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There is no logic in wasting valuable credits on specially prepared drinks that he could easily synthesize in his dorm room, but Spock frequently does so anyway. There are a dozen small cafes within walking distance of the Academy and two locations within the premises, but Spock crosses the street to one in particular—the USS Enterprise, named after the starship Spock would someday like to serve on. He only ever goes to that one place, having stumbled on it in the middle of the night during a particularly difficult bout of exams that even his Vulcan genes couldn’t keep him awake for. After doing nothing but attending class and studying for three days in a row, he had to resort to the human pleasure-drug colloquially known as ‘caffeine.’ The coffee was dark, rich, bitter but relatively pleasant. Spock aced all his tests. He wouldn’t have gone back again, except that the barista had written an encouraging message on his cup, and bizarrely, nonsensically, those words had gotten him through the stress more than the caffeine did.

Spock now drinks coffee frequently enough to warrant a travel mug, but he uses the recyclable paper kind anyway, because they wouldn’t write on a personal one. Spock has another grueling exam tomorrow and has already memorized all the relevant material, but he could use some kind words to go along with it. Unlike the vast majority of his peers, he doesn’t have any ‘friends.’ He doesn’t keep in regular contact with his family. He isn’t particularly close to any of his professors and has no outwards moral support. He shouldn’t need moral support. He knows that. But the kind eyes of that one familiar barista fills him with a forbidden thrill that he knows will prove useful in the coming days.

There are two people already in line at the clean, well-lit café. Spock steps into place behind them and sees that his favourite barista is indeed on shift, just as he’d expected. Spock catches his eyes over the shoulder of the short Tellarite in front of him, and the barista smiles.

Then Jim’s coworker relays a new order to him, and he returns to work, busily making drinks behind the granite countertop. Spock is free to watch him without judgment, although Jim does glance over every so often, fleeting but always warm. Spock can feel it warming him as well. He fights to restrain that reaction, already knowing this was a mistake. Vulcans do not blush. But Jim takes him very close.

Jim is a beautiful, glowing creature that serves a perfect Rigelian strawberry smoothie up for a nondescript Andorian. The Andorian’s antenna twitch to face Jim, blue lips twisting up in a smile, but Jim only nods and doesn’t respond to her question. He’s always friendly but always busy—a hard worker that retains the sense that he knows what he’s doing, even if it’s only serving drinks. Spock has often thought that Jim would make a good cadet but can never seem to work up the nerve to ask if Jim’s considered applying to the Academy. That would be crossing a line from professional to personal—a decision that isn’t Spock’s to make. He has no wish to make what limited small talk they share difficult or awkward for Jim. He does realize, however, that Jim has extended some small invitation to him, because the Andorian’s cup doesn’t appear to have writing on it beyond a name and the initials of an order. Spock has never seen that tidy scrawl given to anyone else.

The Tellarite finishes shouting her order, and Spock moves up in line. He asks for a plain coffee, then moves over, waiting behind the Tellarite. No one else has come in, so the human at the register flitters off to sort the snacks set out on display. Spock continues watching Jim efficiently divert from one station to another. He’s dressed in a red plaid shirt today with his white apron tied over it, and his light gold-brown hair is slightly tousled, a subtle flush to his cheeks from the heat of his workplace and maybe sheer exertion. Spock finds the temperature unusually amenable. Most of the time, humans like things much too cold.

Spock doesn’t think Jim could ever be cold.

Jim finishes the Tellarite drink, and she grumbles at him, even though in Spock’s estimation, it looks exactly how it should. Jim doesn’t pay the Tellarite any mind. He turns his attention to Spock and greets, “Commander.”

“Cadet,” Spock corrects, fighting down another telltale blush. Jim knows perfectly well that he’s merely a student.

But Jim chuckles anyway, “You haven’t been promoted yet? Starfleet’s missing out.” he takes one of the cups from the dispenser and slots it on the counter while he begins brewing a fresh batch of coffee. Spock’s eternal regret is that he hasn’t found a drink that takes more time to make. He has often considered leaving the choice up to Jim, simply ordering ‘a mystery,’ but that seems too wild, even for him. He’s already fallen far enough. Jim idly plucks the cup back up again and uncaps a black marker.

Spock’s heart clenches at his side. He attempts to ignore it. He asks simply, “How has your day been?” That seems simple enough to be appropriate.

“Boring,” Jim answers, bright eyes flickering up to pierce right through Spock. “Until you came in, anyway. Those cute ears are always the highlight of my shift.”

Spock’s lips twitch. He doesn’t understand. Jim is so ridiculous sometimes, and that should be a deterrent. Spock can’t fathom why it isn’t. He deflects, “You must have many Vulcan customers.”

“Not really. They usually go to the tea house next door.” Jim taps the pen against the cup, likely ending its sentence. He puts it down, turned towards him, so that Spock can’t read the message. He tells Spock with a charming grin that somehow penetrates all of Spock’s defenses, “Besides, I meant your ears in particular.”

The machine clicks. Jim smoothly transitions back into work mode, pouring and stirring it. Spock wills himself to say something, anything, but their transaction is coming to an end, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. Jim slides the steaming cup across the counter and bids, “Well. See you around.”

“Yes,” Spock agrees, though he’s never seen Jim outside of the Enterprise. He likely never will. He only leaves the Academy for this. He has no other incentives.

He wants to stay, but another cadet has just ordered, and she’ll need Jim’s attention. Spock collects his cup and leaves, the coffee burning right through the cup to warm his hands.

Outside, he takes his first sip. It gives him a little boost and the will to persevere. He needs a complement more than that and checks the side.

Today, there is no encouragement. Instead, it reads: Will you go out with me? And there’s a communicator number underneath.

Spock sucks in a breath and continues his drink, looking forward to the next time he returns.