At First Sight

By Distracted

Rating: PG-13

Genres: adventure drama romance


This story has been read by 622 people.
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This story is number 13 in the series Virtual Season Five

The Warp Six Project: At First Sight

By Distracted

Rating: PG- 13
Disclaimer: Paramount owns everything. I own nothing.
Genre: Romance, Action/Adventure
Summary: This is a sequel to The Warp Six Project: Adolescent Crushes and the Warp Six Engine, and is part of my "Virtual Season 5" series. You get the blind date. You get mechanical bull riding. You get love at first sight. You get hot fudge. You get corporate intrigue and espionage. Did I leave anything out?

A/N: If anyone needs a visual aid to see Elena, I had the picture of Maria Conchita Alonso in my head as I wrote. I haven’t been able to find an actress to match my mental picture of Janie. Any suggestions?

The vid screen in Harris’ private office activated precisely on schedule. He had to admit that despite the emergency nature of his newest agent’s recruitment, the man had turned out to be an infallibly punctual and valuable source of information. Harris faced the screen and waited. The agent spoke first. Introductions were, of course, unnecessary. That’s what ID codes were for.

“It’s time ta take him down, sir. I’m bein’ pressured to be more aggressive.”

“It’s too soon,” replied Harris. “Have you contacted Commander Tucker yet?”

The agent’s dark face twisted into a frustrated scowl for a moment, and then cleared. “I haven’t been able ta get him alone yet… and what do ya mean it’s too soon? They’re demandin’ that I destroy the engine! It might kill everyone on board when that engine goes up! You promised me when I agreed ta do this that I wouldn’t have ta kill anybody! I need ta meet with Buchanan now. I think he trusts me enough ta get the goods on him… but you’ve gotta arrange it like you promised.”

Harris stared back at the man and sighed. Why am I always stuck with the squeamish ones? he thought in resignation.

“It will be arranged… but we require the assistance of the Chief Engineer for the sting to be successful,” insisted Harris. “If you can’t isolate him from the Vulcan, then confront both of them. She is already aware of your role in this, and though I would prefer that he remain unaware of her involvement with us, you may need to reveal that information to him to gain his support. Just find a way to inform him of the situation, Tucker. We need his cooperation. He has to agree to look the other way, and you must tell him before he comes upon you by chance and reveals your identity. You won’t be able to hide from him aboard that tiny ship.”

Charles Tucker nodded reluctantly. “I’ll take care of it, sir… but the Terra Primers aren’t gonna be too happy with me if the warp six engine becomes operational. I’ve only got four days before they’re gonna be askin’ me why I’m not doin’ my job.”

Harris nodded back briskly in understanding. “I’ll contact you in three days with the details of the operation,” he said, and then leaned forward to cut the connection. He stared at the empty screen for a moment in silent thought, and then began entering another number.

Time to call in a few favors, he thought. Getting Buchanan to trust anyone enough to risk exposure was going to be a challenge… but then, Harris enjoyed challenges. The guy was protected by a corporate machine with monetary resources more extensive than Starfleet’s, and by security personnel considerably less squeamish than Covert Op’s latest recruit. To nail Buchanan, Harris had to somehow separate him from his organization, and then obtain incontrovertible proof of his involvement with Terra Prime. The primary problem was that, at that particular moment, Harris had no idea if he would be able to do it in time, and time was running out. Earth couldn’t afford the destruction of the warp six engine prototype. Production of functioning warships had already begun in clandestine shipyards on several Earth-loyal worlds, but installation of the faster engines had to wait until the powers-that-be were satisfied with the project’s safety. The Romulans, according to Harris’ most recent intelligence reports, were not likely to wait much longer before changing their policy from observation to aggression. Harris intended to do everything in his power to ensure that when the Romulans attacked, Earth would be ready to fight back.

Trip and Kov stood side by side at a console in the computer simulations room going over the Warp Six Project’s previous warp field simulations. Many of the simulations that had been set up and run by the Human team were faulty in only a single variable. Most of them were deliberately altered in order to produce unfavorable outcomes. Kov was impressed that a Human had been capable of such subtle manipulation of data.

“Thomas Rafter is a remarkable engineer if he was capable of doing this without being detected by the Vulcan engineering team,” said Kov.

Trip chuckled dryly and nodded. “Yep… the guy’s a real genius at computer simulation manipulations. Too bad he wasn’t usin’ his smarts ta figure out how ta make the engine run better. We’d probably be ridin’ around at warp six by now if he had… Look at this!” He pointed to one number within the complex equation on the screen. “Just changin’ this one value by .1 dropped the engine efficiency down into the unacceptable range and forced the entire team ta do six more weeks of work ta correct a problem that never existed in the first place!”

Kov raised a brow at him, corrected the variable that Trip had pointed out, and ran the simulation again. The imaginary warp engine ran flawlessly, with all operating parameters perfectly within specs.

“Apparently, Mr. Rafter would not have been successful in his deception had you been here from the beginning,” said Kov dryly. He turned to gaze at Trip in satisfaction. “I knew that you would be capable of solving our problem, Trip. I am pleased that my father took my advice and requested your assistance.”

Trip looked back at him in surprise. “So it’s your fault I got pulled from Enterprise ta clean up this mess?” he asked.

Kov stiffened and eyed Trip cautiously. “I’m afraid so, Commander,” he admitted.

Trip grinned and slapped him on the back. “Thanks a lot, buddy!” he said cheerfully. “Best vacation I’ve had in years.” Then he turned back to the console with an eager expression to play with some more warp field equations.

Trip focused on the console, finding and correcting errant variable after errant variable. Each time he found and corrected the altered data, the subsequent simulation ran without flaw. After a while, Kov simply stepped back and watched his flying fingers. It was as if he were playing a series of complex games of strategy, and winning every game. It was amazing to watch.

“T’Pol an’ I are takin’ Captain Archer out for barbeque tonight,” said Trip in a rather distracted tone as he continued his task. “I’m sure he’d love ta see ya again. Ya wanna come with us? Janie would probably like the place, too. They’ve got mechanical bull ridin’.”

Kov watched his face as he focused on the console. “You are inviting two Vulcans to a barbeque restaurant for dinner?” he asked in a puzzled tone.

Trip glanced at him with a grin before his eyes returned to the console. “Yeah… I suppose if ya put it that way, it does sound kinda stupid, doesn’t it?” he replied sheepishly. “You don’t have ta come if ya don’t want to. T’Pol’s already been, though, and she liked it. Says they have good vegetarian baked beans and salad and rolls.” He smiled in remembrance. “And she said she liked the barbeque sauce.”

Kov’s eyes narrowed. “Commander T’Pol is Vulcan, Trip. Vulcan’s don’t ‘like’ anything.”

Trip chuckled at that. “Oh… I don’t know about that… You’re Vulcan, aren’t ya? You seem to ‘like’ a certain little cowgirl quite a bit,” he teased, as he finished the last equation and watched in satisfaction as the simulation played out perfectly.

Kov stared back at him in absolute seriousness. “But I am not a true Vulcan, Trip. Just ask my father if you are in any doubt of it. Vulcans control their emotions. I am something else… something less,” he said calmly, without a trace of bitterness.

Trip stepped back from the console and faced Kov with his arms crossed over his chest. He looked at Kov with an exasperated expression. “No offense to your dad an’ all, Kov… but that’s about the biggest load a’ horseshit I’ve ever heard in my life… and lately I’ve been much closer ta horseshit than I like ta be…” He laughed aloud, shaking his head, and clapped Kov on the shoulder. “C’mon, it’s break time. You can call Janie and give her a heads up. Take it from me… women don’t appreciate surprises when it comes to a night out on the town. If you don’t give her enough time ta do a little primpin’, she’s not gonna be happy with ya!”

Trip Tucker entered the mechanic’s break room, and was pleased to find a fresh pot of coffee waiting. He poured himself a cup, and then sat down with a sigh for the first time in four hours. I’m gettin’ soft already, he thought. Only a week ago, I woulda barely noticed bein’ on my feet for a whole shift… but I was gettin’ a little more sleep then, I suppose.

His average nightly sleep time had been four hours or less since they’d arrived on Earth. The sleep deprivation was most definitely worth it. So far, with T’Pol’s assistance, he’d thoroughly investigated the entertainment value of her living room, and had started on the bathroom. I’m really gonna love takin’ showers this week! he thought with an anticipatory smile as he sipped his coffee.

He turned to face the door as it opened, expecting to see Kov returning from his mission to ask Janie on a real date for the very first time. Instead, an initially unfamiliar wiry, bald, olive-skinned man entered the room, immediately turned his back to the table where Trip was sitting, and paused for a moment as if he were trying to make up his mind. Straightening as if he’d come to a decision, the man finally locked the door, and stood facing it as he spoke in a barely audible voice.

“Please don’t raise yer voice, Trip,” whispered the man. “You’ll get us both in a whole lotta trouble if ya do.”

It was difficult to tell from his raspy whisper, but Trip’s first thought was that the man’s voice sounded familiar. His jaw dropped when the guy turned around.

“Dad?” he whispered unbelievingly. He looked Charles Tucker up and down, taking in his disguise with a look of pure amazement. “What the hell are ya doin’ here?”

Charles Tucker gazed back at his son with a smile. “It’s sure great ta see ya, son. You an’ T’Pol are doin’ an amazin’ job puttin’ this project back on track.”

Trip’s eyes narrowed. “Mom’s worried sick about ya, Dad… Just what exactly are ya up to?”

Charles nodded, and then sat down at the table across from his son. “Yer right, Trip… I’ve got a lotta explainin’ ta do. Truth is… I’m workin’ here, and it’s not safe for me ta tell ya exactly what I’m doin’ while we’re still in the complex. I just want ya ta know that I’ve got your best interests at heart, and that real soon I’m gonna need yer help. I know you probably think I can’t be trusted… and I sure don’t blame ya one bit for that. If ya need to, ask T’Pol about me. She knows more than she’s told ya. Then you can make up yer mind about me.” Charles reached out and laid his hand on Trip’s where it rested on the table, grasping Trip’s fingers in a firm grip.

“Just promise me one thing, son… Don’t give me away. I swear I’ll explain everythin’… just not here, okay?” he said earnestly.

Trip blew out the breath he’d been holding and stared thoughtfully at the man sitting across from him at the table… a man he’d known all his life… a man he apparently didn’t know at all if his actions over the past several months were any indication of his true nature.

“Meet me at ‘The King’s Ranch Barbeque Barn’ tonight at eight pm in the men’s bathroom,” he whispered angrily. “I’ll hear you out, Dad… but I’m not promisin’ anythin’ until I get an explanation, so you’d best get outta here before anybody else shows up.” He stared in challenge at Charles from across the table, and took a defiant swig of his coffee. Charles winced slightly at his son’s angry expression, and then nodded in acceptance and resignation. He released Trip’s hand, got up without a word, unlocked the door, and left the room, leaving Trip to finish his coffee in silence.

Trip Tucker walked into the administrative wing of the complex. He had an office there. He’d entered it to check interoffice memos on the desk console once daily since he’d arrived, and had otherwise spent all of his time with the mechanics and engineers working hands-on with the engine. Unlike Storr, he was not a long-distance administrator. He passed up the door of his own office and walked to the end of the corridor, smiling despite his anger when he saw the words that had been stenciled in gold letters on the very impressive wooden door.

“Commander T’Pol

Warp Six Project Executive Director”

You busy in there, Madam Project Director? he sent, shielding his emotional turmoil from her so as not to disturb her if she was not able to speak to him.

He sensed her welcome relief. Allow me to finish with my current appointment, Trip… It will only take a moment. Please come in.

Trip opened the door and walked into an oasis of Vulcan calmness. The waiting area contained a practical but surprisingly comfortable arrangement of two chairs, a medium sized couch and a coffee table. T’Pol had insisted on furniture that was sufficiently comfortable for the Human members of her staff. She’d gotten rid of the hard backed Vulcan furniture the first day, but the décor otherwise remained the same. A photograph of Mount Seleya was on one wall, with a photograph of the Grand Canyon facing it on the opposite wall. The walls were painted a soft red-brown... the same color as Vulcan stone. Artificial candelabra graced the walls. The soft fluid sounds of a rock fountain placed at the far end of the room provided a soothing background noise that immediately began to work its magic on his ruffled temper. It was literally impossible to be upset for long in such calming surroundings. T’Pol’s secretary, a young Starfleet officer, sat at a small desk facing the waiting area with her attention fixed on the console in front of her, her fingers flying on the keys. Trip approached her desk and softly cleared his throat. She looked up at him, and gave him a warm smile.

“May I help you, Commander?”

Her smile, as usual, was a good deal more welcoming than it needed to be. Trip found it amusing that, now that he was no longer on the market, it seemed that the women of his acquaintance found him even more irresistible than before. He had no regrets, but he did find it flattering.

“The Director is expectin’ me, Ensign Heier,” replied Trip with a courteous smile.

“I’ll let her know you’re here, Commander,” replied the young woman politely. She reached for the intercom as the inner office door opened.

“I will, of course, take your concerns into consideration when I make my decision,” said T’Pol coolly as she rather unceremoniously escorted the chief Vulcan engineer to the door. Storr, being Vulcan, did not show any anger over his abrupt dismissal, but Trip could sense T’Pol’s emotions after their encounter, and she was quite angry enough for both of them. Storr nodded to her briefly, and turned to leave the waiting room without acknowledging either Human’s presence. T’Pol stood watching him leave with one brow raised, and then turned to Trip.

“Commander?” she said softly in invitation, and stepped back to allow him into her inner sanctum. T’Pol turned to the young, blonde ensign. “I do not wish to be disturbed for the next hour,” she said calmly. The young woman gave an efficient nod.

“Understood, ma’am.” She watched the two of them enter T’Pol’s office with an envious expression on her face, then sighed and returned to her console.

T’Pol closed the door firmly behind her and turned to see Trip standing there with his arms open... waiting. She walked toward him and laid her head on his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist without a word. She sighed in relief as his affection for her surrounded her both mentally and physically, soothing her anger and restoring her control. Calming T’Pol’s anger calmed Trip’s as well, and his arms tightened around her for a moment as he reveled in the physical contact.

Rough day, darlin’? he asked in concern.

Storr believes that he should be on board the John Glenn on its maiden voyage. I told him that the six-man crew should be composed only of people who have been working hands-on with the engine. He disagreed, she sent back in irritation.

Storr is a brilliant theoretical engineer, conceded Trip. But I’m not real sure whether he knows one end of a lug wrench from the other, he sent jokingly. I’d rather have one guy along who knows how to fix the engine when there’s a problem than twenty theoretical engineers. He felt T’Pol’s amusement.

I am pleased that you approve of my decision, husband, she replied, ... but you did not come to see me today to discuss my crew complement decisions.

Trip pulled back and looked her in the eye. How do you do that? he sent in amazement.

T’Pol tilted her head back to gaze back at him smugly. Your shields may be solid, t’hy’la, but your face still gives you away. Something is upsetting you.

Trip smiled at her reluctantly. He paused for a moment, as if he were trying to decide how to phrase his next statement. Then he spoke.

“I met Assistant Mechanic Ramirez for the first time today,” he told her. He felt her surprise in the bond. She stepped out of his embrace and gazed at his face intently.

“He approached you?” she asked calmly.

“He said you knew him, and suggested that I speak with you about his performance,” replied Trip.

“He’s an excellent mechanic, and quite trustworthy. I plan to put him on board the John Glenn,” said T’Pol. I will explain, Trip, she added silently. Please do not be angry. We cannot discuss it aloud, though. It is not safe.

Trip crossed his arms over his chest and gazed at her in aggravation. Then he nodded in acceptance.

“Thank you for the information, Commander,” he replied. He stepped back up to her and wrapped his arms around her again. He lowered his shields, allowing her to see his anger at his father and his concern for her safety and the safety of everyone on the project.

Okay darlin’, my shields are down, he told her. How about you explain to me exactly why you’re okay with harborin’ a known Terra Prime sympathizer in the middle of this critical project?

Jonathan Archer stepped out of the motor pool ground car and thanked the young driver in Starfleet uniform. He’d forgone his uniform in favor of lightweight tan slacks and a blue short-sleeved knit shirt in the Texas heat. His driver smiled brightly at him... she looked so young... and pulled away again. He walked up the steps and knocked on the right hand door as he’d been instructed. T’Pol answered the door. Archer stood and stared.

“I have been informed that this manner of dress will be less conspicuous tonight than my usual clothing,” she said in response to his open-jawed look. “Please come in, Captain.” She stepped aside to allow him entry, giving him an unobstructed view of her buttoned-down cotton shirt and jeans. T’Pol was correct. Her clothing was completely ordinary and non-descript. It was the shape beneath the clothing that was going to garner some attention.

“You look very... western, Commander,” replied Archer with a smile.

“Doesn’t she, though?” came Trip’s voice from the kitchen. He walked up to the two of them with a broad smile on his face, also dressed in a western shirt and jeans, and handed T’Pol a glass of iced tea. She took it from him and sipped with obvious approval.

“Want some, Cap’n? It’s peach flavored iced tea,” said Trip. Archer looked from one of them to the other. A week had made a difference in the way they behaved toward each other, or perhaps it was just the setting. He looked around. Trip’s engineering manuals were in a stack next to the computer console, and the stone icon from T’Pol’s quarters on Enterprise graced the wall. They were obviously sharing the one apartment. Archer smiled back at Trip. The homey domesticity of the scene made his loneliness even more difficult to take.

“Love some,” Archer said. Trip went back into the kitchen to fetch another glass.

“We’ve got some people meetin’ us at the restaurant,” called Trip over his shoulder as he opened the stasis box to pull out the pitcher. The ice remained unmelted, the condensation on the pitcher undisturbed since he’d made the tea the day before. He poured the captain a glass and put the pitcher away again. “One of ‘em’s Kov... remember him?”

Archer smiled in recollection as he took the glass from Trip and sipped, nodding his thanks. “Of course I do, Trip... but don’t you think it’s a little strange to invite a Vulcan out for barbeque?”

Trip shrugged. “I think Kov’s got a friend who’ll enjoy the place more than he does... and he eats meat occasionally, y’know... Besides, T’Pol tells me the beans aren’t too bad at this place, and if ya ask real nice they’ll even make ‘em without the bacon.”

Archer chuckled and drank more tea. Trip cocked his head at his captain, and with a mischievous look on his face, walked to the desk and picked up a PADD. He activated it and handed it to Archer. “We’ve also invited another acquaintance of mine,” he said.

Archer took the PADD. The screen showed a professional website.

“M. Elena Sanchez, Attorney at Law?” read Archer in a puzzled voice. He looked up at Trip, who nodded encouragingly. Archer opened one of the other files on the PADD and found a news article detailing the courtroom exploits of a woman who was apparently a veritable bulldog both in and out of the courtroom. During the Terra Prime trials, she’d never backed down... not once. Just reading the one article made Archer admire her... and fear her wrath. His eyes returned to Trip’s.

“And exactly how did you meet this warhorse?” Archer asked him dryly. Trip looked back at him in surprise, and then took the PADD from him with a laugh.

“Don’t just go by what you read, Jon... have a look at this.” He brought up another file and handed the PADD back to his friend. A courtroom photograph that had made the front pages during the trial filled the screen. Archer saw then why the lawyer had such a following with the general public. She was relentless in the courtroom, to be sure, but no grizzled, overweight male defense lawyer would ever be able to beat the media appeal of the chief prosecutor on the Terra Prime case. She was in a business suit in the photo, unsmiling and serious, wearing minimal makeup, and she was still the most breathtakingly beautiful woman Archer had ever seen.

“That’s the warhorse?” said Archer in disbelief.

“Sure is, Jon... and she’s dyin’ ta meet ya,” Trip told him with a smile.

“She wants to meet me...” Archer repeated with a dawning look of suspicion. “Trip! What did you do?”

Trip grinned in satisfaction, and then looked at his wrist chronometer. “Time ta go, Jon. Ya wouldn’t wanna keep your date waitin’, now would ya?”

Maria Elena Sanchez arrived thirty minutes early... her usual habit in unfamiliar surroundings. Taking a seat at the bar, she ordered a Perrier with lime. The nearly tasteless drink was a dead ringer for a gin and tonic, which had been her ex-husband’s drink of choice in the early years of their marriage. It had become her preferred beverage when she wished to give the appearance of joining in on the fun, but needed to keep her wits about her. Years as the greatly underestimated wife of a successful attorney and judge had taught her the value of camouflage. When she’d finally decided that she was tired of being underestimated and began her own successful career, her years of silent listening and social posturing had paid off. There wasn’t a single lawyer, judge or wealthy businessman in Houston who could afford to have her as his enemy. She simply knew too much. She’d found that hiding behind an apparently alcoholic beverage and listening with obvious fascination to a man’s every word yielded an amazing amount of useful information. Unfortunately, after her divorce she discovered that it also usually ended any relationship before it even began. Too much information too soon never failed to burst her bubble and bring her back down to Earth. Elena Sanchez didn’t trust men as a general principle. They were weak at best, and liars at worst. She’d yet to meet a man capable of changing that opinion.

Elena gazed about the room as she sipped her drink. The building was only a few years old, but had been built in the traditional style of an old wooden barn from the mid-twentieth century. The wooden rafters were exposed, and the light fixtures hanging from chains on the ceiling resembled wagon wheels with artificial candles mounted on them. The floor of the place was concrete, and on each table were baskets of roasted peanuts that the diners were encouraged to shell, eat, and then toss on the floor. The tables were covered with red and white checkered tablecloths, and all of the wait staff wore jeans, cowboy boots, and matching “King’s Ranch Barbeque Barn” t-shirts which could, incidentally, be purchased at the gift shop for a mere 50$ U.S. The mechanical bull was off to the side of the dining area, and was quiescent for the moment, awaiting its first challengers of the evening.

Elena could remember coming to a place like this for a rare treat once with her father and six younger brothers after the death of her mother. The boys had run wild, and she, the designated caretaker while her father got quietly drunk at the table, had chased them down one after the other in the attempt to make them behave... with rather questionable results. No one at this type of restaurant ever seemed to mind. At seven pm, the live entertainment had not yet begun, but there were already a few couples on the dance floor two-stepping to the country western classics being played over the restaurant’s sound system. Families with children enjoyed their steaks and burgers at tables side by side with the workmen and women from local businesses. Some still wore business suits, but most wore the standard off-duty uniform of the western U.S... jeans and a t-shirt.

Elena ran her hands over her denim-clad thighs rather nervously. She couldn’t remember the last time that she’d worn jeans for a night out, but she’d known by Commander Tucker’s description of the place that her usual wardrobe would have seemed pretentious in this place. When she’d been married, her role as trophy bride had required that she dress the part, and Jeffrey had always made certain that she was constantly aware of her appearance. Later, when she’d finally gotten free of his control, there were the business luncheons and dinners, and the need for clients and business associates to take her seriously despite her appearance. Even on this night, when she’d forced herself to dress down for the occasion, she’d found herself unable to resort to a simple t-shirt. Needing the boost of self-confidence that she always received from fine clothes, she’d chosen a low cut silk blouse in a rich maroon to pair with her jeans. The combination wasn’t as casual as a t-shirt would have been, but the smoothness of the silk against her skin boosted her spirits and her confidence... a confidence that was in serious need of a boost when she saw a familiar blond-headed Starfleet commander enter the restaurant.

Charles Tucker the Third was accompanied by an unfamiliar Vulcan female, dressed in jeans, of all things! That turned some heads, although the fact that she was probably the most beautiful woman Elena had ever seen... Vulcan or Human... also probably had something to do with it. Behind them came a dark-haired man in casual slacks and a knit shirt... no uniform. Elena stopped breathing and stared. The face was the same one from the newscasts, but out-of-uniform, Jonathan Archer seemed less like a legend, and more like a very attractive man who, if Commander Tucker was to be believed, had expressed a desire to meet her based on her achievements rather than her face.

I can’t believe I agreed to do this! she thought in sudden panic. The man’s probably got a woman on every planet. How could he possibly be interested in me?

She had a fleeting urge to get up from the bar and hide in the ladies’ room until the coast was clear, but Commander Tucker’s sharp eyes caught sight of her from across the room. He waved enthusiastically, grinning broadly at her. Elena smiled briefly at him, and looked past him to Jonathan Archer. The hero of the Xindi conflict was staring at her with an odd look on his face. She saw him grab Commander Tucker by the arm and whisper something in his ear with an intent expression. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought the man was terrified. It couldn’t possibly be true of course, but she found that just the idea that Jonathan Archer might be just as nervous about meeting her as she was about meeting him gave her the self-confidence to slide off the barstool and walk toward the trio at the door with a smile on her face, Perrier in hand.

Jonathan Archer followed Trip and T’Pol into the restaurant. He still had some serious misgivings about the situation, but Trip had insisted that Miss Sanchez would be greatly offended and disappointed if he failed to show, and something within Archer’s lonely soul balked at causing another being pain after all the pain he’d surely inflicted on others with his decisions in the Expanse. He’d just decided that he would be polite with the woman, even sign an autograph if she really wanted one, and then let her go back to her successful career and fulfilling life without the baggage of becoming involved with an always-absent Starfleet captain, when Trip called his attention to the figure sitting at the bar across the room. She was perched on a barstool with a drink in one hand, wearing an elegant blouse of dark red silk and a pair of hip-hugging stretch jeans that highlighted a voluptuous figure better suited to an artist’s model than a successful lawyer. She wore her wavy black hair down over her shoulders, and had applied makeup with a slightly more generous hand than in her professional photographs. He stared. If M. Elena Sanchez, severe and professional attorney, had been breathtakingly beautiful, then this incarnation was positively unbelievable. He grabbed Trip’s arm.

“I can’t do this, Trip... it’s humiliating!” he whispered. “What could a woman like that possibly see in a guy like me?” Trip turned and looked into Archer’s panicked eyes with a smile fixed on his face.

“It’s too late now, Jon.” he murmured, showing clenched teeth. “Pull yerself together! She’s comin’ over.”

Archer glanced across the room, and realized that Trip was correct. He released Trip’s arm, and straightened his shoulders, putting on his best diplomatic smile as she approached.

Through this entire exchange, T’Pol had watched her captain’s expressions in fascination. As the woman approached, T’Pol transferred her gaze to the attorney’s face. She stood back and observed the interaction. The woman approached Trip for introductions.

“Good evening, Commander,” said Elena, in a sultry voice that sounded like honey tasted to Archer. He hung back as Trip grinned good-naturedly at her and shook her hand in a friendly fashion.

“Well, good evenin’ Miss Sanchez! I’m real glad you could make it.” He stepped to the side, gesturing first to T’Pol. “I’d like ta introduce Commander T’Pol of Starfleet and the Warp Six Project...” T’Pol nodded politely with her hands at her sides. Elena Sanchez nodded briefly in return. She made no move to shake hands.

“Commander... I’m pleased to meet you,” said Elena with a smile. “I admire your adventurous spirit... to come to a place like this with a man like Commander Tucker is likely to be quite an experience.”

T’Pol raised a brow at her in bland amusement. “Indeed,” she agreed. The two women gazed at each other for a moment in perfect understanding before Trip cleared his throat.

“And this is Captain Jonathan Archer,” Trip continued, grasping Archer by the arm and pulling him forward. “Cap’n... Miss Elena Sanchez.” Trip stepped back, leaving Jon and Elena standing abruptly face to face with each other. Their eyes met, and neither of them said anything for the space of several seconds.

Archer extended his right hand without taking his eyes from her face. She grasped his hand in hers as she gazed back at him with undisguised admiration. His “Pleased to meet you, Miss Sanchez” tangled with her “It’s an honor, Captain”, leaving them both standing silently afterwards like a pair of tongue-tied teenagers. They smiled shyly at each other, and then did it again with “Just call me Elena” and “My name is Jon”. With the formalities taken care of, Archer offered her his arm, still looking into her eyes with an awestruck expression. She took it without a word, smiling up at him as he escorted her to the table that Trip had reserved near the dance floor. Trip bit his lip to prevent himself from laughing as he watched the two of them walk across the room. He looked at T’Pol, who was gazing after them with a mildly surprised look on her face.

So... whatcha think? asked Trip silently with a self-satisfied grin. Can I pick ‘em, or what? He could sense T’Pol’s puzzlement in the bond.

I have never seen the captain react in quite that manner to an introduction before, she replied.

What’s the matter, darlin’? Don’t Vulcans believe in love at first sight? he responded teasingly as they began to make their way toward the table.

The question is moot, for, as you are well aware, Vulcans do not acknowledge the existence of romantic love in the sense that Humans generally describe it, she sent back. She eyed him as they walked side by side. However, from personal experience I would have to say that the concept does have merit... although in my case it was closer to intense physical awareness at first sight, she told him matter-of-factly.

He grinned. Don’t ya mean lust? he shot back. She raised a brow and thought for a moment.

Perhaps, she answered. He felt her amusement despite the blandness of her facial expression and laughed.

I’m sorry ta disappoint ya darlin’, but for me it was pure-D aggravation at first sight... She cocked her head, waiting for the punch line she knew was coming. He grinned mischievously at her and continued, ... and a helluva lotta lust... I mean, what did ya expect with those skintight uniforms ya wear?

Kov entered the King’s Ranch Barbeque Barn with Janie firmly clinging to his arm. He could sense that she felt anxious about appearing young and stupid in the company of the older, more experienced people she’d be dining with that evening. Despite his discomfort with her blatant public displays of affection, Kov could feel the reassurance she derived from physical contact, and tried his best to suppress his distress. Her concerned expression and her immediate release of his arm as they walked toward the table where the others were waiting told him that his efforts had not been entirely successful.

“Sorry,” she whispered softly, grinning at him ruefully as they walked across the room. “I forgot again.” He returned her smile with a subtle one of his own, stopped in his tracks, and then extended two fingers toward her. Her grin broadened as she recognized the Vulcan gesture of affection he’d just taught her, and she raised two fingers to touch his lightly. The contact reassured her, and didn’t make him unduly uncomfortable. “That’s better,” she said.

He exhaled in relief. “Yes,” he agreed. They turned in unison and approached the table with their hands at their sides, fingers still touching. Trip caught sight of them and waved them over.

“See, T’Pol?” he said as the two arrived. “I told ya that ya wouldn’t be the only Vulcan in the place dressed in jeans!” Kov turned to Commander T’Pol and found, to his surprise, that she was indeed dressed as Trip described. She was also gazing at the blonde engineer with an expression that, for a Vulcan, approached acute embarrassment. She gave Trip a quelling look, which he returned with an innocent expression as he lifted his hands. She shook her head. The silent exchange went on in a similar fashion for several seconds.

Kov noticed Captain Archer watching the two of them with a tolerant smile, while Miss Sanchez looked on in puzzlement. She leaned toward the captain and whispered in a voice easily heard by Vulcan ears.

“It’s almost like they’re having a conversation. Do they do this often?” she asked in fascination.

“All the time,” he whispered back in amusement.

Kov turned back to the two commanders, who had both now fixed their attention on the newest arrivals to the table. They appeared to be completely unaware of how revealing their behavior was to Vulcan eyes. Kov found this new development unexpected, but quite enlightening. It was now obvious to him exactly why his friend had been so accepting of his relationship with Janie, but it was rather disappointing that Trip had not chosen to confide in him. He nodded and gave Trip one of his barely-there smiles.

“I apologize for being late,” he said simply. He gave no excuse.

“It was my fault,” piped up Janie with a grin and a shrug. “I couldn’t decide what to wear.”

“Well, you look nice ta me,” said Trip gallantly, with a meaningful look toward Kov and a minute tilt of his head toward Janie. Kov just stared at him with a puzzled expression. Trip tilted his head toward Janie again with a bit more force. Kov’s expression cleared.

“Yes... “ Kov said, turning to Janie, looking over her slim form, clad in jeans and a tight-fitting t-shirt, and then pausing as if he were searching for words. “... the clothing that you have chosen is... ah... quite appropriate.” Trip rolled his eyes. Janie smiled brightly at Kov as if he’d just given her the most flowery compliment ever given to a woman in the history of flowery compliments.

“Thank you,” she said shyly. Kov smiled at her, causing her to blush. Everyone at the table watched the two of them indulgently.

“Is this your entire party, sir?” asked the waiter who was standing unnoticed next to Trip’s chair.

Trip pulled his eyes away from the scene of young love personified to look up at the man with a startled expression. “Huh? Oh... Sure is!” he told him. He motioned to Kov and Janie to sit down, and then told the waiter, “Now that we’re all here, I’m ready to order... I’m starvin’ half to death!”

The table was a jumble of empty dishes surrounded by a ring of satisfied faces by the time a smooth, deep country voice announced from the dance floor, “The live entertainment is about to begin, ladies and gents! Before our band comes on stage, I’d like ta introduce Buddy and Loretta, our dance instructors!” The D.J. stood and waved at the two people standing in the center of the room, and then stepped down from the stage.

Janie turned in her seat at the announcement and craned her neck for a better view. An attractive middle-aged couple in jeans, cowboy boots, and King’s Ranch Barbeque Barn t-shirts were spotlighted in the middle of the dance floor.

“We’d like to invite all couples who’d like a country dance lesson ta come on down for the next fifteen minutes and learn the basics,” continued the male dancer into his throat mike. He and his partner smiled welcomingly at the crowd, and couples began to trickle down. Behind them, the band was setting up. Recorded country classics played at low volume in the background. Janie looked at Kov with an eager expression on her face, but he was gazing at the couple on the dance floor with an intent look and failed to notice. As the music played louder and the dance instructors began the lesson, Janie sat back in her chair, looking disappointed. Trip kicked Kov under the table to catch his attention. When Kov turned his head with a puzzled look, Trip jerked his head at Janie. A bit faster on the uptake this time, Kov turned to Janie and surreptitiously reached to touch her hand under the table with a small smile. He immediately sensed her disappointment. She felt his concern and returned his smile with a shy one of her own.

“The dance lesson looks like fun,” she said softly, her eyes meeting his briefly, and then returning longingly to the couples twirling on the dance floor.

Kov’s brow went up in surprise, and he gazed at her wistful face for a moment. Then he exhaled, pushed away from the table, and stood. Offering her his hand, he said, “I agree. Shall we go?” Janie’s face lit up with a smile bright enough to light the entire room as she sprang to her feet and pulled him eagerly to the dance floor. Archer chuckled at the look of helpless bewilderment on the poor Vulcan engineer’s face.

“You’ve got to give him credit... he’s certainly trying his best,” he told Trip. “How long have they been dating?”

“Not long,” answered Trip vaguely. Archer was still unaware of the existence of Vulcan bonding, and Trip didn’t want to be the one to break the Vulcan High Council’s ban on the release of the private details of Vulcan biology to the public. “They’re takin’ it slow, though... she’s real young still, and he doesn’t wanna rush her... but he’s got it bad!”

“I can tell,” agreed Archer. He turned to Elena. “Didn’t you meet Trip through the two of them?”

She smiled and nodded. “Commander Tucker was kind enough to offer to help us with a legal matter, and just after we met, he said you wanted to meet me.” She cocked her head and gazed at Archer playfully. “I couldn’t very well turn down an introduction to the hero of the Xindi war, now could I?”

Archer grinned back and shook his head ruefully. “Trip tends to exaggerate a bit... but he was exactly correct about me wanting to meet you,” he replied softly. Their eyes met, and abruptly it seemed to him that they were alone in the crowded room. He could hear Trip and T’Pol conversing at the other end of the table, but their words were unimportant.

“I’ve been meaning to ask...” he said. “What does the “M” stand for?”

Elena looked puzzled for a moment, and then she realized what he was referring to.

“Maria... “ she replied with a shrug and a smile. “All of the women in my family for the past five generations have been named Maria. My mother was Maria Constanza... my grandmother Maria Lucia.” Archer’s breath caught in his throat. When Elena Sanchez spoke English, she did so without a trace of any accent save a slight southern twang... but when she spoke the traditional names of her family, it was with a rolling, liquid accent that revealed her Hispanic heritage. It was a beautiful sound.

“It’s a Catholic thing,” she continued. “My grandmother used to say it was to teach us humility and submission... the ‘Let it be done to me as you will’ line was one of her favorites.” Elena smiled warmly at him. “She found out very early in my youth that I don’t do submission well.”

Archer laughed softly. “I could tell that from the news articles,” he replied. Then his expression changed suddenly, and he had to bite his tongue to keep from saying the next thing that popped in to his mind. He couldn’t help thinking it, though. The association of the woman before him with the word “submission” brought a grin to his face and a warmth to certain other areas of his body. I might not mind doing a little submission if she were the one asking, was his thought as he stood and offered his arm to lead her to the dance floor.

Charles Tucker Junior walked into the restaurant and headed straight for the men’s room at 7:55 pm. He’d nearly reached his goal when Jack Gardner’s unmistakable voice, trained by years of making himself understood over the racket of running engines of all sorts, roared out over the crowd, causing everyone within earshot... which, despite the size of the room, amounted to pretty much everyone present... to turn their heads and look at him.

“Hey, Ramirez! We’re over here!”

Tucker sighed, and made the detour to Gardner’s table. He was sitting with a sturdy looking white-haired lady wearing jeans and a dark tan on her weathered face.

“Why don’t ya join us?” invited Gardner with a grin and a welcoming wave of his hand. “This is my mom, Virginia. She’s over from San Antonio ta visit.” The older woman smiled and shook Tucker’s hand with a surprisingly firm grip. “She breeds horses over there... and there’s a show this weekend,” explained Gardner.

“I’m pleased ta meet ya, ma’am,” said Tucker.

The woman smiled flirtatiously at him, and abruptly Tucker realized that he was a lot closer to her age than to Jack’s. Her wrinkled face had fooled him. She wasn’t as old as she looked... and she apparently found him attractive.

“Just call me Virginia,” she told him, and patted the chair next to her, while Jack beamed benevolently over the whole proceedings. Charles smiled weakly and gestured behind him toward the bathrooms.

“I’ll... um... be right back,” he said hastily, and turned back the way he’d come. He entered the bathroom and went into the farthest stall, leaving the door open a crack so he could see everyone who came and went. After a few moments, his son entered the room. Charles stepped out from his hiding place.

“Hey, Trip.” he said softly. “Did ya talk to T’Pol?”

Trip crossed his arms over his chest. “How long have ya worked for the good guys, Dad?” he asked reluctantly, as if he still had trouble believing in this new story after being lied to so many times.

“They came ta me after I got out of the hospital, son,” replied Charles in a quiet voice. “They told me Terra Prime was plannin’ ta recruit me and that they wanted me ta go along with it... and I couldn’t tell anybody, not even yer mama.” He sighed and shook his head. “I didn’t like the idea at all at first... but when they explained ta me that it could affect the security of the whole planet, how was I supposed ta say no?” he asked plaintively.

Trip grinned. “I guess ya couldn’t, Dad... but boy is Mama pissed!”

Charles chuckled softly. “Don’t I know it!” He looked at Trip hopefully. “Ya think ya might be able ta help me out... maybe convince Starfleet ta let me tell her where I’ve been after this is all over so she doesn’t divorce me?”

Trip shook his head with a doubtful expression. “I’m not real sure that’ll help, Dad,” he said half-jokingly. “I talked to her last week, and she sounded like the next time she sees you she’s gonna shoot first and ask questions later... but I’ll give it a try.” His face abruptly sobered. “T’Pol says you need me ta do somethin’ for ya, Dad. Why don’t ya tell me about it.”

Charles Tucker nodded, and handed him a data disc. “I need ta figure out a way ta simulate a warp core breach without puttin’ anybody in danger... and it has ta be really convincin’, or the jig’s up and my cover is blown.” Trip’s brows went up in surprise, and then his face took on a thoughtful expression as the wheels of his mind began to turn.

“I’ll get back with ya on that tomorrow, Dad,” he replied absently as turned to leave the room, already deep in a creative fugue state that left him barely aware of his surroundings.

“Ramirez, Commander,” Charles reminded him. “Call me Ramirez.”

Trip nodded without looking at him. “Right, Dad... see ya in the mornin’,” he said, and walked out.

Tucker chuckled and shook his head. It’s a wonder the boy doesn’t walk into walls when he gets like that, he thought. He waited a few moments, and then left the bathroom to rejoin Gardner and his overeager mother. It was going to be an interesting evening.

As Charles Tucker walked toward his friend’s table, Elena Sanchez walked out of the ladies’ room. Being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time had served her well on many occasions in the past, and tonight was no exception. The pipes that traversed the rear wall of the men’s room and entered the rear wall of the ladies’ room conducted sound very well. She had a very pleased expression on her face. Fortune had just handed her a positively golden opportunity.

Trip walked up to Kov, who stood watching his chosen mate as she rode a mechanical device intended, as far as he could ascertain, to imitate a male bovine with an unpleasant temper. She had thus far bested every other person who’d attempted to stay on the device that evening by several seconds without apparent effort, and money was beginning to exchange hands on the periphery of the gathering crowd. She had a determined smile on her face and showed no signs of tiring.

“How long’s she been up there?” asked Trip with interest.

“One minute and thirty seven seconds,” replied Kov without taking his eyes away from her.

“How long did the others stay up?”

“Her closest competitor thus far was that gentleman over there.” Kov tilted his head toward a muscle-bound fellow who was just standing there watching Janie with his mouth open. “He lasted fifty- eight seconds. It was a new record,” said Kov blandly.

They stood watching for a few seconds. Without taking his eyes from Janie, Kov asked Trip softly, “How long have you and Commander T’Pol been bonded?”

Trip’s eyes flew to Kov’s face in alarm. The Vulcan’s expression remained carefully neutral, his eyes fixed on the scene in front of him. Trip sighed in resignation.

“It’s been about a year now for the marriage bond... and a while before that with... well... whatever it was we had before,” he replied vaguely. “How did ya guess?”

“My parents were fortunate enough to develop the kind of full telepathic bond one rarely sees now in modern Vulcan marriages,” replied Kov. “For someone who has lived with a couple who possess that type of connection, the signs are quite obvious. You and Commander T’Pol should be very careful with your interactions in the presence of other Vulcans. I am not the only one capable of making the observation,” he warned him evenly. Trip exhaled.

“Thanks, Kov,” he said sincerely.

Kov nodded, eyeing him with a tiny smile. Then his gaze returned to Janie, who was beginning to look a bit tired as she hung on with both hands.

As they watched, Janie gave her audience an apologetic grin, saying,”I’m done, ya’ll. I can’t afford ta hurt myself. I’ve gotta get up and go ta work in the mornin’!” She released the rein, and riding for a second without hands, swung one long leg over the bull’s back in between bucks and slid gracefully to the floor, landing on both feet instead of the portion of the body that everyone else that evening had landed on when they dismounted. The crowd broke into loud whistles and cheers, and several muscular young men elbowed each other to reach her side and try to wangle an introduction. She stopped them all in their tracks by walking over to Kov and taking his arm. Smiling sweetly at him, she announced in a loud voice, “Will ya take me home now, Honey?”

Kov, for once undisturbed by her public show of affection, ignored the handsome Human males as they stood in a group with comically amazed expressions on their faces, placed his hand over hers as it lay on his arm, and turned to leave without a word, his head held high. Janie smiled.

Jonathan Archer released his date reluctantly as the final notes of the last song of the evening sounded over the dance floor. They were the only couple remaining, and the only members of their dinner party still at the restaurant. Trip and T’Pol had left at ten pm, immediately after the departure of a triumphant Janie Rafter with her favorite Vulcan in tow. Elena had volunteered to drive Jon to Trip’s apartment at the end of the evening, and so they were left alone. They stood in the middle of the dance floor holding hands. When the restaurant staff began cleaning up around them, they took the hint that it was time to go, and walked to the exit. They stood just outside the door, looking up at the moon. Elena turned to Jon.

“When are you shipping out?” she asked softly. Her eyes gazed up hopefully into his in the semi-darkness. He smiled regretfully back at her.

“We break orbit in four hours,” he answered.

Her eyes widened. “Oh...” she whispered in a disappointed voice. She looked at him in puzzlement. “Shouldn’t you already be back on board?” she asked. “Even a Starfleet captain needs to sleep.”

He smiled and reached for her, pulling her back into his arms as if they were dancing. She put her arms around his neck. This time, there was no music, and she could feel the evidence of his arousal against her body. “I can always sleep in space... but I can’t do this...” he whispered. Keeping his eyes open, watching for any sign of hesitancy in her eyes, he lowered his mouth to hers in a tentative kiss. She tightened her arms around his neck and rose up on her toes, deepening the kiss and exploring his mouth eagerly until they were both breathless. He broke away, resting his forehead on hers as he caught his breath.

“Wow...” he chuckled. “That was some first kiss!” He pulled back and caressed her face gently with one hand as he searched her face with his eyes. “What’s happening here?” he asked her softly with a pleading look on his face. “If this is a one night stand about to happen, I need you to bring me to Trip’s place now... because I don’t think I could stand losing you once I have you naked in my arms.”

Elena felt her face respond with heat to the image his words brought to mind, but she didn’t step away. “When will you be back?” she whispered huskily.

“The Enterprise is scheduled to return in three months... but schedules may change,” he warned her.

She swallowed. “I can wait, if you really feel we should,” she said reluctantly. “I mean... if you think this is too sudden, we can correspond for a while by subspace message... Get to know each other a bit more before we...” His kiss stopped her in mid-sentence and she stopped thinking again for a time. Her hands caressed his muscular shoulders. He slipped his hand beneath the silkiness of her shirt and touched the warm skin of her lower back for just a moment, and then apparently decided that it was too dangerous an activity for such a public place, and removed his hand abruptly, smoothing the soft silk down once again. He grasped her face in both hands as he kissed her hungrily. She pressed her body against his and aggressively returned his kiss. Suddenly they heard a tapping behind them and they broke apart, startled. A teenage boy in a King’s Ranch Barbeque Barn t-shirt grinned at them through the window. His lips moved silently behind the glass with exaggerated care, mouthing the words, “Get A Room!”

Elena laughed quietly. “The second kiss wasn’t too damn bad either,” she said in an amused tone of voice. She gazed at Jon for a moment in reluctant respect for his struggle to do the right thing, and finally decided that she agreed with him. Stepping away from him and walking toward the bench set against the front façade of the restaurant, she patted the seat next to her, and then turned to face him as he sat down.

“Tell me about your childhood, Jon... “ she said, giving him her full attention. “What was your father like?”

Trip sat at the computer console in the living room poring over a complex schematic outlined on the screen in front of him. He made a change, and then ran a computer simulation, frowning at the results. Returning to the original schematic, he made another change, and tried again. T’Pol came up behind him and placed slim, warm arms around his neck, stroking his chest with both hands.

“It is 2300 hours, Trip... and we both must go to work in the morning,” she whispered into his ear.

“Just a minute... I’m almost done,” he muttered distractedly. “I’ve almost got this warp core sensor thing licked...”

“It is our week to explore the bathroom,” she breathed, “... and I have not yet showered this evening. Would you care to assist me?” She reached forward, saved his data, and then came around his chair to stand in front of him. Abruptly it registered to his technology-obsessed brain that she was dressed in nothing but a big fluffy towel. He could hear the shower running in the bathroom. Being a man of many talents and interests, Trip rapidly switched gears.

“I suppose the warp core sensors can wait ‘til mornin’,” he replied with a grin. He pushed back the chair and followed her eagerly into the bathroom, shedding articles of clothing as he went.

M. Elena Sanchez, Attorney at Law, entered the offices of Cook, King, and Sanchez that morning yawning, but with a rather uncharacteristically cheerful expression on her face. Miranda, the grey-haired motherly secretary who’d worked for her ever since her first frightening days as a brand new divorcee, grinned at her teasingly.

“Well...? How did it go?” she asked with an expectant look at her boss.

Elena gave her a rather embarrassed smile. “You were right... he’s a very nice man,” she conceded. She rolled her eyes. “He’s shipping out this morning and won’t be back for three months.”

Miranda chuckled. “My Billy was in the military,” she told the younger woman. “Military men make wonderful husbands. You can run the house the way you want to, and every time they come home it’s like a honeymoon all over again.”

Elena blushed and shook her head at the woman as she walked past the secretary’s desk and into her own office. “It was only a date, Miranda... I’m not planning on marrying the man!” she claimed as she shut the door.

Miranda smiled knowingly. “Not yet, maybe... but no one’s made you blush in fifteen years, Elena Sanchez,” she called through the closed door.

Inside her office, Elena sat at her desk and raised both hands to her warm cheeks. This is ridiculous! All we did is dance and talk... she thought in exasperation, ...and kiss, she admitted to herself. Don’t forget about the kissing...

It was actually quite difficult that morning to think about anything else after the amazing dreams she’d had in the three hours of sleep that she’d managed to get. I guess it’s been so long since it’s gotten any stimulation at all that my poor body’s on overdrive now, she thought with resignation. It was going to be a very long three months. She activated her console and sent a text message to the Enterprise. Then she tucked that aspect of her life tidily away into the back of her mind and got down to business.

Elena entered the code for the District Attorney’s office where she’d worked for twelve years before being recruited, thanks to her media appeal, by Cook and King, one of the most prestigious law firms in Houston. She was a partner now after only two years, a feat once thought impossible by her critics... including her ex-husband who’d once insultingly implied that she’d slept her way to the top. That would have been much easier than the twenty-four hour seven day a week devotion to her job that had actually gotten her where she was... but casual sex was neither smart nor honorable, and Elena Sanchez prided herself on being both. She still often worked closely with Mike Johnson, the District Attorney who’d been her boss for so many years, but it had been months since she’d seen him. Her face lit up in a friendly smile when Mike’s familiar dark, chubby face appeared on the screen.

“Mike! How are you?” She tilted her head and looked at the middle-aged man before her with a thoughtful expression. His coffee colored skin had a healthy glow, and he seemed to have one less chin since the last time she’d seen him. “You look great! Have you lost some weight?”

Johnson beamed at her. “Forty pounds!” he announced proudly. “I feel like a new man! Louella and I have been playing tennis and cutting down on the calories.”

“It certainly shows, Mike,” replied Elena. “I’m glad you’re feeling good... and now I’ve got some news that’ll make you feel great. Remember the evidence we got from the Terra Primers on Buchanan?”

Johnson sighed and nodded. “Yeah... I remember... the stuff the defense lawyers got thrown out on a technicality so we never even had enough evidence to arrest the guy? How could I forget?”

“I’ve come into possession of some information that I hope will make the evidence we have on Buchanan so far look like a parking ticket, Mike. I need you to check something out for me. Check the unsolved John Doe cases over at Houston PD, and see if one of them matches the identity of a guy named Alfonso Ramirez. I think he’s a Mexican national, so you may need to check the international database. Then compare it to the information on the same guy who’s officially on the civilian personnel roster for the Warp Six Project. What I think you’ll find is that there are two guys of the same name, and one of them’s preserved in the Houston Morgue.”

“Interesting...” said Johnson. “But how does that connect to Buchanan?”

“I don’t think it does directly... at least not yet,” replied Elena, “...but if we can prove it, I can use it as ammunition.”

Mike Johnson looked at her reluctantly. “I’m really not supposed to tell you this, but I think you should know that an Earthgov type came and confiscated everything we had on Buchanan about three weeks ago. The case is officially closed, and the Houston police have been ordered not to reopen it.”

Elena sat back in her chair with a look of frustration on her face. “Dammit! I hate that! A finger in every pie!” She sighed in resignation. “Give me his contact number.”

“Contact number?” asked Mike with an innocent look.

“Come on, Mike... I used to work for you, remember?” Earthgov agents who came and took over a case always left a contact number, just in case anyone involved found any new evidence related to the case. They were nothing if not thorough in their suppression of evidence. It went against the grain for her to willingly cooperate with underhanded sleazebags that simply walked in and took over evidence without so much as a by your leave, but if they were trying to take down Buchanan, she was, for once, on the same side... and they would need help to draw Buchanan out.

The District Attorney nodded in resignation. “All right, Elena... I’m sending it now... but you didn’t get it from me, okay?” He grinned at her. “And don’t be such a stranger... how about dinner at six at our place tomorrow? Louella makes a mean grilled chicken Caesar salad.”

“Salad? Since when do you eat salad? I thought you were a steak and potatoes man?” she teased.

He patted his shrinking belly. “Salads are making me a new man, Elena... don’t knock ’em till you’ve tried ’em!”

Elena laughed. “Okay, Mike... Tell Louella it’s a date. See you tomorrow.”

She cut the connection and sat quietly thinking for a moment. Then she pulled up the Earthgov agent’s number and called to offer her services to Starfleet, free of charge. Buchanan was a menace to society. It was time for someone to take him down.

Captain Jonathan Archer sat on the bridge of Enterprise, struggling with his fatigue and... an even more troublesome problem... his reluctance to leave Earth. As welcome as the sight of his home planet had always been after a long absence, in the past he’d always been eager to leave again once his ship was underway... eager to explore more of the untold wonders still left undiscovered among the stars. This time, he hadn’t wanted to leave orbit. He’d steeled himself and given the order nonetheless, and now Enterprise sped at warp four point five toward her next assignment.

The colony at Second Chance had not been heard from in three weeks. Attempts at subspace communication had been unsuccessful, and the supply ship that was scheduled to return from the planet a week prior to Enterprise’s departure could not be located. When they’d been dispatched on this mission, Archer and his command staff had also been briefed on a small detail that had not been given to the public. Shortly after the establishment of the Terra Prime colony on the surface of the planet, Starfleet had begun the construction of top-secret shipyards located on the opposite hemisphere of the planet. Since the Terra Primers were limited to ground transport vehicles and low altitude short range aircraft, the shipyards were believed to be safe from sabotage. The colonists provided raw materials for the parts fabricators, thus unwittingly aiding the government that they had sought to overthrow because of its permissive policies toward the alien presence on Earth. Ironically, had they known the true purpose of the facility... to construct ships capable of defending Earth against the Romulan threat, they would probably have assisted quite willingly, but Starfleet was unwilling to take the chance that hostility toward Earthgov’s current policies might outweigh the long-term goals of the facility in the minds of the exiled Terra Primers. Starfleet apparently did not have much confidence in the intelligence of Terra Primers as a whole. Archer had a suspicion that Starfleet would eventually be proven wrong, if what Trip had confided to him about Janie Rafter’s father was anything to go by. Not all of the Terra Primers were prejudiced fools, and it would be a grave mistake to underestimate them. The shipyards were now out of communication as well, and it was the Enterprise’s job to discover why.

“You’ve got some text correspondence, Captain... it looks mostly like the usual well-wishes and such. Do you want to take care of it while things are quiet?” asked Lieutenant Sato.

Archer started out of his reverie and turned his head. Hoshi looked at him expectantly. He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger, and nodded at her.

“That’s a good idea... it’ll keep me awake,” he told her wearily. “Send it to my ready room. Mr. Reed, you have the con.”

Hoshi smiled and nodded, and then exchanged a glance and a silent giggle with Malcolm behind the captain’s back as Archer left the bridge. Malcolm suppressed a smile and returned her look with amusement as he took the command chair. From the science station, Skon looked on with his usual imperturbable expression, but his attention that morning seemed to be focused less on his console, and more on the fascinating behavior of his new crewmates. The entire crew knew about the captain’s late night out with a mystery woman... arranged by Commander Tucker. Trip had made sure of that when he’d called to find out if Archer had returned to the ship safely. It seemed that Trip hadn’t seen Archer come in the night before. In fact, rumor had it that Archer had been brought to the spaceport only one hour prior to Enterprise’s scheduled departure in a ground car driven by a woman. Travis, who’d been on hand with the shuttle pod to transport the captain to the ship as rapidly as possible, had been told by a member of the spaceport staff that the woman was “one really hot babe”, and that the captain had done some serious lip-locking with her before getting out of the car. Travis, of course, had not been able to resist telling everyone he knew once he’d arrived back on Enterprise. The identity of the woman was already a source of much debate, and pools were being organized about such things as wedding dates and engagement announcements. Who knew that one blind date would be such a source of amusement for the entire crew?

In his ready room, Jonathan Archer paged rapidly through a series of text messages. Most were well wishes and platitudes from various organizations. A few were requests for speaking engagements... invitations that he never accepted. The official speeches that he was forced to give in the line of duty were excruciating enough. He paused at a message from a law firm, and was going to skip over it before he recognized her name. He brought up the body of the message.

“Dear Jonathan,” it began. At least she didn’t put ‘Dear John’ Archer thought wryly.

“I know you said to call you Jon, but I didn’t want you to get the wrong impression...”

Archer laughed. They even told the same bad jokes. This was getting scary.

“...although I probably don’t know you well enough to even send you a ‘Dear John’ letter, as that implies a previous relationship is ending, and I’m still not certain about exactly what happened last night. I have never in my life felt such a connection to another human being after such a brief acquaintance, and I find myself wondering this morning whether it was real, or whether I am presuming an attraction on your part that doesn’t exist. I just want you to know that our time together was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, and that I would very much like to see you again when you return. I don’t believe in wasting time beating around the bush, so I’m just going to come right out and say it. I like you very much, Jonathan Archer. I hesitate to say more because I simply don’t trust my feelings right now. I didn’t think it was possible to feel about a man the way I feel about you after only a few hours in your company. There... I’ve said it. If I’ve scared you away, then so be it. Perhaps we were not meant to be together. If I sound complacent about the idea of losing you... believe me, I’m not. I’m just being realistic. Things like this don’t happen in real life... not to me, anyway. If you don’t respond to this message then you won’t hear from me again. I pray that you do respond, though. Thinking about never seeing you again just hurts too damn much.


Archer sat back in his chair with a stunned look on his face. His heart was racing and he’d broken out in a cold sweat. This can’t be happening, he thought in utter amazement. The most beautiful woman in the universe has fallen in love with me at first sight and I’m stuck out here on a starship in the middle of nowhere! His face broke out in a broad grin. She loves me! He started to laugh, shaking his head as he brought up the text message program. Then his face sobered as he stared at the blank screen with his fingers poised over the keyboard. Oh my God... what am I going to say? I can’t write like she does! I’ll sound like an idiot! he thought in a panic. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply in the attempt to calm himself. He opened them again. First things first... he thought grimly, placing his fingers on the keys.

“Dear Elena...” he typed... and stopped. Then he sat back and ran his fingers through his hair in desperation. Finally, he got on the comm.

“Lieutenant Sato, would you come to my ready room for a moment, please? I need some assistance.”

“Stall for time?” exclaimed Charles Tucker. “What do ya think I’ve been doin’ for the past month!” He stared at Harris’ face on the vidscreen in disbelief. “Ya said it was all arranged!”

“Buchanan refused the invitation to the John Glenn’s commissioning ceremony. The vice-president of Earthgov is going to be there. Our strategists never dreamed that he would refuse such an ideal opportunity to lobby for his cause with a top Earthgov official,” admitted Harris. “Fortunately, we’ve recently been presented with an alternative plan... one that involves you only indirectly. Your role in this now is to continue to play your part as convincingly as possible until we have Buchanan in custody. Then we’ll pull you out. Under no circumstances are you to do anything to compromise your cover until Buchanan is ours, is that understood?”

Charles Tucker’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded in agreement. “Understood, sir.”

“Is Commander Tucker with us?” asked Harris.

“He’s agreed ta help,” replied Charles.

Harris nodded. “Then you’re a loyal Terra Prime agent until I say otherwise, Tucker. Keep them happy, or none of this will fly... and Buchanan goes free.” He met the older man’s eyes briefly. Charles nodded again, and Harris leaned forward to cut the connection.

Charles Tucker stared at the empty screen for a moment, and then punched in the code of his Terra Prime contact. The face of the young, smooth-voiced, dark haired Texan he’d been dealing with appeared on the screen after a few moments. In the weeks he’d been ostensibly working for Terra Prime, he’d learned that the fellow was a junior V.P. under Buchanan by the name of Austin Hogg... the scion of a quite wealthy and prestigious family in Houston society. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but he was infallibly loyal to Buchanan and to the maintenance of his family’s wealth. Once based in oil, the fate of the Hogg dynasty now rose or fell with the fate of the corporation under Buchanan’s control. The fall of the oil-based economy in the 2100’s with the conversion from fossil fuel to controlled matter-antimatter reactions had caused a major shift in investment capital by nearly all of the wealthy families in the state. This shift, once a life-saving measure for the families involved, now placed them all at risk if the corporations were unable to find alternate methods of generating income once warp technology was made freely available. The resources were there, and many of the other companies had begun to diversify, contracting with the government for the production of components... patenting production processes that would later yield income... but Boeing-McDonnell-Douglas and its CEO seemed stuck in the twenty-first century, and young Hogg was either too loyal or too stupid to see it.

“We ship out to Jupiter Station in the mornin’, Austin. I was just checkin’ in ta see if there’s any changes in plan,” said Tucker to the young man.

Hogg’s eyes narrowed. “What’s wrong, Tucker... gettin’ cold feet?”

Charles gazed back at him with a bland, cold-blooded expression. “Nope... I’ve got it all taken care of... It’s just that this plan doesn’t have much leeway to it. There’s no escape pods in this little ship. How do I know your boss’ll have somebody out there ready ta pick me up? I’m only gonna have a couple hours of air in that EV suit. I’m not aimin’ ta get myself killed.”

Hogg smiled reassuringly at him... an insincere, rather reptilian smile that made Charles’ skin crawl. “You can trust us, Tucker... we take real good care of our own, you know that!”

Yeah... like ya took care of the real Ramirez, thought Charles. He had done a bit of research on his own, and had found a John Doe case in the Houston morgue who was the spitting image of Charles’ own ID photo. He’d actually gone down there and told the morgue attendant he was looking for his brother that had gone missing. The man had taken one look at him, turned white, and brought him down to view the body. He’d given the morgue attendant a fake name and contact number, and gotten out of there in a big hurry. There was no doubt in Charles’ mind that Buchanan intended to “take care of” him in exactly the same way.

“Yeah... of course ya do,” he answered as sincerely as he could under the circumstances. “You just make sure somebody’s out there, y’hear?” he added threateningly. “I got friends who won’t be happy if somethin’ happens ta me!”

Hogg smiled tolerantly at Charles’ bravado. “We both know that nobody knows where you are or what you’re doin’, Tucker... but don’t worry. It’s all taken care of. Just go do your job.” He leaned forward, avoiding Tucker’s glowering face, and cut the connection.

Charles sighed. It’s a damn good thing I really don’t have ta blow up the engine. I’d be a dead man... He was a little worried. Trip still hadn’t contacted him with a brilliant plan to avoid actually blowing things up. He was sure his son would think of something, though. He always did.

Elena Sanchez sat in her office in front of an empty vid screen. She exhaled fully, attempting to calm her racing heart, and then brought the audio link with the covert ops agent online.

“I’m ready to begin, Mr. Harris.”

“Excellent, Miss Sanchez...” came Harris’ disembodied voice through the vid phone speaker. “Take your time, now. Don’t get frightened or you’ll spook him.”

Elena rolled her eyes. This guy acts like he thinks I’m an idiot! she thought in disgust. “It’s under control, Mr. Harris. I’m making the call now.”

She entered William Buchanan’s private office code without having to look it up. Bill had been an acquaintance of her husband’s during their marriage. She’d once thought of him as a friend, and even briefly dated him after her divorce until she’d grown to know him well enough to see beyond the affable good-old-boy front he put on and into his cold, mercenary heart. She hadn’t seen him socially or professionally since the Terra Prime trial, but he was aware that she knew about his connection to Terra Prime. He was also quite certain that there was nothing she could do with the knowledge that wouldn’t destroy her career, thanks to his influence. She had decided to challenge that certainty. She hoped it wouldn’t prove to be a life-threatening decision.

Bill Buchanan’s falsely friendly face appeared on the screen.

“Elena!” he said in surprise. “I’d forgotten I’d given you this number.” He smiled at her coldly and said, “So how’s my little socialite divorcee? Getting tired of playing with the big boys yet?”

“There’s no need to be vindictive, Bill. I was just doing my job,” she replied coolly.

“And a very thorough job you did, my dear,” he answered venomously. “So thorough that I can’t believe you have the nerve to call me after the way you used me to get information for your case.”

“Information I never had the chance to use,” she countered. “You had it suppressed.”

Buchanan smiled at her. “Just doing my job, dear... PR can make or break a corporation, you know.” He paused for a moment, and then his smile vanished. “What do you want, Elena? You and I both know this isn’t a social call.”

“Bill... I’m surprised at you,” she chided him mockingly. “That’s a stupid question... and you’re not a stupid man! I’ve recently come into possession of some very interesting information about a John Doe in the City Morgue by the name of Ramirez. It seems you personally arranged for that same man to join the Warp Six civilian staff three weeks ago.”

Buchanan gave her a bland stare. “What’s that got to do with me, Elena? Spics get killed all the time in Houston... it’s the violence in their nature... all the gang warfare. Such a pity!” he said insincerely.

“This particular Ramirez has been in the morgue for four weeks, Bill. You had him killed and replaced with one of your men.”

“You can’t prove that,” said Buchanan icily.

“We will when we take the replacement into custody, which is something I will arrange unless you give me what I want.”

Buchanan sighed. A small smile appeared on his lips. Now she was talking his language. “So the high and mighty Miss Law and Order is finally realizing that money talks!” he said. He fixed her with a thoughtful stare. “How much?”

“Ten million in bearer’s bonds delivered in person from your hands to mine at noon tomorrow at the Aquarium at Moody Gardens on Galveston Island,” she replied. “We do the handoff in public, in plain sight to avoid any funny business.”

Buchanan’s brows went up. “What makes you think I can come up with that kind of money in twenty-four hours?”

Elena chuckled softly. “I checked your net worth, Bill. You won’t even have to dip into savings to get me what I asked for. Take it or leave it. If you’re not there at noon, your man’s in custody by sundown, and I have enough evidence to send you on a one way permanent vacation.”

Buchanan stared at her in reluctant admiration. “And if I do this, you agree to leave me and Terra Prime alone to do what we have to do?”

She fixed his eyes on his. “You’ll never have any reason to fear me after tomorrow, Bill. I promise.”

He smiled. “It’s a date, then,” he said lightly. “Sounds like fun. I haven’t been to the aquarium in years. See you tomorrow.” He leaned forward and cut the connection.

Elena closed her eyes and leaned back heavily in her chair. Her skin was crawling just thinking about going on a “date” with the man. “Did you get that, Mr. Harris?” she asked with her eyes still closed.

“I did, Miss Sanchez... Good job. My man will be at your office to brief you at nine am tomorrow,” said Harris.

“I’ll be here,” she said, and cut the audio connection. She sat for a moment, looking at the empty screen. She felt dirty, as if she hadn’t bathed in days, but her heart was still pounding from the adrenalin surge triggered by her confrontation with Buchanan. In an odd sort of way, the feeling was exhilarating. I could get to like this espionage stuff, she thought with a pleased smile. I’ll be lucky if I can get through five minutes with Bill in person without trying to kill the creep, much less pretend to be on a date with him, but it’s going to be nice to finally take him down.

Suddenly, a flashing indicator on the console caught her eye. She had an incoming subspace text message. She pulled it up, and then closed her eyes in relief. He answered me!

Her heart started pounding again, this time in apprehension. What if Jon’s decided he never wants to see me again? I came on too strong in that message. I scared him off... I just know it! She opened her eyes again with her lower lip caught between her teeth and held her breath as she began to read.

“Dearest Elena,” the message began. Her eyes grew moist.

“I apologize for taking nearly a whole day to answer your message, but I’m not a very eloquent man, and I had some difficulty trying to write a message that wouldn’t sound... well... stupid. I’m afraid I had to ask for help, and the person I asked just told me to tell you the truth, and wisely refused to write this message for me. The truth is that I have had very few women in my life, and quite often when I am with a beautiful woman I find myself unable to string two coherent words together. It was amazing to me to find that I could talk to you so easily. When we were together, I felt as if I had known you for years and could tell you anything... this was despite the fact that you are without a doubt the most beautiful woman that I have ever met in my entire life. I want to see you again, Elena. As a matter of fact, I have definite plans to see you again and continue where we left off. There are so many things I don’t know about you... like what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream... and what do you like to do when you’re not working... and what do you look like in a bathing suit? (My imagination’s been working overtime on that one. I’ll bet you’re unbelievable.) In short... I like you very much, Elena Sanchez. In fact, it’s quite a bit more than ‘like’, but I don’t feel right about saying more after knowing you for only a few hours. It’s up to you now. If you haven’t changed your mind since your last message, then send me a message saying you’ll meet me at the spaceport when I get in three months from now. I’ll send you more details when I know them. What do you think? Is it a date?


Elena sat looking at the screen with silent tears streaming down her face and a huge smile on her face. Sniffing, she wiped her cheeks with the heel of her hand, pulled up the text message program, and typed furiously for several minutes. She pressed send, and then leaned back in her chair for a moment, deliriously happy... a state that she had seldom attained in her lifetime... a state that seemed recently to be solely associated with her dealings with Jonathan Archer. I must be absolutely crazy for thinking this... she thought in wonder, ... but I do believe the man loves me!

Kov sat on a bench against the wall of the barn, quietly and thoroughly rubbing saddle soap into the leather of the saddle in his lap as he watched Janie exercise the horses. He had the afternoon off to prepare for the trip to Jupiter Station the next morning, but packing had taken him all of fifteen minutes, and although he planned to be gone only a week, he’d felt a strong, rather illogical need to spend the afternoon in Janie’s company. He watched as she directed the roan stallion back into the barn and dismounted. She walked over to inspect his work with a discerning eye.

“That’s lookin’ real nice, Kov,” she said with approval. “Do ya wanna curry Red Man while I finish up with the saddle? I know ya like to curry.”

Kov nodded and, placing the saddle to one side, rose to his feet to get the comb. Janie stepped in front of him with a smile on her face. “But first I want a hug,” she said. “You never even said ‘Hi’ when you walked in.” She stepped forward and placed her arms around his neck. Kov closed his own arms rather stiffly around her waist, gave her a brief pat on the back, and then released her. She looked at him with a wounded expression on her face. Her arms loosened from around his neck, and her hands gently traveled down his arms to rest on the bare skin of his forearms. He could feel hurt and disappointment radiating from her in waves. He closed his eyes. The urge to comfort her physically was overwhelming. He suppressed it forcefully before daring to look at her face again. Her eyes searched his.

“Kov... what’s wrong?” she whispered in a small, pitiful voice. “The day I got emancipated, you said things to the judge... stuff about us maybe gettin’ married... I could feel that you loved me... and you kissed me... “ Her voice trailed off as he continued to stand there rigidly, looking at her with his heart in his eyes. She placed a palm on his cheek. “I think I can still feel somethin’ in there, Kov... I know ya have feelin’s for me, so why won’t ya touch me? Why haven’t ya even tried ta kiss me again? Don’t ya want me anymore?”

Kov looked into her eyes and saw sadness there, and a need to understand. He raised a hand to her cheek as well and allowed himself to feel for a moment. His affection and intense physical desire for his chosen mate welled up into his conscious mind, threatening to rip through his control. Heat coursed through his body, and he felt his loins abruptly respond. He clenched his teeth and remained physically immobile as Janie’s eyes widened in awe at the feelings she sensed through their bond.

“Do you truly wish to waken this?” he asked her in a voice trembling with suppressed emotion. “I am years away from Ponfarr, but my experimentation with the philosophy of V’tosh Katur has weakened my control. I fear injuring you... and I still believe, despite your status under the laws of your people, that you are too young yet to mate.”

Janie smiled at him gently. “You won’t hurt me, Kov. I’m sure of that... but I’m not talkin’ about sex. I’m kinda happy ya wanna wait ‘til we get married. Mama used ta tell me that it makes the weddin’ a lot more special when ya wait.” She caressed his cheek gently with her fingertips, and then stepped closer and laid her head on his shoulder, holding him tightly and pressing her body against his. “Don’t Vulcans ever hug and kiss somebody they’re not havin’ sex with? Just holdin’ somebody can be mighty nice sometimes, y’know?” she said wistfully.

The full-body contact her embrace afforded him played havoc with his senses, but he sensed a calmness radiating from her... a contentment with his closeness despite the threat of his overwhelming physical desire. He realized then that there was no fear of him in her at all... that she accepted this part of him as she had accepted everything else... and that should he lose control she would welcome his physical love in exactly the same way. The realization logically should have made his struggle more difficult, but somehow knowing that she was willing and fearless decreased his guilt and fear, and enabled him to calm the fire that burned within him... not completely... but enough to keep her safe. He wrapped his arms around her securely, and buried his lips in her hair, inhaling deeply of the scent of alfalfa and herbal shampoo. His intense desire calmed, and he felt warmth, contentment, and love fill their bond. He realized then that not all of it was coming from her.

“Janie...” he whispered into her hair with a bemused smile. “My Janie.”

“Kov... do you realize that’s the first time you ever called me anything but Miss Rafter?” murmured Janie with a giggle.

He pulled away from her and raised a brow at her. “Perhaps you would prefer Ida Jane?” he suggested. He found the look of horror on her face rather amusing.

Trip walked into the bedroom and found T’Pol zipping up her neatly packed duffel in preparation for their trip to Jupiter Station the next morning.

“I just talked to Dad and updated him on the plan,” he told her. He went to the bed and began his efforts to close his haphazardly packed duffle. “I think it would be safer to update Kov and Gardner when we’re on board the John Glenn. The less time they know about it, the less likely they are to give us away by accident,” he said with his teeth clenched as he struggled to zip his duffle. T’Pol walked to his side and gently pushed his hands away. He stepped back, raised both hands with a tolerant expression, and watched with amusement as she proceeded to completely unpack his duffle and painstakingly fold each article of clothing before placing it back into the bag.

“I agree,” she told him as she re-packed. “With you in command, Kov as engineer, and Gardner and Ramirez to assist... you should get into the habit of calling him Ramirez, by the way... then all we’ll need are a helmsman and a communications officer... and Starfleet plans to supply us with qualified officers to fill those positions... officers who are affiliated with covert ops and who are prepared to carry out the plan if needed.” She zipped his duffel, now just as neatly packed as her own, and handed it to him. He smiled his thanks.

“So we may not have to go through with it?” asked Trip. “I wasn’t told anything about that.”

T’Pol nodded. “The purpose of the plan is to maintain Terra Prime’s confidence in your father. If Buchanan is in custody, covert ops will cancel the deception, and you will be allowed to proceed with the live trials undisturbed.”

Trip grinned at her. “I don’t know if I’m happy or not about the possibility that we might not have ta go through with it... I sure wanna know if it actually works!”

“Considering the danger that you and your crew will be in, I would prefer that you never have the need to find out,” T’Pol replied dryly. She placed her duffel on the floor near the side of the bed, and turned toward the bathroom. Almost as an afterthought, she turned back to Trip. He sensed her sudden interest in him as a warmth in his belly... a stirring of desires she’d suppressed all day, and would only release in his presence.

“I am going to shower now, would you care to join me?”

Trip gave her a secretive smile. “I already showered, darlin’... you just go without me. I’ll go get dinner together... and then I’ve got a surprise for dessert.”

T’Pol looked intrigued. Since their marriage, she’d developed quite a sweet tooth. Her interest in dessert almost made up for her disappointment over the shower.

“What did you get?” she asked. Trip grinned mischievously.

“Just a little hot fudge...” he said tantalizingly.

“And ice cream?” asked T’Pol with poorly disguised eagerness.

Trip shook his head and waggled his brows suggestively. “Bathroom week is over, darlin’. It’s kitchen week now. When it’s kitchen week... we don’t need ice cream... but we might need another shower!”

“So what are Tremaine and Tonya up to these days?” asked Elena as she sipped her iced tea. She was enjoying her evening visiting with Mike and Louella Johnson. Mike had been right. It had been much too long since she’d been out socially with friends. Her evening with Jonathan Archer had made her realize just how much her obsession with her work had affected her life. It was time to change that.

“Tonya’s a sophomore... still in General Studies...that girl can’t ever make up her mind... and Tremaine’s a senior at A& M,” replied Louella proudly. “He’s a pre-law major.” She leaned back into the lounge chair on the patio and sipped her tea. Mike wasn’t the only one who’d changed since her last visit. Louella had lost at least thirty pounds, and was sporting a head of chin length, straight, coppery red hair instead of the natural she’d worn only a few months before. She looked ten years younger than the last time Elena had seen her.

“I remember he decided to do that after doing two years as a history major,” Elena said with a chuckle. “I also remember how Mike reacted... aggravated and proud all at the same time!”

Louella laughed. “He likes to say that his son is in college on the six year plan... but he’s so proud of him he’s ready ta bust when he says it!” she replied. She looked out over the patio at her husband who was busily attending to the chicken breasts on the grill.

“They about done, baby?” she called.

“Close to it,” he replied. “Can ya get me a plate?” Louella smiled and nodded, then got up from the chair and entered the house through the sliding glass doors. Elena got up and walked toward Mike.

“Louella says Tremaine’s finally about to finish,” she teased him. He rolled his eyes. “About time!” he said in mock disapproval. “That boy...!” He gestured with the tongs and they slipped out of his hand, clattering to the brick patio.

Elena bent down smoothly to retrieve them and heard a muffled “thump” from behind her... beyond the backyard fence. She straightened for a moment to investigate the noise, and saw Mike go down to the ground with a surprised look on his face, clutching his upper right chest. His head hit the brick patio with a loud crack. Bright red blood spurted out from between his fingers. Elena immediately fell to her knees, crawling behind the Johnson’s huge industrial sized gas grill, and throwing herself over her friend. Another muffled “thump” shattered the brick next to her head. Suddenly she heard phase pistol fire. It sounded as if it were coming from the neighboring house... the one that was empty, with a “For Sale” sign prominently displayed in the front yard. The gunshots ceased, but Elena remained flat on the ground, frantically fumbling for a pulse in Mike’s neck. He gurgled as he breathed, but he was still breathing. His pulse was strong, but he was unconscious. Elena hoped he’d just fainted or been knocked out cold by his impact with the ground. She didn’t even want to think about the possibility that he was unconscious already from blood loss.

“Mike?” called Louella from the back door, unable to see the two of them as they crouched behind the grill.

“Louella!” called Elena urgently. “Get back in the house NOW! Call 911! Mike’s been shot!” Louella dropped the plate she was carrying. It shattered on the bricks as she ran back into the house to make the call.

Elena sat in the Ben Taub Hospital surgical waiting room with Louella Johnson, holding her hand. Mike had been in surgery for three hours, and there was still no word of his condition. Louella was taking the situation surprisingly well, considering the circumstances. She sat silently with tears rolling unheeded down her cheeks, gripping Elena’s hand like a lifeline. Elena, on the other hand, felt as if she were about to come apart from grief and guilt.

How will I ever tell her that it’s my fault? she thought hopelessly. There was no doubt in Elena’s mind that the gunman had been after her, and that Mike had been an innocent bystander. Moreover, she was certain that the phase pistol blast had come from one of Harris’ agents. The police had found nothing... no body... no weapons... no evidence. He knew, she thought in sudden realization. Harris knew that Buchanan would try this and he didn’t tell me! Her guilt faded, replaced by slowly building anger.

The surgeon entered the waiting room dressed in green scrubs with a mask dangling from around her neck. She looked exhausted.

“Mrs. Johnson?” she asked, looking out over the waiting area for a face she’d seen only once before, immediately before the surgery when she’d done Mike’s emergency medical consent. Louella stood, releasing Elena’s hand and rushing to meet the woman who’d just done surgery on her husband.

“How is he, Doctor?” she whispered apprehensively.

The tired woman smiled at her. “It looks like he’s going to make it, Mrs. Johnson.” Louella smiled through her tears and grabbed for Elena’s hand again as she came up behind her to offer moral support.

“The bullet dropped his right lung and I had to enter his chest to retrieve it. He’s on a respirator and has tubes in both sides of his chest, so don’t be alarmed when you see him, but no major blood vessels were injured. He’s got a concussion from when his head hit the ground... he was on a brick patio, I understand?” Louella nodded.

“It’s not at all uncommon to see loss of consciousness from an impact like that, but the fact that he woke up in the ambulance is a good sign... it means he’s less likely to have major head trauma. Now that he’s stable we’ll do some imaging, but we’ll need to keep him sedated so he doesn’t fight the respirator.”

“Can I see him?” asked Louella hopefully. The doctor smiled and nodded. “For a few minutes...” She turned to Elena regretfully. “Only immediate family members, I’m afraid.”

Elena smiled at her in understanding, and then turned to Louella and gave her a hug. “Go give him a kiss for me, querida, okay?” Louella returned the smile and the embrace, whispered, “Thank you!”, and then left with the doctor to see her husband.

Elena stood watching her friend with a relieved sigh. Then the anger she’d suppressed for Louella’s sake came rushing back in full force. She left the hospital, headed for her office and a secure location from which to contact Harris. She was furious enough to chew nails. How dare the man keep her in the dark and endanger the lives of her friends? It was time to call the bastard and have his ass for an appetizer. Then, when she was done with him, she’d have Buchanan for the main course. He’d stepped over the line when he’d tried to have her killed and nearly succeeded in murdering one of her closest friends. She wouldn’t stop now until he was dead or behind bars, and the way she was feeling right now, dead was infinitely preferable.

END (of this story)


This is another story that just gets sweeter as time goes by. And the Tucker clan is a hoot.

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