I’m never letting Bill pick the place again. With that thought, John pushed his way through the dance floor and to the bar, settling on a seat as far away from the band as he could manage. The pounding beat reverberated through the place and the less than stellar acoustics made it difficult to discern the lyrics. As he slipped into his seat, John hoped the band would take a break soon.
“What will you have?” the bartender asked, his face illuminated in shades of red and blue from the various neon signs on the wall that passed for decoration.
“Beer. Whatever you have on tap. Surprise me.” John could already feel the beginnings of a headache from the noise. The guests consisted mostly of uniformed Starfleet Academy cadets and clearly a few of them needed to slough off the stress of the curriculum judging by the number of empty glasses and bottles in front of them. It was the type of place Cadet Torres would have enjoyed; Ensign Torres, on the other hand, would have preferred something more sedate, preferably on the water. But he’d given Bill Ross the choice of meeting place and so he’d have to deal with the consequences of that decision.
“A new IPA came in from Cestus Three the other day,” the bartender said, raising his voice to counteract the band. “It’s pretty good.”
John nodded his approval. He’d never heard of Cestus Three but lately, he’d been in the mood to try new things. “As long as it’s not synthale.”
The bartender threw him a sympathetic look. “Hard day?”
“I’m shipping out to Utopia Planetia tomorrow and they don’t have any of the good stuff there,” John said.
“Yeah, that’s the problem with space stations. You can grow food in a hydroponics bay but it doesn’t taste the same as farm-grown and they tend to import the mass produced stuff to keep costs down. No one values the rare find from a distant Federation world.” The bartender wiped the counter quickly with a rag. “Okay, hold on while I get your drink. Anything to eat?”
John considered waiting for Bill, but his growling stomach won the argument. “The jalapeno burger with everything on it.
“All right, give me a minute.”
John tapped his fingers on the wooden counter as he turned to face the door. It wasn’t like Bill to be late. In fact, Bill could be annoyingly punctual. Plus, this bar wasn’t more than a five or six-minute walk from Bill’s office at Starfleet Headquarters. Something last minute must have come up; as an admiral’s adjunct, Bill was often at that admiral’s beck and call. John sighed and turned his attention towards the band. The singer’s mouth was perilously close to swallowing the microphone while the guitarist whipped his long hair back and forth as his long fingers moved across the strings. The band wasn’t terrible, John had to admit. In a different setting, he might even enjoy the music.
“Here’s your drink,” the bartender said. “Your burger will be out shortly.”
John tasted the beer and decided he and the bartender had differing definitions of good. He was still contemplating the merits of the Cestus Three brew when Bill slid into the seat next to his.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said breathlessly. “I got distracted at the office and lost track of time.”
John raised his eyebrow. “No problem. I already ordered though. I’m starving,” John said. “I spent all day packing my things and forgot to eat lunch.”
“I know how that goes.” Bill signaled for the bartender. “When do you leave again?”
Bill quickly put in his order with the bartender and then turned his attention back to John. “I’m going to miss you.” He grimaced as he looked at the band. “Sorry about that. Had no idea there was live music tonight or that it’d be so crowded.” He shrugged. “I should have guessed. Thursday night, close to the Academy.”
“It’s fine,” John said. He glanced at the band. The drummer looked like he was in a full-fledged work-out with his arms and legs flying wildly as he pounded out a complicated beat. “Hopefully they take a break soon.”
“Yeah. I can’t remember if you told me what your training schedule looked like.”
“Three weeks there, three weeks back. At the end of the four months, Captain Braswell will settle on her crew.”
“You’d better be on that ship when it sets out,” Bill said. His expression turned serious. “Don’t blow this, John.”
“You sound like my dad.” John sighed as the bartender put his burger and fries in front of him and then took Bill’s food and drink order. “I went up to see them over the weekend. They are thrilled, but Dad talked at me the whole time. He never served on a starship, so I don’t know why he thinks he’s an expert on the topic.”
Bill took a sip of his beer. “Your dad is passionate about all things Starfleet. You know that.”
“Yeah, but I wish he had a little bit of faith in me,” John said. He narrowed his eyes as he looked at his good friend. “And it surprises me you don’t either.”
“Hey, I didn’t mean to imply that. It’s just that you’re getting a chance that most don’t and it’s competitive.” Bill stared at his drink. “In fact, I’m a little jealous.”
“You?” John couldn’t hide his surprise. He couldn’t remember Bill ever wanting a starship posting; in fact, Bill seemed perfectly content to excel at bureaucratic paper-pushing.
“I guess I’m ready for a change,” Bill said. “That’s why I was late. I was looking at transfer postings.”
John straightened at this revelation. “But you love San Francisco.”
“Perhaps, but maybe it’s time to travel, experience new cultures, new things,” Bill said as the bartender put a place of chicken fingers and fries in front of him. “I’ve spent five years at Starfleet Headquarters and no doubt, I have lots of opportunities here, but the last few days, I’ve been thinking whether I’d regret not spending time off world.”
“So, did you see something you’re interested in?”
Bill nodded. “Yes. There’s an open operations position at a small supply depot near Betazed. It’s not a particularly popular posting so I’m sure I’d get it if I put in for a transfer.”
John picked his words carefully. “You once gave me advice not to make any major decisions because of a woman.” He fixed his gaze on his friend. “Are you having a change of heart because of Ellora?”
Bill’s lips twitched into a grin. “Let’s just say she’s the catalyst.”
“You sure about this?” John asked.
“Even if the relationship doesn’t work out, I’d get key operations experience I won’t be able to get at Headquarters,” Bill said earnestly. “Getting an operations position on a starship… well, it’s not easy.”
“For someone like me, Bill,” John said. “You should have no problem.”
“I guess I’m impatient. For this position, there isn’t much competition. I could be out there in a couple of months.”
“What does Ellora think?”
Bill’s expression turned wistful. “She thinks Earth is very far from Betazed.”
“She could come here. There’s always demand for telepaths in the diplomatic corps.”
“I suppose.” Bill fingered the rim of his glass. “But if I ever want a command of my own, I need to have command experience. This opportunity gives me that.”
“You’re making a major life decision for a woman you’ve known for what, a month?” John couldn’t keep the shock out of his voice.
“It’s easier for me to make this change than for her to attempt something like what you’re suggesting,” Bill said softly. “And like I said, if I want to rise in the ‘fleet, I can’t stay on Earth forever.”
“Well, I hope it works out for you,” John said sincerely. He had no doubt Bill would be successful at anything and everything he tried; it was one of his friend’s most annoying qualities. Still, it seemed like a spontaneous decision and if there was one thing Bill Ross wasn’t, it was impulsive. “So, when do I get to meet Ellora?”
“I’m sure we can figure something out,” Bill said. “I kept meaning to introduce her to all of you while she was here, but—” he shrugged “—you know how it is.” He winked. “Hard to come up for air sometimes.” He knitted his fingers together. “She’s… I don’t know how to explain it, but I’ve never felt like this about anyone before.”
John held up his hand. “You don’t have to explain to me,” he said softly. “I’ve been in love before.”
Bill looked stricken. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t even thinking.”
“Don’t apologize. I can’t expect everyone to put their lives on hold just because Rosetta decided to dump me,” John said. “And maybe she’s right; deep space missions are hard for even the strongest of relationships to withstand. So, closing the distance between the two of you, if you’ve figured out a way to do that that works, then—” he offered a small sad smile “—that’s what you should do.”
“I don’t know if my relationship with Ellora is forever,” Bill said softly, “but if I don’t try—”
“I know. If Rosie had given me a chance to try, I would have.” John cleared his throat. “I hope you get the posting. It sounds like a good fit for you, career-wise, personal life, all of it.”
“I’ll let you know how it goes,” Bill said, his tone implying he was ready to move on to a different subject. He pushed his empty plate away. “So, you’re all set for tomorrow?”
“As much as I can be,” John said. “I’ve decided to leave my apartment empty for now. I thought about subletting, but I figured I’d rather just come back to my place versus crashing on your sofa for the three weeks I’m here.” He smiled. “Though maybe you won’t be here when I come back.”
“Things don’t happen that fast in Starfleet,” Bill said, laughing. “Let me know if you need me to check on things while you’re gone, if you have anything you need me to take care of.”
“Actually, I do have a favor to ask,” John said. “I’d like to give Miral your contact information if it’s okay. And if you could check on her every now then, I’d appreciate it.”
“No problem.” Bill frowned. “You’ve spent a lot of time with her. Anything I should know?” There was a suggestive note in his tone that John chose to ignore.
John shook his head. “I just know what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land,” he said. He fell silent. He’d seen Miral briefly on Tuesday; they’d met for lunch after her workshop, and she’d seemed overwhelmed by the class, questioning whether she’d made the right decision to attend. She’d also made a comment about how out of place she felt as the only Klingon in a class of humans. Her classmates seemed stand-offish, even suspicious of her. As for the writer Jeff Tabor, Miral had described him as mystified by her presence in his workshop and hadn’t made any moves to get to know her better. Miral had acknowledged her own shortcomings when it came to social interactions with humans, but the sadness in her demeanor was noticeable. “I don’t think she’s made friends yet and after what happened last weekend at the beach, I’d just feel more comfortable if she had someone she could reach out to if she needed to.”
“I must have missed what happened last weekend,” Bill said lightly. In the background, the band finally took their break, waving to their fans as they exited the stage.
John quickly told his friend about the men who’d heckled Miral at the Golden Gate Bridge vista point. “We left and went to Black Sands Beach and then when we came back, someone had left a note on the hovercar.” He took a deep breath. “It’s stupid, really, but I can’t stop thinking about what it said but worse than that, someone took the time to track us down and leave that note for us.” He shook his head. “That’s real hate, Bill.”
“She’s a Klingon. She can take care of herself.”
“She’s a kid,” John said with some passion. Of course, he knew Klingons were strong, capable people, but he felt incredibly protective of Miral, even though she was only a couple of years younger and in theory, could kick his ass to Qo’noS and back. But there was just something fragile about her that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, and he wanted desperately to make sure she would be taken care of in his absence. “And no one should be treated like that.”
“Does she know?”
“No, I didn’t tell her,” John said. “She was already shaken by the earlier incident and I- I didn’t think she needed to know. I wanted her to enjoy the rest of the day.” He looked at Bill. “There was some sexual threats and it concluded with a comment to go back where she came from; ‘your kind are not wanted here.’”
Bill sucked in his breath. “That is terrible. I’m so sorry that happened. And sure, you can give Miral my contact information and you have my word I’ll check on her.”’ He paused. “Did you report it to the police?”
“I thought about it, but no. I guess I was so worried about Miral’s reaction – she really doesn’t need this stress right now – that I just tried to ignore what happened.”
“Well, let’s hope it’s a one-off incident,” Bill said reassuringly. “And you said her workshop was near the Academy, right? She’ll be fine.”
“I hope you’re right.” John downed the last of his beer. “Well, I’d better go. Early morning tomorrow.” He pushed back in his chair and clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Keep me in the loop on what happens with the Betazed posting.”
“I’ll go with you,” Bill said. “I could use the exercise, walk off some of this grease.”
The two friends strolled into the cool night air. John liked the brush of wind against his skin. He knew for the next three weeks, he’d be confined within the Utopia Planetia station or within the habitat dome on Mars. The artificiality of those environments would be quite the change. He hadn’t even considered, until this moment, what it would be like to be on a starship for months without a chance to experience nature.
“I’ve been wanting this chance for as long as I can remember,” John said softly. “But now that it’s here—”
“No, of course not. Just nervous. Change is hard.”
“But necessary,” Bill said. “We can’t stay in the same place forever, right? Isn’t it the human condition to want to travel, experience new civilizations and cultures?”
“Until this past weekend, I would have agreed with you completely,” John answered. “Now I’m not so sure.” He sighed. “I guess I can’t judge everyone by a few bad apples, right?”
“Well, until I met Miral, I had some ideas about Klingons and you pointed out, not very diplomatically I might add, just how wrong I was.” Bill’s expression was sober. “And I consider myself open-minded.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it.”
“I’m not, but I am thinking about it,” Bill said softly. “Maybe that’s another reason why I need to go off-world. If I am serious about a command posting, I can’t have thoughts like that. I must be able to accept all civilizations, all species, without preconception.”
“You’re setting the bar pretty high for yourself.”
Bill’s expression turned serious. “Perhaps, but it does matter, Johnny.”
“Yes, it does, and I wish more people would feel that way,” John said with feeling. “I know we haven’t always had friendly relationships with the Klingons, and there are strong feelings against them, but I thought San Francisco would be different. The hostility… it surprises me. And I worry about her. She doesn’t know anyone, and she’s been through some rough times back on Qo’noS.”
“John.” Bill stopped and faced his friend. “Do you have feelings for her?”
John gaped. “For Miral?”
“No, I mean, not in that way. She’s a friend.”
“I’m just asking,” Bill said. He resumed walking. “You’re leaving first thing in the morning and you can’t stop worrying about a woman you met less than two weeks ago.”
“That’s fine talk from a man who’s planning to turn his entire life upside down for a woman he met a month ago.”
“Touché.” Bill’s lips turned up in an easy smile. Even in the dim light, John could see his friend was infatuated and it was worrisome, simply because it was so out of character for Bill Ross to fall so hard for someone, especially after such a short time. I knew Rosetta for years and never saw the end coming, he reminded himself.
“Wouldn’t you be concerned, if you were in my shoes?” John asked finally.
Bill’s expression was thoughtful. “I suppose so,” he said. He clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. I will check on her and I’ll introduce her to the others, especially Louise. Maybe it will help to have another woman to talk to.”
“Great, thank you,” John said with relief as they turned the corner. Their complex stood in front of them, a squat and ugly building. Home, John thought with some longing as they approached. But he’d adjusted so many times before to new places, found ways to eventually personalize them enough so they too became home too him. And this will be like that too, he thought as he entered his apartment. As he dropped his jacket on the sofa, he saw his comm system blinking. Curious, he called up the message. It was from Miral.
I wish you a good journey. I will never forget the kindness you have shown me. I shall miss you.
John stared at the message for a moment, and then ran his finger lightly over the words. Miral didn’t believe in obfuscation and so he knew what she wrote was precisely what she meant. He thought about what Bill had hinted at and quickly banished the thought. Miral was just a friend. With a sigh, he archived the message, and turned out the lights as he headed to bed. Morning would come soon enough.