Swimming Lesson

by Juli

October 2002


*******  The Past  *******

"Malcolm, stop that this instant! You're a Reed and Reed's don't cry... and they love the water!"

Jonathan Archer looked up from where he'd been picking up dirty towels. The woman's exasperated voice carried clearly through the humid air of the enclosed public pool and the young man wanted to see what the fuss was about. A harried-looking mother was carefully mincing her way along the far side of the pool. She had a dark-haired little boy in tow and a baby on her hip, which was at least one child more than she looked like she could handle. As soon as she saw she had an audience, though, she stopped haranguing her son, immediately adopting the national stiff upper lip.

Jonathan had seen a lot of that lately. He'd only been in England for a couple of weeks and had found the people a little more emotionally reserved than what he was used to from growing up in California. Of course, that was what his little junket during the precious summer between high school and college was all about--backpacking across the world and learning about different cultures. He'd pick up odd jobs when finances got low and, most recently, had been acting as an assistant swimming teacher. The main instructor, Yolande Cooper, was a friend of his mom's and was helping him earn enough cash for the fare back home. It wasn't as exciting a job as Jonathan might have wanted, but at least it kept him near the water.

"Jonny, come over here a moment, please."

Jonathan gratefully dropped the dirty towels and loped over to his boss, his gangly and not quite post-adolescent body still full of pent-up energy. His promptness earned him a smile from Yolande and a slight ease in the newcomer's frown.

"Jonny, this is Mary Reed and her son, Malcolm. Malcolm is having a hard time adjusting to the water and I'd like you to spend some one-on-one time with him."

"Ms. Cooper, I hardly think that's necessary...." Mrs. Reed protested. "Malcolm comes from a long line of navy men, both his father and his grandfather were officers of the Royal Navy itself. He's just being stubborn...."

Yolande placed a comforting hand on Mrs. Reed's arm, gently ushering her towards the office. Behind the younger woman's back, she rolled her eyes at Jonathan and grimaced, letting her assistant know just what she thought of the woman's attitude. "Oh, it's nothing unusual, Mrs. Reed. We find a lot of our younger students need personal attention and that's why I asked you to bring Malcolm in outside of class time. I think you'll find that Jonny has a wonderful touch with the youngsters...."

Jonathan smiled as Yolande's voice droned on while she successfully led the agitated parent away. He'd learned a lot about negotiation techniques by watching her deal with parents that could be too intense. Dismissing Mrs. Reed from his mind, he turned his attention down to his young charge. Large gray eyes blinked up at him. "Hey there, my name's Jonny. What's yours?"

The eyes dropped and Jonathan could barely hear the whispered response. "Malcolm." The boy's eyes darted up at him, seeming to assess something, then the child made a tentative addition. "Sir?"

The older boy laughed. "You don't have to call me sir, just Jonny will do." The teen hunkered down to be more at the youngster's eye level. "How old are you? A big fella like you, I bet you're at least seven." The kid's plaid boxer-type swim trunks looked ready to fall off his skinny frame at any moment.

"No, I'm five." This time, the voice was a bit more confident due to knowing something the Big Kid didn't.

Jonathan hid his surprise with a smile. Based on his slight height, he'd thought the boy was actually a bit younger than five. "Ms. Cooper, she said that you were having a hard time getting used to the water?"

The young man lost all the momentum he'd been gaining with his student. The child ducked his head, but not before Jonathan saw those big gray eyes fill with tears. The American felt faintly queasy at the reaction, like he'd just kicked a dog. "Hey, that's all right… lots of people don't like the water at first."

Malcolm rubbed at his eyes, still refusing to look at Jonathan. "But I'm a Reed," the distraught child whispered. "Reeds are supposed to like the water."

Jonathan considered. "I tell you what... today you're not a Reed." That startling suggestion got his young charge looking at him again. "Today, we'll call you something else and then it won't matter how you feel about the water, because you won't be a Reed. Does that sound okay?"

"I guess so..." The five year-old didn't seem as sure of Jonathan's logic but wasn't bold enough to protest.

"I know," Jonathan made of show of thinking of something suitable. "How about we call you Stinky?" He'd tried to come up with something silly, hoping to get the little boy's mind off his fear.

"Stinky?" The word was said with a giggle. "That's not a boy's name!"

Jonathan grinned. "No it's not, but it's not a Reed name either, is it?" Considering how prissy the mother had been, the young man figured that was a pretty good bet.

"Stinky," Malcolm giggled again. "I like it."

"Good." Jonathan said in his most matter-of-fact manner, picked up from the way he'd seen his dad address the Vulcans. Moving confidently, he turned to a nearby shelving unit and picked up a life vest that looked like it would fit his young student. "Here you go. Let's get you suited up and then we can give the pool a try."

Malcolm, a.k.a. Stinky, looked at the bright red vest askance. "But those are for outside, with boats. Or for babies."

"No, they're not." Jonathan said firmly, then lied through his teeth to the little boy. "Where I come from, everybody uses these."

"Really?"

"Really," he said. "Now, let's get this on you." Within a few moments, Jonathan had the child clad in the safety vest and sitting, albeit reluctantly, on the side of the pool. The American jumped carefully in himself, mindful that he didn't unnecessarily splash the youngster. The water came almost to Jonathan's waist and was pleasantly warm.

"Okay, now it's your turn." Jonathan turned towards Malcolm and held out his arms. "I won't let go, I promise."

The child's gaze was fixed firmly on the water and he refused to even look at the teenager. "But it's too deep."

"No, it's not." Jonathan waded through the water until he was right at the edge. He held out his arms again and, this time, Malcolm hesitantly went to him. As soon as the American stepped away from the edge, however, the boy's thin little arms went firmly around Jonathan's neck, nearly throttling him in a strangle hold. Jonathan ignored the choking sensation and stood calmly, letting the frightened little boy get used to the feel of his toes dangling in the water. "There, that's not so bad, is it?"

"Nooooo," the child admitted slowly, looking down intently and then tilting his head to look into Jonathan's face. "But I think it wants to sneak up on me."

"Well, we won't let it," Jonathan assured him, then moved an inch or two deeper. Malcolm hid his face in the older boy's neck but soon was peeking out again, his trust evident.

Having gained a rapport with the boy, Jonathan was able to ease some of Malcolm's fear. By the time their hour was over, the child was splashing happily at the water from the safety of Jonathan's arms, enjoying the loud sounds and wet explosions he could make by slapping his hand against the water. Greatly daring, he even allowed the American to quickly duck their heads under its surface without so much as a whimper.

It was hard to say who was more disappointed when their allotted time was up, Jonathan or Malcolm. Eventually, however, Mrs. Reed showed up to claim her child and was surprised to see him quite content. Seeing the mother's arrival, Jonathan delivered the five-year-old back safely to the edge of the pool, grinning at the spirited way in which the little boy eagerly ran to give his mother a report.

"Mum, guess what, guess what!"

"Shhh, Malcolm, we don't yell in public." The woman looked vaguely embarrassed at her offspring's enthusiasm.

Jonathan frowned as he heard his new little friend so abruptly hushed but then laughed softly as he heard a comment drift back as Malcolm was led away towards the locker room.

"But, Mum, you have to call me Stinky now...."

A warm hand landed on his shoulder. "I was right, you do have a magic touch with the youngsters." Yolande was looking at him fondly. "Are you sure you have to back to the States next week?"

Jonathan considered it. As rewarding as working with the children had been, he knew it wasn't his life's ambition. "Yeah, I'm sure."

"Well, it's our loss," Yolande said by way of a compliment. She didn't bother to try and persuade him further, knowing how futile it was.

Jonathan thought again of his session with little Malcolm and admitted that a part of him would miss working with the kids. Most of him, however, was looking forward to pursuing his dream, the one he'd inherited from his father. The stars were out there, waiting for him, all he had to do was reach out his hand and take them…

Shaking his head at his own arrogance, Jonathan went back to picking up dirty towels after Yolande went back to her office. Yeah, the stars were out there waiting for him, galaxies full of them, but this hadn't been so bad either. Heck, if he'd done his job right today, little Malcolm Reed might find his own destiny, following his father's footsteps and joining the navy.

Jonathan could only hope.

 

*******  The Present  *******

"Sir, I don't think this is a good idea."

"Lieutenant, it's doctor's orders," Archer responded, blithely ignoring the tense tone in his armory officer's voice. "Now that the holes in your leg have healed, swimming's the best therapy for building your muscle tone back up."

"I was doing fine with the exercise equipment on the Enterprise, sir." Malcolm disagreed. The Englishman's eyes were riveted on the lake. "This is hardly necessary."

"Sorry, Malcolm but I don't concur," Jonathan said firmly. "I need my head of security back in fighting form and, if Phlox says that swimming will help, then swimming it will be."

The two men were at the shore of an isolated lake. It was located on a lovely Minshara class planet and, according to their scans, there were no other creatures larger than a fig present for kilometers. Between their encounter with the Romulans, the damage to the ship, and the unexpected difficulty getting repairs done, the crew was ready for a break. Phlox's comment that it was unfortunate that there wasn't a swimming pool on the Enterprise because it would have been the ideal form of physical therapy for the wounded lieutenant had been the excuse Jonathan needed. With the blessing of Admiral Forrester, they'd found an uninhabited planet and, once they'd assessed that it had no natural hazards, Archer had begun sending shifts of crew members down for rest and relaxation.

Malcolm Reed was the only person onboard who'd been unhappy about it.

"If you say so, sir," Reed capitulated tightly. "Still, you needn't ruin your shore leave just to baby sit me. I'll be fine, sir."

Archer dropped the pack he'd been carrying, whistling at a lagging Porthos. "I'm not babysitting, Malcolm. Going swimming isn't exactly a hardship for me." After ruffling his dog's ears, Jonathan quickly toed off his shoes and began removing his clothing. "Besides, swimming alone is not a good idea, even on a planet we're familiar with." He stared at the younger man, as if it to say that Reed knew that basic safety fact as well as the captain did. He continued in a softer tone of voice, "Considering our conversation out there on the hull, I thought it might be easier for you if there were just the two of us for this outing. And since you've reminded me that we're on shore leave, no calling me sir. Not 'til we're back on duty."

Malcolm blushed and sat on a large boulder to untie his shoes. As much as he hated to admit it, his leg wasn't strong enough to support him while doing the simple task. By the time the armory officer finished, Jonathan had removed his t-shirt and shorts, revealing the bright blue swimsuit that was decidedly smaller than standard Starfleet issue.

Archer grinned at him. "Last one in's a rotten egg." Leaving the younger officer to finish undressing, the captain approached the water.

Malcolm watched the older man walk away from him, enjoying looking at the play of muscles as Jonathan walked. Once Archer started going in, however, Reed spent as much time disrobing as he could. Each garment was precisely folded and stacked neatly. He'd only had the Starfleet swimsuit, which was black and covered a little more skin that the one that his commanding officer had chosen to wear. Still, Reed felt unusually naked as he finally gave up his pointless delaying tactics and turned to face the water.

It was safe, he told himself. The captain had made a point of showing him T'Pol's scans of the body of water. No predatory life forms, no poisonous substances, and the waves were calm and gentle.

He hadn't seen anything nearly so terrifying since they'd left Earth.

Forcing himself to move, Malcolm approached the water, stopping just short of where it lapped up against the light blue sand. He scrunched his toes into the colorful grains, relishing this last feel he would have of solid ground.

"It's okay, Malcolm," Jonathan said. "I'm right here."

Embarrassed, Reed looked up, surprised to see the captain just a few feet away. Archer must have noticed his difficulty and abandoned playing with Porthos in order to reassure him. Squaring his shoulders, the Englishman resolutely waded into the lake. He was mortified at just how much the warm presence of his captain steadied his nerves, although his sense of the absurd was tickled by the way Porthos proceeded them, making their little procession seem almost like a parade. Moving so quickly that he didn't have time to think about what he was doing, Reed got to an appropriate depth and started to swim, being careful to keep parallel to the shore.

"Hey, you're pretty good at this." Archer was swimming near him. Far enough away so their movements didn't hamper one another, but easily within talking distance.

"I can do it," Malcolm said between strokes, "I just don't like it."

"You're doing fine."

And Malcolm was… until a cramp hit.

"Aaargh," the lieutenant cried out, the pain breaking his concentration. Immediately, his head went under and the Englishman flailed, his panic at being surrounded by the hated water momentarily overcoming him. Before anything more direr than that could happen, however, strong arms went around him and Malcolm found himself being supported.

"You okay?"

Malcolm blinked water out of his eyes to see Jonathan's concerned face just inches from his. "Other than feeling like an idiot, yes." He could feel the captain's powerful legs treading water, keeping both of them afloat. Porthos circled the men, dogpaddling for all he was worth.

Archer shook his head, denying his officer's claim of stupidity. "I should have thought of that. You're leg's still healing; it would be a surprise if it didn't cramp. Getting shot by Novans and now getting skewered by a mine, I'm getting worried about this leg fetish of yours." One arm wrapped underneath Reed's and the American started towing him to shore. "Hang on."

"Like I could do anything else at the moment," Malcolm muttered, thoroughly humiliated.

Jonathan got them both back to shore and insisted on helping Malcolm get out of the water. Sitting the injured man down against a rock, Archer started kneading the cramped flesh of Reed's wounded leg. "There. That better?"

Malcolm had been thinking of deep water… of sinking down, down, down without hope of touching bottom… of opening his mouth to breathe, only to choke on salty liquid… anything and everything he could think of to keep his mind distracted from the way the older man was touching him and the tingling sensation it caused. "Hmmm… what? Oh, yes, right. I'm fine, thanks."

Archer sat back on his heels, looking at the tactical officer. He was bothered by the way that Reed wouldn't look back at him. Had he undone all the trust that had built during their bonding session while they disarmed the mine?

Malcolm eventually sighed and looked up, struggling to rise. Jonathan sprang to his feet and helped him, ogling in surprise as Reed headed back towards the lake. "Malcolm, what are you doing?"

"We just had crystal clear proof that Dr. Phlox was right, my leg does need to get stronger. I'm going for a swim."

Jonathan stopped the younger man by grabbing his shoulder. "Wait a minute, you just had a cramp and it's a fair bet if you go back in right now, you'll have another."

"I have to," Malcolm insisted, almost desperately. It was bad enough that Jonathan Archer of all people had to know of his fear. He had to prove to his captain that he could work past it. "I'm a Reed. I can face a little water."

Archer paused. Why did the way Malcolm worded that sound familiar?

"Okay, but not this very minute," Jonathan fought to find a compromise. "How about we rest a minute and then you can try again?"

Malcolm was reluctant. It was because he dreaded to go back into the water again that it was imperative that he do so… and quickly. "But, sir…."

"You don't have to prove anything to me, Malcolm," Archer reassured him, putting his arm around the other man's waist when he saw he was limping. "I already know you're braver than is good for you." The captain's voice took on a mock scolding tone. "And no calling me sir, this is shore leave."

Reed let his companion help him back to his rock. He was enjoying the feel of the larger man's body against his more than was proper, but he couldn't seem to help it. Even though his swimming suit covered slightly more than Archer's, it still didn't leave a lot to the imagination. He could only hope that if his physical reaction was noticed, that it was chalked up to being wet. The adrenalin from the incident with the cramp was fading and Malcolm found himself getting sleepy. The sunshine felt good and he relaxed into the caress of the warm rays.

"Malcolm, I don't mean to pry, but did your family ever try to get you help for your fear of water?" Jonathan had plopped himself down by Reed and tried to ask his question casually. Giving the younger man emotional distance, he didn't look at Malcolm while he asked. Instead, he threw Porthos a stick and was seemingly engrossed in watching the beagle run to fetch it.

Reed's immediate response was a bitter chuckle. "To seek help for me would have been admitting there was a problem. We Reeds are a stoic lot, admitting personal deficiencies has never been a family trait. One simply learned to cope."

Jonathan remembered his own childhood and how supported he'd always been while growing up. True, he'd chosen to follow in his father's footsteps, but he knew he would have received every bit as much parental approval had he chosen any other career path. Compared to the Reed stoicism, he realized how lucky he'd been. "Sounds lonely."

Malcolm shrugged. "It wasn't as bad as all that. There was this one teacher… it was actually an assistant of hers that got me into the water the first time, but even after he left, she worked with me a lot. Eventually she even managed to teach me to swim despite my fear." The Englishman shook his head at the memories. "In fact, she was a mentor in more ways than one. It was Ms. Cooper that eventually got me to realize that going into the Royal Navy wasn't the only path open to me."

"Cooper? Yolande Cooper?" Archer's voice was surprised.

Reed was equally startled to realize his captain knew his old teacher's first name. "Yes, do you know her?"

The two men looked at each other. Jonathan's memory had already been pricked by the wording Malcolm had used about being a Reed and had been further spurred by the oddly familiar action of coaxing a reluctant swimmer into the water. As for Malcolm, he'd felt utterly safe in Jonathan's arms after the captain had rescued him from the leg cramp. There was only one other time in his life that he remembered feeling so secure while in the water….

The Starfleet officers made the same leap in logic at the roughly the same time.

"Stinky?"

"Jonny?"

Looks of amazement gave way to disbelieving laughter. Porthos, upon hearing their amusement, came bounding up from the beach, his stick forgotten as he added his barking to the noise.

Jonathan recovered first. "I don't believe it. Here I was hoping I'd cured you enough so that you could join the navy like your father and grandfather."

Malcolm's smile faded. "No, I'm afraid not. Although my mother was rather impressed that a brash American could make so much progress with me, I was destined to disappoint her and Father both."

Archer regretted his hasty remark, especially when he saw the self-loathing in Malcolm's eyes. "None of that. A phobia is not something that can always be overcome. It's not your fault."

Reed sighed, not entirely in agreement but not willing to ruin the happy memories by arguing. "I hope this doesn't mean you'll call me Stinky when we get back," he quipped in an attempt to change the subject, "You might ruin my authority with the rest of the armory staff."

Jonathan chuckled. He couldn't always tell when Malcolm was joking but this time it was pretty obvious. "Well, I don't know about that. Now that I remember our first meeting, it'll be pretty hard to stick to plain old lieutenant." He shook his head fondly. "You were cute as a bug's ear when you were a kid."

Malcolm looked appalled. "Captain, you wouldn't…."

"No, I wouldn't," Archer admitted. "But it is tempting, especially when you won't spend as much time in sickbay as Phlox says you ought."

Reed looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Am I being threatened with blackmail if I don't cooperate with the doctor?"

"Maybe…." Was all Jonathan would say.

The Englishman rolled his eyes. "Brilliant, bloody brilliant. My captain knows me from when I was a lad just out of his nappies and thinks I'm cute as a bug's ear. There goes all my hard-earned respect."

"I don't still think you're cute," Jonathan said absently. "Actually, the word I'd use for you now would be gorgeous, especially in that swimming suit."

The silence that descended over the two men was complete enough to make the sound of the waves gently lapping against the beach seem deafeningly loud.

"Did I just call you gorgeous?" Jonathan asked carefully, scrubbing his face with his hands.

"Yes, you did," Malcolm answered him faintly.

"Oops." Archer said, then turned to speak to the younger man earnestly. "It's not that I don't think it, just that I didn't mean to say it out loud. I had hopes before, but after our conversation out on the hull, I know you don't believe in socializing with your superior officers."

Malcolm looked at him, a lifetime of being a Reed struggling with the reality of the man sitting next to him. It was no contest.

"Socializing with a superior officer, no," Reed said softly. When Jonathan turned away in disappointment, he clarified his comment. "Being in love with one is an entirely different matter."

Jonathan's face lit up like a kid at Christmas. Leaning in slowly, he bestowed a chaste kiss on Malcolm's lips. When they parted, the Englishman reached up and gently cupped the older man's face.

"Can we take this slowly, Jonathan?" Reed asked. "You know how I feel about drowning, I want to make sure I can keep my head above water."

"Not a problem," Archer said happily. The captain situated himself comfortably against the sun-warmed rock, pulling Malcolm in close and tucking him against his side. "Like I told you years ago, it takes some people longer to get used to the water."

Exhausted both from the strain of a healing body and the revelation that Jonathan Archer was attracted to him, Malcolm nodded off into a light doze. The lieutenant's dark head was pillowed on Jonathan's chest and Archer lovingly rubbed lazy circles onto the smaller man's back.

Still wide-awake, the American contemplated what had just happened. He was the type of man who preferred to jump right into the water and relationships alike but had known from the first that Malcolm Reed was an entirely different sort. After that awkward breakfast and then finding out how Malcolm felt about interacting with superior officers, he'd almost given up hope. Most of the reason for this outing had been the physical therapy and not wanting to reveal Malcolm's secret fear to anyone else, but part of it had been for Jonathan, too. It had been a legitimate excuse to be with the other man in an off-duty setting, one that required a satisfying lack of clothing, and he'd snatched at it. He'd never thought that it would turn out the way it had, but Jonathan wasn't disappointed.

If Malcolm needed to get used to their relationship in stages, much like those who waded into a pool slowly to get used to the temperature of the water, then that's what they'd do.

But, damn, if he wasn't happy that Malcolm Reed had finally gotten his toes wet.

 ~the end~  

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