“You should take her out.”
Spock looked up from his lunch to fix his commanding officer with a questioning look. “Sir?”
“Cadet Uhura,” Captain Pike clarified, waving the sandwich he held in the general direction of her retreating back. “Take her out sometime. She’s obviously got it bad for you.”
Spock took a moment to decipher that particular tangle of Human phraseology. “You are encouraging me to escort Cadet Uhura to a social engagement, because you believe that she has developed feelings of a romantic nature towards me.”
“Got it in one,” Pike grinned, and took a generous bite. “We’ll have you speaking Standard like a native yet.”
“With all due respect, Captain,” Spock said, “I am not certain that is a wise idea.”
“Sure it is. Gotta understand idiom if you’re going to be living primarily among Humans for the majority of your life.”
“Sir, that is not the subject to which I was referring.”
“Yeah, I know; it’s just fun to mess with you from time to time.” He shook his head and took a drink of his coffee. “She’s not your student anymore, Spock. It’s above-board. And I think it’d be good for you to get out once in a while. You’re either teaching, or in your office, or in the labs, or going over ship’s business with me. You need to take some time just for yourself, even if it’s just an hour every day. It would be good for you to go out, and it would be even better for you to go out with Nyota Uhura. When you’re around her . . . well, it’s the most Human I’ve ever seen you.”
Spock raised an eyebrow. “There is no need to be insulting, sir.”
Pike laughed. “My apologies,” he said, but then his face sobered. “I’m gonna say something now that you’re probably not going to be wild about, but I’m trusting you to remember that in addition to being your superior officer, I’m also the closest thing to a friend I think you have.” Blue eyes locked intently on brown. “I know how important being and acting Vulcan are to you. But you should remember that you’re half-Human, as well. Human enough to be here instead of at the VSA. I’m not trying to say you should reject your Vulcan half; but maybe think about giving your mother’s contribution a little bit more consideration.” He sat back. “And that’s more than my fair share of meddling for the month.”
Spock was unsure exactly how to respond, and for several long moments they ate in silence. He knew that if he wished it, the subject would be dropped completely. And there was a part of him that very much wished to do just that—to pretend that such an uncomfortable topic had never been broached and simply finish his lunch before moving on to ship’s business. However, he held a great deal of respect for Captain Pike, and could not bring himself to so casually disregard his advice.
“If I may inquire,” he said a bit stiffly after a moment, and waited for Pike to gesture for him to finish. “What, precisely, makes you so certain of her regard?”
The first thing that Spock noticed about Catspaw was the smell of smoke. The acrid sting of Terran cigarettes mixed with the slightly sweeter scent of Andorian tobacco and the unmistakable earthiness of Betazoid cigars, all of it layered over the stale remains of several decades’ worth of fumes. Surprisingly, Spock found that the odor was not as unpleasant as he might have expected. It reminded him, in fact, of his father’s study: though Sarek himself had never smoked, many of the politicians that he met with did, and he allowed them to indulge themselves within the confines of that one room. Thoughts of Vulcan and his father always carried with them a certain amount of regret, but Spock found that on the whole he was gratified to be reminded of the place he had called home for the first eighteen years of his life.
Once the olfactory sense of the place had been determined, his attention turned to the other aspects of the establishment. The ceilings were high, a legacy of the grand ballroom that the building had once housed. That ballroom had long ago been split down the center into two smaller apartments. The side that Catspaw occupied was just large enough for a bar, a scattering of tables, and a small dance floor. Opposite the bar was a modest stage, and Spock was surprised to see a live band seated there, what he believed was referred to as a jazz quintet. The music they played seemed to float quietly through the room; Spock was seized by the sudden irrational thought that were he to look up, he might see the notes trapped against the ceiling.
Clearly he had been living around Humans for far too long.
It came abruptly to Spock’s attention that he was simply standing in the doorway, as though reluctant to take that final step into the establishment; foolish when he had come this far already. Yet his mind insisted on remembering the myriad of more useful activities that he might be pursuing. There was an experiment running in the secondary Science Lab that might benefit from his observation; he had a thick stack of term papers from his Interspecies Ethics class that he had yet to mark; there were final adjustments to be made to his proposal for adaptations to the Kobayashi Maru exam. The responsible thing to do—the Vulcan thing to do—would be to turn around, go back to campus, and engage in any one of the more efficient uses of his time.
It was that thought, and the fact that he could hear that recommendation in the voices of the Vulcan Science Academy Admission Panel, that let him straighten his shoulders and finally step inside. He had defied them once, and while it may have taken him just over seven years and several light-years, he was ready to do so again now.
Though it was early in the evening, the tables were few enough that they were filling up quickly. Rather than occupy one by himself and deprive a larger group of a place to sit, Spock chose a seat at the bar. It was, he found, less than ideally comfortable, but within acceptable parameters. He sat, back stiff and straight, as the bartender meandered his way towards him.
“What’ll you have?”
“Your advertisement on the networks indicated that you serve Pyrellian ginger tea,” Spock said, and though the man’s eyebrows raised he nodded.
“Yeah. One Pyrellian ginger tea, coming up.”
Spock allowed himself to relax slightly when his drink arrived, savoring the tea’s bite and the underlying hint of sweetness. This particular drink was difficult to come by, and had been one of the major deciding factors in his choice of locations. He was pleased to find his choice justified. The music, he realized, was remarkably pleasant as well, and he added another notation to the pro/con list that he was keeping in his head.
He was savoring his second cup of tea when the door opened for the first time since Spock had sat down. He glanced up in mild interest as a young man clattered his way down the short flight of stairs and made his way, grinning, to the far end of the bar. The man hopped onto a stool in front of the bartender and received what seemed, to Spock, to be a fond smile in return.
“Hey, Jimmy,” the bartender said, setting down the glass he held and tossing the rag he had been using to polish it over one shoulder. “Usual?”
“No, I have work later, and Aylin will have my hide if I turn up with hard liquor on my breath. I’ll just have a glass of the House red.” Though Spock’s gaze had turned politely back to his tea, he could feel the stranger’s eyes fixed suddenly on him. “Hey.” He had lowered his voice, but not enough to go undetected by Vulcan hearing at such a short distance. “Who’s that?”
“A customer,” the bartender said in unmistakable exasperation. “You think I get everyone’s name who sits down for a drink?”
“He’s all by himself.” A pause. “Maybe I should go find out his name, since you can’t be bothered.”
“Jimmy.” This in a warning tone. “You know how I feel about—”
“Relax, Johnny. I said I have work later, didn’t I? I’m just going to go introduce myself. And hey, I haven’t even had a drop so far, so I’m still capable of taking a hint. I won’t lose you a customer.”
“You’re damned right you won’t. He’s on his second cup of that expensive imported tea; I’ll throw your ass out if it looks like you’re bothering him.”
“Said with all due love and affection, I’m sure.”
“Whatever. I’m keeping an eye on you.”
Spock sipped calmly at his tea as he heard the man move towards him and settle on the next stool over. His throat cleared softly, but Spock found himself speaking before the other man could manage a word.
“What precisely do you plan to do,” he asked calmly, attention still on the cup in his hands, “if you are unsuccessful in obtaining my name?”
There was a startled silence, and then a laugh. “Make one up for you. I’ve gotten pretty good at it; I strike out more than I’d like to admit.”
Spock looked over at last and froze in the face of a brilliant smile and the brightest blue eyes he had ever seen. It was an arresting sight, but he recovered quickly and managed to raise an eyebrow. “Strike out?”
“Yeah. Look, I’m sorry for coming up to you out of nowhere like this; I’m not trying to be a creep, I swear.” The smile dimmed slightly, became wry and somehow winsome. “I’m just cursed with this insatiable sense of curiosity.” He shrugged. “I come in here a lot, and I’d never seen you before. I’m Jim, by the way.”
“I am Spock.” He waited, half-expecting Jim to stand up and leave now that he had achieved his objective. Jim, however, merely sipped at his wine and smiled again.
“Spock,” he repeated. “Nope,” he said, shaking his head, “nowhere near the name I would’ve come up with. Then again, I’ve never actually met a Vulcan before, so my range of experience is limited to say the least.” He considered Spock for a moment. “So why are you sitting at the bar?”
“Is there any particular reason why I should not?” Spock asked, nonplussed.
“You’re not the barstool type,” Jim said easily. “I worked as a bartender for a year and a half; I can tell the difference. It’s all in the body language,” he confided. “So, there are tables open, you’d rather be sitting at one . . . why are you sitting at the bar?”
There was something distinctly discomfiting about being so easily analyzed by a complete stranger, but Spock saw no reason not to provide a straightforward answer.
“It seemed rude for a single person to occupy a table when a larger group might require its use.”
Jim blinked at him at him once, twice. “It seemed . . . rude . . .” A slow grin began to spread over his face. “Well, there’s two of us now. What do you say we go grab some more comfortable seats? That is,” he amended, “if you don’t mind my company for a while longer.”
Spock considered. This man was, without a doubt, as boisterous an example of Terran humanity as Spock had ever encountered. His casual insistence on conversation with a complete stranger would be considered profoundly rude on Vulcan—not at all within the accepted parameters of polite interaction. However, Spock reflected, most Vulcans would also frown on Spock having entered this sort of establishment in the first place. Metaphorically speaking, of course; Vulcans did not frown.
“I would not be averse to a change in location,” Spock answered after several moments’ consideration, watching the other man carefully.
He expected Jim to smirk with triumph, or perhaps even to turn to his friend to exclaim his victory. Neither reaction would have been outside of the realm of Spock’s experience; in his first months on Earth, attempting to speak with the Academy’s only Vulcan had been regarded as something of a sport. Had Jim done anything of the kind, Spock would have left without a second thought. Instead Jim simply grinned and rose to his feet, picking up his wineglass and gesturing with a nod of his head for Spock to follow.
They seated themselves at one of the smaller tables, and Spock, no longer feeling as though he were somehow on display, felt tension he had not acknowledged slowly drain from his shoulders.
“So.” Jim settled easily in his chair and took a leisurely sip of his wine. “You’re Starfleet, huh? What’s your focus?”
Spock blinked and glanced down at himself, confirming that he had, in fact, remembered to change out of his uniform. Sure enough, he was wearing a set of his warmer robes against the early-autumn chill. “May I ask how, precisely, you were able to come to the conclusion that I am a member of Starfleet?”
“Oh, I can spot ‘Fleet a mile away.” Jim’s eyes sparkled even in the dim light. “It’s a natural talent.”
Spock raised an eyebrow. “An oddly specific one,” he remarked mildly, and Jim laughed.
“Are you implying that I’m being less than forthright?”
It took a moment for Spock to place the tone in Jim’s voice. He recalled a conversation with Captain Pike, however, all stiff confusion and amused explanation, and came to surprising conclusion that Jim was teasing him. Another shocking liberty, and another unsettling realization when Spock realized that he did not object.
“I merely question the probability of a person being genetically predisposed to recognize Starfleet personnel on sight. However, I confess that I am equally at a loss to explain why and how someone not native to the area would have developed such a skill.”
There was something cool in Jim’s eyes by the time Spock finished, and his smile looked somehow tight around the edges. “Let’s just say that my oddly specific skill set isn’t always appreciated by the ‘Fleet’s fresh-faced recruits. I’ve found it’s generally easier and more pleasant to avoid them altogether.”
Spock hesitated, suddenly unsure. “Have I said something to give offense?”
“No.” Jim’s smile began to thaw. “No, you haven’t. I just . . . hey wait a minute, how’d you know I wasn’t from San Francisco?”
“Your diction and inflection,” Spock said immediately. “The length of your vowels and the pattern of your opener components indicate a Midwestern origin, though your speech is overlaid with the presence of enough inconsistent monophthongs to indicate that you have likely lived in this area for several years.”
Jim blinked, and when he laughed again the last traces of his displeasure had vanished. “Well, I guess that answers the question about your focus.”
Spock lifted an eyebrow in response. “In fact, my focus was in computer programming. I do, however, teach advanced phonology as a part of my current officer training.” He drained the last of his tea and fixed Jim with a thoughtful look. “May I ask a question?”
“I certainly haven’t held back so far,” Jim said agreeably. “Go for it.”
“If you make a habit of avoiding Starfleet personnel, why did you approach me?”
“Ah. Well.” Jim chuckled ruefully. “My sense of self-preservation is occasionally overruled by curiosity. Like I said, I’m in here most every day and I’ve never seen you before. Hell, I’ve never seen a Vulcan in person before at all, much less sitting in a bar.” He grinned. “I just couldn’t help myself.”
“I see. Vulcans are not generally given to patronizing drinking establishments; it is unsurprising that you have never encountered one here before.”
“So why are you here, then?” Jim asked, leaning forward. “If you don’t mind me asking, that is,” he added when Spock hesitated, unsure of exactly how to qualify his intent.
“I am here for research purposes,” he said at last, and interest made Jim’s eyes impossibly brighter.
“Huh. Like an anthropological study? Observing Humans in a natural habitat? Or at least, an artificial one that’s so firmly established that it’s treated as natural. That sort of thing?”
Both of Spock’s eyebrows lifted then in surprise. “That was not my meaning, but it is an interesting hypothesis.” He resisted the urge to follow that fascinating line of thought in order to answer Jim’s original question. “I am considering the possibility of inviting a woman of my acquaintance to accompany me on a social engagement.”
“Ahh,” Jim said with a grin, leaning back in his chair again. “That kind of research. I’m guessing you probably don’t really get out too much yourself.”
Spock took another drink of his tea in order to clear his throat. “I participate in and supervise various extracurricular activities at the Academy. And I will be taking part in several training missions as part of my teaching duties. However,” he acknowledged, “I spend the majority of my time furthering my studies. It is my goal to attain the rank of Commander within another year.”
“Lofty aspirations.” Jim glanced around. “So why here? What made you choose Catspaw for your . . . ah, research?”
“I have been given to understand, from the conversations that I overheard among several groups of cadets, that an appointment to meet for drinks is considered an appropriate first foray into Human courtship.”
Jim’s lips pressed together, and Spock waited for a witty rejoinder. “Eavesdropping, Spock?” Jim asked at last, his eyes alight with mischief. “That hardly sounds like conduct becoming an officer.”
Spock felt a flush trying to rise to his cheeks and ruthlessly forced it back down. “Vulcan hearing is twice as sensitive as Humans’; it is hardly my fault if I overhear when people speak at an inappropriate volume in my presence.”
Jim laughed again; Spock found his attention caught on the way his eyes crinkled at the corners. “You’re right,” Jim said with a gracious nod. “My mistake. So, what else did you accidentally overhear? There must’ve been something to make you choose this place.”
“They had posted their menu online.” Spock glanced down at the nearly empty tea cup on the table in front of him. “I have a fondness for Pyrellian ginger tea.”
“Huh.” Jim sipped at his wine, his eyes thoughtful. “There must be other places around town that serve that, though. You picked a bar,” he pointed out, “not a tea house.”
“It was implied that coffee or tea was generally regarded as unacceptably ambiguous,” Spock admitted.
“Something that you might suggest if you only wanted to be friends, huh?”
Spock blinked in surprise. “Yes. I believe ‘just friends’ was the term I overheard. Is this a common Human understanding, the association of different beverages with varied levels of emotional intimacy?”
“Pretty much,” Jim agreed. “You’re definitely on the right track. But . . .” He hesitated. “This is a young girl we’re talking about here, right?”
“She is twenty years old; five years younger than I am,” Spock confirmed. “Is that significant?”
Jim visibly hesitated again. “Not necessarily. Just that this place . . . it has more of an appeal for an older generation. Not a lot of cadets choose to come here. If you’re looking for someplace geared more for people our age I’d try The Ion Storm down by the waterfront. I used to bartend there; it gets a pretty good crowd on the weekends.”
“I am . . . not overly comfortable in crowds,” Spock admitted. “And I find that large groups of Academy cadets, in particular, tend to generate a great deal more noise than I generally prefer.”
“Fair point,” Jim conceded. “And hey, I don’t know this girl from Adam; I could be totally off-base.” Spock raised an eyebrow, but was prevented from inquiring into who Adam might be by the sound of an alarm that shrilled from the watch on Jim’s wrist. His companion seemed as startled by the sound as Spock was, and glanced at the time with a frown. “Shit, I have to get to work.” He drained the last of his wine and offered Spock a smile as he stood. “Sorry for prying into your business like that; I did warn you about my curiosity. And hey, if you do decide to bring your girl here, I’d make it a little later. The band has a singer that performs with them sometimes, but she doesn’t come on until seven-thirty or eight.”
“Thank you,” Spock said, at something of a loss. “Your insight has been helpful and most appreciated.”
“No problem.” Jim paused for a moment, then shook his head and smiled again. “Like I said, I’m in here for an hour or two most every day. It’s been good talking to you, Spock; I hope I see you around again soon.”
“An agreeable possibility,” Spock replied, and Jim smiled one last time before he left with a small wave over his shoulder.
Only when he had been sitting by himself for several minutes, debating the idea of staying for another cup of tea, did Spock realize that he had never gotten Jim’s last name.
“Hey, Ruth.” Jim leaned against the Velocity reception desk and winked at the pretty blonde sitting behind it. “Messages for me?”
“Always,” she said with a smile, and opened one of her meticulously organized file boxes. “Mostly references, but there’s a couple in here who called off of your card.” She handed him several slips of paper that he took with a grin.
“Gotta love that extra commission. Maybe I’ll get enough this month to take you out in the style you deserve.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” she replied wryly, “considering it would have to be on another planet entirely. Ms. Morganth would kill me if I tried to take up an entire evening of your time.”
“She’d never get rid of you; no one else could ever learn your system. But speaking of my valuable time, do I have anything down for tonight? I was still open when I checked this morning, but I’ll bet I could reel in one or two of these if I need to.”
“Let me see.” Ruth punched a series of quick commands into her screen, then double-checked against the pen-and-paper log. “Nope, it looks like you have a last-minute booking. It’s in-house; I’m sending the details to your PADD now. Lucien Venning again.” She quirked an eyebrow at him and the expression on her delicate face nearly made him laugh. “This is, what, the sixth time this month?”
“You’d know better than I would,” he said with a pointed look at her logbook. “And I happen to be very personable.”
“I suppose that’s—” She cut off, a frown furrowing her brow as she sniffed suspiciously at the air. “Jimmy. Tell me you haven’t been smoking.”
He pointed at her. “You have no faith in me. I haven’t been smoking; I just stopped in at Catspaw for a little while. One glass of red wine,” he said before she could ask, “I promise. It’s good for the heart, and I’m gonna need it if you keep breaking mine.” He winked at her again and she snorted as he headed for the elevator.
“It’s a very simple system, you know,” she called after him, and this time he let himself laugh.
Jim glanced over the information that had appeared on his PADD. It was all pretty standard; Lucien was one of his regulars, and it didn’t look like he was looking for anything out of the ordinary. This was a job Jim could do in his sleep—possibly literally, he thought with a smirk. He wouldn’t, of course; Jim prided himself on his professionalism, on giving every job his best. It was one of the things that made him so popular, and in a company filled with people who had no trouble bringing in new clients he had more regulars than any three of his coworkers combined.
Still, that was something he wouldn’t have to worry about just yet. With an hour or so left before his appointment, he keyed in his access code to his preparation room, stripping down as soon as the door clicked shut behind him. As he stepped into the shower he let his mind wander back over the last couple of hours at Catspaw. He never would have thought that a Vulcan would have been so . . . what? The intelligence hadn’t come as a surprise, but Jim hadn’t anticipated the ease with which they’d fallen into conversation. He was willing to bet Spock hadn’t expected that, either, and Jim thought with a laugh that he’d really been phenomenally lucky that Spock hadn’t taken offense at Jim’s nosiness.
It really wasn’t like him to pry so bluntly into a stranger’s business; a large part of his job, after all, was knowing when to shut the hell up. It might have taken him a while to learn that lesson, but after four years at Velocity he knew it now by heart. Still, the ease of conversation with Spock had caught him off-guard; he’d almost felt like he was seventeen again, flirting with no more incentive than a pretty pair of eyes.
And yes, Spock did have pretty eyes, Jim thought with a grin, drying himself briskly. But he hadn’t been flirting. Well. Maybe just a little; it was second nature for him, and something he’d never felt the need to curtail. But, he reminded himself, it hadn’t been flirting with intent, which made all the difference. Still, he hoped he’d see Spock again. He too seldom got to talk with anyone about anything other than work.
It was time to focus now, though, and Jim pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind. He stuffed his street clothes into a duffel bag and dressed instead in the pants from his best suit and a simple white button-down, open at the collar to bare the hollow of his throat. Once his hair had been carefully styled, every strand in place, Jim ran his hands through it briskly, considered his reflection and did it once more. While many of his clients preferred him freshly and immaculately groomed, Lucien always liked it best when he could pretend that Jim had been sitting around all day, waiting for him.
The suite had already been prepped, so all there was left for Jim to do was open the champagne chilling in a silver bucket near the window. He was pouring the second glass when the door opened and Lucien walked in.
“Jim.” Pale green eyes crinkled in a smile, and he reached up to push his dark hair back from his forehead. “As always, you are a sight to behold. There are none like you in London, and believe me, I searched high and low.”
“You’re not looking too bad yourself,” Jim answered with a smile, and handed over one of the flutes. “You still haven’t gotten that haircut,” he murmured, lifting a hand to let his fingers sift through the thick dark strands. “I like it; it makes you look a little bit dangerous.”
“It makes me look unkempt,” Lucien countered, but his obvious pleasure was reflected in his eyes. He took a sip of his champagne and reached out to pull Jim into a loose embrace. “Or possibly disreputable, if Ruth is to be believed.”
“She didn’t give you a hard time, did she?” Jim smirked, tugging lightly at a lock of hair. “That’s my job.”
“Oh, Jim,” Lucien groaned, even as he laughed. “That was terrible. Really, really awful.”
“Better shut me up, then.”
When their mouths finally met, Jim allowed himself a brief moment to wonder if Lucien had been born in London, and whether or not Spock could give him an answer simply based on how the older man formed his words. Then the kiss deepened, and it was quite a while before Jim allowed himself to think of anything at all.