Lancaster marveled at his luck as he walked with Sheppard out of the infirmary. He had never in his life been struck quite so completely by another person, nor was he the type to ask someone out so impulsively, but here he found himself on his way to dinner with Luca Sheppard. They were both beaming as they passed through the main reception area, unnoticed by the constantly moving ballet of doctors, nurses, and patients around them going to different areas of the infirmary. Sheppard led the way to the transit station at the core of the station.
“I hope you don’t mind eating al fresco,” Sheppard said when they stepped into the tram, and he selected ‘Arboretum.’
“I leave myself in your capable hands, Luca,” Lancaster replied, which made Sheppard grin.
A few minutes later, they walked out onto Starbase 72’s massive arboretum, and the site briefly left Lancaster speechless. He’d never been to one of these station’s biodomes and was fascinated by how real it looked. The only artificial thing was the sky projected on the interior of the dome; otherwise, it was a massive park with grass, trees, and even a lake.
“That’s the reaction I was going for,” Sheppard said, winking at his date.
“I’ve never been on one of these stations long enough to come down here. It’s amazing,” Lancaster admitted as they started walking. Really, the same effect could be achieved on the holodeck, but the fact that it wasn’t just a project made it all the more impressive. “I was on a science ship for my last tour—I’d almost forgotten what it was like to be in such a large open space.”
“It’s one of the perks that make up for this being one of the most boring assignments I could possibly imagine,” Sheppard replied with a chuckle. “That and the promenade. Every type of restaurant or bar you could possibly ever want.”
“Why’d you take a posting out here if it’s so boring?”
Sheppard shrugged. “I was on the Vancouver for 18 months, but to stand a chance on getting a heavy cruiser or an explorer, I need more certifications. After a few more months here, I’ll be trained to assist in surgery and as a charge nurse, so then I can try to get back out into space,” he explained. So, Sheppard was ambitious? That was another point in his favor to Lancaster. “I didn’t join Starfleet to sit on a station.”
“Me neither. My last captain got promoted and wanted me to join him on Starbase 38. I couldn’t do it,” Lancaster said. They walked down a set of steps toward the shore of the lake, where there was a pier and a small restaurant called the Sentinel Café. There was a breeze blowing in off the water, and they found seats at a table near the edge of the pier.
Unlike a lot of the restaurants on the starbase that were run by Starfleet and not civilians, the Sentinel Café didn’t have holographic waiters or cooks. Once they placed their orders with a yeoman, Lancaster sat back and studied Sheppard for a moment. His uniform fit him so well that Lancaster would have believed it was designed specifically to complement his broad shoulders.
“So, I know you’re a nurse and that you served on the Vancouver, but you got to see my medical files and then scan me, so I think you have me at a disadvantage, here,” Lancaster said, with a small smile. “I want to figure out what makes you tick. What got you into nursing?”
“Well, I have four younger brothers, so it just seemed like a natural fit after taking care of them while we were growing up. Plus, it meant getting into space a lot faster than training to be a doctor,” Sheppard replied.
“You have four brothers? There are five of you?!” Lancaster exclaimed, his mind whirling at imagining Sheppard as being one of a set of five. What would it be like to be Luca Sheppard’s brother, after all, if you were constantly compared to an Adonis like him? Beyond that, a family with more than two or three children was something that Lancaster just was not at all familiar with, at least not in his experience growing up in Seattle.
Sheppard laughed. “It’s an Italian thing. My parents are pretty old school—like, 18th-century old school. We’ve had the same plot of land in Tuscany for the past five hundred years, or so they say.” Of course he grew up in some idyllic Tuscan setting, with hills, fields, and streams to frolic in, rather than in one of Earth’s many megalopoleis. Seattle had a sprawling city center with arcologies stretching up hundreds of stories. There were parks, sure, but to get real green space involved driving far out into the countryside.
“So, you grew up on a farm?” Lancaster asked, quite liking the image of a partially-clad Sheppard piling up bales of hay or loading bushels of fruit into the back of a hover truck.
Sheppard nodded. “I did. I even know how to press olives and milk a goat. My parents were disappointed that I didn’t want to take it over myself.”
“The burden of the oldest child. They didn’t want you to go to the Academy?”
“They weren’t pleased about that, let alone that I wanted to study nursing.”
“Why would anyone object to you being a nurse?” Lancaster asked.
“It’s not a traditionally masculine job, according to my father. If I was going to off into space, I should at least be a security officer or an engineer, he said,” Sheppard said, rolling his eyes.
“That must have been tough. Have they come around?”
“More or less; they’re at the ‘quiet disappointment with my lifestyle’ phase.” Of course, Lancaster couldn’t imagine anyone being disappointed in Sheppard, but he knew a thing or two about difficult parents. “What about you? What’s your family like?”
“It’s just my parents and me. I don’t have any siblings. My parents weren’t happy that I didn’t want to go into academia, and they’re also at the ‘quiet disappointment phase,’” Lancaster replied. “They don’t really understand what I do, but since it’s not artistic or cultural, they’re also not interested.”
“Well, black sheep like us have to stick together, then,” Sheppard replied as their waiter returned with two glasses of red wine. “Salud,” he said, holding up his glass and making eye contact with his date.
“Cheers,” Lancaster replied, marveling at Sheppard’s hazel eyes as he held up his glass. The wine was dry and went down with just a slight tingle from the synthehol. His face was warm, and he felt flushed, but he knew that was just from being around Sheppard. “So, if you’re from Tuscany, I can’t imagine this is very good.”
Sheppard shrugged. “It makes that real bottle of wine for a special occasion seem even better,” he replied, taking a sip from his glass. “Are you a wine person?”
“Not really. My parents are. I like it, but I don’t know anything about it,” Lancaster replied as he toyed with the stem of his glass. “This is probably a shocker, but I don’t really go out very much.”
“You’re a driven, gorgeous, hyper-intelligent bridge officer, so that’s pretty much what I’d expect,” Sheppard replied with a wink.
Lancaster rolled his eyes but found himself smiling at the compliment. “Don’t forget massively unpopular,” he added. “I’m the guy that has to tell everyone ‘no’ when they want power or sensor time or anything else, after all.”
“If people take that personally, it’s on them,” Sheppard replied. “Do you like it?”
“Operations? I love it. It’s like putting together a puzzle where all of the pieces are constantly changing shape and position,” Lancaster enthused. “Say stellar cartography wants the lateral sensors but so does astrophysics. So I have to figure out how to get them both what they need without impacting the rest of the ship.”
“So, you’re a man who likes a challenge. Very sexy,” Sheppard said with a smirk.“Nursing is kind of the same way, especially when you’re on the ward. Paying attention to four patients at the same time for twelve hours at a time, making sure they all get what they need, and making sure the doctor is kept abreast while she’s dealing with a dozen other patients? It’s way more work than just grabbing hypos and handing out pillows.”
Lancaster cocked his head as he thought about that. “I’d honestly never thought about it like that. You must be amazing at multi-tasking,” he said.
Sheppard nodded. “Well, you wouldn’t be the first person. It’s the end of the 24th century, but people still don’t seem to respect nurses. It depends on the culture, but nurses or their equivalents are often seen as half of a doctor or a doctor’s assistant more than professionals in our own right. It can be frustrating,” he said as he swirled his wine. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so negative. There’s something about you that makes me feel comfortable spilling my guts.”
“I don’t mind. You’re having the same impact on me,” Lancaster replied with a chuckle. “You’ve got me stuttering and blushing like a schoolboy.”
Sheppard looked him over. “As I said before, it’s very endearing, especially since you’re clearly not like that at all in your professional life,” he said, grinning over his wine as their food arrived.
Lancaster nearly forgot to eat the more they started talking during their meal because he was enjoying Sheppard’s company so much. In addition to being drop-dead gorgeous, he was also extremely intelligent and had him laughing the entire time.
“I’m really glad I met you in the infirmary. I would never be able to approach you in a bar,” Lancaster admitted when he was about halfway through his ratatouille.
“I don’t believe you. You were the one who asked me out, after all,” Sheppard replied, shaking his head. “That’s ok, though, because I would definitely ask you out, even if you are an intimidating bridge officer.”
“Some people do say I am intimidating, but I can’t believe that applies to you.”
“Oh, definitely. It’s a turn-on,” Sheppard said. “I’ve never gone out with a superior officer before.”
“I’m only a higher-ranking one. There’s nothing inferior about you, Luca,” Lancaster said, trying his best to bat his eyelashes at him. “I’m pretty rusty at flirting, so, please, don’t hesitate to tell me to stop.”
“You’re doing just fine so far, sir,” Sheppard replied, winking at him. “So, are you excited about your new assignment? The Lancelot’s a heavy cruiser, right? She was here a few months ago.”
“Nebula-class, yes. I guess I’m excited. It’ll be different. The largest ship I’ve ever served on. Moving assignments is always hard, though. I felt like I’d finally figured out the social dynamic on the Sagan,” Lancaster replied, pushing his food around on his plate. “I don’t really need a lot of social interaction, but I’m also terrible at making friends, so that makes me a little nervous.”
“I have a hard time seeing that, Michael.”
Lancaster shook his head. “This is not indicative of my normal social skills. I’m managing to be mildly competent now purely through adrenaline and other assorted hormones. You’re just that special,” he explained, with a self-effacing chuckle.
“I think you’re special, too,” Sheppard replied, eyes locked on Lancaster’s. “Do you believe in fate?”
Sheppard scrunched up his face. “Isn’t that a yes or no question?”
“Well, I don’t believe in ‘fate,’ no. There’s no hidden force in the universe controlling our destinies. But it is known that there are an infinite number of parallel universes, so any sequence of choices and events can happen, but they can only happen in one way in each of those universes,” Lancaster explained.
“So, it’s not predestination, but this version of us can only experience a certain outcome?” Sheppard interjected.
“Exactly! So, it’s physics, not metaphysics,” Lancaster enthused. “Whatever choices we make have to be the right choices because they are the only choices that can occur in this universe.”
“Well, then if you’re meant to make friends on the Lancelot, you will. If you’re not, you won’t,” Sheppard said with a victorious look. “Just like we were destined to go on a date.”
Lancaster chewed on his lip as he thought about that. Semantically, Sheppard was, well, wrong if he was factoring in destiny, but he at least seemed to grasp what Lancaster was saying. “You can keep up with me. I like that.”
“I’m guessing that’s not something you’re used to.”
“Most people bore me. I mean, by definition, most people are average. I struggle with ‘average,’” Lancaster replied. “We’ve got one life. We should do our best to be exceptional however we can.”
“I can already tell you’re going to be the youngest Admiral in history,” Sheppard said, which made Lancaster shake his head again, even though he didn’t hate that thought. “So, as long as I’m not boring you, how would you feel about exploring the promenade when we’re done here?”
Lancaster felt his pulse race at that suggestion. Of course, he would have been more than happy with just dinner, but he definitely did not want their evening to end a second faster than it had to. “I think I’m yours all night,” he replied, though he immediately felt his cheeks get warm at unintentionally suggesting something a little more amorous than he’d intended. But he didn’t retract it, either.
After they finished dinner, Sheppard led the way towards the edge of the arboretum. As they walked, he reached over to grab Lancaster’s hand, looking pleased with himself as their fingers interlaced. The ‘ground’ was higher towards the edges of the dome to conceal the life support mechanisms that supported the atmosphere in the arboretum, as well as to give space for the station’s promenade. Next, they went down a ramp into a short tunnel which dropped them off in the center of the station’s main recreational and commercial space.
The promenade was packed with people, both Starfleet and civilians spread across several decks. Lancaster was momentarily awed and slightly anxious at being around so many people after spending a year with a crew of just 80.
“So, where are you taking me?” he asked, squeezing Sheppard’s hand.
“Somewhere I think matches your taste. And if I’m wrong, you get to pick,” Sheppard replied, which had Lancaster intrigued. Type-A to the core, he was reluctant to let anyone else set the course, but he liked the way Sheppard was taking charge. He also liked getting to hold hands with the most attractive man in several thousand light-years, even though public displays of affection normally made him squeamish.
They walked for quite a while down the kilometers-long promenade before Sheppard pulled Lancaster into a well-appointed cocktail lounge. The paneled walls were painted in a shade of cobalt blue, with several tasteful abstract paintings, and a light fixture made up of hundreds of silver globes hung in the middle of the space above a dozen or so couches of various shapes in brown suede. The bar itself sat in front of tall shelves containing every spirit known to the Federation.
“Okay, I think you’ve succeeded, Luca,” Lancaster said. He loved classic décor, especially when it wasn’t shades of Federation beige. Sheppard smirked and put his hand on Lancaster’s lower back as he led them to the corner of the bar, where they could sit and still see one another. “Yeah, I don’t see how this could be more perfect.”
A moment later, the bartender appeared. She was a Human woman in her sixties or seventies wearing a full black-tie tuxedo, with her silver hair drawn up into a tight ponytail.
“Good evening, gentlemen. Welcome to Elixir. What can I get you?” she asked with a genial smile.
“I’d love a rye Manhattan,” Lancaster replied.
“Make it two, please,” Sheppard added.
“Great choice,” the bartender said before going off to make their drinks.
“You like Manhattans?”
“I don’t know, but I’m trusting your great taste,” Sheppard said, grinning at him. In the darker lighting of the bar, his facial features looked even sharper somehow, and Lancaster was finding it increasingly difficult not to just lean over and kiss him.
“I’d be knee-deep in EPS management procedures for Block II Nebula-class starships right now if it weren’t for you,” Lancaster noted.
“Well, I hope this is a better evening than that would have been,” Sheppard replied.
“Immeasurably better,” Lancaster agreed. The bartender returned with two identical Manhattans, ruddy drinks in cocktail glasses, each with a single cherry resting in the center. Lancaster held his up to Sheppard. “To being saved from an evening home alone.”
“Salud,” Sheppard replied before they both took a drink. Lancaster was surprised to taste real alcohol, but the drink was so smooth that all he could feel was the warmth washing over him. He waited with anticipation as Sheppard tasted his own. “This is good. Sweet. Complex. My compliments,” he said, smiling at the bartender.
“We might be 75 light-years from Earth, but that’s no reason not to be able to deliver the classics,” she replied. “Are you two out celebrating something?”
“We actually just met today. This is our first date,” Lancaster replied.
The bartender arched an eyebrow. “Well, from this side of the bar, it looks like it’s going well. Felicitations,” she said, smiling, before giving them a sort of bow and then going to deal with another customer.
“That has to be a jinx, right? Bad luck?” Lancaster said, laughing.
“Oh, definitely. I think she’s right, though.”
Lancaster smiled and took another drink. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Sheppard, marveling at how lucky he was to have met him. Was it fate? No, probably not, because fate didn’t exist. But, he was at least happy to be in the particular universe that he got to meet Luca Sheppard in.
“When my transport pulled in, I was pretty disappointed to have to spend a week here, but suddenly I’m sad that I get to spend only a week here,” Lancaster noted, which earned him another smile.
“We’ll have to make the most of your time here,” Sheppard replied before taking a drink.
“Absolutely. If this place is indicative of your taste, I’ll need you as my tour guide,” Lancaster replied, trying not to reveal how much he wanted to spend every possible second with him.
“Maybe more than just a tour guide,” Sheppard replied. “Okay, I think I’ve figured out what you like. What do you hate, though? What are your pet peeves?” he asked.
“I don’t think we have enough time on my visit to go into all of them, but honestly, the one that really gets me is combadges not being put on right,” Lancaster admitted, as he glanced over at Luca’s, which was perfectly aligned.
Sheppard arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“The way they adhere to the uniform means they’ll never get knocked around. If it’s crooked, it’s because someone put it on incorrectly. It should be pointed perfectly vertically. I actually made an ensign nearly cry over that, once,” Lancaster admitted.
“Wow. That’s definitely a good tip, though: Michael likes perfect uniforms,” Luca replied, as he glanced down to make sure his own was correct.
“Yeah, yours is definitely perfect. I’ve been thinking to myself this whole night at how it looks like it was designed just for you. You wear it so well,” Lancaster said as he reached over to put a hand on one of Sheppard’s biceps. “You clearly like exercising. But what about your pet peeves?”
Sheppard smiled. “I do. It’s one of my passions. I think the thing most likely to irritate me is being talked down to. But, unfortunately, it happens way more often than I’d like, and I think it has something to do with being a nurse and being in good physical shape.”
“That’s unfortunate. I wouldn’t like that, either,” Lancaster replied, thinking back to earlier when Sheppard had complained about the way nurses were treated. It seemed to be a real sore spot with him, and Lancaster wondered how much of it was perception. Either way, Sheppard didn’t seem like someone to underestimate or talk down to. “You’re obviously very good at what you do.”
The nurse laughed aloud. “I honestly think that you experienced one of the worst exams I’ve ever given. I was stumbling all over myself because I was so attracted to you. That’s pretty much the definition of unprofessional.”
“I was too focused on my own inappropriate thoughts to notice yours,” Lancaster replied with a chuckle. “You must get awkward patients staring at you all the time, though.”
“There’s no way of answering that that doesn’t make me seem conceited, so I’ll just agree. It was different this time because I was staring back,” Sheppard replied, as pink spread across his cheeks. “I guess people must meet like this all the time. It’s not like nurses aren’t part of the crew. I’ve just honestly never been interested in anyone I’d seen professionally until I met you.”
“I will absolutely take that win, but it does make me think your taste is slightly suspect,” Lancaster quipped. “Michelangelo’s David going out with Munch’s The Scream.”
“Stop,” Sheppard replied, laughing again. “When I walked in, I thought to myself: if he’s that pretty when he’s pissed off, he’s got to be gorgeous when he’s smiling, and I was right.”
“When was I pissed off?”
“When you had to wait for ten minutes to be seen. You were absolutely pouting when I walked in.”
“Oh. Yes. But I don’t pout. I scowl,” Lancaster replied, though he felt himself pouting at that moment. His face was warm from the specificity of that compliment, and also because it mirrored so closely one of the last things that his ex, Taylor Hill, had said to them before they broke up, ‘You’re pretty when you’re mad,’ as a way of dismissing his feelings. Coming from Sheppard, though, it had an entirely different tenor.
They continued to banter as they finished their drinks, and Lancaster marveled at how easy it was to talk to this man, despite how attracted he was to him. Usually, there was some amount of being tongue-tied, but Sheppard made him feel just as comfortable around him as he was excited by him, which was a strange combination of feelings.
“I think you should pick the next place we go,” Sheppard said as they left the cocktail bar and entered the promenade hand-in-hand. Lancaster glanced around until he saw something that caught his eye as being especially appropriate for their next stop.
The Rainbow Room was a club further down on the promenade intended for gender and sexual minorities. Even in the 24th century, when non-straight folks didn’t need to have their own spaces for safety purposes, they still existed just to provide them with space where they didn’t have to be self-conscious about flirting with strangers or just as a place where they could meet like-minded individuals. Dodecahedral lanterns in colors across the spectrum hung for the ceiling, and Lancaster could see couples and throuples of all gender configurations hanging out at the bar and dancing out on the floor.
This wasn’t the place for fancy cocktails, so Lancaster surprised himself and Sheppard when he ordered two Samarian Sunsets from the bartender. Sheppard’s hand went to his lower back as they waited, and Lancaster leaned against him.
“Are you buying that I can sometimes be spontaneous and not completely stuck-up?” Lancaster asked with a grin.
“Well, I’d say you’ve been pretty spontaneous since I first met you. It’s nice to go places like this sometimes,” Sheppard said, looking around the room with a grin. “I don’t know who decided to put Starfleet Academy in San Francisco, but going to the Castro was a major change for me after growing up in Italy. I didn’t even realize I was bi until I was 17, so I never got much of a chance to explore things.”
“I knew I was 100% gay from about age 12, I think,” Lancaster replied, smiling at him as their drinks arrived. “My roommate and I went out a few times to places like this when I was at the Academy, but I always found them too intimidating to relax and have fun.”
“How does this place compare?”
“Well, my date is the hottest being in the bar, so that definitely helps,” Lancaster replied, grinning up at him as their drinks arrived.
“I just had that exact thought,” Sheppard replied as they clinked their glasses together. It turned the liquid within from clear to a swirling vortex of colors that settled into bright gold that tasted like sunshine. Their drinks didn’t last long at all as they continued to flirt by the bar.
“Dance with me?” Lancaster asked.
“I didn’t have you pegged as a dancer, Michael,” Sheppard said, which made him laugh.
“I am absolutely not, but I’m feeling adventurous being around you,” he replied before pulling Sheppard towards the dance floor.
For the first time in his life, he managed to throw himself into just moving to the rhythm and focusing on his date. The two of them circled around each other, touching much more than they had at either of the previous venues. Sheppard’s hands ended up on Lancaster’s waist, and the lieutenant’s arms went around the tall nurse’s neck as they danced. They got closer and closer until Lancaster couldn’t even hear the music as they locked eyes. Later, they would claim that they were each the ones who initiated the kiss, but after twenty minutes on the dance floor, the two of them had locked lips.
Like the whole evening with Sheppard, it felt exciting and comfortable at the same time. Pre-destined, even, to use Sheppard’s terminology. There was a lot about being with Sheppard that was unfamiliar—he was just so different from the other men that Lancaster had gone out with, though that was a tiny sample size—but he could already tell that this was the person he felt most at home with. There was no way that this could be a one-time thing. That is unless it didn’t enrapture Sheppard in the same way as it had him.
“Wow,” Sheppard said as they broke apart, which made Lancaster’s heart leap. Self-deprecating to the core when it came to his social skills, though, Lancaster needed to confirm that which should have been obvious to him.
“Good ‘wow?’” he asked.
“Absolutely,” Sheppard replied, cupping Lancaster’s cheek and pulling him in for another kiss. Sheppard felt so much taller than he was, and he enjoyed the feeling of being sheltered by his body. Nothing else in the club mattered; it was like he and Sheppard were the only people on the entire station.
“I think we should go back to your quarters,”
“I think we should, too.”