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Fall Asleep Counting Your Blessings

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Malcolm made his way out of the turbolift and down the empty corridor of B-deck, down to a nondescript door, one that looked just like all the others down the senior officers corridors. His eyes focused on the padd in his hand, moving almost on automatic as he pressed the chime next to the door. How many times in the last six years had he stopped in that very same spot and hit the chime? More times than he cared to think about, really.

The pause that followed stretched on longer than normal, before that familiar Southern voice drawled, “C’mon in.”

His access code punched in, Malcolm was through the doorway and three steps into the room before the door could even finish opening all the way. Eyes still glued on the padd in hand, he quickly began to speak. “Commander, I have those revised readouts you’d asked for. I believe those new power couplings should hold. If you can spare some time to reroute a bit of extra power from the impulse injectors, I’d be happy to run through the trials with you later toni--”

A quiet chuckle had him trailing off, finally looking up to see his best friend, Commander Charles “Trip” Tucker III, sitting at his desk, dressed down in comfortable civvies, and doing his best to hide his mirth behind a hand. Behind Trip, a woman who bore a striking resemblance to the commander smiled brightly from the screen, broadcasting from across the expanse of deep space that separated them.

“So you’re Malcolm Reed!” the woman exclaimed, her voice hinting at much the same accent that Trip had.

Malcolm drew up short. His eyes darted from Trip, to the woman, and back again before he could get his mouth working again. “Yes,” he answered shortly. “Yes, I am. I’m sorry, I don’t--”

“Malcolm, my mom, Julie.” Trip sat up a bit straighter, motioning from Malcolm to the screen, before going in reverse. “Mom, Lieutenant Malcolm Reed. Our--”

This time, Julie Tucker interrupted. “Your chief armory and tactical officer. I already know that, Trippy. I do pay attention to your letters and all those pictures you send me, y’know.”

A funny warmth trickled through Malcolm. Trip had told his mother about him? Had shown her pictures enough for her to be able to know without introduction who he was? Why? And just what, exactly, had Trip been telling her about him? Even more curious, though, had to be the way pink seemed to tint Trip’s ears and cheeks. Probably from being called ‘Trippy’ in front of me, Malcolm mused to himself.

“It’s nice to finally see you in action, Malcolm,” Mrs. Tucker said, drawing Malcolm out of his own thoughts. “Trip’s told me a lot about you!”

“He...has?” Malcolm glanced to Trip, taking in the way the other man seemed to be on the verge of dropping his head down onto the desk, or bolting out the door at warp 5.

Mrs. Tucker nodded, wisps of silvery blond hair fell from her loose ponytail to frame her still-smiling face. The same smile Trip would flash Malcolm when they were laughing together and both had dropped their guards. Mrs. Tucker was far freer with that smile than Trip was.

“Only in every letter, sweetheart! I swear, half the stories Trip’s told me ‘bout the trouble you two get into sometimes,” she paused, huffed a quiet laugh, and shook her head. “I almost don’t believe some of them! You two are a regular ol’ pair of disaster twins, it sounds like!”

It was Malcolm’s turn to blush now. His head ducked as he fought to hide his own awkwardness at Mrs. Tucker’s enthusiasm. The attention she seemed to be focusing on him wasn’t near as uncomfortable as it should have been, given that they were complete strangers, and yet Malcolm still couldn’t bring himself to meet her gaze again. It had been years since a mother had paid him more than a cursory glance and deemed him a fine young man, but nothing more. Lord knew more than a couple of decades had passed since his own mother had shown much enthusiasm for him.

And truth be told? He doubted anyone had ever dared to call him ‘sweetheart’.

From his place at his desk, Trip whined, his head rolled back to stare at the ceiling. “Ma, we ain’t that bad.”

“Malcolm,” Mrs. Tucker’s cool blue eyes darted from her son to Malcolm, pinning him where he stood. “How many times have you pulled my baby boy’s ass out of the fire?”

Shifting from foot to foot, Malcolm cast a quick glance back to Trip before clearing his throat. “I...I’m not sure, Mrs. Tucker.” Before she could say anything more, Malcolm set the padd he’d brought with him down on the corner of Trip’s desk. “I really should be going. Sorry to interrupt your call, Commander.”

Lips pressed in a tight, thin line, Malcolm nodded politely to the screen before turning to start out the door without another word.

~*~*~

Trip watched as Malcolm made his hasty retreat, practically leaving a warp trail on the way out the door. He sat quiet for a moment, just staring at the door, lost in his own thoughts. Maybe he should have cut his call with his mom short when the door chimed, insisted on calling her back once his late night visitor had left, but hindsight was 20/20, as his grandpa always used to say. He only partially regretted telling Malcolm to come in. The way his mom’s face lit up when she caught sight of him, and the way Malcolm just chattered on without a clue had been a sight to see. Trip just wished it hadn’t ended in the shorter Englishman’s embarrassed full reverse.

“Well he’s even more adorable than his pictures let on…”

Trip huffed a half laugh and nodded. “Yeah, he…” The words his mother said suddenly clicked in his brain, sending his thoughts into overdrive to catch up. “Wait, what?”

A mischievous glint twinkled in Julie’s eyes as she stared her son down. “You’re bringin’ him home for Christmas, right? I’d love to meet him without two dozen star systems between us.”

Heat flashed across Trip’s face again as he turned his full attention back to the monitor. It’d be nice to bring Malcolm home with him, introduce him to the whole Tucker clan, watch him squirm and flail once Trip’s mom finally got her hands on him. But he hadn’t exactly planned on asking Malcolm to join him.

“Malcolm isn’t real big on family-centric holidays, Ma,” he answered with a shrug. “ ‘Side’s that, ya went an’ scared him. No way he’d agree t’ have Christmas with us now!”

Julie’s smile fell a bit.

“Trip, has he got any place to go home to?”

The question was innocent enough, but it still made Trip squirm in his seat. It really wasn’t his place to say. Malcolm was such a private guy, it would probably piss him off to high heaven if he found out Trip had ratted him out to his mother. Hell, it’d taken Trip nearly two years to finally break down a lot of Malcolm’s carefully constructed walls and learn everything he could about him. The fact that Malcolm hadn’t been home for Christmas in over fifteen years had been a hard-earned piece of information that still caused Trip’s chest to clench in sadness.

Frowning, he sighed, shaking his head. “Like I said, he ain’t real big on family-centric holidays. Think he might vid his folks an’ sister for a couple minutes Christmas Eve, but other than that…”

“What’s he do for Christmas then?”

Trip shrugged. “Works doubles on the bridge then holes himself up in the armory or his room for the rest of the night, I think.”

The last few years the Enterprise had been too far from Earth to return home for the holidays. It’d been hard for the crew, especially the ones with loved ones waiting for them, but they’d made the best of it each year. Paper ring garlands had draped across stations on the bridge, and engineering always looked like a bomb of red and green exploded everywhere. A tree, menorah, and a Kinara -- complete with its seven candles -- would magically find their way into the mess hall, and Chef prepared all the best foods he had available to him for the holiday party. The party, which most everyone attended, lasted well into gamma shift and usually ended with Trip and Travis competing to see who could kiss the most people under a resequenced piece of mistletoe.

A party that every year was conspicuously missing a certain tactical officer.

When Julie spoke again, her voice was thick with barely contained emotion. “Trip, I don’t care if you have to truss him up like a turkey an’ drag him off that ship. You bring him here for Christmas. You understand?”

There was no point in arguing, and Trip knew Malcolm wasn’t going to be happy, but he nodded quietly just the same.

“What’s he like to eat? I’ll be sure to pick things up for him.”

The corner of Trip’s mouth twitched in a small smile. He thought back to all the trouble Hoshi had gone through their first year on board, when she was trying to find out Malcolm’s favorite food so they could surprise him for his birthday -- since he was the first of the senior bridge officers to be celebrating a birthday during their maiden voyage. All they had really learned was his love for pineapple.

“He isn’t a real picky eater, but, if ya pick up pineapple anything, he’d probably die of happiness. Especially if it’s real pineapple.”

“Your great-grandma Ellie’s pineapple upside down cake for him it is then.”

This time the twitch curved into a full smile and Trip laughed. “Sounds great, Ma. Listen, I gotta get goin’. I’ll let ya know when Cap’n gives the word we’re headin’ home for a bit.”

“You do that. An’ Trip?”

Trip lifted his eyes, meeting his mother’s again and catching the teasing glint in her blues.

“Tell Jonathan I said to stop workin’ you so hard. You look like hell.”

Chuckling, Trip nodded and reached for the side of the screen, ready to end the call. “Love you too, Ma.”

~*~*~

Word that the Enterprise  and her crew would be returning to Earth in time for Christmas this year spread quickly through the ship. It started as a quiet whisper along the lower decks: a crewmen had heard from a friend who heard from a cousin who was the best friend of the secretary of Admiral Leonard, that the Admiral had approved the request for their return. It didn’t take long for Captain Jonathan Archer to finally confirm the scuttlebutt and send the entire crew into renewed excitement. Even those crewmembers who didn’t celebrate Christmas were looking forward to the two-week shore leave they were getting to catch up with their family and friends.

Everyone, except Malcolm.

News that they’d be docked for two weeks didn’t surprise him much; if anything, it made him a bit excited knowing that there’d be two uninterrupted weeks to work on updates to all of their weapons, draw up and refine some new security protocols (that would probably be ignored, but at least he’d have them), and just enjoy the quiet peacefulness of the empty starship for a while. That had been his plan. And it was a good plan, until Jonathan Archer had to stick his nose in and order -- order -- Malcolm off the ship.

"If I find out you so much as glanced at the dock in the next two weeks, I’m putting you on report. Are we clear?” Archer had threatened, once he’d finally cornered Malcolm in his armory office.

In a way Malcolm had been hurt by his orders. After all, Archer knew that Malcolm’s relationship with his family was strained to say the least, and that alone should have made it obvious that he’d really have nowhere else to go once off the ship. Spending two weeks alone in some hotel near base really was not appealing. He couldn’t even stay at Starfleet; they were off on winter break, so there’d be no one there to let him in or out of any buildings.

Standing on the platform looking out at the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, Malcolm felt a heavy, lonesome weight settle on him. His crewmates rushed past him, barreling out of the shuttlepods and into the waiting arms of smiling family members. There was no one waiting there for Malcolm. Nor would there be if he decided to risk it and head to his parents’ home in Malaysia.

He was sure he had to look a pathetic sight standing off to the side all by himself. Members of his security personnel had hurried by him moments ago, each pausing just long enough to shake his hand, wish him a Happy Christmas, and assure him they’d see him back on the ship in two weeks’ time; all of them were dressed in casual civilian clothing -- almost to the point that it took Malcolm a moment to recognize a few of them. Yet there he stood, his Starfleet-issued duffle bag at his feet, loaded up with clothes and a couple of padds, field jacket on over his uniform coveralls, zipped up tight against the chilly breeze, and his ballcap -- proudly sporting the red and white embroidered NX-01 across the front -- tugged down nearly over his eyes.

Shoulders slumped, Malcolm sighed to himself as he stooped to pick his dufflebag up. Might as well get a move on. He didn’t particularly want to sleep in the park if he failed to secure a hotel room in time.

Malcolm had only managed to make it as far as the sidewalk before he heard his name called out somewhere behind him. Turning, his eyes scanned the thinning crowd, squinting against the bright sunlight. A hand shot up above a cluster of heads -- a small gaggle of ensigns all trying to decide what they should do with their freetime, no doubt -- and a moment later, the body it belonged to shouldered past them with a bright apology.

Duffle bag slung over one shoulder, Trip jogged to catch up with Malcolm, an easy smile on his face. To anyone else on the streets, the engineer would have looked like just another tourist in the city -- khaki slacks, a garish blue-purple-green tropical print shirt, sleek sunglasses. Sometimes Malcolm wondered how Trip had managed to survive sixteen years in Starfleet without being able to dress like a beach bum.

“Where’ve you been hidin’? I’ve been lookin’ everywhere for ya!” Trip very nearly bounced on his toes as he came to a stop alongside Malcolm.

With a small shrug, Malcolm turned to continue down the sidewalk, certain that Trip would fall into step along with him, like he always did. “I’m sorry, Commander. I was busy trying to get the armory in order before leave. Had to inventory all the torpedos and phase pistols.”

“No. Stop it.”

Malcolm’s steps faltered. “Sir?”

Stop.” Trip shook his head as he grabbed Malcolm’s elbow, pulling him to a halt. “It’s Trip, Malcolm. For the next two weeks I’m nobody’s boss. I’m just plain ol’ borin’ Trip Tucker. Got it?”

A quiet scoff escaped Malcolm as he glanced to his right. “ ‘Plain ol’ borin’’,” he drawled, mimicking the way Trip’s accent had bent the words, “isn’t exactly a phrase most people would use to describe you.”

His eyes lifted to look up out from under the brim of his hat just in time to see that bright, wide smile pull across Trip’s face. For some reason, it seemed Trip found endless amusement in hearing Malcolm mimic his Southern accent. So much so that Malcolm once found himself doing it for an hour straight, only to have Trip nearly in tears from his laughter, insisting that Malcolm try all sorts of ridiculous words.

Grin firmly in place, Trip tugged his sunglasses off at the same time as he stole Malcolm’s hat. In a well-practiced move, he made the swap -- ballcap tugged over his blond hair, slim white framed sunglasses covering Malcolm’s grey eyes -- and dropped his arm around Malcolm’s shoulder, drawing him in for a half-hug before leading him off to the waiting groundcars lined along the curb.

“You do that impression ‘round my family an’ you’ll never be left alone. Hope ya know that.”

Malcolm huffed. “Well, as the likelihood of ever meeting your family is rather small, I think I should be safe.”

Beside him, Trip shifted awkwardly. “Might wanna rethink that.”

“Pardon?”

Something about the way Trip drew in a deep breath and squared his shoulders had Malcolm suddenly panicking. Nothing good ever came from Trip going quiet and awkward. Ever. They slowed to a stop beside one of the taxis. Trip pulled his arm off Malcolm’s shoulder, reached up to adjust his stolen ballcap, and cast a quick glance to the vehicle next to them before he answered.

“You didn’t honestly think I’d let you spend the next two weeks just bummin’ ‘round San Francisco, did’ja?”

Confusion furrowed across Malcolm’s brow.

“I wasn’t going to bum around the city,” he protested, arms folded over his chest. “It’s possible that I do in fact have plans.”

“Yeah?” A sandy blonde eyebrow quirked up, the tip of a pink tongue poking out from between Trip’s lips. “Like what? Besides waitin’ for the Cap’n t’ have his back turned so you could sneak back up t’ the ship.”

Warmth crept up Malcolm’s neck and to the tips of his ears. He opened his mouth, ready to defend himself, only to close it once more when he knew it was useless. Trip had been his friend for far too long.

“I wasn’t going to sneak back aboard,” he grumbled, head turned to watch people drift by them. “He told all the shuttledocks I wasn’t allowed near the ship until the two weeks were over.”

Trip’s laughter danced off the taxi’s side and skipped through the air around them. That damn laughter that never failed to bring even the smallest of smiles to Malcolm’s face. A smile that Malcolm reluctantly cast Trip’s way before shaking his head.

“Really, though, Si--Trip. It’s Christmas. I couldn’t possibly impose on you and your family.”

“Exactly. It’s Christmas. Which means I’m sure as hell not lettin’ you spend it on your own. Now stop your complain’, and get in the damn taxi. That’s an order.”

This time it was Malcolm’s eyebrow that quirked up behind the sunglasses, a teasing smirk tugging the corner of his mouth. “I thought you weren’t anyone’s boss for the next two weeks.”

Reaching behind him, Trip tugged the back door open and stepped to one side. “Right. Just plain ol’ borin’ Trip Tucker. Startin’ just as soon as you set your stubborn Limey ass down in that seat an’ accept the fact you’re spendin’ Christmas in Mississippi with me an’ my family. Now move it, Loo-tenant.”

It took every ounce of willpower Malcolm had to keep from chuckling or rolling his eyes as he tossed his bag into the backseat and slid in behind it. Though he’d never admit it, a small part of him thrilled at the idea of spending Christmas with Trip. The larger, far more nervous and paranoid part of him, however, was quietly panicking at knowing he was going to be spending at least the next few days in the presence of the entire Tucker clan. If the rest of the family was anything like Trip, Malcolm probably wouldn’t survive to Christmas morning.

~*~*~

Trip drew in a slow, deep breath. The air was warm enough, but it was missing the scent of the salt water ocean he’d grown up with. Still, the stretch of land outside Beaumont his parents had purchased to build their new home on was spacious, plenty of room for their grandkids to run and play, and Trip bet it was awfully pretty when the Magnolia trees were in blossom.

He stood staring up at the house for a long, silent moment. A lump formed in Trip’s throat as he took in the sight of it. It was a far cry from the house he, his brothers, and Lizzie had grown up in in Panama City, but the place suited his folks. Plus, just the outside alone screamed his baby sister’s style of design. That’s probably what hurt more than anything.

Beside him, Malcolm cleared his throat with a quiet cough. Trip shook his head from where his thoughts were quickly headed and turned to flash a smirk to his companion.

“Well, you ready?”

Malcolm swallowed thickly, still staring at the house, and shook his head. “I highly doubt it, but I don’t think I have much choice in the matter.”

Trip chuckled under his breath, squeezed Malcolm’s shoulder once, and picked his duffle bag off the ground. Malcolm followed.

“Old family home?” Malcolm asked as they started up the long stone path leading to the front porch.

“Nah. My parents bought the land an’ built this place after--” Trip cut himself off with a quick snap of the jaw. It took a second for him to continue. “A few years ago.”

Malcolm shifted awkwardly and Trip caught the quick, guilty side-glance he was given. “I’m sorry.”

A twist of pain that Trip hadn’t felt in nearly three years curled around his chest. There were times when he closed his eyes and still saw the deep chasm that stretched from central Florida down to Venezuela. Nights when he woke up with a tear-soaked pillow and an ache in his chest so bad he could hardly breathe. The nightmares were rare, but they still happened from time to time.  

Drawing in another deep breath, Trip gave a shake of his head, absently waving Malcolm’s apology off. Guilt still gripped at Trip every so often about the way he’d treated Malcolm after the Xindi attack, and the whole time they were searching for the Xindi; he’d never really properly apologized for the way he’d acted, the way he’d treated Malcolm. When everything was said and done, Malcolm had still been there for him. Even though he’d had ample opportunity to walk away. It had taken some time, but Trip finally felt confident that their friendship was just as strong as ever, again. Maybe even stronger.

Not more than a dozen steps from the front porch, a blond blur -- screeching like a banshee -- catapulted into Trip, nearly toppling him over and into Malcolm.

“Uncca Trip! You’re here! Gamma said you’d be here an’ now you are here! Did you bring me stardust? Are you home for always now? Were you far away in cold places with snow and frozen ices and people what is furry?”

The barrage of questions drew a light laugh out of Trip as he finally found his footing and hugged the curious little girl in his arms all the tighter.

“Gilly girl, ya gotta learn t’ let people get a word in edgewise,” he chided, face buried in her neck for a moment before pulling back enough to smile at her. “Ya sound like Zoumas when ya j’st keep rattlin’ on like that.”

“I dunno what is a zoo-miss,” the little girl said with all the seriousness of their Vulcan former first officer. Ignoring Trip’s chuckle, she turned her bright blue-green eyes to Malcolm and, without warning, launched from Trip’s arms onto Malcolm. Scaling him like a little spider monkey until he was forced to hold her, awkwardly, in his arms.

“Hi! I’m Abigail. Who’re you? Are you Uncca Trip’s beau? Gamma said you was mighty handsome. How comes you’re wearin’ a jacket? Are you cold? Do you fly in the ship what is in space an’ protects us, too? Did you come to spend Christmas with us? Did you come to meet us? Are you gonna marry Uncca Trip? What’s this li’l silver thing on your shirt?”

Trip, though amused and struggling to keep his laughter from bubbling over at the sight of Malcolm’s grey eyes going wide in panic, took pity and reached to pry his squirming niece off of his friend. “Hell, Gilly! Give the fella a break, will ya? Damn. Go practice your interrogation skills on somebody else for a while!”

Abigail wrapped her arms around Trip’s neck and swung herself around until she was hanging off his back. “I’m not an in-terror-gizer! An’ you said bad words! Gamma gonna wash your mouth out with the soap that taste like yuck!”

Finally letting himself laugh, and feeling the tightness in his chest loosening a bit, Trip twisted himself around so Abigail could drop her feet onto the second step of the porch and let go of him. He nudged her arm with his duffle bag and nodded off towards the door. “Then I guess ya better go tell on me, ya li’l fink. Go on. Go tell your grandma her favorite son’s home.”

With a megawatt smile in place, Abigail spun on her heels, her long blond pigtails swishing out around her as she moved. “Okay! Bye, Uncca Trip’s Beau!”

Heat prickled across Trip’s cheeks and ears as he fought to keep himself from blushing too much. With a quick peek over his shoulder to Malcolm, he shrugged sheepishly. “She’s five,” he stated, as if it explained everything. “Prob’ly shoulda warned ya ‘bout her. Promise, the rest’a my nieces an’ nephews aren’t anythin’ like Gils.”

Maybe it was just the way the sunlight was bouncing around, but Trip could have sworn he caught pink staining Malcolm’s cheeks. Then again, it was also possible Malcolm was already getting sunburnt; the guy’s ridiculously pale skin probably burned lobster red if he spent more than five minutes at a time in direct sunlight.

Tugging his bottom lip between his teeth, Malcolm huffed softly. “I’m not sure if I’m even more worried now than before or not.”

A small smile twitched at the corner of Trip’s mouth as he shrugged, motioning for Malcolm to come up onto the porch with him. Malcolm’s nervousness was almost tangible around him. It was no secret that retired Admiral and Mrs. Reed hadn’t exactly been the most attentive parents, and even Malcolm’s own younger sister Madeline hadn’t quite known what to do with her peculiar brother growing up. So it only made sense that Malcolm looked on the verge of bolting now that he was faced with the boisterous and warm Tucker clan.

Trip reached out and squeezed Malcolm’s shoulder in comfort. Once they finally made it through the horde and could escape to the quiet of the guest house, maybe Malcolm would relax a little. Hell, he might even change into civvies instead of trying to stay hidden in his uniform.

“It’s gonna be okay, Mal,” soothed Trip. His efforts earned a weak half smile that was almost more a grimace.

“Should I be concerned that your mother apparently thinks I’m handsome?”

The nervous chuckle escaped Trip before he could stop it, and he felt his own smile take on a cringe. “I’d be more worried ‘bout the fact Gilly thinks you’re my boyfriend. Whole house prob’ly knows we’re here by now an’ they’re gonna be callin’ you the same thing.”

At the same time as the color drained from Malcolm’s face, it seemed to race to his cheeks, ears and neck, standing deep red against near sheet-white. Trip tried very hard to ignore the way his heart and stomach sank at that. That particular bucket of cold water to his feelings hurt a little more than it should have.

Pulling his hand away, Trip ducked his head, hiding the disappointment that no doubt shone in his eyes. Malcolm was his friend. One of his best friends. In many ways, especially since the Expanse and everything that followed, more of a best friend than Jonathan Archer, even. No use ruining a good thing.

“C’mon,” he finally said, knocking shoulders with Malcolm. “We better head on in ‘fore they send a search party for us.”

The words had no sooner left his mouth when the front door slid open. The scent of cookies baking and evergreen trees hit Trip like a brick wall, and everything suddenly felt like home again. His duffle dropped from his loose grip as he took one step forward and pulled the petite woman into his arms and hugged her tight. All thoughts of Malcolm standing there next to him fled for the time being. He was home and able to hug his mama again for the first time in nearly three years.

Emotions long buried started to surface again, forcing him to press his face into her shoulder and just hang on for dear life. Trip absently heard her soothing voice, felt her hand rubbing up and down his back.

Way t’ fall apart, Trip.

When he finally pulled back, his smile was as watery as his eyes. “Hey, Mama.”

Mirroring her son’s smile, Julie reached a hand up to palm his cheek, brushing away a stray tear with her thumb gently. “Hey, baby boy.”

They shared a silent conversation, Trip so glad to be home with his family again for Christmas -- even if they were missing one of the most beautiful angels in the world -- and Julie brimming with bittersweet happiness now that everyone who could be there, was there. After a moment, Julie cleared her throat, sniffled once, and took a step back, holding her son at arm’s length.

“Oh let me look at you!” Her face brightened as she smiled and shook her head. “Lord help me, I keep needin’ to remind myself you’re not six years old anymore!”

“Not for the last thirty years or so,” Trip teased, smirking as he ducked away from the swat he knew would be coming.

“Smartmouth.” Huffing, Julie turned her attention from Trip to Malcolm, who was standing awkward and quiet off to the side. “Malcolm! Sweetheart, I’m so glad you could make it!”

Trip hid his laugh and smile behind his hand as he watched Malcolm get drawn into a tight hug of his own. The panic that flashed across his face as he stood stock still was almost hilarious if it weren’t quite so sad and telling of what Malcolm’s relationship with his own parents was like. The poor guy didn’t even know how to handle a proper hug from a mother.

Stepping back, Julie held Malcolm by the shoulders and gave him the same once-over she’d given her own son. Trip hoisted his bag up over his shoulder again, crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the doorframe, just watching as his mother fussed over Malcolm. Were it not for the fact he was sure Malcolm would kill him, Trip almost considered pulling his camera out of his pocket to record everything to show to Jon once they got back to the ship.

“Good Lord, Sweetie! Don’t they feed you on that ship of yours? You’re all bones! And look at you! Trip! You coulda at least let him change clothes before comin’ down.” Julie tutted and shook her head as she took Malcolm by the arm and pulled him towards the door. “You come inside, Sweetheart. I’ll get you boys settled in so you can go get changed into something more comfortable.”

Malcolm cast Trip a panicked glance as he was tugged across the threshold. With an innocent shrug and half smirk, Trip grabbed up Malcolm’s bag before following after them and into the house. As the door quietly snicked closed behind them, Trip stood in silent awe of his parents’ home. Though it had a tall cathedral ceiling in the entryway and a spacious open floor plan, it still felt warm and cozy. And held all the traditional flares that Lizzie had loved so much.

A large, curved staircase lined the wall to the right, leading up to the balcony of the second floor, and to the left was a formal dining room -- all decorated and set up to accommodate all of the Tucker clan adults, while the kids would be sent to eat in the kitchen no doubt. From where he stood, Trip could see clear out the back patio doors, out into the backyard where most everyone seemed to be milling about.

Most parents, when their kids strike out on their own, opt to downsize. Trip’s folks did the opposite. They had always wanted a home with a lot of land, and plenty of space for everyone in the extended Tucker family to come and stay for all the major family holidays. Growing up, it had never been much of an option. Four kids to put through school had never provided enough extra money for the large house they’d always dreamed of.

From halfway up the stairs, Julie called down to her oldest son. “You plannin’ to stand there all night, darlin’?”

Trip blinked twice, turned, and cocked his head curiously. “I thought we were stayin’ in the guest house out back?”

“Tommy an’ Jill are stayin’ out there.” Julie quirked a brow and smirked. “Unless you boys wanna ride herd on all the li’l ones?”

“Not a chance in this or any other star system,” grumbled Trip, shaking his head as he quickly bounded up the stairs to continue following his mother and Malcolm. At Julie’s light laugh, Trip flashed them both an easy grin.

Julie glanced back over her shoulder as she continued up the stairs to the second floor. “I was just tellin’ Malcolm that your dad an’ I thought you boys would be more comfortable in the attic,” She paused and when she spoke again, Trip could hear the way she was fighting back her emotions. “It was designed with you in mind, after all.”

Trip’s heart twisted painfully in his chest. He closed his eyes against the ache and let out a soft huff of breath when he finally opened them again. Malcolm stood waiting for him at the top of the stairs. There was concern mixed with confusion shining in his grey-blue eyes. Trip didn’t trust himself enough to speak. Instead he shook his head and put his hand between Malcolm’s shoulders, gently nudging him to keep walking; and when Trip’s hand absently trailed down to rest just so at the small of Malcolm’s back, drawing a startled, sharp breath out of him, Trip scooted away, muttering a short, “Sorry.”

If Malcolm said anything in response, Trip didn’t hear it. He kept his head bent and empty hand clasped tight around the railing as they climbed the second set of stairs that led to the attic. As he took a step into the room, he understood how it had been designed with him in mind.

“Wow…” he murmured.

He stood dumbfounded for a moment, eyes wide and jaw slack, as he stared around the spacious room. No. It was more than just a spacious room. It might as well have been a studio apartment. A sitting area with a fireplace and entertainment center built into the wall, an en suite, and even a bit of space where all of Trip’s SCUBA gear, bodyboard, and surfboard could be on display, but still easily accessible. Next to a set of French doors leading out to a small balcony overlooking the backyard, a work station was set up, complete with a datapadd rack and the very first small engine Trip had taken apart and (successfully) put back together again. But what set the room off the most was the skylight.

“I was told it’s the same type of glass they use for the view ports in the starships,” Julie offered, stepping beside Trip and putting her arm around his waist. “Should hold up to whatever storms get thrown at us.”

Trip tore his gaze away to gape at his mother. “The whole roof?”

“Not all of it.” Julie shook her head and smiled softly. “Just the apex an’ about halfway down on both sides. Rest of the roofin’ is regular ol’ aluminum. She wanted you to have the stars to sleep by.”

A lump formed in Trip’s throat. Yeah. That sounded just about right.

“What’s this?” Malcolm asked, breaking the silence that had fallen over them.

Julie pulled back from Trip and moved to stand next to Malcolm. A framed picture hung on the wall, identical to one Trip had seen down in the entryway. A series of digital blueprints scrolled by slowly, showing each floor in beautiful detail, as well as a 3D model of the outside of the home.

“Lizzie’s artwork,” she answered with a small, fond smile. “She designed the house for us. Wanted to make sure we finally got the big family home for reunions we’d always wanted.” Reaching out, she gently touched the edge of the frame, watching as one blueprint slowly faded into another. “There’s one up here, in the entryway, the family room, an’ in the living room of the guest house. CJ, my husband, wanted to make sure they were on display where everyone important to her could see ‘em.”

Malcolm nodded solemnly. “She was very talented.”

“These were the last blueprints she ever finished, before…” The sentence trailed off, leaving the common knowledge unspoken for a long moment.

Finally, with a shake of her head, Julie smiled at both men. “You boys have gotta be tired. Get rested up a bit, cleaned up. Supper’s gonna be one helluva mess.” Her grin brightening, she turned to give Malcolm’s arm a squeeze. “Hope you’re ready for a Tucker family interrogation.”

“Malcolm’s faced down more hostile aliens than you can shake a stick at, Mama,” declared Trip, “He didn’t break under their interrogations, pretty sure he’ll be safe with e’erybody downstairs.”

Sandy brow quirked, Julie peeked over her shoulder back at Trip. “Let’s hope so. Your Granny Mae is in rare form today.”

Trip felt the color drain from his face, making Julie laugh out loud before turning to start for the door again.

“Bed’s got fresh sheets, an’ there’s plenty of clean towels in the bathroom closet. I’ll call you boys down when supper’s ready.”

As the door slid closed behind Julie, Trip let their bags fall to the floor by his feet and groaned into his hands. When he’d finally decided to go ahead and invite Malcolm along -- or shanghai him, whatever anyone wanted to consider it -- Trip figured everything would be fine. After all, they’d survived six years in deep space so far, a year of that in that damned Expanse, surely Malcolm would be able to make it through one Christmas with Trip’s family. And then Trip remembered just what his family could be like.

“Who, exactly, is ‘Granny Mae’?”

Trip cringed. Dragging his hands down his face, he stared at Malcolm for a moment from over the tips of his fingers. There was a cautious but playful look about Malcolm, like he was almost enjoying how defeated Trip must have looked.

“Smaller’n Hoshi, old as dirt, snow white hair. Looks like a walkin’ skeleton. Don’t look directly in her eyes or ya might j’st turn t’ stone.”

Malcolm quirked a brow. “I take it she’s not your favorite family member?”

“You kiddin’? She’s my dad’s grandma an’ she’s pretty much the most evil woman on earth. Never laughs, never smiles. She once gave me a whap upside the head with her walkin’ stick that had my ears ringin’ for a week!”

“You probably deserved it!” Malcolm laughed. He folded his arms over his chest and let the corner of his mouth twitch up into his trademark half-smile.

Trip squared his jaw, his eyes narrowed. “I was eight. An’ all I did was ask t’ be excused from the table.”

The half-smile faltered and worry suddenly replaced mirth in Malcolm’s eyes. His arms dropped back down to his sides, fingers fidgeting with the cuffs of his jacket nervously.

Okay, so Trip left out the part about how he’d been sulking all through supper to begin with, how he’d already been scolded twice for interrupting the adults while they were talking, and how when he finally did ask to leave the table, he did so with a mouthful of mashed potatoes -- as he once again interrupted the adults. Still, at least he’d made his point, and he was able to watch Malcolm squirm a bit again. Which was always fun.

His attention turned back to their bags, Trip grabbed the shoulder strap on his and let it drag behind him as he headed straight for the work bench. The need to see what all was on those padds itched at him and made his fingers tingle. There’d be time to check his room out fully later.

“Better go ‘head an’ get washed up an’ changed,” he called, not bothering to look up from the flat surface. “Nothin’ fancy. Nobody else is gonna be all dressed up.”

Trip heard the shuffle of Malcolm’s bag being picked up, and the careful steps behind him as Malcolm hummed noncommittally. He’d just picked up one of the padds -- temptation was a horrible mistress -- when the sound of a choked-off stammer filled the air.

“Trip?”

Padd still in hand, Trip looked over his shoulder. “What?”

Malcolm tugged his lower lip between his teeth for a moment, staring straight ahead of him as pink washed across his cheeks. After a moment, he turned to meet Trip’s gaze. “Where am I supposed to sleep while we’re here?”

Now just what kind of ridiculous question was that?

Frowning, Trip shrugged and motioned off to his left, turned, and froze. One queen size bed stood just below the massive skylight windows, and how Trip had missed it on his first glance around the room was anyone’s guess. His eyes darted to the small sitting area. Two chairs and a loveseat that not even slight little Malcolm could curl up to sleep on. He looked back at the bed, and simply glared at it.

Julie Renee Tucker, he mentally growled, ’Subtlety’ is not thy middle name.

~*~*~

Informal meals with the Tuckers were, to Malcolm, a lesson in Chaos Theory. Or, perhaps, simply chaos. The adults all crowded around the kitchen table and card tables -- except for Granny Mae who chose to sit in her chair in the living room with a tray -- while all the younger kids darted from kitchen to playroom and back again with their own paper plates piled high with food. Introductions had been a blur of faces and names such that Malcolm wasn’t sure he caught even half the names he’d been told. Twenty-four adults in all, with twelve children under the age of eighteen. There was plenty of laughter, bright smiles, and playful teasing to go around; it was everything that meals with his own parents and sister weren’t.

Which was part of the reason Malcolm found himself wishing he could fade into the wall and go unnoticed. Especially once he realized all of the younger kids had decided no matter what anyone said, his name was Uncca Malcolm, and nothing was going to change that.

Trip had, to his best efforts, tried to correct them when they called him that. In fact, Trip had done his best to convince his brothers and cousins that he and Malcolm were nothing more than best friends, with little success. Malcolm was almost insulted on Trip’s behalf when everyone began teasing him. He wasn’t familiar with the way close families picked on each other. And he certainly wasn’t used to being a spectacle of sorts himself.

Yet there he sat, settled with Trip on his right and Trip’s sister-in-law, Heather, on his left, struggling to keep up with conversations and deflect as many questions about himself as he could.

Finally, a cousin -- Malcolm didn’t recall his name -- nudged into Malcolm’s shoulder as he walked by, pushing him slightly into Trip’s side.

“C’mon, Malcolm! You’re awfully quiet. When you gonna tell us ‘bout yourself? Startin’ t’ make some of us think Trip j’st built ya in his free time or somethin’.”

Malcolm blinked in confusion, pushing himself back to rights. “Built me in his spare time?”

Trip tossed a balled up napkin across the room, bouncing it off the cousin’s head while the others laughed.

“He isn’t a robot, ya jackass,” snapped Trip, to another chorus of laughter with a couple scattered ‘Watch your mouth,’ and ‘Language!’ thrown in for good measure.

Heat rushed up Malcolm’s neck as he stole a look down at his hardly touched meal. He startled some when he felt an arm slide across his shoulder and Heather leaned into his side in a comforting half-hug.

“Don’t listen to him,” she soothed, shooting the other man a quick glare. “You’re not a robot. Trip might have some strange little love affair goin’ with those warp engines of his, but pretty sure he wouldn’t actually date anyone who wasn’t flesh an’ blood.”

To his right, Trip groaned, “We’re not datin’...”

Heather flashed Malcolm a smile and wink before dropping her arm. “C’mon though. Tell us about yourself. Whaddaya do on Enterprise?”

Slowly, Malcolm sipped from his water. A sad stall tactic, yes, but the best one he could come up with at the moment. When it became obvious everyone was waiting for him, he sighed inwardly and set his glass down with a small shrug.

“I’m afraid there’s not much to tell,” he answered. His voice a bit on the quiet side.

“Now that ain’t true,” argued Trip, resting an arm on the table as he turned to nudge at Malcolm gently. “There’s plenty to tell.” He glanced at the rest of his family and, with a bright grin in place, continued. “Malcolm’s got this reputation of bein’ the most dangerous man on Enterprise. He’s our Armory and Tactical Officer, Chief of Security, an’ even if he doesn’t believe me, a pretty damn good engineer.”

Again, heat flashed across Malcolm’s face and up to his ears. At Trip’s praise, he scoffed, shaking his head.

“See?” Trip motioned to him with an even bigger grin. “We weren’t outta spacedock six months when me an’ him had to build -- from scratch, mind you -- two workin’ phase cannons to install on board, plus get the one prototype we did have installed, fully functional. The guys on Jupiter Station woulda taken a week to do that. Between the two of us, an’ our crews, we had it done in forty-eight hours. Not t’ mention the time this sentient web alien tried t’ absorb me, an’ the Cap’n, an’ a couple of crewmen, an’ ya know what Malcolm did?”

“Saved the day like a knight in shining armor?” Trip’s other sister-in-law, Sandra, giggled around her wineglass.

Trip shot her a droll look before shaking his head. “He took the specs for the force field the eggheads back at Starfleet had been tryin’ to get workin’ for years, jury-rigged up his own emitters, an’ got that force field stabilized. He did in an hour or two what Starfleet had been tryin’ t’ do for five years!”

“Like I said,” Sandra quipped, “saved the day like a knight in shining armor!”

Malcolm shifted awkwardly in his seat. He’d never been much for being the center of attention, and all the praise Trip kept giving was starting to make him more than a little bit uncomfortable. He sighed in relief as one of Trip’s younger brothers -- Mike, if he remembered right -- shook his head and leaned across the table towards them.

“I don’t get it. What’s a force field gotta do with savin’ you from bein’ absorbed inta some weird alien thing?”

Trip opened his mouth to answer, only to pause and tilt his head to one side. He turned his clear ocean-blue eyes back to Malcolm. “I don’t really know, actually. I was kinda on Death’s door at the time. You explain it to ‘em, Mal.”

Swallowing hard, Malcolm cleared his throat. “The E.M. barrier was calibrated to keep the lifeform contained within the cargo hold where it was hiding. It allowed our communications officer to enter the hold safely, without being taken as well. She was able to communicate with it, and the Captain, our crewmen, and Comman -- uh, Trip -- were released safely.”

Those sitting close enough to hear Malcolm nearly call Trip by his rank instead of his name, all shot each other snickering glances before looking back to the pair. He wanted to disappear. To turn invisible and have everyone forget he’d ever been there. Part of what made him so good at his job was his ability to go unnoticed, and to seem so uninteresting that people didn’t see the point in giving him the time of day.

When a strong hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed gently, his head shot up to be met with Trip’s kind eyes and easy smile. It went a long way to settling Malcolm’s nerves and kept him from making a pathetic excuse to go hide in the attic suite for the rest of the visit. When Trip started talking again, his voice was warm, fond, and maybe even -- no, definitely -- more than a little proud.

“Malcolm’s saved our asses so many times that we’ve lost count. An’ he’s come in guns blazin’ to pull my sorry ass outta the fire more times than I’d like to admit. One of these days, Starfleet’s gonna get their act t’gether an’ give ‘im that Commander pip he deserves.”

The sincerity in Trip’s voice, along with the intense gleam to his stare, had Malcolm’s breath catching in his chest. Suddenly, the room felt altogether too enclosed. The air too thick to properly breathe. Malcolm was trapped, though. Caught in Trip’s stare, frozen in place under the warm weight of Trip’s hand still resting on his shoulder. Their gazes held firm until whatever was happening in that moment between them was broken by Trip’s father finally speaking up.

“You haven’t made Commander yet, son?”

Malcolm drew in a short, sharp breath, startled by the junior Charles Tucker’s sudden question. When Trip pulled his hand away and turned his attention back to his plate, Malcolm coughed softly, shaking his head.

“Uh, no, sir. No. I…”

“Shouldn’t you’ve been promoted by now? Li’l old t’ still be j’st a loo-tenant, aren’t ya?”

A smile tickled at Malcolm’s mouth as he hid his quiet laugh. At least Trip came by the pronunciation of his rank honest enough. Bottom lip tucked between his teeth, Malcolm huffed a soft, self-deprecating chuckle. Hadn’t his father made much the same comment one of the last times he’d dared to contact them? After all, Stuart Reed had been made a Captain in the Royal Navy by the time he was Malcolm’s age. Just another blemish on the family name by having Malcolm still be a lowly Lieutenant at his age.

“I haven’t been with Starfleet quite as long as Trip. I’ve only been in for twelve years, compared to his sixteen,” he finally answered. “I’m afraid I was one of the older ones in my graduating class.”

“Ouch.” Trip cringed, a hand on his chest as he frowned at Malcolm. “Way t’ make me feel old, Malcolm. Nearly half my life spent in Starfleet? Damn.”

Malcolm rolled his lips between his teeth to fight back a grin as he quirked a brow, his head tilted slightly. “How do you think I feel, if you feel old?”

Lifting a hand, Trip waved his question off. “Aw, ya ain’t that old. You’re younger’n me.”

“No,” Malcolm laughed, “I’m not.”

Wide eyes suddenly turned on him, and were he not surrounded by strangers, Malcolm would have laughed out loud at the look on Trip’s face.

“What?”

“I’m not younger than you.”

Trip narrowed his eyes. “Bullshit. There’s no way you’re older’n me.”

Again, Malcolm gave a half laugh. “I think you’ll find that I am, actually. I’ve seen your file, Trip. Believe me, I’m older than you.”

For a second or two, Trip could do nothing more than stare at him, jaw slack. The rest of the table laughed at them both. When Trip finally regained himself, he shook his head quickly and frowned.

“Okay, say I believe you. You’re not that much older’n me. What? A year? Maybe two?”

Shrugging, Malcolm found a sudden deep interest in the napkin on his lap. As Chief of Security, Malcolm had access to the entire crew’s personnel files and, while he didn’t make it a habit of snooping through them, he had browsed through the senior officer’s files before boarding the ship. He’d been a little surprised to find that he wasn’t all that much younger than their Captain, and more so when he found he was older than a ranking officer. Though, to be fair, Trip had joined Starfleet right out of high school. He’d only been eighteen when he went to the Starfleet Training Center. Malcolm, on the other hand, had been well into his twenties when he finally had been accepted and gone.

When he didn’t give a definite answer to Trip’s question, ‘Guess Malcolm’s Age’ became the game among the Tucker clan. At least until they grew bored with him not answering, and moved onto other topics. More questions about himself and his life that he didn’t want to answer, and did his best to deflect. If it took him months to finally grow comfortable with the crew of Enterprise, comfortable enough to laugh with them and to reveal bits and pieces of his true self to them, then there was no way a few hours with Trip’s family was going to be enough time to talk freely about himself.

The more questions they asked, the more Malcolm forced himself not to squirm in his seat, and the shorter his answers seemed to get. It wasn’t until he’d reached a point of barely giving so much as a hum in response that he was spared.

“Alright, y’all,” Julie’s voice cut through the laughter and conversations, drawing most everyone’s attention her way. “Leave the poor boy alone, now. They only just got into town. Give ‘im a chance to get his Earth legs back under him ‘fore ya interrogate him to death.”

Malcolm cast a quick glance her way before ducking his head once more. Beside him, Trip sat a little straighter in his seat. He nudged his shoulder against Malcolm’s gently as he slid the last two pieces of pineapple pizza his way; a quiet apology evident in his eyes. Malcolm eyed the slices for a moment, plucked the pineapple away from the cheese, and slid the pock-marked slices back with a faint smile of thanks in return. It wasn’t Trip’s fault his family was naturally curious and outgoing.

Finally, the scrape of a chair pushing away from the table drew Malcolm’s attention away and once again back to Julie. Aside from her shorter height, it was so easy to see the resemblance between mother and son. The same twinkle shone in their blue eyes, their laughter that lit up not only their face, but the whole room. It was their shared quiet compassion, though, that Malcolm noticed the most. Trip had always shown concern and warmth for his friends, and the way that Julie passed Malcolm a sympathetic smile told him that she was no different.

“Tucker men, you’re on clean up. Anyone a friend of a Tucker or married to a Tucker, leave ‘em to it an’ get on out of my kitchen ‘fore y’all destroy it.”

A chorus of groans and whines filled the air as her orders were issued. Standing with his plate in hand, Malcolm reached to pile more things together, ready to take them to the sink, when a hand on his elbow stopped him.

Trip shook his head as he reached for what Malcolm had grabbed. “You heard the lady, Malcolm. Friend of a Tucker gets a ‘Get outta Jail Free’ card. Go on.”

Panic must have crossed his face if the laugh Trip gave was any indication. “Stick close to my mom an’ Heather if you want. They’ll keep most of the piranhas off ya. Can’t make any promises they’ll be able to keep Granny Mae away from ya though.”

“Can’t I just go back up to the attic?”

“Sorry.” Trip smiled, shaking his head and moved away from the table. “ ‘Fraid that’d only make things worse. Go on ahead. I’ll come try t’ save ya soon as I’m released from KP.”

With one more comforting squeeze to Malcolm’s arm, Trip wandered off, gathering up plates and silverware along the way. As the warmth of Trip’s hand faded, a new warmth pressed itself around his left side. Heather had slipped her arm around his and was smiling sweetly up at him.

“C’mon, Malcolm. Promise you’re safe with me an’ Mom.”

Taking a deep, fortifying breath, Malcolm nodded once and allowed himself to be led away arm-in-arm with Trip’s sister-in-law. And he tried not to feel like he was being led away to an alien prison cell to be beaten and tortured.

Though, the more he thought about it, the more that almost sounded preferable.

~*~*~

The tiny girl had been staring at him with her large clear-blue eyes for nearly three full minutes. It was almost as unnerving as the frigid glare the ancient women in the corner was giving him. Malcolm pressed his lips into a tight, thin line, shifted awkwardly on the couch, and absently picked at the imaginary lint he’d found on his black long-sleeved shirt.

Julie and Heather both sat near him, smiling and laughing as they shared stories with the other women. Malcolm wasn’t sure what stories they were sharing, but he didn’t particularly mind being unintentionally excluded from the conversations. Being the quiet observer was a skill he excelled at. What he did mind, however, was the scrutiny he was under from both the youngest of the Tucker’s and the oldest. It was unsettling! He’d heard Heather call the little girl’s name once, but he couldn’t remember what she’d said. Her eyes were ice blue, nearly the same shade as Phlox’s, which was rather frightening to compare. Blonde -- almost white -- hair was pulled up into a simple, single, ponytail, and she clutched a teddy bear tightly in her arms. Never speaking, never moving, hardly so much as blinking.

He’d offered her a small, pleasant smile when she’d toddled over from where she’d been playing by herself, but she hadn’t said a word. She’d hardly acknowledged his smile, even. Truth be told, the longer she stood there staring at him, the more Malcolm wanted to run back into the kitchen and insist on helping with something.

Finally, at exactly the five-minute mark of being observed, she crawled her way up onto the couch, pushing and pulling until she could settled herself on Malcolm’s lap. Teddy bear still tucked under one arm, she took a firm hold on Malcolm’s shirt in the other hand, and turned to press her face into his chest. All without uttering a single sound.

The living room fell into stunned silence. It wasn’t clear who was more surprised by her actions, Malcolm or her family.

“Well, I’ll be damned…” Julie muttered, eyes wide as she stared at the young girl.

Malcolm lifted his own eyes to meet Julie’s, his already pale face even more so in his shock. He’d never had much experience with small children, yet that day alone he’d been used as a jungle-gym, seemingly adopted as a new uncle to play with, and now, this ever-silent little girl had apparently claimed him or something.

“Maddy never takes to strangers like that,” explained Heather, just as awestruck as the rest. “It takes her a good hour or more before she’ll even give Julie or CJ hugs. An’ they’re her own grandparents.”

Something unclenched in Malcolm’s nerves and he smiled softly.

“Maddy?” He asked cautiously. “Short for...Madeline?”

“Madison, actually.” Heather reached out to stroke Maddy’s white-blond hair gently. A flash of hurt crossed her face as Maddy shied away, her shoulders hunched and face pressed all the harder to Malcolm’s chest. “She doesn’t much take to family, sometimes, either.” She added with a weak imitation of a smile.

Questions bubbled up in Malcolm: Why didn’t she talk? Why did she seem to not want to be touched? How long had she been that way? Was she ill? Before he could even open his mouth to ask anything, though, a new voice broke through the air, and it took Malcolm an embarrassingly long time to realize it was Trip’s Granny Mae who was speaking.

“She has Reevers. She don’t talk, prob’ly ne’er will.”

“Oh…” Malcolm blinked twice and nodded, shifting back into the couch a little more in order to get comfortable again. He’d heard of Reevers before, briefly. It was a relatively rare condition that few truly knew much about. Other than the fact that those who had it never spoke, never cried or made any noise of pain or discomfort, nor did they smile. Emotions, all emotions, were seemingly lost on them, their faces a constant blank mask. Additionally, they seldom cared for being touched in any way, unless they initiated it themselves.

Malcolm would have felt honored that she had decided to sit with him, were he not being stared at by everyone in the room now. Unfortunately, he was now sufficiently trapped, so there was no chance of excusing himself back to the kitchen no matter what. But oh when the matriarch of the Tucker family began speaking again, Malcolm so wished that he could.

“Haven’t you a family of your own to spend Christmas with?” Mae questioned, narrowing her eyes at him. Whether to see him better or just to simply glare at him, Malcolm didn’t know.

“I have a family, ma’am. My parents and sister.”

“They alive?”

Malcolm blinked in surprise. “Yes, ma’am.”

When he didn’t offer any further explanation, Mae’s frown deepened.

“If they’re alive, then why’re you spendin’ Christmas here ‘stead of with them?”

For a moment, all Malcolm could do was open and close his mouth like a fish out of water. Being teased and questioned by Trip’s cousins and brothers was looking far more enjoyable than being questioned by Granny Mae.

Mae’s glare grew colder the longer Malcolm performed his fish impersonation.

“Spit it out, boy,” she grumbled, shaking her head. “I’m not gettin’ any younger sittin’ here waitin’ for you to find your tongue.”

His jaw snapped shut with an audible click. The woman was far too much like his father. Memories of all the times Malcolm had tried talking to his father as a child came rushing back to him. So many times standing before the then Navy Captain, struggling to get words out as he was glared down at by the intimidating being his mother swore to him was his father. Being too quiet for Stuart Reed to hear when he did finally speak, or stumbling over his own words in his haste. Learning that it was better to just sit quietly in the man’s presence than to try and say anything at all.

Beside him, Julie once more took pity and came to his rescue; and, not for the first time, Malcolm found himself thanking any deity there may be that she was there.

“He’s a friend an’ a guest of Trip’s, Gran! I said he could join us.”

Mae turned her ice-cold stare on Julie, who -- miraculously -- didn’t so much as flinch.

“‘Friend’? Bringin’ a ‘friend’ home t’ meet your family an’ spend a holiday with ‘em was somethin’ only couples use t’ do. J’st what kinda ‘friend’ are you?”

Heat rose up Malcolm’s cheeks as, once again, Trip’s family questioned his innocent friendship. Had he often wished for something more than friendship? Of course. Many times. He’d often wished to have a deeper relationship with Trip, but it would never happen. Could never happen. And Malcolm had a carefully organized and numbered list as to why it could never happen. Number One being that there was no way Trip was even remotely interested in him as anything more than just friendly companionship. A friend to sit and have meals with, bounce ideas off of, and maybe stir up a bit of harmless trouble with.

“He’s j’st a good ol’ fashioned friend, Gran.”

Malcolm’s head shot up and around as Trip sauntered into the room, wiping his hands on a dish towel before tossing it over his shoulder with ease. It was such a simple action, and just the domesticity of it sent Malcolm’s heart in a fluttering tizzy. Which Maddy must have noticed as she pushed her head away from his chest, blinked at his shirt, then at him, and put her tiny, pudgy palm flat against his sternum firmly. Well, at least she couldn’t call him out on that reaction.

Mae’s attention turned from Malcolm to Trip and, if at all possible, her frown deepened all the more. If he didn’t know any better, he’d swear the woman disliked Trip just as passionately as Malcolm’s father disliked him. But Malcolm was the first to admit, it was near impossible to dislike Trip.

“I don’ believe that for one minute,” she groused. “Charles Jr. an’ Julie puttin’ you both up in the attic. ‘Way from e’erybody else. No cot up there for one of y’all to sleep on. There’s plenty of bedrooms in this house, don’ see why ya’s need to share a bed, let alone a room, ‘less ya’s are gettin’ up t’ somethin’.”

Trip shrugged, the corner of his mouth tugged just slightly down in a thoughtful frown. “Well, there’s twin beds down in your room, ain’t there?” A glimmer of mischief twinkled in Trip’s eyes as he shot a quick glance to Malcolm before continuing. “You want the attic, Gran? Gotta walk up all them stairs, though. ‘Course, at least then all them stories ‘bout folks who used t’ lock their older family members away in the attic’d be true.”

Oh but the engineer did like to live dangerously!

Heather hid her bark of laughter behind a poor excuse for a cough, as Julie shot Trip a startled and then horrified look.

“Trip!”

An innocent smile stretched across his face as he turned to shrug, batting his eyes at her like a child who thought they’d done no wrong. “What? It’s true!”

From her chair in the corner, Granny Mae seethed. Malcolm could almost see the steam coming off her as she struggled to try to push herself up on unsteady feet and cane. A good whap upside the head was in Trip’s future again. His very near future. It didn’t take Trip long to realize this, either. The playful smile was gone from his face as he took a cautious step back.

“I was j’st playin’, Gran! We’re not gettin’ up t’ anythin’, anywhere! The attic’s my room, that’s why we’re up there!”

“Trouble!” Mae hollered. “Trouble! You’ve always been trouble! Now you’ve brought more home with ya!”

Maddy pushed herself away from Malcolm’s chest again. Though her face may not have shown emotions, Malcolm was certain he saw fear flash through her ice blue eyes as she slid down off his lap and darted around behind the couch to hide between it and the wall. Heather whimpered for her. Jumping up from the couch, Heather scurried to the end Maddy had disappeared around, and quietly tried coaxing her daughter out of hiding.

His lap empty, Malcolm was quickly hauled to his feet by Trip, and pulled bodily out of the living room.

“Know what, Ma?” Asked Trip as they were hurrying away. Mae was nearly on her feet, it was only a matter of time before she came at them with her walking stick. “I think Malcolm an’ I are gonna go for a walk or somethin’! Explore the place for a while! Maybe go get up t’ somethin’, just for the Hell of it! We’ll be back!”

It was hard to tell with all the sudden laughter erupting from the living room, mixed with Mae’s continued hollers of Trip being nothing but a troublemaker, and a slew of other various unflattering names, but Malcolm thought he heard Julie mutter, “Lord help me, Charles Anthony…” as they ducked out the backdoor and put plenty of distance between them and everyone else.

Relative silence hit Malcolm like a brick wall, and for a moment he had to stop just to take a breath and get his bearings. Just a dozen or so meters away, the guest house was lit, warm and inviting with its Christmas lights twinkling like little multicolored stars. There was water rushing over the edge of the half-wall on the far edge of the swimming pool. Malcolm could make out the faint wisps of steam that rose from the heated water; he watched as it curled in the ambient lighting glowing up from the pool floor. Small, solar-powered lights lined the patio and walkway to the guest house, and the stone wall that divided the patio from the pool area held a decent-sized fireplace, the remnants of an earlier fire still crackling away gently as it burned itself out. It was all very nice and welcoming. Clearly they had spared very few expenses in building their dream home.

Malcolm was almost jealous. He’d spent so many years being moved around from Navy base to Navy base, and then finally shipped to boarding school when Stuart could no longer tolerate him, then all but tossed out on his own when he put his foot down about wanting to join Starfleet. He’d never had a place to truly call home, until the Enterprise. Which was a far cry from being homey in any way. Deep down, he longed for a place to call his own. Somewhere stationary and permanent. And maybe one day, if he could find someone he could open up to enough and could tolerate him long enough, a family to spend his days with.

“Hey, c’mon,” Trip murmured, nudging Malcolm’s shoulder gently.

Out there, away from the noise and family members, Trip’s voice was soft and comforting. Following him off the patio and out across the lawn, away from the guest and main house, Malcolm basked in the quiet that surrounded them. For the first time since they’d arrived, he could breathe again.

The silence that had fallen between them was not at all uncomfortable. It was the easy sort of silence that only came from being with someone you knew well, and knew there was no expectations for conversation. More than once Malcolm had gone to Trip’s room, or his office in engineering, just to have some quiet company while they both finished their work. There had even been a couple of times Trip had wandered up to the bridge when Malcolm had been on gamma shift, and just taken up his place behind Malcolm’s left shoulder for a bit.

It was as much comfortable as it was comforting.

As they made it to the far edge of the lawn, where uninterrupted grass disappeared into a tangle of trees, Trip turned and leveled himself down onto a fallen trunk. Hands braced against the rough bark, he tilted his head back and simply stared straight up at the night sky. Malcolm allowed himself the opportunity to admire how relaxed and at ease Trip seemed, sitting there stargazing like he hadn’t already been flying among those very same stars. The lights from the house polluted some of the atmosphere, but not enough to fully dim the star belt that stretched over their heads.

“Y’d think I’d be sick of lookin’ at stars, spendin’ six years with ‘em zippin’ by my window,” uttered Trip, still looking straight up, a calm and peaceful expression on his face. “But I’m not. Somethin’ ‘bout sittin’ on solid ground on Earth, lookin’ up an’ seein’ the Big Dipper, ol’ Orion, the Milky Way…”

Malcolm gave a quiet, noncommittal hum of agreement as Trip’s voice trailed off. He spared a glance of his own towards the sky, easily picking out the more recognizable constellations, before moving to sit beside Trip on the fallen tree. He almost didn’t notice the silence between them again until Trip broke it with his quiet apology.

“ ‘M sorry I j’st sorta left ya t’ the wolves back there,”

A quiet chuckle bubbled out of Malcolm as he shook his head. “I don’t see as though you were given much of a choice in the matter.”

“Still...I prob’ly shoulda given ya a bit more warnin’ ‘bout what t’ expect bein’ surrounded by us Tuckers.”

“You could have warned me all you wanted, I don’t think it would have helped much.”

Trip huffed softly, a small smile playing across his face. “Prob’ly not. I’ve been told we’re kinda a crazy bunch t’ be ‘round if ya ain’t used t’ it.”

“Certainly a far cry from any family get togethers I ever attended,” Malcolm confessed with a small nod. “But, for the most part, I’ve been telling myself if I managed to survive six years of being your friend, I can survive one holiday with your family.”

The smile that Trip gave was bright and fond. “I’ll be remindin’ you of that come Christmas mornin’ when all Hell breaks loose.”

Humming in acknowledgement, Malcolm glanced off toward the main house, watching as the darkened figures moved around inside. He sat for a moment, letting his thoughts drift, before finally speaking.

“I think there’s only two things that have thrown me for quite a loop, regarding your family.”

“Only two?” asked Trip in mock disbelief. “We must be losin’ our touch!”

Malcolm rolled his eyes and shoved his shoulder into Trip’s. “Firstly, your gran reminds me far too much of my father. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt as if I’d been mentally measured up and been found wanting.”

The quiet confession seemed to be expected if the hum and nod of agreement was anything to go by.

“And I don’t quite understand why she was so adamant that you were trouble.”

“Cuz when I was growin’ up,” confirmed Trip with an easy shrug. “I was always gettin’ myself in an’ outta trouble. She looks at me an’ still sees the kid with dirty hands an’ a fake innocent smile. But really, when it comes t’ ol’ Granny Mae, you don’t got much to worry ‘bout. ‘Less you’re within range of her cane.”

Malcolm worried at his lower lip for a moment, glancing from Trip to the house and back again. “She didn’t seem to much care for me, either.”

“She don’t care much for anybody, Malcolm. But pretty sure of all the people she doesn’t like, she really just hates herself the most.”

“Well she certainly seems to get along well with Sandra and, what was your one cousin’s name? The one who decided to be a stay-at-home mum and writes children’s novels?”

“Casey,” Trip nearly spat the name out, his lip curling in mild disgust. “The only reason gran likes them is cuz they’re both suck-ups an’ have no problem playin’ minions for her. Both kinda hope if they suck up enough, when she finally goes, they’ll get all the inheritence.”

Well that wasn’t what Malcolm had expected to hear. From what he had been able to glean about the family, everyone appeared to be far more interested in helping others -- or picking on Trip and him -- than they were about playing nice just to gain the love and trust of an old woman in hopes of being left everything. Tuckers, the ones he’d met at least, weren’t the greedy type. But, he supposed there were always the bad apples of the family. Lord knew he’d been branded that himself in his own.

“What’s the second thing?”

The question caught Malcolm off guard. He blinked, head tilted curiously.

“Pardon?”

“The second thing that threw ya for a loop.”

“Oh.” Malcolm took a breath to calm the butterflies suddenly trying to fly away with his stomach. “The second, your family’s insistence that you and I are a couple, no matter what either of us say.”

Trip’s shoulders hunched up around his ears as he ducked his head, finding a new interest in the tips of his shoes. “That’s all Gilly’s doin’,” he mumbled. “Told ya when we got here, she prob’ly ran through the house screamin’ that I was here an’ I’d brought a ‘beau’ home with me.”

Lifting his head, Trip let out a long, deep breath and just stared straight ahead of him while he continued, “The li’l ones prob’ly don’t care one way or t’other, but the rest of the family, all the adults an’ everything, pretty sure they’re j’st givin’ us a hard time for the sake of givin’ us a hard time. They don’t mean nothin’ by it…”

Something about the way Trip’s voice trailed off, how quiet he’d been and the tone -- which Malcolm couldn’t quite place, but it certainly wasn’t the self-confidence that he was used to hearing projected in that Southern drawl -- had him confused. He watched Trip carefully for a moment; something seemed to be bothering his friend, but as much as Malcolm wanted to comfort him, or press for any clues as to what was wrong, he didn’t. A hard lesson had been learned a few years back, that the only thing pressing Trip would do when something was bothering him was make him lash out and shove people away. Malcolm had no intention of being on the receiving end of Trip’s scorn again. Not if he could help it, at least.

Deciding it was time to make a swift topic change, Malcolm took a breath and forced the most natural looking smile across his face that he could.

“So, just how old did you think I was?”

Trip lifted his head in surprise, a startled chuckle bubbling out of him as he flashed a half smile of his own to Malcolm. “Sure as hell not older’n me.”

“Yes, but how old? I’m curious.”

“Thirty-four, tops.”

“Really?” Malcolm laughed.

Shrugging, Trip huffed softly. “Yeah, really. I still don’t believe you’re older’n me. How old are ya then?”

For a moment, Malcolm simply pressed his lips together in a thin line, biting back the smile that was already shining in his eyes. One of Trip’s relatives had guessed his proper age back in the house, but Malcolm hadn’t had a chance to give any sort of reaction before others talked over him. When it seemed like Trip was going to turn away in defeat, Malcolm let the grin free.

“Would you believe me if I said I just turned forty, this birthday last?” He asked playfully, though the underlying tone of his voice was sincere. Head cocked to the side, a single brow raised in a way that any Vulcan would be proud of, and a smirk tugging his grin into something far more smug, he watched as Trip’s jaw nearly hit the ground.

“Forty?!”

Malcolm gave a curt, silent nod.

“You’re forty? As in four-zero?”

“The one that generally follows three-nine, yes.”

“Bullshit!”

Laughing, Malcolm shook his head and turned his eyes back towards the house for a moment. “Second of September, twenty-one-seventeen. I assure you, I just turned forty.”

“But that…” Trip stammered, shaking his head. Turning to face Malcolm better, he frowned and Malcolm suddenly found himself feeling like he were under a microscope. “The Cap’n’s only forty-five! How’re you forty an’ still only a Lieutenant?”

The incredulous question was one Malcolm was all too familiar with, and had in fact, asked himself a number of times in the past. Hope had bloomed in his chest that he’d at least be made a Commander after everything that had happened in the Expanse, and in the few years since, when there had been talks of promotions. But “talks”, it seemed, were as far as anything had ever gotten.

“I wish I knew.” Malcolm shook his head, one shoulder shrugging. “I have faith that I’ll be made a Commander, eventually. Hopefully sooner rather than later. And I’d rather no one onboard found out I’m a forty-year-old Lieutenant, if it’s all the same to you.”

“No one’d believe me, anyway,” Trip huffed, still looking baffled.

Back at the house, the patio door burst open as the throng of younger nieces, nephews, and cousins barrelled out and started for the guest house. None of them noticed Trip or Malcolm, sitting off at the edge of the yard. They were all too busy joking around, laughing, and singing Christmas songs at the tops of their lungs. Tommy and Jill, Trip’s second-oldest cousin and his wife, brought up the rear, snuggled up against each other and Jill’s prominent pregnant belly outlined against the glow of lights as they disappeared into the smaller house.

Not for the first time, Malcolm felt the twinge of jealousy clench at his chest. The Reed family gatherings had always been stiff and formal affairs, following age old traditions that were long since antiquated, namely the one about children were to be seen but not heard. Ever. And there weren’t many get-togethers on the Ingrin side of the family, since his father never much saw eye-to-eye with Aunt Sherry, much to Mary Reed’s infinite dismay. Sherry was her only sister, after all.

As cliche as it was, Trip’s family reminded Malcolm of the happy, loving families always featured in those sappy, heartwarming holiday movies. The ones he’d always hated because of how unrealistic they were. All his life, Malcolm had believed there was no way there could be any families that were like the ones he’d seen in those old movies, and he almost resented them.

Trip moving to stand and stretch pulled Malcolm from his thoughts.

“C’mon.” Trip yawned as he held his hand out to pull Malcolm up to his feet. “Think we should be safe t’ head back on into the house.”

Nodding, Malcolm let himself be pulled up and dusted his pants off before following Trip back to the house. All the lights save for the kitchen lights were off on the first floor, and only small slivers peeked out from two of the doors on the second floor as they made their way quietly to the attic. It’d been a long day, one made even longer by being thrust into an unfamiliar situation, but despite that, Malcolm hadn’t realized he was as tired as he was until they’d made it to the attic and began getting ready for bed.

He moved nearly on auto-pilot to brush his teeth, change out of his nicer clothes and into his sleeper bottoms and worn out T-shirt. A bit of a stretch from what he normally wore to bed, but the butterflies already invading his stomach might very well burst out of him if he crawled into the bed next to Trip wearing nothing but his Starfleet Blues. His civvies folded and placed atop his duffle bag, Malcolm slowly made his way to the edge of the bed, the side closest to the doors leading out to the tiny balcony, and pulled the covers down.

Maybe if he got into bed and got comfortable, he could be asleep before Trip came out of the bathroom. Unlike the bunks provided on Enterprise, the mattress here cradled Malcolm and seemed to hold him protectively. The weight of the blankets were a welcoming sensation, the right amount of heaviness to play against the weightlessness the mattress seemed to provide.

Shifting onto his side, the pale moonlight shining in on his face from the expansive roof above them, Malcolm’s eyes grew more and more heavy, until he could no longer reopen them after his slow, sleepy blink.

The door to the bathroom slid open, the wedge of light from the smaller room going out just seconds before the blankets shifted and Malcolm felt a warm presence slide in behind him. Distantly, he thought he could feel Trip scoot just a hair’s width closer to him, felt the warm, gentle breath on the back of his neck as Trip murmured his goodnight. The last thing his mind registered before drifting off to sleep, was something soft and feather-light brush just under his hairline.

~*~*~

Mornings had never been Trip’s favorite time of day. He liked his sleep a little too much, most days. Especially when he was safe and cozy in a comfortable bed, sunlight pouring in around him and warming him gently. A solid weight firm against his chest.

Still lost in a sleep haze, Trip shifted and pulled the weight closer to him, hugging it tight as he buried his nose in something soft and silky, that bore a faint woodsy scent. Something, somewhere in the back of his mind, told him he needed to wake up, to let go and pull away before it was too late. He didn’t want to, though. All he wanted was to stay right there, just like he was. If he woke up, then he’d have to face reality. If he stayed asleep, then he could keep dreaming that it was Malcolm in his arms, and that it was nothing out of the ordinary to wake up holding him.

Except, he did wake up. And while it was Malcolm in his arms, it was anything but ordinary, and Trip forced himself to carefully pull away, instantly colder and regretting it. Malcolm was like a heater, and having the Lieutenant in his arms had felt right. It wasn’t though. Trip knew that. The way Malcolm tensed up when Trip causally touched his shoulder or back, or paled anytime someone joked about them being a couple. Malcolm didn’t want him, not like that, not the way Trip wanted him.

He was probably just a sleep cuddler, Trip reasoned with himself as he slowly pushed out of bed and, without a sound, gathered up some clean clothes before slipping into the bathroom for a quick shower. Traitorous thoughts tried to invade him as the warm spray of water washed down his shoulders and chest in rivulets. All of them involving a pair of mischievous grey-blue eyes twinkling at him from under long sable lashes. Long fingers following the path the water cut across his body.

They weren’t thoughts Trip hadn’t already had before. In the six years he’d known Malcolm, those thoughts were almost a mainstay in his mind during his morning showers. But with the object of those images so close to him, sharing a bed with him, they made Trip feel dirty. A cold weight of guilt settled heavy in his stomach, cold enough to wither what little bit of arousal he’d started to feel.

Mentally Trip scolded himself for even having those thoughts to begin with. Malcolm was his best friend -- besides Jon, of course, but ever since the attack on Earth, and their time spent in the Expanse, his friendship with Jonathan Archer had been even more strained than it’d been with Malcolm. His shower cut short, Trip toweled himself dry, changed clothes and stepped back into his room just in time to watch Malcolm sit up sleepily in bed, dark hair spiked and curled in every direction, and eyes still blurred. The shirt Malcolm had worn to bed was twisted around his midsection, pulling up away from the waistband of his sleeper bottoms to reveal just a sliver of pale white skin. Gods but that man would kill Trip if he found out his commanding officer thought he was damned adorable waking up. All soft and vulnerable looking.

“Mornin’, sleepyhead,” teased Trip. He turned back towards the bathroom, tossed his towel into the hamper, and started for the bedroom door. “Might wanna get a move on if ya want any breakfast.”

Malcolm hummed in question, drawing Trip’s attention back to him. Just as Malcolm gave a long, lazy stretch. The pull of his shirt across his chest, the way it shifted up higher when Malcolm reached his arms over his head and arched his back. More pale skin put on display. Abdominal muscles that were normally cruelly hidden by the less-than-flattering uniform jumpsuits everyone wore. Adonis muscles that begged to be licked, and a swath of dark hair to nuzzle that started just under his bellybutton and disappeared below his sleeper bottoms.

Trip glanced away, forced himself to look anywhere except at the bed.

Get ahold of yourself, Trip! He silently chided. You invited him here so he didn’t spend Christmas alone, not so you could add fuel t’ your sad fantasies.

Taking a breath, Trip started for the door again, not even bothering to look over his shoulder as he called back, “Shower’s open! I’ll meet ya downstairs!”

If Malcolm had answered him, Trip didn’t hear it. He didn’t so much run out of the room as he did make a very well calculated tactical retreat. Yeah. A tactical retreat. That’s exactly what it was. Malcolm would have been proud to hear Trip call it that. Or he would have rolled his eyes, called him ridiculous, and launched into all the reasons why it should have been called anything except that.

Laughter and loud voices filled the air as Trip bound his way down the stairs and into the kitchen. From the looks of it, he and Malcolm were the last two to make their way down. Every available seat was taken, save for one bar stool at the breakfast bar, which Trip quickly snagged for himself before a cousin could. Toast, eggs, and bacon were set out across the counters, a free-for-all to anyone brave enough to muscle their way to them. At the stove, Julie was busy making pancakes while Heather worked to make waffles for the little ones. As much as his stomach was grumbling, demanding food, Trip knew better than to move from his spot. He’d wait for Malcolm to show up and then make an attempt.

“Hey, Big Brother!” An arm dropped heavily across Trip’s shoulders as Matthew Tucker stepped up next to him, grinning like the cat who got the cream. Though Matt and Mike were twins, the pair were as different as night and day. Matt was loud, competitive -- especially against his older brother -- and tended not to have a filter between his brain and mouth. Whereas Mike had always been quiet, content to be average, and generally took his time to think things through before speaking. When it came right down to it, though, were it not for their choices in clothes and their personalities, it was next to impossible to tell them apart.

Trip gave a soft grunt as his body swayed under the force, and turned to level his younger brother with a questioning stare.

“Where’s your fella, Tripster? Wear him out good, or somethin’ last night?”

A new round of laughter went up as Trip’s stare turned decidedly more threatening. Before he could open his mouth to respond, though, Julie was in front of him, setting down a plate piled high with pancakes.

“Trip, honey! I was wonderin’ when you were gonna be comin’ down. Malcolm awake yet?”

“He’s takin’ a shower,” Trip replied, reaching out to snatch a pancake to munch on. “Should be down in a minute.”

A plate appeared out of thin air in front of him as Julie nodded and turned back for the stove. “Well, if he’s not. Take him some food! I don’t want him goin’ hungry j’st cuz this family’s a pack of starvin’ wolves.”

“If he takes Malcolm food, then we won’t see ‘em again the whole rest of the day, Mama! Hell, surprised he ain’t up in the shower with ‘im right now!” Matt laughed, his teasing smile still in place even as Trip’s elbow connected with his stomach and shoved him away.

“Matthew, leave Trip alone,” Julie scolded, once again working to flip pancakes. “If you’ve already had your fill, then I suggest you get whatever cousins you said were goin’ with you an’ get a move on. Those li’l ones are gettin’ impatient for a tree t’ decorate.”

It was only with thirty-plus years of watching Matthew and Mike growing up that Trip was able to catch the disappointed sneer that crossed Matt’s face at their mother’s dismissal. For the longest time Trip always felt bad for Matt. He’d loved his twin brothers when they were born. Trip played with them both, let them tag along when he went exploring or was working on stuff, but Matt was somehow always in Trip’s shadow. The older they got, the worse it got. Until Trip graduated high school and went off to Starfleet. Even then, Matt dealt with their teachers comparing him to Trip for two more years.

Without another word, Matt turned and shouldered his way by their family, calling out to a small handful of cousins that it was time to go tree hunting. The eruption of cheers from the kids was deafening, to the point that Trip didn’t hear Malcolm’s greeting as he stepped up beside him. It wasn’t until the warmth of a gentle touch landed on his shoulder that he looked up to meet curious grey eyes. Concern shown on Malcolm’s face, and Trip wondered just what he must have looked like sitting there to have Malcolm look at him in that way.

Flashing him the best smile he could muster, Trip sprang off the barstool and motioned for Malcolm to sit.

“Here! Take a seat! I’ll grab us some food. What’cha hungry for?”

Malcolm eyed him for a moment, obviously not believing the smile, but knowing better than to call Trip out on it. Finally, he nodded and settled on the stool. “Whatever you’re having is fine. Thank you.”

“Pancakes and eggs it is then. Hang tight.”

It took a bit of fancy footwork to get past his two aunts (who just had to gush over what a nice young man he’d brought home for them to meet), and around four of the younger kids (who thought darting around legs was the best game in the world), but Trip finally was able to stack a plate high with food and make his way back to Malcolm. Julie was at the breakfast bar again, pouring a couple glasses of orange juice for her son and Malcolm, and smiled brightly as Trip moved to stand at Malcolm’s left shoulder.

“Got this many people with different tastes,” Julie started, only barely looking away from Malcolm, “and we’ve got just ‘bout anything you could want to put on your pancakes. So, what’ll it be? Butter pecan syrup like Trip wants? Raspberry? Maple? Just butter?”

Trip set Malcolm’s plate down in front of him and looked up, answering before Malcolm had the chance. “Have we got any peanut butter?”

Julie blinked and suddenly Trip found himself pinned down by two pairs of blue eyes. Amusement and maybe just a bit of awe in one pair, confusion in the other.

“Peanut butter?” echoed Julie.

“Yeah. Creamy peanut butter.”

“Pretty sure I just bought a jar for Abby.” Julie eyed Trip up curiously. “But what do you need it for? You grabbin’ some toast?”

Trip shook his head, and pretended he didn’t see the small, shy smile that Malcolm was trying so hard to hide. Why the Englishman loved putting peanut butter on his pancakes was beyond Trip, but he did. Now that they were off the ship, and back with real food, Malcolm deserved to have pancakes with real peanut butter for a change.

“For pancakes.”  

Julie watched, brow furrowed, as Trip opened cabinet door after cabinet door before finding the jar of Extra Creamy Skippy that hadn’t been opened yet. The grin on his face was damn near megawatt as he turned to grab a knife from the drawer and start back to his mother and best friend.

“Since when do you put peanut butter on your pancakes?”

“I don’t,” Trip answered simply, setting both the knife and the jar down in front of Malcolm before taking his place again at Malcolm’s left shoulder. “Malcolm does, though.”

Dishwater blond brows shot up towards a greying hairline. Julie looked between the two of them, watching as Malcolm very carefully and very methodically scraped the top layer off the jar to smear across each pancake in turn, while Trip lobbed off chunks of butter to toss between the layers of his own, smothering them with more butter pecan syrup than was healthy. They’d been friends long enough, and had breakfast together often enough, to simply know when the other wanted something: when Malcolm needed more orange juice to help wash his peanut butter pancakes down, or when Trip wanted the salt and pepper for his eggs. It was something familiar between them, comfortable, and it made Julie wish -- not for the first time -- that Trip would just admit his feelings.

Before she had a chance to comment on the pair of them, Charles Jr. moved to stand behind them. His hands fell to their shoulders, startling them both.

“Trip, glad you’re finally ‘wake. You an’ Malcolm mind hangin’ up the lights outside for me t’day?”

Trip swallowed down a few gulps of juice before he could speak.

“Aw c’mon. Why do I always gotta be the one to hang the lights?”

“Cuz you’re my brilliant li’l engineer,” Julie teased, hand outstretched to pinch playfully at his cheek. “An’ ‘cuz your brothers are busy.”

“Doin’ what?”

Charles Jr. scooted by them, moving for the coffee maker. “Matt’s out lookin’ for our tree, an’ Mike’s takin’ Gran t’ visit Gran’pa Charles,” he paused, one eyebrow quirked as he tilted his head and glanced back to Trip and Malcolm. “Unless you’d rather take Gran all the way t’ Jackson an’ back t’day?”

Trip hardly let his dad finish before he was making a sour face and answering, “Ladder still in the garage? Lights an’ decorations an’ everythin’ all in there?”

Smirking and doing little to stifle his laugh, Charles Jr. nodded. “Thought ya might say that.”

~*~*~

Malcolm stepped back from the ladder, dusting his hands off on his jeans as he took in the sight before him. Twinkling lights of pink, blue, purple, and green lined the gutters and wrapped up the top of the house. The glow no doubt would be mesmerizing that night once they retired for the evening. Garland hung across the railing of the porch, ribbon bows of blue and silver interspersed every few feet. Next to the steps, an old wooden placard made to look like a stop sign begged Santa to stop there for CJ, Jules, Charlie, Matty, Mikey, and Lizzie.

Despite a few decorations that were clearly outdated and worn out, the yard and house looked tasteful and beautiful. All it needed was a thick, soft layer of white snow coating everything, and Malcolm could swear that the place was right out of a Christmas card print. Malcolm allowed himself a moment to simply stand there and stare, imagine privately that this was how life could be, how it was supposed to be. Quiet life, a decorated house for the holidays, and Trip standing at his side, looking just as pleased with their work as Malcolm did.

Well, at least for this year, Malcolm was able to have one of those things.

Trip draped his arm across Malcolm’s shoulders and heaved a quiet sigh. It’d taken them the better part of the morning and into early afternoon, but they had finally managed to get all the lights hung and a few of the decorations out on the lawn. Malcolm suspected that once upon a time there was far more effort put into decorating for Christmas. Probably wasn’t a good idea to bring that up, though.

“Not bad,” murmured Trip. “Not bad at all.”

Malcolm hummed in agreement, nodding. “You only nearly fell off the ladder twice, so I suppose despite that, everything looks nice.”

He chuckled as Trip shoved into his side and drew his arm back.

“Least I didn’t damn near staple my fingers to the railin’.”

“My fingers were nowhere near the stapler!”

“Uhhh-huh.”

It was only his comfort at being alone with Trip again that had Malcolm turning his head to make a face at Trip’s teasing. He didn’t quite stick his tongue out the other man, but it was close, and more than enough to have Trip tilting to one side laughing. Lord but he could listen to that man laugh all day. Too many days had gone by without that bright laughter filling the corridors, or lighting up his armory. Granted, Trip was getting better about it, was slowly starting to become more his old self, but it was so slow going, and Malcolm knew that too much had changed in the last three years. Trip was never going to be as lighthearted, carefree, and jovial as he’d been when they first met, but he was getting better.

Still grinning, Trip shoved gently at Malcolm’s shoulder, pushing him off towards the house again. “C’mon. Help me put this stuff away.”

With his own bright and easy smile in place, Malcolm moved to gather up empty boxes while Trip dealt with the ladder. Everything back in its place in the garage, Malcolm followed Trip back into the house and out to the backyard where most everyone was scattered about. Mike and Granny Mae were still off on their daytrip, having taken Sandra, Casey, and Casey’s husband Justin with them; while Matt was still off with four of their cousins and one uncle in search of the perfect Christmas tree. Which left all the younger kids, a handful of their parents, Trip’s folks, and one set of Aunts and Uncles.

No one seemed to pay them any attention as they stepped out onto the patio. The remainder of the Tucker cousins -- including some of their spouses -- were clustered off to the right side of the lawn, a stack of white sacks at their feet. The kids, save for Maddy and Abby, bounced around the group, shouting happily. Malcolm wasn’t sure what was going on, but he thought he saw a baseball bat in Tommy’s hand. Trip hadn’t mentioned anything about any sports games being played. On their transport from San Francisco to Laurel he’d said that they watched movies, decorated the house and tree, and played games, but Malcolm had assumed he’d meant boardgames or even those ridiculous old video games. He hadn’t expected it to be contact sports.

Malcolm glanced to Trip as they stepped off the patio, and was ready to slink off over to where Julie and Heather were sitting with Abby, when he heard it.

“Well go ask ‘em…”

Two boys peeled off from the rest of the group, barrelled straight for them, and bounced to a stop right in front of Trip. Matt’s twin boys, Malcolm thought to himself as he looked them over. Twelve years old, and both sporting the Tucker blue eyes and dirty blond hair, while the rest of their features belonged to Sandra’s side. Both Andy and Jack were grinning almost too innocently at them.

“Uncle Trip!” Andy started, before Jack picked up from him. “Would you an’ Uncle Malcolm play baseball with us?”

Andy batted his eyes and looked between Trip and Malcolm. “Pleeeeeeease?”

Before Malcolm had a chance to open his mouth in protest, Trip was answering for him. “You fellas need two more players?”

Jack and Andy nodded.

“Alright. J’st don’t expect much outta us. We j’st got done hangin’ decorations.” Trip nudged the boys back off toward the group, and shook his head as they gave a whoop of excitement, grabbed up the white sacks -- bases, that now made sense -- and set about getting the diamond in order.

As Trip and Malcolm moved to follow, Malcolm quirked a brow at his best friend. “I thought American Football was more the fall and winter sport of choice. Not baseball.”

Trip chuckled under his breath and shrugged. “We play whatever game they wanna play. So long as it wears ‘em out enough that they don’t beg to decorate the tree soon as it gets brought in. Wear ‘em out, wash ‘em up, feed ‘em, send ‘em to bed.”

“And here I thought you had normal family get-togethers.”

Laughing outright, Trip shot Malcolm a sideways glance and half-smile. “It’s normal for us. Don’t worry, you’ll get used t’ it. Eventually.”

Lord help him, if he ever had the chance.

~*~*~

Cheers and jeers rose up from the makeshift sidelines as Trip rounded second and made his way to third. The throw from the outfield landed short of its mark, allowing him to touch the base on his journey to home plate. His face was flushed, hair damp against his forehead, but the smile that lit his face as he slammed his foot down on the plate was blinding in its radiance.

Malcolm couldn’t stop staring, or smiling. Despite having never played the sport before in his life, he was having a surprisingly good time. It was amusing to watch how everyone moved in closer when it was one of the younger kids up to bat; how whoever was pitching would toss the ball just that little bit gentler, make sure that it could be hit, and then making sure to fumble the catch so that they could get to the base in time. Then turn around and go full out for the adults who came up to bat.

Trip was relatively good at the sport. He at least could hit the ball and send it more than two feet. Malcolm was fairly certain he was going to wind up giving Trip’s cousin Josh a cold from all the air he moved swinging and missing each time. Or knock the poor man out by losing his grip on the damned bat. He did feel bad about that…

Watching as Trip made a home run off of errors, and be attacked by his excited younger cousins, Malcolm scooted past him to pick the bat up off the grass where it had been dropped. Out of the corner of his eye, Malcolm saw Tommy motion for everyone to move in closer. Granted, he was terrible, but it still made his stomach fall to be treated to the same special treatment the six-year-olds got.

A determined scowl in place, Malcolm moved to stand beside the plate like he’d seen the others do, and hefted the bat up onto his shoulder. He watched intently as Tommy tossed the ball to him, swung with all his might, and frowned as Josh called, “Strike one!”

There was a very good reason Malcolm had never done sports in school. Why he had always begged off gym class to go sit somewhere and read or work on his studies. Give him hand-to-hand combat, and he can wipe the floor with anyone. Put him on a team to play organized sports, and he might as well not play at all. It would save considerably on embarrassment. For everyone.

A huffed curse tumbled past his lips as he swung a second time, only to hit air instead of a ball.

“Strike two!” laughed Josh as he lobbed the ball back to Tommy. “Don’t they teach you fellas how to hit a ball in England?”

“Hang on a sec, Tom!”

Turning at the sound of Trip’s call, Malcolm frowned as he came to stand next to him.

“You’re holdin’ the bat wrong,” explained Trip, motioning to the wooden bat still in Malcolm’s grasp. “You got your hands up too high. Here, lemme show ya.”

The bat handed off to Trip, he watched as Trip positioned his hands just a little lower down and then brought it up to his shoulder. “See? Hold it down here more. Bend your knees a bit, an’ when the ball gets j’st ‘bout right over the base, swing away.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing.”

“No, that’s what you think you’ve been doin’. Here, hold it the way I showed’ja.”

Malcolm sighed heavily as he took the bat back and stepped up to the plate again. Fingers wrapped around the neck of the bat, he hoisted it up, and froze. Warmth was pressed all down his back as strong arms engulfed him; gently calloused hands overlapped his own and moved them to where they should have been on the bat. Suddenly, Malcolm couldn’t breathe. The smell of sweat and subtle fragrance of Trip’s body wash filled his senses, and it took every ounce of willpower he possessed to not whimper pathetically. It was bad enough his traitorous body had started rocketing his blood south.

“Look, like this,” Trip murmured, his breath warm and soft across Malcolm’s ear. It was enough to nearly make his eyes roll back in his head. “J’st relax. You can do this. Pretend it’s a new form of target practice. Y’ gotta hit the ball, just like qualifyin’ for the phase pistols.”

Malcolm swallowed hard past the tightness in his throat. “Not quite the same thing,” he muttered back, voice just slightly trembling.

Behind him, Trip huffed a soft laugh that brushed across Malcolm’s ear and sent shivers down his spine. How was he supposed to relax when Trip Tucker, the man he was rather hopelessly -- emphasis on the hopeless bit -- in love with, was standing so intimately behind him and had no idea what he was doing to him? It wasn’t possible.

It was even more impossible when Trip damn near seemed to nuzzle against that same ear before pulling away slowly.

“J’st pretend it’s target practice. You c’n do this.”

Body tingling and screaming out for Trip to come back, Malcolm forced himself to nod and turn his attention back to Tommy. J’st like qualifyin’ for the phase pistols. J’st target practice. You c’n do this… Trip’s words, his voice, continued to ring in Malcolm’s ears as Tommy tossed the ball. His eyes never straying from it, Malcolm waited, swung…

And gasped as the vibration of making the connection trembled up his arms. The ball soaring over everyone’s heads, and sending at least three young Tuckers running to grab it.

Through the haze of surprise at actually hitting the ball, Malcolm heard Trip’s holler, his excited voice cheering Malcolm on just as Malcolm had done for him not more than ten minutes before. Laughing in disbelief, he tore off down the first base line, making absolutely sure to touch the bag, before continuing on for second base.

The voices of outfielders yelling for the ball blended with the shouts from the sideline for Malcolm to just stay at second base. From the corner of his eye he spotted the ball being thrown and ran all the faster, just barely getting his foot on the bag before the ball was caught and tapped against his shoulder. Not that it mattered. He was safe at second, and Trip was grinning proudly from behind the home plate.

Another breathless laugh escaped him as he bent to brace his hands on his knees, watching while Josh’s oldest son Wyatt stepped up to bat. Wyatt swung and missed once, and sent the bat flying off to the left side of the makeshift diamond. Standing up straight again, Malcolm forced himself not to chuckle as Wyatt went running to retrieve said bat.

He took the momentary break in the play to stretch his back a bit, and simply take things in. Deep down, he was so glad and so grateful that Trip pulled him along once they were cut loose for leave. Not that he’d readily admit that! But, he was thankful. It was nice to be included. Even if the entire family did assume -- teasing or not -- that he and Trip were together in any sort of romantic way.

As Wyatt stepped back up to the plate, Malcolm stooped low, ready to run for third. Movement to his right drew his attention away, though. A tiny white-blond head, toddling along aimlessly. Turning his own head to get a better look at what Maddy was doing, Malcolm felt his heart stop and chest seize when her footing stumbled and she disappeared from sight.

Without giving even a second thought, his feet were moving again, carrying him at full-speed to the edge of the pool, and beyond. Water rushed around him, filling his nose and causing his own panic to flare up as he sunk to the bottom. Maddy thrashed in front of him, just barely out of arm’s reach. Eyes and chest burning, he propelled himself forward and, dodging the hand moving straight for his head, wrapped his arms around the little girl, pulling her in close to his chest as he pushed up off the floor and struggled his way back to the surface. He gasped for air the moment his face was above water, the fear and panic for both himself and Maddy racing through him at warp speed.

Hands reached over the side of the pool, taking hold of Maddy and hoisting her out of the water just before Malcolm slipped back under. Water filled his mouth. He felt it slide down the back of his throat and grew frantic, desperate to get his head back out of the water. Pressure built in his ears. The world stopped making much sense. He was disoriented, growing more and more panicked as the seconds ticked by, until he was suddenly, finally, pulling in deep gasps of air again. Someone had hold of his hand and was pulling at him, yanking him up out of the water and onto solid ground again.

Flat on his back, Malcolm gasped and coughed. His entire body trembled. So much so that it didn't register that he was being moved around, let alone being held. He turned his wide, fearful eyes to the side, trying to get Maddy back in his sights. He had to make sure she was alright.

“Shhh, it’s okay, Mal. It’s okay. Maddy’s fine. She’s safe. You’re both safe.”

“Trip?” His throat burned and felt scratchy. Malcolm blinked owlishly and stared at Trip for a moment. Trip was holding him? And looking concerned? For him?

“It’s me, Malcolm. S’okay. Everythin’s okay,” soothed Trip, reaching out to smooth down some of Malcolm’s hair and brush away the stray water droplets that were streaking down his face.

The adrenaline fading fast, and the severity of everything that just happened sinking in, Malcolm felt his insides twist and roil around each other. Maddy was okay, he’d gotten to her in time, and he’d managed to get her out of the water before anything happened to her. He was fine. Despite feeling like he’d swallowed half the pool, he was fine, and alive, and didn’t drown like he feared he was going to.

Giving a nod of understanding, Malcolm slowly rolled onto his side. Warm, strong hands supported him as he drew in one deep breath after another, and pushed himself onto his hands and knees, then up to his feet. The world tilted and swayed under him and, with Trip holding his elbow to keep him steady, Malcolm stumbled to the far side of the guest house, leaned against the wall, and emptied the pool water -- and what was left of his breakfast -- out of his stomach.

The steady, awed gazes of Trip’s family bore into Malcolm’s back. He couldn’t see their stares, his eyes were firmly shut as he continued to lean against the wall and dry heave, but he could feel them just as he could the soothing motion of Trip’s hand rubbing circles across his shoulders and spine. His entire body was trembling by the time he was done, whether from the adrenaline crash, or from standing around sopping wet in fifty-degree temperatures, it didn’t matter; his legs were threatening to give out on him, and he watched in muted fascination as his hands shook before his eyes.

A warm blanket draped across his shoulders, followed by a pair of strong arms helping him to stand upright and start walking again. Trip on his right side, arm across his shoulder, and Julie Tucker on his left, hovering protectively as only a concerned mother could. Baseball game forgotten, Malcolm let himself be led into the house and up the stairs to the attic bedroom.

“Get him warmed up,” murmured Julie, “and into some dry clothes. I’ll bring him some tea and soup in a li’l bit.”

Trip nodded, muttering his thanks as he maneuvered Malcolm into the bathroom. Malcolm moved on autopilot, letting himself be set down on the edge of the bathtub while Trip pulled an oversized bath towel out of the closet and replaced the blanket with it. He blinked owlishly as Trip used gentle touches to soak up some of the water out of Malcolm’s shirt and dark hair, before finally stepping back.

“C’mon, Malcolm. Let’s get you warmed up, okay? Take that shirt off, I’ll go get you a dry one.”

With a silent nod, Malcolm set the towel aside and awkwardly peeled the wet sweater off, gasping as a chill ran through him when the cooler air hit his damp skin. He wrapped his arms around himself and drew a deep, shaky breath as he waited for Trip to return. Part of him wanted to apologize for ruining the baseball game, while a larger part almost screamed to go find Trip’s niece and never let her leave his sight again.

Funny. He’d never done well around children, before. Their wide-eyed innocence clashed against Malcolm’s stoic nature, and his awkwardness around them always seemed to set everyone on edge. Yet when it came to Trip’s nieces, nephews, and younger cousins, Malcolm found himself almost at ease, and decidedly protective of them. Especially Maddy and Abigail.

His thoughts scattered once Trip reappeared in the bathroom, a small stack of folded clothes in his arms. A glimmer of emotion that Malcolm didn’t recognize blazed for a moment in Trip’s baby blue eyes. It disappeared between one blink and the next, though, leaving Malcolm to wonder if he’d just been imagining things. Trip set the stack of clothes on the edge of the sink before picking the top item off, holding it out for Malcolm to take.

“I j’st grabbed some of my old clothes. Hope that’s okay.”

Malcolm stared at the hooded sweatshirt in his hand, the mascot for the Panama City High School sports team across the front, and C. Tucker III 17 across the back. Butterflies took flight in Malcolm’s stomach as he slipped the shirt on over his head and lost himself in the softness of the fabric, the way it seemed to hold Trip’s unique scent. It was as close to being held by the man as Malcolm was probably ever going to get.

“I didn’t know you played sports.”

Trip’s shoulders rose and fell loosely as he gathered up the damp blanket and towel. “Football. Only for a couple years. Didn’t suit me.”

A quiet hum of acknowledgement answered Trip as Malcolm stood to reach for the rest of the clothes he’d been brought. Sweatpants; soft, thick socks; one pair of Starfleet Blues. Malcolm didn’t want to dwell on whether those were his own, or Trip’s. With his back to Trip, he stripped away the rest of his waterlogged clothes without compunction. Starfleet -- more specifically decon -- had been a wonderful teacher when it came to getting over modesty.

When he turned, his discarded clothes bundled up in his arms, Malcolm found Trip had taken a keen interest in picking at the blanket. Blatantly avoiding looking at Malcolm until he’d cleared his throat and drew his Commander’s gaze back to him. Just as before, a flash of emotion crossed Trip’s face at the sight of Malcolm standing there wearing Trip’s clothes. Too large on him, but oh so warm and comfortable; Malcolm debated on never giving them back. Being allowed to dress in Trip’s clothes felt exciting, like he’d been claimed by the man at long last, and given physical proof to show the world. Not quite a simple gold band around the finger, nor a love bite visible on his neck -- they were too old for hickeys, at any rate, weren’t they? Maybe not… -- but a shirt bearing Tucker’s name across the back spoke volumes.

Or, it would. If he’d been truly claimed.

Trip shook his head minutely, blinked twice, and reached for the bundle of wet fabric Malcolm still held. “Here, gimme those. I’ll go toss ‘em in the wash or somethin’.”

Malcolm muttered his thanks as he handed the clothes over, and stood awkwardly in place, fiddling with the frayed cuffs of the sweatshirt. When Trip motioned for him to follow as he started out of the bathroom, Malcolm did so like an obedient puppy, wandering back down to the first floor and into the living room as Trip had instructed.

Settled on the couch, Malcolm could hear the sounds of the baseball game continuing on outside, Julie fussing about in the kitchen, and Trip’s hushed tones as he talked to her while starting up the wash. He couldn’t make out much of what was being talked about, but Julie’s quiet, “The poor guy,” did reach his ears at least once. Trip must have been explaining Malcolm’s aquaphobia. Another chill ran down Malcolm’s spine, followed by a wave of nausea, as his mind drifted to thoughts of how his father would react to what had happened moments ago. Stuart would probably sniff in distaste, give one of his patented droll stares, and ignore the fact Malcolm had saved a little girl’s life -- instead focus on the fact Malcolm was forty years old and still afraid of being in water any deeper than three inches.

A steaming cup of tea appeared in front of him, the soothing aroma of honey and chamomile filling his senses and warming his face. Holding the cup between both hands helped to ground Malcolm, gave him something to focus on and force his mind to stop wandering back out to that pool. Soup in a small bowl settled on the end table beside him a moment before another blanket was wrapped around his shoulders. He looked up then, and met the quiet concerned gaze of his best friend.

They stared at each other for a moment, as if they were only just now seeing each other for the first time. Tightness clenched in Malcolm’s throat. In his mind, Trip had long ago stopped being just his best friend. He’d become more than that. The urge to ensure Trip was happy, and stayed happy, burned in an undercurrent for why he hadn’t put up much of a fight when Trip insisted they were spending Christmas together; why he’d run head first into a pool, disregarding his own well-being in order to keep Trip’s littlest niece from drowning. Deep down, Malcolm knew he’d willingly give up his life for Trip. Even if Trip didn’t reciprocate his affections. If friendship was all the engineer could offer him, then Malcolm would accept it and be thankful.

Trip reached out and for a moment Malcolm swore Trip was going to touch his cheek, his hair, somewhere other than the shoulder his hand suddenly landed on.

“How ‘bout we j’st stay inside an’ watch movies for the rest of the night?”

Malcolm finally broke his gaze with Trip to look down into his cup of tea. Stalling for time, he took a slow sip before nodding silently. Sitting on the sofa with Trip was no doubt a terrible idea, at least in regards to his sad little desires, but right then, it was the only thing in the world he wanted. To accept the comfort Trip was willing to offer him, free of judgement.

When Trip settled down next to him, their bodies flush from shoulders to thighs, Malcolm didn’t so much as bat an eye at the strong arm draped across the back of the couch. Nor when Trip’s smooth, quiet voice ghosted across his ear, telling him to eat his soup so Julie didn’t fuss about it later. And once soup and tea were finished, the dishes discarded to the end table, Malcolm had been tucked securely into Trip’s side, his head pillowed on the engineer’s shoulder and eyes closed, fast asleep long before Bing Crosby explained buttermilk and liverwurst to Rosemary Clooney.

~*~*~

Julie lowered her camera. Her smile soft and fond as she took in the sight of her son, his friend, and her granddaughter cuddled up on the couch together. Trip was nestled into the corner, sitting at an angle, one leg off the couch the other on it, trapped between the back cushions and Malcolm’s body. Malcolm, as it was, had somehow wound up laying with his back flush to Trip’s front, face turned away from the vid screen, and with little Maddy snuggled into his chest. All three fast asleep. She almost hated to wake them.

Looking down at her camera again, she stared at the picture she’d taken and debated just what to do with it. Trip would no doubt be embarrassed that she’d taken the picture. Though, then again, no matter what happened by the time their leave was over, he’d probably want a copy of it. To any outsider, seeing the three of them snuggled together -- Trip’s arms loosely but protectively wrapped around Malcolm and Maddy, his cheek resting on Malcolm’s dark hair -- they looked every bit the part of a happy little family. There was trust there. Love. It spoke loud and clear in the way the two seasoned Starfleet officers were so comfortable and deeply asleep together.

Trip shifted and hummed softly in his sleep. A faint smile twitched the corners of his mouth as he turned to press his face into Malcolm’s hair, his hold on the man and his niece tightening briefly. Biting her lip to keep from chuckling, Julie snapped off another couple of pictures.

She’d let them sleep a little while longer.

~*~*~

I love those j-i-n-g-l-e bells. Those holiday j-i-n-g-l-e bells. Those happy j-i-n-g-l-e b-e-double el-s, I love those j-i-n-g-l-e bells...”

Malcolm watched in rapt fascination as Trip sang along to the music coming from the stereo, dancing in place with Abby in the living room. His memories of preparing for Christmas were vastly different from the happy chaos he’d been experiencing all morning long. And nowhere in his memories did Frank Sinatra sing about riding in a one horse open sleigh. In fact, truth be told, until he’d become friends with Trip, Malcolm hadn’t had the faintest clue as to who Frank Sinatra even was. Yet the sound of the classic crooner coming through the antique speaker system seemed so fitting. Not just for Trip, but for the rest of his family, as well.

Something twisted in Malcolm’s chest, sending his quiet amusement spiraling into a cold, empty void. While his mother had occasionally tried to make the holidays fun and joyous for Malcolm and his little sister, they’d never been anything compared to what he saw before him. With a frown, he glanced down at his hands, turned, and slipped out the back patio doors without a word. Suddenly he needed some fresh air.

Sitting on a deck chair, elbows on his knees and fingers steepled in front of him, Malcolm stared off at nothing. He’d been sitting there for a few minutes before a weight settled on the arm of the chair and a steaming mug of cocoa hovered in front of his face.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Julie’s voice was quiet, gentle.

Malcolm took the offered mug and gave a brief, small smile in return. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had cocoa.

“It’s nothing, really.”

“Getting overwhelmed?”

Startled at Julie’s keen perception, Malcolm stared up at her. While he hadn’t thought he’d been, the more he ran the last few days through his head, the more he came to realize that he was getting just a little overwhelmed. It was a lot to take in, all at once. He huffed softly, glanced down to his cocoa, and nodded once.

“I suppose I am, yes.”

“You’re lucky this is such a small group.” Julie quirked an eyebrow and sipped from her own mug for a moment before continuing. “When CJ brought me ‘round for the first time for Christmas with his family? Both his folks were still alive, plus Granny Mae an’ Grandpa Cyrus, all CJ’s aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, nieces an’ nephews. There had to be at least fifty, sixty people crammed into that house.”

Malcolm could feel the color draining from his face, his eyes wide in disbelief. The thought of that many outgoing and gregarious Tuckers gathered together in one place was almost terrifying.

“How on Earth did you survive that?” The question tumbled out of Malcolm before he even had a chance to fully think it.

Julie laughed, smiling fondly. “Well, for one thing, his mother took pity on me when I escaped out the backdoor for air. She came out to sit with me, brought me a cup of cocoa and told me I could stay outside as long as I needed.”

“Is that what you’re going to tell me?”

“If you think it’ll help.”

Taking a deep breath, Malcolm stared into his cocoa like it held the secrets to the universe. He swirled the liquid, careful not to slosh any over the sides. It probably wouldn’t help. No more than staying outside would. Yet, the thought of going back inside made him feel a little nauseous.

When he was quiet for another minute, Julie filled the silence between them.

“Trip told me you’re not much for family holidays. I guess we are a bit much t’ take in all at once. Didn’t your family do much for Christmas?”

“No.” Such a quiet reply. A sad, single syllable.

Taking a sip from his cocoa, Malcolm cleared his throat and stared back off into nothing. “My father was in the Royal Navy. He was rarely home for Christmas. We moved so often, we seldom got back to England in time for any holiday gatherings with family. Not to mention the years when Madeline and I were to spend Christmas in our schools.” His lips pressed into a tight, thin line as he gathered his swirling thoughts. “The few times we did go to our grandmother’s house, we children were expected to be quiet and respectful of the adults. If we were going to play and be loud, we had to go outside or into the cellar.”

He looked up, catching Julie’s eye and hurried on. “Not to say that your grandchildren or nieces and nephews are disrespectful, I didn’t mean--”

“I know what you meant, sweetheart. It’s okay.” Julie smiled and absently ran her hand down Malcolm’s hair. Such a gentle touch. Pure motherly instinct to try and comfort a flustered child.

Malcolm swallowed around the lump threatening to choke him. He glanced away. Thoughts of Christmases past darted through his mind. He remembered the few times he’d tried to play with his cousins growing up, only to be shoved aside and picked on. He’d always been small for his age, scrawny. The perfect target for the larger Reed cousins to kick around when the adults weren’t looking.

For some reason, the simpering looks he’d gotten from Casey and Sandra, the glares from Granny Mae, and the snide glances he’d received from Matt and at least one other male Tucker cousin, seemed to compound those memories all the more.

“While I appreciate all that you and Trip have done to try to make me feel welcome, I’m not sure if my being here was such a good idea.”

His quiet confession hung in the cool winter air for a moment, heavy and grim like the clouds above them. Julie shifted off the arm of the chair and knelt down beside it, meeting Malcolm’s eyes whether he liked it or not. There was the same firm determination in her blue eyes that Trip got in his whenever he was dead set on something.

“I know they’re a crazy bunch in there. They’re loud, obnoxious, an’ a few of ‘em just downright terrible -- Matthew included -- but I hope you know that the majority of the folks in that house already think of you as an honorary Tucker.”

Malcolm’s heart stopped, his breath caught in his chest.

“I’m not gonna tell you that you can’t leave. Just know that there’s at least four people here that already think the world of you, an’ would be awfully disappointed if you did go.”

“Four?” Malcolm choked on the word.

Julie nodded. “Abby, Maddy, me, an’ Trip.”

The world seemed to sway and dim as Julie’s words hit him. He’d already suspected that the two little girls had claimed him, more so Maddy. And while he had figured out that Julie had taken him in, no questions asked and without hesitation, he didn’t quite believe that Trip would be disappointed if he left. He wanted to believe it. More than anything he wanted to believe. Yet the self-deprecating side of him couldn’t. Wouldn’t.

“Trip wouldn’t...he doesn’t…”

“If you’re gonna say he doesn’t think the world of you, then you’re wrong. He thinks the world, the sky, an’ all the stars of you. Trust me.”

Standing slowly, Julie stooped to press a kiss to Malcolm’s head before resting her hand gently on his shoulder and squeezing. All Malcolm could do was offer her a weak smile.

“Wanna know what else helped me survive that first Christmas?” She asked.

Biting at his bottom lip, Malcolm nodded silently.

“Bein’ crazy in love, an’ not wantin’ to disappoint the guy who thought the world, the sky, an’ all the stars of me.”

His lungs had to have forgotten how to work. That was the only way to explain why they kept seizing up on him. He wondered if he was that obvious, or if Julie just happened to be that good of a mother to recognize the signs of love when she saw them. Everyone else was only picking on them, Trip had promised him that. No one knew he was in love with Trip. They couldn’t. It was possible that Julie was only explaining further how she survived, and it wasn’t in any way connected to Malcolm’s feelings for her son. No matter how coincidental it was.

“Hey, everythin’ okay out here?”

Malcolm’s head shot up and around, his eyes wide as he stared past Julie to Trip, standing half out the door with a bewildered expression on his face, concern evident in his eyes. The fresh air Malcolm had been in search of earlier suddenly felt thick as he fought to keep his carefully crafted mask in place. It wouldn’t do to have Trip come fussing after him. Again.

“Fine,” he croaked out, quickly wetting his dry throat with what was left of the cocoa.

Julie squeezed his shoulder once more before turning to start for the house again. “Y’all were bein’ too much. Had t’ escape outside for a little bit t’ keep from losin’ what’s left of my mind.”

Trip beamed at his mother and shrugged, feigning innocence. “You’re the one who wanted t’ keep the tradition goin’.”

“Yeah, an’ I wonder every year why I do.” She shoved at Trip’s shoulder gently, the smile betraying her exasperation. “Did you need somethin’, darlin’?”

Stealing another glance to Malcolm, who had finally gotten up off the deck chair and was moving to follow Julie, Trip turned his gaze back to his mom and nodded. “We can’t find the stockings an’ Mitch an’ Brook are startin’ to scream ‘bout wantin’ t’ hang their’s up.”

“Lord help me,” Julie muttered, slipping past Trip. “I’ll go find ‘em ‘fore those two start a riot.”

Trip’s grin softened as Malcolm stepped up beside him. Everything that Julie had said to him played in a constant loop in his head. Warring against what years of self-deprecation had convinced him was too good to be true.

“You sure you’re okay?” Trip dropped his hand to Malcolm’s shoulder. Grip warm, heavy. Comforting and yet completely unsettling at the same time. It wasn’t any different than any other time Trip had done it, and yet it felt like so much more.

Swallowing hard, Malcolm nodded. “I’m fine. Just...needed some air.”

Chuckling, Trip moved his hand and draped his arm around Malcolm’s shoulder instead. He pulled him in closer, enough so they both could fit through the door at the same time. Malcolm swayed as Trip leaned his weight into him and had to put his own arm around a lithe waist just to keep from falling over.

“C’mon, Malcolm.” Trip drawled, an easy smile in place as he led the way back towards the living room. “Abby wants you t’ help her put tinsel on the tree.”

~*~*~

Flouncing across the room, a bright red stocking in hand, Abigail tossed herself into Malcolm’s arms, paying no mind to his grunt of surprise. A pleased smile stretched her face as she shoved the stocking at him. He started, head drawn back out of reflex when her little fist nearly collided with his forehead in her excitement.

“Uncca Malcolm! Look! Gamma got a stocking for you too, so you can hang yours by Uncca Trip’s! Next year you’ll have a real one what is decorated and has your name and be a Tucker, too!”

Malcolm’s heart and stomach flipped spots at Abby’s innocent proclamation. His only hope was that the smile he offered her didn’t turn out as a nervous grimace. The thought of being back for another Christmas had crossed his mind, briefly, while talking with Julie, but he’d been quick to push it aside.

Scrambling down off his lap, Abby grabbed his hand, not even bothering to wait for any kind of response. As far as she was concerned, he’d be back, and be a Tucker just like the rest of them. Whether honorary or...by other means that Malcolm most certainly was not going to think about! After all, she had already decided he was her new uncle, so to her it only made sense that he’d be back again the next Christmas.

“C’mon! We gots to go hang it by Uncca Trip’s! So they are not lonely and sad and missing each other!” She yanked him along, making their way to the fireplace where the rest of the immediate family’s stockings were hanging. Granny Mae’s first in the line, followed by CJ and Julie’s, Trip’s with an empty slot next to it -- just enough room for Malcolm’s stocking, he noted with a start; Matt and Sandra, Mike and Heather, and…

Malcolm carefully extracted his hand from Abby’s while she continued to rattle on the saga of the Christmas stockings in love. Trip was kneeling on the floor in front of the fireplace, back to the room and head bowed. In his hands was the final stocking missing from the line up. Elizabeth was embroidered across the top -- just like all the others -- in elegant gold script.

Trip’s fingers traced the letters lightly. A single, silent tear moved down his cheek as he stared at it, upper lip tugged between his teeth.

Without a word, Malcolm hung his stocking next to Trip’s and turned. All his anxieties or nervousness went out the door; right then the only thing he cared about was his friend. Trip didn’t move, barely blinked. Not even when Malcolm squeezed his shoulder.

“Trip?” Malcolm murmured.

Trip stayed quiet.

“Commander…”

Sniffling, Trip finally glanced up once before looking back to the stocking in his hands. Malcolm knelt beside him, gently extracting the stocking and setting it back in the bottom of the box it’d come from.

Behind them, Charles Jr. gave a quiet curse and uttered, “We still hang hers e’ery year. Forgot he didn’t know…”

Malcolm stole a quick look back, passed a tight-lipped sympathetic smile to the older Tucker, and leaned back in towards Trip. His hand trailed from shoulder to nape, and finally to settle on Trip’s back, soothing strokes running up and down his spine. “How ‘bout we go for a walk? Hm?”

With a nod, Trip let himself be helped up and led away from the fireplace. Julie met them at the door, concern written on her face. She moved for Trip, only to stop when Malcolm shook his head gently and guided the man past her. He’d explain later. Knowing Trip the way he did, Malcolm knew he wouldn’t want to have a total breakdown in front of the rest of his family.

They slipped out the door, Malcolm’s hand still resting on Trip’s back, and started off down the driveway. Neither spoke as they turned out of the yard, onto the empty road. As they walked, Malcolm let his hand fall from Trip’s back. The temptation to simply slide it around Trip’s waist and keep him pulled in close was too strong. Even with Julie’s words of encouragement, that Trip had feelings for him, Malcolm wasn’t sure his actions would be appreciated just then.

The silence between them stretched on the longer they walked, until it almost felt wrong to disturb it. Malcolm didn’t know how far they had gone, only that it was dark once they’d finally made it back. Trip made his way along the treeline, avoiding the bright lights of the house, and settled once more on the fallen tree they’d sat on just two nights prior.

“Ah thought ah’d be okay comin’ home, seein’ mah folks again…” Trip trailed off, his accent thicker with emotion. As it usually got when he was upset. “But seein’ Lizzie’s stockin’, ah j’st…”

Malcolm looked up from where he’d been fiddling with his shirt sleeve. Head turned, he watched Trip for a moment before looking away again. “It’s to be expected. Your dad said he’d forgot to warn you it was in there.”

Trip sniffled once, took a deep breath, and turned his face to the stars above. “Ah miss ‘er so much, but for a while, ah forgot she...that she’s never comin’ home for Christmas again. It j’st felt like she hadn’t shown up yet. Ah forgot...an’ ah hate myself for that! What kinda brother am ah that ah forgot mah baby sista was dead?”

There was no answer that Malcolm could give, that would serve as a balm to Trip’s guilty conscious. What he could say wouldn’t help matters any: that it was natural for Trip to forget; he was finally healing; Lizzie wouldn’t have wanted him to mourn her forever.

When Trip spoke again, his voice was hardly a whisper, and shook with such emotion that it had Malcolm’s chest clenching painfully.

“Ah forgot her…”

“No.” Malcolm shook his head. His own throat tight. “You didn’t forget her, Trip. A brother never forgets his sister. You would never forget her.”

“Then how come seein’ her stockin’ put me into shock? Huh?”

“Because you weren’t expecting it.” Malcolm caught Trip’s shoulder and squeezed, forcing Trip’s attention on him. “You said yourself this is the first Christmas you’ve been home since the attack. You’d done everything in your power to deal with everything that happened. From pushing everything and everyone away, to being angry, working yourself to exhaustion day in and day out. You were finally starting to heal. Any person would react the same way. A sudden reminder that things have changed while you were putting yourself back together would make anyone emotional. But you did not forget her, Trip. Just because you were smiling and laughing, living, does not mean you’d forgotten her.”

Tears shone in Trip’s eyes, reflecting in the moonlight as they glittered against long lashes. The raw emotions were clear there as the two stared each other down. Trip’s jaw worked, whether to force back the tears or to keep from ripping Malcolm’s head off -- like he would have once upon a time in the Expanse -- was anyone’s guess. He huffed once and looked away.

It took quite a few long, silent minutes before the tension finally began to subside. Trip hadn’t tore into him for what he’d said, so Malcolm considered that a plus. They were healing, finally. Both of them.

When Trip remained quiet a few minutes more, Malcolm took a deep breath of his own. The memory of Abby’s excitement over Malcolm having his own stocking brought a soft chuckle to his lips and drew a cautious, but curious, glance from Trip. Half smile in place, Malcolm nudged his shoulder into Trip’s.

“Did you know our Christmas stockings are apparently in love?”

Trip’s jaw dropped, his brow furrowing in surprise. “Come again?”

“According to Abigail, they’re in love and were sad that they were apart until I hung it next to yours.”

Giving a soft bark of laughter, Trip shook his head and looked back towards the house. His shoulders dropping as he finally began to relax again. Emboldened, Malcolm continued.

“She certainly is quite the little character,” he started, leaning into Trip’s shoulder again gently. “So who does she belong to, then? No one’s said. Is she Matt and Sandra’s daughter? Or Mike and Heather?”

“My folks,” answered Trip with a shrug. At Malcolm’s startled, confused, stare Trip explained. “Legally she belongs t’ my folks. Biologically, she’s one of my cousin’s daughters. He couldn’t properly raise her, both his parents are gone, so my folks took her in a few years ago. It sorta...helped them heal a bit, I guess…”

The pain of the memory flashed across Trip’s face while Malcolm sat silently watching. Malcolm could only imagine the worry and uncertainty that Trip’s parents had gone through when it came to taking Abigail in. It couldn’t have been an easy choice; just having lost their only daughter, now needing to step forward to care for someone else’s.

Before he could think otherwise, Malcolm reached out to clasp Trip’s hand gently. He squeezed some when Trip took a deep, fortifying breath.

“They weren’t tryin’ t’ replace Lizzie,”

“I don’t believe they’d even try. I imagine it’s rather impossible to try to replace someone you love.”

In the pale light, Trip turned his head and gave a weak smile. “It took a while ‘fore it really sunk in with ‘em that Gilly was kinda just as broken up inside as they were. They sorta needed each other, ya know?”

Malcolm nodded.

“The way you needed T’Pol.”

“No.” Trip shook his head, expression firm. The tension was slowly starting to ebb its way back into the air between them. “No, that...that was different. Phlox was the one who told me t’ go talk t’ T’Pol. After a while, goin’ t’ her was just sorta...habit.”

The ice beneath Malcolm’s metaphorical hot skates was growing steadily thinner, but a Reed never backed down, no matter how dangerous the situation might be. And bringing up their former Commander, and Trip’s former...whatever she had been, was about as dangerous as spitting in a Klingon’s face. Especially after everything that had happened between the two of them. Still, the question needed to be asked. He’d waited far too long to know the truth.

“Were you in love with her?”

Trip’s whole body seemed to bristle under Malcolm’s hand. Klaxons went off in Malcolm’s head. A fatal tactical error has been made! Brace for impact!

When Trip finally spoke, it was more a quiet growl than anything. “I dunno how many times I gotta say this, I wasn’t in love with her. She used me.” His hands curled into the bark of the tree, knuckles and fingertips going white under the pressure. “The one and only time we slept t’gether, she flat out told me I was nothin’ more than an experiment. A g’damn Guinea pig t’ find out what was so great ‘bout human sex. I mighta had a thing for her for a while, but gettin’ told you’re nothin’ but an experiment kinda kills that feelin’, y’know?”

Yanking his hand out from under Malcolm’s hold, Trip stood abruptly. Anger and frustration nearly vibrated through him as he ran a hand through his hair and spun back around to face Malcolm. As he continued, it seemed as if a volcano had finally erupted, and all of Trip’s feelings that he fought so hard to keep buried deep out of sight and mind, just came rushing out hotter than a racing river of lava; his accent thicker again. He’d restrained from verbally eviscerating Malcolm before, but he wouldn’t this time.

“An’ y’know what makes matters even worse? That damn ‘experiment’ wound up with me bound with her! She was in mah fuckin’ head, Malcolm! An’ she didn’t even know it til way later! Anythin’ ah mighta felt for her after we slept t’gether? Ah dunno if those were my feelin’s or hers! Ah cared ‘bout her, sure, but ah didn’t love ‘er! An’ ah was glad as hell when that Vulcan Priestess finally severed our bond after baby ‘Lizabe-- after she...we…”

Malcolm was on his feet the moment he heard the tension start to close Trip’s throat. He’d gone too far and he knew it.  

“Trip, I --”

“Save it, Malcolm. I don’t…” he trailed off again, shaking his head. “I’m goin’ t’ bed…”

Guilt swelled in Malcolm’s chest, making it damn near impossible to breathe as he watched Trip start back to the patio. It took a moment to get his feet to move from the spot they’d taken root; he hurried to catch up with Trip’s longer-legged strides.

“I’m sorry!” He called, two steps behind. He caught Trip’s arm in a loose grip and struggled to pull him to a stop. “Trip, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have--”

“I said save it!” Trip spun around and suddenly Malcolm could only see the memory of another time, in the corridor of Enterprise, when he’d foolishly kept pestering Trip about the memorial for the Xindi attack victims. “Ah don’t wanna talk ‘bout it, an’ ah sure as hell don’t wanna hear it right now. So j’st let it. Alone.

Throat tight and mouth dry, Malcolm stood stock still as those angry words drifted back to him. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a tiny voice screamed at him. He’d done it again! He’d crossed a line with Trip -- one that he’d admittedly hoped they were long past -- and now he was being pushed away again. With the very same words that were hurled at him just three short years ago. Whether it was intentional or not, they stung just as bad as they had the first time. When he’d thought he’d lost his friend…

Maybe they weren’t healing as much as he’d thought they’d been.

Hearing the patio door close startled Malcolm out of his thoughts. The lights in the guest house had gone out at some point, and only the light in the attic and the soft glow of kitchen lights still shown in the main house. He didn’t know how long they’d been outside, or how long he’d stood there trying not to let his worrisome nature run wild on him, before he turned to slowly enter the main house again.

As he stood in the dimly lit living room, staring at the stockings lined on the mantel, he debated on simply leaving while everyone was asleep. He could get his bag from Trip’s room once he was sure he’d given enough time for Trip to finally fall asleep; and then just go and retrieve it, call for a groundcar to take him to the nearest shuttleport, and go back out to San Francisco like he’d originally planned. Coming here had been a bad idea, after all. No matter what Julie had said earlier. With the merciless ribbing the family had been giving Trip about Malcolm, and it being the first time Trip had been home since his sister was killed, it wasn’t right for him to be there. Leaving was no doubt his best option. He just had to wait until Trip fell asleep to make his move.

Abigail would be disappointed, as would Maddy, but they were young and resilient. They’d be over his departure quick enough. And Julie had already said she wouldn’t tell him he needed to stay, so surely she’d understand. He’d leave a note for her, just in case though.

Trip, though. Malcolm felt his heart tighten and prickling behind his eyes. Trip would no doubt be secretly relieved that Malcolm left. He’d caused enough upset in the last few days.

Moving to sit on the couch where he’d been earlier, Malcolm set the volume on the vid screen low enough not to disturb anyone, and settled in to aimlessly wander the channels as he waited Trip out. Knowing the engineer, it could take an hour or more before he finally fell asleep. He’d just watch a movie for a bit, and then…

His thoughts and plans to leave the house before anyone could wake died away as his body relaxed and all the excitement of the day finally took it’s toll on him. With eyes already half closed, Malcolm slowly levered himself to stretch out across the couch and drift away to a dreamless sleep.

~*~*~

Julie Tucker sighed sleepily to herself as she made her way down the stairs, carefully pulling her hair back and up out of her face. The house was quiet, peaceful. It wouldn’t last for very long, Abigail would be awake soon and demanding breakfast -- no doubt closely followed by the rest of the youngest Tucker’s present -- but for the moment, Julie would enjoy the calm.

She hummed tunelessly, making her way into the kitchen, and debated over starting coffee or just fixing herself a mug of cocoa. Chilly December morning, one day before Christmas? Cocoa with a bit of peppermint. With the water on to boil, she paused in her reach for the mix when she heard giggling from the living room. Very familiar giggling.

Quiet as a church mouse, she crept into the next room, only then realizing the vid screen was on and cartoons were flashed across it. Okay, she thought to herself, Abby’s already awake then. The idea of having a quiet start to her morning vanished, and Julie made her way closer only to pause at the sight before her. Confusion pushed aside the amusement she felt bubbling up.

Malcolm lying on his back on the couch, fast asleep; Maddy perched comfortably on his chest, her attention solely on the vid screen, while Abigail sat on the floor beside the couch, Malcolm’s larger hand in hers, happily “painting” his nails with her coloring markers. It would be an adorable and, really, hilarious sight, if it weren’t for the fact Malcolm was asleep. It didn’t make much sense; not when there was a perfectly good bed for him upstairs.

“Abigail Rose Tulane-Tucker,” she hissed, finally stepping around the couch. She cast a quick glance towards Malcolm, half expecting him to startle awake at any moment. Hopefully he wouldn’t fling poor Maddy off when he did wake. “You put those markers away right now. You know you’re not supposed to be playin’ with them without my knowin’ ‘bout it!”

Head ducked and looking properly chastised, Abigail capped all of her markers again and began slowly placing them back in their bag.

“An’ the instant Malcolm wakes up, you’re gonna apologize, you hear me?”

“Yes, Gamma,” mumbled Abigail, not lifting her eyes until after all her markers were put away. Only then did she look up, a bright innocent smile on her face as she picked up Malcolm’s hand again to show off her artwork. “Look how pretty I made his hand!”

Julie wanted to laugh. Each nail was a different color, and three were at least two different colors. Bright, blinding colors. Thank God it’d be easy enough to wash off. Despite wanting to smile and agree, she held her ground and frowned in the way only a mother could when trying to stay upset with their child.

“I don’t care how pretty you think it is, Malcolm didn’t say you could color his nails while he was sleepin’. Now put your markers away and go clean up for breakfast. An’ for Heaven’s sake, please leave the poor man alone while he’s sleepin’.”

Bottom lip pulled between her teeth, Abigail lept from the floor, her bag of markers clutched in hand, and scurried off to her playroom to -- supposedly -- put them back. Julie had no doubts she’d go in there later and find the bag either tossed on the table, or open and scattered across the floor instead.

Shaking her head, Julie cast a quick glance back to Malcolm and Maddy. The two year old had never taken her eyes off the vid screen, never even acknowledged Julie was standing there. She sat on Malcolm’s chest, feet out in front of her, and one hand curled tight in the fabric of Malcolm’s black sweater. She should move her granddaughter, but that would most likely wind up waking Malcolm, and that was something she didn’t quite want to deal with yet.

She prayed for the best as she moved to go turn the burner off on the stove. Her cocoa would have to wait. The others would be awake soon, and Julie wanted very much to go have a conversation with her oldest son before then.

~*~*~

“Trip?”

Trip grumbled and shifted in his sleep, face pressed into his pillow.

Trip. Time to wake up.”

Another grumble and groan of protest. This time with Trip pulling the blankets up over his head. When they were yanked down and he suddenly felt the rush of cooler air attack his bare back, he scrambled to pull them back up, only to come face-to-face with his mom.

“Wha…” mumbled Trip, rubbing a hand over his face, trying to clear the sleep from his eyes.

“Good morning,” Julie quipped, her cheery greeting absent of its usual warmth. Before Trip could open his mouth to answer, she dove right in. “Mind tellin’ me why poor Malcolm’s sleepin’ on the couch?”

Blinking, Trip stared at her in confusion. “Huh?”

Frowning, and with a speed Trip had forgotten his mom possessed, she pinched at his arm, startling him into a more awake state.

“Ow! What --”

“Why is Malcolm downstairs asleep on the couch?

Trip’s brow furrowed. Still rubbing his arm where he’d been pinched, he glanced to the empty side of the bed. The pillow that hadn’t been touched and blankets that hadn’t been moved. He shook his head slowly, eyes scanning the room quickly before looking back to his mom with a shrug.

“I don’t...oh…” Realization hit like a blast from one of Malcolm’s phase pistols. Head slung low, Trip shifted and pushed himself to sit up against the headboard, dragging his hands through his already sleep-tousled hair and down his face once more. When he finally looked up, his shoulders sagged and he dropped his head back against the wall. “We mighta had a li’l fight last night.”

“A li’l fight?”

“Alright. So it wasn’t a fight. It was me goin’ off ‘bout shit an’ tellin’ him t’ j’st leave me alone.” Sighing heavily, he turned his head enough to meet his mom’s gaze without pulling away from the wall. “Guess he decided t’ take me pretty seriously…”

The heat faded from Julie’s glare. Trip knew he’d been out of line. Hell, he’d known it the second he’d blown up at Malcolm. Again. There were things that he just didn’t want to talk about though, didn’t want to think about, and his best friend just happened to be the one who always tried to get him to talk and wound up getting hurt.

“Oh, Trip,” sighed Julie. “You’ve got the biggest heart of anybody I know. You’re smart, compassionate, and a gentleman to boot. But baby, sometimes you’ve got just a bit too much of that hot-tempered Tulane blood in you that sends your mouth runnin’ off ‘fore your brain has time to catch up to it.”

Trip flinched minutely. He’d lost track of how many times he’d been told that growing up; all the times he’d come home with a black eye and torn shirts from schoolyard brawls that got a little out of hand, only to have his mom sigh and mutter about how his “Tulane blood” was going to get him into trouble one day.

When it became obvious Trip wasn’t going to say anything, Julie shifted on the bed until she was sitting cross-legged and facing him. “So let’s hear it.” She motioned with one hand. “What’d you spout off at him ‘bout?”

Taking a breath, Trip shook his head. He found a deep, intense interest in his pillowcase all of the sudden.

“Nothin’,” he mumbled, shaking his head again. “It was...nothin’.”

“It had to be somethin’ if it made you mad enough to sentence him to one of Abby’s Marker Make-Overs.”

Trip’s eyes went wide as he jerked his head up to stare at his mom. Shock, disbelief, and panic clear as day across his face. “Aw, no. No. She...she didn’t?”

Again, Julie had to force herself not to giggle. Well, she allowed herself a small giggle, anyway. “I came down to fix some cocoa, heard somebody in the livin’ room, go to look and there’s Abby sittin’ on the floor, just colorin’ away on Malcolm’s fingernails while he slept. She hadn’t made it to face make-up yet. Thank God.”

There was a long pause where Trip could do nothing but sit there and stare at his mom, the mental image of Malcolm’s nails being “painted” by a five-year-old running through his head. Finally the panic left, and Trip felt a burst of relieved laughter bubble out of him. God that had to have been a sight to see!

It took a few seconds for him to finally regain his composure again, but when he did, Trip sighed and leaned back against the headboard. Swallowing thickly, he met his mom’s gaze once more and offered a small, self-depreciating, uptick of a smile. Guilt was quickly replacing any fears he’d had.

“There were things that happened on Enterprise that I didn’t really wanna talk ‘bout,” he finally admitted. “Things that...I ain’t especially proud of, and I wish had never happened,” pausing, he rolled his lips between his teeth and looked down to his lap, fidgeting with the edge of the blanket absently. “Things I never told you an’ Dad ‘bout…”

“What sort of ‘things’?”

Sitting quiet for a few seconds, Trip worried at his bottom lip -- a nasty habit he’d somehow managed to pick up from Malcolm throughout the years -- and shrugged.

“Slept with T’Pol,” he mumbled, ignored his mom’s soft gasp, and continued. “It was stupid, an’ a mistake, an’ it managed to get me bound to her in some...Vulcan telepathy thing, I dunno. I was…” Trailing off, he gave a soft sob and let his head thunk back against the wall. When he pulled in a deep breath, it was shaky and sharp. “I was hurtin’ so bad after Lizzie...I...I shoved Malcolm away. God I was terrible t’ him. All I wanted t’ do was find those Xindi bastards an’ make ‘em pay for what they’d done. I…”

Warmth trickled down Trip’s cheeks. He’d cried once to T’Pol, when he’d been assigned to write a condolence letter home to Crewman Taylor’s family, when everything he’d been feeling since Lizzie had died finally bubbled over and went gushing out. During that year of Hell.

He quickly wiped at his cheeks and eyes.

“Ah couldn’t sleep. E’erynight ah’d close mah eyes an’ all ah saw was Lizzie...sittin’ at a table. Then…” Trailing off, he shook his head hard, struggling to send the memories flying. It was still a painful subject for everyone in the family, even three years later. For Trip though, it always felt as if he’d let her down somehow. He’d been her protector their entire lives. Any guy who wanted to date his baby sister had to get through him first. Then when it mattered most, he’d been countless light-years away, off playing explorer and getting into stupid trouble with Malcolm at nearly every turn. He wasn’t there to protect her.

When the familiar hold of his mother’s arms wrapped around his shoulders, pulling him in for a hug they were both long overdue for, Trip could only lean into her and fight back the sobs that threatened to tear him apart. He didn’t want to cry anymore!

“Ah’d...go t’ T’Pol,” he stammered, trying to get a full sentence out uninterrupted, “cuz she was teachin’ me...V-Vulcan neuropressure so th...so that ah could finally sleep at night. E’erybody thought we were messin’ ‘round. E’en Malcolm! We weren’t though. Ah...started gettin’ feelin’s for her, thought she felt the same...an’ then...then found out ah was just some experiment for ‘er. Only…” Trip paused, swallowed hard, and shook his head. “She didn’t know that she’d bonded with me. Ah was so messed up...ah...ah didn’t know whose feelin’s were whose. Ah cared for ‘er, e’en after she said ah was j’st an’ experiment.”

Turning in his mother’s arms, he pulled back enough to look at her and let the rest of the story tumble out in words wrenched from his soul.

“We had a daughter. She...she was beautiful. Named ‘er Elizabeth. Ah...we didn’t...she wasn’t born. She was grown by some maniacs that got hold of our DNA an’ grew ‘er in a g’damn tube.” His lips pressed into a tight, thin line, Trip had to look away from the shock that was on his mother’s face. When he finally spoke again, his voice was barely more than a whisper. “She died. On Enterprise. Some...flaw in her creation or somethin’. A fever Phlox couldn’t do nothin’ for.”

Julie sat in stunned silence, simply staring at Trip. He could feel her eyes on him and wanted nothing more than to bury himself back in his blankets and never come out again. It wasn’t that he hadn’t planned on ever telling his folks about what had gone on with him and T’Pol, or about the granddaughter they’d never gotten to meet, it was just...he hadn’t planned on telling them just yet. The wounds were still far too fresh. Which was one reason he’d gone off on Malcolm like he had the night before.

God, he had so much to apologize for when he could finally get Malcolm alone. He hadn’t meant for their trip to go like it was! The whole reason he’d brought Malcolm with was because he didn’t want him to be alone on Christmas. He wanted him to be with people who would care about him; Trip wanted to be with him on Christmas. Now he was screwing everything up, and God only knew what kind of cold shoulder, formal treatment he’d start getting from his best friend again.

Swallowing thickly, he finally stole a quick glance to his mom before looking away in silent shame.

“Malcolm an’ I were talkin’ last night. I told him how it took you an’ Dad a while to realize you needed Gilly j’st as much as she needed you. He mentioned me needin’ T’Pol. Things sorta...spiraled outta control from there.” He paused, worried his lip for a moment, and shook his head sadly. “When he asked if I’d been in love with T’Pol, I guess I lost it. I’m j’st...so sick of e’erybody makin’ assumptions ‘bout me an’ her.”

“And hearing your best friend question your feelings just set you off?”

Lifting his eyes, Trip frowned.

“I didn’t wanna talk ‘bout it. Still don’t.”

Julie clasped Trip’s shoulder gently as she leaned forward. “Honey, keepin’ things bottled up inside isn’t good for ya. An’ it’s not what Lizzie woulda wanted. Mourn her however you please, but stop pushin’ away the people that care ‘bout you when they get too close to the hurt. I’m sure Malcolm didn’t mean anything by what he asked. He cares ‘bout you. Anybody with eyes could see that.”

Heat crept up Trip’s neck and across his cheeks as he glanced away again.

Leaning in a little closer, Julie shifted to try to catch his eye. When she spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper. “And I know for a fact that you care a great deal ‘bout him. Isn’t that part of why you brought him home for Christmas?”

Trip opened his mouth, ready to respond, just as the door across the room opened, Malcolm stepping into the room quietly. Tearing his eyes away from his mom, Trip’s blush deepened when he caught sight of Malcolm’s sleep-rumpled state. His dark hair standing up in awkward angles, and a small puckered spot on his shirt that Trip couldn’t quite figure out.

They stared at each other for a long moment, before Julie finally stood, clearing her throat as she gave Trip’s shoulder one last squeeze.

“I think you boys could use a quiet day, an’ a good hot breakfast,” She murmured. “I’m gonna send your cousins off with the little ones for the day. Give ya’s some peace and quiet for a little while.”

“Alright,” mumbled Trip, glancing down at the blankets again. “Thanks Mama. I’ll uh...be down in a li’l while.”

“Take your time, baby.”

Stooping to kiss his hair gently, she kept her head close to his as she whispered, “Talk to him, Trip. Don’t be scared to let him in.”

Lips pressed into a tight, thin line, Trip kept his eyes focused on the blankets. Refusing to give any kind of answer. When he felt her move away, he finally glanced up, watching as she moved to hug Malcolm and kiss his cheek gently.

“Did Abby apologize like she was supposed to?” She asked, running her hands down from his shoulders to his upper arms.

Malcolm stammered slightly, but nodded. “Uhm, yes. Yes, she did. Thank you. She and Maddy are sitting in the kitchen with your husband.”

Smiling, Julie squeezed his arms tenderly before letting go and stepping by him. “Thank you. You boys take your time.”

With one last glance to Trip, Julie turned and was out the door without another word. Which left just the two, and the pregnant silence that hung heavy between them. Trip sat staring from his place on the bed, wanting to say something, anything to ease the tension in the air, but not having the faintest clue what to say. He had to say something though. Malcolm was shifting awkwardly and looking far too uncomfortable.

“Malcolm, I -- “

“Excuse me, Commander, but I’d really like to take a shower and wash this marker off my hand, if it’s all the same to you.” Malcolm’s tone was cold, formal, and Trip flinched at the use of his rank instead of name.

Yeah, he’d done fucked up good this time.

“I think you an’ me need t’ have a talk, Malcolm.”

He watched as the Englishman moved to pick his duffle off the floor by the desk, and turn to head back for the bathroom. It was only as he turned that Trip caught sight of the brightly colored nails on his hand, and he had to bite his tongue to keep from chuckling. Laughing at Malcolm’s misfortune was not going to help him any.

“As you wish, sir,” Malcolm murmured, his head ducked as he stepped into the bathroom, the door sliding shut behind him as he added, “I feel I should tell you though, I will be leaving after breakfast.”

The words slammed into Trip with all the force of a phase cannon blast. Leaving. Malcolm was planning to leave? All the air seemed to be sucked from Trip’s chest, and he sat for a moment, just gaping at the closed bathroom door, listening as the water began to run. He had to fix this.

Before he could even fully untangle himself from his blankets, Trip was stumbling out of bed. He tugged on the jeans he’d worn the day before and was just starting to rummage through his bag for a shirt when he heard the water shut off. Damn the fact they both were far too used to water rations and quick showers. One of his age-old, soft and worn out, Starfleet Training Center shirts in hand, Trip moved towards the bathroom door, ready and waiting to catch Malcolm as soon as he came out.

Though he didn’t quite know what he was going to say to convince Malcolm to stay, he knew he had to do something. His own guilty conscience -- paired with whatever kind of guilt his mom would dump on him later -- couldn’t bear the thought of Malcolm spending Christmas alone somewhere, all because Trip had been an ass and snapped at him. Maybe, he thought to himself as he pulled his T-shirt on, he should start at the beginning. Just explain everything, top to bottom. Sure he’d apologized for what had happened in the Expanse, but he’d never actually explained anything to Malcolm.

As much as he didn’t want to, he and Malcolm were going to need to have a nice long talk. And soon.

The door to the bathroom slid open, Malcolm pausing mid-step to avoid walking right into Trip. He stood staring for a moment, the gentle warmth of the steamed-up bathroom seeping out to wrap around them. Malcolm’s dark hair was tousled and damp, a single bead of water trailing down in front of his ear and disappearing along his jawline. The Malcolm Reed standing in front of him, dressed down in a soft grey sweater that offset his eyes, and loose cargo pants, was a far cry from the stiff and cold Lieutenant Reed. This man looked soft, comfortable. Vulnerable. Hurt.

Trip ducked his head as he took a step back, letting Malcolm come out of the bathroom. But he didn’t let him get far. He couldn’t. Not if he wanted to convince Malcolm to stay.

“Hey.” Reaching out, Trip caught Malcolm’s arm and held on. “Listen, don’t leave. Please?”

Malcolm’s lips pressed into a tight, thin line, and he kept his eyes straight ahead. Not so much as giving an acknowledgement of Trip’s question.

Sighing, Trip loosened his hold just a little and took a step closer. “Malcolm. Please? I don’t want you t’ leave. Stay? I…” he trailed off, words suddenly escaping him. “I want you t’ stay here. I’m sorry for gettin’ mad at you last night. It wasn’t anythin’ you did, or even said. I...hell. I owe you one helluva explanation. For everythin’.” It was a risk, but Trip took another step closer, putting himself squarely in Malcolm’s personal space. When he spoke, his voice was barely more than a murmur. “C’mon down an’ have breakfast with me. Then stay an’ lemme explain? Lemme apologize?”

For a long, agonizing moment, Malcolm didn’t move. Didn’t speak. He continued to stare straight out ahead of himself, tense under Trip’s hand. His grip went slack, finally, the tips of his fingers just barely brushing down Malcolm’s arm as he drew his hand away. The quiet shudder of breath was the only reaction he got before guarded grey-blue eyes turned to meet his own.

God how he wished he could kick himself for being the cause of Malcolm’s near closed-off expression.

Swallowing thickly, Trip tucked his hands into his pockets and shrugged. “If ya still wanna leave after I’ve explained, I won’t stop ya. But, I really hope ya decide t’ stick around.”

After a few seconds, Malcolm’s guard came down enough for him to let his shoulders fall and glanced away with a sullen nod. It wasn’t a great response, but it was a start. It was something Trip could work with.

~*~*~

Giggles met Malcolm’s ears as he stepped off the stairs and followed alongside Trip into the kitchen. Abby was sitting on a barstool at the breakfast counter, swinging her legs back and forth while twisting from side to side. Her attention focused solely on Julie standing at the stove. The rest of the house, as well as the backyard, was quiet and seemingly empty. When Malcolm had gone upstairs to shower and change, it seemed as if everyone was waking up and coming out of the woodwork to merge on the kitchen for food.

Julie glanced over her shoulder as they approached, drawing Abby’s attention to them, too.

Her grin grew as she moved to stand on the stool, tossing herself into Trip’s arms without warning. “Uncca Trip! Gamma’s makin’ chocolate chip Steggamasores!”

“Stegosaurus, Abby,” Julie corrected, flashing Trip and Malcolm both a smile before looking back down to the pan. “The cousins took the little ones out for breakfast and ice skatin’. You boys hungry?”

“Hungry ‘nuff t’ eat a Steggamasore.” Trip winked at Abby, sending her into a fit of giggles, before he tickled her sides and set her back down on the barstool.

More than ever, Malcolm felt like an outcast. Trip promised to explain himself, and apologize, but it was doubtful it’d help Malcolm feel any less like an intruder. He silently chastised himself for falling asleep instead of getting his bag and leaving during the night.

“Malcolm, hon, you plannin’ t’ stand there all mornin’?” Julie’s gentle question pulled Malcolm out of the slump his mind was sliding into.

With a subdued smile that didn’t begin to reach his eyes, Malcolm slid onto the barstool at the end of the counter, his hands clasped in his lap. Beside him, Abby wiggled with happiness as her plate of pancakes was finally set in front of her. Each one very carefully made to look like a Stegosaurus. Malcolm’s thoughts drifted back to a time when he and Trip had had a conversation -- or three -- about traveling back in time. Trip had wanted very much to meet a real Stegosaurus. Malcolm, on the other hand, hadn’t been so sure about meeting any dinosaurs.

He’d probably make a quick meal of you.”

The Stegosaurus was a herbivore.”

Malcolm turned his head when he felt a tug on his sleeve. Abby grinned up at him for a moment before leaning over enough to hug his arm.

“Uncca Malcolm? Will you come watch Polar E’press with me after breakfast? Gamma says we can watch Christmas movies all day, an’ that’s my favorite.”

Polar Express?” Lord, Malcolm hadn’t thought about that movie in years! It had been one of Madeline’s favorites too when they were younger. One of the few holiday movies Malcolm could remember them having.

Before he could give an answer, Trip spoke up. “Maybe a li’l later, Gills. Malcolm an’ I gotta have a talk t’gether, first.”

Abby pulled away from Malcolm’s arm and turned her attention back to her breakfast. Shoving a forkful of pancake into her mouth, she chewed thoughtfully for a moment before looking to Trip.

“Gots to have an adults talk? ‘Bout love an’ with kisses?”

“Abigail….” Julie’s warning tone was low, but obvious as she brought a plate of regular round pancakes (and the jar of peanut butter) over for Malcolm. “Finish your breakfast and let Trip and Malcolm eat theirs.”

Nonplussed, Abby nodded and dug into her pancakes once more, pausing only once to pick one up in order for it to walk around her plate; ultimately getting “stuck and dying” in the pit of syrup it had wandered into.

The rest of breakfast passed in relative silence, only broken occasionally by Abby’s happy humming of Christmas songs, and the sounds of her sock-covered toes hitting the side of the breakfast bar. When the last of the plates had been cleaned, Malcolm’s attempt to pick up -- to stall the talk he knew was coming -- were thwarted by Julie. A sympathetic smile in place, she took the plates from Malcolm.

“You boys go find a quiet corner and talk.”

A heavy weight settled in Malcolm’s stomach. Being run through the leg with a Romulan spacemine sounded more appealing than having a talk with Trip. It seemed their serious talks didn’t have the greatest record of turning out well. At least not during this trip. If he were certain that another argument wouldn’t break out, he might be a bit less wary. As it was, though, Malcolm had the distinct feeling he wasn’t going to like much of what Trip had to say.

With a silent, resigned nod, Malcolm followed Trip out of the kitchen and onto the front porch. Neither spoke as they moved to the far end of the porch and leaned against the railing, just looking out over the yard, into the dense tangle of trees a couple of kilometers away. They stood shoulder to shoulder, not quite touching, but close enough that Malcolm could feel the warmth coming off Trip seep through his sweater.

Trip stared at his hands, clasped in front of him, for a long while. Long enough that for a time, Malcolm feared he’d have to be the first to talk. Trip had only been putting his thoughts in order, though, and after another moment, his quiet, accented voice broke the silence that settled heavy between them.

“I’ve been tryin’ t’ think of where t’ start, but, I still don’t know.” He paused, pressed his lips together, and shook his head. “I owe you so many apologies, Malcolm. You’ve been one of my best friends since...shit, since that damn shuttlepod nearly killed us. An’ I guess that’s the first apology I owe ya.”

Malcolm turned his head, his brow furrowed in bemusement. “What for?”

“Callin’ you the Grim Reaper for one thing.”

With a flinch, Malcolm looked back out across the yard.

“For snappin’ at’cha all the time.” Another pause, Trip’s voice dropping to a whisper. “For tryin’ t’ lock myself in the airlock so we’d both die alone.”

“You were trying to give me a chance to survive.”

“Nah. You were right. I was bein’ a coward. I didn’t want you t’ see how terrified I was. Figured if I locked myself away, you’d never know just how scared I really was.” Trip glanced to his right, met Malcolm’s eyes, and then quickly looked away. “Hell, I almost couldn’t believe it when you said you were my friend. Pretty sure you’d never called anybody else on board your friend.”

Eyes focused on his own hands, Malcolm shook his head. “I hadn’t. Not at that point. Everyone was just...crewmates. Superiors and subordinates. You were the first that I...that I had considered to be my friend.”

Silence fell between them again before Trip finally murmured, “Friends don’t shoot each other. But friends also don’t leave friends t’ die alone. I’m sorry, Malcolm.”

“Neither of us were thinking clearly at that point. I forgave you that a long time ago.”

“Point is though, I never shoulda put ya in that position in the first place. I’ve always gotten us int’ trouble, an’ you’ve always stuck right by me every time. From that time on Risa t’ that damned repair station, gettin’ confused for a prince an’ his footman on that medieval planet. Pullin’ my ass off that Romulan drone ship. You’ve always been there. Complainin’ an’ givin’ me an earful for bein’ an’ idiot, but you’ve been there.”

Malcolm huffed a soft half-laugh as pink crept up his neck and cheeks. “I’m told that’s what friends do.”

“I guess.” Trip sighed. He dropped his chin to his chest and ran his hands through his hair. It stuck up in all directions once he let his hands fall again, and when he lifted his head, there was pain and turmoil written all over his features. When he spoke, his voice was thick and tight.

“I haven’t exactly been the greatest friend back t’ ya though, lately. Not since...not since the attack on Earth. That’s mostly what I uh...what I want t’ talk t’ ya ‘bout. An’ apologize for.” Trip took a deep breath and Malcolm could see the engineer building his strength and courage up for what was to come.

“Trip. You don’t--”

“No. Malcolm. I do. I need t’ finally explain some things t’ ya. An’ apologize, so...j’st let me do this. Okay? Please?”

Rolling his lips together, Malcolm nodded once. His stomach was tied up in knots, mind racing a mile a minute, running through all the possible things Trip could say. The past three years had been tumultuous, to say the least. Especially when it came to their, often times strained, friendship.

Trip rolled his shoulders back and pushed himself off the railing, turned, and leaned his back against it instead. Face tilted towards the overhang, he folded his arms across his chest before starting.

“By the time Earth got attacked, you’d become more of a best friend t’ me than Archer was. Somewhere ‘long the line, he became less my friend an’ more my Captain. Your friendship always meant a lot t’ me, an’ when the Xindi attacked, I...I got scared. We were s’pose t’ j’st be peaceful explorers. Out makin’ friends with the rest of the galaxy. But, we kept makin’ enemies instead. An’ that attack j’st hit home the fact that we were doin’ more harm than good out there, y’know? That the people I care ‘bout weren’t nearly as safe as we’d thought they’d be.”

A lump formed in Malcolm’s throat, his eyes stung with unshed tears. There’d been a number of times through the years where he’d felt the same way, and wondered why they were always allowed to continue their mission when it obviously wasn’t going as well as anyone had hoped.

“When Lizzie died, I…” Trip took a steadying breath, blinking back tears of his own. “It felt like my entire world froze. Didn’t feel like it had ended, or came crashin’ down ‘round me. Froze. I never really let myself grieve for her, cuz if I did, then it’d mean she was really gone. An’ if she was gone, then...what was keepin’ anyone else I cared ‘bout safe? What was keepin’ you safe?”

Trip’s name left Malcolm’s lips on a quiet breath. Slowly, things were beginning to make sense.

“I guess...I was also pretty pissed off at you, too. Pissed off an’ jealous.”

“Why? What could you possibly have been jealous of me for?”

Trip looked up, his unshed tears shining in his bright blue eyes. “Madeline.”

Malcolm choked on his breath at that. He knew what would be coming next, and closed his eyes against the onslaught of emotions that were warring across Trip’s face.  

“Your li’l sister was still alive. She was safe an’ alive an’ I hated how unfair that was. An’ I hated that you were more concerned with remindin’ me at every turn that my sister was dead, when ya shoulda been callin’ your own. Makin’ contact, spendin’ whatever time you could have with her while we were on Earth. Dammit, Malcolm! You shoulda went straight t’ her place an’ given her the biggest hug in the world, but ya went with me instead!”

Swallowing hard, Malcolm reached out to grasp Trip’s shoulder. “You needed me more. You needed someone with you when you went to Florida. I knew Madeline was fine. We’d spoken just after Captain Archer gave us the news. There was no reason for me to go rushing to England. Not when you needed someone by your side.”

The tears finally escaped down Trip’s cheeks as he choked off a sob and looked away. He pulled from Malcolm’s grasp, putting space between them as he tried to pull himself back together. When he did, he continued. “You already know why I kept goin’ t’ T’Pol. E’erything that happened between me an’ her. I didn’t love ‘er, Malcolm. I cared ‘bout ‘er, but I didn’t love ‘er. When you asked me that last night, I guess I thought you of all people shoulda known the answer t’ that. I’m sorry I went off on ya the way I did. You didn’t deserve that. You’ve put up with enough of my shit, an’ always came through for me when I needed ya most, an’ I had no right t’ blow up at ya the way I did.

“When we were in the Expanse, an’ even after we got out again, went back t’ bein’ explorers, you never let me down. You always...you kept comin’ back. Even when I pushed ya away, hollered at ya, an’ j’st wanted t’ be alone. I was always lettin’ you down, Malcolm. I wasn’t there any of the times ya needed me t’ be, an’ I can’t…” Trip trailed off, shaking his head as he swiped at his eyes in disgust. “I can’t apologize enough for that.”

When Trip turned, Malcolm started. He’d suddenly found himself between the railing and Trip, two strong hands clasped around his shoulders and eyes piercing through to his very soul. Warm breath puffed gently across his face as Trip nearly pleaded with him.

“Don’t go, Malcolm. Please don’t go. I’ve been tryin’ real hard t’ get us back t’ how we used t’ be, an’ I know it’ll never happen, but...I want you t’ be here. I want you t’ spend Christmas with me. With my family. I don’t want you t’ be spendin’ the holiday alone. You’re too damn important t’ me, Malcolm, an’ I can’t...I can’t let you down again. I won’t let myself let you down again. Stay with me. Please…”

All at once, Malcolm forgot how to breathe. His chest ached as his lungs struggled for air that wouldn’t come. The scant few inches of space between himself and Trip held a charge that could have ignited warp plasma. A shiver of anticipation ran down Malcolm’s spine as he watched the tip of Trip’s tongue dart out to wet his lips. He followed the movement only to look up into eyes the color of the sky before a storm.

Frozen in place, he felt a sharp gasp race through him when he heard Trip’s breathy voice say his name. Heart racing, Malcolm glanced from Trip’s eyes to his lips and back up again. The space was shrinking, Trip moving in…

Malcolm felt his body being jerked to the side, out from between Trip and the railing. He stumbled at the suddenness of the movement, eyes wide as he looked down to find Abby with a fistful of his sweater pulling him away.

“Uncca Malcolm! No more adults talk! It’s time to come watch Polar E’press with me! You already missed Frosty the Snowman!” Abby glanced over her shoulder and waved from Trip to follow, too. “C’mon, Uncca Trip! You come watch too, an’ sing with me like Gamma says you used to with Lizzie!”

Malcolm shot his head around, frantically searching Trip’s eyes out. The commander wasn’t looking at them, though. His eyes were firmly on his toes, arms folded over his chest as he slouched against the railing again.

“You go on ahead,” Trip called back. “I’ll be in later, Gills. Keep Malcolm company for me.”

Oblivious to what was happening around her, Abby chattered away to Malcolm as she pulled him back into the house. Leaving Trip to stand alone and pensive on the front porch.

~*~*~

“Trip? Here.” CJ held another wrapped package out to his son.

Trip looked up from his spot by the fireplace, grinned, and set it down on the far side of the tree with the rest of the gifts. Tommy and Jill were keeping a close eye on the kids in the guest house, leaving a few smaller gifts there to appease them so that Trip, Malcolm, and Trip’s parents could get a little sleep in the morning. At 0300, they were nearly finished playing Santa and his Helpers in the main house.

He glanced across the room to the staircase, pleasant warmth spreading through him at the sight of Malcolm helping Julie with the stockings. Each of the kids’ stockings got an orange, some chocolates, a deck of playing cards for the older kids, crayons for the younger ones, and various other small toys. The adults got gift cards and silly small finds. The small, soft, pleased smile on Malcolm’s face eased away the harsh edges normally present, and Trip found himself daring to believe that this wouldn’t be the last Christmas spent with Malcolm.

A faint smile of his own tugged at one corner of his mouth when Malcolm looked up from tucking away the last of the treats in the stockings. Their gazes caught, and maybe it was just the lights of the tree, but Trip swore he saw pink brush across Malcolm’s cheeks as he quickly looked down and away.

God, he was such a goner for that man.

Trip glanced down at the pile of presents surrounding the tree. The organized mess stretched to encompass the fireplace and to one of the chairs closest to the tree. More than enough gifts for everyone, including Malcolm. He’d seen at least three with Malcolm’s name written on them, From: Santa in his mother’s elegant cursive. Plus, there was his own gift for Malcolm tucked away under the branches. A framed photograph of Malcolm’s Great-Uncle Martin, standing tall and proud in full Royal Navy dress uniform -- along with the rest of the crew of the H.M.S. Clement. They were all lined up across the exposed deck of the submarine; the last known picture of the crew before their ill-fated journey. As far as Trip knew, Malcolm didn’t have many pictures of his hero.

A hand appeared in front of him. Startled, he looked up only to be met by a shy smile, and gentle grey eyes. He took hold of Malcolm’s hand, letting himself be hoisted back to his feet and into the smaller man’s space. They stood no more than three inches apart, their still-clasped hands trapped between their bodies, and Trip felt more than heard Malcolm’s sharp, sudden breath; the way his heart quickened as they stared at each other. He watched with bated breath as a myriad of emotions flashed through those gunmetal greys: hope, fear, anticipation, hesitation. They were so close he could feel the scant few tiny breaths Malcolm did let out brush lightly across his skin. It could be so easy. So very easy, especially with those lips parted, to just lean down and finish what he’d tried to start out on the porch earlier in the day.

Malcolm pulled back, quickly putting space between them, his hands shoved deep into his pockets as he scooted further away. Oblivious to the disappointment that was so evident on Trip’s face and the pain that lanced through his chest. For a time Trip had been so sure. So absolutely certain that Malcolm returned his feelings and wanted what he wanted. How could he have been wrong about that? Malcolm hadn’t pulled away from him on the porch -- he’d been pulled away, much to Trip’s extreme disappointment, but he hadn’t moved away voluntarily. Why, all of the sudden, was he trying to put space between them again?

“Trip,” his mom called, drawing him out of his thoughts.

He glanced over his shoulder, brow furrowed. His parents stood side-by-side near the half-wall that separated the dining portion of the kitchen from the living room, his mom with her camera in hand and watching him expectantly. When she sighed in exasperation and motioned for him to move, he ducked his head, shuffled out of the way. He moved to stand beside Malcolm, out of the way of the pictures his mom planned to take.

Malcolm stood next to the half-wall, hip leaned against it and arms folded across his chest. His eyes focused intently on the floor, staring a hole in the line where hardwood met pale stone tile. Trip stuffed his own hands into his pockets and rolled his lips between his teeth. The beauty of their hard work decorating the room and laying out the gifts was marred by the sudden awkward tension brewing between himself and Malcolm. He’d foolishly thought after their talk earlier that they’d be done with the strained silence between them. Then he’d gone and messed it all up, all over again. He could have sworn the signs were all there. He couldn’t have misread things that badly!

Then again, he supposed it might have been possible he was just projecting his own feelings. Seeing the things he wanted and wished he could see. The little voice in the back of his head reminded him that Malcolm was as straight as an arrow; at least if all those goodbye letters that had been written on that damned shuttlepod were anything to go by. And that Vissian tactical officer, Beylo...Naro? Whatever her name had been. Oh, and of course T’Pol. How could he forget the massive torch Malcolm had been carrying forever for the Vulcan.

Maybe...maybe signals got crossed, after all. They got crossed and Trip was projecting his own emotions onto his best friend. The one who’d been there for him when the world fell apart. All the times the world fell apart.

Quiet resignation settled in his chest as he took a deep breath. He glanced to his left, to where his parents still stood, his dad with his arm wrapped around Julie’s slim waist. Julie, with a pointed look on her face, glanced from Trip, to Malcolm, to the ceiling, and then down to Trip again. Bewildered, Trip shook his head at first, and then at Julie’s insistent nod, glanced up and froze.

Whoever’s wise idea it was to hang mistletoe right where a doorway should have been, needed to be shot. Or hugged. Maybe both. It might have been useless, and no doubt was going to be detrimental to his sanity, but tradition was tradition. And he and Malcolm were standing right under the mistletoe.

He’d blown it out on the porch. So, if this was his only other chance to find out if those lips were as soft as he always imagined they’d be, then….

“Hey, Malcolm.”

He barely gave Malcolm time to look surprised before he caught that strong, square jaw between both hands, cradled it, and leaned down. As first kisses go, it wasn’t exactly Trip’s best. But then again, he wasn’t about to do much more than a gentle brush of lips. That was dangerous enough all on its own. Still, it felt nice. Right, even. Bumped noses and all. Thumbs brushed over the tops of those sinfully prominent cheekbones only once before he pulled back.

When Trip put space between them, hands quickly tucked back into his pockets, he coughed and shrugged, nodding towards the ceiling.

“Mistletoe,” he mumbled lamely. He cleared his throat, looking anywhere but at Malcolm. “I’m beat. I’ll uh, I’ll see y’all in the mornin’. Merry Christmas.”

Without sparing a glance to any of the others, Trip turned on his toes and -- as casually as possible, because he was not beating a hasty retreat! -- jogged up the stairs. Maybe if he were already buried under the blankets and pillows, Malcolm wouldn’t kill him for his mistletoe stunt when he came up for bed. If he came up.

~*~*~

Malcolm stared at the stairs, long after Trip had disappeared up them, stunned. It’d hardly been more than just a flutter of lips against his own, but it’d been unmistakable as a kiss. He could still feel the warmth of Trip’s hands on his cheeks, the oh-so gentle caress of his thumbs.

There’d been so many times through the years that he’d hoped, yearned, for Trip to kiss him. Now that it had finally happened, he didn’t know what to think. Granted, it’d been obvious that morning that Trip had planned to kiss him while they were on the porch. When it didn’t get a chance to happen, Malcolm had been disappointed to say the least. At the same time, Trip had had ample opportunities the whole rest of the day and evening, and yet never made a move. Something inside had begun to tell Malcolm he’d just been imagining things again. That Trip hadn’t almost kissed him on the porch. Hell, for all he knew, it’d been he who nearly kissed Trip!

That nagging voice was louder, more persistent, now that Trip had scurried up the stairs like a bat out of hell.

It may have been a kiss, but it was a barely-there kiss. One done out of obligation to an ancient, ridiculous tradition. A tradition that should have been done away with a hundred years ago or more. It’s obvious he didn’t want to do it. He wouldn’t have run away like he did if he’d wanted to kiss you. Don’t be a fool, Malcolm. Just because he’s the first and truly only person you’ve allowed yourself to get close to, doesn’t mean that he’d be interested in anything more than friendship. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment and heartbreak. Again.

Brows furrowed, Malcolm touched just the tip of his index finger to his bottom lip, a mere brush to mimic the feel of Trip’s lips. They tingled, much the same as they had just moments before, and it was enough to twist Malcolm’s chest in uncertainty. Why couldn’t Trip have given him a full, proper kiss? Even just a brief press of lips to his would have been welcomed. What he’d gotten only left him confused, almost hurt.

It was Julie’s gentle voice that finally drew Malcolm out from the darkness his mind was slipping into. Her tender touch to his shoulder as she stepped up beside him, smiling sweetly.

“Go on,” she urged in a whisper. “Before he worries himself into a frenzy.”

“But--”

“Go.”

Malcolm stole a glance to Charles Jr., gaining a nod of approval in return, before turning his eyes back to the stairs. The attic bedroom suddenly felt light-years away. Gathering his courage, he gave a stinted nod before making his way to the attic.  

He felt his heart nearly beating clear out of his ribcage as he let the door slide open and then closed behind him. Aside from the faint glow of the Christmas lights lining the massive skylight, and the silver-blue gleam from the moon, the room was dark. It took a moment before Malcolm’s eyes could adjust, and the first thing he saw when they did, was Trip. Sitting on the edge of the bed, still in his jeans and sweatshirt from earlier, his head in his hands. Everything about him just seemed off, wrong. His body language screamed of dejection, self-loathing; nothing at all like the carefree, confident air he normally gave off. In that moment, he looked far too much like the Trip who’d lost a large piece of his world in his sister’s death; like the Trip whose heart was shattered with the death of his infant daughter.

Never before had Malcolm wanted to pull Trip into his arms and hold him close as much as he did right that minute. No matter what had caused this sudden change in his friend, Trip needed comforting, and that had Malcolm’s heart crying out for him.

“Trip….” Malcolm took a step towards the bed, unsure of what else to say, but needing to make his presence known.

Trip started, springing to his feet in an instant. “Malcolm, look. I’m sorry ‘bout…’bout downstairs. It’s just a stupid tradition, y’know? I don’t even know who put that damn thing there! I didn’t even know we had any mistletoe! It’s just...I didn’t…”

Though Malcolm’s heart was sinking lower and lower the more Trip babbled on in apology, he swallowed thickly and moved to stand in front of him. In the faint light it was hard to see the emotions playing through Trip’s eyes. Which meant it was equally hard to see the disappointment in Malcolm’s.

“It was only because it’s tradition?” His voice was quiet, but mercifully steady, despite the tremors he felt trickling from somewhere near his heart and down to the pit of his stomach. “That’s the only reason you did it?”

The audible click of Trip swallowing thickly was loud in the otherwise silent room. “I...well…”

“Trip?”

Malcolm watched as Trip glanced down and away. For whatever reason, the fact that Trip was failing to give an answer brought a spring of new hope to Malcolm’s heart. The awkward way his friend was avoiding looking at him, shifting his weight from foot to foot and gnawing on his bottom lip. It was all ridiculously endearing and so very Trip Tucker.

With slow movements, Malcolm stepped closer, taking hold of Trip’s wrists gently to keep him from running away. He felt the way Trip’s pulse jumped under his fingers when they touched, and that spring of hope was quickly becoming a river. Especially once he heard the shaky breath and met wide, startled eyes.

“Trip?” This time his voice could hardly be considered the softest of murmurs. “I need to know. Please? Was that the only reason you did it?”

Trip gulped again, tongue flicking out to wet his lips, and slowly shook his head. “I’ve wanted t’ kiss you since forever ago.”

Never before had a quiet confession felt like the loudest of proclamations. Madeline had always been the romantic between the two of them, and Malcolm had never understood why she’d always get choked up when two characters of a movie finally confessed their feelings for each other. How she’d insist that such words could make a person’s whole spirit feel like it’d taken flight. Now he knew. Now he understood completely.

Still, he needed to be sure. “Really?”

Nodding, Trip didn’t so much as blink as he held Malcolm’s gaze.

“Then,” pausing, Malcolm took another step closer, putting himself squarely in Trip’s personal space, “why didn’t you do it properly?”

Standing so close, Malcolm could now clearly see each emotion that went flitting through Trip’s gorgeous eyes. The surprise, hope, happiness; indecision, fear, guilt.

“I didn’t want ya t’ hate me.”

“Hate you?” Malcolm took half a step back, feeling as if he’d been punched in the gut. “Why would I--”

“You’re mah best friend, Malcolm! An’ it’s like ah said this mornin’, ya mean too damn much t’ me. If I’da kissed ya like ah wanted t’, you woulda hauled off an’ knocked me on my ass! Look, ah’m sorry if ah made ya uncomfortable. Figured it was the only chance ah’d get an’ ah--”

“Mr. Tucker.” Malcolm’s sharp, crisp tone had Trip stammering to a halt. “Will you please stop trying to apologize for something you’ve no reason to apologize for, and just kiss me the way you’d wanted to?”

Light brown brows reached for his hairline as Trip stared, mouth agape, at Malcolm. “Beg yer pardon?”

A slow, small smirk twitched at the corner of Malcolm’s mouth. His hands trailed up Trip’s arms until they rested on those strong, broad shoulders. Taking a half-step forward to put himself right back in Trip’s personal space, he lifted his head just enough to meet Trip’s gaze again from under his long, dark lashes.

“Stop apologizing.” He slid his hands further up, entwining his fingers loosely behind Trip’s head. The soft, short strands of hair felt silky against his skin and he itched to sink his fingers into that dark blond hair fully. “And kiss me the way you’d wanted to originally.”

The words had barely left his lips before Trip had one arm around Malcolm’s waist, pulling him in closer while the other hand cupped his cheek, tilting his head just right for their mouths to slot together without bumping noses. All at once, all the fears and self-depreciation Malcolm had felt went soaring out the window. Just the feel of soft, warm, pliant lips against his own; the gentle scratch of stubble two days grown; a broad hand pressing into his lower back to draw him closer still; it all encompassed him, filled his senses and sent his heart soaring.

Minutes passed, or maybe it was lifetimes, before Trip slowly pulled away, ever so gently drawing Malcolm’s lower lip out between his own before releasing. It’d been a relatively chaste kiss, a tender pressing together of lips. Nothing rushed or frantic, but instead cautious and reserved. It wasn’t until just before they parted that Trip had finally dared to open his mouth enough to suck lightly on Malcolm’s bottom lip. There was no demand for anything deeper, and still Malcolm felt his entire world shift on its axis.

He stared up into Trip’s eyes, unconsciously leaning into the hand thumbing across his cheek.

“Hi,” Trip breathed, a dopey smile tugging his mouth upwards in the corners.

Malcolm huffed a laugh, returning the smile. “Hi.”

Trip leaned down for a second time, dropping soft kisses onto Malcolm’s mouth again and again before pulling him in for a tight, possessive hug. Arms wrapped securely around each other, Malcolm pressed his cheek to Trip’s shoulder as Trip buried his face in the crook of Malcolm’s neck. A shiver ran through him at the feel of Trip’s warm breath ghosting across his skin, feather-light kisses brushing up and down his neck, as if Trip wasn’t able to get enough of him.

“I’ve wanted this,” Trip murmured between kisses, “for so long. Never thought I stood a chance.”

Gasping out softly as Trip kissed the sensitive skin just below his ear, Malcolm cocked his head, eyes fluttering shut.

“Lord what fools these mortals be…” he sighed. “I never knew...I thought you…”

“Bi.” Trip pressed another gentle kiss to Malcolm’s ear. “Always have been. That’s part of the reason e’eryone’s been pickin’ on us. I j’st, generally leaned more towards women. I always thought you were straight. All those letters…”

Malcolm carded his fingers through Trip’s hair. It was just as soft and silky as he’d imagined it’d be. “Same as you, it would seem.”

Pulling back so they could see each other's faces again, Trip ran his fingers down Malcolm’s jawline, over his cheeks, and across his lips. Lord but the man was tactile! It sent Malcolm’s blood pumping faster than any tactical alert or sparring match ever could!

“Tell me ya want this, Malcolm. That ya want me.”

“More than anything in the world, Trip. I want whatever you have to give me.”

Trip smiled, leaning down to press his forehead to Malcolm’s, nudging their noses together in the process. “I got a whole lot t’ give ya, darlin’. So long as yer willin’ t’ be patient with me. Yer not the only one with a shit track record when it comes t’ relationships.”

“I’m willing if you are.” Malcolm nudged his nose to Trip’s and gave a mere whisper of a kiss to Trip’s mouth.

“God, Malcolm. I...,” Trip paused, kissed him again, and sighed. “I wanna do this right. Take things slow. Ya deserve that. I want this t’ work, between us. Will you, I mean, can I take you out t’ dinner one of these nights? While we’re still on leave?”

Emotions welled up in Malcolm’s chest. What had he done to deserve being worthy of Trip’s affections? How did he make sure he never fell from that grace?

Lips pressed in a tight thin line, he nodded, blinking back tears that threatened to fall. “I’d like that, very much.”

Grinning, Trip pulled Malcolm in for another smattering of kisses, a line from lips down his jawbone and following the cord of his neck until Trip had his face pressed to Malcolm’s shoulder. They held each other tight for a moment, Malcolm afraid that if he let go, he’d find it was all just a dream. With Trip’s body warm and firm pressed so close to his own, Malcolm soon found himself simply melting into the embrace; content to stand under the stars and Christmas lights for eternity if it meant staying in Trip’s arms.

“You know,” he murmured, a small smirk pressing against Trip’s neck, “your family is going to be insufferable when they find out about this.”

Trip groaned and pressed himself all the more closer to Malcolm. “I don’t wanna think ‘bout them. All I wanna think ‘bout is holdin’ you.”

“That’s a much better idea, you’re right.”

“Know what’s an even better idea than that?”

“Hm?”

Malcolm gave an involuntary shiver as Trip kissed that spot under his ear again, then nuzzled against him, accent thick like honey as he murmured, “Gettin’ changed outta these clothes an’ movin’ this t’ the bed.”

With his stomach fluttering in anticipation, and blood starting to flow distinctly south, Malcolm drew a shaky breath, sighing Trip’s name like a quiet prayer. The fingers of one hand tangled into the soft, short hairs at the nape of Trip’s neck, while the other hand clutched the fabric of Trip’s shirt.

“Y-yes,” he stammered, nodding. “I think I have to agree with you on that. Moving this to the bed. Best idea.”

Chuckling, Trip drew back just enough that they’d each have room to undress, and stopped. Head cocked, he pursed his lips as he gave Malcolm the once over. Malcolm, thankfully, did not shift under Trip’s gaze, but it was close. He saw the eyes darken as they grazed down him, the hunger and desire obvious as they made their slow trek back up to his face. For a moment, he thought Trip would surely just tackle him onto the bed and have his way with him; until Trip’s eyes cleared, a faint pink hue rose up on his cheeks and he huffed softly in spite of himself.

“Y’know, I was gonna say we should j’st skip the pajamas.”

Malcolm quirked a brow. “Oh? Why don’t you? Scared?”

“Terrified. If we crawled into that bed in nothin’ but our skivvies, there’s a real good chance I wouldn’t be able to keep my hands off you.” Trip swallowed hard, wet his lips, and looked Malcolm over one last time. “Much as I’d like t’, I said I wanted t’ do this right an’ take things slow, an’ my mama raised me t’ be a gentleman. So, we best keep some clothes on between us. At least until the second date.”

A laugh bubbled out of Malcolm and he felt himself smile -- one of his real, honest smiles that Madeline had always insisted lighted up his eyes and made him look all boyish and charming -- as he shook his head. “Trip, we’ve known each other for six years. We’ve practically lived out of each other’s back pockets for six years. You’ve brought me home to meet your family, for Christmas, no less. We’re both grown, consenting adults. If anything should happen between us, then --”

Malcolm’s words stopped when Trip stepped back into his space, fingers pressed to Malcolm’s lips and face as serious as could be.

“Believe me, Malcolm. The fact we’re both grown men hasn’t escaped me. But I said I wanna do right by you, an’ I meant it. I want what’s between us t’ work. You deserve t’ be loved an’ treated right, an’ I wanna be the one t’ do it. So j’st...lemme do this? Please?”

Slowly, Malcolm nodded. Grasping Trip’s wrist loosely in hand, he kissed the fingers still pressed to his lips and drew back enough to speak freely. “A compromise, then?”

“Depends. What’d you have in mind?”

“Pajama bottoms, but no shirts.”

Trip pretended to think for a moment before nodding. “Deal. But we gotta put shirts on before we go down for presents and breakfast.”

“Obviously,” Malcolm huffed, rolling his eyes even while continuing to smile. “Your family doesn’t need any more fuel for their fires by us wandering down the stairs in just our pajama bottoms.”

“They’ll get enough j’st from me comin’ down holdin’ your hand.”

Ridiculous flutters sprang up in Malcolm’s chest and stomach once more. He’d always known that Trip was a bit of a romantic: hand holding; nice, quiet dinners; tender caresses; soft declarations of affection; he just never thought he’d be on the receiving end of those ministrations.

Ducking his head to hide the silly, pleased smile that was threatening to split his face in two, Malcolm tugged his sweater over his head, folded it, and set it with the rest of his things. He quickly changed from his cargo pants into the sleeper bottoms he’d been wearing to bed before turning back to face Trip. Trip who was already tugging the blankets down, his own sleep bottoms hanging low and loose on his hips, giving Malcolm a tantalizing glimpse at the fact there was nothing under them but what he’d been born with. For a man who swore he wanted to do things right and take it slow, he certainly knew how to be a tease!

Malcolm took a moment longer to take in the sight of Trip. Oh, he’d seen the commander many times wearing next-to-nothing while they were in decon -- but that was hardly the place to be ogling the object of one’s desires -- and in the changing room, getting out of their uniforms and into the catsuits for EVAs, but this was different. This was a relaxed Trip Tucker. Off-duty Trip Tucker. The-man-Malcolm-was-finally-allowed-to-call-his-own Trip Tucker. And he was gorgeous. All that golden skin, muscles enough to prove their existence, but not enough that he was all twisted steel and sex appeal (Madeline’s words for the overly buff, not Malcolm’s!). His body was toned in all the right ways, and Malcolm found he didn’t quite mind the curls of dark blonde hair that covered Trip’s chest. As a man with a fairly smooth chest himself, Malcolm had never been overly fond of chest hair in the past, but on Trip? On Trip it just seemed to work, and he couldn’t wait to lay his head down and nuzzle into it.

“You plannin’ on gettin’ int’ bed with me, darlin’? Or j’st gonna stand there an’ stare at me the whole rest of the night?”

Trip’s gentle teasing drew Malcolm out of his silent reverie and had his feet moving before he could give it a second thought. Trip had the blankets lifted, waiting for Malcolm to join him in the bed, inviting him in with a soft, sweet smile. The moment Malcolm had himself settled against Trip’s side, the blanket enveloped them both, and he soon found strong arms wrapped around him, pulling him in all the closer until his head was resting squarely on Trip’s strong chest. Right where he’d wanted to be.

It took a moment for Malcolm to relax against Trip, all that warm, soft skin pressing against his own was distracting and certainly causing a key piece of his anatomy to start to sit up and take notice. He felt more than he heard Trip’s quiet chuckle before Trip gave him a comforting squeeze and let his hands roam up and down Malcolm’s back, side, and arm soothingly.

“Get comfy, darlin’.”

“Already starting on the endearments, are we?”

Trip hummed softly in response, pressed a kiss to the top of Malcolm’s head. “Been waitin’ a long time t’ get t’ call you that. Any objections?”

Shifting against him, Malcolm shook his head and finally draped one leg over Trip’s. Their ankles tangled together and it was exhilarating the way their bodies seemed to just fit. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle slotting together. Lying in Trip’s arms felt right. As if that was right where he’d belonged straight from the start.

“I don’t mind,” he murmured, pressing his face into Trip’s chest and kissing his sternum gently, letting the soft, coarse hairs tickle his lips and nose. “So long as you don’t call me any while we’re on the bridge. Or in the Armory.”

“What ‘bout in Engineerin’?”

“Or in Engineering.”

“Mess hall?”

“I’ll consider it.”

“In our quarters?”

“Now you’re just being ridiculous.”

Laughing, Trip smiled into Malcolm’s hair. His fingers ghosted along Malcolm’s bare arm, causing goosebumps to rise up in his wake. They were silent for a moment, listening to the sounds of the sleeping house, and their own hearts beating in time. It’d been ages since Malcolm had been too excited to sleep on Christmas Eve, yet lying there in Trip’s arms, he doubted he’d get any rest. Afraid that if he closed his eyes and slept, then when he woke it would have all just been a dream.

It wasn’t until he felt Trip’s hold on him start to loosen, the man’s breathing slowly start to even out, that he thought maybe he could eventually drift off, too. Snuggling in, Malcolm sighed contently.

“...Trip?”

“Mmm…?”

“Your family won’t be upset I didn’t get a gift for anyone, will they?”

It was a silly thing to be suddenly worrying about, but Malcolm couldn’t help it. The realization that there was a stocking for him hanging on the mantle, and at least one gift with his name on it, while he’d had nothing for anyone, had struck him and wouldn’t leave him alone.

“Mm, nah. They won’t care. Now get some sleep, darlin’.”

Closing his eyes, Malcolm wrapped his arm just a slight bit tighter around Trip’s lean waist.

“I wish I’d at least brought your gift.”

Trip gave a quiet snort, hugged Malcolm tighter, and snuggled them under the blankets all the more. “Got j’st what I always wanted right ‘ere, Malcolm darlin’. Best Christmas present ever.”

“Sap,” mumbled Malcolm, even as he pressed his smile into Trip’s chest.

When Trip gave only an absent hum in reply, Malcolm felt himself slowly start to relax, body reaching that heavy-yet-weightless state right on the edge of sleep. With the stars twinkling above them, the moon watching over them, and the glow of the Christmas lights casting their colors across the room, Malcolm finally felt sleep claim him. Safe and warm in Trip’s arms, visions of future Christmases spent among the Tucker family dancing through his head.

For the first time in his life, Malcolm could sleep knowing he had a warm, loving, welcoming home to return to for the holidays, and a family that would love him no matter what.