Title: Heart on Fire

Author: Caroline Crane

Email: caroline_crane@hotmail.com

Website: http://desiderium.slashcity.net/

Rating: PG

Pairing: Archer/Tucker

Series Title: Heart on Fire

Next story: Cabin Fever

Date: 11/09/01

Summary: Archer considers his friendship with Trip and what he's given up for his career over the years.

Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.

—Bruce Lee

There was an old Earth saying once, long before Starfleet was even the figment of some bureaucrat's imagination. It went something along the lines of "if the military wanted their soldiers to have a love life they'd have issued them one". Of course in these more enlightened times we're supposed to be beyond those antiquated notions, but sometimes I wonder if the bureaucrats wouldn't still be happier if they could control their officers' love lives as well as their careers. I've been on board the Enterprise for less than a month, of course I've been in outer space before but never in a ship like this one. This should be the crowning achievement of my career, just seeing my father's life work in action should supercede any personal misgivings I have about floating around into unknown territories.

I have Porthos for company, after all, and there's Trip. I can't remember a time when we weren't friends, he's always been right there with me through every triumph and failure in my career. Then again, his presence on board is part of the problem. Not that I didn't want him here, he's the best friend I've ever had and he's always been my choice for first officer and engineer. I know he's not going to step aside gracefully and just let T'Pol assume his place as second in command, but our first mission proved to all of us that having a Vulcan on board isn't such a bad idea after all. It would be different if she didn't want to be here, but even though she won't admit it I think she's warming up to the idea of us, if not all humankind. I wonder sometimes if she's warming up to Trip a little more than I'd like her to, though.

Not that I can blame her, I'm certainly not blind and I've known him long enough to know how often his charisma opens doors for him even if he isn't aware of it. If he heard me say that he'd laugh and tell me I need to have my head examined, then he'd say there's a word for what he's got but 'charisma' isn't it. It's true that he can be abrasive sometimes, but he doesn't see what I and apparently T'Pol see. He doesn't let many people see that part of him, in fact he does his best to keep people at arm's length as much as possible. There are a few people that slip past his defenses, however, and I could myself lucky to be included in that group. Sometimes I wonder if he remembers the glimpses he's given me into his carefully guarded heart, though.

It would be impossible to keep his best friend completely in the dark about his private emotions, of course, but there have been a time or two over the years when he's let me in further than he would ever willingly do. Maybe he doesn't even remember it, usually when he lets his guard down that far it's because he's had a few too many single malt scotches in my quarters. The truth is I don't even like the stuff, but I always have a supply of it available because it's the best way to get Trip to let his guard down. Am I proud of the fact that I ply my so-called best friend with expensive alcohol just to get closer to him? Of course not, I don't even bother trying to justify it to myself. It's just something I do, and part of me wonders if he doesn't know at least on some level that that's the reason I always seem to have a bottle of his favorite scotch 'just gathering dust'.

As long as I can remember it's always been the two of us: Trip and Jon, Jon and Trip. We've gotten drunk together, picked up women together, flown missions together and there's no one I'd rather trust with my life. I know he feels the same way, he's told me as much and shown me in a thousand different ways over the years. He's never left me behind, for instance, even though I take stupid risks sometimes in the name of whatever mission we're on. I know I can, though, because I know Trip will always be there to pull my ass out of the fire. He watches my back and I watch his, that's what best friends are for. I wonder sometimes if he knows what I want from him. If he does I sure wish he'd tell me, because I'm not sure that I know.

I used to think that I knew, I never thought I'd be brave enough to ask for it though and as it turns out I was right. Now I'm not so sure, though, because he offered me what I thought I wanted once and I turned him down. Maybe that makes me a coward, maybe because I wasn't willing to take a chance with my best friend I don't deserve to be the Captain of Starfleet's flagship. I know everyone in Starfleet thinks that being the Captain of the Enterprise is my fondest dream realized, and professionally speaking they're right. But when the captain's uniform comes off I'm just a man, and I have other dreams that mean a little more to me than even being the first human to explore space.

He did make the offer, though—well at least he offered part of what I thought I wanted. Maybe it wasn't enough for me, after all I know him and I of all people know that he's not the kind of person you trust with your heart. I've seen him break enough hearts to know better than to think I'd be any different, I'm his best friend but I don't think even that would exempt me from his particular brand of restlessness when it comes to love. Every once in awhile I wonder if I'm wrong about that, he does put up with a lot from me that he wouldn't take from most people. He doesn't think it's strange that I talk to Porthos, for instance, in fact he humors all my little eccentricities. Then again, I guess that's what friends do, and reading too much into that will only get me into trouble.

Am I in love with him? That's a loaded question, isn't it? The Captain of the Enterprise, handpicked by Starfleet to be an ambassador to the rest of the cosmos, in love with one of his crew. The scandal probably wouldn't be as bad as I make it out to be in my mind, but then again I think I tell myself it's out of the question just so I don't have to take that leap of faith and let him know how I feel. Better to suffer in silence and hang on to the part of him that I do have, right?

That's what I told myself the night he got a little too close to the truth, after I left him to sleep off his scotch I repeated it to myself over and over again, and for a month afterwards. Every time I saw him I'd have to remind myself that he didn't even remember what happened between us that night, what he'd said and the way I'd turned tail like a coward and run out on something for the first time in my life. No one's ever accused me of being a coward before, but he could have that night and he'd have been right. I'm not sure if he was relieved that I turned down his offer, but he wasn't exactly thinking clearly so it doesn't really matter how he felt at the time.

I still remember what he said to me, his speech was a little slurred and his eyes were glassy as we stumbled into his quarters at Starfleet but his words were unmistakable. As soon as the door closed behind me his vision cleared, he was still swaying a little but he definitely knew what he was saying. And God…I locked onto those eyes of his and I couldn't look away, no matter how much I wanted to. Just the sound of his voice actually saying out loud what I'd been feeling for years sent shivers down my spine, and even if I wanted to I couldn't hide the affect he had on me.

"Stay," he said, his voice was so low that at first I wasn't sure if he even remembered that I was still in the room but that's when he looked up. As long as I live I'll never forget the look in his eyes that night, Trip's never one to be serious for too long but that night I could only describe his expression as determined. "You know what's going on here, Johnny, I know you do. You've been giving me that puppy dog look all night, so there's no point in denying it. Just forget for one night that you belong to Starfleet."

That's when he smiled, and God knows I've never been able to stand up to that grin of his. I fold every time, all he has to do is smirk at me and I cave. I hadn't forgotten how much he'd had to drink, though, or how hard he'd been working to get one of the cute blonde Lieutenants in the group of girls at the next table to go home with him. He ended up with me, it wasn't the first time he'd gotten shot down but it was the first time he'd asked me to be a stand-in. Still, even though he'd been hitting on somebody else an hour before I knew there was some truth to what he was saying. There was something between us, I'd always assumed it was one-sided but obviously I hadn't been as discreet as I thought I was.

"You're drunk, Trip. Get some sleep." I was surprised I even managed to get out that much, but somehow I kept my voice steady enough to make it sound convincing. He flopped back on his pillows and sighed dramatically, but he was still wearing that damn grin of his.

"I know I'm drunk, if you'd ever let yourself have any fun you'd be drunk too. Maybe then I wouldn't have to work so hard to get you to give in to me for once." He turned on his side and locked eyes with me again, laughing a little as I blushed and looked away. "Come on, it's just us guys here. What's a little recreational sex between friends anyway? It's not like we're hurting anybody."

Recreational sex, it's what I'd told myself I was interested in for ages. If he'd asked me I wouldn't have been able to deny that I'd thought about it more than once, but he took enough pity on me not to ask. I still don't know if he realized what he was asking of me that night, he's not the best drunk so chances are he wasn't weighing the consequences of our actions. And he was right about one thing—if I'd been drunk I probably would have caved in. Hell, if he'd just stood up and touched me I might not have been able to leave. He stayed where he was, though, whether it was because he couldn't stand up or because he wasn't that interested in convincing me to stay I don't know. The point was he didn't get up, so I took a few steps backwards and managed to mumble something about both of us being on duty in the morning. I turned and walked out then, but I wasn't fast enough to miss his parting shot.

"Yes sir, Captain Archer. I won't let you down, Captain, I'll report for duty at 08:00 hours sharp." I couldn't get out of there fast enough, I kept trying to convince myself that he was too drunk to know what he was saying but I knew the truth. The fact was Trip could be a sarcastic bastard, but he was right about one thing—I used my sense of duty to hide from the fact that I wanted to stay, I wanted to give in to what he was asking of me.

When I finally made it back to my quarters I didn't even bother trying to sleep, I knew better than to close my eyes with his words still ringing in my head. Instead I spent the entire night playing over our entire friendship, poring over years worth of counting on Trip and trying to hide the depth of my feelings for him. As it turned out I'd been doing a pretty bad job, but then again Trip had only hinted at the sexual tension between us and not the idea that I might be in love with him. So I spent that night playing over every look, every exchange I could remember that might give me some clue that he knew that a night with him could never be just recreational for me. I wanted to give him at least that much credit, if I thought he didn't know how I felt it would be easier to see him the next day and shrug off what happened as the alcohol and nothing more. After all, it was the first time he'd ever breathed a word to me that suggested he knew that I was attracted to him. Unfortunately for me the more I thought about it the more I realized that he knew.

How could he not know, he knew me better than anyone except my father. Maybe he even knew me better than my father knew me, because if my father were still alive I'm not sure he'd be able to see through my act and realize that I was nursing unrequited feelings for my best friend. So he knew what he was doing, maybe he never would have said anything if we hadn't been drinking and he hadn't gotten shot down that night, but the point was he had and things haven't really been the same between us since. Sure, we're still best friends and he still hangs out in my quarters and listens to me talk to my dog. There's more than just an undercurrent of sexual tension between us now, though, even though he's never brought it up again we both know it's there. It's like this dark secret we don't talk about, we dance around it but now he's more careful what he tells me about the women in his life and I'm more careful not to look at him too often or do anything that might cross the line of friendship. Not that I haven't always been careful about how I talk to him but now that I know what I have to lose I can never forget, even for a second.

Part of me regrets not giving in that night. I know that I would have regretted it the next day and every day afterwards for the rest of my life, because for Trip it would have been just one night that didn't really mean anything. Still, at least I would have had a few memories to hang onto instead of just the regret I'm left with now. I've defined myself by my uniform for so long, though, Starfleet isn't the only thing I define myself by but the rules are comforting. I joined Starfleet to follow the dream my father passed down to me but at the same time having that kind of structure ruling your life can be an easy way to hide from actually living. I never had to take responsibility for the fact that I was just too scared to tell Trip what he was asking me to do, I could just tell myself that I was his senior officer and it wouldn't be appropriate.

Decorum is important in Starfleet, after all we're putting our best foot forward now that we're forming alliances with other cultures and I of all people can't afford to be ruled by my emotions. Sometimes, though, when we're alone in my quarters or when I'm watching him interact with the rest of the crew I wonder if the sacrifices I've made for my career are worth it. Trip's never let his commitment to Starfleet stand in the way of his life, in fact that's the one thing he's always accused me of. He says I'm too rigid, that I don't let myself have any fun because I'm too afraid of what the bureaucracy would say if they knew I was actually a human being. Maybe he's right, I know I give a lot of lip service to why there are rules in the first place but maybe I do just use them to hide from what I really want. The only problem is that even if I threw caution to the wind and went after what I wanted, I wouldn't get it.

I can't order him to think of me as more than his best friend, and anyway that should really be enough. Women and I suppose men if that night is any indication float in and out of his life and his bed, but I always get to be there even if it's just as his friend. That should mean more than a physical connection and it does, at least I hope it does. Still, the part of me that knows how much more we could be to each other can't seem to let go of the hope that someday he'll realize why I hide behind the rules so much.

I can't help wondering if that's the reason he's never brought it up again, normally Trip isn't the type of guy to back down from a challenge. He wanted me so he let me know, that's how he operates. The fact that I didn't tell him to go to hell or stop talking to him altogether would normally be a sign of encouragement for him, but he didn't pursue it and I can only assume that's because he knew why I walked out. Maybe he was testing me, seeing how far he could push me. Maybe he wanted to see if our friendship was more important to me than any romantic notions I was nursing or if he'd have to cut his losses and find a new best friend that wasn't hopelessly, pathetically in love with him. Maybe that's all he wanted to know after all.

I don't blame him for any of this, when he first came on to me I wanted to be angry but it wasn't his fault I was putting out signals. He's never pretended to be anybody he isn't, that's always been my job. I'm the one that went out with him night after night, flirted with women I wasn't really interested in and swallowed my jealousy when he took one of them home. Not that I haven't taken home my fair share, but my heart was never in it. The truth is I've always been more comfortable with men, we've never talked about that either but I never hid it from him. Still, Trip wanted to play this game and he took me along for the ride, and I let him just like always. It's amazing the things people will do to try to forget the one thing their heart wants the most. Even the Captain of the Enterprise isn't above lying to himself, as it turns out. I wonder how Starfleet would feel about that.

I've spent a lot more time than usual in my quarters lately, staring out the porthole at the cosmos. I know what's coming, I've seen them arguing and I know where it's leading. I don't want to see it, though, I don't want to watch it any more than absolutely necessary. If I'd known what would happen when T'Pol requested to stay aboard would I have refused her? I'd like to think I wouldn't have put my personal feelings above the success of Starfleet's first mission to encounter new cultures. I'm not just doing this for me, after all, I'm doing this for the entire population of Earth. My father and the Admiral and pretty much everyone else on Earth has told me that more times than I care to remember. I would have made the right decision and suffered in silence, I know the outcome of their flirtation anyway. It'll last a little while, there aren't a lot of distractions on board the Enterprise so he won't get bored as quickly as he usually does. He'll fight like hell getting involved with a Vulcan, but in the end the novelty of it will get the best of him and then I'll be counting the days until he screws up or gets bored enough to end it.

He and I both know how it works, we never talk about it but I've known him long enough to have his patterns memorized. It would be the same if it was me he'd chosen to keep his boredom at bay between missions, there's only so much even the engineer aboard Starfleet's flagship can do to keep himself entertained before he starts looking for more amusing pastimes. So I try not to think about what's coming, the less I dwell on it the better because I can't afford to be distracted right now. There's too much at stake, we have the entire universe at our fingertips for the first time and I'm not about to let my father down just because I can't control my emotions. What I want doesn't matter, not right now. There'll be time for me to have a life of my own someday, but no matter how much I want it to include Trip I'm smart enough to know that won't happen. We'll always be friends, of course, maybe we'll both even survive space travel and sit around trading war stories over a bottle of scotch when we're just a couple of washed up retired Starfleet officers. It's the most I'll ever have of him, so I have to be happy with that. Besides, I've been lying to myself for years already, what's a few more?

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