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In the Market He Plays

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McCoy frowned at the mess of pulp and fruit skin clutched in his hand. With a sigh, he tossed the ruined fruit in the waste receptacle and got a cloth to clean up the juice that had sprayed everywhere in the lounge. He licked off his fingers as he went, a bit disappointed that he had destroyed something so tasty.

He realized what he was doing when the only other person in the lounge—a Vulcan with salt-and-pepper hair and a sour-lemon face—stood and walked swiftly from the break room. McCoy winced, sternly reminding himself to not lick his hand in public again. He washed his hands thoroughly in the sonic sink and cleaned up his mess. Just as he was wringing out the rag, M’Benga came in.

“...Why is Dr. Seref asking me to stop your lewd behavior?”

McCoy winced again. “I accidentally licked some fruit juice off my hand.”

M’Benga collapsed onto a cushion in the corner and sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. His scrubs were slightly stained with faded green blood and dark sweat rings under his arms and neck. He looked beyond exhausted. “He’s a busybody. Don’t worry about it.”

McCoy folded himself awkwardly to the ground across from him. “Rough day?”

“Just a long surgery. It turned out fine in the end, but the surgeon I was assisting forgot that my human hands can’t hold a single position as long as a Vulcan can. He had me holding a skin flap out of the way nearly three hours. I feel like my arms are about to fall off.” He raised his hands weakly to demonstrate, and then dropped them to his lap.

“...Too tired to go to the market with me after your shift?”

M’Benga frowned at him. “What, tonight?”

“Well, it’s…” He fidgeted. “It’s fourth-day. And it’ll be evening soon.”

“Oh, right. Spock. Well, you know the way now. Do you need me?”

McCoy shifted again, sticking one leg out to relieve the tingling of pinched nerves. He really wasn’t designed to sit on the floor like this. “I mean, I could get there on my own, but what if someone asks me a question in Vulcan? Or I do some stupid human thing and insult everyone? Geoff, I just embarrassed myself in front of a Vulcan five times my age by forgetting not to lick my hand. I need you.” Yes, he was begging, and he didn’t care.

M’Benga let out a deep, protracted sigh, considering him. “I guess that’s fine, but don’t expect much conversation out of me. Anyway,” he continued, rising from the cushion. “Beats having to find dinner. You’re buying.”

“Of course. No problem.” He grinned.

He wound up buying little stuffed buns for them. They were sort of like a dough-bun and filled with thick gravy that he thought was made of mushrooms, but M’Benga informed him were actually the core of a woody plant. It was saltier than he would have liked and he guzzled water afterwards. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about electrolytes for the moment.

They arrived at the basin a few minutes early and M’Benga stretched out in the sand, swearing he was listening even though he fell asleep immediately. McCoy didn’t begrudge him at all; he recalled falling asleep in public many times during his residency on Earth, although so far he had avoided that fate on Vulcan.

He was there to see Spock arrive. He walked in from the opposite side of the basin, kicking up swirls of dust, and his gaze seemed to fall on McCoy immediately. He nodded to him, and McCoy raised his hand in an awkward wave. Spock was wearing another knitted sweater. This one was a deep, Earthy brown with a grey turtleneck underneath. Spock knelt at the center of the basin and pulled out his lyre to being tuning it, his fingers plucking at each string as he adjusted the knobs at the bottom. Once it was tuned Spock rested the lyre against his knee and shoulder, falling immediately into song.

McCoy relaxed as the sounds enveloped him. A tension he hadn’t realized he was carrying seemed to flow out of him, and he recognized that what he had been missing in life was emotion. The hospital kept him busy, but not knowing what anyone was feeling also drained him and left him feeling constantly on edge. M’Benga was really his only source of relief, but their schedules didn’t overlap enough for him to get his fill. Sitting here, listening to Spock play, McCoy realized he just wanted to know that someone else out there was feeling something.

And Spock certainly seemed to be feeling something. McCoy wasn’t exactly sure what. It was too complex to be captured by a single word. The songs he played were mostly ballad-esque, but with M’Benga asleep he couldn’t ask about them. They made his heart beat fast in his chest, especially when he heard a few Earth songs sprinkled in. He recognized a cover of a pop song from forty years ago, and then a concerto that was either Mozart or Bach, he wasn’t sure. He wondered if the Earth songs were for his benefit before shaking off the thought. He wasn’t self-centered enough to entertain that idea for long.

Spock transitioned into a jaunty, toe-tapping tune that really made McCoy want to dance. It had the three-four signature of a waltz, and he could feel his feet moving slightly in a ghostly box step. He hadn’t danced in years but his body still remembered how.

But he couldn’t very well dance here, in front of all these stoic Vulcans. Just the thought of their judgement made his skin prickle. Anyway, it might embarrass Spock. He waited patiently for Spock to finish his hour of playing and stand, again thanking the crowd in Vulcan.

McCoy shook M’Benga awake and gave him a minute to get reoriented. M’Benga followed him over to Spock while rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Another great performance, Mr. Spock,” McCoy said cheerily, bouncing up on his toes. “Was that Mozart you were playing in the middle there?”

“In fact, it was Bach,” Spock said. “It was a re-arrangement of my own creation to accommodate the different sounds of the lyre over the violin, and the lack of accompanying instrumental ensemble. The lyre is capable of creating sounds that mimic the voices of two to three additional instruments.”

McCoy got the feeling that the lyre wasn’t always capable of that. There was a note of modesty to Spock’s voice that made McCoy think probably only a skilled player could do that. “Well, it sounded mighty fine.”

Spock’s eyes seemed to crinkle at the corners. “Your enthusiasm is quite freely given,” he commented.

“I’ve got nowhere else to spend it.” He elbowed M’Benga in the side. “M’Benga here has to put up with the brunt of it.”

“Indeed?” Spock gave M’Benga an appraising once-over. “You appear fatigued. Perhaps this contributed to the nap my performance induced?”

McCoy chuckled at M’Benga’s frown.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, Mr. Spock,” M’Benga said. “We’re doctors at the hospital and today was particularly long for me.”

“Your explanation is noted without prejudice. Offense is only possible where pride exists. As a Vulcan, I feel neither.”

McCoy noticed that Spock had responded differently to M’Benga’s apology than he had to his own apology last week. He wondered if there was some formal code he wasn’t clued into just yet, but M’Benga seemed to accept it just fine.

“I see that you did not purchase anything today,” Spock went on, glancing at McCoy. “The items you purchased last week did not meet with your satisfaction?”

He really didn’t want to say that they’d only come here to listen to Spock play. “We did get dinner,” he hedged. “I thought about getting more fruit, but I totally butchered the last one. I don’t want to waste my money.”

“Ah, yes, the kaasa. I noticed you with it last week. It must be cut very precisely or the juice will be lost. If you wish, I could demonstrate the technique to you this evening?”

“Oh, well, I don’t want to keep you…”

Spock raised a brow. “There is no current matter which requires my urgent attention.”

M’Benga had been looking back and forth between them as they talked, and now he cleared his throat. “If you’ll both excuse me. McCoy, I’m going to head back to our apartment for some rest.”

McCoy tamped down his panic. He would feel a lot better with a friend there to tell him if he was doing something culturally insensitive. But M’Benga did look exhausted, even after his nap. McCoy felt bad for having drug him out here in the first place. “All right,” he said eventually.

“You can find your way back?” At McCoy’s nod, M’Benga saluted them both and slipped away.

“If you will allow me to retrieve my things?”

McCoy watched, feeling a little nervous, as Spock unstrung his lyre and put it away. He closed the case with a snap and swung it over his shoulder, wearing it on his back like a guitar case. The weight of it made him slouch and McCoy found himself smiling at the sight. He seemed to have found this world’s only awkward Vulcan.

“You mentioned you got second place in some contest?” McCoy asked, just for something to talk about as they walked back towards the busier section of the market.

“In kuhlaya t’ralash-tanaf,” Spock clarified. He paused a moment, clearly translating in his head, and then said, “Literally, in Standard, it means competition of music. Annually, musicians proficient in traditional Vulcan instruments demonstrate their skills before an audience of their peers.”

“Well, I didn’t hear the other guy, but with the way you play you should’ve gotten first place hands down.”

Spock mouthed the words hands down but didn’t ask. “The scale by which we were judged was objective,” he said. “However, I believe my playing was perhaps too… emotional for the nuances to be fully captured by such measurements.”

“I think that’s why I like it.”

“Your words of praise are gratifying to hear.”

They arrived at the fruit stand and Spock got him to purchase six of the little fruits to practice on. He thought the merchant was giving him a funny look, but his face may have just been shaped like that. Vulcans weren’t known for giving the stink-eye.

They sat away from the crowd in a spill of sand that was still exuding warmth from the sun despite the darkness creeping in around them. Spock held up the fruit, rotating it.

“Observe,” he instructed, pulling out a metal pocket knife and flicking it open.

McCoy raised an eyebrow at that. “You carry a knife with you everywhere you go?”

“You do not?” Spock seemed honestly puzzled. “The Vulcan desert is unforgiving, should you find yourself stranded in it. It is logical to carry survival gear whenever possible.”

“Sure, but in the city? You’ve got more of a chance of falling out of a building.”

Spock seemed amused. “Standard building codes ensure that window openings remain small enough to prevent such an occurrence. Regardless, I do not live in the city. When I travel I must be prepared in the event of a shuttlecar malfunction.”

“I suppose that makes sense.” McCoy stared at the knife. “Anyway, show me the magic.”

Spock did so. He demonstrated how to snap the curved neck off the fruit and raise it instantly to his mouth, drinking the juice that spilled out. Then he cut through just the skin of the fruit in a tight spiral, rotating the blue-green sphere in his deft hands as he did so. When he was done, it was as easy as grabbing the end of the peel and yanking it off, unwinding it like a spool of thread. Then he popped the soft and juicy fruit into his mouth in one go.

“It is not possible to cut the fruit into smaller pieces without destroying it,” Spock explained once he had chewed and swallowed. “I recommend you purchase only fruits small enough to fit into your mouth whole.”

McCoy hummed at that. “Seems reasonable enough. Okay, let me try.”

Spock handed over the knife and a fruit. McCoy totally destroyed his first attempt, popping the fruit in his hands like a balloon when he squeezed too hard. The things were damn fragile once you pierced the skin. His second attempt went slightly better, although he got a smear of juice down his chin for his troubles. Spock demonstrated again on the fourth fruit, and McCoy had it totally down for five and six. He offered the sixth perspiring fruit to Spock with a laugh of triumph.

“Look at that! Have you ever seen anything so beautiful? Here, d’you want this one?”

Spock looked at him curiously, but he did accept it delicately between his long thumb and forefinger. He slipped it into his mouth and chewed methodically. “An admirable effort, Doctor.”

McCoy basked in Spock’s praise and remembered at the last minute not the lick his fingers. He wiped his hands off on his shorts and grinned leisurely at Spock, smiling up at him from beneath his eyelashes. “Well, I had a good teacher. Thank you, Mr. Spock.”

Spock shivered.

McCoy frowned. “Are you cold?” It was getting chilly now that the sun had set and the sand had given up its residual heat. In a few hours there would be frost on the ground. “Shit, I forgot that it’s winter.”

“My current body temperature is not uncomfortable,” Spock said. “However, the hour does grow late.” He stood and dusted himself off, looking down at McCoy. His face was mostly in shadow. “Will you attend again next week?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” McCoy said as he jumped to his feet.

Spock was silent as they began to head for the outskirts of the market, but then he asked, “And your partner?”

“My par—Oh, you mean M’Benga?” McCoy laughed, trying to picture himself dating M’Benga. He knew the man was kind enough, maybe even attractive now that he thought about it, but he couldn’t see that working out very well. They would both drive the other crazy. “He’s not my partner; he’s my roommate. I think the Vul—er, the hospital stuck us together because they didn’t know what else to do with us.”

“It is logical to room together people of the same species who will face identical difficulties in acclimating to a new environment.”

“That logic is based on the assumption that all humans are the same.”

Spock raised an eyebrow. “Are they not?”

McCoy laughed again. “Definitely not. For one thing, M’Benga loves it here. Sometimes he blends in so well that I have to look at his ears to remind myself he’s not really Vulcan.”

“That implies that you do not ‘love’ it here. You do not find yourself able to adjust to life on Vulcan as easily?”

“...No,” he admitted after a moment, surprised that Spock had cornered him into admitting something about himself. “Not really. Humans—or, I suppose it may just be me—we need some emotions to survive. I need to know that other people out there are thinking, feeling creatures and not just automatons going about their business without so much as a glimmer of genuine warmth.”

They had reached the edge of the market. Spock said nothing, and McCoy tried to catch a glimpse of his face to see if he’d said something wrong. Spock paused, looking out over the clustered stars.

“Perhaps you will find that your stay here will open you to understanding emotion in a new way.”

His shoulders relaxed. “Perhaps,” he said. “I certainly hope so.” He studied Spock’s profile for a moment, noting the slight line at the corner of his mouth. Was that a laugh line? And the crinkle at the corner of his eye, was that from smiling? “I think I am getting better at reading subtle emotion.”

Spock turned to him, eyes warm and dark. “Then already you are adjusting, although it may currently seem an insurmountable impediment to your enjoyment of your time here.” Spock reached into his sleeve and withdrew his pocket knife. “Here,” he said. “You require this more than I.”

McCoy blinked in surprise. “Spock, are you sure?”

“You should never be alone without survival gear.”

“What about you? Don’t you have to fly home tonight? What if you crash?”

“The chances of that eventuality occurring are, as always, slim. Regardless, I am much better prepared to survive than you are, even without my knife. Please, Doctor. Accept it as a token of a new friendship.”

McCoy felt he couldn’t argue with that without sounding rude, so he accepted the gift. “Thank you,” he said, honestly touched.

“No thanks are necessary. It was logical.” He nodded to McCoy and took a step back. “I bid you good evening, Doctor.”

“Good night, Spock.”

He examined the knife as he walked home that evening, shivering in the cold night air. It looked like it was made of steel, and he could have sworn that the handle was inset with mother of pearl. It looked like something from Earth, and he wondered why Spock had been carrying around an Earth knife instead of a Vulcan one.

He wouldn’t get any answers that night, though, and so he pocketed the knife and looked up at the stars, wondering what Spock saw in them.