on the shirt, began to button it up.
"Which pants were you—?" Cormack began, caught the look on his face. "Right. Not thinking. Got it." She eyed her choices. "What color are your shoes?"
"Black. There." He pointed to them.
"Oo. Nice," she said appreciatively.
"When one doesn't have a lot, it makes sense to have quality stuff."
"A man after my own heart. Undo another button." He looked at her doubtfully. "Trust me." He did as told.
"I'm going to have to go with the black chinos, I think. Casual, comfortable." She handed him the pants, and he pulled them on. "Tuck in the shirt." He did.
Malcolm sat in the desk chair, began pulling on his socks. Stephanie looked around.
"Do you have a belt?" He shook his head, a stricken look on his face. "It's okay. You don't need one," she reassured him quickly, sorry she'd even mentioned it. "Shall I hang the rest of this back up?" she asked, to take his mind off her faux-pas.
"I can do that."
"It's no trouble. I worked as a dresser on a lot of community theatre shows back home. I'm used to cleaning up after people. At least your stuff is clean." She took the few remaining rejected items and began hanging them neatly back in the closet.
"Thanks." Reed slipped on his shoes, tied the laces. "I didn't know you did theatre."
"Tech only," she said emphatically. "Wouldn't catch me dead in front of an audience."
Malcolm stood. "What do you think?" he asked nervously.
She regarded him carefully. "Turn around," she instructed, circling a finger in the air. Reed turned a slow three-sixty for her. "Do this with your hair." She demonstrated by putting both hands up to her own head and making a quick, sharp, scrubbing motion. He imitated the action. "Almost," she said, surveying the result. She took a step towards him, hesitated. "May I?"
He nodded briefly. She reached both hands into his hair, working a bit of lift into it so the short spikes stood up in a variety of directions. "That's it. Very sassy," she said with satisfaction. "Take a look." She moved so he could see himself in the small mirror.
"You're sure it doesn't look like I'm 'trying'?" he asked uncertainly.
"Well, maybe a little. But it's not like you're working at it."
"That is a very convoluted set of guidelines you have, isn't it?" he asked her.
"Does anyone understand it besides you?"
"What makes you think I understand it?" At his slightly panicked look, she added, "Kidding!"
He eyed her dubiously. "Why do I doubt that?"
She gave him her best innocent look, and changed the topic once more. "What time are you meeting him?"
"The mess hall."
"All right. Then we have time."
"A little relaxation exercise."
"Excuse me?" He gave her another dubious look.
"It'll make you feel better, I promise. Now, sit down." Reluctantly, he sat in the chair once more. "Close your eyes. I'm not going to hurt you," she added at his wary expression. "Trust me."
He did as told, but before Cormack could say anything more, his eyes flew open again and his face fell. "What if I'm overdressed? I mean, what if he's still in uniform? I really think he doesn't know I—"
Stephanie cut him off. "Don't worry. He won't be."
"How can you know that?"
"I have my resources." But ask as he might, she wouldn't explain.
Back in Engineering, Trip checked the time. Shoot. I better get moving if I'm gonna meet Malcolm at 1930, he thought. He climbed down the short ladder from the central station to the main deck, quickly ascended the stairs to the upper level.
"Commander?" a female voice called from several feet away.
He turned to face the approaching woman. "Ensign, what is it?"
"I wondered if you could take a quick look at this, sir," she asked, holding up a small item. He couldn't make out just what it was at that distance. "I know you're on your way out, but it'll only take a second." She jogged down the catwalk toward him. As she was about to reach him, she tripped. He caught her before she fell, but the item she held slipped from her hands and fell to the deck below.
"Heads up!" shouted Trip to anyone who might be passing below. He held the ensign by the shoulders as she steadied herself, her hands braced on his strong forearms. "You okay?"
"Yeah. I'm sorry, sir. I must have slipped." She stood back, brushed her dark hair out of her face, leaving a smudge of valve sealant on her cheek.
"You might want to clean that up," Tucker said, pointing to it.
"Thanks." She rubbed a sleeve along her cheek to clean it, looked at her hands. They were grimy with the sealant and so, consequently, was Trip's uniform. "I'm so sorry, sir," she said, again, indicating the stains on his sleeves. "I'm such a klutz sometimes."
"No problem, Ensign. I have others," he reassured her pleasantly. "Did you still need me to look at something for you?"
"Uh, I guess not, since it's probably pointless now." She glanced over the catwalk at what was now two smaller items lying on the deckplating. She gave him a somewhat abashed shrug.
"No one's hurt, and the ship's still running, so I'll assume there's no harm done."
"Thank you, sir."
Trip simply nodded, smiled, and left.
The young woman watched until the doors closed behind him. Brown eyes quickly scanned the area before she hurried to the nearest comm panel and opened a link. "Lawless to Ensign Cormack."
"Cormack here. Go ahead."
"You owe me one, my friend," she said quietly.
"You took care of it?"
"No guarantees what he'll change into, but he won't be wearing the uniform he's had on all day."
"Excellent! You're the best, Mae."
"I know. Now, are you going to tell me what's so important it was worth making my C.O. think I'm a clumsy, butter-fingered idiot?"
"Figures. You're buying me a drink tonight," she said decisively.
"How about popcorn and a soda at the flick?"
"You're on." Ensign Lawless closed the comm and gave one more quick look around. She headed down the stairs to retrieve the broken stem-bolt before someone noticed it and asked why in the world it was covered with valve sealant.
Cormack was stationed in the mess hall by 1920 hours. After talking Malcolm through some simple yogic relaxation techniques, she'd left him to his own devices for the little time remaining until his date. The first thing she’d done after leaving him was contact Lawless and arrange the “accident” in engineering. Then she’d used the rest of the time to quickly change into civvies, herself, her logic being that the more non-uniformed people there were at the movie, the less conspicuous her friend's casual attire would be. Theoretically, he would then be more relaxed, at least subconsciously. It was a small thing and would probably go unnoticed, but that was the idea; any unobtrusive way she could find to aid Malcolm in his quest, she would use.
It wasn't long before Reed arrived. That boy is terminally punctual, she thought. Someone needs to teach him the concept of being "fashionably late." She shook her head slightly when she noticed he'd done up the extra button she'd told him to undo, but he still looked great. A surreptitious look around the room gratified her; he was drawing the appreciative glances of at least half a dozen people. Huh, she thought, noting one young male crewman in particular. Who knew?
Malcolm gave the room a swift glance of his own. Not seeing Trip anywhere, he was frozen for a moment in indecision. Fortunately, he was saved by the entrance of the commander. Stephanie smiled. Mae had done her job perfectly. Trip was out of uniform and looking like a pin-up from a cowboy magazine in faded blue-jeans, a western-cut off-white shirt, and boots. He even had the obligatory leather belt with a shiny silver buckle. Very nice. She wasn't usually inclined toward the cowboy look, but even she had to admit it worked on Trip.
She watched the two men pick up dinner and find an empty table in the corner. How she wished she were a fly on the wall to listen to their conversation. Yeah, she had to admit she was feeling nosy and curious, but she justified it by telling herself it was all in support of her friend's efforts.
"Hey, Stephanie," said Mae, surprising her from her observations. "Join you?"
"Sure. Sit," she replied distractedly.
Lawless sat across from her, setting her plate and glass on the table. "How was the rest of your afternoon?"
"Good, thanks. You?"
"Fine." She eyed Cormack closely, noting her distracted look, monosyllabic responses, and uncharacteristic lack of a uniform. "You look nice."
"Uh-huh." Time to play, thought Lawless. "What's the movie tonight?"
"Your potato is on fire."
"Pet iguana doing okay?"
"Fine." Slowly, Mae's words registered, and Cormack focused on the woman across the table. "Eh?"
"There you are," Mae said sarcastically. She tucked her short dark hair behind her ears in a habitual motion.
"Sorry. I'm just a little distracted."
"Sorry," she said, again.
"So, how'd that favor I did for you work out?" Mae wanted to know. She took a bite of her chicken curry as she waited for an answer.
"Beautifully," smiled Stephanie, finally giving her dinner companion her full attention.
"Still not going to tell me what it was about, are you." It was less a question, more an acceptance of the inevitable.
"Nope," she confirmed, knowing full well all Mae had to do was turn around and look at a small table in the far corner of the mess hall to find her answer. At that moment, Stephanie saw Trip laugh at something Malcolm said, and Malcolm smiled. Oh, to be a fly on the wall
"You should see it when my family gets together," said Trip, expounding on their current topic. "Usually, it's a Fourth of July barbecue or Christmas. Summer's the craziest, though."
"I'd have thought otherwise—presents and kids, after all."
"Nah. Christmas is big, but pretty relaxed, really. It's summer when the kids are hopped up on sugar and the dogs are running all over the yard it gets wild. I remember one year, I'm barbecuing the steaks, right? Well, somehow, one of the dogs gets hold of a steak and makes a break for it. Of course, my sister's yelling at the dog, kids are laughing and chasing it. The poor thing gets so frantic it collides with my brother-in-law who goes head-first into the picnic table where he lands in this huge bowl of potato salad."
"That must have been something to see," said Malcolm, laughing.
"Oh, yeah," Trip emphatically assured him. He grinned. "I don't think I've ever seen my sister so mad."
"So, are you usually in charge of the cooking at these family gatherings?" Reed asked. He wasn't much of a cook himself, so he was curious.
"Only the barbecuing. Indoor cooking isn't my thing, but give me a grill and a pile of charcoal, and I'm your man."
Reed couldn't help thinking, I wish. "Real charcoal? I didn't think people still used it."
"Absolutely. Some things are best done the old-fashioned way," Tucker assured him.
"I had no idea your skills extended to the culinary."
"My talents aren't limited to the engine room, you know," said Trip lightly. Malcolm's mind flashed back to those same words said in a dream nearly three months ago. Tucker noticed the change in his expression, asked, "What?"
"Nothing," Malcolm said. "I just remembered something I'd completely forgotten about."
"Nothing important, I hope."
"No. Not exactly."
"You going to share?"
Malcolm looked at him, smiled a little wickedly. "I think not."
"Well, now I really want to know," insisted the engineer.
"Sorry to disappoint you." Maybe he was letting his hormones get the better of his good sense, but he couldn't help adding, "I'll make you a deal. You tell me about the dream you mentioned the other morning, and I'll tell you what I'm remembering."
Trip's face went suddenly still, and Malcolm knew he'd made a terrible miscalculation. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"It's okay," said Trip.
"No. No, it's not. You made it perfectly clear you didn't want to talk about it before. I should never have brought it up." Inside, he was cursing. It was going so well, and he had to make a stupid remark like that. "I'm sorry," he said, again, lamely.
Tucker looked at him, caught Reed's pale eyes with his own. "Really. It's okay."
Even more than usual, Malcolm found himself lost in that gaze. He wanted to fall into it, lose himself in its depths. So caught up was he with his imaginings he nearly missed what Trip was saying.
"Your eyes look really blue tonight. I don't think I ever noticed before. Must be the light in here," he concluded offhandedly. He gave a small shrug, reached for his glass of water.
It was enough to break the spell. Malcolm sat back a little, surreptitiously trying to pull himself together. Focus, Malcolm, he told himself firmly. You nearly ruined everything with that stupid comment. Don't make it worse. Aloud, he said as casually as he could manage, "You look good. I don't often see you out of uniform."
"Yeah, well, not much opportunity. I had to change since my uniform got dirty, so I figured why not pretend to be a civilian for the evening? Go all the way, you know?" he said with a chuckle.
All the way? Reed's mind echoed. I'd love to, but not on a first date. Despite the fact that Trip's simple presence was usually enough to carbonate his hormones, he didn't want him to think he was a push-over. Dreaming and imagining were one thing; for the lieutenant, reality was a different matter. Don't fool yourself, Malcolm. You still don't know if he's even remotely interested in you as more than a friend. But he is here, another part of his mind argued. That must count for something.
"So, any idea what movie they're running tonight?" Trip asked, oblivious to the dialogue and turmoil going on inside Reed's head.
"No. I'm afraid I didn't even think to check."
"I guess we'll find out together."
"I guess so," agreed Malcolm, thinking of a number of other, more exciting, things they could find out together.
Across the mess hall, Lawless was becoming increasingly curious. "Stephanie." Then, more forcefully, "Stephanie!"
Cormack started, looked at her. "What?" she wanted to know.
"What the hell is so fascinating over there that you can't take your eyes off it?"
"Nothing." Lawless started to turn. "Don't look!"
"Now I know you're insane," the dark-haired engineer said.
"That was in question?"
"And you're lying," she added, ignoring Stephanie's jest. "You're not getting off the hook that easy. What's going on?"
"I can't say."
"You can't say."
"But if I turn around, I'm going to know."
Slowly, casually, Lawless looked over her shoulder, scanned the room. Turning back to her dinner companion, she said, "Okay. I'm confused."
"I don't see anything that interesting. I see people eating dinner, just like every night—but that's it."
"You're completely nuts," declared Mae with finality.
"Yep," Stephanie agreed, grinning—then grinned wider as both Trip and Malcolm burst out laughing at some private joke.
Mae glanced over at them. "Huh. They're having fun. I want what they're drinking," she joked dryly.
"I'll buy you one after the movie," said Cormack.
Lawless raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "I still get the promised popcorn and soda, right?"
"Hey, big spender. Celebrating something?"
Cormack let her eyes slide once more to the two men in the corner before looking back at her friend. She smiled. "Something like that," she said.
End Log 9
As of 1 Sept 06: