kageygirl

Enterprise slash

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Enterprise kageygirl

Conversation Piece

Title: Conversation Piece

Author: kageygirl

E-mail: kageygirl@gmail.com

URL: http://www.kageygirl.com

Feedback: Please and thank you.

Archive: Ask first.

Fandom: Star Trek: Enterprise

Pairing: Tucker/Reed, T'Pol/Sato

Rating: G

Beta: Many thanks to Leah and Kylie Lee for marvelous beta assistance.

Disclaimer: Have they been to the planet where the wearing of clothing is punishable by death? No? Then they ain't mine. No money being made here (though if the producers wanted to run with the "clothing=death" idea, I hereby cede all rights to it).

A/N: Originally published in "Getting From There to Here 1", from Agent With Style.

Summary: "I've gone over it a million times in my head. What to say to her, how to say it…"

For once, trade negotiations had gone almost ridiculously well for the crew of the Enterprise. The Mowanans were a ruddy, cheerful people, eager to make contact with other species. To celebrate their successful meetings with their new friends from Earth, the Mowanans had insisted upon holding a gala event, and they seemed to have a lot of experience at throwing elaborate parties.

Malcolm thought that the Romanovs might have held such a gathering, if the Romanovs had been short, pudgy aliens. He'd made a few circuits of the reception hall, declining to get drawn into the discussions of his crewmates as he went about his duties, but the security arrangements were more than satisfactory. Phlox had even confirmed that the food and drink were safe for human consumption. Feeling superfluous, and a bit overheated in the crowded room, Malcolm had ended up out on the balcony, where he could keep an eye on the proceedings without having to mingle.

One of the figures detached itself from the crowd, heading in his direction, and he sympathized with the faintly overwhelmed look on her face. He suspected he'd looked that way himself a few minutes ago.

~~~

Hoshi excused herself from a conversation with the Mowanan Minister of Culture when she realized she'd been responding on autopilot for the last fifteen minutes. She smiled and nodded to her crewmates and members of the Mowanan government alike as she made her way across the reception hall, but she didn't stop to talk to any of them. Her goal was one of the tall doors that led to the balcony, and the night air outside.

She took a deep breath as she crossed over the threshold. The air out here seemed cleaner, more natural somehow. Inside, everything was bright and glittery and aggressively festive, and the happy atmosphere threatened to choke her. It took a few breaths for her head to clear enough that she realized she wasn't alone on the balcony.

She heard him before she saw him, of course, although he was one of the more subtle members of the crew. She was already turning towards him when he spoke. "Hello, Hoshi." The noise from the party was contained to a background murmur, and his quiet voice carried clearly.

"Hi, Malcolm."

Malcolm stood in the shadows between two of the doors, just out of the bright spill of light from inside the hall. He held a glass of murky pink fruit juice, like her own—they were both on duty, after all. The ice cubes in his glass clinked softly as they melted against one another.

Hoshi stepped out of the light to join Malcolm in the shadows. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she looked out over the edge of the balcony. Surely, they should be perched on a cliff overhanging the ocean, the waves crashing against the rocks below, mirroring her inner turmoil. Instead, she saw a large, well-tended lawn, with feathery trees waving along the edges. Idyllic. Peaceful. She turned away, letting her lips twist into a grimace of distaste. Her life occasionally lacked the necessary dramatic flourishes.

Malcolm was watching her, in the same way that he watched everyone. Well, nearly everyone.

They'd long since gotten past the awkward incident in the mess hall, when he'd thought she was asking him out. He'd been distracted by the phase cannons, and she'd been frustrated at her lack of success in figuring out his favorite food, and neither one of them had really been paying attention. Given their respective specialties, Malcolm had been embarrassed that he had misread her so completely, and she'd been chagrined that she had managed to miscommunicate her intentions so badly. After giving it a little thought, Hoshi had realized that she was most definitely not the person for whom Malcolm was pining. Just as clearly, he'd seen that her attention was also directed elsewhere.

Their friendship had cemented then, even though their duties seemed diametrically opposed. Communications and weapons, the open hand and the closed fist. Once she would have believed that if he was doing his job, she'd already failed at hers, but she'd learned that some beings couldn't be reasoned with. Or didn't want to be.

Malcolm let her have her silence as she soaked in the night, and she appreciated that. It was amazing how many people expected an exolinguist to want to talk all the time.

Through long hours of staring at each other across the bridge, when she had no one to talk to and he had no one to shoot at, they'd developed their own language of facial expressions. Her eyes were acclimated enough now that she could read the slight tension around his mouth. She decided to give him an opening if he wanted to discuss it. "I thought you'd be inside. Aren't you afraid you'll ruin your image—the ever-vigilant security officer?"

He gave her that ironic little smirk he did so well. "My team is in place, they know their jobs, and we haven't had a single incident with the Mowanans." He took a sip of his drink, then gestured to the party with his glass. "And yourself?"

"The translators are working fine—the Vulcans have had a lot of contact with these people. Nothing for me to do."

"I know the feeling." In the shadows of his face, she saw a deeper darkness, one she recognized all too well. Not enough distractions meant too much opportunity for thinking. He turned to look into the hall, and she stepped up next to him, so that they were surveying the same vista. Watching him with sidelong glances, she saw that he was sweeping the room—still assessing threats, despite the assurance he'd just given her—but that his gaze kept returning to the command team in their little knot near the buffet table.

Captain Archer was looking on as Trip explained something to both T'Pol and the cherubic Mowanan ambassador. Ambassador Chomalo looked considerably more amused than the subcommander did, of course. Judging by Trip's gestures and the captain's smile, it was a funny story, but Hoshi chose not to read his lips and find out exactly what was being said. The big ornate doors to the balcony were like a proscenium arch, separating them from the drama being enacted inside. For once, she felt no need to be part of every conversation.

"They seem to be enjoying themselves." She didn't think anyone else would have heard the tinge of wistfulness in Malcolm's words.

"Well, it's a lovely party." She took a drink and found the fruit juice a bit too sweet and cloying for her taste. "I wish the drinks were stronger, though."

He chuckled. "Now, now. Don't want to get drunk and create an interstellar incident, do we?"

"Are you sure, Malcolm? It would give us both something to do." She grinned at his thoughtful look.

"No, we can't do that. Really. It wouldn't be right." Despite his words, a smile was creeping over his face, lighting his eyes.

"I guess not. But it would have been nice to see Ambassador Chomalo dancing on a table."

She caught him as he was taking a sip, and he coughed in surprise. "You're incorrigible."

"So I've been told."

Malcolm eyed the ambassador critically, then shook his head. "He's rather portly. I doubt any of those tables could hold him."

Hoshi shrugged. "We could always have Trip reinforce one of them."

"All in the name of diplomacy, of course."

"Of course." She watched his eyes cloud over as he stared at the engineer. Regret that the distraction hadn't lasted longer trickled its way through her chest. Her own gaze was drawn inside, and the regret was joined by her own sense of longing.

T'Pol said something to Trip, head tilted as she met the commander's eyes. Hoshi was certain that she was enunciating precisely and speaking only as loudly as the situation warranted. Judging by the raised eyebrows and rapid-fire response she received, it was another lesson in cultural differences, just condescending enough to provoke Trip. The Vulcan had learned quickly that playing upon the humans' preconceptions would engender a lively discussion—at the very least—and Hoshi suspected that T'Pol enjoyed those verbal sparring matches, though of course she'd never admit such a thing.

Hoshi smiled wryly. "If this were a bad romance novel, they'd get together. It's always the ones who fight the most who end up falling madly in love."

"I'll take your word for it." Malcolm's voice was laced with humor, though whether at the thought of Trip and T'Pol dating or the thought of Hoshi reading romance novels, she couldn't say.

She considered him as he studied their senior officers. "I think this is the point where I'm supposed to tell you to just go ask him to dance."

That startled a laugh out of him. "Am I supposed to tell you the same thing?"

"I don't think Vulcans dance. It's probably illogical to expend energy moving around without actually reaching a destination."

"Ah. Perhaps I'm supposed to tell you to engage her in a conversation about Vulcan customs."

Hoshi sighed and looked down into her drink, shaking the glass so that the ice cubes swirled around. "I've gone over it a million times in my head. What to say to her, how to say it…"

Malcolm looked over at her, his eyes dark with empathy. "What she'll say in response?"

"Yeah." She gave him a self-deprecating smile. "You, too?"

He nodded, and she saw his eyes go distant as he scanned the room. "'I just got out of a long-term relationship—I'm not ready to start another one.'" He had the cadence down, but not the accent. She'd heard him mimic Trip fairly well before, and suspected the subject was too close to home for him to take it that lightly.

She responded in kind. "'On Vulcan, mates must be approved by the parents of both parties.'" She tried to project T'Pol's modulated disinterest.

"Is that true?"

"Hell if I know." He wasn't shocked at her impropriety. It was a relief—she knew more profanity, in more languages, than anyone else on the ship did, and yet sometimes they looked at her as if they were afraid to say the wrong thing. As if her job wasn't as much about meaning and intent as it was about surface words.

Malcolm dropped back into a Southern drawl, a little more accurately this time. "'I'm just not attracted to men.'"

"Oh," Hoshi looked him up and down in mock appraisal, "he'd make an exception for you."

Malcolm glanced at her in sudden surprise, then ducked his head to sip at his drink. "Thank you."

He was clearly uncomfortable with the compliment. She took pity on him, returning to the game. "'I find the stench of humans far too pungent to tolerate close contact.'"

He gave a mild chuckle. "Oh, very nice." Malcolm tilted his glass towards hers in salute, and she clinked them together.

"Thank you."

"'I'm your superior officer—it wouldn't be right.'"

Hoshi didn't think that would be a huge concern for Trip, but she knew Malcolm didn't see it that way. "'Mating for purposes other than procreation is not logical.'"

He pursed his lips. "It's really not, is it? 'It would compromise our working relationship.'"

"Right, because you guys get along so smoothly now." She might have quailed under his glare, but the slightest twitch of his lips gave him away. "'I do not believe you would be able to rein in your emotional responses.'"

"Well, she may have a point there." Hoshi smacked him on the arm, and he shook his head. "Was that supposed to prove me wrong?" Inside, the captain leaned in and said something to Trip that made the engineer drop his head and laugh. Malcolm's voice grew thick with irony. "'I'm already sleeping with the captain.'"

She giggled. "'I am already sleeping with the captain.'"

Malcolm smirked at that. They stood quietly for a few minutes, sipping their drinks and watching the party inside.

When he spoke again, Malcolm's voice was soft, barely skimming over the silence between them. "'I just don't think of you that way.'"

The hollow ache in his voice echoed the emptiness in her own chest. She had to swallow past the constriction in her throat. "'I have never thought of you that way.'"

He seemed to struggle against words that forced themselves out. "'I never will think of you that way.'"

Malcolm turned away then, looking out into the darkness over the balcony rail. There really was nothing more to say.

Hoshi gave him a few moments as she gathered her own composure. Deep, cleansing breaths of the cool night air drove the pain back down into a dull throb, and she banished it to a corner of her mind.

She moved to stand at the railing next to Malcolm, and studied his profile under the starlight. The gentle breeze ruffled his hair, as if trying to soothe the longing from his face. He spoke without looking at her. "It doesn't help, does it?"

"Telling yourself it'll never work? No, it doesn't."

"I'm starting to reconsider your idea of spiking the punch."

She leaned into his side as she chuckled. Footsteps echoed faintly behind them, and she tapped the back of Malcolm's hand in warning. Turning, she gave Trip a smile as he crossed the balcony.

"You two hidin' out here?"

Hoshi met the commander's amused gaze. "Just getting some air. It's a beautiful night." She looked over at Malcolm and saw that the heartache had been buried under a mask of polite good humor.

Trip glanced between the two of them, obviously sensing the residual tension. "I'm not interruptin' anything, am I?"

"Not at all. Actually, I was just about to get another drink. Can I get you anything, Malcolm?" She raised her eyebrows and smiled. If he didn't want to be alone with Trip, he would offer to go with her.

He shook his head at her, in answer to both the spoken and unspoken questions. "No, thank you, I'm fine."

"All right." She slipped past the commander and headed back into the hall, but concern made her pause by the doors. She stopped to lean against the wall just inside, where they couldn't see her. Some of the crew would never believe such a thing possible, but Malcolm seemed vulnerable just then, and she was afraid that Trip would inadvertently hurt him.

Hoshi fought down a smile as she focused her attention on the conversation behind her. It had been a while since she'd rescued someone from an awkward conversation outside of the line of duty, but she was sure she could still pull it off if need be.

~~~

"You all right, Malcolm? Y'look a little tired." Trip dipped his head to catch Malcolm's eye, and Malcolm realized that he'd been staring blankly into the reception hall.

He blinked himself back to the present. "I'm fine." Trip gave him a disbelieving snort, and Malcolm suppressed a sigh. The man knew him too well—and yet, not nearly well enough. "Actually, I find cocktail parties a bit wearying."

"O'course you do. Every time you get introduced to someone, you mentally pat them down for weapons." Those blue eyes should not have been able to sparkle so in the low light.

"What? I do no such thing."

"I've seen you, Malcolm. You get this look in your eye, like you're marking friend or foe next to their name in your head." Trip folded his arms and smiled, confident in his powers of observation, and Malcolm's breath caught in his chest. The commander's cheeks were still flushed from the warmth of the party, and his boyish grin made him all the more appealing.

Malcolm had to look down, before he gave himself away. "You get the oddest notions."

"Tell me I'm wrong."

"You're wrong."

"You're full of it." Only an American could deliver an insult with such good cheer, as if it were a compliment.

Against his will, Malcolm was once again getting drawn into a teasing exchange with Trip. "Thank you. I'm so glad we had this discussion." He didn't bother to moderate his sardonic tone. He turned away from the commander, both to feign irritation and to cover his delight in the conversation. It was pathetic, really, that he could take such pleasure in what little he got.

"Hey, I'm not saying I mind. A man gets clocked by hostile aliens often enough, he starts to appreciate a little caution."

"I'm glad someone does. Most of the crew seems to think I'm paranoid." Bitterness seeped into his words, and he chastised himself for letting his control slip. His emotions were too volatile at the moment. Malcolm set the delicate glass down on the balcony rail, out of the way, and folded his hands together.

A hand closed over his shoulder, tentatively kneading the muscles there. "Well, I appreciate you, Malcolm. Even if I don't say it often enough." The humor had drained from Trip's voice, and Malcolm feared that his ill mood had infected his friend. He turned, and found the other man standing far too close. Trip's eyes were wide and earnest, and a tiny wrinkle of anxiety had appeared between his eyebrows.

Malcolm decided then and there that Phlox had been mistaken, and that the Mowanans had drugged the fruit juice, because he felt the world shift a few degrees to the right, and he saw his hand reach up to smooth away the worry line. Malcolm hadn't told it to do any such thing. Trip's skin was warm to the touch, and his eyebrow was a feathery kiss to Malcolm's fingertips.

Trip's eyelids fluttered, but his gaze never wavered as he stared down at Malcolm. His eyes were dilated, and his breath brushed across Malcolm's face, smelling of fruit juice. Good, so he was also under the alien influence. Perhaps he would forgive Malcolm for the liberties he was taking.

Malcolm's hand drifted past Trip's temple, and threaded through the hair around his ear. Trip's hand tightened on Malcolm's shoulder as he swayed slightly. Malcolm put his other hand on Trip's shoulder—for balance, it had to be for balance. And when he brought Trip's mouth down to his own, he was merely checking how seriously the commander had been exposed to the fruit juice toxin.

Trip tasted sweet, beyond anything he might have imbibed, and smelled of the fragrant censers hanging in the hall. Malcolm explored his mouth gently, until Trip made a questioning noise in the back of his throat. Malcolm stiffened, recognizing the enormity of his actions, then pulled away. Trip looked blank for a moment, and Malcolm felt icy fear creeping around his spine.

The engineer gave him a shy smile. "What was that for?" Trip's voice was hushed, with a hint of quiet wonderment.

"I appreciate you, too." Malcolm struggled to keep his voice even. Breathing took a conscious effort. He couldn't seem to look away from Trip, trying to read his future in the other man's eyes.

"Just 'appreciate'?" Trip's grin turned wicked, and the warmth in his eyes beat back the chill.

"What would you prefer?" Malcolm felt his own lips curling up into a smile, though his knees were threatening to give out under him. Relief surged through him, making him light-headed, and trailing a wake of anticipation that set his heart pounding. Trip's arms settled around Malcolm's waist, steadying him.

Trip cocked his head in contemplation and stared off into the distance. "'Like' is good. 'Respect,' that's all right. 'Admire,' maybe. 'Lust after…'" Malcolm knew then that he wasn't living a poisoned fever-dream, because only the real Trip Tucker could be that exasperating.

As a tactician, Malcolm had a variety of responses ready for any situation, and he dealt with this one in the most efficacious way possible.

~~~

"'Lust after…'" Trip's voice trailed off, and Hoshi could no longer contain her giddiness. Taking care not to make a sound, she peeked around the corner, and confirmed that Malcolm had finally found a way to get past all those words he'd feared. With one hand at the back of Trip's neck and the other fisted into the collar of Trip's uniform, Malcolm was giving the other man a long, slow kiss, and Trip was most definitely responding. They looked unbelievably sweet together, and Hoshi ducked back inside before she disturbed them.

She meandered her way through the crowd, smiling broadly at everyone she passed. After getting a refill from the punch bowl, she found herself in a quiet corner, where she sipped her drink and contemplated the floor tiles for a while.

A pair of narrow booted feet stepped into her field of vision, and she snapped her head up in surprise.

"Ensign?" T'Pol stared at her quizzically, and she felt her heart speed up.

"Sorry, Subcommander, I didn't hear you." That earned her a raised eyebrow, and she wondered if T'Pol would write off her blush as embarrassment at having been caught off-guard.

"Have you seen Commander Tucker? The captain felt that he would appreciate meeting the members of the Science Ministry."

"The last I saw him, he was involved in a linguistics discussion." Hoshi willed her face into innocent lines.

T'Pol looked faintly approving. "The commander would do well to broaden his cultural horizons."

Clamping down on the giggle that threatened to break free, Hoshi nodded in agreement. "I think that advice goes for all of us."

The Vulcan appeared to be thinking it over. "Perhaps you are correct."

Hoshi felt a wave of immediacy wash over her, and she wondered if Malcolm had felt the same thing. The urge to seize the moment. There was only one way to find out whether she'd have the same luck. "Subcommander, would you be willing to have dinner with me sometime? Chef has given me some Vulcan recipes that I'm dying to try out, but I'd like an informed opinion about the results."

She felt her mouth go dry, and took a sip of fruit juice while T'Pol considered her impassively. Hoshi imagined she could see the calculations flicker past those dark eyes. The subcommander inclined her head slightly. "That would be acceptable." She started to turn away, then paused and looked back at Hoshi. "I look forward to it."

"Me, too." Hoshi grinned as T'Pol walked away. She finished her drink quickly and set the empty glass down on a nearby table, then went off to find Travis. The night was suddenly looking up, and she felt like dancing.