“...and so he says to the guy, 'That's not my wife. That's my...'” The story Commander A.G. Robinson had been laughing almost too hard to tell came to a screeching halt. Abruptly he sobered, his face melting into disbelief, then pained disapproval.
Still smirking, Jonathan Archer followed A.G.'s gaze toward the 602 Club's front door. When he spotted Trip Tucker in his most garish Hawaiian shirt yet, he knew immediately what had stopped A.G. in his tracks.
Struggling to not laugh harder, Jon waved Trip over, pouring the half-empty pitcher of beer into the empty glass that had been waiting patiently for their friend. “Have a seat,” Jon said, hoping to distract A.G. from the not-so-gentle ribbing he probably had brewing. “You've got some catching up to do.” Training and assignments had separated the three friends for long periods of time, making it difficult to get together. Enterprise was scheduled to leave on its maiden voyage in a few weeks; mission debriefing had brought Robinson back to San Francisco, and the men had agreed to set aside time for a few guys-only nights of reminiscing about old times and toasting the future before Jon and Trip were gone.
“You've got some explaining to do,” A.G. said, just warming up with a sweep of his hand to indicate Trip's appearance.
Sliding into a chair, Trip smoothed his hands over the pineapples and hibiscus flowers that ran riot with the hula girls on his chest. “I like this shirt.”
A.G. winced. “And you wonder why you have such rotten luck with women.”
“What rotten luck?” Trip asked a little defensively. “Natalie and I have been going out for four months now.”
“I rest my case,” A.G. snorted.
“Watch it,” Trip warned genially. “She may be Miss Right.”
Here we go, Jon thought, quietly sipping his beer as his eyes darted back and forth, watching the interchange as though following a tennis match. A.G. had never liked Natalie from the beginning, but Jon wasn't sure if it was because of anything legitimately wrong with her, or if it was simply that Trip's steady involvement with one woman meant A.G. had lost his best wing man for hooking up with the ladies.
Jon sighed. Though he hated to admit it, A.G. just may have been a little right; despite Trip's insistence to the contrary, he'd become that guy, the one who virtually becomes a ghost to his friends once things start taking a serious turn with a woman.
A.G. scoffed. “That's your problem, Tripper. In case you forgot, you're about to leave on a five-year interplanetary mission. You don't need Miss Right. What you need is Miss Right Now.”
Before Trip could retort, Jon broke in. “He's kind of got a point, Trip. What makes you think she'll wait for you? Five years is a long time.”
Trip's beer glass paused halfway to his lips. “Not you, too. We're just taking things as they come. What's the big deal?”
Jon laughed uncomfortably. “She called you yesterday during the inspection tour.”
A.G.'s eyebrows rose, the only indication of his piqued attention as he rocked back on the legs of his chair.
“So?” Trip said noncommittally.
“Four times,” Jon added.
Trip's voice tightened with his defenses. “It was important.”
“It was about her nail appointment, Trip.”
A.G. burst out laughing, nearly falling backward in his tenuously-balanced chair.
Trip looked from A.G. to Jon. “She had a big work thing tonight!”
Jon could believe that. Natalie worked for the prestigious public relations firm Starfleet had hired to handle publicity for the upcoming Enterprise mission, and he and Trip were introduced to her before their first media conference. She occasionally worked nights, various events and social occasions requiring her to represent her firm.
“So you finally get to sneak out because she won't be home to miss you,” A.G. said between chuckles. “You are so whipped, Tripper.” A.G. wiped the tears that were forming in his eyes. “Don't worry, man. We'll take up a collection to get your balls back, just as soon as Natalie gets around to sending the ransom note.”
Trip's eyes narrowed into a glare as he scooped some peanuts out of the bowl on the table and threw them at A.G., causing the other man to laugh even harder.
Jon winced. While Natalie seemed somewhat high-maintenance and perhaps a little demanding at times, she was a lovely woman, and he wasn't sure he'd go so far as to say she was holding Trip's manhood hostage.
Jon pointed to the video monitor on the wall that had so far gone ignored. “C'mon, guys. Did we come here to watch the game, or have an intervention?”
A.G.'s expression softened. “Sorry, man,” he said, slapping Trip on the back. “I don't mean to give you such a hard time. You're leaving in a few weeks and you've got all these possibilities in front of you now, you know? I'm just lookin' out for ya.”
Trip nodded. “I know.”
A.G. extended a closed hand. “Support Command.”
Fistbumps were exchanged around the table. “Support Command,” they all said solemnly.
Jon smirked. The whole “Support Command” in-joke had actually started in the Archer family years ago, when he was in junior high. Young Jon had been desperately trying to muster the courage to ask Emily Watson, the most popular girl at school, to the winter dance. His father had been there through it all, giving Jon pointers on everything from asking for the date to conversation tips once Emily had accepted...to commiserating with Jon over milkshakes when she broke his heart and dumped him. Guys had to look out for each other, Jon's father had said, and “Support Command” was born. Eventually, as Jon came to regard A.G. and Trip as family, the Archer guys-only network extended to include them, covering everything from scoring with a woman to protecting each other from gold diggers and skanks.
The waitress deposited a fresh pitcher on the table. Predictably, A.G. winked at her appreciatively, zeroing in on her bare midriff and big blond hair, earning a bashful smile in return. Jon hadn't seen her around before; Ruby was stuck behind the bar on game nights, so they were always hiring extra help. If Jon were a betting man, he'd lay odds that A.G. would know everything there was to know about the attractive young woman before the night was out. His mouth was asking Trip and Jon about their recent desert survival training, but his eyes were clearly asking the young woman for her number. As she sauntered away, he refocused his attention on the table.
“I was fine,” Jon answered, swallowing his beer. He jabbed a thumb toward Trip. “This one, though...?” Jon shook his had sadly. “Never stopped complaining until we left Alice Springs.”
“Jon, you know I hate the desert,” Trip protested.
Jon affected a whine that sounded suspiciously Southern. “'It's too hot'...'I'm sick of rations'...'I'm thirsty'...”
Trip's lip curled in not-entirely feigned offense. “I do not sound like that.”
“...'There's sand in my butt-crack'...”
Trip's tongue pushed itself into his cheek as A.G. laughed harder.
“...'There's a scorpion in my sleeping bag'...”
“Screamed like a woman, did he?” Robinson said.
“He shot it,” Jon answered.
“Isn't that a little bit of overkill?” A.G. said, turning to Trip.
Trip's jaw dropped indignantly. Holding his hands about six inches apart, he said, “That son of a bitch was this big!”
Robinson's eyes flicked toward Jon for confirmation. Jon shook his head with a grimace, holding his thumb and forefinger apart just a couple of inches.
“I see how it is,” Trip grumbled over the rim of his glass. “See how 'Support Command' I am when it's your junk that almost gets stung.” Despite the ribbing, everyone at the table knew that Jon had Trip's back during survival training.
Any further debate was cut off by the eruption of cheers from the bar's patrons. Apparently, UCLA had just scored.
As Jon settled in to watch the game, his attention was again derailed by A.G. “What the hell is this crap, any way?” he said with open contempt. “Whatever happened to real sports, like football and hockey?” He turned his gaze to Jon. “How'd you get them to show water polo?”
Before Jon could answer, Trip piped in. “He guessed one of the names Ruby picked for her children.”
A.G. Regarded Jon with a mixture of admiration and disbelief. “Shut up.”
Jon raised his eyebrows and smirked enigmatically as he drained his beer.
“Wasn't enough for her to marry him,” Trip continued, “but he got water polo out of it.”
A.G. shook his head. “I'm taking away your man card, too,” he said to Jon. Something past Jon's shoulder caught is eye. Pushing himself away from the table, he said, “Excuse me, guys. I think I see some friends.”
Jon turned to see three attractive women eyeing them from the bar, one blonde, one brunette, and one redhead. “You know them?” he asked.
“Not yet,” A.G. grinned, swaggering through the crowd.
Jon and Trip exchanged knowing glances. “I don't know how he does it,” said Trip.
“I don't wanna know how he does it,” Jon answered with a laugh. “Great guy, but damn.”
Trip nodded in agreement, and they turned their attention to the match. A.G. was great to hang around with, but it wasn't until he'd gone away on assignment, leaving just Jon and Trip, that Jon realized that it actually was possible to invite a guy to the bar to watch the game and actually see it.
Any enjoyment of the game was short-lived. A.G. soon returned with the three ladies in tow, pulling extra chairs to the table. “Guys, meet Sherry, Angie, and Brenda.”
“Brandy,” the blonde corrected.
“Whatever,” A.G. said glibly. “Girls, this is Jon and Trip.”
Jon fought down a mixture of pity and amusement at Trip's pained expression. It was obvious that A.G. was trying to “help” Trip in his own transparent and misguided way, either by showing him there were plenty of fish to be caught out there, or by seducing him to the Dark Side—Jon wasn't sure which. So much for 'just the guys' he thought ruefully.
Stuck, the men stood and seated the ladies around the now-crowded table. They were still short a chair, so the brunette eagerly made herself comfortable on A.G.'s lap. The redhead, Jon noted, was sitting close enough to Trip she might as well have been in his lap as well. A.G. wasted no time regaling them with tall tales about past missions and details about the NX project that, while not classified, he'd somehow made them sound juicier than they actually were. Robinson exploited the fact that he and Jon were pilots, capitalizing on the attraction women had for men who controlled fast and powerful things, currying exaggerated “ooooooooohs” and “ahhhhhhhhs” from the ladies.
“And what do you do?” the redhead asked, trailing a finger along the curve of Trip's muscular arms.
Trip swallowed hard and coughed self-consciously.
“Are you kidding?” A.G. answered for him. “He's got the most important job on the ship.”
Red—Jon had lost track if this was Sherry or Angie—leaned expectantly toward Trip, waiting for him to dazzle her with his importance. Trip, for his part, flushed in humiliation while swelling with pride. Jon felt bad for him.
“He's in charge of the fastest, most powerful engine in the fleet!” A.G. went on. “Without him, we wouldn't have anything to pilot.”
Trip smiled bashfully the redhead's intensified interest. “Really!” she nearly squealed. “That's very interesting. Tell me, is there a Mrs. Trip?”
Trip nearly choked on his beer. Jon had to cover his mouth to conceal the smile at Trip's discomfort and the woman's brashness. “I have a girlfriend...” Trip managed.
Red's face fell. The woman had the subtlety of a warp core breach. “I'm going to go powder my nose,” she said with forced brightness.
To Jon's relief, the female herd instinct was alive and well and the other two followed her.
“What the hell, Tripper?” A.G. demanded.
“You're crazy if you think I'm going home with her,” Trip hissed.
A.G. looked at Jon plaintively. “Help me out here.”
Jon spread his hands. “I'm staying out of this one. You and Trip are on your own. I came to drink beer and watch a game.” It wasn't that he objected to female company; rather, with Enterprise due to launch soon, he just wasn't looking for any entanglements just now, even the no-strings-attached kind, which were never really his style, any way.
Trip nodded. Jon wasn't surprised. Despite the occasional dalliance, Trip wasn't much of a hound by nature, either.
“Suit yourselves,” A.G. said. “More for me, then.” Rising from the table, he corralled the women toward the bar as they exited the rest room. “Ruby—how 'bout a few appletinis for my friends here?”
Jon and Trip exchanged “go figure” glances as they returned to their beers. Not that they were about to judge A.G.; just about every guy had at least one encounter in his lifetime that ended with an awkward morning and “what was your name again?” Still, while Jon never considered himself a prude, he had to admit to himself that it was a little troubling that A.G. seemed to prefer those kinds of encounters over the stability of a meaningful relationship. “Trust me, Jon,” A.G. had said a long time ago, “they're all meaningful!”
“You think he's right?” Trip asked just as Jon was settling back into the game. “About Natalie?”
Coming to the realization he was never going to see this match, Jon sighed, picking up his beer. “You're a big boy, Trip. I don't want to tell you what to do. But for what it's worth, even with annual trips home, it's a long time to be gone. You have to decide if it's fair—to either of you.” After a long drink, he continued. “If Natalie can't get through an inspection tour without needing your attention, what's it going to be like when you're in deep space?”
Trip grimaced. “That was kinda annoying, being asked to decide between 'Pink Grapefruit' and 'Bubblegum' when I'm trying to check out a manifold.” He shrugged, sipping his own beer. “There's still a couple of weeks to work it all out, I guess.”
Jon nodded. “That's the spirit. Don't make any rash decisions.”
Trip nodded, and with that, Jon was able to watch about fifteen minutes of water polo before being interrupted again. A.G. stooped between them, leaning on the table. “Guys—we're getting ready to get out of here. If either of you want in on this, they're into it.”
Jon and Trip followed A.G.'s gaze toward the door, where Angie, Sherry, and Brandy were waiting, each giving a little wave with “come hither” eyes.
Jon frowned. Trip actually sunk a little into his chair. “I think we'll take one for the team and sit this one out this time,” Jon said diplomatically. “It's all you, A.G.”
Straightening, A.G. threw enough money on the table to cover his part of the tab. “Your loss. See you guys tomorrow.” With a bawdy grin, he extended his fist. “Support Command!”
After a round of fistbumps, Jon and Trip watched A.G. leave, arm-in-arm-in-arm with the ladies.
Trip seemed visibly relieved when they were gone. “Y'know, that guy is actually lucky that you beat him out for the captaincy of Enterprise.”
“How's that?” Jon asked.
“Are you kidding? He'd be trying to hit so much alien tail, he'd probably catch something exotic and incurable, and his junk would fall right the hell off.”
Jon laughed at the mental picture this evoked. “Yeah. Or some kind of crazy alien paternity scandal.”
Trip laughed, too. “Boy, I sure am glad I'll never have to worry about anything like that.”
To that, they clinked glasses. It seemed a little more appropriate than “Support Command.”
Trip checked his watch. “Shit.” He drained his glass. “Natalie's gonna kill me if the thinks I was out drinking all night.” He added money to the pile A.G. left. “And don't you dare tell A.G. I said that!”
Unable to completely hide his amusement, Jon shook his head. “Not a word. Promise. See you later, Trip.”
Trip flashed him a peace sign and was gone.
Left with empty chairs to keep him company, Jon tipped back the last of his beer and got ready to leave. The game was almost over, and he wasn't in the mood to watch it any more, anyway. All he wanted to do was pay the tab and go...
It was a mild night, not quite jacket weather even with the breeze blowing in off the bay. There was something electrical and elemental about the air. Maybe a storm was coming, but Jon suspected it had more to do with the artificial constellation in the night sky. The orbital docking platform was in a fixed position over San Francisco. If Jon excluded the square pattern of the frame, he could mentally connect the rest of the glowing dots and see the silhouette of Enterprise.
A shiver went up his spine. He knew that serving as her master was likely to be lonely much of the time, but he also had a feeling that he was in for the most meaningful relationship he was ever going to have.
A.G. played fast and loose with the women.
Trip was maybe a little too committed.
Jon knew, however, that his best girl waited for him up there, and he couldn't wait to take her out.