Author: Kylie Lee
Title: Holding Back, Part 1: Archer's POV
Length: ~8000 words
Fandom: Star Trek: Enterprise
Type: Slash M/M
Series: Acceptable Risk
Summary: Archer begins haunting Tucker, trying to discover the identity of the woman Tucker's been seeing.
Feedback: Oh, my, yes.
Archive: Yes, at EntSTSlash, Tim Ruben, Archers_Enterprise, Allslash, Situation Room, Luminosity, Complete Kingdom of Slash, and WWoMB; anyone else, yes, but ask first.
Disclaimer: Paramount, an entity with more money than I will ever see, owns all the Enterprise characters. No money changed hands. No profit was made. This is not an attempt to infringe on copyright. I beg TPTB and their expensive lawyers not to sue me.
Comments: Thanks to Kim the Beta Goddess!
Captain Jonathan Archer paced in his office, pausing a moment to wipe nonexistent dust off the top of the framed pictures of sailing ships decorating one wall. Everything was nice and quiet aboard Enterprise, but despite this, Archer was in turmoil. Archer's dog, Porthos, sitting on his cushion, looked as if he were watching a tennis match: his head swung back and forth as he kept Archer in his sights.
"The problem, Porthos, is Trip," Archer confided to the dog.
Porthos looked interested. No doubt he thought cheese was somehow connected with this. Archer had stopped giving him cheese after Doctor Phlox had told him to stop, but Porthos, being a dog, was still hopeful.
Archer considered his friend Trip--Commander Trip Tucker, his chief engineer and a friend that predated their posting to the Enterprise. Tucker and the armory officer, Lieutenant Malcolm Reed, had had a close brush with death during a routine mission gone awry: they had nearly died in a shuttlepod without warp speed that was running out of air. Tucker had turned the heat down, which for some complex reason lengthened their air supply, and when Enterprise had finally caught up with them and rescued them, they had hypothermia and were close to death.
Doctor Phlox had fixed them up, but Tucker had taken the near-death experience hard. His usual sunny nature had been blunted. He had stopped eating and started working too much. It had all come to a head when a minor accident in one of the cargo bays had caused the temperature to drop, and Tucker had had an intense, incapacitating psychological reaction. Someone had sent for Archer.
Archer still remembered how terrible Tucker had looked, there in the corridor outside the cargo bay. He had rings of red bruises just under his collarbone; they had shocked Archer because of what they implied. First, they implied that Tucker had a lover, and he had never said anything to Archer about her. And second, it implied that he was self-destructive, seeking pain. He hadn't understood when he first saw the marks. He recalled Tucker's explanation: "Sex and pain. I can feel then." And at Doctor Phlox's prompting, the question that had cut to Archer's soul: "I'm frozen. Am I--am I dead?"
Now, he was happy that his chief engineer, a tall, not-quite-handsome man with dark blond hair with an easy manner and a hick's accent that belied his intelligence, was getting help. Tucker now seemed to spend a lot of time with Reed, but it made sense: the two of them had become friends after the shuttlepod incident. Tucker had stopped talking to Archer during that long month after his experience, but in sick bay, he had opened up to Archer again, which profoundly relieved him, and the two of them had resumed their old relationship.
There was just one thing that was nagging at him. Tucker declined to divulge the name of the woman he had been seeing--the woman who had inflicted those bite marks and bruises on his collarbone and upper arms. He wouldn't joke about it or talk about it, and after Tucker deliberately turned the conversation away from the topic for about the fifth time, eyebrows raised, perfectly aware of what Archer was doing but politely not calling him on it, Archer had shut up about it. He didn't want to risk losing the confidence of his friend again. All he knew was that it was serious: Archer had asked, "Is it just pain and sex with her?" And Tucker had responded, "No. It's--it's everything."
Tucker's other fear, that his medical records would somehow enter the public domain, was unwarranted. Archer certainly understood that having a major mental meltdown could stand in the way of loyalty and trust, not to mention promotion, but Tucker blew it out of proportion. To calm him down, Archer had promised that he wouldn't gratuitously read Tucker's medical files. He didn't know what Tucker was worried about: he had pointed out to his chief engineer that according to Starfleet confidentiality rules, the medical files were really only open to him, as captain, if something weird happened and if Phlox couldn't interface. So although technically he could read them whenever he wanted, in reality, he had to justify reading them, and he had to fill out Starfleet-mandated paperwork supporting this justification. "So if Phlox is out of commission, just don't get injured by evil aliens," he advised Tucker. "Or get infected by some psychosis-inducing pollen."
"I'll try, Captain," Tucker had responded. But he had trusted Archer, and they hadn't talked about it since.
But this whole romance thing: it was driving him crazy with curiosity. He observed Tucker closely, hoping that Tucker didn't notice. Tucker seemed the same as ever. If he was seeing someone, Archer could see no evidence of it in his manner or actions. He did notice that Tucker engaged in a mild flirtation with Liana, an alien woman they saved from her downed ship, along with her father, but that didn't seem to go anywhere, and unfortunately, there were no jealous tantrums from whomever it was Tucker was dating. That would have made it too easy.
He liked the idea of a Tucker blinded by romance and love; it was at odds with the plain-spokenness of the man. That's what made the whole secret romance thing so weird. He knew his friend. Tucker had dated a lot of women casually, just to have a good time, and women liked him, but he was a serial monogamist at heart. He'd had maybe four serious girlfriends, and they tended to last at least a year. He liked being attached. People radically overestimated his prowess--and sexual experience--with women. That was probably the cause of that edge in Tucker's voice when he had to repeatedly say, "I was a perfect gentleman." He really was.
Well, now Tucker was back on his feet, but Archer's curiosity remained unsatisfied. His curiosity had been there before, after he had found out that Tucker had a lover, but it was nothing compared with the curiosity-in-overdrive that he experienced when he found crewman Elizabeth Cutler and Tucker in a hallway, Tucker bending over her tenderly, holding her chin lightly in one hand and looking deep into her eyes. Archer had perked up when he observed this touching tableau, until he discovered that Cutler had something caught in her eye and that it was all innocent.
But that event had started it all. It had made Archer realize, well, he just had to find out. And now--he had to face it. He was obsessed. "I know it's wrong," he told Porthos. "Trip told me to keep out of it. I can't help myself." He picked up a padd, studied it blindly for a second, and then tossed it aside. Damn. He couldn't concentrate. He resumed pacing.
He read into Tucker's most casual gesture. Tucker couldn't have lunch with a woman without Archer considering her as a potential candidate, no matter how unlikely. Tucker tended toward fluffy, high-maintenance woman with smarts, but although most of the women on Enterprise were plenty smart, if they were fluffy and high-maintenance, it was hard to tell; they were all in uniform. Archer therefore broadened his criteria, although even he had to admit that Tucker probably wasn't dating, for example, Lieutenant Rowe, who was on the wrong side of forty-five if she was a day, or Crewman Carlsen, who, although blonde, very pretty, and no doubt fluffy when not in uniform, had a husband and four kids back home, the photos of whom were shown to the unwary at the slightest provocation. He considered Ensign Hoshi Sato, the comm officer, a more likely candidate, along with several women in Engineering.
Archer sighed and sat down. Porthos, relieved, closed his eyes. That small event--Cutler and Tucker--had opened up a big can of worms. Archer wasn't the obsessive type. He couldn't explain this burning curiosity, even to himself.
If only Tucker weren't playing this one so close to the vest. Why? Why was he?
Archer was down in Engineering to check on something when he saw Lieutenant Hess, Tucker's able second, lean into Tucker's office. A moment later, she went inside, and Archer saw the door close. The door had been open all day; he knew it had been open this morning because he had noticed how messy Tucker's office was getting. When Tucker got busy, the first thing he did was stop cleaning his office. He wouldn't let anyone else neaten it either; he said he needed to be able to find things.
A closed door--how interesting.
When Hess exited a few minutes later, her eyes were sparkling, her cheeks were pink, and her hair was forming wisps around her forehead. Archer noted that she was fastening her uniform. What in the world had they been up to? She had hardly been in there five minutes.
Hess. Could it be Hess? Hope bloomed. Archer headed for Tucker's office door and hit the open button. Tucker turned around at the sound and jerked his chin at him in a hello. He looked busy and distracted.
"Was that Lieutenant Hess?" he asked his chief engineer.
Tucker didn't take the bait. "Probably. She works here, you know."
"Ah. Very funny." He noted that Tucker's uniform was also partially undone. More and more interesting.
"Something I can do for you?" Tucker's voice was ironic.
"No, not really. Just thought I'd drop by and say hello."
"Hello. And goodbye. I have a ton of work. Remember that installation?"
Archer could take a hint, and after another exchange or two, he left.
But something was definitely in the air with Tucker and Hess. He could sense it.
Archer, on his knees in front of an open storage container in a cargo bay, whistled under his breath as he dug through its contents. He was positive he had the right crate--he had noticed a store of vacuum-packed coffee on the manifest--but what was all this other junk? He tossed aside six or seven identical teddy bears, shaking his head. That other crate over there was full of them. There were no kids aboard ship. Maybe they could trade them. Or he could score a couple for Porthos to play with. Except Porthos would rip them open and then stuffing would get all over his quarters.
Ah! There it was. His fingers had just closed around a heavy brick of coffee beans in its distinctive green-and-white packaging when the cargo bay door slid open. Automatically, he stood up, and his eyes scanned the doorway. It was Tucker, and right in front of him was Hess. Hess had him by the hand and was tugging him inside. They were laughing.
Archer didn't even think about it. He dove down behind some handy barrels, coffee forgotten. Luckily, they didn't notice him. He was way over to one side. He scrambled a little farther away from the open trunk.
"--or he'll suspect something!" Hess was saying.
Archer listened eagerly. This sounded promising. He tried peeking between the barrels, but he couldn't really see. He had heard the door close.
"He doesn't suspect a thing. Don't worry."
"Well, it's getting harder and harder to keep it a secret."
Archer risked it. He raised his head up so his eyes just cleared the row of barrels, and he saw Tucker and Hess standing there. He was disappointed to see that they weren't holding hands or touching or anything. He lowered his head slowly, aware that fast motion might draw their attention.
"It's going to be even harder if you keep ducking out of his sight every time he walks by," Tucker advised. "Just act normal."
Archer was hanging on to every word. He remembered that Hess was dating somebody. The phrases "He doesn't suspect a thing" and "Just act normal"--it was clear they were ducking her boyfriend.
"Easy for you to say."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Your face. You're so--cute. You always look innocent."
"I'm cute?" Tucker sounded horrified. "You think I'm cute?"
"Oh, you know you are. Don't act all surprised. I'm sure with that face, you've gotten away with worse."
"Ha. Very funny."
"Think we can go back out now?"
"What's the hurry?"
Archer suddenly realized that maybe he should have made his presence known from the start. What if they started--well, kissing? Or--or worse? He'd have to sit and listen, or he'd have to really, really embarrass them. He pondered. He'd rather sit and listen.
Luckily, Hess sounded curious, not romantic. "Something you want from the cargo bay?"
Tucker was walking around. Archer could hear the footsteps coming closer and tensed. Tucker was only a meter away. Archer's brain clicked into overdrive, considering and then rejecting explanations: "Oh, I must have fallen asleep" would work--maybe--
"Hey, look," Tucker's voice said. "This storage compartment is open." There were rustling sounds as he dug through it. "Oooh, teddy bears."
"Adorable," Hess commented dryly. "Maybe I can make them wee little outfits in my spare time and sell them to the crew for a tidy profit." Her voice dripped sarcasm.
"What a good idea. You could make a Captain Archer teddy bear. Or a Lieutenant Reed teddy bear, with a little phase pistol in one paw."
Tucker held one of the bears up at Hess, and he wiggled one of its paws suggestively at her, making her laugh. Archer took a chance while they were distracted; bending over double, he carefully stepped around behind some other crates, leaving behind the barrels. That put a few more meters between them. They didn't seem to hear him. Tucker handed Hess the bear and dug through the compartment again.
"Oho!" Tucker said a moment later.
"Whose is it?"
"I'll have to check the manifest. Things got mixed around after those big-eared aliens unloaded everything that wasn't nailed down." Tucker paused. "Well, that's not right. They did take stuff that was nailed down. Anyway, nothing is where it's supposed to be, and who knows what's where? I consider it all fair game. Especially when it's dark roast." Archer heard scraping noises. "Chef's industrial-grade coffee is fine for getting that early-morning caffeine fix so necessary to get through the day, but this stuff--this stuff actually has taste."
"Can we go now?" Hess asked. "I'm sure he's gone."
"Yes, we can go. Here, help me carry some of this. This is the captain's favorite brand, too."
Archer listened to them bicker as they left. Hess still had the teddy bear, and both were laden with bricks of coffee beans. Their easy insults and mannerisms cinched it. He was sure he'd penetrated their secret. Best of all, he hadn't been caught. He hadn't really considered Hess to be Tucker's type, but what did he know?
He waited a long moment after the door shut behind them, then reopened the storage compartment, which Tucker had sealed, and dug through again, without much hope. Nope. They'd cleaned it out. He shut the lid, a teddy bear in hand, then turned and sat down. He considered the bear thoughtfully.
His heart was light. But too bad about the coffee.
"Okay, Porthos, okay." Archer shoved his pillow aside and rolled out of bed. Porthos was whining and pawing at the sheets. "I think I need to assign a crew member to you to walk you during the day. During the day, do you understand?"
Porthos sat down, then looked up at him expectantly.
Archer raised the lights and pulled on a long-sleeved T-shirt. He found some civilian trousers in his closet and put them on over his pajama bottoms. He was barefoot. "All right, let's go."
Yes, it was about 4 a.m., and yes, he had to walk his dog. Right before he urged Porthos ahead of him, he grabbed a few little plastic bags and a small container of cleaning tabs, which he thrust in a pocket. Porthos knew he wasn't supposed to defecate in the corridors, but sometimes he got a little too excited.
Porthos didn't use a leash. He ran slightly ahead of Archer, setting the pace and the direction. Archer followed, still sleepy. The corridors were deserted. Porthos led him into the lift, and he automatically set it up one level. They exited together, and as he cleared the doors, he was surprised to see Tucker in the hallway. Tucker had apparently just exited one of the rooms along this habitation area; his back was mostly to Archer, and as he walked, he was straightening his collar with one hand. In his other hand were some padds. His hair was mussed; in fact, Tucker looked rumpled and messy in general.
"Trip?" Archer said quietly.
Tucker whirled around. Archer thought he saw an expression of panic, but if that's what it was, Tucker covered it up quickly. "Captain," he said. "Hi, Porthos." He came over and let Porthos sniff his hand, then squatted down to pet him.
"What are you doing up so late?"
Tucker looked up at him and hesitated. "Oh, this and that," he said evasively. "Just heading back to my quarters." His eyes were wide and clear. "What about you?"
Oho. If Archer had just been a minute earlier, he would have seen whose quarters he had come out of. Archer's mind raced through the possibilities. This little tidbit of information was actually valuable: Tucker was seeing someone who had her own quarters in this corridor, so all he had to do now was call up the specs and see who was assigned to where. He couldn't remember whether Hess lived on that corridor. He didn't think so.
"Porthos thinks we're on Earth. He wants to go for a walk. He won't let me sleep unless I take him on a few circuits." Archer considered his dog. "I wonder what he thinks of it; there are no other dog smells here."
"I think Taylor keeps a cat," Tucker said, rising. Porthos didn't want to stop sniffing him, and Tucker pushed his head away. "We should get Porthos together with it, just to see what would happen. Stop it, Porthos."
"There's an idea." Archer hesitated, opened his mouth, then shut it again. He settled for, "I guess you'd better get on home and get some sleep."
"See you tomorrow, Captain." Tucker gave him a little wave--it reminded him of one of those little half-salutes that Malcolm Reed gave--and headed back down the hallway, and after a moment, with a word to Porthos, Archer turned around and went back into the lift he had just exited.
He couldn't wait. Instead of going up a level and continuing his circuit, he set it for the bridge. When he entered, he found a skeleton night crew. Subcommander T'Pol was in command of night watch, and if she looked surprised to see him, it was expressed only by her slightly raised eyebrows. Archer realized that in his T-shirt, trousers over pajama bottoms, and bare feet, he hardly looked commanding. "I'll be out of here in a minute, T'Pol," he apologized. "There's just something I have to do." He sat down at a side station and keyed on the panel.
The Vulcan looked over his shoulder. "May I help you?"
"No, I'm just curious about something. This'll only take a second."
T'Pol watched as he called up the schematics of the corridor he had met Tucker in, then cross-linked it to the crew's assignments to quarters. He scanned the names quickly, then more slowly. He had been right. Hess didn't live in that corridor. He turned and looked at T'Pol.
"Do you know who Commander Tucker is seeing?" he asked bluntly. He kept his voice low, but nobody was paying attention to them.
T'Pol cocked her head slightly to one side. "I infer that you wish to know if Commander Tucker is involved in a romantic relationship."
T'Pol shook her head slightly. "I have seen no evidence of such a relationship. Why do you think there is one?"
"Because he told me. But he won't say who."
"An interesting puzzle indeed."
Sometimes he thought T'Pol was being sarcastic. She certainly had a sense of humor; he remembered the way she had held the keys to his handcuffs just out of reach, tweaking him for a comment he had made, after the incident with those little troll-like aliens with big ears. "Yes, it is interesting. What's even more interesting is why he won't tell me."
T'Pol looked thoughtful. "Perhaps she's married."
Archer hadn't thought of that. Then he shook his head. "No, I don't think Trip has it in him to date a married woman. It wouldn't be--honorable somehow. But maybe, if she's not married, she's supposedly dating somebody else." Like Hess. He thought a second. "Who does he spend time with?"
T'Pol leaned against the panel and considered. Porthos, who was strangely fond of T'Pol and ever hopeful she would pet him, sniffed one of her shoes and looked up at her entreatingly, but she just ignored him, and he wandered off. "He spends quite a lot of time with Lieutenant Hess." Archer nodded impatiently. "And I often see him eating with Ensign Sato."
Sato. H'm. He checked the panel. Yes, Sato lived in that corridor. And she had her own quarters. He remembered how, during the incident with the big-eared aliens, Tucker had pulled Sato's name out of thin air right after he had gotten caught by them; he had pretended she was his wife. Maybe he was telling Archer something.
But no. Archer shook his head. "I'd buy Hoshi, except there's no impediment to their relationship. Why would they keep it a secret?" His eyes narrowed. "You spend a lot of time with Commander Tucker too," he pointed out. "How do I know it's not you?"
"You could be throwing me off the scent. You Vulcans can be very sneaky when you want to be. And you have motivation to keep it a secret."
"I assure you. I am not--" She paused to find the right word. "I am not involved with Commander Tucker."
Archer slumped back in his chair. "I didn't think so. You're commanding night watch tonight, so he wasn't seeing you." He keyed off the panel. "Okay, you're off the hook." He stood up and whistled to Porthos. "I'd appreciate your not mentioning this conversation to anyone," he said.
"Good night, Captain."
Archer paced in the lift. He was going on the offensive. At dinner, he had invited Tucker and T'Pol over for some cards--T'Pol was interested in games of chance and Monte Carlo theory, and she wanted to learn poker--but Tucker had uncharacteristically begged off, saying he had some stuff to do in his quarters, scotching the game. Archer suspected that Tucker had a date, and he was not above ruining his friend's good time for a chance to get a glimpse of the girl.
His mind raced through several opening gambits, even as he pushed back the persistent thought that maybe he should just honor his friend's desire for privacy. He stood in front of Tucker's door, hesitated, and then, with an exhalation, punched the door chime.
"Yes?" Tucker's voice said a second or two later. He sounded gruff. The sound of a muffled thump came through the comm.
"Trip, it's Jon. Can I come in?"
"Sure, just a second." He heard a kind of rustling sound, abruptly truncated when Tucker cut the comm. About ten seconds later, the door slid open.
"Captain," Tucker said, his voice normal and casual. "What's up?" He was holding a big yellow flimsy in one hand. Had he interrupted Tucker working? Archer checked out the room behind Tucker unobtrusively. Empty. He spotted a single glass of beer on Tucker's desk. Archer felt momentarily guilty.
"Hi, Trip. Got a minute? I was wondering if I could ask you something." He stepped over the threshold as Tucker moved aside.
Tucker's eyes were direct. "Sure." If Tucker was hiding something or expecting someone, he gave no evidence of it.
But--what had that thump been? "Is everything okay? I thought I heard something fall."
"I just knocked something over when I got up to answer the door. Want a beer?"
"Sure, I'd like that." H'm--if Tucker offered him a beer, then he must be alone. Maybe if he hung out for a half hour or so, the girl would show up. It was worth a shot.
"You know where they are. I have a nice variety. Help yourself."
Archer dug through Tucker's little refrigerator, tucked in a corner, and found a dark porter. "Where's your churchkey?"
"Right there. Desk drawer. Do you want a glass?"
Archer pulled the opener out. "No, thanks." He popped open his beer, then pulled up the only other chair in Tucker's quarters. Tucker, glass of beer now in hand, was seated cross-legged in his desk chair, the flimsy in his lap. Tucker's quarters were neat and tidy. When had Tucker become so neat?
Archer sipped his beer, then said, "I wanted to ask you about the installation. I was concerned about the power differential between the new unit and the impulse engines. What's your take on it? Will it be a problem?"
Tucker, face thoughtful, responded. "I put Lieutenant Hess on that. She's not quite done with her simulations, but her preliminary report didn't indicate any problems, no. I really don't think there's a compatibility issue."
"Good. What about the CV array?"
"Oh, now that's a whole 'nother story." Tucker launched into a technical explanation, then paused in midsentence as Archer put up a hand.
"What was that?" He thought he had heard a noise from the bathroom--a kind of thud. Ha! Maybe Tucker had been--entertaining--and his girlfriend was in the bathroom. If so, he was a fast worker; they had left each other after dinner barely fifteen minutes before.
"What was what?"
"I heard a noise."
"From the bathroom," Archer clarified. He set down his beer and headed for the bathroom door. He was just about to open the door when it slid open of its own accord, and he nearly bumped into Malcolm Reed. It was the last person he expected to see.
"Malcolm, what are you doing here?" Archer was surprised.
"I was just fixing Commander Tucker's water-heating system." Archer took in the small toolbox Reed was holding. "Trip, it was just a faulty chip. I replaced it. I don't know why you didn't catch it yourself. It'll be fine now--no more sudden cold showers." He set the chip he was holding down on Tucker's desk.
"Great," Tucker said. "Um, thanks for looking at it for me. Join us for a beer?"
"Certainly, I'd like that. I have a meeting later this evening, however, so I can only stay for a few minutes."
"Have a seat."
Reed sat in Tucker's desk chair and accepted a beer from Tucker. Tucker leaned against his desk in lieu of another chair. Archer found himself having a technical discussion with the two men about the installation. He had drawn the conversation out for about twenty minutes when Reed announced he had to leave to prepare for his meeting. When he keyed the door open, Lieutenant Hess was standing there, finger up to ring the chime. Reed exited with a polite word to her as she handed off a padd to Tucker. "Those simulations you requested," she told him. "The power differential won't be a problem. It's basically good to go in that regard."
"Good," Tucker said. "We were just talking about the installation. Do you want to join us? Stay for a beer?"
"No, thanks." Did Hess's eyes linger on Tucker's face? Archer couldn't tell. They were both being very professional. "I have... other plans this evening."
Tucker raised his eyebrows. There was clearly some subtext here Archer wasn't getting. "Another time. Thanks for running this by."
"No problem. Commander. Captain." Hess turned and stepped over the threshold.
Archer watched the door thoughtfully as it closed behind her. "Pretty girl," he ventured.
"Hess?" Tucker sounded surprised. Hess was definitely not the fluffy type. She wore no makeup and was strong-featured. She was the kind of girl who, if one suggested going dancing, countered with an offer to go rock-climbing instead, no doubt followed by brisk triathlon and a quick, refreshing skydive. "If you say so. Are you--are you interested in her?"
Archer was taken aback. "Me?"
"This is the second time in as many days that you've asked me about her. She's dating Ensign Lowe, though, so you'll have to move fast if you want a chance with her. They're getting serious."
Oh, god. He thought Tucker was interested in Hess; and Tucker thought Archer was interested in Hess. Was this all some clever cover? He was getting confused. "No, I think it would be a bad idea to get involved with someone aboard ship."
"Probably a good policy. There's only eighty-two or eighty-three of us aboard ship, and less than a third are women. The odds are terrible."
Archer sighed. "You got that right."
"You got a game up and didn't call me?" Archer asked Tucker, leaning over the table. A poker game was in progress in the mess hall. "No, don't go," he protested, as Mayweather stood up and offered him his chair.
Mayweather shook his head. "I really have some things I need to do. Please." He said his goodbyes as Archer accepted the seat between T'Pol and Tucker. Mayweather bequeathed Archer his chips; they were just tokens. Gambling wasn't permitted on Enterprise. If you wanted to play for real stakes, you had to sneak around. Well, everyone else had to sneak around; as the captain, he had to set a good example. Gambling was out altogether for him.
Sato was expertly shuffling the cards, the sound ostentatiously loud. T'Pol was sitting across from her, padd in hand, and Reed was between them, to Sato's left.
"I wouldn't call it a game, exactly," Tucker told him. "T'Pol is interested in learning poker, so we're basically playing some exhibition hands and discussing strategy."
"We're all terrible, except T'Pol," Sato told him.
"I find that hard to believe," Archer said. Tucker wasn't a terrible player, when he paid attention.
"T'Pol has the rules right there," Tucker pointed out.
"We could play hearts instead," Sato suggested.
"You always win."
"That's why I want to play."
"No, T'Pol is studying stud poker. Deal, Hoshi."
Sato handed the cards to Tucker. "Cut," she ordered.
Tucker obliged. Archer, fascinated, watched his fingers as they divided the deck in thirds and moved them around, then slid the deck back to Sato.
Sato, dealing, went back to what was obviously a previous topic of conversation. "T'Pol, what is the Vulcan word for 'like,' as in 'palatable'? When someone likes a food?"
T'Pol told her. "It has no other overtones," she went on. "The term is reserved for foods. It does not connote like or desire as much as personal preference."
"Well, many words in English don't connote actual emotion when used in particular ways. For instance, I could say, 'I love biscuits and gravy,' but of course what I mean is that I find them palatable."
"Loving food is simply a metaphorical exaggeration, I have been given to understand," T'Pol responded.
"Just another instance of how humans inject emotion into every aspect of life and language," Sato agreed. There was a brief break as Reed began the betting; he went high. "All right, so 'I like biscuits and gravy' would be, in Vulcan, 'I find biscuits and gravy palatable.' Let me think of another one. 'What a beautiful sunset.' Can you translate that into Vulcan-speak, Captain?"
Archer, taken off guard, raised his eyes from his cards. He had a terrible hand. "Um... 'I find the sunset's colors aesthetically pleasing.'"
"Oh, very good!" Sato applauded. She said it in Vulcan, eyebrows raised, looking at T'Pol for confirmation, and T'Pol nodded. "An exact translation, actually, Captain. Although--is 'beautiful' really an expression of emotion?"
Archer didn't bet when it was his turn; he set his cards face down and said, "Fold." Tucker and Sato folded too. Tucker looked disgusted.
Reed perked up. "Fifteen." He tossed in chips.
T'Pol consulted her padd. "I see your fifteen and raise you ten." She chose chips and carefully placed them in the pot in little stacks.
It was just between the two of them. Reed used a fingertip to push over a single chip. "Call." His British accent drawled out the word.
They displayed their cards. Reed had two pair, T'Pol a flush. Reed gave an exhalation and gestured at the chips, indicating they were his opponent's. T'Pol raked them in, then began methodically sorting them by color. Archer noticed that T'Pol's pile of chips was the biggest.
Reed collected the cards. It was his deal. "Can't we play draw? Or make something wild?"
"No," T'Pol said definitely. Reed sighed theatrically and began shuffling.
"Do you have any questions about that hand?" Tucker inserted.
"What was your reason for folding?"
"Big pile of nothing. How do you say that in Vulcan?" He looked surprised when she told him. "I'll have to remember that--who knows when it will come in handy." He repeated the phrase in Vulcan, then nodded. "Got it. Okay, Hoshi, give us another Vulcan-speak translation thing."
Sato thought a second. "All right, Commander Tucker, here's a stumper for you. How about--'I love you'?" She leaned forward, arms crossed on the table, and smiled at him.
Archer looked at Tucker, then back at Sato. She was holding his eyes. Reed shifted restlessly, then began dealing.
"Um--" Tucker looked taken aback. "Well, let me think."
"Too hard for you?" Sato challenged. "Will another player have to field this translation and win all the points?"
"No, no, the ball's still in play," Tucker said. "Give me a second. 'I love you.' How about--how about 'Your well-being and continued existence are more important to me than my own.'"
Archer watched the interplay between Tucker and Sato. There was a tension there. And the way Tucker smiled at her--yes, they were definitely flirting.
"T'Pol?" Sato deferred to the judge.
T'Pol nodded. "Acceptable. But perhaps another player might try. Commander Tucker's definition may also be defined as duty, rather than love."
"Captain?" Sato was enjoying playing the gamemaster.
"Hey, I already did one!" Archer argued. "I did the sunset one, remember?"
"And the player gets off on an obscure technicality. That leaves just you, Malcolm." Sato turned her attention to the armory officer.
"I really can't think of one."
Reed gave in, setting down the deck of cards and thinking for a moment. "How about this: 'Your existence is required to complete my own.'" He was looking at Tucker. Archer couldn't read the look Tucker gave Reed, and then a moment later, Tucker was laughing at Sato.
"Who wins, T'Pol?"
"It's a draw," T'Pol answered. She fanned her cards, the light shining off their backs. "I believe it's my bet."
The game broke up soon after that, and Archer found himself alone in the lift with Reed. Archer considered for a moment before speaking; Reed and Tucker were friends.
"Does Trip see a lot of Hoshi?" he finally asked.
"What?" Reed seemed surprised.
"That little interplay in there--'translate I love you.' I'm reading into it. I'm just wondering if Trip and Hoshi have anything going on, besides a little flirting."
"Oh. I don't think so, but I don't really know. You'll have to ask him."
No help there. "They make a cute couple."
"Yes, they do," Reed agreed. "Goodnight, sir."
Archer continued down a level, pondering his chief engineer. He was still thinking about Tucker when he drifted off to sleep.
Archer entered the mess with just minutes to spare. He had received a "drop everything and come!" invitation in his morning mail from Lieutenant Hess to a surprise birthday party for Lieutenant Fielding. It looked big: a few crew members were just finishing setting up instruments for a little band, and Cook was yelling at his assistants behind the kitchen's closed doors; they were setting up a buffet. The room smelled great. He was faintly surprised. He hadn't realized Fielding was any big favorite, although he had been promoted fairly recently and took turns with another crew member leading Engineering's second shift, so a lot of people knew him. He personally thought Fielding was kind of a suck-up. But it looked like it was shaping up to be a more than decent party. By the decorations, the pieces that made up the band, and the food, it looked to be a New Orleans theme.
He saw Hess darting around, keeping things in motion. Her long, brown hair was coming down and her cheeks were pink, but she was in complete control. She really was a good organizer. He strolled over when she paused for a moment, hands on hips, surveying her work. "Looks like you've done a lot of work, Lieutenant Hess," he commented.
"You have no idea, Captain," she told him. "Planning this and keeping it a secret from Fielding has been a nightmare. I felt like I was living a double life for the two weeks it's taken me to put this together. Oh, here." She handed him something she took off a tray from a nearby table.
"Oh?" Archer said encouragingly, accepting the small bag. He peeked inside. It was full of sparkly confetti.
"I'd tell Fielding one thing, and then he'd catch me doing another. I was afraid he'd twig to me. I actually had to hide in the cargo bay once to avoid him. Tucker and I missed him by a hair. I'd told him we were installing phase modulators when we were really putting together the decorations. And another time, I had to crawl up into a panel in the ceiling when he trapped me in a conduit when I was supposed to be in stellar cartography. I still can't believe he didn't hear me."
Archer's heart sank. "Really," he said, hoping his disappointment wasn't showing on his face. He was seeing Hess's conversation with Tucker in a whole new light.
"It was kind of fun, actually." Hess reached up and felt her hair. "Oh, damn. Excuse me." She hustled off, pulling pins out, and stepped into the lavatory, presumably to set her hair right.
"Captain," a voice said at his elbow. He turned and said hello to Sato, who held a glass of sparkling grape juice. Sato didn't drink--something about her being unable to metabolize alcohol efficiently. She was holding a teddy bear.
"What have you got there?" Archer asked, pointing. That teddy bear looked familiar.
"Mary Sue sold it to me."
It took Archer a second to remember that Mary Sue was Hess's first name. Hardly anyone called her that. "It looks like it's dressed up in a Starfleet uniform."
"Yes, she's a little captain." Sato displayed it. "Isn't she cute?"
"Adorable," said Archer faintly. The Starfleet uniform was perfect, and there were little captain's pips on the right breast. "I didn't know you were the teddy bear type."
Sato laughed. "Oh, I'm not. It's a gift for my niece. She has aspirations for her own command. She's eight."
"I'm--I'm sure she'll love it. Do any of the bears have weapons?"
"How did you know? Mary Sue has one with a little phase pistol in one hand. And she has one in an environmental suit, with a helmet and lights and everything."
Tucker joined them. He was holding a glass of beer in one hand and a bag of confetti in the other. "Oh, lord, don't tell me Hess got to you, too, Hoshi," he told her. He put an arm around Sato and drew her in, then bent down and lowered his voice. "Let me tell you a little secret. She's overcharging you. We found those teddy bears in a cargo bay."
Sato tucked the teddy bear under her arm. "I don't care. She spent a lot of time making the little outfits." She treated Tucker to a dazzling smile.
Tucker sighed. "I thought she was kidding when she suggested the idea to me." He hadn't removed his arm from Sato. Archer eyed them speculatively. They really did make a cute couple. "Maybe I should buy one. One of the ones with the little gun. To show--I don't know, solidarity."
Sato's eyes sparkled. "I'm sure she'd appreciate the gesture."
A moment later, Hess was clapping her hands to get their attention and make them shut up, someone was handing around confetti, and the band members stepped up to their instruments. Lieutenant Reed and Ensign Mayweather joined them, Tucker dropped his arm and stepped away from Sato, and they all waited expectantly.
They didn't have to wait long. Ensign Baker had been assigned to fetch Fielding for some spurious repair work, and the look on his face when he walked into the room, tool kit in hand, was priceless. The look on his face when he was bombarded with confetti a moment later was even more so. Everyone sang, then applauded. The band swung into a Dixieland piece, Chef's assistants removed the lids from the Cajun food set up along the edge of the room, and the party began.
Tucker danced with Sato, and Hess, and a bunch of other women. Archer gave up trying to keep track. He noticed that Reed wasn't dancing much either, preferring to stand along the sidelines and eat, although he danced with Sato when she asked him. Then he and Tucker had an intense conversation in a corner, no doubt arguing about work again.
Archer sighed. If he were allowed to gamble, he would put his money on Sato or Hess. But if Tucker spent all his time talking to Reed, he would never find out.
He sure made a lousy detective.
Archer strode into sick bay, pulling the makeshift bandage a little tighter around his hand. It was throbbing in time with his heartbeat, but the sharpness of the pain was wearing off. He couldn't believe how stupid he'd been. He'd stuck his hand right into the open panel, and even when the razor-sharp edge had cut the meat of his palm, next to his thumb, he had continued to push it down, deepening the cut. T'Pol had said nothing but "Please apply pressure" as she wrapped it for him with some gauze from a medkit. He still winced as he remembered the feel of the metal biting into his hand. T'Pol was a good nurse, though. That was a Vulcan for you: she didn't exclaim in horror, or run, or say "yuck, look at all that blood." She just pressed his other hand against the wound, found the medkit, and dressed it. She had done something Vulcan to his hand, some kind of pressure with her forefinger and middle finger against his pulse point, that had really helped to slow the bleeding.
He was sure that Doctor Phlox could run a dermal regenerator over it and he would be fine. Where was Doctor Phlox? Sick bay was deserted. He jumped as a creature in a cage right next to him thrashed loudly, banging against its cage. He hesitated a moment, then stepped through the door to the area with the biobeds. Nothing. He retreated back to sick bay proper, discovered that Phlox's office was also empty, and then headed for the exam rooms. Maybe Phlox was with a patient. Or maybe Phlox was out altogether. Phlox had a few med tech assistants, but they weren't around either. Where was everybody?
Once halfway down the short corridor, he saw an exam room door open and heard voices. He headed for it, just about to call out, when he recognized Tucker's voice. "I want to be free to acknowledge our relationship in public," Tucker was saying.
Archer froze, forgetting all about his hand. His heart skipped a beat. At last! At long last! Tucker's secret love! His curiosity was about to be satisfied. Here he had been haunting poor Tucker for days, trying to figure it out, and then the opportunity just dropped in his lap. He couldn't have planned it better. He concentrated on the voices. He was just dying to know why their relationship had to be some big secret.
But the voice he heard next wasn't Hess's, or Sato's. The voice, unexpectedly deep, said, "Do you feel--constrained?"
Tucker's voice was amused. "Hell, yes. What about you?"
"I suppose I do." My god. The masculine tones; that British accent--it could only be one person.
It was Malcolm Reed.
He was so stunned that he missed the next several exchanges. He stepped forward slightly and peered through the door. He saw his chief engineer and his armory officer, arms around each other, gazing into each other's eyes. There was absolutely no doubt. He had not misheard. He had not misunderstood. Tucker and Reed. As he watched, Tucker moved a hand to stroke Reed's face, and one of Reed's hands slid up behind Tucker's head, pulling him down a little. The intensity between them was visceral. They didn't sense him at all; they were too wrapped up in each other. As he watched, Reed turned his face up and kissed Tucker.
Archer could not have moved had his life depended on it. Surprise turned into some emotion he couldn't articulate as he watched the two men kissing. He saw deep affection, and need, and desire. There was a pull between them that he could sense. There was no doubt, no doubt at all, that they were lovers. Tucker and Reed. My god. He had had no idea. No idea at all. No wonder Tucker wasn't saying anything to him. The two of them had never discussed alternative sexualities, inhabiting instead a black-and-white world of heteronormality. Here he was supposed to be one of the people closest to Tucker, and he hadn't known, or even suspected, that he liked men. Or that he had the capacity to like men.
The universe lurched a quarter turn to the right and clicked sickeningly into place. Everything looked different now. He remembered the way Reed had stroked back Tucker's hair in sick bay, the way Tucker and Reed had looked at each other during the Vulcan-speak poker game, the way Tucker and Reed had had an intense discussion in a corner at Fielding's birthday party. He got it now. Boy, did he get it.
He realized he was breathing shallowly through his mouth, but despite this, he must have made some kind of noise, because Tucker's eyes flickered to him. Archer forced himself to not look away, to meet Tucker's gaze directly. He felt as though he had been pole-axed in his midsection. He felt as though he had just run a marathon and couldn't catch his breath. He felt, inexplicably, hurt, as though his best friend had betrayed him. And underneath all this bloomed that other, curious emotion.
Then, surprisingly, Tucker's eyes deliberately dropped his, turning his attention back to Reed, and Tucker pulled back slightly, breaking off his kiss with Reed, looking into his eyes; Reed murmured something soft. Tucker leaned down and drew Reed in again, and suddenly Archer was able to move. Tucker was giving him time. He backed up quietly and returned to sick bay proper. Reed hadn't seen him.
He stood, lost, in the middle of the room, hand forgotten. But Doctor Phlox bustled in a second or two later, and Archer had been right. The dermal regenerator took care of it.
He was shaking slightly as he left sick bay five minutes later, a knot in his midsection. He hadn't been prepared for his feelings. He had held them back, he now realized. He could put a word to it now.
So that's what it was.
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