The duffel bag thumped on the blue tiled floor as John Torres flicked on the lights. The apartment appeared exactly as it was when he’d left two weeks ago for the trip to Risa, but had the feeling of belonging to someone else. He moved slowly through the living room, barely taking in the basic furnishings provided by Starfleet. He raised the window blinds; the bright sunlight illuminated dancing dust motes. In the bedroom, he stripped off his uniform, letting them pool in a pile of blue and black on the floor. He didn’t look at the photograph of the woman, prominently displaced in a silver frame on his dresser, as he made his way into the bathroom. He stepped into the shower, letting the warm water pulse away the grime of the journey.
Wrapping a towel around his waist, he stared at himself in the mirror. His face was rough with stubble, and his hair was just a touch too long for Starfleet regulation. He sighed. He had a couple of more days before he needed to be ship-shape to report for duty and he was going to, literally, let his hair down. Feeling satisfied with that decision, John wandered into the kitchen. Half a dozen PADDs containing guides, itineraries, hotel bookings, and other information about Risa cluttered the counter. A contemplative second later, he stacked the PADDs neatly, intending to erase them when he was feeling more up to the task.
He was looking through the bare cabinets, on the off chance he’d left sustenance of some kind behind, when his comm beeped at him.
“You there, John?”
John recognized the voice immediately. “What is it, Bill?”
“We’re downstairs grilling. Hamburgers, hot dogs, nothing fancy. You want to come down?”
John threw a baleful look in the direction of his bare cabinets and then nodded even though he knew Bill couldn’t see him. “Sure. Give me a few minutes.” John dressed quickly in loose cotton pants, a thin grey t-shirt, and leather flip flops. On his way out the door, he nearly tripped over the duffel bag he’d dropped and cursed silently under his breath.
Outside in the bright sunlight, John squinted, but quickly spotted his friends at the far end of the courtyard. All Starfleet housing complexes were built similarly: a quad of three to four story buildings surrounding a large green space. Some of the newer places featured pools with elaborate water features, sporting fields and play areas, but the waiting lists were long for those units and generally higher ranked officers lived there. John’s complex was older – an efficient study in gray cement and straight lines. The courtyard featured brick paved walkways surrounded by neatly cut grass with the occasional oak tree to provide shade. There were benches scattered throughout and several grills and picnic tables available for residents’ use. John resolutely put the idea of moving to one of the fancier complexes with their bigger apartments out of his mind as he approached his friends.
“Hey,” he said.
William Ross turned to face his friend. “You’re right on time,” he said. He popped open a nicely chilled beer and handed it to John and then nodded towards the grill. “Rafe just put the burgers on. We asked Louise and Robbie to stop by, but you know how it is with newlyweds.”
The truth was that John didn’t know but he nodded anyway as he took a long refreshing sip of the beer.
“Good to see you, Johnny,” Rafe Falcon said. He flipped a hamburger patty expertly. “I was afraid you’d be passed out after a long trip like that. Bill said to call you anyway. Said you’d be too hungry to sleep.”
“I’m glad you did,” John said. He eyed his friends gratefully. He’d met the two men shortly after moving into the complex two years ago. They – along with Robbie and Louise Holcomb – had become fast friends, often meeting for cook-outs or the occasional friendly soccer game. Having a close group of friends took the sting out of being stationed in San Francisco for the past two years when most of his Academy friends had been stationed off-world or had taken posts aboard starships. “The apartment feels lonely after a vacation.”
“Yeah, after Risa? I bet,” Bill said with a laugh. He touched his beer bottle to John’s. “How’s Rosie?”
John shrugged. “Good. I guess.”
Bill arched an eyebrow. “Just good? That’s not a word I’d associate with a week-long vacation on *Risa*. I’d expect things to be better than good.”
John took a deep breath. Pull the band aid off, he thought ruefully. Everyone was going to find out sooner rather than later; Starfleet officers were infamous for their ability to spread gossip across at the galaxy at speeds clocked faster than Warp 10. “She broke up with me.”
At this, Rafe nearly dropped the burger he was flipping as he turned to face John. “She asked you to come all the way to Risa just to break up with you?”
Bill shook his head. “Man, I’m sorry.”
“You spent *months* planning that trip,” Rafe said. “You had no idea?”
“Wasn’t it her idea to go to Risa?” Rafe stared, his eyes wide with surprise. “It’s only the most romantic place in the entire quadrant. What on earth was she thinking?”
John had asked that very same question multiple times over the last few days and no explanation he came up was remotely satisfactory.
“That we’ve run our course, that our paths were diverging, etcetera, etcetera.” He’d replayed the exact words repeatedly on the trip from Risa to Utopia Planetia and the emotional impact of them still managed to inflict wounds. “She thought we should go our separate ways and if circumstances allowed in the future, we could revisit whether we still wanted to be together.” At least that’s how Rosetta had put it to him in her very matter-of-fact way. John stared at a spot somewhere beyond his friends, unable to focus his eyes. “It’s probably for the best.”
“You agree with her?” Rafe asked incredulously.
John took a few steps, the blades of grass tickling at his bare skin. “You know she’s going on that three-year deep space mission and I have no idea where I’m going to be so…”
Bill looked at his friend intently. “But you, you weren’t planning on breaking up, were you?”
John shook his head. “No…”
A look of horror crossed Rafe’s face. “You didn’t propose, did you?”
John held his hands up at the barrage of questions. “No, I knew maintain our relationship would be tough while she was in deep space, but I wasn’t thinking about breaking up. And no, I didn’t have plans to propose. I mean, I’ve been thinking about it but no, not this trip.” He sighed heavily. “She said she’d been thinking about splitting for a while. Said we’d been growing apart, wanting different things, and now that she was going away, it seemed appropriate to say good-bye.”
Rafe flipped a burger onto a bun and handed the plate to John. “If she’d been planning a break up, why go to Risa?”
“Because she wanted to tell me in person,” John said sotto voce. “And I’d already booked the trip.” John flashed back to an image of Rosetta coming down the grassy knoll, dressed all in white, her dark hair piled on top of her head, her face serene in the light of Risa’s setting sun. She’d looked beautiful, the skirt of her dress swirling around her legs as she’d walked towards him. She’d reminded him of Venus de Milo in those final moments of their relationship. “So she figured she’d just tell me there.” John gulped down some beer. “Anyway, that’s that. Rosetta’s moved on and here I am, back in San Fran.” He didn’t mean to sound glum, but when he’d last had a beer with these guys, he’d been preparing for a dream vacation on Risa with the most beautiful woman in the galaxy. Now she was on her way – two pips on her command red collar – into the far reaches of the Beta Quadrant, and he was, well, hell, he was nowhere and going there fast. “Enough about me. What have you guys been up to?”
Bill scuffed at the grass with his feet. “Went to Paris for a couple of days, and then to Barcelona.” He shrugged. “I thought we’d go spend some time at the beach, but some people—” he shot a look at Rafe “—don’t appreciate nature.”
“I appreciate nature,” Rafe said, “but I appreciate fine food and wine more.” He smirked. “And didn’t you meet someone?”
John arched an eyebrow. This wasn’t a surprise. Bill was always “meeting” someone; getting that someone to stick around was another story entirely. “So?” he asked, glad for the opportunity to deflect some of the attention off himself.
“Her name is Ellora. She’s from Betazed.”
“Unfortunately.” Bill sighed. “She knew all my best lines before I said them. Kind of ruined the mood.” He brightened then. “But she’ll be back on Earth in a few weeks and said we should meet up again.”
“I hear there are ways you can shield your thoughts from telepaths,” John said. “You should look into that before you guys meet up again.”
“On the other hand, it seems like you could avoid a whole lot of misunderstandings if you could just read each other’s minds,” Rafe said. He sat down on the bench closest to them and stretched out his legs. “Isn’t that half the problem sometimes? You’re thinking one thing, she’s thinking another, and then next you know, you have an argument or worse.” His eyes sparkled with a bit of mischief.
Bill dismissed his comment with a nonchalant wave of the hand. “Well, we’ll see. We’ve only exchanged a few messages since we met. Who knows? I’m not getting my hopes up.” He offered them a small smile. “But it would be nice.” He sat down next to Rafe. “Don’t you ever think it’d be nice to settle down, like Louise and Robbie?”
“Haven’t thought about it,” Rafe said. He tipped his head towards the sky. “I’m still thinking about what’s out there. Until that itch is satisfied… I don’t think a relationship is in my future.”
“You say that now,” Bill said. “Standard Starfleet-issued response.”
“Gotta meet someone first, right?” Rafe fixed a keen gaze on John. “And then like them enough to spend time with them and then have them like you back enough to say ‘yes’ when you ask. A steep hill to climb, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask, but thanks,” Bill said shortly. John looked at Bill in surprise, but his friend’s expression was impassive, as if he was ready to move on from the conversation. John wondered if this Ellora had made a bigger impact on his friend than Bill was letting on but decided to take the hint and let the matter lie. Instead, he turned towards Rafe, who seemed oblivious to the dark cloud hovering over Bill’s head.
“So what else were you up to while I was gone?” John asked.
Rafe shrugged. “The usual. Work. Play. Sleep. Maybe not in that order. It’s been quiet around here lately. No new gossip. Have you heard anything about your new assignment?”
“Not yet.” John shook his head. “Suspense ends in a couple of days.”
“Maybe you’ll get that starship posting,” Bill said. He tipped his head towards the sky, which was now streaked in shades of purple and orange. The moon was a small sliver of white against the colorful display.
“And if so, good for you, but we’ll miss you,” Rafe said.
“I promise, I’ll write.” John took a final bite of his burger. “This hit the spot, thank you.”
“No problem,” Rafe said. “Figured you’d be hungry. Shuttle food leaves a lot to be desired.”
“Reminds me of the time I had to go all the way to Deep Space Six,” Bill said with a shudder. “Nothing but rations on that trip. I was so sick of those flat hard biscuits that I ate gagh when we got to the station. The replimat was closed and I had a choice between Ferengi or Klingon cuisine. I decided to go with Klingon” He grimaced at the memory. “The restaurant owner made a point of telling me just how active the gagh was. Like I wanted my food to be crawling across my plate!”
“Gagh?” John asked with interest. “How did it taste?”
“Nasty stuff if you ask me,” Bill said. “But yeah, Klingons and I don’t necessarily have the same idea as to what constitutes great cooking.” He shook his head. “I prefer my food to be dead before it hits my plate.”
John considered. The meal Bill described didn’t sound appetizing, but he was not opposed to learning more about Klingon cuisine. He resolved that in the morning, he’d look to see whether a Klingon restaurant existed on San Francisco.
“How was the trip back?” Rafe asked. “Shuttle travel—” he shuddered “—is it me or does it get more crowded, less comfortable, and increasingly inefficient every time?”
“It was fine. Long.” John reached for a second beer. “Spent most of the time talking to my seatmate. She’s Klingon.”
Bill looked startled. “A Klingon?”
“Seems kind of far for a Klingon to come,” Rafe said mildly. And then with intense curiosity coloring his tone, he asked “What do you even talk to a Klingon about?”
“Her name’s Miral,” John said. He struggled to find a word to describe the woman whose moods seemed to alternate between sadness, frustration, and irritation. There had been occasional moments of lightness but overall, a sense of despondency had seemed to hang over Miral, daughter of L’Naan. And in rare moments, the Klingon woman had appeared almost fragile to John. But in those rare moments when Miral’s spirit had shone through, John knew she was anything but. “She seems… nice.”
Bill frowned. “Not a word I typically associate with Klingons.”
John couldn’t resist a quick smile. “You seem to be having a word association problem today.”
“It’s just I always think of Klingons as… blood thirsty and violent.”
“I can assure you that Miral isn’t anything like what you’d think,” John said. “Anyway, it made time pass pretty quickly when you have someone to talk to.” And more importantly, that someone wasn’t in Starfleet and didn’t seem to care that he only had one pip on his collar.
Rafe lifted his beer. “So here’s to charming seatmates.” He shot a sly look in Bill’s direction. “Though I imagine ‘charming’ isn’t a word you’d associate with Klingons?”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Bill said defensively. “I’ve just never met a Klingon. I only know what I’ve heard and if I’m going to be honest, they sound… intimidating. Loud, boisterous, passionate—”
“I’ve definitely heard about the passion,” Rafe interjected. “Klingon women are insatiable, if you know what I mean.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively in John’s direction.
“Now you’re stereotyping,” John said, trying to tamp down the growing sense of irritation. “Not very Starfleet of you, Lieutenant.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” Bill said. And he did sound genuinely apologetic. “I guess I’m not really living up to our charter, huh?”
“Not really,” John said. “But good thing you’re off duty otherwise you’d probably get a reprimand.”
“It’s just guy talk, Johnny,” Rafe said. “Since when did you get so sensitive?”
“I’m not sensitive, just pointing out that this guy—” John jerked his thumb in Bill’s direction “—might not know what he’s talking about.”
“And I concede the point,” Bill said grandly. “I apologize.”
“No need to apologize to me,” John said. “Just be careful in the future, okay?”
“Right.” Bill eyed John with curiosity. “She really made an impression on you, didn’t she?”
“She just seemed lonely and she’s never been to Earth before,” John said. “And maybe I know a little bit something about being alone now. I’ve offered to show her around, so if you’re interested, you can join us, get to know the stereotype in real life.”
Bill considered. “Sure. After all, I did join Starfleet to seek out new life and new civilizations.”
John laughed, holding up his hand. “Okay, Captain Kirk. Give him another pip already.”
“You’re promoting him to Commander already?” Rafe shook his head. “Do that and he’ll be more insufferable than he already is.”
“He’s likely to get a promotion before either of us,” John said.
“True statement, that,” Rafe said. “You’re a good guy, Bill, but don’t forget the little people when you make admiral."
“Here’s to Starfleet,” Bill said, holding out his beer. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” John said. The beer had gotten warm and he could feel the mild beginnings of a headache. His muscles ached, likely from those long hours in the cramped shuttle seat, and he could think of nothing more welcoming than his comfortable bed. The way he was feeling now, he thought he could sleep for the next 24 hours with no problem. “To Starfleet, but more importantly, to the people we meet along the way.” He bit his lip. “Some who stay, some who go, but always for a reason, right?”
Rafe regarded his friend speculatively. “You really okay, Johnny? You and Rosie were together for a long time.”
“I’m fine,” John said. “Look, it’s time for new beginnings, right?” He put his plate down. “Thanks for feeding me tonight.”
“Anytime, man,” Rafe said. “You’re going home already?”
“Yeah. I’m tired.”
“Get some rest,” Bill said quietly, clapping his hand on John’s shoulder. His touch was reassuring, comforting. “Want to grab breakfast tomorrow? My treat.”
“Hey, I’m fine. You don’t have to treat me with kid gloves.”
“Okay, then it’s *your* treat,” Bill said with a rakish grin. “How about 0900? Meet you right here.”
“Sounds good,” John said. The more he thought about it, the less he wanted to be alone. He nodded good night to his friends and headed back towards his apartment in the fading light of the day.
He entered the apartment, once again nearly tripping over the duffel bag. He cursed and then shoved it roughly out of the way with his foot. He kicked off his shoes and then headed towards the bathroom. As he opened the medicine cabinet over the sink, his gaze fell on the bottom shelf where Rosetta’s toothbrush and a few jars of make-up sat. With sudden force, he swept the bottles off the shelf and onto the floor. They landed with a crack of glass and one of the jars burst open, spilling white lotion all over the yellow tile floor. John sank to the floor, pressing his hands to his face.
~ the end