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Seven

The Esaarian Medical Academy was located farther up the shore, away from the docks. Malcolm hailed a uk'vek, which looked like a chariot being pulled by two fuzzy yaks. Hoshi gave them a suspicious look as they clambered into the cab, but looks were deceiving, as the two animals took off at a fast gallop. She gripped the edge of the cab as they careened around a corner; Malcolm wrapped an arm around her to keep her from flying out into the street.

Du'hai, s'roibe della'hu, Eraiina,” said the driver. Your husband cares for you much, Lady.

Hoshi's face flushed crimson. “Fa, de'naicht se Du'hai.” He's not my husband.

The driver gave her a surprised look, then drew his attention back to his fleet-footed animals. “Pu'riden,” he commented. Pity.

“What'd he say, Hoshi?” Malcolm asked.

“He was just commenting on how he'll get us there as soon as possible,” Hoshi lied.

Malcolm swore under his breath as they dashed through an intersection without stopping for incoming traffic. “That's if we don't run into a transport first.”

Minutes later, the uk'vek screeched to a stop in front of the Medical Academy. As Malcolm helped Hoshi to the ground, an Esaarian in a white lab coat hurried toward them. He was a close duplicate of of Theros the Archivist, except his mustache and hair were a sandy brown instead of blue-black. The bright green eyes reminded Hoshi of Jon Archer: eager and brimming with intelligence.

“I am Doctor Relnus,” the man introduced himself. “Phlox was one of my students on Denobula. He's expecting both of you inside. Please, follow me.”

Hoshi stared at him as they went through the highly ornamented walls of the Academy. “Phlox was one of your students? You don't seem a day over two hundred, Doctor Relnus.”

Relnus laughed and raised his eyebrows at her. “If that is a kind way of saying 'Doctor, you are old', then you are right. I just celebrated my six hundred and twentieth birthday yesterday.”

His casual tone struck her speechless. “Wow,” was all she said. “Six hundred and twenty?”

“Well, I've always considered Phlox a young mindek, Ensign. He's got a lot of potential, still.” Relnus waved them into a private room. “Please, come into my office.”

Relnus's office was crowded with people: Captain Archer, T'Pol and Trip were gathered around a readout on a large wall screen, while Travis hung back near the entranceway. To Hoshi's surprise, Travis reached out and squeezed her shoulder in a gesture of support.

“I thought you were rock climbing with Theros's sons, Travis.”

The helmsman shook his head and replied, “This was more important.”

Phlox looked up from his conversation with Jon. “Ah, good. You must have taken an uk'vek from the Archives to get her so promptly. Ensign, come over and look at his schematic.”

Hoshi recognized the picture as of her own brain in three-dimensions, with each lobe highlighted in a different color. “What's this?” she asked, pointing at a glowing section with a box around it.

“Your cerebrum, Hoshi. There's an increase in neurotransmitter activity here and here. They control speech, Broca's area and Wernicke's area---”

“Wernicke's Aphasia,” Hoshi said, suddenly understanding what Phlox was trying to say. “That's when a person can't comprehend what others are saying to them, and they also have trouble with vocabulary. I couldn't remember certain words and everyone seemed to speak gibberish to me.”

“And Broca's area deals with the physical ability to use language,” Relnus put in, “as well as remembering complex grammar structures. It seems that whatever it was affected both areas of your brain to the point where the neurological signals were confused. You couldn't speak or comprehend until those signals resolved themselves.”

“Kinda like an energy overload,” Trip mused, “and the failsafes kickin' in.”

“Exactly, Commander.” Phlox agreed. “Broca's area is in close proximity of motor function controls, so Ensign Sato's temporary clumsiness in walking is understandable as well.”

“But she doesn't have any problems now,” Travis pointed out, “with either understanding us or moving around.”

“That is true, Ensign,” T'Pol concurred, “but her most recent brain scan revealed a remarkable increase in her brain function, and it is not limited to the language areas. The cerebellum, which controls some motor function, for example. If this growth continues, Ensign Sato's coordination and sensitivity will increase exponentially.”

Hoshi blinked. That explained Na'lai's 'tactical sensitivity'. “Whoever Na'lai's people were, each one had a special skill...Na'lai was able to feel the vibrations of other's movements and any changes in temperature.”

Relnus glanced sharply at Phlox. “Yes, that certainly makes sense with these readings, Phlox. I would say that your ensign has 'inherited' these skills.”

“Is this permanent?” That came from Jon.

“It's hard to say, Captain. That may be, since the actual physical make-up of her brain is changing, but we don't know.”

Malcolm took this in with a look of grimness. “Then the question becomes why this is happening now? And how will this affect Hoshi in the future?”

Hoshi glanced down at her hands, for they began to tingle in an uncomfortable way. It was if her fingers had minds of their own. Without her conscious effort, she reached for the screen and switched its functions. Her medical scans disappeared to be replaced by four different star maps.

“Ensign, how did you access the astronomical charts? That is not possible from this work station,” T'Pol asked. Her tone had no judgment, only curiosity.

“I don't know, Sub-commander,” she answered, but she sounded distracted. Her eyes narrowed at the four maps; there was something there, some kind of music that only she could hear. Hoshi placed the palm of her right hand onto the first map, but it was silent. No, that wasn't it. Then she moved to the second, then the third. She closed her eyes to “hear” and “feel” it better. When she touched the fourth map, electricity seemed to crackle between the image on the screen and her skin.

She opened her eyes and said, “That's it. This is the place.”

“Are you sure?” asked Jon, with a hint of skepticism. “You can tell by just touching it?”

She gave him a sideways look. “Of course, I'm sure. I can feel the vibrations.”

“How---” Jon's question was interrupted by an excited gasp from Travis. “What is it, Travis?”

The Boomer pointed at a glowing sphere just above Hoshi's fingertips. “This is a pulsar, Captain. Cargo pilots use 'em like navigational beacons, 'cause each pulsar has its own cycle. You can set your watch to 'em. If this pulsar is one that we can see from Esaaria, then we can figure out the fastest way to get there.”

Malcolm kept his gaze upon her. “Na'lai's system, where her planet used to be?”

Despite herself, Hoshi's eyes began to fill with tears and her throat closed up. She could only nod. Malcolm's hand squeezed her shoulder in reassurance. Jon and Trip glanced at each other, and Hoshi saw that Trip's eyes were misting up too. The engineer was a sensitive man, and he felt her loss as deeply as she did.

“Travis, figure out the fastest course to that system. We'll take a look.”

“Aye, sir.” Travis gave Hoshi a sympathetic look, then left.

Trip smiled at her and added, “Just tell me where to go, and Enterprise'll get ya there, Hosh.”

“Thanks, Trip.”

Phlox put a hand on her other shoulder and said, “With your permission, Hoshi, I'd like to monitor your biosigns from here on out. Neither I nor Relnus can predict how these changes will affect you. I want to make sure we're prepared for any contingency.”

“Of course, Phlox.”

“Then it's settled. We'll leave in an hour.” Jon nodded at Trip and T'Pol, who both left to make preparations. Malcolm moved to follow, but Jon held up his hand. “Stay here with Hoshi, Malcolm. I'd like you to keep an eye on her. Ensign Mueller can handle Armory duties for an hour or two.”

Malcolm opened his mouth, closed it again, then said, “Thank you, sir.”

Hoshi thought he saw a twinkle in Jon's eye, and felt a blush creep up her neck and face. As Phlox and Relnus fussed over the Esaarian imaging chamber, she heard Na'lai's voice whisper to her again, “They know. They've all known for some time.”

Hoshi sighed and squeezed Malcolm's hand as the two doctors gently helped her onto the moving biobed of the imaging chamber. “It'll be all right,” he reassured her. “I'll be here.”

She nodded and held her breath as the bed began to retract into the chamber.




Travis was as good as his word; Enterprise would reach its destination in a day and a half. In the meantime, Hoshi spent most of her time with translating and indexing Na'lai's language. Its similarity to Esaarian made the work easier. Doctor Relnus asked Jon permission to join Phlox for this trip; his specialty was neurobiology, and his knowledge would be valuable for Hoshi's case.

“Ensign?”

She looked up in surprise to see T'Pol standing in the doorway of the lounge. “Sub-commander?” she replied. “What can I do for you?”

“You are agitated. I could feel your emotions from several decks away. It is most...disconcerting.”

Hoshi winced. “I'm sorry, Sub-commander. I didn't mean to disturb you.”

“Considering the circumstances, I hold no blame.” T'Pol arched an elegant eyebrow. “If you would permit me, I may be able to help you find a sense of calmness.”

Hoshi blinked in surprise; T'Pol didn't make such an offer to just anyone, and her training in the mental disciplines would certainly help her regain some peace of mind. “Thank you, Sub-commander. I would appreciate your help.”

“Then let us begin here.”

Ten minutes later, both women were sitting on cushions pulled from the couches, facing each other with T'Pol's meditation candle between them. Hoshi closed her eyes as T'Pol led her in a breathing exercise. In her mind's eye, she saw the candle flame jump and dance as its light expanded to include the entire lounge
.
Then she found herself meeting Na'lai's eyes. The young girl smiled as they gazed at each other for a long moment. Then Hoshi asked, “Why are you still with me, Na'lai?”

“I am a part of you, as you are a part of me,” Na'lai replied simply. She reached over and grasped Hoshi's wrist in a gesture of welcome. “We are both wanderers, but now I wish to return home. It is cold and lonely in the darkness of space. I am tired of just existing.”

“So we're bringing you back to where it all began,” Hoshi whispered. “That's why you merged with me.”

“You were dying, Hoshi. I needed to save your life.” Her smile vanished and the color steadily drained from her face. “You have to warn the others. Great danger is ahead for them, and as I have saved you, you must save them.”

“Na'lai, you're talking in riddles! I don't understand!”

“What befell my world could happen again to your ship. History does not need to repeat itself. If we work together, we could change it.”

“Whatever destroyed your planet could do the same to Enterprise?” Hoshi's voice shook. “What should I do?”

“Listen and I will tell you what you need to do.”

So Na'lai talked and Hoshi listened, and when Na'lai was done, Hoshi understood the risks, but was willing to take them. There was no question in her mind...she would do this for her own “family” and her love.

“Are you sure you understand all this?”

Hoshi met Na'lai's gaze squarely. “Yes.”

Eight


“We have reached Omega Nine-Three-Nine-B,” announced T'Pol in a soft voice. Her announcement sounded anti-climactic after everything Hoshi had been through. Omega-Nine-Three-Nine-B. A living, breathing planetary system now reduced to a number on a star chart. Hoshi felt a surge of sadness at T'Pol's words, as true as they were now.

“All stop,” Jon ordered. His voice echoed in the eerie silence of the Bridge.

“All stop,” repeated Travis as his hands danced over his console.

They all stared at the floating remnants of a long-dead planet in the viewscreen. Whatever had destroyed Na'lai's home had scattered its remains for about a half a lightyear in every direction. Now it was little more than an asteroid field; the largest chunk only slightly bigger than Enterprise. The pulsar flickered nearby like a shiny Christmas ornament. As Travis had explained, its cycle reached its peak every seven hours, and when it did, it burst in a bloom of color.

Hoshi's gaze was riveted to a blinking flame in the background. “What's that? It's not the pulsar.”

“T'Pol?” Jon asked.

There was the sound of movement as T'Pol checked her scanner. “The ensign is correct. It appears to be a meteor shower that is passing through the sector.”

Malcolm frowned as he checked his console. “Sub-commander, it looks like that meteor shower will pass very closely to the system.”

Jon glanced over his shoulder at T'Pol and asked, “When will it arrive, and how close to us?”

“It will not arrive for another three hours, and it will pass within two hundred and fifty thousand kilometers to Enterprise. I suggest that we be out of this area by then.”

“Agreed.” Hoshi said suddenly. Her skin became clammy and cold when T'Pol had mentioned the meteor shower. Again, an image of multiple fireballs streaking through purple skies assaulted her vision. She gripped the edge of her console as she relived the horror of not being able to breathe as the noxious gases seared her lungs, as the supercharged air ignited her sensitive skin into flame. Na'lai's memory threatened to overwhelm her senses.

“Ensign? Ensign!”

Hoshi blinked as a hypospray hissed against her arm. She blinked slowly as her vision snapped back to the present. Malcolm knelt in front of her, gripping her hands. His eyes reflected the terror she felt, as if he too could see what she saw. Perhaps he could; Hoshi detected a sense of resonance between them. Although Malcolm's mask was firmly in place, his fear and worry just simmered under the surface. Fear and worry for her. An isolated part of her mind noticed that no one on the Bridge made any comment on Malcolm's "odd" behavior.

Does everyone know how I feel about him? How he fees about me? If Hoshi's skin didn't already burn at the touch, she thought that her blush would set her on fire. With an effort, she focused at the two doctors next to her. Phlox was at her right, while Doctor Relnus stood slightly behind her with a scanner in hand. All eyes were on her: Travis's, Jon's, T'Pol's. The Vulcan had stood up from her seat, ready to assist the doctors if needed. Hoshi took a deep shuddering breath, but she could still taste the metallic flavor of death on her tongue.

“We must hurry,” she whispered. “It will happen again, if we don't hurry.” Hoshi raised her head, then tried to stand, but the world swirled around her and she nearly passed out. She felt Malcolm's arms around her, supporting her, as her knees gave way.

“Her vital signs are climbing to dangerous levels,” Phlox said. The normally cheerful Denobulan's voice held no humor. “Doctor Relnus---?”

“Amazing...her blood pressure and internal temperature are approaching a more Esaarian norm,” Relnus added. His scanner beeped wildly as he drew out the Esaarian version of a hypo from his belt pouch and pressed it against Hoshi's neck. “Normal for my people, but a Human isn't physically built to withstand such a drastic change in body chemistry.”

“How long?” Malcolm demanded.

Relnus shook his head and replied, “Two hours, if that. We must lower her body temperature and slow her heartrate.”

Hoshi struggled again to get to her feet, but her joints screamed in agony. She could barely move her mouth around the words. “Some sort of force...pulling Na'lai toward the remains of the planet...I have to go with her---”

Malcolm gripped her upper arms. “Na'lai, if you can hear me, you have to let her go! You're killing her!”

She shook her head. “Na'lai can't separate from me yet...I have to be in close proximity to the planet for her to do that. If I don't, it'll tear me apart...” Hoshi clung to him with her remaining strength. “And I can feel the meteor shower coming closer...it'll destroy everything in its path...Malcolm, please!”

Trip Tucker's voice interrupted his reply. “Tucker to the Cap'n.”

Jon reached over and tapped the comlink on Hoshi's board. “Go ahead, Trip.”

“I'm in the Shuttle Bay...and Shuttlepod One's glowin' somethin' fierce. It's actin' like a wild horse in the corral and those reinforced walls are literallygrowin' all over it.”

Hoshi turned her head at the sound of Trip's voice. “That's when Na'lai merged with me the first time...it makes sense that we have to take Shuttlepod One to return her home...” She saw a glimmer of understanding and compassion in Jon's eyes, then he nodded at Malcolm.

“Trip, get Shuttlepod One prepped for launch. Malcolm's bringing Hoshi down and they're going to bring Na'lai home. Quickly as possible, Trip...Hoshi's just barely hanging on.”

“I hear ya, Cap'n...Tucker, out.”

Hoshi tried a third time to get to her feet, but instead Malcolm swept her up into his arms. She barely had the strength to hold her head up; it was as if her insides were burning in lava. Think about something cold...chocolate ice cream, sundaes, igloos, newly-fallen snow, icebergs with little black-and-white penguins...

“Strawberry ices and sorbets, snowballs being stuffed under the back of your shirt...”

She managed a laugh at Malcolm's soft tone. When she opened one eye, she saw his lopsided smile and her heart stopped at the undisguised emotion in his face. “That gives me an idea...” she whispered weakly.

“You'd have to catch me first,” he teased, “and that's after we find a snow-covered planet for a snowball fight.”

“Maybe we can visit Andoria after this,” she joked as her body began to shiver. Despite the friendly banter, thinking of snow and ice wasn't working. Hoshi felt her body being stretched across a padded cushion and a blanket being tucked all around her.

“I will monitor her vital signs, Lieutenant,” came Phlox's voice from somewhere above her. “Stay next to her; your presence seems to stabilize her condition.”

“Hang on, Hoshi,” Travis chimed in as she heard the engines begin to fire up. Travis must have volunteered to be their pilot. “We're gonna get you where you need to go.”

She could no longer see with her own eyes; her attention was drawn inward. Hoshi found Na'lai deep within the confines of her mind. Their surroundings brightened from a dark blue/black to a fiery orange and its lights flashed across Na'lai's translucent skin and curly hair. Hoshi felt a distinctpull on Na'lai, but that pull sent her body in agony. It felt as if she was being forced through a tiny hole in a microscopic sieve, every muscle and tendon stretched to the snapping point. To make matters worse, Hoshi could also feel the buzz of the incoming meteor shower, like a horde of angry wasps pricking her skin.

“It is far worse than I had expected, Hoshi,” Na'lai cried. Verdant tears streamed across her pale cheeks. “I am trying to phase my presence out gradually, but the process is being sped up faster and faster...”

Hoshi reached for Na'lai and grasped her hands. “Then don't resist it, Na'lai. Allow it to happen...”

“The shock will kill you, Hoshi. I cannot allow you to die again---”

“You saved me once, so I've been living on borrowed time.” She managed a smile. “At least you've allowed me to experience your gift.”

Na'lai's tears flowed faster, even as her presence became fainter. “I am sorry.”

“Don't be. Go home, where you belong, Na'lai, and you don't need to wander alone anymore. Everything will be all right.” Even as Hoshi said the words, she meant them. They weren't words of empty comfort. She felt a fleeting sensation of happiness and contentment, then Na'lai's form completely disappeared, and Hoshi was staring down at her empty hands.

Then she was flying through space, heading toward the physical remains of her home. Instead of barren rock, it seemed to glow in many colors, and the air surrounding her became warmer. Smells reached her nose: baking bread and simmering udon soup; wildflowers and the wind through the trees. There was the sound of children laughing, and playing under the sun...

It was all around her, and within her, the sense of homecoming and completion. A sense of belonging that she'd never experienced before. As a young child prodigy, Hoshi set herself apart from everyone, and immersed herself in language and linguistics. The loneliness was so much a part of her that she hardly felt it anymore. Her family were little more than strangers most of the time. Then she'd joined the Enterprise crew at Jon's request, and found more than she'd bargained.

“What good is learning language and culture if you don't feel them? What good is theory if it's not put into practice?” An old saying floated at the surface of her mind: “I draw water and I chop wood!” The Buddhist monk had stared at his own hands and marveled at the simple pleasures of simple tasks. Just being able to feel and be alive...

What good is it to be around family and hold yourself aloof from them?

Something broken within Hoshi was healed. If she died now, she would harbor no regrets...save one. Malcolm. She reached out of herself, drawing away from that seductive glow, for if she stayed there, she knew that would never leave. It wasn't her time yet; there were still tasks for her to complete. But eventually, she might search for this place and find it again.

Na'lai brushed against her mind in farewell and benediction. It was as if Hoshi was bidding her twin goodbye forever; she fought against tears. Yet Na'lai said in her mind, “This is only 'see you in the future', not 'goodbye'.”

Then Na'lai was gone and Hoshi's consciousness went with it.

A rude jolt slammed her back into awareness. She opened her eyes, but couldn't move a muscle. It took her a moment to realize that she was staring at the ceiling of Shuttlepod One. Frantic voices rose all around her as the walls shook again. Then a soft hiss pierced the air.

“Bloody hell! We've got a leak. Where's that sealant...ah, here it is!”

“The hole's over here, Lieutenant. Give me that sealant, since I'm closest to it.”

“Here, Doctor. It'll probably do better than mashed potatoes.”

“Excuse me, Lieutenant?”

“I'll explain later. Travis---?”

“The debris is coming in harder and faster, Malcolm. I'm doing my best to avoid 'em, but I can't get around 'em all.”

Enterprise to Shuttlepod One.” That was Jon Archer.

“Shuttlepod One, sir,” Malcolm answered.

“How's Hoshi?”

“Her condition's stable. We're heading back to the ship now. The planetary debris is beginning to break up as the meteor storm gets closer---”

“We've got Shuttle Bay One all ready for you. Once you're safely back, we're warping out of the area.”

T'Pol's voice echoed in the background. “The storm is bearing zero eight zero mark three and closing fast. I would suggest haste, Mister Mayweather.”

“Going as fast as I can, Sub-commander. We'll get back in time even if I have to go out and push.”

“I trust that will not be necessary, Ensign.”

Hoshi repressed a snort of laughter. T'Pol's joking with Travis? Did I just hear that right? Of course, the Vulcan would deny it to her grave. The shuttlepod shuddered again in the wake of another wave of debris. Her sensitive hearing caught Travis's sigh of relief as they avoided yet another collision.

Then Malcolm shouted, “The edge of the first storm wave just hit the system boundary.”

“I see it,” Travis acknowledged grimly. “Hang on, everybody.”

Again, the walls trembled and this time, more holes erupted from the back of the shuttlepod. Phlox patched up the leaks with more sealant. A faint roar echoed out of the comm speakers, followed by the screech of static. The shuttlepod lurched to starboard and Hoshi felt herself sliding in that direction, but she couldn't move to stabilize herself. She felt Phlox's hand on her shoulder and her sideways progress stopped abruptly.

“Captain, we aren't going to make it before the bulk of the storm hits,” Malcolm reported. “Get Enterprise out of here.”

“Not without all of you,” Jon's voice was barely heard over the static. “Target that large planetoid in their way, Ensign Mueller. Fire!”

The Germanic-sounding voice of Malcolm's second-in-command was lost as thunder reverberated through the shuttlepod walls. Then Travis whooped in delight. “That's done it...thanks, Bernhard! Hang on, everyone, we're coming in!”

“Travis!” Malcolm yelled. “Slow down and reverse thrust---”

The shuttlepod skidded forward with a piercing screech. Sparks flared from the walls as the pod lurched to the left, then something exploded to Hoshi's right. Shuttlepod One finally halted in a cloud of smoke as burned electrical circuits send faint discharges into the air.

“Everyone okay?” Travis asked with a cough.

Malcolm swore something incoherent as someone banged on the shuttlepod walls. Phlox had his scanner out and was checking Hoshi when she finally managed to whisper, “What happened? Where are we?”

“I believe we've landed,” Phlox deadpanned.



Nine: Epilogue

Hoshi looked up at Malcolm and lowered the phase pistol. His eyes lit up at the results of his PADD and he raised his head to meet her eyes. She found herself mirroring the smile and knew what he was going to say.

“You're improving by leaps and bounds, Hoshi. Sixty-six percent.”

She blushed. “Thanks, Malcolm.”

“I noticed you've relaxed your stance and concentrated on the target, and you're not compensating for the drift anymore. We'll have you at marksmanship level before long.”

“Ah...I'm a linguist, not a sharpshooter.”

“I'm aware of that, but I feel more confident in your ability to defend yourself in a crisis situation.” He nodded at her. “Once more, then we'll call it a day?”

She nodded back. “Once more. I'm ready.” Hoshi checked her stance and raised the phase pistol. “Go.” And just like that, she slipped into that strange sense of mind that helped her concentrate on what she was doing. Instead of tensing her shoulders in anticipation, she focused on the target and allowed her body to automatically adjust to the movement. Her fingers tightened on the trigger without her conscious awareness, and after each hit, she went on to the next target.

“Time.”

She dropped her arm and turned expectantly towards him. “How'd I do?”

“Sixty nine percent.” He grinned again. “Good work, Hoshi.”

“Thanks.” She thumbed the safety catch on the pistol and handed it to him. “You know, I could almost sense where the target was going to be. All I had to do was relax and let it happen. Before, I was so worried about making a good score that I was all tense and cramped up. Now, it's not as bad.”

Malcolm digested this as he put the pistol away in a weapons locker. “Na'lai's tactical sense?”

“I think so.” Hoshi tapped the side of her temple with a finger. “She's not there anymore, but I still have some of her talent, I think.”

“Phlox said that your brain scans had changed a little bit...that you'll still possess a sensitivity to your environment, but nowhere close to what Na'lai had.” He closed the locker and activated the lock. “It could be useful sometime.”

“Probably.” She managed a smile and added, “Don't expect me to join your Armory team anytime soon, though.”

He chuckled. “How about dinner?”

“Sounds good.”

They walked through the corridors leading to the Mess Hall. Other crewmembers greeted Hoshi on the way there; she returned the greetings with a wave. In the few days since her recovery, she had felt an even greater change than the physical. For most of her life, she'd felt like an outsider, someone who stood apart from the others, and she'd resigned herself to that fact. But ever since she'd accepted Jon Archer's invitation to join the crew, she'd found out that she belonged here.

The Mess Hall was only half-full, but Trip and Travis were already there. As usual, Travis ate at his breakneck speed, while Trip savored his fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. Trip looked up and waved Hoshi and Malcolm to their table.

“Hey, look who's here, Travis. It's the lucky lovebirds,” he drawled. “How ya both doin'?”

“Just finished target practice,” Malcolm replied. Hoshi noticed he hadn't denied Trip's assumption, like he would have a month ago. She fought to keep a straight face. “I believe Hoshi will continue to improve her skills.”

“Yeah, I got every confidence she will,” Trip agreed with a wink. Hoshi felt herself blush again; what was it with these guys? She was saved from commenting by Travis.

“She's got chocolate cheesecake. Now we know she's definitely back.” He waved his fork in the air. “Guess what? Chef said he's planning on baking chocolate chip cookies. I can't wait to snag a couple; it's been a while since Chef's done it.”

“Let me know the minute he pulls them from the oven, Travis. I have dibs on a couple from the first tray.”

“You got it, Hoshi.” He looked up as the doors hissed open and a short, brown blur streaked into the Mess Hall. “Look out, furry torpedo at nine o'clock.”

Porthos threw himself against Hoshi's legs in glee and she picked him up. “Hi, Porthos,” she said with a grin. “Sorry, no cheese today, but I can give you a hug.”

“He managed to wheedle some cheese cubes from Crewman Cunningham, so he's had his limit for the day,” Jon said as he joined the others. “He's glad you're back, Hoshi. We all are.”

“Indeed,” echoed T'Pol, who had arrived with her normally calm aplomb. “It has been...unsettling without your presence, Ensign.”

“Thanks. It's good to be back.” She looked over at Malcolm, who had reached over to scratch Porthos behind the ears. She touched his hand with her fingers and he gently grasped them. “It's good to be home.”

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May 2012

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