Disclaimer: Archer and the others belong to Paramount. No money has been made from this work of fiction and no infringement to copyright is intended.

Summary: During the sting with Degra and his crew an unexpected opportunity presents itself which Archer takes only to find himself dealing with another problem entirely.

Warnings: Multiple pairings, self-sacrificing Archer and interspecies sex. If any of these situations disturb you then I suggest you skip this story and search for something more to your liking.

Rating: R for sexual content.

Author's notes: This is not one of my usual Archer and Reed stories. When I first saw "Stratagem" I found the dynamics between Degra and Archer fascinating and then as the series progressed and their relationship developed I decided they were a pairing that needed to be investigated. This is what I came up with. This story contains possible spoilers for Stratagem, Judgment & E2 Australian Spelling.

Thanks: To Mareel and Qzee for betaing and to Mareel, Stormy and Ian for listening to me thrash this out and providing me with support along the way.

Comments: Are welcome and can be sent to aliajones1999@yahoo.com

----*-----

The hand on my wrist takes me by surprise, although I have to admit, it is the knife which is pressed simultaneously to my throat that steals my breath, and ultimately renders me speechless.

Dark Xindi eyes stare up me as I struggle to decide what I should do now - if trying to use the hypo spray that Phlox has given me is an option or not?

The hand around my wrist increases in intensity and the one holding the knife trembles noticeably as Degra and I regard one another. The minimal lighting in the shuttle provides me with a somewhat eerie view of our prisoner, who I know despite my best intentions and careful planning has the upper hand for the moment and I needed to remember that above all else. The fact that he is apparently still unaware that he is my prisoner, and is as clearly taken aback by the sudden change in events as myself, gives me very little comfort however.

I swallow over the lump forming in my throat as the knife presses uncomfortably close to my jugular but other than that I force myself to stay still, to not react, hoping that Malcolm and others will do the same.

Trapped for the moment, I can do little more than return Degra's questioning gaze and I search the dark eyes for a clue as to what he might thinking, if he actually plans on using the knife or not? From my current position it certainly feels as if he will and I swallow again, willing Malcolm to hold his ground.

Seconds of uncertainty feel like the passing of a millennium as the stand off continues, until finally the alien speaks, and I find myself breathing a little easier. While the lines of communication stay open there is a possibility, albeit a slim one at this stage, that I can talk my way out of this without any intervention from my crew.

"Have you come to murder me in my bed, Archer? Or has all your talk of friendship and unlikely alliances given you other ideas?" Degra's voice trembles in much the same way his hand does and it is difficult to say which possibility disturbs him most. There is an edge to it though, one that I suspect has also been noted by those listening in, and which makes me think that there was an angle to our stratagem that we hadn't considered during its construction.

My ability to think on my feet has always held me in good stead. There have been times since we entered the Expanse when that skill has been stretched to the limit, but never had an opening presented itself in quite the same way before, or have I, knowing everything I risked, felt so compelled to take it.

"If I had wanted you dead, we wouldn't be having this conversation," I assure him.

I leave the rest of Degra's question unanswered; allowing him to decide what else, if anything he thinks is incorporated in our relationship. It doesn't take long, a moment or two during which time I can see the inevitable conclusion being drawn, and the confusion that such knowledge must ultimately bring, cloud his regard.

The hand holding my wrist remains but the knife is slowly lowered and Degra glances away as the moments pass, giving himself time to recover I imagine - to reconcile the thoughts, false or otherwise that have brought us to this point.

"You said we have been cell mates for how long?" he eventually asks, looking back at me again.

"Three years," I return.

Degra's eyes cloud over again, clearly torn now between believing what I have told him and what I can guess, given the information we have on him was not a part of his usual nature. Still, he was a participant in a war not unlike myself, and if I have learnt anything in the time since we left Earth on our mission of exploration it was that when it came to ensuring our own survival, most humanoid species reverted to the same basic methods.

Unconsciously my thoughts turn to Malcolm and I avert my own gaze, surprised at how quickly images of him threaten to overshadow and steal my resolve. I can't let it happen. I know that as far as the mission goes it shouldn't matter to me what Malcolm Reed thinks. The fact that he is my lover can't influence any decisions I make. Like Degra though, and despite the ongoing secrecy surrounding the relationship I have with my tactical officer, I remember a time when the idea of seeking comfort or relief from another man made my blood run cold.

Necessity and Malcolm's own unique means of seduction changed that, and was I believe, what saw me through the weeks I spent on Rura Penthe.

Although we had only been involved for a short time prior to my arrest by the Klingons I don't know what would have become of me without the experience and acceptance I had gained from Malcolm, or if Kolas had not convinced me that it was safer for both of us to declare our relationship exclusive from the very beginning of our internment.

I try not to think about the one less than private display of intimacy I shared with the old Klingon. It was a means to an end and no more -- necessary in guaranteeing my survival until my crew came for me, and like anything I might do now, I knew it was a small price to pay if it gave us the information we needed to locate the Xindi weapon.

I note movement beside me and I glance back to see Degra staring at me again. His eyes are clearer now, still trimmed with a certain amount of reservation but portraying a trust I had not seen before. A part of me wants to celebrate the small victory I feel, but another part of me knows just what the alien's acceptance could mean, and my stomach turns. The hand he has around my wrist loosens slightly while we continue to regard one another and slides up my arm in what I guess would pass as a tentative caress. There is very little doubt in my mind about what the gesture means but having gained so much I am not about to start assuming anything, or appearing as if I am intentionally trying to manipulate the situation.

"I think that the toxin has confused you." I sniff my indignation and pull my arm away, adding as soon as I have, "we will continue the search for your family in a few hours."

The hypo spray is still clasped in my hand and as I finally free myself from Degra I carefully fold it end on end to conceal it beneath the sleeve of my shirt. Turning on the edge of the bunk I then make a show of adjusting my clothing. The knife Degra had held to my throat is lying beside me and I eye it cautiously, wondering where it came from, and if he has any other surprises for me.

I don't get to wonder for long however. I am still eyeing the makeshift weapon when Degra reaches for it again, this time covering it with his hand.

"After three years my family may not even remember me," he informs me. His eyes meet mine briefly before his attention is once more focused on the knife and I watch as he tucks it under the bunk mattress, returning it from whence it came I presume.

Degra raises himself up on to one elbow as he goes on and I feel my revulsion begin to rise. "You tell me we're friends, Archer, that we have shared a cell and every detail of lives prior to the Reptilians' betrayal, and the destruction of your planet. If this is true…"

"It is." I answer too quickly I think, but if Degra is suspicious it doesn't show in his face. He raises himself up further, bringing us closer together again and simply nods at what I have I said.

"Then I am sure we have shared a great deal more," he adds.

Everything becomes surreal after that. He talks a little more about his wife and their life before the Xindi council decided to build the weapon, but somewhere through the drone of words I note the press of warm, hesitant lips against the side of my neck and the slow glide of hands across my chest. I close my eyes and force myself not to pull away, to not think about anyone, or anything other than what I needed to do to get through this. It was not too late to change my mind and yet I had no thoughts of resisting his advances or of suddenly providing some excuse. I may not have planted the original idea that we were more than just companions, but I had certainly played a part in propagating it and I knew there was no turning back from what my efforts had wrought if I was to discover what we needed to know. I open my eyes and allow myself to be drawn back - turning as best I can, given the limited space to reciprocate.

The bunk is too narrow to lie side by side and after some initial miscommunication about just what I am willing to provide, Degra settles for what satisfaction can be found in the grinding of his body against my own. I urge him on, playing my role as convincingly as I can under the circumstances, all the while wishing he would just finish - that this was worth the grief I knew it was causing.

----*----

As soon as I am convinced that Degra is asleep I retrieve the hypo spray from the folds of my clothing and press it to his throat, injecting him with the sedative that will ensure he remains unconscious while we plan what we are going to do next. I stare for a moment at the still form of our Xindi prisoner, the lingering smell of sweat and sex invading my senses, stinging my eyes -- at least that's what I tell myself it is as I raise my arm and press against them.

I knew I needed to get out of here and I take a deep breath, swallowing over the bile that rises in my throat as I collect the knife from beneath the bunk's thin mattress and then stand. Backing away, I feel for and raise the shuttle hatch, stumbling in my effort to leave both Degra and the revulsion I feel towards him and his species behind me.

T'Pol, Travis, Hoshi and Malcolm stand waiting for me as I come around the side of the shuttle, each set of eyes meeting mine briefly before all but T'Pol's and Malcolm's return to the consoles and PADDs each had been studying prior to my appearance.

Although he remains silent, Malcolm's expression is one of barely contained fury; his mouth is a tight unbroken line, his eyes ablaze with a level of contempt usually only reserved for Hayes and the other MACO's. My mouth goes dry and my stomach knots. I want to tell him that I had no choice, explain that my actions were necessary, but I've never been very good at telling him what I know I should, and this was certainly not the time or the place to start. I turn to T'Pol instead, grateful now more so than any other time I can recall for her complete indifference. I request a report of our progress to be sent to my quarters, and then deposit the empty hypo spray and Degra's knife on the console where Travis is working and turn away.

----*----

I don't bother with anything above minimal lighting when I reach my cabin. I need the solitude, the time to think, that only the semi-darkness can provide me right now. Porthos whimpers as I enter and then growls when the door slides shut again. It is a low threatening sound that sets my already frayed nerves on edge and sends a shudder of caution through my over-taxed body.

"Easy boy, it's just me," I hush gently. I only want to reassure him but like my scent, which I suspect has me registering as more alien than familiar, my voice comes out rough and it takes a moment to be recognised. He gives another plaintive whimper and then backs off.

I lean against the sealed door for a few minutes after Porthos resettles himself on his cushion, just trying to get my bearings, but the lingering stench of what I had just done in the name of our mission and my own growing feelings of recrimination don't allow for a great deal of clear thought. I have already gathered that Malcolm will be the one to deliver the progress report I have requested and given his reaction, I can well imagine the state he will be in when he arrives.

I don't relish a confrontation with the man who has come to mean more to me than I would have ever thought possible and whose opinion I value far more than I give him credit for. Despite my methods however, I am convinced that adjusting our plan and my less than regulation treatment of Degra had been necessary in gaining the Xindi's complete trust and cooperation. Somehow though, and I am not sure how at this point, I needed to find a way of convincing Malcolm that I have only acted in the best interests of the mission, and salvaging my relationship with him.

I push away from the door, stripping off my clothing as I move through my cabin to the bathroom. Phlox can manufacture whatever I wash away, I decide, and what he can't, I will just have to find a way to explain when I next confront Degra.

----*----

The chime to my cabin sounds while I am washing my hair and I call out to 'come in and wait'. I already know its Malcolm but I hurry through the rest of my shower all the same. Snagging a T-Shirt and a pair of sweats from the hamper I dress quickly and run my fingers through my damp hair. The added length gives me some trouble, but it is the very least of my concerns right now, I remind myself. I settle for what I can manage in the minimal amount of time and then open the door that divides the bathroom from the rest of my cabin.

Malcolm is standing at ease as the bathroom door slides open but snaps to attention when I adjust the lighting and approach him. It is a familiar sight, but certainly not one that surprises me under the circumstances. Strict formality has always been his favoured defence against anything that blurred the line between our private and professional relationship.

I stifle my urge to sigh. Not because I don't think Malcolm has a right to use whatever means he sees fit to protect himself. I just wish he didn't feel it was necessary to guard himself against me, and I felt remotely deserving of the respect he continues to shows me.

As resistant as I am to the idea of dragging this out any longer than is required for Malcolm to feel secure in his position as both my tactical officer and my lover, I know better than to try and circumvent this ritual of his altogether and I proceed as I am expected to.

"Do you have something for me, Lieutenant?"

"The progress report you requested, sir." Malcolm meets my eyes as he hands me the PADD, just long enough to maintain protocol, but fixes his gaze on some point over my right shoulder the moment I take possession of the report.

It wasn't an unusual stance, not even for Malcolm, but seeing him so rigid, so clearly unwilling to look at me, disturbed me more than I knew it should. I am not sure what to think; if I was kidding myself to think I could do what he wants, when all I wanted right now was to explain myself and move on.

I take a deep breath, trying to gain some control over my growing anxiety and look down at the PADD, searching as I scroll through the information for something new, anything that made what I knew I needed to discuss with Malcolm worthwhile. Other than the location of the red giant though, there is nothing to indicate that we had learnt anything else. It was too early, I tell myself, later when I go back into the shuttle and wake Degra, he'll give us the information we need.

He just had to…

I feel myself begin to shake as I stare down at the PADD, and like the wave of nausea I endure just thinking about going back in to face our alien prisoner, I am powerless to stop the trembling of my hands and the blurring of my vision. In spite of Malcolm's formality, I can feel the anger I noted earlier radiating from him again. There was something else there now however. Something I should have realised would have an impact on me no matter how much I tried to tell myself it shouldn't be taken into consideration.

Malcolm's pain is as unmistakable as his anger and I shake my head, cursing myself for the fool I know I have been - I am. God knows I never wanted this.

I drop the PADD to my side and raise my eyes. "It would be easier for both of us if you say whatever it is you have on your mind," I tell him.

Malcolm is still standing at attention, his eyes fixed at a point on the wall behind me, his mouth a tight line once again that twitches noticeably at one corner as he appears to consider my offer. I want to reach out and still the affected area, let him know how much it concerned me to see him struggle, to see him in pain. There had been a time or two in the past, before he had reminded me how inappropriate and how disconcerting it was to have one's superior officer touch him in such intimate manner while we were both on duty, that I would have done just that, but not now. Not only did I not have the luxury of knowing my touch would be welcome, I was certain that Malcolm would not appreciate the familiarity.

With my arms held firmly at my sides I wait, wondering after what seems far longer than is needed for Malcolm to answer, if he was going to decline? If in fact my latest effort to find and destroy the Xindi weapon had destroyed something else in the process- something precious and rare, although I have never once told the one responsible that in so many words. I don't want to believe that my actions have created an irreparable situation between Malcolm and myself, but as the moments stretch into minutes I can't seem to stop the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach or the thoughts that I have.

I let out the breath I didn't realise I had been holding the entire I'd been waiting and then step away. My intention is to sit down at my desk so that I can organise some of the thoughts in my head, but I only manage half the distance before Malcolm's voice stops me in my tracks.

"While Starfleet acknowledges the sometimes necessary use of deception when dealing with alien races, it does not sanction the endangering of commanding officers to precipitate such dealings."

Only Malcolm would quote Starfleet regulations to me. Anyone else would just say they thought I'd gone too far. As long as he's talking though, I couldn't bring myself to complain; it was certainly better than his silence.

I turn where I stand and nod slowly, accepting both what he has said, and where I know his concerns have originated. Malcolm's dedication to duty and to me was faultless. Unfortunately it made our sometimes differences of opinion difficult.

"Starfleet also acknowledges that some situations fall outside of normal circumstances and recognises the commanding officer's discretion in these cases," I remind him.

Malcolm doesn't even flinch. He knows better than any man I have ever met, what is and isn't allowed in the eyes of Starfleet and I brace myself for what I know will come next.

"With all due respect, sir, I highly doubt that your most recent encounter with the Xindi prisoner would even qualify as extraordinary circumstances by Starfleet standards."

There is a definite note of sarcasm to Malcolm's words, each of which sends a shudder of inevitability through me, but I couldn't argue with what he was saying, nor do I make any attempt to do so.

"You may be right," I tell him instead.

Turning away again, I take the few steps necessary to reach my desk and sit down, absently placing the PADD with the others accumulated on my work station. I knew that if, and when we returned to earth I would most likely have some explaining to do, and not just about my dealings with Degra. I couldn't think about it now however. I didn't have time to worry about what other reprimands awaited me, only the immediate one from my lover.

Lifting my gaze I wait for him to go on.

"Of all the idiotic, half thought out ideas…" All traces of professionalism evaporate the instant Malcolm's eyes meet mine and he finally launches into the lecture I've been expecting since I left Degra and the shuttle pod.

"Honestly, Jonathan, what were you thinking? That you could let him fuck you and that would suddenly erase any doubts he had about trusting you, that your pillow talk would be complete with the exact location of Xindi weapon?"

I cringe at Malcolm's choice of expletives and the sheer force of his words as he steps closer, but it is obvious to me, even as he towers over me, his eyes flashing and his face colouring with rage, that while the tactician clearly understood the reasons why I behaved the way I had with Degra, the man did not.

My gut twists painfully and I feel the shadow of responsibility crowd me almost unbearably. Seeing the result of my actions etched in the expression of the man who I know has only ever wanted to love and protect me is too much. I bury my face in my hands, rubbing at my tired eyes, just trying to breathe through the next few moments as my heart rises and wedges itself firmly in my throat.

"Nothing I did was intended to hurt you," I manage somehow. My voice sounds as unsteady as I feel and although I know why, I can't seem to stop my hand shaking as I take a chance and reach out for him.

Malcolm's eyes narrow suspiciously. "Wasn't it?" he snaps, shrugging me off and stepping back.

I lower my hand and shake my head, astonished by his accusation. "No, and I can't imagine why you would think such a thing?"

Malcolm doesn't answer me. He seems a little lost now, running his fingers through hair and turning aimlessly in the area between my desk and my living space. It is almost as if he is surprised at himself -- for voicing what I guess he must have thought, seeing me with Degra.

I sigh and scrub at my face once more, only now realising how wrong I had been about my relationship with my tactical officer. "I'm sorry," I say without thought of whether the man my words are intended for will consider them a weakness or not. Perhaps if I'd made my feelings clearer, told him that I loved him more often, that I wished I could take his feelings into consideration when I made decisions, he wouldn't be doubting his place in my heart now.

Malcolm is standing by the door when I look over at him again, his less agitated expression telling me that he had at least heard my apology even if he wasn't ready to accept it just yet.

Rising slowly I straighten my back and step away from my desk. I feel as if I have just given up my remaining lifeline by relinquishing the stability of my desk but I also know that I need to be the one to keep reaching out, to try and heal the damage I have done.

"I wish there was something else I could say, but we're running out of time, Malcolm. We don't have the luxury of waiting to see if the Xindi launch the weapon. We know they do."

I receive a curt nod from Malcolm, acknowledging what we both know already. He folds his arms protectively across his chest, and I go on. "They've already murdered seven million innocent people. There are billions back on earth relying on us to keep them safe. I wish there was another way, but right now I need to take whatever opportunities come our way, do whatever it takes to stop the Xindi attacking earth."

"And you don't think I understand that?"

It is an unnecessary question, especially coming from Malcolm, although it is clearly one he wants answered. I am not sure why though and I take another step closer, mirroring his stance.

"Of course not," I tell him. "I know that you're as aware as I am of what is at risk here and that you are as dedicated to the mission as any man aboard this ship."

"Then don't give me excuses for what you did. Don't pretend you thought I would just say I understand and that would be the end of it. You know damn well that as a Starfleet officer I do understand, but there hasn't been a manual written that says I have to like it."

Malcolm's voice drops to no more than a whisper as he speaks. The hurt I know he feels because of what I forced him to witness is a tangible and painful entity between us, obviously making every word difficult for him to say aloud.

"No there's not," I say lowering my voice also.

Even with the distance still separating us I can see that Malcolm's eyes are very bright now and I unfold my arms and take the final step that brings us within reach of one another again. I am not sure where this leaves us, if what is needed is for us both to share what we are feeling or if Malcolm just needs time, during which I can only hope he can find it in his heart to forgive me?

I don't get to wonder for long. Duty calls as the comm by the door sounds and I lean past Malcolm to answer it, giving him the opportunity I guess he has been waiting for to leave.

----*----

Our ruse to convince Degra that he and I are old allies is not the success I had hoped it would be. My plan backfires not long after I return to the shuttle and it is necessary to abandon any further attempts to gain information from him or his crew. With no other alternative, I instruct Phlox to erase their memories and we release them, and their ship on route to Azati Prime.

It is another twenty-four hours before Malcolm returns to my cabin. It is late when he arrives, still wearing his uniform and appearing as if he hasn't changed or slept since I saw him last. He informs me that the updates to the weapons are complete and then proceeds to undress and get into my bed. He turns his back to me as soon as he is settled, making it very clear he has no more to say to me. I am very relieved that he is here and feels comfortable enough to make himself at home, but I am not sure if this is his way of calling a truce between us or not. I spend an unnecessarily long time dealing with the ships log's trying to decide, but Malcolm is asleep by the time I finish and gone again when I wake up hours later -- my question unanswered.

There are several incidences during the difficult days that follow that lead me to believe that not all between Malcolm and I is settled however. One in particular, involving Major Hayes, suggested far darker reasons than the ones I am given by both of them and which I know I am at least partly responsible for. I reprimand all concerned, myself included.

Although he continues to share my bed intermittently, Malcolm and I don't make love again until we encounter Lorian and the other Enterprise. Perhaps it is the glimpse into a future that doesn't provide any evidence our relationship actually survived the Delphic Expanse that prompts him to reach for me again. I am not sure; only that it is not the reconnection I had hoped for, more a timely reminder of his strength and ability to hold me completely at his mercy with no more than a look, or the sound of his voice whispering his intentions. I let him do what he wants; grateful he still wants me at all.

The End.

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