Two drinks arrived at the table, and Euphrasie stared at hers a long time before picking it up and sipping it thoughtfully. The young man across the table, meanwhile, upended his own small glass of liqueur as soon as it was set in front of him, then slammed the empty container back down vigorously and punched an order for a second into the smart table's menu.
As he paused indecisively over the confirmation button, Euphrasie sneaked a close a look at him. Finnegan Bradley's loose, sandy hair hung in front of eyes whose red rims and rapid, haunted flicking to every source of motion the club's poor lighting couldn't quite conceal. His formerly easy smile had evolved into a perpetually strained grimace. Finn had never been a large person, but his hunched, beaten posture made him look even smaller.
Still insistently jabbing the tabletop display, Finn looked up to Euphrasie. "You know, Frazi." He reverted so easily to the diminutive name he'd used for her when they were both children. "The worst thing you ever did to me was save my life."
Euphrasie shook her head. Their meeting now was purely by chance; they had fallen out of contact ten years before, when they were both barely teenagers. Now, she was heading out to the Coreward Frontier with a Survey Auxiliary commission, and he was... Well, she preferred not to think about what Finn did for a living since he’d disappeared.
"Was I supposed to let you go to the atomizer, Finn?" She replied. "You didn't kill that man." After all these years, she didn't know what she had expected. She'd waited for him, hoping that some day, he might be able to clear his name and return, but he had never sent even a cryptic text-only message that told her he was all right. She'd given up and signed up for Survey on her twenty-first birthday, the way they'd always dreamed of doing together, and now, with her freshly printed commission in hand, she was leaving Herakles and the Core worlds, with no intention to return. It was just like Finn to literally bump into her as she was preparing to take her new ship out on its maiden voyage.
"I could have fought the charge, Frazi. Cleared my name." He told her. "Instead, I was scared, and I ran. You helped me keep running, and by running I was condemned in everyone's eyes." The second drink arrived, and Finn glanced hurriedly to both sides. "Can't stay long." He stared long and hard at something over Euphrasie’s shoulder. She turned to look, but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary that might be keeping his attention. Perhaps, the pilot decided, her old friend was seeing ghosts. "Boss doesn't like me to hang around too long before a job."
"I can't stay long either." Euphrasie turned back to her childhood friend, who leaned back in his chair with a guilty look. "My departure window is in three hours, and preflight takes almost an hour." That was it, then. She was leaving with the Naval Survey Auxiliary, and he was staying, the pawn of the system's most unsavory syndicate, who would keep him around only as long as he made himself useful.
"It's still good to see you again, though." Finn smiled, but there was as much pain as happiness in it. "One last time, I suppose."
Euphrasie shook her head sadly before draining her glass. "Come with me, Finn." She put a hand over his. "By the time they know you're gone, we'll be halfway to the Frontier." Survey ships were small, but there was enough room on hers for a crew of up to three – and Euphrasie was slated to pilot it alone as far as Maribel. As long as she remembered to load another carton of nutrient paste before she boarded, Finn’s presence would be no trouble.
"I can't." He pulled his hand away, shaking his head. "You don't understand. The Boss has too many friends. They'll find me."
"Hell with them." Euphrasie slapped her palm on the table, feeling oddly buzzed after just one drink. "The Frontier is a big place."
Finn shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry. For not going with you, and for everything else."
"Everything else? Finn, you were always kind..." She shook her head, feeling somewhat unsteady. A foggy realization bubbled up from somewhere below her conscious thought. She had drained only one drink, but it was one she'd let out of her sight for an instant. She’d turned around so breifly, but it might have been enough time for Finn; he’d always been quick. "You didn't."
"Boss needs your ship." Finn shrugged. "Survey will get you a new one, don't worry. They have spares of everything."
Euphrasie tried to stand, but her legs had become wholly unresponsive. She steadied herself against the table, but it was a losing battle. "Finn..." She tried to snarl, but it was barely a whisper. Losing a ship before she even left port? Her new Naval Survey Auxiliary commission would be torn up on the spot.
Finn winced, then shook his head and stood. As he leaned down over her shoulder to rifle through her pockets for the berth token that would lead him to her ship, he put his lips close to her ear. Even over the pounding music of the club, she could hear his whisper. "Goodby, Frazi."
As he left, she tried to follow him, but succeeded only in slumping down on the table, watching with unfocused eyes as Finn walked out the door.
(The banner art used for this post is the work of digital artist Xiaopeng Shen.)