The rain made everything worse.
Being alone in the city, of course, was difficult. As a child, Pavel had always traveled to Starfleet Academy's main campus for schooling with a parent or other guardian, someone old enough to look after him, to care for him. They stayed for the week, then traveled home with him to Russia for breaks such as weekends or holidays. Now that he was sixteen and a man, though, he could live on his own in the Academy's dorms. His family and teachers all told him what an honor it was, what an adventure, to have a full-time program of study developed especially for him.
It was a trial.
A specialized program meant he was always challenged academically, yes, which was wonderful, of course, but it also isolated him from pretty much everyone. The students his age were still in Academy-preparatory secondary schooling and could not study with him. The students who understood his coursework were so much older that they would not study with him. He was alone in his adventure.
And still it might not be so bad except for the rain.
In the first place, he had left the sanctuary of the Academy in order to search the city for somewhere quite to work on his calculations and papers. It was tiresome to be interrupted at all hours by cadets wanting easy answers for their assorted math homework, or to ask if he were really a sixteen-year-old prodigy, or just to gawk and trade rumors where they thought he couldn't hear. Perhaps in a public café or library, passers-by would see only a normal teenager, completing whatever homework normal teenagers did, and leave him in peace.
The storm had been unexpected, instantly drenching him in sheets of rain as he stepped out of another bistro overcrowded with chattering patrons. He scurried to find shelter, data PADDs hidden safely in a tote he stuffed under his shirt and jacket. The awning of an empty shop offered some protection, but his left side continued to catch droplets of water gusting in sideways by the wind. An uncertain glance out and upwards revealed a sky still dark and heavy with rain clouds, which meant Pavel would have to probably soon choose between spending the rest of his day under the awning or striking out for the Academy despite the storm.
Just my luck.
Pavel hunched in on himself, shoulders curled and head ducked, clutching his tote close to protect its contents from the storm that thundered above him. A peal of lightning made him jump.
But it was the sudden cessation of cold rain on his shoulder, of stinging wind on his cheek that startled him into looking up.
A man stood at his side, large umbrella tilted so it blocked the sheets of water buffeting them. He was tall and almost ridiculously handsome, not so much older than Pavel, with rich golden hair slicked back from his face and the bluest eyes Pavel had ever seen. A long black coat billowed around his legs, matched against a tailored suit that probably cost more than an entire semester's tuition. His expression was calm, almost blank, though there was something of curiosity in his level gaze.
"Is someone coming to get you?" he asked.
Pavel shook his head, wet curls tumbling heavily with the nearly panicked motion.
"Do you have a car or something?"
Pavel shook his head again.
"…You're just going to stand here until it stops raining, aren't you?"
After a brief hesitation, Pavel nodded.
The man nearly sighed, mouth twitching into something like a resigned frown before leveling out again. He tilted his umbrella to indicate a small alley. "I have a place you can stay until it stops raining," he offered, that corner of his mouth ticking again when Pavel's expression washed with panic. "It isn't my house, kid, it's a restaurant. Jesus, is this not my best suit? What exactly do I look like here?"
A tycoon, Pavel didn't reply. Or a foreign dignitary. Or any kind of man especially used to getting what he wants.
But he also looked nothing like a villain, and Pavel was exceptionally tired of being in the rain. When the man stepped away, Pavel followed him.
"We usually close for a few hours between the lunch and dinner sets on weekdays," the man said, shifting through keys on a large ring until he found one that fit the lock of a nondescript door in the alley. (Who used keyed locks anymore, anyway?) "There's about another hour until we start up again, but you can sit at one of the tables in the corner if you want." He pushed the door open, holding it as Pavel skittered in. Blue eyes narrowed slightly. "On second thought, maybe you'd better sit at the bar. I get this feeling it'd be better to keep you close, considering my usual crowd." He stepped in after Pavel, shutting the door before folding his umbrella and setting it aside to dry. "You're an Academy brat, aren't you?"
Pavel blinked, startled out of his visual examination of what looked like a small industrial kitchen. "How did you know?"
The man raised one eyebrow. "And Russian, too. Now that's unusual. You a special case?"
"Yes," Pavel admitted softly, dropping his eyes to study the puddle of water forming around his feet.
"There's nothing wrong with special cases, kid. Don't move around or you'll drip on everything. I'll find you a towel."
"My name is Pavel Chekov," he said, looking up in time to get a face full of terrycloth.
"Nice to meet you, Pavel," the man said, shrugging out of his long coat to hang it from a peg by the door. "I'm Jim."
The man smirked at him. "There's other things to call me. Just Jim's fine for you, though." He walked toward a set of swinging double doors, motioning Chekov forward. "C'mon, dining room's through here. You want some coffee or tea or something?"
The main restaurant was a large room with a dozen small tables arranged in the space left around an impressive bar. Several antique stained-glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling, throwing low light over a design schema that seemed focused around Old Italian dining establishments. Pavel perched nervously on the very first tall, wooden barstool he reached, setting his tote on the bar. "Coffee please," he said softly, fidgeting with the strap of his bag.
"Man after my own heart," Jim mused, already fiddling with a traditional espresso machine. "If you've got homework to do or something," he added, nodding toward Pavel's bag, "don't be shy about it." After a few minutes, he set a steaming mug in front of Pavel before bustling off again, getting ready for the evening customers.
Pavel sipped carefully at his coffee, sighing with appreciation when the first rich mouthful spread warmth through his stomach.
By the time Jim's fellow coworkers—three chefs, a half-dozen servers, and a harried busboy—arrived, Pavel was so absorbed in his studies that he didn't notice when they adapted to his presence without posing a single question to Jim. It would have seemed odd, if Pavel had been paying attention.
Why did none of them protest?
But the math was too engaging, and the restaurant too peaceful, and Pavel was a genius, not perfect.
One of the first customers to sit at the bar was a surly man with a deep Southern drawl who was dressed sharply in Academy reds. He flouted several Starfleet protocols by yanking the collar open as he sat two places down from Pavel. "After the day I've had," he snarled at Jim when the bartender slid a shot glass towards him, "you'd better just leave the damn bottle." He flicked the glass back at Jim, scowling ferociously when the bartender caught it. "Fucking infantile Starfleet idiots, think they're smart enough to not even needbasic first aid classes, they can all just die from their own stupidity. You see if I care when all their faces melt off," he spat, yanking the cork from the bottle Jim set before him. "You just see if I care." He took a long swig before snarling again, this time in Pavel's direction. "You're too young to be at the bar, kid—scram."
"Pavel's fine," Jim said, lifting one hand in the Russian's direction to prevent him from obeying. "I bumped into him in the rain, and he's been keeping me company. Besides, you should be nice to him: you've got something in common, after all."
The angry man narrowed his eyes at Pavel. "'s your full name?" he demanded.
"Pavel Chekov," the teen squeaked.
"Something in common?" He snorted, taking another deep pull of alcohol. "Well, he's Russian, and they drink pretty heavily there. Shared experience in the bottle?" he drawled.
Jim laughed, popping the lid off a bottle of beer before sliding it to one of the waitresses, who loaded it on her tray with a smile of thanks. "Nah, Pavel's a good kid. Check out his homework. You guys are schoolmates."
"Aah, Pavel Chekov, that genius kid." The man tipped his head at Chekov. "I remember hearin' about you. 's a pretty shitty situation for a teenager, bein' stuck around all those self-absorbed halfwits. One of these days they're going to melt your face off with their stupidity. You've got my condolences for that."
"Ah," Pavel managed, fingers curling around his PADD as he tried to puzzle out the appropriate reply, "ah, I mean— Thank you? It is very hard," he admitted, "to be alone in my program."
The man snickered into his bottle. "Yeah I'll just bet it's wery hard."
"Be nice, Georgia," Jim suggested absently, pouring a glass of dark red wine for another customer.
"Georgia?" the teen echoed.
Jim's mouth ticked into a grin. "You don't recognize the drawl?"
"Name's Leonard," the man interrupted, shifting down until he was sitting next to Pavel. "Dr. Leonard McCoy. Jim here just can't be bothered to remember."
"Doctor?" Pavel cocked his head curiously. "But you are dressed as a cadet. You obtained your medical license before joining Starfleet? Why?"
"Now that's a long story," Dr. McCoy observed dryly.
Pavel ducked his head to hide his flush. "I am very sorry for such a personal question."
McCoy tugged Pavel's PADD closer. "Jesus!" he barked, pushing it away again. "I figured I'd offer to help, if Jim was plannin' on making you a regular addition, but that's just nonsense to me."
"Oh it is not the math that troubles me," Pavel assured him quickly, scrolling through his files in a rush of flickering lights. He passed the results back. "But if you are a doctor, perhaps you have a suggestion, yes, about the best way to survive the required xenobiology course…?"
"And maybe you have trick or two to offer on how to pass some of those math classes that have been kickin' my ass all semester."
"Oh yes!" Pavel agreed over the sound of Jim chuckling at them. "Many tricks!"
And so Pavel found a study partner, a sanctuary, and Jim, nearly all at once.
Thank you, rain.
Using Admiral Archer's prized beagle to prove his trans-warp theory was the best idea Montgomery Scott ever had. Granted, if the calculations were even a digit off, there was no telling where the dog would go.
That was actually the beauty of the whole situation.
The numbers weren't off, they couldn't be, and when the dog arrived right where it was supposed to be, Archer would have to eat his words in front of the entire academy.
For some reason, the dog seemed reluctant to participate in Scott's great scientific endeavor. It had been a real chore to borrow it from Archer's kennel without being caught, and now that it was liberated it kept trying to escape. Nearly an hour later and only just passing the docks closest to Starfleet, the dog's constant tugging on its leash was beginning to get more than a bit annoying.
Then they came across something so unexpected that even the wretched dog jolted to a halt.
There was a sleek black car—not a hover-vehicle of any nature but an honest-to-God, combustion-engine, fossil-fuel-consuming car—parked on the curb by the walkway that edged the beach. A man leaned against the car's passenger door, long legs crossed at the ankle with both hands stuffed in the pockets of a heavy coat. The collar was popped, probably in difference to the chill biting in the air, and partially obscured the man's face. He was smoking, another modern oddity—who smoked anymore?—and gave off a general air of complete boredom.
Scott hesitated, glancing around. Dog-napping had required a certain…flexibility of schedule, which was the only reason he was currently awake and active.
But it was barely dawn. What was a man who owned a car doing up so early?
Before Scott could decide one way or the other about what to do, the dog made up his mind for him, breaking into a run so quickly it tore the leash from his hands. Scott cursed vividly, sprinting after the animal. "Can ye catch th' dog?" he shouted.
The man looked up and over, turning sunglasses on Scott before tipping his head down to regard the escapee beagle. He took one last deep drag on the cigarette, dropped it, and crushed the butt under his heel while a plume of smoke snaked between his pursed lips. Then he knelt, whistling once but sharply, and offered his hand. The dog clattered over, entire body wiggling in delight when the man began stroking its velvet ears.
"Thanks," Scott said, holding his hand out for the leash.
"What's his name?" the man asked without glancing up.
"…Er," Scott replied, "that's…a very interesting question."
Long fingers touched the charm on the dog's collar, turning it until it caught the light. The man pushed his sunglass up, settling them amid slick golden hair. "Jacopo," he read. Then he patted the dog's—Jacopo's chest. "Good name. I'm Jim," he said, as much to the dog as Scott.
"Montgomery Scott," the Starfleet engineer supplied immediately.
Jim grinned up at him. "Another good name."
"'scuse me for askin'," Scott said after a slight hesitation, "but what're you doin' up at this time o' day? There's barely a soul awake in all of California, yet here ya are, with a car,at the beach but not exactly dressed for swimming."
"Here you are," Jim countered, patting Jacopo once more before standing, the leash still twined around his hand, "with a dog whose name you don't know, passing the beach without a glance, in broad daylight but dressed entirely in black."
"…It wasn't daylight when I put th' clothing on."
"No," the blond agreed with a disarming smile, "I didn't think so."
"And anyway, the dog and everything makes perfect sense in context."
"I'm sure it does."
"I'm running an experiment," he explained. "'t prove a new theory. Th' dog's helping."
"Starfleet?" When Scott nodded, Jim sighed, low and long and thoroughly exasperated. "Does the dog's owner know you're using him?"
"…Er, about that—"
Jim knelt to touch Jacopo's collar again, turning the charm so Scott could see the back. "This is the insignia of a high-ranking officer. Is this really the best dog to use if something goes wrong?"
Scott huffed. "Nothin'll go wrong."
"And if it does?"
Jim studied the dog for a long moment before standing. He shifted his sunglasses back over his pale blue eyes, expression calm as he passed the leash to Scott. "And if it does?"
Scott fidgeted. "Well I don't exactly expect—"
"No one ever expects the really bad shit to happen. But it does. So what's your contingency?"
"Worst-case scenario. Everything goes wrong, the experiment backfires, and the dog explodes or melts or whatever it is experimental dogs do. What's your plan?"
"Heartfelt apology?" Scott offered sheepishly.
Jim snorted, resuming his previous lounge against the car with his hands shoved in his pockets. "Your plan needs work."
A slow grin curled Scott's mouth. "Is tha' an offer?"
One of Jim's eyebrows ticked over the top of his sunglasses. "Excuse me?"
Scott nodded. "It's a good idea. You might not be Starfleet, but you're a wily one. I'm no' daft, after all. I ken when I need outside assistance."
Jim shook his head, more in defeat than refusal. "Listen, if you want help, there's a kid who comes by my restaurant a few times a week to study. He's a genius, so he'll probably be able to fact-check whatever fucked up scheme you're running, but I won't be much help. I'm a busy man."
"Oh aye," Scott snorted. "Which is why you're leanin' on a car by the beach at the break of day without another soul in sight. Because you're so bleedin' busy."
"It all makes sense," Jim said easily, drawing a cigarette and lighter from the depths of his pocket. "In context." He ducked politely away to light up, then turned his head to exhale.
"Those'll kill you," the Starfleet officer scolded.
Jim smirked. "They'd have to beat a lot of other stuff." He waved a dismissive hand when Scott opened his mouth. "Anyway, I'm not waiting here because I want to. I'm waiting for another driver. Mine was detained."
Scott looked around skeptically. "…Aye?"
"He had a meeting."
Scott flung his arms out, expression filled with incredulity while the leash flailed in his grip. "Where?"
Jim's face smoothed into a sea of serenity. "At the docks."
"There's no one there," Scott pointed out, squinting at the area in question.
"Not anymore, no."
Scott turned his squint on Jim. "…You cannae be serious."
Jim shrugged. "You don't have to believe me. I had a driver. He had to go. Now I'm waiting for a new driver."
"Why not drive yourself?"
Jim took a long drag, holding it for a moment before offering it to the breeze. "I don't drive."
"It's no' hard," Scott assured him. "I could probably teach you in—"
"I don't drive." Jim flicked his cigarette to free some ashes. "Thanks though."
Scott blinked. "Okay," he said at last. "Well then, what if I drive you? You've been a bit of help this morning, and I'm no' one to let my debts go unpaid. In fact, I could—"
"Is there a problem here, sir?"
Scott turned, expecting to confront a red-clad security officer who had seen Jim smoking and assumed he was a problem. What he actually encountered was a small contingency of large, heavily muscled men in black suits and sunglasses flanking Jim, all of them facing toward Scott as though he were the trouble.
"No." Jim dropped his cigarette, crushing it absently. "Scott's a new friend, gentlemen. He'll be stopping by the restaurant to see my other friends. Make sure he knows the way."
Three business cards were immediately thrust at Scott from three different burly men. He took one nervously, stuffing it into his pocket.
Jim inclined his head. "It was good talking to you. Don't get caught returning the dog."
Jacopo barked cheerfully.
One of the suits opened the door Jim had been leaning on, stepping back to make room for the blond. "Are we waiting for Mason, sir?"
"No," Jim said, sliding easily into the vehicle. "He had somewhere else to be. I doubt we'll be seeing him again."
"Yes sir. Did he take everything with him, or should I send one of the boys to collect his belongings?"
"Like I said," Jim replied, barely visible now through darkly tinted windows, "we won't be seeing him again."
The door closed. Two men piled into the car; the others dispersed to a small fleet of additional vehicles. Within seconds, they were gone. Scott looked at the ground where Jim had been standing.
Even the cigarette butts were missing.
He dug the business card out of his pocket, examining the front.
The Family's Italian Restaurant and Bar. Huh.
"I do like a bit of Italian now and then," Scott observed to Jacopo. The dog wuffed in agreement.
And that was that.
The final month of the Terran calendar was illogical. Activities and parties usually associated with the end of a term were joined with assorted winter festivals and celebrations to render most students—humanoid or otherwise—all but incapable of giving their studies due attention. If Spock had been a slave to his emotions rather than a Vulcan, he might have experienced high levels of irritation.
Instead, he adapted his lesson plans to reflect his students' learning abilities, as was logical, and used the time freed by this schedule to concentrate on his not insubstantial list of research projects.
Then, one December night as he was walking to his quarters from the biology labs, he noticed something more illogical that usual (even for December).
A cadet was standing by himself near the edge of campus, protected from the elements by nothing more substantial than a suit, scarf, long coat, and hat. And held between his lips, sending curls of noxious smoke into the air, was a lit and glowing wrap of tobacco known commonly as a cigarette.
"Cadet," Spock called sternly, veering off his path with both hands locked behind his back. The cadet glanced over but otherwise didn't react, which was a direct violation of several codes of conduct. "You will explain yourself," Spock ordered, coming to a halt in front of the rebellious human.
For a moment, the cadet didn't react. Then, slowly, a grin spread across his face. "A Vulcan." He shook his head, laughing softly as he gripped the cigarette between the first and second fingers of his right hand. "Man, this is gonna be great." He drew the poisonous smoke into his lungs with a long inhalation, then turned his head aside (Downwind. Fascinating. Was it intentional?) to exhale sharply. "All right, Professor, you've got me." He wiggled the cigarette to shake ashes free from the burning tip. "What'd I do?"
Spock ticked one eyebrow. "Shall we start with your flagrant lack of respect for an instructor and superior officer?" the Vulcan replied neutrally. "Or perhaps your attire, which is decidedly non-regulation. Your demeanor and bearing are unbecoming of a Starfleet cadet. You have also broken curfew. Your presence here, alone at this time of night, is highly suspicious. Your recreational substance is prohibited to members of Starfleet and could jeopardize your end-of-year physical exam and, therefore, your tenure at this academy. It is also highly offensive."
The cadet's grin stretched as he studied Spock's face. He took another slow inhalation on his cigarette. "That's pretty impressive," he acknowledged while expelling the smoke from his lungs—downwind again. "So now let's see. What should my reply be?" He hummed thoughtfully while tapping free more loose ash. "How's this," he decided. "I'm not a cadet, so you're neither my instructor nor my superior officer. I don't really owe you respect, although I would like, as a citizen of the Federation, to express heart-felt appreciation for your service. Since I'm not a cadet, my attire's just fine. My demeanor and bearing aren't a problem. I don't have a curfew. I'd give you the suspicious loitering thing, but I have friends who are cadets, and I just finished doing a run of Christmas presents." He tipped the brim of his hat a touch ironically. "Many happy holidays to you, Professor, if you celebrate any."
"I do not."
"Hadn't thought you would," the man admitted. "Just figured I'd cover my bases. Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, loitering. Well, hopefully that's all cleared up, now that you know my illogical Terran reasoning. My, uh…recreational substance?" He grinned and shook his head once. "That's the best thing I ever heard it called. But as a lowly citizen and not a revered authority figure, I can partake of any recreational substance I want—provided it's legal—with impunity. And, yeah, it might mess with a physical if I had to take one, but luckily I don't. Sorry about that offensive thing though. I could quit at any time if I weren't addicted." He huffed a laugh and brought the cigarette to his grinning mouth.
It should have rankled, or been insulting, or caused Spock to immediately turn away.
"Then you are trespassing on Federation property," Spock said, head tilted a degree in fascination as he studied the strange human. "Curfew for the cadets marks the end of visiting hours. Furthermore, nicotine is prohibited at Starfleet Academy, not merely to the cadets. You are still in violation of that prohibition."
The stranger laughed, using the two fingers holding his cigarette to point slightly northwest. "Academy grounds start about sixteen inches that way. But you're good at this game, Professor. We could cat-and-mouse all night, if I had the time. Unfortunately," he sighed, inclining his head in the opposite direction Spock had looked while assessing his mental Academy layout, "that's my ride."
Spock turned to find a set of three large, muscular Terrans, all dressed in a manner similar to the stranger's, waiting in a cluster on a walking path just outside the Academy's perimeter. When he returned his focus to the stranger, he was already walking away. "You diverted my attention so those men could leave the Academy without being seen," he observed.
"Maybe," the stranger agreed, smiling back at him.
"Furthermore, you were on the premises the entire time. I was not incorrect."
"Maybe," he said again, tucking the cigarette between his lips in order to pull up the collar of his coat.
"You are very casual," Spock called, "for one who might be charged with trespassing."
"Stay warm, Professor," the curious Terran replied. "It looks like we're in for some heavy snow tonight."
The snow would doubtlessly erase his footprints, the path of his associates, and any trace of him lingering on Academy grounds. Even as Spock watched, he twisted his cigarette just below the burning tip, extinguishing it before tucking the remains in his pocket. Then the quartet of humans was consumed by darkness, and it was as though they had never existed.
Hikaru's plan had been fairly straightforward.
1. Find where little Chekov, his flight simulations partner, disappeared to when he wasn't anywhere on campus.
2. Figure out why said simulations partner would rather hang out at what looked like a bar than with any of his friends at the Academy.
3. Rescue little Chekov, who was very young and impressionable, from what was no doubt a dangerously wild New Year's party being held at the bar.
The plan went perfectly until Hikaru actually stepped into little Chekov's secret world at just past midnight. At that point, filled with righteous indignation and decked out in mental white armor, he received a small series of shocking revelations:
The people Chekov hung out with at the bar were considerably cooler than anyone Hikaru knew, even in passing.
For this and other assorted reasons, Chekov didn't actually have any friends at the Academy, save for a foul-tempered doctor named McCoy and a Scot called (of all things) Scotty who both seemed just as comfortable at the bar (and restaurant?) as the Russian genius himself.
A tipsy Chekov dressed in large sweaters and skinny jeans was going to lead to some serious felonies if someone didn't watch out for him.
And finally, the bartender/owner of the establishment was the kind of man Hikaru had only read about in stories. Blond and charismatic, with a toothpick tucked in his mouth and a smirk on his lips, he mixed and served drinks with the flare of an ongoing performance. Hikaru hadn't ever met a bartender who could actually toss bottles of liquor around, but this one did so with an old fashioned fedora tipped so far down that it covered one of his eyes.
After nearly an hour of sticking close to Chekov while simultaneously trying to keep an eye on the floor show taking place behind the counter, Hikaru leaned close to Chekov's ear and shouted, "Who is that guy?"
Chekov turned from his examination of the dance floor, body still moving slightly to the beat, to see who Hikaru meant. Instantly a huge smile broke over his lightly flushed face. "Is Jim!" he yelled back, turning until his chin was neatly tucked into the curve of Hikaru's shoulder. (Felonies, Hikaru, remember the felonies. He's just a baby.) "He is my friend before anyone else would be!" The teenager motioned wide and happy with his champagne glass, nearly hitting several bystanders. "He is the most excellent man I have ever met!" Then he looked at Hikaru solemnly. "Is his est-establishment," he said, nodding once. "He is very great man. If I were not in Starfleet, very surely I…I would—"
An employee of the bar bumped by then, giggling with Chekov and sloppily refilling his glass. They toasted each other and chugged from their respective containers. Hikaru watched the waitress tip the bottle back, watched her eye Chekov under her lashes, and watched her throat remain utterly still.
She didn't consume so much as a single drop.
When Chekov's glass was empty, she immediately refilled it, faking a tiny hiccup before weaving deeper into the crowd. The further she got, the firmer her steps became, until she was politely topping off the glasses of everyone she encountered.
Hours later, when the party was winding down, Hikaru snagged a passing drunk who had seemed familiar with the bartender over the course of the night. "Who is he?" Hikaru asked, tilting his head to indicate Jim where he wiped down his counters and laughed with a Southern doctor, a Scottish engineer, and a Russian wiz kid, all of whom were thoroughly trashed. "I know this is his place. But who is he?"
"Him?" The regular made a dismissive noise, flapping one hand at Hikaru as though he were nothing more than an ignorant child. "You new around here or what? That's Jim Scaretta!" He smacked Hikaru's shoulder and then leaned in close like he was sharing a secret. Hikaru put a hand on his arm to steady his pronounced sway. "You see all them Starfleet guys he's got in here? Just lined up at the bar, drinkin' outta his hand like, like some kinda…like somethin' that drinks. Fuckin' genius, that's what it is! I keep tellin' the fellas, man, that Scaretta kid, he's got the idea, cozyin' up to Starfleet kids. God damn, he's nearly respectable now!"
"Hey!" the waitress who had pretended to drink with Chekov called, shooing at the regular from across the room with a broom. "You leave him alone, Joey, or swear to God I'll tell your wife!"
"Aw come on," Joey slurred, staggering away toward the woman, "you wouldn't be that cru-cruel, I was just talkin' to em! Y'know, y'know—hey, y'know? He doesn't even know the Scarettas! How's that for respect, eh?"
The waitress looked at Hikaru, thoughtful and exasperated, and Hikaru knew his face was pale. He'd felt the blood rush all the way to his toes as his heart hammered in his chest.
This was so much worse than he'd thought.
"Be nice, Joey," Jim said lazily from behind the bar, pale blue eyes studying Hikaru with all the warmth of a glacier. "Hikaru here's a local boy. I'm sure he recognizes the name."
Hikaru, who had not spoken his own name once that night, swallowed thickly. "Yeah," he said, voiced hushed. He rubbed his sweaty palms on his pants, wishing fiercely he'd made friends with Chekov before Jim had gotten the opportunity. "Yeah, it's a little familiar."
Scaretta. Who didn't know it?
Jim smirked. His gaze flickered down to Chekov, who had pillowed his head on his crossed arms and looked about ready to spend the rest of the day sleeping there. He pet his hand through the teenager's curls. "Sweet kid," he observed casually.
Fuck, Hikaru thought. Fuck.
"Because it's physics!" Scotty shouted, apropos of nothing and apparently arguing with his shot glass.
"Can you get them back to the Academy?" Jim asked. He tilted his head with a considering expression. "I could always let them sleep in the back, of course—"
"No!" The few stragglers still in the bar jerked at Hikaru's cry. The pilot fought to calm himself. "No," he said again. "I can get them back."
"Until next time, then."
Hikaru felt a muscle bunch in his jaw. "Maybe there won't be a next time."
"Of course there will," Jim promised with a friendly smile. "You're welcome to come back when they do—the more the merrier, right? But you should know, Hikaru Sulu, that even if you don't ever walk through my door again, they will."
"Why?" Hikaru whispered, hands curled into fists.
Jim shrugged. "They're well known here. I like them."
"And they make you…respectable. Right?"
"It's probably not as bad as you think." Which wasn't an answer.
Hikaru gathered the others, leading them out of the bar without another word.
Jim was almost certainly right. They were used to him, and seemed to like and trust him. They didn't know. Even if Hikaru told them, they wouldn't believe. He would have to follow them back here, again and again, as many times as it took to gather enough clues to convince them.
They belonged to Starfleet, and they didn't know any better, and poor little Chekov was still just a baby. It would go against everything he believed in to abandon them to the Scaretta family. So he wouldn't.
No matter the cost.
Uhura realized her own mistake fairly quickly. Body language was still a language after all, and watching the two of them interact for even a minute had given her a volume to translate.
It wasn't difficult when every gesture became a variant on the same theme.
(Which was some clumsy XY-dialect of where have you been all my life?)
So instead of heading back over to finish her "study session", she took a seat at the bar next to a tense-looking fellow Academy student. He was also watching the conversation taking place at the far end of the bar, though his eyes were narrowed suspiciously and his shoulders were tight.
There were a couple of ways to interpret that particular set of tells, so Uhura placed an order with one of the bartenders who was actually working and said to the Academy guy, "I'm Uhura. Communications track, School of Xenolinguistics."
He glanced at her, mouth narrowing. "Sulu," he replied, shifting to shake her hand briefly. "Command track, School of Aeronautics."
Uhura curled delicate fingers around her glass of the house red. "This seems like an unusual place for a lone flight cadet to spend his night."
"Yeah, well." A muscle in his jaw tensed. "I'm not the only one who comes here, or I wouldn't." He glanced sideways at her. "And just so you know, I could say the same thing to you."
"I wasn't originally here alone." She tipped her glass to indicate the couple still talking as though the rest of the room didn't exist. "That was supposed to be my advisor."
Sulu squinted. "Isn't that Professor Spock?"
Uhura sighed, taking a long, appreciative drink of her wine. "He teaches some of the advanced morphology courses. It took me a month to get him to agree to a private tutoring session." She wrinkled her nose. "He was going to help me refine my senior thesis topic."
The future pilot startled. "You're a senior?"
"I have another year after this one," she admitted with a one-shouldered shrug. "It's never too early to get started, though, especially in a field as convoluted as mine." Uhura eyed her impromptu drinking companion warily. "You're not one of those guys who waits until the last minute, are you?"
Sulu flinched. "…I kind of have bigger problems right now."
"What could possibly be more important than your thesis?"
Uhura and Sulu both turned to watch a young, curly-haired teen dressed in Academy reds bounce into the restaurant. He hesitated when he realized the lazy bartender—apparently named Jim—was already talking with someone. Then Jim laughed and beckoned him over, and the boy dashed to his side with a bright smile.
None of the patrons of the establishment so much as glanced up.
"He's a regular here?" Uhura asked incredulously. Jim indulged the boy's chattering with a faint smile, bending over a PADD when it was shoved at him. The duo discussed whatever information was contained in the document, and Uhura guessed it was an unexpectedly complex topic by the way Spock's left eyebrow inched toward his hairline until it vanished almost entirely.
"That's Pavel Chekov," Sulu explained, frustration underscoring his low, angry murmur. "He's also Command track, School of pretty much everything."
"He's the Russian genius, isn't he?"
Sulu inclined his head, accepting another beer when their bartender slid one toward him. "Yeah. He's only sixteen; isn't that crazy?"
"What's crazy is that he's at a bar."
The flyboy snorted into the hand he ran over his face. "It's a restaurant too," he pointed out, motioning at the surrounding tables with his bottle. Then he shook his head and took a long pull. "Anyway, you're right that he shouldn't be here. I wish I could get him to stop; this place…it isn't good."
"Wine's okay," Uhura sighed, holding out her glass when the bartender wandered by with a bottle to top her off. "Staff seems pretty excellent too." She tipped her head toward Jim. "That guy excluded. He's been monopolizing my professor since I got up to quickly use the lady's room half an hour ago. Does he get paid to just stand around looking pretty or what?"
Sulu stared at her in blatant disbelief, as though she had randomly forgotten the proper structure of a Standard sentence. "That's…that's Jim Scaretta, Uhura." When she didn't react, Sulu propped his elbows on the bar and tangled his hands in his hair, gripping hard in frustration. "How does no one else know how fucking awful that is? He doesn't—" The Command cadet motioned helplessly with one hand while the other pinched the bridge of his nose. "Of course he isn't working. This is his bar."
Uhura narrowed her eyes at him. "And why does it matter if he's the owner, other than it explains why he doesn't seem afraid to be caught not even pretending to work?"
"Look, I can't go into the details here," Sulu said, low and quiet as he glanced around furtively. "Let's just say it's a family business, if you get my meaning."
Sulu drummed his fingers on the bar, expression too casual as he watched her intently, trying to communicate a message without words. "A family business, Uhura," he repeated darkly, tap-tap-tapping with his fingers. Then—
He was saying—
Uhura burst out laughing. She flagged the bartender over. "I'll have one of whatever he's having," she said, voice warm with humor.
The bartender grinned, buoyed by Uhura's smile, and popped the cap from a dark bottle before sliding it over. Uhura toasted her with it and took a delicate sip.
"This is serious," Sulu hissed when the bartender left to answer another request.
"Seriously crazy," Uhura agreed with another laugh. When she glanced back over at the corner of the bar that held the odd trio, she found Jim watching her with a quirky half-smile bowing his lips. She grinned at him, and he tipped his head in acknowledgment before a quiet comment from Spock pulled his attention back.
"Look," Sulu said, voice clipped with exasperation, "you're not from this area, you don't know—"
"All right," Uhura interrupted, "enough games—"
"The Scaretta family—"
"God, would you grow up? There aren't any families—"
"If little Chekov gets mixed up with this guy—!"
"What?" Uhura demanded, turning a frown on him. "Little Chekov will what? Disappear under mysterious circumstances? Wind up in concrete shoes at the bottom of the sea? Wake up with a horse head in his bed?"
Sulu blinked. "A horse head…?"
Uhura motioned impatiently. "I'm trying to point out how ridiculous you are without having to say it outright."
"You just did," Sulu sulked. "And anyway, I don't need you to believe me. I know what's going on, and I'll save Chekov all on my own if I have to."
For a long moment, Uhura studied Sulu, cataloging the various stories his body was telling. He honestly believed Jim Scaretta, World's Laziest Small Business Owner, was somehow involved in that antiquated boogeyman known as the mafia. There was determination in the set of his jaw and shoulders, but genuine fear in the tangle of his fingers on the bar, the press of his feet against the barstool and floor. Whatever else he thought, in his mind he was saving Chekov from a fate potentially worse than death. Even more concerning, there was something in his subconscious that was telling him it might already be too late, that they were all doomed just for crossing the threshold of Jim's bar. The focused glint in his eyes suggested he would try to save Chekov anyway.
First reaction: They'll make a cute couple when Chekov's older.
Second reaction: Holy hell, he's going to ruin this place.
"I bet you're wrong," Uhura said casually, taking a slow pull on her beer while Sulu blinked at her.
Uhura nodded. "I bet you're wrong. About Jim and his family," she explained. "About Chekov needing to be rescued from the evil machinations of a mafia don."
"Hey, I never said I thought—"
"I bet you I can prove that Jim's a good guy, that Chekov's safe here, and that you could be friends with everyone in that huddle if you wanted."
Sulu gaped wordlessly. "Bullshit," he said at last.
Uhura twitched her shoulder in a shrug again, sipping absentmindedly. "If you don't think you can prove what you're claiming—"
"I can," Sulu insisted, jaw set in stubborn lines again. "I can prove…about his family, and I can prove he's using all of us, and I can prove we're in deeper and deeper trouble every time we walk through that door. I will prove it."
"It's a bet." Uhura clinked the neck of her bottle against Sulu's where it sat untouched on the bar. "May the most sane competitor win."
"I'll drink to that," Sulu said.
They tipped their drinks back in unison, draining them to the last drop.
In the middle of watching a debate between Spock and Pavel on an obscure branch of higher mathematics, Jim smiled, drumming his fingers soundlessly on the counter under the bar.
Cadets were so much fun.
Spock watched Jim set an array of salt and pepper shakers across the bar between them, analyzing the bartender's smile as he sought to understand the odd collection.
"We're going to play a game," he said, sticking a toothpick in his teeth as seemed to be his habit when circumstances did not support lighting a cigarette.
"What is the game called?" Spock asked neutrally, studying the four short rows of alternating salt and pepper shakers, two close to him and two set by Jim with a gap between, to try and deduce their purpose.
Jim shook his head with a wide grin. "Not telling. That's part of the game," he explained when Spock ticked an eyebrow at him. "You have to figure everything out trial-and-error as you go along. For instance." He selected the pepper shaker on the far left of his front row, sliding it diagonally halfway across the "board" made of empty bar. Then he motioned to Spock. "Your turn."
Both elegant Vulcan eyebrows lifted toward a uniform hairline. "…I see. This is a human joke."
"Nah." Jim checked the ancient clock on the far wall, watching the seconds tick. "It's a game." Once a full minute had passed between when Jim had made his first move, he made another, picking up a back-row salt shaker and pairing it with the shifted pepper shaker. He motioned again for Spock to go, glancing at the clock again.
A time limit on moves? "How can I be expected to fully participate in a game without knowing even the basic rules of play?"
"That's part of the game," Jim repeated absently, watching seconds slip by. "You learn as you play. And you're a really smart guy, Spock—I bet you could figure it out if you tried." He lifted a hand toward his pieces.
Spock beat him to it by firmly sliding his innermost forward salt shaker two inches across the board. Then he raised his eyes to Jim's and lifted an eyebrow.
Jim grinned again. "Good move, Professor," he said.
The Vulcan logged the complement away, storing it as part of an internal analysis that tagged the move with a series of questions.
(Is the move good for Jim or for myself? Would the move still be considered "good" if Jim had not previously moved his own salt shaker? Do the positions of his salt and pepper shakers affect the quality of my move? Would it lower or increase the quality of my move if his salt and pepper shakers were not paired? Would it lower or increase the strength of my piece's position if it were paired with a pepper shaker? With another salt shaker? Can any of the back line of pieces be jumped forward, or merely the ones that currently have a shaker in front of them? How, and to what degree, do salt shakers differ from pepper?)
"I knew you'd love this game," Jim laughed, causally sliding a pepper shaker forward until it touched Spock's.
This set off a new litany of internal questions. Spock began a systematic exploration for the parameters by moving his salt shaker away from Jim's piece by .3 inches.
Jim crowed in delight, quickly moving a salt shaker on the exact opposite side of the playing field.
Their game continued on for the better part of an hour. Every time Spock thought he was finally beginning to have an ordered set of rules in his head, Jim removed a piece from the board or bemoaned his own move as badly done or switched his playing style.
"You have violated a rule," Spock would occasionally challenge, certain that Jim had moved a piece in a manner established previously as incorrect.
"No I didn't," Jim would reply, so certain and calm that Spock immediately began rearranging his mental rule list to try and explain the exception.
At last, enthralled and bewildered, Spock came to the only conclusion he could: "I do not understand the rules and playing structure of this game. You will have to explain them to me or recommend a book."
Jim cradled his chin on a hand propped on the bar. "Why?"
Spock indicated the odd conglomeration of shakers spread across the surface. "So that I may improve my abilities to present a better challenge."
A grin turned just one corner of Jim's mouth. His eyes became dark and heavy with secrets. "That isn't the point."
"I do not understand," Spock admitted again, studying the new expression on Jim's face. He was such an odd Terran, even for his species. At times Spock thought he understood the man implicitly, as though they had known each other the whole of their lives. And then a conversation like this would happen, and Spock would see in a moment all the depths and twists and unexpected riddles that still waited to be discovered.
It was endlessly, maddeningly, impossibly fascinating.
Jim plucked a salt and pepper shaker from their horde, passing them thoughtlessly to a waitress who was looking for the proper accessories for her table. Spock wanted to protest the deconstruction of their game, but preferred to keep his silence and collect whatever new piece of data Jim was about to give about himself.
"The game doesn't really have rules," he admitted. "I don't even make them up as I go; they just don't exist."
Spock blinked. He tilted his head thoughtfully. "But you told me—"
"Did I?" Jim leaned forward across the bar, eyes locked with Spock's. "When?"
Spock blinked again, sitting back as he reviewed Jim's words. "No," he agreed slowly. "You said only that we would be playing a game, and that I would come to understand it as I played. I now theorize that the salt and pepper shakers were only tools to distract me from the actual purpose. What was the game in this?"
"There is no game," Jim said with that curling smile. "It doesn't exist. It never did. But as long as I occasionally complement you on a good move, or yell at myself about a bad one, I can keep you believing this—" He touched a pepper shaker, tipping it onto the edge of its bottom. "—is real." The pepper dropped back to its previous place and Jim spread his hands. "It's an exercise in perception, Professor. You think we're playing a game, so you keep looking for rules that don't exist."
Spock studied the Terran, as curious and uncertain as he'd been that night in the snow. "Why are we playing this game, Jim?" he asked.
Jim returned Spock's searching look with one of his own. At last he smiled, bright and beautiful and utterly false. "Because I like it."
A man walked into the restaurant then, tall and slightly overweight but dressed in an expensive suit. Flanked by a half dozen burly men, he stopped just inside to survey the crowd. Everyone dropped their eyes as a sign of either respect or fear. Spock, who had observed this man and the rituals associated with him on several occasions, did neither.
When the man's attention turned to Jim, the blond inclined his head briefly, another smile curving his mouth. The man lifted his chin in acknowledgment and went to occupy a secluded corner booth that was always reserved for him.
"Who is he?" Spock asked quietly, as he always did when the man appeared.
"Someone important," Jim replied as usual, sorting the shakers into neat sets, "but not someone you should know about. I'll see you later, Professor."
Jim stepped away before Spock could reply, snagging his suit jacket and pulling it on. He smoothed a hand over his hair, setting it back into perfect order, and fixed the lay of his shirt before stepping up behind the man. They exchanged pleasant greetings before Jim slid into the seat across the table from him. The six burly men took guard positions at the doors and windows, pretending to drink while their eyes roamed the room.
No one met their threatening gazes.
Spock knew what would happen now: Within the hour, the restaurant would close, despite the nearly six additional hours of normal operating hours that remained. Jim would maintain his place with the man, speaking with him in hushed tones while his employees worked around him. Their treatment of him would alter, becoming closer to the way they interacted with the man. The general atmosphere of the restaurant would suffer a similar shift. Whoever this man was, he commanded a great deal of power over this place and the people inside it. If he did not register on such a sinister level in Spock's mind, the Vulcan might have been intrigued.
As it was, the fear that followed him disturbed Spock greatly. He wished to have no part in whatever the man represented, and had an unspoken wish that Jim would sever that particular association.
He wouldn't. Not even if Spock asked him.
When one of the bartenders began walking toward Spock with clear intent, the Starfleet professor dropped some credits on the bar and took his exit.
Jim watched him go, blue eyes clear and bright with secrets. He toyed with the salt shaker at his table, shifting it a few inches to the left, and let his mouth curl into a smile.
Spock looked back at the ordered line of and pepper shakers on the bar, comparing Jim's explanations to his actions.
And he wondered which of them had won.
They had been working toward this moment for nearly a decade.
"He's dead, Jim," Anthony said, low and desperate while his dark eyes darted around the empty bar. His Italian accent thickened with excitement. "I got the news this morning. Heart attack, caused by a life of bad eating and too much drink. Guy coulda lived in a bottle, y'know?"
Jim smiled, sliding one finger around the rim of his scotch-filled glass. "I do know, Anthony. This is big news," he acknowledged. "Do you know what it means for you yet? Is there going to be a problem?"
"You know what it means," the heavyset man said, leaning in toward Jim. "And I've got you to tell me when there's problems, don't I?" He spread both hands with a heavy shrug. "What do I gotta do to make this thing stick?"
"The way I see it," Jim said slowly, studying his glass, "you have a couple of choices, depending on how you want to be known."
"I wanna be respected," Anthony said immediately. "I don't want no one fuckin' with me 'cause they think I'll let 'em get away with it. I don't want no one getting' away with nothin'."
"Then that's the way you should start." Jim sat back with a smirk, stretching his arms along the back of the booth. "Get your tops guys together for a meeting. Tell them about how you're going to make the Scaretta name great again. There are some long-standing debts owed to the family, aren't there? Call them in."
Anthony shifted uncomfortably. "Some of those debts have been around since my grandfather's time. No one talks about 'em."
Jim spread one hand. "And why not? They were owed to your father and grandfather, who are both dead as of yesterday. You don't have any reason to let people in your debt slide for another generation. You don't want anyone getting away with anything, right?" he challenged with a smirk.
"Not anyone," Anthony agreed fiercely. "Not anything."
"Good. Then call a meeting. Begin the way you mean to continue." He tilted his head to an angle he knew was responsible for giving him his nickname, blue eyes cold. "You're the boss now, Don Anthony. So what are you going to do about it?"
"I'm holdin' a meeting," he said with a toothy grin. "And you'll be at my right, Jimmy. Just like always, 'cept now everyone will know you're Boss Anthony's consigliere. How's that sound, eh?"
Everything fell apart.
Right before the end of the term, days before most of the Starfleet cadets dispersed for the summer, Jim told them not to come back anymore. Upper management had changed, and they didn't meet the new standards for admittance. First Chekov thought he was joking; then he was devastated.
"For the summer?" he asked in a small voice.
"Goodbye, Pavel Chekov," Jim replied.
Uhura stared at Sulu when they were firmly escorted from the building.
"I'm calling this proof," he told her, and she didn't know how to respond.
"When I get back from Russia," Chekov told them all with a determined frown, "I am going back. And I will keep going back until he lets me stay, or tells me why I can't. He is my friend."
"I've got a place in the area," McCoy said as they walked in a cluster back to campus. "There's nothing in Georgia for me anymore, and I'm a stubborn cuss. I'll work on him over the summer."
"That is a highly illogical decision, Cadet," Spock informed him.
McCoy glared at the Vulcan. "Any due respect, sir, but you're lying to yourself if you think you'll be able to just…accept what happened here. It stinks like day-old shit, and I won'tlet Jim get away with it."
"Then it appears, as a superior officer already familiar with this situation, it falls to me to ensure your continued health in what might become a perilous and futile endeavor."
All of the cadets stared at him. "That's called denial," Uhura informed the others.
None of them protested.
Before they went their separate ways, Chekov quietly asked for a moment of Spock's time. "Save him for us," he whispered, eyes cast low. "He is our friend, and whatever would take him from us is something…terrible, I think."
"He might not be in want of rescue, Cadet," Spock pointed out.
"Even if he does not know it," the young genius insisted, shoulders bunched tight, "or if he chooses not to, he needs us. We cannot let him go."
Spock looked over Chekov's bowed head to find McCoy watching him with dark eyes. Slowly, firmly, the Vulcan nodded. McCoy huffed and walked away.
They would fight for Jim, even if he did not want it. He would continue to be their friend until people or circumstances proved otherwise. He was Jim, and he was theirs.
Spock and McCoy went to the restaurant to speak with Jim several times a week. Most of the time he ignored them; when he didn't, all he would tell them do was go away. But they were determined to press on until they either broke through his sudden distance or understood its cause.
Then the local police called them into a private meeting, and it turned out that understanding was the only option.
Two detectives who looked angry and exasperated put the Starfleet personnel in a room with one door and no windows. They tossed a stack of PADDs onto the table where McCoy and Spock were seated. "These are classified, all right?" the female detective snapped. "If you weren't so stupid, you'd never have seen them."
Spock straightening in his conspicuously uncomfortable chair. "You are severely mistaken, Detective, if you believe you have any authority to speak to members of Starfleet like—"
"We'll talk to you however we have to to make this stick," the man spat. "You're about to fuck up our entire operation and you don't even—"
McCoy surged out of his seat. "You watch your mouth, you pompous fucking—"
"You're going to die alright?" The woman slammed her hands on the table. "You're tangled in shit you have no business being in, and you're going to die if you don't back off."
Both the Starfleet men stilled. "Explain yourself," Spock ordered.
The man, Detective Blake, sighed as he scrubbed both hand over his face. "It's organized crime, okay?" he said wearily. "That bartender you like so much is part of a mob family."
"…Bullshit," McCoy said. "There aren't crime families anymore."
"Shows what you know," Blake's partner, Detective Williams, muttered. She flickered her fingers over one of the PADDs and called an org chart to the screen. "The families went underground when the Federation started," she explained, sliding the PADD across to them, "because they knew how much harder it would be to operate in the open with intergalactic attention. But that also gave them the opportunity to expand, and they've got representatives on more Terran space stations and settlements than we can ever know about."
"They're a cancer," Blake said, "and your friend's near the top of one of the worst families around."
"Bullshit," McCoy said again, but Spock could see slow realization dawning as he began to connect the million small oddities that always surrounded Jim.
Williams accessed and projected what looked like a genealogical tree. "The Scaretta family," she said. She drew a finger through a cluster of names about half way up. "Soldato, the soldiers. Then capo, the captains." One finger tapped two names at the top of the tree in rapid succession. "Underboss Giuseppe 'the Knife'. Boss Anthony. And him." She touched the picture to the right of Boss Anthony's, sliding the digit in a rough diagonal stroke to make the familiar image expand. "James 'Pretty Jim' Scaretta. Your bartendingfriend."
"What does it mean?" McCoy asked, low and hard. "His picture's next to the…the boss's. What does that mean?"
"He's the consigliere," Blake explained with another deep sigh. "The counselor and right-hand man to the don. Rumor has it he's been the brains behind the entire family since Boss Anthony took over, and he was the reason Anthony rose to underboss in the first place."
Williams thumped a stack of papers in front of him. "This is a list of all the crimes we're trying to tie him to. It's hard; he's slippery. But a big chunk of these are hits that most likely happened on his word, and if we're right with even a small percentage, it's well over a dozen names." She looked from McCoy to Spock and back, narrowing her eyes at the spark of something determined and dangerous in the doctor's expression. "He's a very, very bad man," she said flatly, "and you need to stay away from him."
On their walk away from the police station, Spock said, "We must desist in our attempt to regain a positive relationship with Jim Scaretta."
McCoy glared at him. "Fuck that."
"He is a dangerous man," the Vulcan insisted. "At the very least, it will reflect badly upon your Starfleet record to knowingly associate with such a character."
"Such a—!" McCoy stopped walking, his face twisted in anger. "How can you say something like that!"
"Faced with the evidence provided to us by local authorities," Spock responded tightly, "we must abandon this effort. Anything else would be folly."
"Oh yeah? So what will you tell Chekov when he asks you why you just gave up?"
"Likely I will introduce him to the detectives and let them repeat their explanation."
"Jim's our friend, Spock!" the doctor shouted. "How can you just give up on him?"
"He is a member of the mafia, Doctor. He has no loyalty to anyone but the Scaretta crime family."
"That's a lie." McCoy was trembling with a wild combination of emotions. "He's our friend; he's been my friend for almost a god damned year. I refuse to believe that it was all just…just some kind of sick game. If he's in deep with the mob, it's because he doesn't see a way out. Well I'm not giving up on him until I'm sure he knows that's not true!"
"I cannot condone this," Spock said softly. "The odds of you escaping such an attempt without serious injury—"
"I guess it's just lucky this is summer," McCoy hissed, "and you don't get a fucking say." He marched away before Spock could respond.
Spock thought about reporting McCoy to his advisor, or the detectives, or to anyone who retained authority over him during the summer break. But he could think of no manner of alerting anyone that did not result in the doctor facing a disciplinary hearing, which might ruin his future in Starfleet.
Jim Scaretta would push him away soon enough. The doctor would understand in his own time, and turn his thoughts to repairing the damage caused by the mafia consigliere.
By start of term, this would be nothing but a bitter memory.
"Hey, Anthony, what's up?"
"You have to get rid of this Starfleet doctor."
"Aw, Boss, you know he isn't hurting anyone."
"You think I haven't heard about the way he talks to you? About what he says? He's trying to get you to leave me, Jim, to leave the family—"
"Anthony you know I wouldn't—"
"It's gotta stop, Jim! They're saying I can't keep hold of my own consigliere. You know what that looks like? What that does to me? To my rep? You take care of him, Jim. You do it or I will."
"…Okay, Anthony. Whatever you say."
When the bar was closed and the staff gone and they were alone, Jim led McCoy into the industrial kitchen in the back of the restaurant.
"What I don't understand," he said, sitting on the long steel preparation table, "is why you pushed it like this. Why couldn't you leave it alone, Georgia?"
McCoy set his jaw stubbornly, slouched against the far wall with his arms crossed. "You know why, kid. I've seen you doing Chekov's homework with him—Chekov! You're too smart for this life, and it doesn't make you happy. It might seem like you're trapped, but you're not. Starfleet could—"
Jim reached backward, tucking his hand into the small of his back beneath his suit jacket. He withdrew a handgun, archaic and loaded with hollow-point metal slugs that would splinter and spread damage through whatever soft tissue they hit. The gun fit into his hands with the ease of long familiarity. "Have you ever worked on an actual bullet wound?" he wondered, stroking his fingers over the weapon as he checked it absently. "We're one of the last organizations to use them, I think. It's tradition."
"You wouldn't," McCoy said firmly, pushing away from the wall to take a stronger stance. "I'm your friend, Jim, and you wouldn't. I know you."
"You make the don nervous," Jim replied, eyes still on the gun. "He's new, and not that bright, but he listens to everything I say. If I want to keep that happening, I have to make a show of following his orders every now and then." Cold blue eyes lifted to hazel. "You understand."
"You're better than this," the doctor insisted, hands clenched into fists.
"The others all listened when I told them to scram, when I explained how much better it would be for their continued health to no longer come here. It's become something of an exclusive club since Anthony took over. You're not part of that club, Georgia. Why didn't you take me at my word? Do you think I'm the kind of man who makes idle threats?"
"You're my friend, Jim," McCoy said hoarsely, something like resignation darkening his eyes.
"No." Jim stood and raised the gun, leveling it on the doctor's chest. "I'm the Scaretta consigliere."
When he curled his finger around the trigger and squeezed, there was no one around to hear the explosive bang. A body hit the floor.
And that was the end of it.
School started in September with a memorial. Those who had known Dr. Leonard McCoy gathered in the garden behind Starfleet Medical and spoke quietly of how he had touched their lives. Chekov, Sulu, Uhura and Scott clustered together at the edge of the gathering, hurting and betrayed.
Told you so, Sulu never said.
"He was our friend," Chekov whispered brokenly. Uhura pulled him into a tight embrace and didn't ask if he was talking about Len or Jim.
It didn't matter.
Spock appeared at the memorial for only a few minutes. He approached Dr. McCoy's photo—grayscale, depicting him and his daughter laughing together—and studied it for a long moment. Then he set down the cutting of a Vulcan plant used to express regret over the passing of a friend and turned away.
He met the eyes of the others one at a time. "Tushah nash-veh k'dular," he said to Uhura, and meant it for all of them.
Uhura hid her tears in Chekov's shoulder and couldn't translate the traditional Vulcan expression as I grieve with thee for nearly an hour.
When Spock left the memorial, he walked, using the repetitive physical movement to assist in the reordering of his mind.
Jim had killed Dr. McCoy.
The thought jarred against his own experiences. Jim cared for McCoy, had treated him as friend, elevated above the others he'd known—even Chekov. McCoy had routinely expressed opinions and sentiments that would have angered or distanced Jim had they been spoken by anyone else. Jim had given McCoy a nickname, calling him Georgia far more often than anything else. Of those left behind, Spock alone carried Jim's moniker. Such a rare gift was surely a sign of deep affection.
But then Jim had killed McCoy. Were the nicknames more a danger than a gift, singling out the first to fall? Would Spock be next?
No. Jim would never hurt Spock. Jim was—
Jim was a murderer.
How could Jim be a murderer?
Spock walked until the sun trembled on the horizon, threatening to leave him in darkness. He walked until the sound of his own steps echoed in counterpoint to the fluttering of his Vulcan heart. He walked until the Academy and its grieving students were only a distant concern, until the frantic bustle of the city drove all but the worst thoughts (murderermurderermurderer) from his mind.
He walked until he was standing across the street from Jim's bar.
(Pretty Jim's place, dangerous men had called it in whispers, hidden in the shadows, a place spared police raids only because of the Starfleet personnel who seemed so fond of it. All they had ever been to him was a cover.)
All around the front, blocking his view of swinging front doors and stained-glass windows, was a small army of police vehicles. Their spinning lights threw the entire street and the gathered crowd of gawkers clustered behind barriers into blue-and-red relief, and Spock knew why they were there.
Pretty Jim was a known figure in the Terran mafia, a consigliere, the right-hand advisor to the Scaretta don. His murder of Starfleet Cadet Leonard McCoy had evidently been sloppy. It was to be the last criminal act of his doubtlessly long history.
No one in existence deserved it more.
Spock was there, separate from the crowd and all but hidden in a bystreet, to witness the moment Pretty Jim was led in handcuffs from his den. The mafioso's face was blank, his suit as pristine as ever, each hair in its proper place. His eyes were blue and clear; even in defeat, he earned his name.
This had been McCoy's friend, a man the doctor had loved. McCoy had fought to his death to save this unworthy creature from the inglorious (but just, here at least was some small measure of justice) end that now collapsed around him.
Then, hands clenched behind his back, expression hard with the effort to conceal his anger, Spock spoke a most illogical word: "Why?"
Jim was Terran, and could not hear him. But some sense caused him to look up the moment before he was put into one of the police vehicles. Even through the space and shadows separating them, his eyes met Spock's.
"Why?" Spock asked again. He might have said it all night and had no relief, might have screamed it and made no difference.
Pretty Jim broke eye contact, looking away but not down, and slid gracefully into the vehicle.
Then he was gone.
News articles and bulletins and programs burst with details of his arrest the next morning. The media spoke of nothing else for a fortnight. Not of the people who had known him, or the death of Dr. McCoy, or the lives made into waste by his touch. "Pretty Jim Scaretta," they called him, and did not even show his picture.
His arrest crippled the Scaretta family and began the systematic collapse of the Terran mafia.
But it did not bring back Dr. McCoy.