After the Game

by Pixie (pixie at

"Doc? You still here?"

The familiar voice broke into Dr. Erika Slate's concentration and drew her attention away from the alien technology spread across the table before her.

"In here, Lieutenant!" she called, absently examining tangled bits of circuitry as she listened to his footsteps approaching the doorway to her makeshift lab. When the footsteps came to a halt, she looked up to find Lt. Dwayne Hunter leaning against the doorjamb, watching her with a wry grin.

"Hard at work?" he asked.

"You heard the General. He wants a report on the Squillachi technology used in the repairs," she told him, indicating the mess of metal spread across the table, "but he doesn't want it leaving the Dark Horse ."

Hunter nodded. "Can't say I blame him for wanting to keep that stuff under guard. Time travel's risky business," he said with a grimace. "So, find anything interesting yet?"

"Oh, a few things," she replied, settling herself more comfortably on her stool. She gestured an invitation to the lieutenant, who still loitered in the doorway, then began a brief summary of what she'd learned so far. As she recited facts, Slate kept an eye on Hunter. Something didn't seem quite right with the lieutenant and she was beginning to worry.

At a glance, he seemed fine. She knew he hadn't been injured during the test flight. Her reflexive concern for him had prompted her to investigate his well-being before she'd begun her assigned task. Watching him hesitate before finally entering the room, her concern resurfaced and she began to wonder if his laid-back attitude was as intact as it appeared. The hesitation was uncharacteristic and he'd certainly never waited for her to invite him in before entering her lab at Quark. He hooked a nearby stool to sit on but his eyes roved restlessly across the scattered circuitry before he focused on her. She was surprised to note that he had difficulty meeting her eyes, for all that he seemed reluctant to look away. Realization filtered in and Dr. Slate began to think that she might know what the problem was. She quickly finished her recitation and fell silent, considering the idea, feeling Hunter's eyes on her.

Earlier in the afternoon, she'd been startled to see Rusty fly out of the Epic-1, unusually exuberant at seeing her waiting for him. Shortly afterwards, as she'd checked him over to make certain he hadn't suffered any damage, he'd eagerly told her about the unexpected adventure he'd had. It was a complicated tale and the scientific implications still made her head spin but she'd understood most of the story.

An accident during the test flight had created an alternate timeline, nearly stranding Lt. Hunter and Rusty in a world ruled by alien invaders. With a child's easy acceptance of the impossible, Rusty had told her about an alternate version of herself, a Dr. Slate who hadn't known Lt. Hunter but had recognized the technology in Rusty. Examining Rusty had convinced the alternate Slate to trust her two visitors and she'd gone so far as to help them get to their captured time ship. The small group had successfully retrieved the ship from within an enemy stronghold and found that the ship's heavy damage had been repaired by the opportunistic aliens. The two time travelers had been horrified when the alternate Slate had refused to go with them. They'd had no choice but to leave her there. Looking behind them as the ship lifted away, they'd seen the flash of weapons firing as the doctor fled the room.

His narrative had broken off for a moment and she'd hugged him when she caught sight of the miserable expression on his face.

"She - I - trusted you and Lt. Hunter to fix the problem. And you did! So it never really happened," she was quick to reassure him. He'd brightened immediately and proceeded to happily launch into a description of how he and Hunter had reestablished the current timeline.

Returning her mind to the current problem, Dr. Slate sighed to herself as she considered the person sitting beside her. She almost wished that Lt. Hunter could be as easily reassured as Rusty had been. She doubted that kind words and a hug would be sufficient comfort in this case. Assuming that Hunter was disturbed about what he'd seen in the alternate timeline, of course. It was entirely possible that he had something else entirely on his mind or that she was reading too much into his behaviour. She admitted to herself that she was fond of Hunter and she was fairly certain he was somewhat fond of her in turn but it felt a bit arrogant to assume...

Movement at the edge of her vision caused her to look over at the lieutenant again. His posture had lost its stiffness and she could see a fatigued slump to his shoulders as he propped an elbow on the table. Raising his free hand to his face, he rubbed tiredly at his eyes. Slate's indecision dissolved in a sudden rush of sympathy.

"It's really been a long day for you, hasn't it, Lieutenant?" She'd waited an hour and three minutes for the Epic-1 to reappear but much more time had passed for Hunter and Rusty as they struggled to repair the damage to the timeline.

He dropped his hand and grinned crookedly at her. "You have no idea. Still have to get you back home, though."

She lifted an eyebrow at him. "You spend all day - days? - jaunting through time to fix history and you're still offering to fly me home? Very courteous of you."

He waved a hand dismissively before replying. "Least I can do, Doc, after breaking your time machine and making you stay late to look over the repairs." His words were flippant but the faintly apprehensive look in his eyes didn't match his tone. Slate wondered why on Earth Hunter would be worried - he couldn't seriously expect her to be angry about the damage to the time ship, could he?

In her distraction, she nearly missed the sweep of his eyes over her, a quick assessing glance that lingered briefly over her face, before some of the worry shadowing his expression lightened into relief. Faced with that, her reluctance to offer reassurance seemed less important than easing the remainder of Hunter's anxiety. Without pausing to think, Slate stood up and stepped forward to gently lay a hand on his shoulder. His eyes widened as he looked up into her face, obviously startled.

"You're back home now," she told him softly, hoping that her own conviction might reach him. "We're all here and safe and everything is back to the way it should be."

He tensed briefly, muscles shifting under her hand, but he said nothing. As he looked away from her without replying, she grew embarrassed.

'I cannot believe I just said something that inane.' Slate thought uncomfortably. 'Lots of help I'm turning out to be. I think maybe I should have kept quiet after all.' Feeling a blush creeping into her cheeks, she hurriedly turned her face away and lifted her hand from his shoulder.

He stopped her from moving away by catching her hand with his own. She halted, surprised by the unexpected touch. Warm fingers wrapped around her hand as she slowly turned to face him again. When she lifted her eyes to look at him directly, she found him smiling at her.

"Thanks, Doc," Hunter said, momentarily tightening his grip on her hand. "Guess I needed to hear someone say that." He was still smiling, a genuine, unshadowed grin. Slate smiled back at him, relieved to see him recovering his usual self-assurance.

A moment later, the realization that their hands remained clasped between them penetrated their minds and both Hunter and Slate snatched their hands away. He assumed a nonchalant expression and settled himself back onto his seat while she quickly turned towards the table and fixed her attention on the parts there. There was a brief period of embarrassed silence before Dr. Slate cleared her throat.

"Oh, Lieutenant? I would appreciate a ride home, if the offer's still open," she said offhandedly. She slanted a glance over her shoulder to see that he'd taken to leaning casually against the table. "I have to wrap things up here before I can leave that report for the General, though."

He shrugged. "Not a problem. I can wait."

She smiled slightly and replied, "Great. Just give me a few minutes to finish this off then and I'll be ready. If that's okay?"

"Take your time, Doc," he told her, sounding satisfied. "I'm doing just fine where I am."


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