A Fine Mess
If I ever let myself be promoted to captain, I hope someone does me a big favor and just shoots me first. I know that sounds a little drastic, but compared to the expression that Johnny’s got on his face, it’s gotta be a heck of a lot less painful.
I was glad that it was only me and Archer in the officer’s mess. That way, we could be John and Trip and not Captain and Chief Engineer. I’d been Johnny’s friend for a long time now and I knew that’s what the man needed at the moment -- a friend and not a subordinate.
“So, what’s the verdict?” I asked, careful to keep a nonchalant tone. “Malcolm gonna be all right?”
Johnny sighed and gave up his futile poking at his dinner. “Yeah. His fever broke yesterday and Plox released him from the infirmary this morning.”
And, I added to myself silently, you’ll be kickin’ yourself about this for months. “He was just doin’ his job, you know.”
Johnny gave me a hard look. “I know that, Trip, but doing his job doesn’t automatically mean that it’s okay if Malcolm gets hurt.”
I snorted, not at all impressed. “Hell, Johnny, ‘tactical’ is just a fancy word for security and any security officer worth his salt would put the welfare of the ship’s captain before his own.”
I saw Johnny’s jaw tighten and wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when he disagreed with me. “It’s no one’s *job* to get hurt. Not on my ship.” “Course not, but it happens... even on your ship.” By the slump in the older man’s shoulders, I knew that he was aware of the truth of my statement, although obviously he didn’t like it one little bit. “You’re our captain, John, not our daddy. You can’t protect us from everything that’s gonna come down the pike.”
“I know, I know,” Archer growled in frustration, picking up his fork and attacking his salad with a vengeance. “And the last thing I want anyone on the Enterprise thinking is that I’m their father... especially Malcolm.”
It wasn’t so much Johnny’s words that gave him away as it was his expression, opening up a whole new perspective on his recent moping.
“WhooHOO! Now I get it!” I crowed. “The long face you’ve been sportin’ isn’t just because one of your crew was hurt – it was ‘cause *Malcolm* was the one injured. You dog – you fancy the lieutenant.”
I ignored the warning in Johnny’s voice, knowing that it was an indicator that I’d hit the nail squarely on the head. “I shoulda seen it earlier, but Reed isn’t your usual type. As I recall, you like ‘em a little more lively and ol’ Malcolm’s real quiet. All that British reserve of his, I suppose.”
“That’s it!” I snapped my fingers as something occurred to me, blithely ignoring the way Johnny’s neck was getting red. I hadn’t forgotten, after all, the way my old friend had fairly snickered when I’d found myself in a very embarrassing “family” way. “It’s the accent, idn’t it? A fella starts talkin’ all foreign-like an’ you just start to drool...”
“Remember that bar in Brisbane? The folk singer performin’ there? He said one ‘G’day, mates’ to the audience and I thought your tongue was gonna hit the floor...”
“Trip!” Johnny glared at me. “I don’t want to talk about this and I certainly don’t want to talk about the folk singer in Brisbane.”
I leaned back in my chair, not at all phased by my friend’s apparent anger. Captain Archer’s wrath was impressive and to be avoided, but we were just Trip and John at the moment. I knew full well that the blustering Johnny was doing was a cover-up. I may prefer the opposite sex myself, but I’d been Johnny’s friend long enough to know his preferences and by all the indicating signs, he had it bad.
“Sure thing, Johnny,” I said easily, dismissing our topic of conversation with a wave of my hand. “You don’t want to talk about it, then we won’t.”
John gave me a suspicious look. “You’re willing to drop it? Just like that?”
“Just like that,” I assured him, giving him the innocent look I’d practiced all through childhood.
Unfortunately, Johnny didn’t buy it any more than my momma ever had.
“Oh, no, Trip,” he said, laying down his fork and anxiously striving for eye contact. “You are *not* talking to Malcolm about this.”
“Why not?” I countered. “You’re the captain, you can’t exactly approach someone under your command about startin’ a relationship. An’ don’t even tell me it’s up to Reed to make the first move, he’s so cautious that T’Pol will be doing stand-up comedy in Vegas before he does. Me, on the other hand, there’s nothing in the regs ‘bout a friend putting a bug in the lieutenant’s ear on your behalf.”
Johnny pushed his plate aside and leaned forward, looking like what he *really* wanted to do was grab me and give a good shake. “I changed my mind, Trip. I *do* want to talk about the folk singer in Brisbane.”
“That wasn’t my fault...” I started to protest.
“Then whose fault was it? As I remember, I told you that I didn’t want to approach the man, but you went up to him after his set was over anyway and told him that your friend thought he was cute. Then you were kind enough to point me out.”
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I offered, having the feeling that my grin was every bit as sickly and forced-looking as my voice sounded.
“Easy for you to say,” Johnny retorted, “”you weren’t the one that had a bar stool busted over his head.”
“How was I supposed to know that his roadie was also his girlfriend?” I couldn’t help but sulk a little. One bar stool over the head and you never heard the end of it.
“The point is, Trip, that the stakes are much higher here.” For a minute, Johnny was fully Captain Archer. It was just a flash, though, and then it was Johnny’s lonely eyes looking at me sheepishly. “There aren’t any bar stools on Enterprise but, still, no talking to Malcolm about having a relationship with me. Understand?”
“Okay,” I reluctantly agreed, “No talking to Malcolm about initiating a romance with you.”
“Good,” Johnny said as he got up to leave. “Thanks.”
Something about the conversation made my appetite wane and I got up and left too. Over the course of my day, I managed to put it out of my mind and concentrate on my work. It wasn’t hard to do, really. The Enterprise is one hell of a lady, but the ship’s design is so new, sometimes I think I’m writing the owner’s manual as I go along.
This time when I entered mess hall, I was too tired to bother with the semi-private officer’s section. Instead, I loaded my tray, intending to eat quickly before crashing in my quarters. A figure sitting alone caught my eye, though. As soon as I saw Malcolm Reed, my earlier conversation with Johnny came rushing back. With a guy like Reed, it was kind of hard to tell, but danged if he didn’t look almost as miserable as Johnny had earlier.
“How you feelin’, Lieutenant?” I asked as I plopped myself across from him. Reed didn’t look physically much the worse for wear, although, with him, it was hard to tell. Only T’Pol was harder for me to read, but then, considering that Johnny obviously thought a lot of the man, perhaps I just wasn’t looking deep enough.
“Well enough, considering,” Was his characteristically terse reply. “I’m hoping that Dr. Phlox will be persuaded to let me return to duty tomorrow.”
“I wouldn’t hold your breath if I were you,” I advised. “Doctors are notorious for not letting a body get back to work soon enough.” I tried to study my dinner companion surreptitiously but evidently I wasn’t sneaky enough.
“No, no, and yes.”
The lieutenant’s comment came out of nowhere and I looked at the Englishman like he’d grown another head. “Excuse me?”
Reed put his cup down and, with the air of a man who has repeated something ad nauseam, recited, “No, I didn’t seen any Novans sans mud. No, they weren’t really any more pleasant one-on-one than they had been as a group. And, yes, their foodstuffs really were as unpalatable as they sound.”
I laughed, well acquainted with the voraciousness of the crew’s curiosity after an encounter with a new life form. That the Novans had been human made them all that much more interesting, considering the decades’ long mystery of the colony’s disappearance. Using Reed’s assumption as a segway, I broached the topic I’d been considering since I sat.
After all, I reassured myself, I’d only promised Johnny that I wouldn’t talk to Malcolm about the possibility of them maybe starting a relationship, not that I wouldn’t talk about Johnny at all.
“Well, we’re all glad that you’re okay,” I started out, “The cap’n, he was mighty determined to get you back. Had us all jumpin’ hoops ‘til we figured out where the Novans were keepin’ you and what the best way was to get you back.”
Reed suddenly started messing with his tea bag and I stifled a snicker. Yup, Malcolm was interested in Johnny all right, all it was gonna take was a few nudges in the right direction.
“I assure you, I was very gratified to see him walk back into the catacombs... both times.”
Even for Malcolm, I’m betting that was one heck of an understatement.
“The cap’n’s like that,” I said. “No way in hell is he gonna leave a member of his crew behind. Not bothering to wait for Reed’s reply, I launched into a story from my earliest days as Archer’s friend. “I remember this one assignment. Starfleet hadn’t been around but half a dozen years or so and a lot of the protocols on a ship in distress hadn’t been tested yet. Johnny and I were on what was supposed to be a quick lunar trip, a milk run, really...” In as glowing terms as I could think of, I described how our ship had run into massive technical failure, how we only had one functioning life support unit for the two of us, and how Johnny’d insisted that I be the one to suit up in it since he was the ranking officer. Never mind that we got the blasted ship fixed and it didn’t come down to that, it was the offered sacrifice that counted. It was only the first time that Johnny had saved my life and I made the most of my descriptions.
“Then there was that time that my EV pack froze up on Titan. I had nitrogen narcosis and, if Johnny hadn’t ordered me to keep my helmet on, I would have died then and there....”
Reed was mostly silent during my recital of Jonathan Archer’s greatest moments, only murmuring the occasional comment when my throat dried out enough to make me stop to take a sip of my ice tea. Maybe it was his quiet encouragement or maybe I just didn’t know when to quit, but I found myself going back to Johnny’s days as a member of his college water polo team. Yeah, it was overkill, but if getting Malcolm to picture Johnny in a bathing suit couldn’t get him to get off the fence and pounce Archer, then I didn’t know what would.
When I finally wound down and was in the process of taking a large gulp of my drink, Malcolm just looked at me and asked, “Tell me, Commander, do you pimp for the captain often?”
By the time I had reassured the other diners in the mess that I wasn’t in fact choking to death, Reed had managed to clean the ice tea I’d spit out in reaction to his comment off his face and was regarding me calmly. Or, at least, I thought he was calm.
When we were alone at the table again, I leaned forward to ask the other man what the hell he’d been thinking and I got a good look in his eyes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve respected Malcolm Reed from the beginning. I wasn’t all that familiar with his work, but I knew Johnny too well to doubt that any single member on the Enterprise wasn’t the absolute best at their job. But still, like a lot of the crew, I’d been a little... uncomfortable... that our chief tactical officer was kind of a little guy. It was stereotypical and beneath us, but we’d all heard about the Klingons that sharpened their teeth before battle and a big bruiser of a security officer would have been damn reassuring. In fact, Travis Mayweather had a pool going about what would happen if Reed ever had to take on a Klingon in unarmed combat. As a senior officer, I’d been careful not to voice any opinion and had never placed a bet myself. Now I was glad I hadn’t.
I’d known Reed as competent and a dedicated officer, but looking into his eyes, I realized for the first time that he was a dangerous man too.
“I don’t pimp for anybody,” I said carefully. “Jonathan Archer’s my friend as well as my captain. I was just sharing some of my experiences with him, that’s all. In case you were interested.”
“Ah, well then, thank you for the dining entertainment,” Reed said, making movements like he was getting ready to leave.
“Wait a minute,” I said, grabbing his wrist in order to keep him at the table. “I’d be obliged if you didn’t mention this to the cap’n.”
“Really?” Reed’s forehead wrinkled minutely as he considered my request. “Why not?”
“Well,” I squirmed in my seat. “Hypothetically, now, *if* the captain were interested in someone romantically, he’d have to let the other person make the first move. Otherwise, it could be viewed as sexual harassment.”
“And couldn’t having a friend do the approaching be considered in the same manner?” Malcolm’s tone was cool and I realized I had to own up to what I’d done. I guess I didn’t blame the lieutenant; you’d like to think that if someone found you attractive, they’d approach you personally instead of sending a third party. Johnny shouldn’t get blamed for my screw up.
“Hypothetically, yes,” I admitted, “but not if the captain already warned the friend not to say anything. For that very reason,” I quickly added, just in case it was a flicker of uncertainty that I’d caught in the younger man’s gaze. “So there’d be no question of harassment, not ‘cause he’s not interested. ‘Cause he is. Hypothetically, that is.”
“Hypothetically...” Malcolm’s voice trailed off as he considered, then he gave me a smile. An actual smile, not the usual twist of the lips that passed for one on his face. “I think I understand, Commander. Thank you.”
He nodded at me and I let him go this time, satisfied that even if my ploy had been discovered, that I hadn’t actually made things worse.
Finishing up my own meal, I hastened out of the room. It was time to find Mayweather -- I suddenly found myself in a betting mood. Judging from what I’d seen in Reed’s eyes tonight, I actually pitied that Klingon that crossed the Englishman’s path.
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