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In the Market He Plays

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It was winter on Vulcan, and McCoy had learned several things in the three weeks since he had begun his residency there.

First, he had learned that winter was a dangerous time for the heat-loving Vulcans. The days were a comfortable thirty degrees Celsius, but at night the temperature in the desert dropped to well below freezing. Vulcans walked around with sniffling head colds, bundled up to the tips of their ears in heavy robes.

Second, he learned that a residency in the best xenobiology hospital in the Alpha Quadrant was infinitely more difficult than a residency on Earth—even the one he had gone through at Starfleet Medical. On Earth he had only needed to devote his entire life to making it work. On Vulcan, they seemed to demand he devote three or four lives to the cause. He spent his time in between the polyphasic sleep cycles that were common on Vulcan studying his xenobiology books and wondering why he had ever applied to such a rigorous program, let alone why they had let a hick like him get in. All other waking hours were spent at the hospital slaving over a tricorder and learning the ins and outs of hundreds of different species. He had one singular day off during each of Vulcan’s ten-day weeks, and he had slept through each of the first two.

Third, he learned that he was very lonely without other humans.

Fourth, he learned that M’Benga was a pretty decent substitute for the entirety of the human race, but that the other man clearly resented being saddled with him.

“Look,” M’Benga said with utter patience after McCoy sighed for the eighth time in a row. “Why don’t you get out for a bit? Go for a walk. See some sights. You don’t have to spend your whole day off cooped up in our apartment.”

The apartment they shared was quite luxurious compared to what McCoy remembered of dorm life, but it still felt small and stifling. There was a living space with a high stone ceiling that was also multi-purpose as a dining room and kitchen. They each had a small room to call their own, both of which were separate from the main room only by a heavy cloth in the doorframe. McCoy’s room barely fit a sleeping mat—as beds had apparently been declared illogical—and a trunk to store his things. McCoy liked to sit on his trunk and pretend it was a chair. It was the closest thing he could get to one on this godforsaken planet.

From the sea of cushions he had amassed into something approaching a couch, McCoy frowned at the ceiling. “Seeing the sights is a little intimidating when they’re all upside down,” he groused, which was true enough. They had one window in their quarters that was really just a slit in the wall, and McCoy avoided it like the plague. He’d caught a glimpse of how high they were the first day he’d moved in and he’d had to lie on the floor and practice deep breathing. He wasn’t made to hang from a cliff like a damned stalactite. He was a doctor, not a fruit bat.

“There are still a lot of beautiful things in the city.” M’Benga clearly didn’t understand his hesitancy, but then M’Benga had come here to study Vulcan biology in particular, so he must like them. He sighed deeply when McCoy could only grimace at him. After a moment’s consideration he asked, “Have you been to the market yet?”

“Market?”

“It’s on the lower end of the city, so it’s mostly on the ground. You wouldn’t have to building-hop and it might lessen the acrophobia. Here,” he said, closing his datapadds and pushing himself off his own cushion. “I’m not getting anything done right now, anyway. I’ll walk you there and we can get dinner.”

McCoy gratefully accepted M’Benga’s proffered hand and rose to his feet, wincing as his knee popped unhappily. “I just don’t understand why Surak decided to ban chairs of all things.”

“You’re lucky we get cushions. Since we’re weak and squishy humans we get the same amenities that the elderly do.” M’Benga smiled at him, and McCoy reveled in the blatant emotionalism. He missed the days when such displays were commonplace.

They left on foot, as walking was pretty much the only way to get from place to place on Vulcan unless you owned a shuttlecar. Vulcan had never gone the way of Starfleet and installed fast-paths, or even elevators for that matter. More time for contemplation, perhaps, or maybe they just needed the exercise. McCoy figured it had to be one of the two.

They took the long, spiraling staircase up to the top of the building where it connected with the rocky mountain ridge. Their building was tall enough—or rather, long enough—that they could have gone down to where the bottom met the ground, but on an evening like this the topside was pleasant. The sun was still above the horizon to warm them and the air was crisp and clear.

McCoy was surprised how busy it was topside. He was usually out and about when the Vulcans were taking their version of an afternoon siesta, and so he hadn’t seen so many all in one place before. It was disconcerting how they glided past him and M’Benga without even a curious glance, all just stone-faced and emotionless, utterly absorbed in whatever logical contemplation they were into that day. They didn’t even spare a look at his knobby bare knees, which were a unique sight in a sea of ankle-length robes. He wished just one of them would give him something—a smile or a haughty glared, he didn’t mind which. But something to remind him that emotions were possible. He’d only been here three weeks and already he was starved for it.

He and M’Benga chatted about medicine—one of their only points of common interest—as they walked, and soon enough they reached the market. McCoy perked up at the sight.

The market itself was a heady mix of the strange and the familiar. The concept was universal. People stood at various booths presenting their wares: art, jewelry, pottery, fresh vegetables, juicy fruits, mouth-watering candies, powdered spices and herbs, cooked foods that dripped with grease. The smells that hit him were what made it all seem out of place. His mind stuttered, telling him he should be smelling cooked meats, but instead the scent of velik bar-kas assaulted him. The simple spice was a Vulcan staple, the equivalent of black pepper back home although not spicy at all, more savory really, with a pungent and musky odor that seemed to hang heavy and thick in the air and get into everything. McCoy knew his clothes would smell of it later. It was worse than eating garlic.

It was the people, too. Very strange. The Vulcans all seemed to blend together around him and although he knew they were all different heights and colors and shapes each seemed much the same as the last. Their expressions were all identical blank slates and there was very little chit-chat. He watched as a young woman purchased a lovely silver necklace, exchanging only two lines with the merchant. She asked the price, he told her, and she paid. Not one word of haggling.

McCoy shook his head. Strange.

“What’re you in the mood for?” M’Benga asked him, startling him from his reverie.

“Oh, um.” He had been subsisting mostly on Starfleet-issued foodpacks, as the Vulcan food confused and alarmed him. “I’m not sure what’s good yet. You chose.”

M’Benga nodded and lead him to a cactus-wood cart and McCoy read the name phonetically: pupol-tor kap.

“What’s that mean?” McCoy whispered to him.

“It’s just fry bread. I figured it would be almost like home.” M’Benga shrugged and smiled again.

The bread was crisp and greasy and dusted with a fine white powder that McCoy assumed was sugar, but when he bit it he found it was pungent and bitter. It reminded him of turmeric, but more metallic and sharp, and it stained his fingers white instead of yellow. The bread melted in his mouth, and it was damned fine. It was just disconcerting that it wasn’t sweet.

He kept trying to dust his hand off on his shorts as M’Benga led him around the market to shop. M’Benga seemed at ease here, quickly adopting the same flat stare that the Vulcans had. McCoy had noticed that M’Benga only seemed to smile around him when no one else was looking. Maybe each smile was just for his benefit, or maybe it was because M’Benga figured the Vulcans wouldn’t appreciate it. He wasn’t sure which was more likely.

M’Benga’s arms were full of shopping bags within minutes. McCoy felt kind of silly walking around without buying anything, so he picked up a random fruit that looked interesting and potentially edible. It fit into the palm of his hand and was a dusty, jade green with a faint blue blush. It had a bulbous bottom and a long spindly neck that curled over. It reminded him of a squash. He bought it for a quarter-credit and forgot not to smile his thanks. The Vulcan merchant looked blase.

“Why is everyone so damned disgusted by me?” he muttered to M’Benga.

“You’ve just got to adapt, McCoy. Vulcans have devoted their entire lives to the pursuit of logic over emotionalism. Outward displays of emotion are considered shameful, and even dangerous.”

“I know that,” he grumbled. He’d read the briefing packet, with its little cartoon drawings loudly proclaiming to NOT attempt to shake hands with Vulcans. He knew that the way of Surak was a tough one; he just hadn’t expected it would be this tough on him. “But surely at least one of them’s got a smile somewhere under that rocky exterior.”

M’Benga looked at him flatly. “You may be out of luck.”

McCoy frowned at his squash-fruit-thing. Night was beginning to fall, which meant that the market was really just picking up. In the thin time between day and night, when it was still warm but not hot, the Vulcans took to the streets in droves. They pressed in around him, somehow stifling even though they all maintained a healthy distance from him in deference to their touch-telepathy. McCoy was about to suggest they head back to their apartment and chalk this day up as a loss when his ears perked up with interest.

“...What’s that sound?” he asked.

“Sound?”

“That music.” He found himself drawn towards it, turning to skirt around the ebbs and flows of the sea of Vulcans. He snaked between market stands and skidded down a slight incline into a deep basin filled with rippling sand. The crowd was denser here, listening to the echoing sounds of the lyre player kneeling at the center.

“Who is he?”

“I don’t know,” M’Benga said, glancing disinterestedly at the Vulcan. “They always have someone playing here, but I haven’t seen him before. Why?”

“He plays like…” McCoy trailed off, unable to put into words how he was feeling about the Vulcan’s playing. It was very technically precise, with his long fingers dancing over the trembling strings in an exacting rhythm. But it was also...soulful. The Vulcan seemed to pluck at McCoy’s heartstrings just as well as the lyre, and he could feel a lump welling in his throat. “He’s good.”

“...Let’s sit and listen.”

They sat cross-legged in the squeaky sand and McCoy watched, enraptured, as the Vulcan played. The man’s eyes were lidded but not closed, and his body swayed gently with the music. It was a dark and foreboding piece, and by the end McCoy was shivering.

He wanted to applaud as the last notes echoed through the basin, but no one else moved. The Vulcan slid seamlessly into the next piece before he could decide to do so anyway. This one was livelier, filled with a syncopated beat that made his hands move faster than the eye could see. McCoy looked around the market and glared at all the Vulcans who were merely going about their day as if they weren’t being serenaded by a master lyre player. They didn’t even seem to care that he existed.

“I recognize this one,” M’Benga said after a moment of listening. “It’s based on a pre-reform opera, or the Vulcan equivalent of an opera anyway. The name translates to First Flight of the Lara.”

“Lara?”

“A blue desert bird. They get pretty massive.”

McCoy could see that now, in the shape of the sounds flowing from the Vulcan’s hands. He could picture the sharp, repetitive wing flaps as the lara took to the sky above the parched desert; he could practically feel the wind on his face as the bird tipped and dove, trailing through bladed cacti and over sand-blasted rock faces. It made his heart flutter in his chest as the song rose to a crescendo and burst.

He raised his hands automatically to applaud, and then winced.

“Natural instinct,” he muttered to M’Benga, who just smiled at him.

The Vulcan played for precisely seventy-one minutes—a Vulcan hour. M’Benga whispered to him the names of a few songs he recognized, but mostly the two of them just sat back and listened, letting it all wash over them. There was a moment in the middle where McCoy sat up straight, thinking he was hearing the sounds of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Winter , but that couldn’t be true. It had to just be a coincidence. He didn’t know enough about Classical music to tell.

Like all good things, it eventually came to an end. The Vulcan stood and said something to the crowd, and M’Benga whispered a translation. “He’s saying that the crowd’s attention to his playing is appreciated.”

McCoy snorted in disbelief. The crowd hadn’t seemed that attentive to him. He watched the Vulcan packing up his lyre. He carefully loosened the strings of the instrument before sliding it into the case and then stood, stretching out his hands.

“...Is it considered illogical to compliment the player?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” M’Benga said. “Even if it were, he’d probably forgive us since we’re human. He may not speak Standard, though. I can translate?”

“Thanks.”

McCoy lumbered up, dusting off his shorts and remembering his fruit at the last minute. He strolled over to the Vulcan, taking in the sight of him flexing his arms and fingers. The Vulcan wore his straight black hair short, in the same severe cut the rest of the planet sported. He was tanned and olive-skinned, with brown eyes that seemed sharp and inquisitive even from a distance. He was tall and regal, as most Vulcans were, but there was a strangeness to him, as if he didn’t quite fit into his clothes. But of course, the thick, grey knitted sweater and sharply-pressed black pants fit him perfectly. It was only an impression McCoy had of him.

M’Benga spoke first, saying something in Vulcan in his Standard-tinted accent and gesturing to McCoy. The Vulcan tipped his head curiously at M’Benga before slotting his brown gaze over to him. McCoy felt his breath catch at the twinkle in the Vulcan’s eyes—emotion, he realized with a jolt of surprise. Some light emotion that flowed out of him in pleasant waves. He wanted desperately to know exactly what he was feeling. Merriment? Happiness? Fondness? Did he find them amusing? Or intriguing?

McCoy wanted to revel in those soft brown eyes and the emotion they expressed so readily.

“I speak both Standard and English, if you have a preferred method of communication,” he said in Standard, glancing between the two of them.

“Oh.” McCoy startled and stood up a little straighter. He wanted desperately to say English. He hadn’t heard it in so long. Even at Starfleet Academy in the middle of San Francisco conversations in English were few and far between, as everyone needed to practice their Standard. But he knew M’Benga didn’t speak it, and so he said, “Standard, if you please, sir.”

The Vulcan inclined his head. “You wish to inform me of your emotional reaction to my playing?”

McCoy chuckled and M’Benga shot him a wide-eyed look. “I just wanted to compliment your performance,” McCoy told him. “That was some damned fine playing, if I do say so myself. You should be playing professionally.”

“In the technical sense I am playing professionally, as I receive monetary compensation for my efforts. Perhaps you mean to imply the venue is not suitable for this type of music?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I certainly appreciated it. It just seems that no one else did.” He waved his hand around vaguely. “They hardly noticed you at all.”

“You may find that Vulcans merely appreciate things in a manner with which you are unfamiliar.” The Vulcan glanced askance. “However, I have experienced more… enthusiastic receptions.”

“Where else have you played?”

“I took second place in kuhlaya t’ralash-tanaf.”

Beside him, M’Benga jerked in surprise. “You’re Spock?”

He nodded again. “Indeed, however I am afraid that now you have me at a disadvantage.”

“Oh, I’m, uh…” M’Benga suddenly seemed flustered, although McCoy couldn’t understand why. Apparently this guy was some famous musician, but although M’Benga knew a few songs McCoy hadn’t realized he was such a fan. “Geoffrey M’Benga,” he said finally, raising his hand in the Vulcan salute.

Spock nodded to him and returned the salute, and then his piercing gaze fell to McCoy again.

“Leonard McCoy,” he offered once he had finally caught his breath. “Sorry, I can’t salute you. My hand doesn’t quite seem to work that way.”

“No offense is received,” Spock said. “I understand that a typical greeting among humans is a handshake?” At McCoy’s hesitant nod, Spock offered his hand.

McCoy stared at it and almost didn’t take it. He knew this was a big deal even without M’Benga silently screaming at him. But Spock was capable of making his own decisions, and so McCoy met his hand in a firm shake. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Spock’s eyebrow arched as they made contact. “...Likewise,” he said, and after a moment he withdrew his hand and folded it behind his back. “Your appreciation of my playing is noted with gratitude.”

McCoy smiled at the formality. “Do you play here often?”

“Each week on fourth-day evening.”

“Maybe we’ll see you again, then,” McCoy said.

“I look forward to your return.” Spock nodded to him, and then to M’Benga. “Good day, gentlemen.”

As they left the market, M’Benga shook his head in shock. “I can’t believe we met Spock.”

McCoy chuckled at him, still confused by M’Benga’s starry-eyed response to the musician. But then, maybe he could understand it. Spock had a certain way about him that invited a dreamy reaction. He found that he couldn’t stop thinking about Spock’s warm brown eyes, the way he almost seemed to smile when he looked at him. The Vulcan was enigma, and McCoy was curious to unravel him.

“Yeah,” he said as they crested the hill. “He was certainly something else.”