Written for: the_moonmoth
Status: WIP Part 1 of 2
Summary: Love and loss... and finding their way back home
Warning: AU, reference to character deaths
For full notes, spoiler information and disclaimers, please see introductory Zero post.
This Time by Mareel
Personal Log -- Malcolm Reed (14.02.2153)
I've lost him... again. He promised he was coming back. Not like Jon at... at Azati Prime. He knew he wasn't going to be back when he kissed me... and wouldn't say anything. Jonathan said he had no intention of dying on that weapon. I don't know whether he was trying to reassure me... or if he really believed he'd make it out. I want to believe the latter. But either way, I've lost him... again. And this time... it was me who never told him.
Part 1: Six weeks earlier, near Azati Prime
I wasn't sure what to expect when I led Acting Captain T'Pol and a security team through debris-filled corridors to the docking port. A small vessel of Xindi design, reading one life-sign, had just been brought aboard Enterprise. Having just barely survived a brutal attack by Xindi Reptilians, my suspicions were running rampant. This could well be a weapon, or perhaps carrying a Xindi on a suicide mission.
Circling the vessel, thinking that it resembled nothing so much as a coffin, I scanned it for possible detonation circuitry. I didn't find any of that, but I did locate a mechanism for opening the thing. When the top was lifted, I quickly glanced into it, my eyes drawn immediately to the battered face of the man it contained. I know my breath caught when I saw that he was breathing, and I didn't even try to bite back my first response.
"That bloody bastard lied to us! He told us the Captain was dead."
As soon as I could get repair teams organized for critical systems in the Armoury and at the tactical station, I hurried to sickbay to check on how Jon was recovering from what must have been an ordeal on Azati Prime. When I didn't see him on any of the biobeds, I cornered Phlox, who told me he'd sent him to his quarters to rest and recuperate, with sickbay visibly overflowing with the critically injured. He asked if I would do him the favour of checking on the Captain, making sure he was resting comfortably.
"His injuries were serious but not life-threatening... several broken ribs, a bruised kidney, multiple head and facial contusions, and some disorientation. I don't believe he is suffering from a concussion, however. My scans don't show any evidence of it and I managed to keep him here long enough to observe him well enough, but he does seem to have some memory loss around the time of the incident. Not unexpected, given the torture chamber he described to me and the treatment he received at the hands of his captors.
"Please stay with him as long as you can, Lieutenant. He is more than likely going to want to be up and about the ship, but he'll be no help to anyone until he regains some strength. One can't even walk through most of the corridors without lifting debris out of the way. But I practically had to order him onto 24 hours medical leave. Hmmm... that he didn't argue more about it than he did told me that he most certainly needed it."
Personal Log: Jonathan Archer
I never expected to be here making another log entry. I was certain that was going to be a one-way trip to Azati Prime. Now I feel nearly as helpless as when I was a prisoner of the Xindi. Phlox tells me I'm lucky to be alive. Goddamn it, why the hell should I be when at least fourteen of my people are dead... Enterprise damn near crippled... defenseless. And the goddamned weapon is still out there.
Damage is extensive... everywhere. I should be out there assisting with repairs, not sitting here nursing a few minor injuries. Phlox managed to take the edge off the physical pain, but the drugs don't do a damn thing for the rest of how I'm feeling right now.
I should be glad I got out of that torture chamber alive, or at least grateful that Degra, with his Arboreal counterpart, intervened with Dolim and agreed to take it up with the Council. I guess Daniels would consider my trip to Azati Prime a success. But right now, I can't see it that way. I just feel numb.
I don't know what else to say right now. End personal log.
I let myself into his quarters. I thought he might be sleeping, and didn't want to disturb him. He'd given me the door codes some time ago, though I usually still pressed the door chime before entering, simply as a courtesy.
He sounded surprised to see me; perhaps he thought I'd be too busy with repairs to come here tonight, though he should know me better than that. He was sitting on the bed, propped up against his pillows, PADD in hand; his voice was quiet but not sleepy. I'm sure I smiled at him, so glad to simply hear his voice again, after everything that had happened. Before I could tell him so, he continued.
"I didn't hear the chime. Maybe I was drowsing a bit. Phlox did say I needed to rest, but... needed to get through these damage reports."
He glanced down at the PADD in his hands, then looked up at me again.
"Did you come to bring me an update?"
It seemed to me that all of that could wait until after we'd had a proper reunion.
I crossed the few steps to the bed and sat down on the edge of it beside him. Mindful of his bruises, I reached up and draw his head closer to mine. Without a word, I simply kissed him softly.
He was returning the kiss. I felt it... for a moment... before he pulled his head back sharply and looked at me like he'd just done something unthinkable, or I had.
The question was in his eyes as well as on his lips. His next words were soft, hesitant... almost as if he wasn't sure if he was awake or dreaming.
"... am awake, didn't fall asleep. But then, why the hell... Malcolm?"
"Jon? What's wrong... did I hurt you? So bruised..." I looked up to meet his eyes. "I know you're supposed to be resting. But I'm off shift, too... and after the last attack we did agree that, since I spend so little time there, my quarters could be used to house displaced crew until repairs are completed... though now it will take even longer... "
"Wait... you spend so little time there? Then where do you..."
Now he was frightening me. Phlox had mentioned some memory loss around the actual torture experience, but nothing about more extensive amnesia.
"Jon? I think you'd better tell me what you remember about things. Dr. Phlox said he thought you might have some short-term memory loss, but that it might come back...”
I reached over to lightly rest a hand on his forearm, a familiar gesture between us, one that was always a silent promise of comfort and understanding. He looked at my hand like he'd never seen it there before, but didn't pull away.
He licked his lips slowly before replying. I thought he might be thirsty and handed him a glass of water that was on the nightstand. He sipped at it, obviously trying to collect his thoughts. When he began to speak, the words started slowly, then gained assurance.
"I remember the mission... the planet... Azati Prime. Needed to destroy the weapon. Failed though. Captured. Fucking Xindi bastards... beaten... torture..."
My heart was aching for him as he struggled with those memories, watching him raise a hand to touch the bruises and cuts on his temple, his lip. But when he started speaking again, his tone was fierce, almost triumphant.
"It was Dolim and his Reptilian cronies... seemed to run the place. Didn't tell the bastards anything they wanted to hear. Let them think there's a whole fleet of us. They seem to think there might be... but didn't quite believe me... kept threatening more torture... until I demanded that they let me speak to Degra, show him the token, make him at least hear me out..."
I didn't want to interrupt him; he was remembering important parts of his experience, but it wasn't quite fitting together.
"Degra? Who's Degra? What token? I'm not sure I'm following you, Jon. Take your time; it's coming back to you. Don't push too hard. I'm not going anywhere."
It was Jon's turn to give me the 'where the hell have you been for the last month' look.
"Degra? You remember Degra... Humanoid Xindi who gave us the coordinates for Azati Prime. You must remember our little stratagem... how Phlox altered his memories and we built... you and Trip built... that simulator in the cargo bay."
I was completely confounded by that, and began to wonder if the memory loss was mine. Surely if Trip and I had built any such thing, I'd have some recollection of it. Before I could say anything, he continued to talk about the incident.
"God knows we had to try it a couple of times before we got anything useful from him, but he and I did get to know each other a bit. Of course when I saw him down there he couldn't remember us ever meeting before.”
My face must have been a complete blank, because his words started tumbling out, almost as if he were trying to convince me, or himself, that his memory was intact and accurate.
"And the token? I know I mentioned that to the senior staff... that Daniels showed up when Trip and Travis were getting that shuttle ready for me to take down to Azati Prime... that he tried to tell me I needed to make peace with the Xindi, not destroy them. Gave me something to show Degra... evidence that Xindi and Humans worked together in the future... and you don't have any idea of what I'm talking about, do you?"
I shook my head, and laid my hand on his arm again, rubbing softly this time. Phlox would have my head if I got Jon agitated when he'd told me in no uncertain terms that he needed to rest. I tried to choose my words carefully.
"That isn't the way I remember it. You did mention seeing Daniels, yes. And that he gave you something, and wanted you to make peace with the Xindi. But you had no intention of doing anything of the sort. And I didn't think you'd ever met any Xindi except Gralik... the Arboreal who helped us by sabotaging the kemosite shipment from his refinery."
I searched my own memory of our visit to that facility. My hand was still resting on Jon's forearm, and I could feel the small tremble that spoke volumes of how this was affecting him. But I could see no way to soften what I had to say.
"Gralik might have mentioned someone named Degra... the one in charge of the weapon design, I think. Or a member of the Xindi council. But I have no recollection of ever meeting him, or of you ever meeting him. You told us that you informed Daniels that you saw no way you could possibly make peace with them."
His eyes searched mine, almost pleading with me to confirm his memory of events, but I couldn't.
"Degra... Degra was the key. I learned things about the man when we had him here on the ship! I knew enough about him to get him to trust me just a little down there... just enough to save my life, probably. I knew the name of his wife, the names of his two children... and the name of an unborn child he lost. That last bit clinched it... he finally believed me."
I tried to keep my voice calm, though I had little hope that it would help.
"Jon, it never happened... not that way."
Jon would normally start pacing at a time like that. It must have been the injuries that kept him where he was, just shaking his head. I was the one to get up and pace the small room. Both of us were silent. My thoughts were circling back around everything I could remember of the last few days, not understanding how, if his memory was intact, we could have such different recollections of fairly recent events.
I never trusted Daniels. I didn't think Jon ever trusted him much either. When Jon told us about that last visit from him, he said Daniels told him that this mission MUST succeed, that his parting words were that Jon should do what he had to do, and HE would do the same. I wondered for a moment if his interference hadn't ended with that talk with Jon...
I turned back to face him, leaning against his desk, trying to walk us both through even more recent events. The risk of upsetting him by talking about it seemed a lesser evil than to leave him questioning his memory. I took a deep breath and plunged into it.
"We thought you'd been killed. The Reptilians who attacked the ship... their leader told us that with great pride, told us that he'd seen to it himself. I had no reason to either doubt or believe him, but when you didn't come back... we all feared it was true."
I felt my voice start to break, and I crossed my arms tightly, as if trying to wrap myself away from my own vulnerability. I barely realized that my recounting of events had become personal.
"I was afraid it was true. I was sure I'd lost you. I wished again and again that I'd argued with you about going down there alone. It should have been me on that mission, Jon. But I didn't want our last words to be an argument... I knew I wouldn't win it. You let me walk with you to the shuttle. When we got there, you kissed me hard... fiercely... but you didn't try to tell me you'd be back. We both knew better."
My voice did crack then, and I had to pause. Jon's voice broke into the silence, his words tumbling out.
"I kissed you? But I went to the shuttle bay alone. T'Pol was trying to dissuade me and I shook her off. Malcolm, it's true you didn't say a word when I announced my plans to pilot that shuttle. I was more than half expecting you to protest. It wouldn't have made any difference, but I'll admit to worrying a little when you didn't say anything... except with your eyes... your face and body language..."
I was watching both his face and his body language now as he tried to make sense out of what clearly seemed impossible to him. My hand fell away from his arm as he lifted it to cradle his face in his hand for a long moment. Then he shook his head slowly.
"I kissed you? Malcolm... something is wrong here. I kissed you? You let me?"
He was following my words to their most likely conclusion, his eyes searching mine for an explanation he could comprehend or accept.
"And you... you just said you don't spend much time in your quarters... not even to sleep, apparently. A few minutes ago you let yourself into my quarters. Do you... are we... ?”
His voice dropped from agitation to a quiet, almost desolate tone.
“God, something is very wrong with my memory, Malcolm. I would have thought that the last thing I'd ever forget would be a relationship like that... with you.”
The pain in his voice became unbearable. I had to move back to the bed then, had to sit down next to him, closer than I'd been sitting before. I reached up to brush a strand of hair back from his injured forehead, my fingers touching his cheek very lightly afterward. I laid them across his lips as he started to speak again.
"No, love... no more words right now. Phlox was emphatic that you have to rest. Twenty-four hours minimum. I should be overseeing repairs to the Armoury, but the Captain’s health is even more important than that. I'm here, love... and not going anywhere tonight.”
I don't know when or how I made that decision, but it felt like the only possible choice... to stay with him. I'd nearly lost him, thought he was dead, hadn't even had time to grieve. But now I had him back, and memory lapses or no, unless he pushed me away there was nowhere for me but by his side.
I stood and unzipped my jumpsuit, stepping out of it and folding it across the chair, as I always did, before unbuttoning my shirt and tugging it off. Jon hadn't moved, so I sat down next to him again and gently slid my hands under the red Stanford sweatshirt he was wearing, carefully pushing it up over his stomach and chest. He shivered a little at my touch, which reassured me. He always shivers when he first feels my palms flat against his stomach. He silently lifted his arms so that I could help get the shirt over his head. Seeing the bruises along his ribcage, I ached for what he'd been through at the hands of the Xindi.
"There... you'll be more comfortable now, love. Why don't you lie down a little more... maybe on your back so that you don't put pressure on those ribs. And I have a hypo here that Phlox wanted me to give you before you went to sleep... for the pain. Maybe it's the good stuff."
He nodded, murmuring only "I can't believe I could have forgotten this... that you and I... any of this..."
He did shift his position on the bed, moving to lay his head on the pillows he'd been leaning against. I bent to kiss him goodnight, touching very, very lightly on bruised lips. I thought for a moment about what I should do, then simply laid down close beside him and drew a blanket over us both.
Jon fell asleep quickly. I'm sure he was exhausted, and Phlox's painkillers probably made him drowsy as well. Sleep didn't come as easily for me. I lay next to him, listening to his breathing, grateful when it slowed into the rhythm of sleep that I knew so well. I fought down the niggling thoughts about how things still might not be right, just grateful that he was alive, against all odds. We could sort out the rest in time.
I was still awake when I remembered that I was supposed to update Phlox. I certainly wasn't going to leave Jon here alone, so I slipped out of bed as quietly as I could, hoping Jon would stay asleep. Trying to keep my voice as soft as possible, I got Phlox on the comm, and gave him a quick update, asking him more specifically about the apparent memory loss.
"I wasn't aware of significant memory loss, Mr. Reed. I did notice that he had some trouble with specific memories of what transpired during his captivity, but I knew he was a bit disoriented by the blows to his head. I would have kept him in sickbay if it weren't half destroyed and the other half filled to overflowing with burn victims. And if the Captain hadn't been demanding to leave me to them."
"Phlox, I'm serious. If I didn't know better, I'd say this wasn't Jon at all, not the man who went down to Azati Prime. Could you please run whatever analyses you can on the scans you took of him when he was returned to us... every kind of analysis... DNA, retinal patterns, temporal signature...
I had a sudden thought that chilled me enough that I actually shivered.
"Oh god, Phlox! Prioritize the temporal signature study. He mentioned spending time with Mr. Daniels. Keep me posted, Doctor."
After closing the comm channel, I didn't move for a few minutes. The screen faded to darkness and the only sound in the room was the snuffle of Porthos' light snoring. Jon slept silently, as he always had. I could see the slow rise and fall of his chest as starlight from the viewport played across his face and upper body. Earlier today it had seemed I'd never have this chance again, that I'd lost him forever. Part of me wanted to stay right where I was, simply to watch over him as he slept. But the impulse to stay close to him won out.
When I slipped back into bed, my body found its accustomed position beside his, nestled into his side, an arm wrapped over his stomach. I remember thinking that it felt right... felt like Jon... smelled like him... but I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that maybe I did lose him after all. But then what about this man, who seemed so surprised that Malcolm loves him... surprised to hear he had kissed me. I was going to have to sort it out, but right then... this man needed me.
Jon reached over to draw me closer... pillowing my head on his shoulder, just as he'd always done. I nuzzled into his neck a bit, and he sighed in his sleep. I was able to just barely catch the name that he breathed on that sigh. 'Malcolm...'
Jon always called me Mal.
I laid awake thinking about things for a long time, but must have finally slept. The last thing I remember was hearing Porthos coming over to sniff at Jon's hand. He sniffed again, then licked his hand and curled up to sleep right there on the floor by the bed.
Feeling somehow comforted by this behaviour, I whispered, too quietly to disturb either of them, "Goodnight, love."
Although I usually wake before Jon does, that next morning I was still half-asleep when I felt him get up from the bed, still moving stiffly. He had disappeared into the lav before I could get out of bed and back into my uniform. I did take advantage of his absence to comm Phlox.
"Reed to Sickbay. Doctor, do you have those analyses yet?"
"I do, Mr. Reed. And I was just on my way to see you both... if you'd stay where you are, hmmm."
I picked up the sweatshirt Jon had been wearing the night before and handed it in to him, thinking he'd appreciate knowing we were about to have company. He was peering at his reflection, lightly touching the deep purple bruise on his forehead. I wanted to wrap an arm around him, but didn't.
When he took the shirt from my hands, I felt his eyes seeking mine. They were full of questions, probably ones I couldn't answer. I'd just opened my mouth to tell him that Phlox was on his way when the door chime did that for me.
"... and I found that there was a 0.059% temporal variance. It's fading, from the looks of the scan I just did. But, as best I can tell, it's what you'd expect from bringing something... or someone... into a timeline close to their own, but different from it."
Someone had to say something. Jon was silent. So it fell to me to break the silence by asking the obvious.
"So you're saying the Captain doesn't belong here?"
Phlox's reply was quick and indignant.
"I didn't say that. I'm merely saying that he might have been recently exposed to an alternative timeline. But by any and every identity test I know how to run, he is Jonathan Archer. He's the Captain of this ship. And he's lucky to be alive after the Xindi hospitality he encountered...”
I interrupted him. My mind was racing even faster than I could get the questions out. I nodded toward Jon, who was silent through all of this, chewing his lower lip.
“But if Jon doesn't belong here, if this isn't his timeline... then our Jonathan Archer is what... or where? Dead? Missing? Lost? On some other Enterprise in some other timeline? How the hell could this just happen--?"
"It didn't." The familiar voice followed the opening of the lavatory door, startling everyone. It was Crewman Daniels.
Jon seemed to find his voice at that point, but then he was familiar with Daniels popping in unexpectedly, whereas I was still trying to figure out how the hell the man got into the lav in the first place. Jon and I had just been in there, not five minutes earlier, and I would have sworn we were alone.
"Daniels, what the hell were you doing in my bathroom? Don't you ever knock? For that matter, what are you doing here at all? Don't you have timelines to oversee?"
He paused to catch a breath, but started in with more questions before Daniels could reply.
"Did you have something to do with this 'temporal variance' that Phlox found when he scanned me?"
It was Daniels' turn to interrupt, looking from Jon to Phlox and then directly at me.
"Jonathan, you know me. Dr. Phlox and Lt. Reed, I'm sure you know that I'm not the simple mess steward whose role I assumed. Let's just say I have a much broader responsibility than delivering breakfast orders.
"Earth MUST survive. Jonathan Archer must survive. This mission cannot fail. But it was failing. I tried talking to Jonathan before he left for Azati Prime. He wouldn't listen... could see no way to do what I asked -- ask for Xindi cooperation."
Jon pushed himself away from the desk where he'd been leaning and paced the few steps across the room and back to the door before replying.
"I didn't think it would work. But after having had just about enough of Reptilian hospitality, I demanded to see Degra, showed him that evidence you gave me -- proof that Xindi and Humans were serving together in Starfleet in the future. And when I told him the name of his stillborn child... He believed me enough... enough to keep talking."
Daniels nodded his agreement with what Jon was saying, his whole attention focused on Jon when he resumed his attempt to explain the situation.
"He saved your life... but not your ship. While Degra was talking, Dolim was acting. He destroyed Enterprise, Jonathan. You had no ship to go back to... "
He paused only briefly to let his words sink in before continuing relentlessly.
"Whereas, in this timeline... Jonathan was not going to survive the Xindi torture. He had no advocate. They sent his body back to a seriously damaged Enterprise, which they seemed to believe posed no further threat. I brought the other Jonathan Archer -- you -- across with me into this timeline, to this ship."
I was too astonished to say anything at all, but I couldn't take my eyes off Jon's face. His expression told me all I needed to know. He believed what Daniels was telling him. My Jon really had died down there... this really wasn't the man I thought he was.
I barely heard the rest of what Daniels was saying... about the success of the mission. I knew that Lt. Reed should pay attention, even if Mal couldn't. The mission was more important that the life of one man. It had to be. Jon had believed it to be when he kissed me and got into that shuttle.
"In that other timeline, no one survived -- not Enterprise... not her Captain, alone... not even Earth... and eventually, not even the Xindi."
Daniels had moved to within inches of where Jon was standing motionless. He paused until he knew he had the Captain's full attention.
"I don't ask or expect your forgiveness. I did my job. I preserved what I could. But it's not over... you have to finish this, Jonathan. I can't tell you how to do that, but I know Degra's role is crucial."
I'm still uncertain whether Daniels' words about forgiveness were meant for Jon alone, or for the rest of us as well. I rather believe he thought this was purely between him and Jonathan. I was of no importance to him or his timelines.
Without further comment, Daniels left us. At least he used the door to the corridor to make his exit from Jon's... from Jonathan's quarters, instead of disappearing into the lav.
With Daniels' departure, Phlox swung into action again, steering an unresisting Jonathan toward the bed.
"Captain, that was certainly an unexpected visit. He undoubtedly gave us all a great many things to think about. Your physical injuries are mending nicely, but I still want you under observation for another twelve hours, especially after Mr. Daniels' disclosures. I'm asking Lt. Reed to see to that, as I have critically injured patients to attend."
Before Jonathan could register any protest, Phlox continued. "You are alive, Captain. As are we all, for the moment. Count yourself fortunate. I certainly do."
As the door closed behind Phlox, Jonathan sank back onto the bed. He scrubbed a hand across his face, then covered his eyes with an arm, not saying anything. I knew Jon well enough to know he was trying to process what he'd just learned, that he was probably feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. I knew I should go to him and offer what reassurance and comfort I could... perhaps just a touch, a shoulder. Then I realized that this wasn't Jon. I didn't know this man at all... how could I possibly make such assumptions about how he might be feeling about anything, or about what he might want from me.
My legs suddenly felt as if they wouldn't hold me up any longer, and I had to collapse onto the desk chair, head in my hands. I couldn't speak either, not yet. It was all I could do to contain most of what I was feeling, and even then I had to wipe at my eyes occasionally as my jumbled thoughts bubbled to the surface. I felt as if I was battling on two fronts -- my grief at losing Jon warring with thoughts of how armoury officers don't cry at the loss of their captain, and how Reed men don't cry at all, ever.
And I thought about how patiently Jon had tried to tell me... to show me... that there is a time for tears, that there is no shame in sharing them. Suddenly the words started to flow as well, and I couldn't stop either stream.
"Bloody hell! This is stupid. Why the fuck am I crying? You're here... but you're not him. I lost the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with... but I look across the room and there he is, there you are. Are you Jonathan Archer? Yes, obviously. I didn't really need Phlox's scans to tell me that. Are you the man I fell in love with? God, how can I know?"
I can't even remember all of what I said. I know I had to keep wiping a hand across my eyes, and it kept doing less and less good. My words finally began to run dry, but not before I'd given voice to my deepest fear.
"You were surprised by our intimacy. You might not even love me... might not have loved Malcolm Reed, that is, in your timeline. I don't know... don't know you. You might not approve of what we are to one another, or what we were... might not understand how we loved. Just... oh god, Jon...”
I still don't know if I was talking to the man on the bed... or the man in my heart, the one I had lost. But it was the man on the bed who responded to something he must have heard in my voice or my words.
He struggled some as he tried to sit up again... his cracked ribs were probably making it painful. But he managed it on a second try, shifting his position on the bed, making room beside him. He looked over at me, then touched the space beside him on the bed before stretching out a hand to me.
I couldn't move. Not yet. Not until he started talking to me, his voice quiet. When I closed my eyes for a moment, it could have been Jon speaking.
"Malcolm, I can't begin to understand what you're feeling... can't know your loss. You must have loved him very much... and he you. I could feel that when you stayed with me last night. The comfort you were offering wasn't meant for me, but I couldn't help but accept it. I hope you aren't offended that I did. I didn't realize any of this... that I don't belong here. I thought it really was my memory at fault."
I had to lift my head then, had to look over at him. His eyes were searching for mine, needing to be sure I understood him. When I nodded a little, he continued.
"I can't replace him, Malcolm. I'm me, although we're both Jonathan Archer, however that is possible."
He made it sound so final, the loss so certain. My vision started to blur again then, no matter how hard I tried to blink back the tears. He didn't seem to expect me to answer him, not yet... just wanted me to listen. I could do that.
"I've lost a lot, too... lost my whole damn ship apparently, my whole crew, everyone. I have no idea how to even take that in yet. I think I'm almost numb to that a loss of that magnitude. And I can't afford to dwell much on it... there's a ship and crew here who need their Captain. Apparently, that's me now.
"But what I know I feel... right now... is that I've lost someone particularly important to me, as well... though I never found the moment to tell him so... or the courage."
His pause there was a long one, almost making me think he still hadn't found it, even after losing him. But I was wrong. He continued.
"His name was Malcolm Reed. You aren't him, can't be him... any more or less than I'm the Jonathan Archer you knew, the man you loved. But the grief is something we have in common... and I find that no matter what, or where, or apparently when, I trust you, Malcolm..."
His eyes searched mine, I couldn't look away. I don't think I wanted to.
"I'll never push you toward anything you don't want or can't offer... will never expect, never ask... except one thing. I'd very much like, and very much need your friendship... if you can give it, if it's not too painful a reminder of all you've lost."
As I watched his face, I saw something I'd seen before... tears gathering in green eyes. It was reassuring to me that he didn't even try to blink the wetness away, and when he spoke again, his voice cracked a little.
"Would you come and sit with me, Malcolm... grieve with me, at least? For the few hours we have here before I need to walk out that door and be Captain to people who'll never know the whole truth about what happened. Maybe it will help us both."
He held out his hand to me again, and this time it drew me to him. Sitting there, close to him, he took one of my hands in his and wrapped his other arm around my shoulder. I realized something as I leaned into his warmth just a little, finally able to let go of some of the control I'd been trying to hold. He wasn't the man I'd lost, but it was going to be very hard to deny him anything.
Personal Log: Jonathan Archer
Good god, I have no idea where to start. I'm due back on duty shortly, but wanted a few minutes alone to try to sort through my thoughts. Malcolm just went back to the Armoury; he seemed aware of my need for a little space without my even mentioning it.
I could page through this log to try to learn something about the man whose place I've assumed, but I'm reluctant to do that. I'll read the official Captain's Log, but I can't bring myself to intrude on aspects of his life that I didn't share.
As I told Malcolm, I'm stunned into near silence by the magnitude of all of this -- the losses, on all sides... the damage... my own survival... and by Malcolm himself.
Daniels apparently expects me to step into this timeline, this life... without missing a beat. He made a poor assumption there, thinking no one would notice or care. But the man who made the previous entries here... 'Jon' as Malcolm called him... had memories and experiences that I've never had or known. Those didn't just vanish, not those that were shared... Malcolm remembers them.
Malcolm... so very much like the man I knew... but with a difference. This man has loved deeply, and has been cherished in return. I'm seeing a different kind of strength in him, along with a vulnerability I only glimpsed in the Malcolm Reed I fell in love with. I think that's what led me to hold him today as he tried to come to terms with his loss. I don't know that I would have dared before, but it seemed the only thing to do today. And perhaps that's why he could accept that from me...
This is complicated already... and I know it will only become more so.
I don't think this is helping. Maybe I'll try again later. End log.
Two weeks later
We continued to share quarters, at least in the literal sense of the word. We both kept our things there, showered and changed there, and collapsed into bed there. But it was seldom that we were both there at the same time. Repair schedules wrecked havoc on any previous notions of a three-shift duty rotation and it became almost 'normal' to work until near-collapse, then fall onto the bed to catch a few hours of dreamless exhausted sleep.
It occurred to me on more than a few occasions, as I lay alone in Jonathan's bed and willed sleep to come quickly, that it was possible that both of us were doing this half-deliberately -- avoiding the awkwardness of an implied intimacy that neither of us felt comfortable with.
We didn't speak of it often after that first day. We didn't actually talk much at all, except as Captain to Tactical Officer. And that relationship seemed almost frighteningly normal. Jonathan was neither more nor less willing to take tactical advice from me (or anyone else) than Jon had been, and he was as heedless of his personal safety.
In the midst of an argument with him over the ethics of helping ourselves to someone else's warp coil, it struck me that it would have been the same with Jon... and that we would probably have had more angry words in quarters afterward. But then, sooner or later, he would have sought my arms... no apologies asked or offered. It was the Expanse... the mission. It had changed us all, in ways we regretted even as we acknowledged the necessity. And it apparently had exerted the same influences on Jonathan, with the same effects. Like it or not, I knew this Captain Archer. I was much less sure, or at least less willing to admit, that I knew this Jonathan, the man.
One night it finally happened. We had both worked twelve-hour shifts and were off-duty at the same time. He must have stopped by the Mess Hall on his way back to his quarters because I was already there, showering, trying to rid myself of the remains of too many hours spent crawling around in torpedo tubes and plasma conduits. He was as surprised to see me as I was at his return just then. I used up my water ration in trying to wait him out, hoping he might leave before I had to parade around in a towel... before I had to collapse into his bed.
I had no such luck, and finally did slip from the lav to my clothing drawer clad only in a towel that I wished left more to the imagination. He tried to give me as much privacy as he could manage with averted eyes, but I felt that avoidance as keenly as if it were his gaze... equally embarrassing for both of us, most likely. I was very aware that I looked exactly like someone he'd been very attracted to... someone he'd told me he loved, though he never told him about it. I know I was blushing, and it only worsened when I wondered for a moment if he found me as attractive as he had his Malcolm Reed. I didn't know whether to wish he did, or hope he did not.
We shared the bed that night for the first time since that first night when we both thought he was someone else. I was grateful for my exhaustion; once my head hit the pillow, I was dead to the world. Contrary to what had been my usual position when I slept with Jon, I'd deliberately taken the far side of the bed, lying as near to the edge as I could manage, giving him his space. But by morning, I'd moved closer, finding myself spooned up against his back... my body wrapped around his. I pulled away as soon as I woke enough to realize where I was... who this was... and who it wasn't. This wasn't the man I'd curled up next to for over a year, the man whose body welcomed the hardness pressed against that beautiful arse when I woke in the mornings already wanting him.
He must have been as exhausted as I because it didn't wake him. I quickly rolled onto my back, away from him... but needed a few minutes to convince my body that this wasn't the man I'd awakened so many times with a kiss or caress. As I calculated phase cannon trajectory vectors, my eyes did wander over his sleeping form... the body I knew so well, had touched so often... and I thought about the man I had loved so much. I couldn't even tell myself whether or not finding this man attractive was a betrayal of that love or not. I mourned Jon's loss, but it was a uniquely solitary grief. After that first day, I couldn't even find the release of tears.
I lay there, thinking, for what felt like a long time, until I knew it was past time to get up. My erection had subsided, and some other part of me had made a decision. Before slipping quietly from the bed, I leaned over and touched my lips to the back of his neck... just where his neck meets his shoulder. It was a familiar gesture for me... I'd always kissed him there... always kissed Jon there. He didn't stir or wake. I didn't want him to. But I'd wanted to leave him with something, not just slip away forever.
Personal Log: Jonathan Archer Security Locked
He must not have realized I was awake this morning. I’m surprised... I would have thought Malcolm would be one to investigate thoroughly, but perhaps he was willing to play along with the pretense of sleep to save us both the embarrassment. Or so preoccupied with his own discomfort that he really was much less observant than I would expect Malcolm Reed to be.
I think I was actually half awake before he woke at all. I remember feeling wrapped in warmth, with warm strong arms wrapped around me, and a very warm body curved around my backside... along with a hardness the likes of which I hadn't felt pressed against my ass in a very long time.
It felt like a dream, and I'll admit I have dreamed of it often enough in the past three years... dreamed of what it might be like to wake up with Malcolm. But in those dreams I was the one wrapped around him, my own morning erection pressed into the cleft of that gorgeous ass that his uniform hints at so eloquently. So the reality of him was an unexpected... and wonderful... experience.
But I know that this wasn't for me. As it was on that first night, it was for the man he always called 'Jon.' He's taken to calling me 'Jonathan' when it isn't 'Captain' or 'sir'. I'll never tire of hearing it... I longed for it. But it's the name I always heard in my dreams, and that doesn't help me keep the distance between us that I know Malcolm needs me to keep, the space he needs for his silent grief.
I wish I could somehow ease the sadness I can read in his eyes, but I know I can't reach out to him any further without feeling his hand reaching back to tell me he wants it... or wants me.
He had one more surprise for me this morning. Just when I thought he was about to slip out of bed, I felt Malcolm close the distance between us me again... and I felt him kiss my neck... with more tenderness than I've ever felt from anyone. I don't know what it meant to him, or even whether it was meant for me... or for that other Jon. I think it was for him, and will always wonder if my counterpart ever realized how very much he was loved. I like to hope he knew, and that he treasured every moment they had together.
Jonathan's Quarters -- late that evening
Basic repairs to at least some of the crew quarters were complete, and I knew I had to speak to Jonathan before we found ourselves in bed together again. I'd rehearsed the words in my mind a hundred times. It did not make it any easier when the moment came to say them aloud to him.
"Captain... Jonathan, I think it might be best for me to move back into my quarters now that the crewmen bunking there can have their old cabin back. I know you must want your privacy, and this wasn't an arrangement that you ever requested... "
I added, much more softly, though he probably heard. "or that either of us is comfortable with."
Jonathan didn't say anything at all for a very long moment. His hesitation surprised me. I thought he was as ill at ease with the false intimacy as I was beginning to be.
"I'm sure you're anxious to get back to your own quarters, Malcolm. You'll have more space... your privacy... "
But his voice trailed off. If this were Jon, I would have called it doubt or indecision. He'd seldom let that show in front of the crew, but I knew it well. But this wasn't Jon, and I couldn't make assumptions on the basis of a relationship that Jonathan had never been a part of.
"I'll just gather my things, then... "
As I turned to the drawer I'd been using for spare uniforms, I saw Porthos by the door and felt a sudden sense of loss... of finality. It was what I wanted, needed -- a way to let Jon go, to close the door on a past that was over. But I hadn't thought about how much I'd miss Porthos. I lied earlier when I said I slept alone in Jonathan's bed these past weeks. As often as not, Porthos had climbed up onto the bed with me sometime before morning, and I'd never had the heart to send him back to his own bed as Jon had always done when he'd tried to join us on the bed.
"Wait... Malcolm... we need to talk about this. About all of this... "
His eyes told me more about what 'all of this' encompassed than his words ever could. I nodded and took the offered seat on the edge of the neatly made bed. He'd taken to making up the bed when he got up, perhaps in deference to my lifelong habit of doing so. Interestingly, even after over a year together, Jon never had.
"I was torn, just now... about what to say. I gave you the response I thought I should give, the one I'm sure you were expecting to hear. But not because I'm anxious to be rid of you. I don't want you to think that.
"Malcolm, the last thing I ever want to do is to hurt you. But it seems like I do hurt you by intruding on your privacy and your memories... by keeping up a pretense of detachment. And I think I hurt you worst of all by sharing a bed with you as I did last night, lying there next to you in the bed you'd shared with him, but not being the man you loved... still love..."
I can still hear the pause... can still hear the sigh as he scrubbed a hand down his face before continuing.
"whereas to me you are... "
The rest of his words were unvoiced... and I didn't dare try to complete his sentence for him, already feeling as if I were intruding into his private thoughts as well as his quarters. I considered slipping away quietly and returning later for my things.
But his eyes sought mine, and I had no heart to look away.
"I loved Malcolm Reed for the past three years. May I tell you about him?"
I know I was silent through most of what he told me. I don't know what I could have said.
"... and I cradled him in my arms after that mine impaled him. He shared his deepest fears with me out there on the hull, as he did again when we were almost executed together. I begged for his life then, but I couldn't save him. I felt I'd failed him completely, but he still trusted me. It was as if that whole experience drew us closer.
"Later he rescued me from Rura Penthe... and the smile that lit his face when our eyes met was incandescent. I thought after that experience that we might... that I should have... it would have been the right time to speak. But I put it off, waiting for the perfect moment."
My own memories came flooding back. "It was... the perfect moment." I don't know whether he heard my murmured words. He continued as if he hadn't.
"Then the Xindi attacked Earth. This year hasn't... hadn't... been kind to us... to any of us, I guess. I know I've done things he didn't... couldn't agree with. I scarcely knew myself some days. But he was always there, always by my side, seemingly closer than ever.
"I wanted so badly to tell him what he meant to me. I didn't get a chance to do that. Now you're here... and you've lost so much..."
The silence fell between us again, both of us lost in thoughts. He finally spoke again,
"I'll be here, whenever, however, you need me to be. If you want to move back to your quarters, I'll understand."
I don't know what impulse made him reach out to me then, wrapping an arm around my shoulder as he had that first day back from Azati Prime. And I didn't know what made me feel so sheltered there, so safe. My eyes were wet again as they met his, and it didn't matter to either of us at that moment.
"I know. Thank you, Jonathan."
My voice dropped to a whisper as I turned away from those green eyes.
"I just don't know how to let go of him..."
to be continued