A Wolf in the Fold

By Distracted

Rating: PG-13

Genres: adventure drama romance


This story has been read by 463 people.
This story has been read 739 times.

This story is number 16 in the series Virtual Season Five

The Warp Six Project: A Wolf in the Fold

By Distracted

Rating: PG-13... at least I’m pretty sure. If it seems to skirt the boundary a bit, you can blame it on readers requests that I “expound” on the whipped cream issue, LOL!
Disclaimer: Enterprise, its crew, and all related events belong solely to Paramount. I’m not making a penny.
Genre: Romance, Action/Adventure
Summary: A sequel to my story, The Important Things in Life, and part of my "Virtual Season 5" series. This installment introduces a sneaky little addition to Ambassador Soval’s staff who’s definitely up to no good. You also get another proposal, more basketball, and lots of longing looks between unexpected couples. Oh... and a very shocked priest.

A/N: This may seem sorta deep for this forum, but if anyone is interested in reading the source of the philosophical arguments that Janie hit Kov with to get a church wedding out of him, then search “Summa Theologica” by Thomas Aquinas.

BTW... “Aunt Rosemary” is a coworker of mine... very accurately depicted. As far as I know, Ralph Turnbull exists only in my imagination. Rosemary informs me that if he’s out there somewhere... or anyone like him... she’d like to meet him. Just let me know. : )

Assistant Ambassador Spek was angry. His anger was not the usual “raise a brow and glare” sort of anger outwardly expressed by Vulcans. That response was all his conditioning would allow him to show in the presence of another, but the word “angry” did not even begin to cover his all-encompassing desire to rip the liver out of the Human who stood before him with a smirk on his face. The psychological preparation he’d received for his current mission allowed him to mentally “step aside” and observe his emotional responses before choosing to act on them. It was the only way that he could have possibly succeeded in his deception. Even after the demeaning cosmetic surgery he’d been required to undergo, he was, after all, still Romulan. Vulcan mannerisms were as foreign to him as to any other Romulan, but he had been selected for this mission because of his uncanny ability to mimic them convincingly. His fury stemmed from the fact that, although his superiors had spent an inordinate amount of time and effort to ensure that he did not attract attention with his behavior, they had failed abysmally in their choice of an alias. Three days into his posting with Ambassador Soval, after receiving the same looks and veiled smirks from every Human he’d met, he’d demanded an explanation from the ambassador.

“Humans are easily amused, Spek. Do not allow it to disturb you,” Soval had said.

When pressed, he’d referred Spek to the English language database to search for homonyms of his given name. A brief search had come up with the following: speck (noun) 1. a small spot 2. a tiny particle. That was when he began to become angry. He was very small of stature and build for a Romulan male, and had endured torment as a child because of it. He was small even for a Vulcan male, although Vulcans were, in general, often slighter and thinner than Romulans due to their dietary habits. He found it curious that no one in the intelligence division of the Tal Shiar had thought of the difficulties their chosen alias might cause. If he hadn’t known better, he would have suspected someone of doing this to him deliberately, just to torment him.

“Assistant Ambassador... Spek?” repeated the Human in Starfleet uniform, unsuccessfully suppressing a grin as he did so. Spek nodded briefly, his face completely neutral.

“You may go in, sir,” he waved a hand toward the conference chamber. “The admirals and Ambassador Soval are expecting you,” he said with what he obviously thought was a friendly smile. Spek found his tone gratingly condescending, as if he were speaking to a child. The assistant ambassador nodded again, and turned toward the large door.

“Here...,” added the Human, arriving ahead of Spek at the door in three long strides and looking down at the “Vulcan” as if from a lofty height. “Let me get that for you.” Spek stopped at the threshold, raised a brow, and glared. The Human stepped back warily. The diminutive ambassador pushed the door open easily with one hand and went in.

Spek breathed deeply as he stood on the other side of the door, preparing himself to enter this most critical of meetings. Soval had finally permitted him access to one of his strategy meetings with Starfleet Command. He refused to allow an emotional response to his unfortunate alias interfere with this ideal information-gathering opportunity. He saw Soval’s head come up. He was seated at a round table with six Humans. They seemed to be discussing a holographic computer-generated star map that rose from the center of the table. Spek studied it intently out of the corner of his eye, attempting to commit as much of it to memory as possible. He was unable to identify the sector of space that it represented, and had no idea what the scattered planets marked in red represented, but he had a photographic memory. Someone in Tal Shiar intelligence would make sense of it... if he were able to get accurate information to them. Unfortunately, as soon as one of the Humans noticed his presence in the room, he reached out and deactivated the hologram. Soval protested.

“There is no need to stop our discussion, gentlemen. Assistant Ambassador Spek is quite reliable,” he said.

“I’m sure he is, Ambassador,” replied Admiral Gardner, “... but he doesn’t have Starfleet security clearance. We’re stretching the rules having you in here.” He smiled insincerely at Spek. “No offense, Assistant Ambassador,” he said.

Spek briefly ground his teeth together in frustration, and then blandly responded, ”None taken, Admiral.” He turned to Soval. “You sent for me, sir?”

“Yes,” replied Soval evenly. “My conference with these gentlemen will very likely require several more hours. I would like you to go to the Vulcan compound and obtain some plomeek broth for me. These Humans’ idea of sustenance leaves a great deal to be desired.” He gestured to a side table in the room, upon which rested several large, flat, rectangular boxes which contained a few scattered triangular pieces of a pungent-smelling food which was obviously not to Soval’s liking. Spek clenched his teeth again. He hadn’t been summoned to share in the conference... he was being sent like an errand boy for the ambassador’s lunch! Spek found himself devoutly wishing that his next communiqué from Romulus would contain orders to assassinate his immediate superior. The idea was so satisfying that it calmed him.

“As you wish, Ambassador,” Spek replied with a bow of his head, and then left the room to do as he was bidden.

It was lunchtime in the mechanics’ break room. Commander Tucker had gone to the cafeteria in the administrative wing for a “working lunch” with the project director, leaving Kov alone with leftovers from home... a salad with tabouli and hummus on pita bread that Janie had made for him the evening before. She was, he was discovering, quite a marvelously innovative vegetarian cook. Thus far, assisting her with stall mucking duties on a daily basis at the Turnbulls’ stable seemed to be compensating for the additional calories he was consuming, but once he began teaching, he would have to be more careful with his portion sizes or he would very likely become something no Human had ever seen before... a fat Vulcan. He dipped a wedge of his pita into the mound of smooth golden hummus and took a bite, chewing as he paged through the booklet she’d given him the previous evening. His brow went up as he read. He swallowed and took another bite, chewing meditatively as he recalled Janie’s pleas at dinner the night before.

But Kov, Pastor Green said he’d marry us in the church if he could just meet with ya and make sure you at least believe in a higher power... ya don’t have ta convert! And my Aunt Rosemary is comin’ from Louisiana next Friday ta help me. She’s always talked about me havin’ a beautiful weddin’. I just can’t get married in a courthouse!” Her eyes begged him to agree. He sighed and replied reasonably to her request.

Janie... I’ve expressed my reluctance to attend church with you several times. I have no wish to be hypocritical, and as a Vulcan, I simply cannot believe in a ‘higher power’... as you put it... without concrete evidence of its existence. I have made many compromises through my study of the Kir’shara, but abandoning logic completely is not one of them,” he protested. “Why can’t we simply have a civil ceremony in a more attractive setting? Perhaps the judge who presided over your emancipation would be willing to officiate here at the farm... in the entrance hall at the foot of the stairs, or possibly even beneath the trees in the pasture?”

Janie gazed back at him with a look that he knew only too well. She was digging in her heels, steeling herself for a fight. Then she pulled out her ammunition.

I told Pastor Green you’d say that, and he gave me this to give to ya. He said you should read it, and then come talk to him.” She handed him the booklet. He turned it over and studied the title.

“Evangelizing the Rational Agnostic with the Aid of Thomas Aquinas by F. H. Bollich, PhD, S.T.D.?” he read aloud in a questioning voice. Janie smiled at his reaction.

Just read it... you’ll see,” she told him.

Kov continued to eat his lunch, barely tasting his food as the booklet claimed his entire attention. The arguments had merit, despite the fact that they had been written in a time in Earth’s history when scientific knowledge was still in its infancy. I must read more of this Thomas Aquinas, he thought to himself in fascination. He seems to have been a most logical Human.

Commanders “Trip” Tucker and T’Pol sat together at a table in the administrative dining room. With the empty dishes from their rather hasty lunch pushed aside, their table was just large enough to accommodate the two data PADDs they were studying as they sat shoulder-to-shoulder.

“As you can see, I am committed to several meetings with the directors of the various warp six capable shipyards via subspace conference calls for four days following the end of your official duties tomorrow,” she told him, indicating her appointment schedule, which was displayed on the screen before them. “The subsequent Monday, we will be expected to meet the incoming crew of the Enterprise in San Francisco at Starfleet Headquarters.”

Trip sighed and scratched his head. “That only leaves us the weekend ta visit Mom and Dad in Bay St. Louis,” he replied softly in a disappointed tone.

She cocked a brow at him in surprise. “It was my impression that you were pleased when your parents finally went home last week. Are you ready to visit with them again so soon?”

He grinned sheepishly and leaned closer to her to avoid being overheard. “That’s different! Mom was right there next door... and you were... well... kinda reluctant...,” he whispered.

You were happy to see your parents leave only because I was reluctant to engage in sexual intimacies with you with your mother in the next room? T’Pol asked in silent disbelief... just for clarification. He could sense her amused exasperation.

Well... I’ve gotten used to bein’ with you, T’Pol... and we don’t have much time left before we have to go back to separate quarters on Enterprise, he protested in justification of his actions. We were gonna see ‘em soon again anyway, and the house in Bay St. Louis is a much bigger place with thicker walls and better soundproofing... We could bring the leftover whipped cream..., he added with a mischievous grin. T’Pol noticed Chief Engineer Storr pass their table and give them both an odd look, and realized that conversing within the bond in such a public place was unwise in the presence of Vulcans. She eyed Trip warningly.

“It would free a week of our time if we chose not to meet Enterprise on the day of its arrival,” said T’Pol in a soft whisper, calling Trip’s attention to the other PADD in front of them. “The only event on Starfleet Command’s schedule at which our presence is requested during this first week is the welcoming reception. The crew will be debriefed for several days afterward, and we don’t return to active duty until the following Monday.”

“But the lieutenant in charge of the surprise reception told me they’d found family to meet everyone except Jon,” Trip replied in dismay. “We can’t let him be alone when everybody else on the crew is bein’ met by somebody.”

T’Pol cocked her head and gazed at him thoughtfully. “I can think of someone who might be willing to meet him at the spaceport in our place, but the only civilians allowed at the reception are family members and media representatives,” she told him. Trip’s eyes widened in realization as his face took on a pleased expression.

“You’re right! She’s called me at least a half-dozen times in the past two weeks to see if I had news about exactly when the Enterprise would be returnin’!” he replied. He stuck his tongue in his cheek and contemplated the problem. “Starfleet’d expect proof if I said they were married. I wonder if a fiancée counts as family.”

That evening after another delicious dinner... this time at the Turnbull household... Janie had Kov by the hand, and was trying to pull him into the study, where Mr. Turnbull’s voice could be heard speaking in a friendly fashion with someone on the vid phone.

“C’mon, Kov,” she begged. “We’ve gotta do it eventually, and poor Mr. Turnbull can’t keep him busy forever. It’ll be better this way, you’ll see. He’ll have a chance ta calm down before he gets here.”

Kov gave her a disbelieving look. “Do you truly believe that your father will ever ‘calm down’ about this, Janie?” he asked her. “Your father is a convicted member of a terrorist organization whose sole purpose is to remove all non-Humans from your planet... by force if necessary. What makes you think he will even be willing to meet me?”

Janie shook her head. “Kov... No!” she protested. “Daddy’s not like that. The Terra Prime thing was a big mistake, but he doesn’t hate Vulcans... He’s just got a problem with the way the Vulcan government’s been handlin’ the passing on of warp technology, is all. Come and meet him... you’ll see,” she reassured him. She tugged on his hand again, and this time, against his better judgment, he went with her. They entered the study. She released his hand at the door.

“You stay here,” she whispered. “I’ll call ya when we’re ready.” He exhaled heavily, and nodded in agreement. She stepped forward and tapped Mr. Turnbull on the shoulder. He looked up from where he was sitting in front of the vid screen and smiled broadly at her.

“Well, there ya are!” he told her. “I was just updating your father on your plans for college, and telling him what a terrific job you’ve done working for me these past few months while ya got your student loans arranged.” He turned to Thomas Rafter, who was smiling proudly at his daughter as she leaned over Ralph Turnbull’s shoulder to wave a greeting at the screen. Mr. Turnbull got up and gave Janie his chair.

“It was good talkin’ with ya, Tom,” he told Rafter. “I appreciate your understandin’ about the situation with Janie a couple a months ago. It was never my intention ta take your place as her father, ya know.”

Rafter smiled at Ralph Turnbull gratefully. “I’m the one who should be thankin’ you, Ralph. Janie’s safe now because ya took her in. If she’d a gone with me, she’d probably be dead. I owe ya more than you could ever realize.”

Ralph Turnbull grinned back at him. “It was worth it, Tom... Janie’s a real special girl,” he replied.

Thomas laughed and nodded his agreement. “You got that right, Ralph... I hope I get ta thank ya in person when I get back.”

“I’ll be lookin’ forward to it,” replied Janie’s employer. He smiled at Janie and then backed away from the screen, eyeing Kov where he hid beyond Thomas Rafter’s field of vision with a look of sympathetic encouragement before leaving the room.

Thomas Rafter gazed at his daughter with tears in his eyes. He was thinner, and looked exhausted, but he had a wistful smile on his face.

“You look more and more like your mama every day, sweetie,” he told her.

Janie smiled back at him. “I’m really glad you’re comin’ home, Daddy,” she replied. “You’re just in time.”

His face took on a puzzled expression. “In time for what, Janie?”

Janie’s smile wavered a bit, and she swallowed. “I’ve met somebody, Daddy. We’ve been datin’ for over six months now. He’s an engineer, just like you.” She took a deep breath, and then exhaled. Her smile looked a bit forced as she said, “He’s asked me to marry him... and I said yes. The weddin’s in four weeks.”

Thomas Rafter opened his mouth to protest, and she hurriedly interrupted him.

“Oh... don’t worry, Daddy... I’m still gonna get my degree. Kov’s got a position as an assistant professor at A&M. We’re both stayin’ here.”

Thomas Rafter’s brow wrinkled as he processed the information he’d just been given. Kov... Now where had he heard that name before?

Janie motioned to someone beyond camera range, and after a short delay, a stocky figure joined Janie on the screen. Janie reached for his hand. He took it, and smiled at her with obvious adoration. Rafter’s heart warmed at the tender scene... and then he noticed the ears. His jaw dropped in horror. In that moment, it didn’t even register to him that Kov was a most unusual Vulcan... the very first one that Rafter had ever seen who smiled.

“Oh, God... Janie, No!” he whispered in appalled betrayal. “How could ya do this?” His eyes, already filled with tears of sweet remembrance, spilled over, and he began to weep openly.

“After what non-Humans did to yer mother... to an entire planet... how could you?” he sobbed. He covered his face in both hands, then, and cried like a heartbroken child.

Janie just blinked at her father in astonishment. She’d seen how he’d been destroyed emotionally by her mother’s death. She’d witnessed his descent into severe depression, and then his apparent recovery... at about the same time, she realized, that he must have officially joined Terra Prime. She’d had no idea of the extent to which his wife’s death had changed Thomas Rafter. He was a broken man. She felt such pity for him.

“Daddy?” she said softly, after watching him cry for several moments. Rafter’s sobs stilled, and he lowered his hands, but he refused to meet her eyes. Janie smiled at him through tears.

“I love you, Daddy... and I love Mama, too... even though she’s gone. I know you miss her, Daddy... but Kov and his people had nothing to do with her death. I’m real sorry I told ya long distance, now. I wish I could be there to give you a hug.” She gazed at him with a worried expression. “Do ya have somebody to talk to over there? Somebody to look out after ya?” Rafter’s head came up, and he looked at his daughter forlornly.

“I suppose I could talk to the Captain,” he told her despondently. “But he’s a very busy man.”

Janie’s smile broadened. “Captain Archer is a really nice man, Daddy,” she told him encouragingly. “You should go talk to him, okay?”

Rafter just sat for a moment, staring blankly at his daughter... and her Vulcan fiancée. “I’m sorry, Janie... I just can’t talk anymore right now,” he told her abruptly, and reached forward to cut the connection. The screen went blank. Janie blinked in surprise, and then gave Kov a determined look as he stood at her shoulder. He returned her gaze with a concerned expression.

“Call Commander Tucker and have him contact Captain Archer. I think my father might hurt himself,” she told him in a controlled voice too wise for her years, as she wiped tears from her cheeks with the back of one hand. Kov nodded, and immediately placed a call to Trip Tucker’s apartment.

“Well, search the access tubes in engineering, then! The man just came aboard! How could he possibly know enough about this ship to hide from everyone?” said Captain Archer to Lieutenant Commander Reed in exasperation. After Commander Tucker’s emergency call concerning Thomas Rafter, Archer had discovered that Mr. Rafter was no longer in the quarters that he’d been assigned, and that, despite the fact that he’d not been issued access codes to do so, he’d evidently pulled up the ship’s structural schematics on the console in his quarters and used them to locate a hiding place on the ship that was currently confounding three four-man teams of security personnel, who were searching the ship with tricorders in hand.

“He must have found an area invisible to ship’s sensors, Captain,” replied Malcolm in stiff English embarrassment.

Archer sighed. “Find him before he does something desperate, Mr. Reed. He’s just received news that may have finally pushed him over the edge... so approach him with caution... but I doubt that he’s dangerous to anyone but himself,” he said. “Bring him to Sickbay when you find him.”

“Understood, sir,” replied Malcolm. He deactivated the wall comm in the main corridor on E deck where he’d answered the captain’s hail, and walked cautiously toward Engineering with the remainder of his team. Reaching the entrance, he motioned to Morris and Mitchell to begin a search of the catwalk, while he and Stevenson made the rounds of the huge engine. His tricorder suddenly registered a Human life sign within the warp core housing, between the housing and the shielding. The radiation from the warp plasma had interfered with the ship’s internal sensors, disguising the desperate engineer’s presence. They had to get him out of there. A half-hour or more of exposure to that much radiation could very well be fatal. Malcolm was certain that Rafter was quite aware of this fact... and that the man had intended to remain where he was until it was too late for anyone to do anything for him. Malcolm stood and studied the situation for a moment. He was aware that this man had been responsible for the engine modifications on the Perseus and the two new battleships they’d been forced to destroy at Galorndon Core. He needed bait to convince him to return to the living. Suddenly, he had an idea.

“Mr. Rafter?” called Malcolm calmly. “I’m afraid you’ll need to come with me, sir. The captain has asked for you. He wants to discuss the upcoming refit of Enterprise’s engine. I believe he mentioned something about placing you in charge of it.” He held his breath as he waited for a response. After several moments of silence, Thomas Rafter’s radiation-reddened face peered out through a ventilation port from inside the depths of the warp core housing.

“Did he really say that?” asked Rafter in disbelief.

“Absolutely,” answered Malcolm with a straight face. “He said that the ship’s in desperate need of a man with your experience to oversee the project... so if you’ll come with me, we can go to sickbay for a few moments for a checkup and some medication, and then you and the captain can have a nice, long talk about it... that is, if you’re finished here,” he added dryly.

There was a clanging sound, followed by a bit of a grinding noise. Suddenly the access panel to the warp core fell outward. Thomas Rafter bent down and stepped out, holding unsteadily to the edge of the opening as he swung his legs one by one over the rim and into the room. He stood upright. Suddenly his face lost all color.

“I’m afraid I don’t feel too good...” he began weakly, and then collapsed in a boneless heap on the floor with his head cushioned at the last moment by Lieutenant Commander Reed’s outstretched arms.

“Engineering to Sickbay... medical emergency, code red,” said Stevenson into the nearest wall comm. Then he rushed to assist his commanding officer.

Spek closed the door to the ambassador’s office and locked it so that he wouldn’t be disturbed. It was 2000 hours ... an hour when virtually everyone in the Vulcan compound was deep into evening meditation. Having no need or desire to meditate, Spek was using the time to his advantage. A message had arrived from Romulus that afternoon. To his amusement, it had contained assassination orders. His target, however, was not the Vulcan ambassador. Bringing the compound’s medical database online, Spek hacked into the secure medical files with the ease of long practice, and pulled up the file that he needed. His target would be a fairly easy mark. He took a drug twice daily to control a heart condition caused by the hereditary excess of growth hormone that was responsible for his freakish size. It would be a relatively simple matter to substitute a different drug... one that worsened his condition rather than improved it. A drug with a rapid elimination time would be required so that none of it would remain to be detected at autopsy. His death would be attributed to complications of his medical condition, and Spek would remain on Earth as assistant ambassador for the duration of the war. Spek placed Skon’s entire medical file on a data disc for later review, and then logged in to pharmaceutical supply to order the appropriate substitute drug... one with an identical appearance to the one Skon was currently taking... he made sure of that. When Skon arrived, all he would need to do was to enter his quarters and substitute the new prescription for the old. He erased the evidence of his actions from the console’s hard drive and smiled in satisfaction. It felt good to smile.

“Will Rafter live?” Archer asked the doctor grimly. Phlox gave him a cautiously optimistic smile.

“He’s in decon now, and he’s already received his first dose of medication for radiation sickness,” he replied. “It’s fortunate that he had no radiation exposure during the nuclear attack. The combination would have probably killed him... but I believe that he will recover.”

“What about his emotional state?” asked Archer.

“He was unconscious when he was brought in, so I can’t assess that yet,” replied Phlox, “...but his brain scan demonstrates a significant serotonin deficiency which appears to have been present for quite some time. I’ve started him on neuromodulators, which should begin to improve his mood in a few days. I’ll keep him here under suicide watch until then.”

Archer nodded. “Let me know when he’s awake,” he said. “I want to talk to him.”

Phlox gave Archer a close-lipped Denobulan smile that literally stretched from ear to ear. “Of course, Captain.”

Archer turned to exit Sickbay just as Malcolm arrived.

“Captain, I was looking for you,” said Malcolm with a rather guilty expression on his face. Archer looked at him in puzzlement.

“Is there a problem, Mr. Reed?” he asked.

“Oh, no sir...” said Malcolm hastily, and then he paused, saying hesitantly, “...at least... I don’t think so.” Archer crossed his arms and stared at him expectantly.

“I’m afraid I had to promise something to Mr. Rafter in order to get him to come out of the warp core,” admitted Malcolm.

“Promise something?” Archer repeated. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped as Malcolm explained.

“Mr. Reed! You didn’t have the authority to promise something like that to a civilian... a convicted felon to boot... and if I don’t make good on it, you’ve made me out to be a liar!” Archer said in an incensed tone. Malcolm grimaced apologetically.

“I apologize, Captain... but it was all I could think of to convince the man that he was needed... so he wouldn’t kill himself,” he replied.

Archer sighed, his anger evaporating in the face of Malcolm’s reasoning. He nodded in reluctant approval. “And you did an excellent job, Malcolm. The doctor believes that he’ll live, thanks to your quick thinking.” He laid a hand briefly on his First Officer’s shoulder and met his eyes squarely. “I’ve been meaning to tell you what a terrific job you’ve been doing as First Officer in T’Pol’s absence. If you’d like me to, I’ll be happy to recommend you for command of one of the new battleships. Starfleet will need dozens of new captains in the very near future. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a perfect candidate.”

Malcolm nodded, and gave Archer a smile of gratitude. “I truly appreciate your approval, Captain... but if it’s all the same to you, I think I’d like to remain here on Enterprise for the time being. In fact, I’ll be quite relieved when Commander T’Pol returns and I can once again be merely the Chief Security Officer.”

Archer gave him a knowing smile. “Let me know if you change your mind, Lieutenant Commander... and you can let Lieutenant Sato know that if you do choose to take me up on my offer, I’ll make every effort to see that any request she might make to transfer to the same ship will be treated as top priority.”

Malcolm eyed him in rueful amusement. “Thank you, Captain... I’ll be sure to tell her,” he said.

The ancient hybrid pickup truck rattled into Ralph Turnbull’s gravel drive. In the truck bed were three large travel kennels. Janie heard the truck’s arrival, and bursting out of the front door with a huge smile on her face, ran to meet the small, curvaceous woman with cropped salt and pepper hair who vaulted energetically out of the driver’s seat and stood with open arms, awaiting a hug from her niece. Ralph Turnbull watched the two of them through the living room window with a pleased smile on his face. It was about time for Janie to have a female to visit with. He hadn’t minded at all being the girl’s de facto parent for the previous six months, but wedding planning was not exactly his strong suit. They made an amusing pair. Janie was fully a foot taller than her father’s diminutive sister. In order to hug her she practically had to get down on her knees.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Aunt Rosemary!” said Janie enthusiastically. “How are ya?” she asked, with a twinkle in her eye... and then waited for the expected reply.

Rosemary St. Clergy grinned up at her young niece. “I’m just so good I can’t stand it!” she replied. Janie laughed aloud. Her aunt had given the same reply to that very question for as long as Janie could remember. Janie turned to the bed of the truck.

“And how are the kids?” she asked, tongue firmly in cheek as she peered into the kennels.

“They’re just great,” replied Rosemary, as she grabbed the tailgate, stepped up on the rear bumper of the truck, and swung her legs casually over and into the bed of the truck. Getting down on her knees in front of the kennels, she opened them one at a time, and was very shortly being mobbed and salivated on by three enormous German Shepherds. She fended off their lapping tongues with a hearty laugh, and gave each one a kiss on the top of the head before she let down the tailgate and let them loose to explore their surroundings.

“I really appreciate the fact that your boss is willing to let the kids stay here. The tiny apartment that Ben Taub ER is providing during this locum-tenens stint I agreed to is not exactly the best place for them,” Rosemary told her niece. Janie’s aunt was an ER physician, and so when Janie had asked her to come and assist her with last minute wedding plans and a move... all to be done within a month so as to be ready for the start of the fall semester at A&M, she’d simply taken a one month locum-tenens position at Ben Taub, packed up her dogs and her suitcase, and come to stay in Houston for a month. She was scheduled to work four twelve-hour shifts per week, and planned to spend the rest of her waking hours helping Janie prepare for practically every important event she’d experienced so far in her young life... happening all in the same four week period.

“It’ll be a pleasure ta have ’em, Dr. St. Clergy. Sam and I just love dogs. We’ve got one of the kennels in the back all cleaned up and ready for ‘em!” said Ralph Turnbull as he walked up to the truck. He smiled in a friendly fashion at Janie’s aunt, and extended a hand in a gentlemanly way to assist her down from the truck bed. Rosemary suppressed a delighted smile at his old-fashioned southern manners, gave Janie a sideways glance and a lift of one eyebrow, and then took Ralph Turnbull’s offered hand and stepped down out of the truck... where she found herself at eye-level with the center of his chest.

Her eyes followed the row of buttons on his shirt all the way up to his friendly face. “When I’m off duty, everybody calls me Rosemary,” she told him, maintaining her grip on his hand just a bit longer that necessary and smiling broadly up at him. Then she released his hand, eyeing him appreciatively. From the neck up, Ralph Turnbull’s thinning grey-streaked brown hair and wire frame glasses gave him a rather bookish, cerebral charm. He looked like a man that a woman could talk to. From the neck down was a different story. He had the lean, weathered look of a man who worked outdoors all day with his hands. Rosemary, long-divorced and exposed to unclothed men of all shapes and sizes in her line of work, had learned, by necessity, to step back and objectively appreciate masculine beauty, but there was nothing objective about the way she was admiring Ralph.

Janie watched in fascination as her employer actually blushed under her Aunt Rosemary’s scrutiny.

“Well, then... Rosemary,” he said with a shy smile, pausing for a moment to stare at her with interest before his manner became businesslike. “I’m Ralph...,” he continued,”... and the kennels are back this way... just follow me.”

Ambassador Soval exhaled heavily as he read the text of the announcement that the Vulcan High Council expected him to read at the press conference during the Enterprise’s welcome home reception. Starfleet Command was using the return of the Enterprise to its advantage, trying to improve public morale in the face of the recent defeat at Galorndon Core. The reception, during which each member of the Enterprise’s crew would be met by someone close to them and welcomed as a hero, was the culmination of a three-week long public relations campaign designed to consolidate public opinion in favor of the war. The public would expect a show of solidarity between Earth and its military allies. Representatives from the Andorian, Tellarite, and Betazed embassies were scheduled to attend and offer official support. Soval would be the representative from Vulcan. He seriously doubted that the Humans would like what he had been told to say. He eyed the text he’d been ordered to read. In its original form, the announcement would be perceived by the Humans as insulting and dismissive, he was certain of it. He had to find a way to deliver the High Council’s message without permanently severing all ties between Vulcan and Earth. Soval activated the office intercom.

“Spek, I require your assistance,” he said. Soval had discovered that his new assistant seemed to have a remarkable understanding of Human thought processes. He had an ability to think like a being completely ruled by emotion, and to accurately predict such a being’s behavior, that was nothing short of astounding.

Spek entered the room almost immediately, and Soval handed him a PADD containing the text of the announcement, explaining to him blandly what was required. Spek raised a brow.

“This is a critical document, Ambassador,” he said. “Are you certain that modification is necessary?”

“I am quite certain,” replied Soval. “I have no doubt that reading this announcement in its current form will result in the cessation of favorable relations between Earth and Vulcan.”

Spek returned his gaze coolly. “I will attempt to modify it without changing its essential meaning, Ambassador,” he replied.

“That would be desirable, as we also must satisfy the Vulcan High Council in order to remain at our posts,” said Soval. “You must have it ready for the press conference at 1400 hours tomorrow afternoon.”

“Hey Daddy, feelin’ better?” asked Janie gently. Thomas Rafter gave her a shamefaced smile as he faced his daughter on the ‘phone for the first time since his rather dramatic breakdown the week before.

“Captain Archer told me you’d called to make sure I was all right,” he told her. “How did you know what I wanted to do from ten light years away?” he asked in amazement.

Janie smiled tearfully back at him. “You may be far away, but I still love you, Daddy. A daughter just knows these things,” she replied. He chuckled ruefully and shook his head.

“I’m sure glad you do, honey, ‘cause I’ve been told that I’m ‘essential to the war effort’,” he told her, rolling his eyes. “Starfleet’s offered me a consultant’s position with the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, troubleshooting the new engines. When we get back to Earth, after I’m cleared by the doctors at Starfleet Command, I’m supposed to go on the grand tour of all of the Warp Six shipyards... they said it’ll take at least six months.”

Janie’s smile broadened. “I’m really happy for you, Daddy!” Rafter returned her smile, and then his face sobered.

“I’ll have some time before then... about four weeks, they say,” he told her hesitantly. He took a deep breath. “I know it’s sort of last minute, but I was wondering if you’d decided who was gonna give you away at your wedding in three weeks.”

Janie took a deep, shaky breath, and gave her father a grateful look. “I was kinda hopin’ you’d be available, Daddy,” she said, in a voice with a tiny tremor in it. Thomas Rafter smiled a heartfelt smile at his only child.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world, baby girl,” he said.

The bedroom window was open, in deference to T’Pol’s professed enjoyment of the hot Mississippi summer night. A breeze blowing in from the Gulf, over the sandy beach which was practically in the Tucker’s front yard, made the temperature in the room just barely tolerable for Trip...or at least it had been tolerable before all of the physical exertion they’d just engaged in. He smiled at her as he lay in bed, red-faced and perspiring in the aftermath of their lovemaking. T’Pol sat astride his hips, still joined with him. She leaned down and, as his breath caught in his throat, licked the last remnant of whipped cream from his chest. The bond vibrated with her pleased satisfaction. He chuckled.

“Had enough dessert, darlin’?” he whispered provocatively. She raised a brow, her mouth bowing into an almost-smile.

“I’m afraid we’ve consumed all of the strawberries,” she replied softly, nodding at the leafy green remnants scattered haphazardly over the sheets, “... but there may be some whipped cream still left in the can...”

He grinned and shook his head, “Nope... I’m pretty sure I used it all... you just weren’t payin’ too much attention at the time.” He grasped her hips and rolled, landing on top of her. He gazed into her eyes for a moment, enjoying the feeling of her body beneath his. T’Pol sighed in pleasure, and her gaze transferred to his lips in invitation. He laughed again and kissed her on the forehead, extricating himself from her embrace and climbing out of bed. He brushed off the strawberry stems that were adhering to his bare skin.

“Oh, no you don’t, darlin’! I need a shower and a sheet change first. That whipped cream sure gets sticky in this heat.” He rolled his eyes at her disappointed look. Then he looked toward the window, and leaned toward her. “Ya think I can make it to the laundry room with the sheets without gettin’ dressed? Mama said this mornin’ that this was the last clean set. I can get ‘em started while we clean up. ”

T’Pol sat up in bed and turned an ear toward the window. Her acute Vulcan hearing picked up the sounds from the porch below their window where Trip’s parents had been keeping each other company on the swing earlier that evening. T’Pol no longer heard the sounds of conversation, and there was no sign of the faint rhythmic creak that signaled a porch swing in motion. She was about to inform Trip of the wisdom of dressing before he did the laundry, when she heard a soft sigh, and rhythmic sounds of another nature.

“Oh... Charles!” gasped Catherine Tucker softly.

T’Pol’s face flushed pale green in the dimly lit bedroom. She resisted the urge to cover her ears, and returned her attention to her husband. “I believe your parents are otherwise occupied, Trip. It should be quite safe to wash the sheets in your current state,” she told him dryly. He grinned at her, oblivious to her inadvertent eavesdropping, and grabbed the edge of the sticky top sheet.

“Time ta get up, then, darlin’,” he said mischievously, and whipped the covering from the bed, pausing to admire his wife in all of her glory. She raised a brow at him, and then sinuously rose from the mattress. He just dropped the sheet in his hands and watched as she finished stripping the bed, completely unselfconscious about her state of undress in his presence. She wrapped the bottom sheet in a tidy ball and approached him, her eyes never leaving his face. He, on the other hand, was definitely not looking at her face. His expression sobered.

“It just takes my breath away, every time I see ya like this, T’Pol,” he whispered.

She raised a hand to his chest and laid her palm on it. “I find your body pleasing as well, Trip... but it’s rather...” her hand made a slight sucking sound as she pulled it away and made a small moue of distaste, “... adherent at the moment.”

Trip laughed. “In that case, after I go stick these sheets in the washer, you up for a shower?”

Her eyes left his face, and she gave him a once-over. She raised a brow and looked back up at him in amusement. “It appears that we both are,” she said.

San Francisco Spaceport’s Jupiter Station reception area was packed. The command crew of Enterprise had just arrived by shuttle, and their family members lined the roped off red-carpeted aisle set in the midst of dozens of video-linked media representatives in their distinctive headsets. A reception line of admirals, Earthgov officials, and ambassadors of allied worlds had been set up at the end of the aisle. Elena stood in the back of the crowd, waiting to see his face. She let out the breath she’d been holding as she saw Jonathan Archer step through the door, followed in succession by a slim, serious dark-haired fellow, a lovely young oriental woman, a handsome dark-skinned man who grinned brightly at one of the reporters as she waved at him, and rushed to embrace her over the ropes, and a rather uncomfortable-looking sturdy blonde with a shortly cropped haircut. The blonde paused and looked behind her, as if waiting for someone who’d been left behind, and then a tremendously tall, angular Vulcan ducked his head under the door and joined her. As they progressed up the aisle, the spectators began to applaud.

“Malcolm!” shouted a young woman as she waved wildly with a broad grin on her face. The serious fellow’s face broke into an answering smile. “Maddy!” he shouted, waving back.

An elderly Japanese man caught Elena’s attention. He stood quietly at the ropes with his eyes fixed on the young oriental woman. The girl’s face took on an expression of wonder as she approached him. “Hello, Papa,” she mouthed in the noisy room. She smiled broadly, and bowed to him. Then she took his hands in hers. He smiled back at her with tears in his eyes.

A couple in their sixties accompanied by four large muscular young men waved at the blonde. She led the Vulcan toward them. “Hey, sis! Who’s the Jolly Green Giant?” shouted one member of the muscle-bound quartet. The blonde strode purposefully up to the offender and punched him in the chest... with a considerable amount of force. He just grinned good-naturedly down at his sister and extended his ham-sized hand to her friend. The Vulcan paused briefly, and then took the Human’s offered hand, gravely nodding his head and presumably introducing himself. It was difficult to tell in the ruckus. Then he left the blonde with her family and joined Ambassador Soval, who stood at the ropes to greet him.

Elena located Jon once again, and followed him with her eyes as he progressed down the receiving line. At the end of the line, after he’d had the chance to exchange a few good-natured insults with the Tellarite ambassador, she stepped forward into his field of vision, shoving her way through the crowd to get to him. His face lit up in a gratifying way as he caught sight of her. Pushing aside several reporters who were attempting to interview him with a brusque, “Excuse me, please,” he met her in the center of the reception area and reached for her hands... as she reached for his. Without a word, he pulled her firmly into his arms and began kissing her with an eager thoroughness that eliminated any hesitance she might have had over such a public display of affection. She wrapped her arms tightly around his neck as the attention of the entire planet focused on them. With his body against hers, his hands caressing her back, and his lips finally on her lips once again, she wouldn’t have cared in the slightest if the entire universe was watching. As they finally pulled apart, more to come up for air than for any other reason, the entire reception area broke into thunderous applause. They stared at each other for a moment, red-faced and grinning rather bashfully, and then he pulled her into an embrace with his lips to her ear.

“Fiancée?” he whispered in amusement. She winced. They must have told him how Commander Tucker had managed to get her invited.

“It’s a long story... if you’ll just go along with it now, we can always say we changed our minds later,” she murmured back.

“Who says I’ll want to change my mind?” he replied. She pulled back and gave him a stunned look. He just grinned at her.

“We’ll talk later... it’s time for the press conference,” he said, putting one arm around her shoulders and leading her toward the podium that had been set up on the opposite end of the room. She just stared at him as they walked, struck positively speechless by his statement. She studied his face. He deliberately avoided looking at her, but his eyes sparkled with suppressed mirth.

“Jon...!” she told him in exasperation. “You can’t just leave me hanging like this... it’s not fair!”

“Shhh!” he said in mock disapproval. “Now’s not the time, Elena... you’re just going to have to be patient!” he told her with a sly smile. She looked away and sighed in frustration. Then, glancing at his face again, she smiled reluctantly back at him despite herself.

“I don’t do patience well, either!” she warned him softly, only half-jokingly. He blithely ignored her, and continued walking. Finally, she gave in, and accompanied him, at his firm insistence, as he took his place with the group of dignitaries and ambassadors beside the podium waiting for the press conference to begin.

Hoshi and Malcolm sat side by side in the seating area reserved for Enterprise crew behind the podium. As the second to last allied representative rose to make yet another rousing pledge of support for the war effort, their view of the immediate vicinity of the podium became clear, and they got a close-up look at Archer and his companion for the first time.

“Look, Malcolm... there she is!” Hoshi whispered excitedly. She was positively beside herself after the captain’s very public... and very passionate... reception. “Isn’t she gorgeous? Look at how he looks at her, Malcolm... isn’t it sweet?”

Malcolm craned his neck to inspect the couple of the hour. The captain’s mystery woman was indeed very beautiful, but Malcolm knew better than to say so in Hoshi’s company. He wouldn’t have described the expression on Archer’s face at that moment as sweet, however. It was closer to hungry... perhaps even ravenous. He smiled wryly. Months in space tended to do that to a man, unless he was fortunate enough to have the object of his affections within reach. He turned to Hoshi and smiled suggestively at her.

“What’ve I got to do to get you to kiss me like that?” he asked her softly. Her face flushed slightly, and she laughed quietly at his flirtatious manner. He hadn’t been this playful with her in a long time. His duties as First Officer had taken their toll on him.

“Just wait until the press conference is over and we get some time alone... you’ll see,” she promised. Then her face lit up. “At the party tonight, we’ll have time for a nice visit, and then we can say we’re both tired, and we need to go to bed early. Papa won’t mind. He usually goes to sleep early anyway.”

Malcolm looked doubtful. “Maddy will likely want to stay up half the night talking,” he replied.

Hoshi grinned. “Just leave Maddy to me,” she said as she eyed Lieutenant Commander Hess’ testosterone-rich family from across the room. “I think I know at least four candidates for late night conversation who might meet with her approval.”

The Tellarite ambassador finished his speech, which was, amazingly enough, entirely free of insults, and sat back down to a round of applause. Ambassador Soval rose and approached the podium. With a perfectly neutral expression on his face, he raised a copy of the High Council’s statement... slightly modified... and began to read.

“The thoughts of the Vulcan people are with our Human neighbors and their allies in this time of war. Although the recent social and political upheaval on our planet leaves us without sufficient resources to engage in combat, Vulcan pledges its continued technological support and guidance to the war effort.” Soval lowered his notes and gazed directly at the media representatives in front of him. His face betrayed nothing, but his voice changed subtly, taking on a more emphatic tone. “On a more personal note...,” he continued, “... I would like to offer my own support to the people of Earth. I am quite confident that Earth and its allies will prove victorious in this conflict.” He then stepped back from the podium and sat down.

Many of the civilians applauded his sentiment, not understanding the true meaning of the statement he’d just made. The Starfleet personnel present exchanged rather confused glances.

“Did he just say what I think he said?” whispered Malcolm to Hoshi. She stared back at him with a grim expression.

“Only if you think he said that Vulcan is opting out of the war and leaving us to deal with the Romulans without any military support from them whatsoever,” she replied.

Malcolm sighed. “I was afraid that’s what he’d said,” he answered ruefully.

Phlox gazed with satisfaction over the array of cages and special habitats that covered the tables and floor of the small storage room within Starfleet Command’s medical facility that had been cleared for his use. He’d spent the afternoon overseeing the transfer of the colonists from Enterprise to their assigned military quarters or... as in the case of Thomas Rafter and a few remaining colonists with radiation sickness or battle injuries... to beds in Starfleet’s medical facility. The repair and refit of the Enterprise, which would include the installation of a new warp six capable engine, was scheduled to take four weeks. After ensuring that his Human charges were in good hands, Phlox was making certain that his medical menagerie would be well cared for before going off active duty for a well-deserved two-week vacation. He turned to the medic who’d been assigned this most unusual duty and handed him a PADD.

“Their feeding schedules are listed here, crewman,” he told the reluctant young man briskly. “Watch your fingers. Human protein is toxic to some of them. You may need some assistance. The schedule requires twenty-four hour feedings.” The crewman’s eyes widened as he took the PADD. He studied it for a moment, and then looked back up at Phlox.

“How did you do this by yourself, sir?” he asked in bewilderment.

Phlox smiled his unearthly smile. “Oh... Denobulans don’t sleep much,” he told the crewman breezily. “Carry on, crewman!” He patted the poor fellow’s shoulder rather awkwardly with one hand, and then left him to his task, strolling energetically down the hallway back to his assigned quarters... still sporting a smile that drew uncomfortable stares from passersby. He rang the buzzer before entering.

“Come in!” came a sultry voice from within. He opened the door, his expression transforming itself into one of eager anticipation.

“So, Feezal! My dear wife...,” he said as he entered the room, “... you were telling me earlier how much you’d missed me? I must say that I also have...” A pair of impatient feminine arms pulled him abruptly over the threshold and a delicate hand slapped the door control, locking it behind him.

“Captain Archer!” shouted the third reporter in the fourth row. “How long have you two been engaged?” Archer pulled Elena even more snugly against him and gave the man a bland, polite smile. “Not very long at all,” he stated truthfully. He looked out over the group. “I’ll take one last question, and then Miss Sanchez and I want to spend some time getting re-acquainted!” That drew a laugh from everyone in the room. Elena gave him a warning look and blushed. He grinned nonchalantly and pointed to a reporter in the back who had his hand raised.

“What do you think about Ambassador Soval’s statement at the press conference a few minutes ago, Captain?”

Archer’s smile stiffened as he clenched his teeth. He paused for a moment and then said, “I’ll let my superiors at Starfleet Headquarters answer that one... no comment.” Grasping Elena by the arm, he turned and moved away from the group of reporters, heading for the door.

“I’ve got to get out of here before I say something I’ll regret,” he muttered to her. “Where are you staying?”

“The Spaceport Hilton,” she replied.

“The party tonight’s at 1900 hours. The reporters will expect me to head for Starfleet Headquarters, since we’ve all been billeted there.” He looked at her and smiled enticingly. “I’d like to escape for a couple of hours, do you mind if I come with you?”

Elena chuckled. “Did you really think I was going to let you go anywhere else?”

Skon sat with his long legs comfortably folded beneath him on a meditation cushion placed in the precise center of the main room in his quarters in the Vulcan compound. He was still wearing his Starfleet duty jumpsuit. Although he had not yet been officially relieved of duty as the Enterprise’s interim Science Officer, the Humans’ response to Ambassador Soval’s statement at the press conference that day had made the prospect of remaining in the Starfleet officer’s quarters with the rest of Enterprise’s crew less than appealing to him. Although none of his crewmates had behaved any differently toward him afterwards, the looks he’d received from some of the reporters and civilians at the reception had made him distinctly uncomfortable. He’d decided then not to attend the gathering that had been planned that evening for the Enterprise crew and their family members at Starfleet Headquarters.

To his further discomfort, he’d found, once he’d unpacked and settled back into his familiar quarters, that his unrest was interfering with his ability to meditate. While he had been posted on Enterprise, his isolation from other Vulcans and the constant effort he’d expended to understand the nearly incomprehensible workings of the Human mind had quite often placed him in a similar state. He’d learned that a short period of “shooting hoops”... as Lieutenant Commander Hess was fond of calling it... assisted him in recovering his focus. He had his own basketball, given to him by the captain and signed by the entire crew on his last day aboard. What he lacked was a hoop.

After attempting to meditate for thirty minutes without success, he concluded that finding a way to expend some energy engaging in his preferred method of recreation was necessary and desirable. He stood, and, after stopping at the medicine cabinet to take his afternoon dose of medication, grasped his basketball in the palm of one hand and left his apartment in search of a court and a worthy opponent.

Archer and Elena were breathless as they exited the stairwell on the tenth floor of the Spaceport Hilton hand-in-hand. As they reached the corridor intersection in front of the elevator, Archer pressed his back against the wall and craned his neck around the corner in flamboyant cloak-and-dagger style, while Elena stifled a giggle. He turned his head and grinned playfully at her.

“I think the coast is clear... we left them downstairs,” he told her. When the spaceport shuttle had dropped them off at the hotel, they’d been surprised to find an entire mob of reporters waiting for them in the lobby. Fortunately, they’d managed to slip into the stairwell without being seen, and it looked as if the hotel management had forbidden the reporters access to the upper floors of the hotel. The two of them walked rapidly to her room, still holding hands. She released him long enough to unlock the door, and then pulled him into the room, wrapping her arms immediately around his neck, pressing her body urgently against his, and pulling his head down for a hungry kiss. He kicked the door shut behind them as he eagerly returned her kiss, his hands reaching for her hips and pulling her firmly against him. It was several minutes before they came up for air.

“Elena...” Archer said breathlessly, “... wait ...” Her lips interrupted him, and he had to turn his head to finish his sentence. She promptly began to lick and gently bite his earlobe, traveling down the side of his neck as he spoke. She pulled her arms down from around his neck and began to unfasten his jacket as her mouth followed the edge of his collar.

“Ummm... Oh God... Elena, can I ask you something?” Archer groaned.

“Hmmm?” Elena asked. Her mouth was too occupied with other things to speak more clearly.

“I think we have some things we need to talk about before we... well... continue with whatever it is we’re doing here,” said Archer as he pulled back to look her in the eye with a smile. They were both breathing heavily. She smiled back at him ruefully and rested her palms on the fabric of his shirt where his jacket lay open.

“I suppose you’re right... it’s just been so long, and I... mmm...” He interrupted her with a gentle kiss, and then caressed her lips with his thumb. She closed her eyes. His fingers lightly traced the angle of her jaw, and traveled to the pulse point on her neck. He traced her collarbone with a feather-light touch as he began to speak.

“I know how you feel, sweetheart,” he whispered. Her eyes opened. He gazed at her lovingly. “But I want to do this first,” he told her gently.

Archer stepped back and reached into his jacket pocket. “This belonged to my mother. I’ve had it since my dad died, and I brought it on board Enterprise when I became her captain... just in case I’d need it someday.” He extended a small black box toward her with a hopeful smile. “Marry me, Elena?”

Elena closed her eyes. When she opened them they were filled with tears. She stared at the box for a moment, and then gingerly took it from him. She opened it. Within the box, cradled in black velvet, was a ring made of silver-toned metal with a square-cut central diamond. The larger central stone was bracketed on either side by a row of three smaller square-cut stones.

“It’s platinum,” Archer said. “It’s sort of old-fashioned. If you don’t like it I can get you another...” Elena stopped him in mid-sentence with a gentle finger to his lips.

“It’s perfect,” she told him, her eyes shining with happiness. They searched his face. Her expression sobered, and she gazed at him with a questioning look.

“I didn’t expect this, Jon... did Commander Tucker’s little white lie have anything to do with it?” she asked reluctantly.

He smiled. “I found out about my ‘fiancée’ being at the spaceport on the shuttle from Jupiter Station. The ring was already in my pocket... I promise.”

Instead of the joyful reaction that Archer had expected, Elena regarded him guiltily. She dropped her eyes to the floor and turned to walk toward the bed. She sat down heavily upon it with the ring box dangling from her hand. She looked up at him as he stood there with a puzzled expression on his face.

“God knows I want to be your wife, Jon... but I’m not sure you’ll still want me after I tell you what I’ve done,” she told him miserably. He smiled reassuringly and moved to take a seat on the bed beside her.

“I love you, sweetheart,” he told her. “Nothing you tell me will change that.” He grasped both of her hands, ring box included, between his hands and gave her an expectant look. Elena sighed and shook her head.

“I expected us to end up here... in my hotel room,” she admitted. “I just never dreamed that you’d want to make it official.” She met his eyes with a silent plea for understanding. “I was afraid that one night is all I’d have, Jon. I was afraid you wouldn’t return from the next battle...” she paused, and continued in a whisper, “... or that you’d change your mind when you truly got to know me...” Archer lifted a hand to her face and brushed the tears away with his thumb.

“Never, sweetheart...,” he murmured with a gentle smile.

Elena smiled back through her tears. “I’m so sorry, but I’m forty-two years old, Jon, and I want a baby... I want your baby.”

Archer grinned more broadly and asked in a puzzled tone, “Why are you apologizing? What in the world could you possibly have done that’s so terrible?”

Elena swallowed and met his eyes reluctantly. “I saw a doctor as soon as I found out you were coming home. He gave me medication... fertility enhancers. I’ve been told that there is a greater than eighty-five percent chance of conception if we’re intimate within the next seventy-two hours.”

Archer’s jaw dropped. “You mean you want to make a baby now?” he asked in disbelief.

“I was going to give you the choice... I brought these...,” she told him, and fished a handful of condoms in their shiny wrappers out of her purse and showed them to him with a wide-eyed look. “But I wasn’t going to tell you about the drugs. Then I changed my mind. It wouldn’t be fair not to tell you.”

Archer looked at her earnest face, and then down at the handful of condoms in her fist. He took them from her. There were six of them.

“You were kind of optimistic about one night together in your hotel room, don’t you think?” he told her with a sparkle of humor in his eyes and a sly grin.

Elena’s brow wrinkled in bewilderment at his joke. “You mean, you’re not angry that I almost tricked you into fathering a child without even asking you if you wanted to be a father?”

He sighed and smiled at her. “Elena, if we make love and it results in a child, I’ll be the happiest father-to-be in existence. I’m more worried about you. Are you certain that you’re prepared to raise a child alone? I won’t be here to help you. I don’t think it’s very fair of me to expect you to raise our child by yourself.”

“And it’s not very fair of me to expect you to miss your son or daughter’s entire childhood while you fight this war, Jon...,” she replied, “... but I’m not getting any younger, and I don’t have the time to wait until the war is over and you’re home. It’s now or never, Jon... but if you don’t think you’re ready, then I won’t try to force you to change your mind.”

Archer considered her statement seriously for a moment, and then solemnly handed her the stack of condoms.

“Here,” he said. “Put these away. We won’t need them... unless you change your mind, that is,” he added with a grin. She took them from him with the beginnings of a wondering smile on her face, and tucked them away in her purse. Then he took the ring box from her, removed the ring, and gently placed it on the third finger of her left hand.

Elena’s eyes teared up again. “I love you, Jonathan Archer,” she whispered. Archer smiled at her with adoration, and then got up from the bed.

Her eyes followed him as he placed the ring box on the bedside table, shrugged off the jacket of his dress uniform and carefully laid it out on the back of a chair, and then returned to sit on the bed beside her. He gently placed the palm of one hand behind her head and drew her mouth to his. She laced the fingers of both hands into his hair and fervently returned his kiss, pushing him backward to the mattress.

Skon exited the taxi in front of the Golden Gate Park recreation center. The driver eyed him angrily as he handed him the fare, but accepted his money without complaint before driving away. The Vulcan straightened his posture, and entered the building as if he belonged there. He followed the signs toward the gymnasium, and entered the gym without making eye contact with anyone. There were a few men and women milling about the sidelines, as if they were waiting for something, but no one was on the court, so he strode to the free-throw line and began a steady, meditative series of shots on goal. The shots were placed so precisely that the ball bounced and rolled back to him every single time. His feet remained stationary as shot after shot swooshed unerringly through the hoop and bounced back to him with near-mechanical regularity. After a few minutes, he’d gathered an audience. At least a dozen men and women, all dressed in shorts and t-shirts, stood watching him with their mouths open. Behind them, a group of young Hispanic males entered the gym. The tallest of them, a muscular fellow with a shaved head and a neatly trimmed black beard and mustache who looked to be at least 6’9” or so, walked up to the group. His face twisted in anger as he saw what they were all staring at.

“Hey... Vulcan bastardo, get off the court, man! We’ve got a game to play!” Skon caught the ball in both hands and stopped his drill, turning to face the slightly shorter but much heavier man with a mild look on his face. He nodded slightly and stepped aside, walking toward the sideline without argument.

“Milo, did you see what he was doin’, man?” whispered the smaller whip-thin fellow at his side. “The guy’s a frickin’ machine!” His voice was filled with reluctant admiration. “Carlos didn’t show tonight, and those blonde assholes will be here any minute. Maybe this guy can play center.”

“Pedro, Vulcans don’t play basketball,” responded the larger man in disgust. Skon’s head came up where he stood at the sideline at least ten feet from where the two men were holding their whispered conversation.

“Actually, sir,” he said in a sonorous, booming voice that carried across the entire court, “You are quite correct... with one exception.” He began dribbling in place as he stood at the sideline. “I would be pleased to demonstrate for you so that you may determine if I have sufficient skills to join in your game.”

Milo eyed him challengingly. His chin jutted forward as he asked, “You wanna take me on, Vulcan?”

Skon raised a brow, and began to dribble toward his opponent. “I would be honored, sir,” he told him. His response seemed mild mannered... almost subservient... but his stance was aggressive. He began to dribble toward the goal, forcing the heavier man to retreat or be trampled upon. Milo spread his arms and began to guard his challenger. Skon rapidly reversed directions and attempted to rush the goal from the opposite side. Milo struck the ball from his hands and dribbled toward the opposite goal, only to be thwarted by a very large Vulcan who stood in his way with outstretched arms. Milo dribbled in place for a moment.

“How long you been playin’ ball?” he asked the Vulcan, his eyes roaming back and forth, searching for an opening.

“I first held a basketball one month, twelve days and twenty-three hours ago,” replied Skon with typical Vulcan precision as he followed Milo’s lunge to the left. The young Human pushed forward, driving the ball toward his goal with a speed that bypassed the Vulcan’s guard for a moment. He rushed the goal and made his shot. The ball bounced firmly off the backboard and through the hoop. Skon was on top of it as soon as it hit the ground, and began an unexpected drive down center court toward the opposite goal. He was faster than his heavier opponent, and arrived in the clear to make his own shot on goal, evening the score.

“Not too bad for a beginner,” said Milo with a wry grin as he caught up with Skon. Skon raised a brow at him and tossed him the ball. No sooner had the ball left Skon’s hands than Milo saw him suddenly turn an unearthly white color. The Vulcan’s eyes opened wide in a look of startlement, and then they rolled back in his head as he collapsed to the floor in a heap of tangled limbs. Milo immediately threw the ball aside and fell to his knees beside Skon. He grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him.

“Hey, man... you okay?” The Vulcan’s head lolled as he was shaken, and his face began to turn a dingy grey color. The Human rolled him over onto his back and tilted his head back slightly, leaning an ear over his face and checking for a pulse in his neck. He felt nothing. Abruptly, Milo Alonso the part-time hoodlum was transformed into Milo Alonso the firefighter. His head snapped up.

“Pedro!” he shouted to his friend. “911... now!” He turned to another of his companions, who had been standing on the sidelines watching. “Antonio! Find the AED! There’s gotta be one here somewhere!” After delegating what he could delegate, Milo turned back to the Vulcan. Without hesitation, he covered the Vulcan’s mouth with his own and gave him two rescue breaths. Then he moved to his chest, positioned his hands over the Vulcan’s sternum, and began chest compressions.

Don’t even know where this guy’s heart is..., he thought, ... but anything’s better than just standing here and watching him die.

Elena stretched luxuriously in the bed, feeling deliciously decadent with absolutely nothing between her bare skin and the crisp cotton sheets. She smiled as she heard the shower come on in the bathroom, and briefly considered joining Jon in his ablutions. A glance at the bedside chronometer changed her mind. They had thirty minutes to make it to the party on time. They were going to be late, she was certain, but if she joined him in the shower, she was equally certain that they’d never make it to the party at all. She forced herself to get up and lay out her dress for the evening, wincing at the small stinging ache that reaffirmed her belief that it had been entirely too long since she’d last been intimate with a man. It had most definitely been worth the wait, she decided. Jon was an amazingly sensitive lover. She smiled in remembrance as she slipped on a robe and sat down at the vid phone to make a call while she waited for her turn in the bathroom.

Time to make an honest man of him, she thought in satisfaction as she entered a phone code and waited for the connection. A prim and proper middle-aged woman answered the call. Her eyes widened as she took in Elena’s manner of dress.

“St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church... how may I direct your call?” she asked in a disapproving tone. Elena gave her a polite smile.

“May I speak with Father Sanchez, please? Please tell him it’s Elena calling.” The woman pursed her lips censoriously.

“One moment please,” she said.

The image on the screen abruptly changed. Before Elena was a handsome dark-haired man in a clerical collar. He had a broad smile on his face.

“’Lena! I suppose congratulations are in order!” His expression turned to one of reproach. “And why did I have to find out about this from a newscast?” he asked her.

Elena stared back at him in puzzlement, and then realized that her “engagement” had already been announced earlier that day at the spaceport press conference. She decided it was much too confusing to try to explain that the public had actually found out about her engagement before she did.

“Sorry little brother, it was a last minute thing,” she told him with a grin, waving her hand before the screen to show off her ring. He leaned forward to admire it and nodded approvingly. She put her hand down and got straight to the point.

“Ricky, remember when my annulment finally came through a couple of years ago, and you made me promise to let you marry me the next time to make sure it ‘stuck’?”

Father Ricardo Sanchez nodded cautiously at her with a quizzical expression on his face.

Elena grinned broadly at him. “How soon can you come to San Francisco?” she asked.

“How soon do you need me?” he replied with an answering smile.

“How’s next weekend sound?” she asked with a pleading look.

“’Lena!” he exclaimed with a laugh, thinking that she was joking. When she didn’t laugh, his face sobered.

“Why the rush, Elena?” he asked suspiciously. “Are you pregnant?”

She suppressed a grin. “I don’t think so...” she replied, ”... but I probably will be by the time you get here,” she added teasingly. He sighed and rolled his eyes.

“Madre de dios, Elena... I’m a priest,” he told her in an exasperated tone. “Unless you’re confessing, I really don’t want to know these things!”

Elena laughed at his discomfort. She’d missed teasing him. She eyed him with a sly smile. “You’ve got to be sorry you did something in order to confess it, little brother!” she said brazenly. She took pity on him then, at his shocked expression. “Just look at it this way, querido,” she told him. “The sooner you get here, the less I’ll have to confess!”

Phlox entered the meeting hall with Feezal on his arm. They were late, and Feezal was smiling so broadly that everyone in the room was giving them strange looks.

“You shouldn’t smile quite so enthusiastically, my treasure,” Phlox whispered. “You’re making the Humans uncomfortable.”

“Can I help it if I haven’t been so satisfied in months?” she whispered back with a salacious raise of one brow. Phlox blushed and smiled bashfully. He gave her a fond look, and then gazed out over the room just in time to see Jonathan Archer enter with his new fiancée on his arm. Although Elena Sanchez was physically incapable of smiling as broadly as Feezal had been a few moments before, she positively glowed.

Phlox suspected it was very likely to be for the exact same reason, and his heart was warmed by the idea that his friend and captain had finally found someone to love. He began to make his way toward Archer in the crowd, intending to offer his congratulations to the happy couple. As he weaved his way through groups of crewmembers and their families, his eye was caught by a slender figure dressed in a form-fitting sky-blue dress. She stood speaking with Hoshi Sato and an elderly man who could only be Hoshi’s father.

Elizabeth Cutler had chosen not to wear her uniform that evening. The dress transformed her. Phlox’s attention was fixed on the young woman despite himself. Feezal noticed his expression, and then followed his line of vision to the object of his attraction. She smiled knowingly.

“Is that the young woman you told me about?” she asked him softly.

Phlox sighed. He looked at his wife with a wistful smile. “Yes,” he told her. He looked back at Liz Cutler. “Isn’t she beautiful?” he said in a longing tone.

Feezal chuckled. “Now that Mareth has released you to marry that tradesman... what was his name?”

“Brax,” responded Phlox absently. “She sent me a wedding picture. He’s a very handsome fellow. I can see why she prefers him, “ he said.

“Brax... right..” replied Feezal. “Anyway... now that you have only two wives, would you like me to speak to Miss Cutler for you?”

Phlox looked down at Feezal gratefully. As his first wife, it was her traditional place to present his suit to his other wives. It was a perfectly sensible tradition... who better to extol the virtues of becoming a man’s wife than someone who was already enjoying the privilege? Unfortunately, Phlox was quite certain that Liz would not respond well to that particular Denobulan tradition.

“Thank you for offering, my darling, but I’ll take care of it myself... in due time,” he told her. He placed his left hand over hers as she clung to his right arm. “I haven’t been with you in much too long... it’s your turn now,” he told her. She smiled back at him lovingly.

“I was hoping you’d say that, my dear,” she told him. Her eyes left his as she scanned the room and came to light on four bronzed, muscular, blonde giants who were all congregating around a single dark-haired beauty. Lieutenant Commander Reed hovered in the background with a protective look on his face, but Feezal wasn’t looking at Mr. Reed. Her brow lifted as she eyed Maddy Reed’s admirers. “Just let me know if you change your mind, though. I’m sure I could find something to occupy my time.”

Phlox’s eyes followed her gaze, and then he laughed, exchanging a mischievous look with her. “I see what you mean!” he said.

A fresh-faced ensign in full dress uniform approached the couple as they gazed into each other’s eyes. He cleared his throat. Phlox turned his head and gave him a questioning look.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, sir, but there’s a high priority message for you from the medical facility in the Vulcan compound... something about getting interim medical records for a patient who was admitted tonight and was stationed on Enterprise,” said the young man.

“A patient in the medical facility at the Vulcan compound?” repeated Phlox.

“Yes, sir... I believe they said his name is Skon.”

Phlox gave the ensign an alarmed look and then turned back to his wife with a regretful smile.

“I’m sorry, my dear... duty calls,” he told her. Feezal smiled back and made a graceful shooing motion with both hands.

“Go on, my love... I’ll meet you later in your quarters,” she whispered. She watched him leave with the ensign, and then turned to make her way toward Liz Cutler. If the two of them might possibly be married to the same man at some point in the future, she felt it wise to become acquainted. Close friendships with her husbands’ other wives always made things so much nicer in the long run.

The Vulcan physician eyed Phlox with poorly suppressed impatience. “An apparent exacerbation of his chronic cardiomyopathy resulted in a cardiac arrhythmia... causing sudden cardiopulmonary arrest,” he said in a dispassionate tone. He glanced at the patient, who was still unconscious and receiving supplemental oxygen. Phlox’s eyes followed the Vulcan’s to the view port in the treatment area. Skon appeared to be sleeping peacefully within the oxygen-enriched environment of the hyperbaric chamber.

“Fortunately...,” continued the Vulcan, “... the event occurred in the presence of a Human capable of recognizing the condition immediately and administering the proper treatment. Although his brain received less than adequate oxygenation for several minutes before his cardiac rhythm was restored, neurochemical scans indicate that complete recovery is highly likely.”

Phlox gave the Vulcan doctor a puzzled look. “What triggered the arrhythmia? Do you have any idea?’

The Vulcan pursed his lips, as if the admission galled him, and then said, “I have not, as yet, been able to ascertain the cause,” he told Phlox. “Perhaps the patient’s medical record from his time on Enterprise might provide more information.”

“Are you asking for my help?” asked Phlox in pleased disbelief.

“Your assistance will not be required, Doctor,” replied the Vulcan doctor stiffly. “I merely require the patient’s interim medical record.”

Phlox sighed, and handed over the data disc he’d brought with him. He glanced at Skon again. An unsolved mystery frustrated him, but Skon was no longer his patient. He nodded in resignation.

“Just let me know if you change your mind,” he told the Vulcan briskly. The Vulcan physician simply nodded dismissively and turned back to his review of the patient’s chart.

Phlox turned and walked out of the critical care unit, reflecting that there was a fine line between being efficiently concise and being impolite which some people consistently crossed. In his experience, Vulcans... and doctors... were frequent offenders. He tried not to take it personally.

As Phlox passed the waiting area on his way to the lift, he caught sight of a large, muscular Human sitting on the edge of his seat on one of the waiting room chairs. The man was repeatedly bouncing and catching a basketball as he stared at the wall. Phlox caught his eye and smiled cordially. The Human looked surprised, and then stood up and approached the Denobulan, towering over him with the basketball under one arm.

“You’re the first person to even notice I was here since I came with the Vulcan in the ambulance,” he told Phlox with a rueful grin. He eyed the doctor’s dress shirt and slacks. “You looked like you knew where you were going... but I guess you don’t work here, do you?” he asked regretfully.

Phlox cocked his head at the man. “Do you mean Skon, the Vulcan that arrested? Are you the man that resuscitated him?” he asked with a curious smile.

The Human shrugged. “I don’t know his name. I just did CPR and zapped him with the AED, if that’s what you mean. I wasn’t even sure if it would work, him being Vulcan.”

Phlox smiled broadly at him and held out his hand. “Let me shake your hand, sir! You saved that man’s life. He’s an acquaintance of mine. The Vulcans may not ever thank you for what you did, but on behalf of the non-Human races who share this planet with you, I’d like to offer my sincere gratitude... I’m Phlox.”

The Human grasped the doctor’s hand firmly and returned his smile... not quite as broadly, but with enthusiasm. “Milo Alonso,” he replied. “It was the least I could do... the man’s a damn fine ball player.” He released Phlox’s hand, and pulled the basketball out from under his arm. Phlox recognized it as the autographed ball that Skon had been given when he left Enterprise. “I thought he’d want this back... it looks like a special ball,” he said.

Phlox smiled and nodded, taking the ball from the taller Human gratefully. “I’ll make sure he gets it. I’ll sure he’ll be thankful to have it back.”

As the two men exchanged pleasantries, a young woman in full dress blues entered the waiting room. It was Lieutenant Commander Hess. She’d evidently come straight from the party. She caught sight of Phlox and rushed to his side.

“Doctor! I called the Vulcan compound when Skon didn’t show for the party. They told me he was here. I came as soon as I could. What happened? How is he?” she asked in a breathless rush, with a worried look on her face. Phlox smiled reassuringly.

“His doctor says he’ll be fine, Lieutenant Commander... and as for what happened... for that information I believe I will refer you to Mr. Alonso, here. He’s the one who saved Skon’s life.” He turned to Milo. “Mr. Milo Alonso, may I present Lieutenant Commander Janice Hess.” Then he stepped back with a knowing smile on his face.

Janice Hess looked up wonderingly at the huge man with a grateful smile on her face and extended her hand. Milo Alonso, who had a weakness for women in uniform, noticed that her eyes were a vivid green. He grasped her hand, and she returned the grip firmly, with a strength indistinguishable from that of a man her size. “Lieutenant Commander, huh? Pretty impressive,” he said.

“Not as impressive as saving a life,” she responded breathlessly, smiling shyly.

Milo’s brow wrinkled. “And you’re related to Skon how?” he asked in puzzlement. For a moment, she’d almost behaved like a frantic girlfriend.

“He’s just a friend. He needed someone to show him the ropes on board ship, but he’s got a wife back on Vulcan,” she said with a resigned shrug. Then she gave him a wide-eyed, fascinated look. “So... are going to tell me what happened, or not?” she asked.

Phlox left the waiting room unnoticed by its other two occupants, who had seated themselves side-by-side on the couch, and were deep in conversation. He smiled in satisfaction on his way back toward the critical care unit. He had a basketball to deliver.

Rosemary St. Clergy sat on the bench of a wooden picnic table in the shade of the enormous oak tree in Ralph Turnbull’s back yard on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Her elbows were on the table, and her chin was in her hands as she watched Helaire, the smaller of her two male German Shepherds, frantically chasing after the butterflies that congregated around the wild tangle of lantana and unkempt climbing roses that were all that remained of a garden that had evidently once been against the back wall of the house. She smiled and looked down at her lap. She felt a warm head insistently shoved atop her thigh as Helaire’s brother Henri begged for attention. She lifted a hand and gently scratched him behind the ear. Their mother Lonnie lay beneath the tree, her tongue lolling in the heat. On the other side of the tree, Sam kicked his legs and propelled himself with near suicidal altitude on the swing that hung from a huge branch at least fifteen feet above their heads. The delicious smell of slowly smoked barbeque permeated the air. She turned her head to admire her host’s lean form as he turned the chicken leg quarters and basted them, and then removed the soy dogs from the pit, placing them on a covered platter on the side of the grill.

“You’d better bring those over here so I can defend them for you,” said Rosemary jokingly. “The kids think hot dog weenies are better than steak. If you leave them there, you’re gonna lose a few.”

Ralph Turnbull smiled back at her. “That’s okay... there’s more in the house,” he said. He took the cover from the plate and tossed a hot dog at Rosemary’s feet for Henri, and then one each to Lonnie and Helaire. All three dogs snapped them up in no time flat, and then licked their chops, searching for more.

“Uh oh... now you’ve done it!” laughed Rosemary. Ralph sealed the lid of the platter, locking in the odor of cooked weenie. The dogs began an avid... and unsuccessful... search for more. Rosemary gave him an impressed look. “Never thought of that!” she told him.

“Doesn’t always work on my beagles,” replied Ralph with a grin. “But I figured it was worth a try if we wanted to have any soy dogs left for Kov.”

Rosemary smiled back at him, and then looked out over the back pasture. She caught sight of Kov and Janie exercising Two Bits and Red Man, riding side-by-side and discussing something with serious enthusiasm. Kov was gesturing emphatically, apparently attempting to make a point.

“I never imagined a Vulcan could be like Kov,” she said to Ralph in amused wonder. “He seems so... Human sometimes.”

Ralph chuckled. “You don’t know the half of it. I talked with Wendell Green after services this morning. He told me Kov came to see him last week and they had a nice talk. Seems that Kov has decided that the existence of God is a logical possibility after all, and he’s agreed to a church wedding. Now all they have to do is agree on the vows.” He looked out over the pasture with a broad grin. “Looks like there’s still a lot of negotiatin’ to do.” He turned his head and caught sight of Sam, whose swing arc had nearly reached the horizontal.

“Whatcha tryin’ to do, boy, kill yourself?” he yelled at Sam jokingly. Sam smiled back in ecstatic enthusiasm with the wind blowing through his hair.

“But it’s fun, Daddy!” he shouted. Rosemary chuckled.

“He reminds me of my boy Trey at that age,” she said.

“You have kids?” asked Ralph in interest.

“Just one,” she replied. “His father and I were married less than a year while we were in school...one of those whirlwind courtships that run out of steam once you really get to know the person you’re married to... but I’d go through it all again if I could just have Trey.”

“Where’s he living now?” asked Ralph. Rosemary didn’t seem to him to be the type to leave the raising of her child to anyone else.

“Oh, he’s a senior at Trinity College in San Antonio... and he’s the cutest kid on the face of the planet!” she said proudly. Ralph Turnbull chuckled. A son never outgrew being his mother’s “kid”... even when he was grown.

“I’d like to meet him sometime,” he told her sincerely.

Rosemary smiled at him, thinking that he was just being polite. Her eyes went back irresistibly to the overgrown, neglected garden in the back of the house.

“How long’s it been since you got in those roses and cleaned ‘em up?” she asked him with a longing expression. She hated to see them so abandoned. Her fingers itched to get into the tangle and make it beautiful again.

Ralph gave her an embarrassed grin. “Gardening’s not really my thing. About six months before Margaret died, she put in that bed and planted those roses. She took care of those things like they were her children. I tried to keep it up as best as I could, but I had other things to do, and it just hurt so much to even look at ‘em at first... I almost pulled ‘em up and got rid of ‘em at least a half-dozen times. Now I’m glad I couldn’t do it. It’s almost like they’re a part of her,” he said, smiling in remembrance.

Rosemary looked at him sympathetically. “How long has it been?” she asked.

He shrugged ruefully. “Six years... it was breast cancer,” he told her. “It doesn’t hurt as much as it did once, but I’ll always miss her.”

“Ralph... I’m truly sorry for your loss,” Rosemary told him seriously. “If you’d like, I can save the roses for you... make them beautiful again.”

He smiled at her gratefully with unshed tears shining in his eyes. “I’d like that, Rosemary,” he told her. “I’m sure Margaret would have, too.”

Trip Tucker sat at the tiller of the eighteen foot Hobie Cat, sailing for the first time in nearly ten years in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf was calm that day, almost like glass, and the only sound he heard was the sound of the wind as it filled the mainsail. The frantic activity necessary to get the sails up, and to prevent his fearful companion from doing something which probably would have resulted in a salt-water bath for both of them, had been well worth it. Now that they were up and running, he felt so peaceful. He remembered the times when he and Lizzie had sailed like this along the coast at Panama Beach, and a wistful smile graced his lips. He looked down at the top of T’Pol’s head as she sat securely on the deck between his knees. She’d removed the sunhat and scarf that she’d worn at the marina to avoid attracting unwanted attention when they’d gone to rent the boat, and sat with her eyes closed, face lifted to the sun. The wind blowing over the water stirred her hair, lifting it in wispy tendrils around the points of her delicate ears. He leaned forward and softly whispered into one of them.

“You okay now, darlin’?” She opened her eyes and leaned back against his thigh. He felt her secure contentment in the bond.

“You were quite correct, Trip... sailing is a very pleasant activity,” she responded. He chuckled and leaned back again with a broad smile on his face. She’d insisted on coming with him today despite her terror of open water, and had been successful at hiding her apprehension from him until they’d actually gotten out on the water, at which point she’d nearly panicked, despite the quite serviceable life jacket she wore. Her military training had gotten her through it... for on this ship, Trip was captain and she was crew. She’d followed his orders without question, and soon they were gliding smoothly along under full sail.

“So... what do ya think of my matchmakin’ skills, eh, T’Pol? Two weddin’s in one month... not too shabby, huh?” he boasted. T’Pol leaned her head back and raised a brow at him.

“I don’t believe that taking credit for Kov and Janie’s match is entirely appropriate,” she told him dryly. “They had met and formed a close attachment several months prior to your posting with the Warp Six Project.”

“That may be true, T’Pol, but without my influence, that poor girl might still’ve been waitin’ for a marriage proposal in another five years!” replied Trip with a grin. T’Pol gave his reply a moment of thoughtful consideration, and then simply nodded in agreement.

“So we go to San Francisco this Friday and check in, attend Jon and Elena’s wedding on Saturday, start overseeing the refit on Monday, and then take leave for the weekend and go back to Houston the following weekend for Kov and Janie’s wedding?” He asked her in disbelief. “That’s an awful lotta travelin’!”

“I believe that the captain plans to make use of Shuttlepod One to avoid crowds and reporters. Ensign Mayweather will pick us up in the Biloxi airport for the first leg of our journey, and we’ll be traveling with the captain and his new bride to Houston to attend Kov’s wedding,” she replied efficiently. “I have been informed that you must go for something called a ‘tux fitting’ at some time this week, and transmit the results of said fitting to Janie at your earliest convenience.”

“A tux!” protested Trip. “Why can’t I just wear my uniform?”

“Apparently, although the captain will marry in his dress uniform, Kov will be dressed in a ‘tuxedo’ at the request of his bride, and the ‘best man’ must always dress in the same manner as the groom,” she told him.

Trip sighed. “If I’da known I was gonna have ta wear a tux, I’d a probably told Kov ta at least wait ta get married ‘til we shipped out,” he told her ruefully.

Spek sat in his newly assigned larger office and inspected his schedule with satisfaction. Ambassador Soval had decided to delegate his less critical meetings in order to focus his attention on repairing relations with Starfleet after the High Council’s insulting decision. Although Spek’s schedule of meetings did not include conferences with any vital military personnel, even the businessmen and minor Earthgov officials with whom he’d been assigned to meet could conceivably provide the occasional bit of strategically significant information... and once he’d gained their trust, it was only a matter of time before other, more critical information sources became available to him.

His assignment on Earth was progressing well. Even though his attempt to eliminate Skon permanently had not been successful... thanks in very large part to a Human... a fact which galled Spek to no end... he had succeeded indirectly. Skon was scheduled to return to Vulcan on the next available transport. Although no one spoke of it openly, Skon’s medical record indicated that, while his cardiac condition had stabilized, the near-death experience had triggered a “hormonal imbalance” that could only be treated with the assistance of his mate, who currently resided on Vulcan. Spek grinned wryly. The pathologically repressed idiots didn’t even call it “Ponfarr” in their own medical records!

Spek had observed this reaction himself in Vulcan prisoners after a particularly aggressive interrogation. Romulan biologists studying the phenomenon had concluded that it was a primitive holdover from Vulcan’s violent past... an instinctive attempt to procreate which was often triggered by recovery from a life-threatening situation. When Spek had been among the ranks of the Tal Shiar interrogators, before his talent for verisimilitude had been discovered, he’d become skilled at triggering the reaction in his captives without killing them, a feat which required a tremendous amount of control. This skill had captured the attention of his superiors, for Vulcan males in the throes of the Plaktow were exquisitely susceptible to the right interrogator. Spek smiled lasciviously as he remembered the young female subcenturion who’d assisted him with the last interrogation of his career, before his life had been irrevocably changed by his transfer to Tal Shiar covert operations. She’d become attached to the Vulcan male to whom she’d been assigned. He’d had to eliminate them both. It had been six years since the event, and he could still remember the feeling of erotic satisfaction he’d enjoyed as he throttled the Romulan female who’d dared to actually enjoy mating with a Vulcan.

Spek’s attention returned to the schedule before him. Ambassador Soval’s appointment schedule showed a series of individual meetings with virtually every senior officer in Starfleet Command, as well as the heads of state of at least twelve of Earthgov’s member nations. He was obviously trying desperately to do what the Humans referred to as “damage control”. Spek, on the other hand, was quite pleased with the way his modification of the High Council’s statement had been received. Although the core message remained unchanged, thus satisfying the Vulcan High Council and causing Soval’s current predicament, the changes he’d made... including his insistence on a “personal” message from Soval himself... had endeared Soval to the common Human on the street. This made expulsion from Earth... and isolation from prime information gathering opportunities... less likely. At the same time, the changes had also made Soval appear weaker and more emotional to the Vulcan High Council, hastening the day when Soval would be removed from his position... and Spek would be appointed in his place. Of course, if the day of his appointment didn’t arrive quickly enough, there were always alternative methods of getting Soval out of the way. Spek found himself greatly looking forward to the prospect.

The End (for now)


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