Year 350 A.E., Rotation 89: A Second Chance, Part 1

Vincent tugged the sleeves of his rented tailcoat toward his wrists. It was too small, and too black, and too much like the ones all the other waiters were wearing. But, it was pick up whatever temp shifts he could find after turning in his crawler contracts or die alone of starvation covered in his own filth, so he supposed he’d have to deal with his uniform being a little small. There were supposed to be spire-born at this fundraiser dinner though, so hopefully they tipped fantastically. 

Olina, a friend of his who’d gotten him the job for the night, ducked into the kitchen and took a deep breath. “Spire’s sake, this one woman at table three is wearing so much perfume I can’t breath. You’ve gotta switch tables with me.”

“I’m good,” said Vincent. “I like air.”

“Come on, you owe me one. You have like zero waiting experience and I talked you into the sweetest gig on the island.”

“Coastrunner!” barked the head waiter. “Are you going to get table seven’s drink orders tonight, or next century?”

“Ah! Gotta run!” Vincent gave Olina a quick wave and hurried into the main dining room. The place was ridiculously gaudy. Velvet drapes in every color of the rainbow. Crisp, white linens stitched in gold thread. Crystal dishes. Marble sculptures sitting in the center of every table. It was stupid. He couldn’t afford one of the table settings if he worked for a month. But man, did he want to steal one of the centerpieces to put on Shelby’s dashboard…

He was so taken in by the finery that he almost walked right past the table he was supposed to be waiting on. He spun around on his heal, turning the mistake into a flourish, and pulled out an order pad. That’s when he saw Michael sitting at the table in front of him. He looked nearly the same as he had a year ago, accept the streak of red Vincent had dyed in his chestnut hair had grown out, and he had splashes of new color worked into his formerly understated wardrobe.

They locked eyes for a second, and their whirlwind romance flashed through Vincent’s mind. The evening of pleasant conversation at the bar, a night spent next to each other in the little bunk above his windshield, Michael’s desperate proposal the following morning, their falling out when Michael suggested selling Shelby, Vincent leaving him on a strange island with hours until the government would assign him a state-sanctioned spouse. They hadn’t been in love, and it hadn’t ended well, but it was probably as close to a real relationship as Vincent had gotten into with another human.

The man sitting next to Michael raised an eyebrow and made a small impatient gesture. He was wearing five colors prominently, and he oozed condescension.

“Right, um, so…” Vincent’s voice cracked and he was very aware of how he was standing, and how it was all wrong. He couldn’t remember what he was supposed to be asking.

“I…” Michael seemed to have also forgotten how words worked.

“What’s wrong darling?” Michael’s plus-one touched his shoulder.

“That’s, um…” Michael pointed at Vincent, looking miserable. “That’s the guy I almost married the day before our wedding. Vincent, Emanuel. Emanuel, Vincent.”

“What a funny coincidence, but you don’t have to introduce me to the wait staff,” said Emanuel, hardly missing a beat. He looked straight at Vincent. “I’m sure he’s just here to do his job.”

“What can I get you to drink?” Vincent said more loudly than necessary.

“A seltzer water, please,” said Emanuel.

“Uh, you gonna be waiting on us all night?”

“This is the table I was assigned.” Vincent’s voice sounded almost as robotic as Shelby’s.

“Then rum, neat, and keep it coming,” said Michael. Emanuel slapped him gently on the back of the hand. He grimaced. “A joke of course. I’ll have a seltzer water as well.”

Michael and Vincent avoided eye contact while Vincent took the drink orders for the rest of the table. Whenever he felt tempted to steal a glance at Michael, he looked at the centerpiece instead. It was an avante-garde sculpture of spheres orbiting each other. It reminded him of the star-system paintings his favorite artist was slightly famous for. He and Michael had once bonded over their love of fairy tales about outer space. They’d bonded over a lot of things. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been willing to transfer partial ownership of his crawler to someone who might want to sell her, because she was his best friend, and he couldn’t tell anyone she was his best friend because the aeo magic that had brought her to life was deeply illegal. He couldn’t risk trusting anyone with that knowledge unless he was completely sure they wouldn’t rat him out. It was the same thing that had kept most of his flings, even the ones that maybe could have worked, from turning into anything real. And it was a shame, because Michael was gorgeous and caring, and if they’d tied the knot, Vincent wouldn’t be in debt, and he certainly wouldn’t be waiting tables. But best not to think about that now. He passed Olina on the way to the kitchen. “Hey, I changed my mind. I will one hundred percent trade you tables. My ex and his husband are at table seven.”

“You used to date one of these greeners?” She said, incredulous.

Vincent shrugged. “We were very briefly engaged. Come on, you have to switch with me.”

Olina seemed to consider it, then smirked. “I’m good. I like drama.”

Vincent groaned and hurried to fill the drink orders. He thought about grabbing Michael’s rum from the bar “on accident,”  shooting it, and hiding the glass in a potted plant, but if he got caught they’d take it out of his paycheck, and he didn’t want to know how much a drink cost at one of these things. He brought the tray of drinks back to the table and passed them out, almost spilling the lot of them as he tried to balance the tray on one hand. His fingers brushed against Michael’s when he set down the seltzer water and Michael reached for it too early. He felt his face flush red, and he hurried back to the hall outside the kitchen to regroup.

Take their orders. You just have to take their orders, Vincent, he told himself. It’s chicken, beef or vegetarian medley. It’s not like there’re even that many options. He took a deep breath and returned to the table. As he approached, he found himself staring at Michael from a distance. Yes, he looked the same, but he also looked different. In all of Vincent’s memories of him, his eyes were alive and sparkling. With laughter, with passion, with nervousness, with excitement… Even when he’d been a condescending prick, heck, even when he’d been angry, there’d been a vibrancy about him that his drab, propper wardrobe couldn’t hide. Vincent couldn’t see that light any more as he made small talk with the other fundraiser attendees and his husband. He just looked bored, and a little sad. Vincent swallowed a lump in his throat. He might have called off the marriage in the end, but he’d always hoped that Michael would end up happy.

“Are you happy?” he asked when he reached the table instead of ‘May I take your order?’ He turned red again. “With your drinks? Are you happy with them?”

“Good save,” Olina whispered in his ear as she passed with a tray of entrees.

“Happy as I’m likely to be with seltzer water,” said Michael, meeting his eyes for a little too long.

“I’d like a refill, please,” said Emanuel, raising his glass to break their gaze.

“Of course! And what can I get you to eat?” Vincent listened to all of the orders, and on the way back to the kitchen, realized he hadn’t written down a single one. He stood there for longer than he should trying to decide on a course of action. Did he suffer the embarrassment of going back to ask? Did he try to remember and hope he got it right? That’s when he felt a tap on his shoulder and spun around to see Michael standing right behind him.

“Excuse me, sir, could you direct me to the restroom?”

Vincent swallowed and pointed down the hall. “It’s just around the corner there.”

“Could you show me? I’m terrible with directions.”

“Um, sure.” Vincent led him around the corner and to the door of the men’s room. Michael opened it, glanced inside, then tugged Vincent into the empty room after him.

“What are you doing here?” said Michael.

“Waiting tables?” When Michael didn’t look satisfied, he rambled on. “Look, I just got hired this morning when one of the other servers called in sick. I had no idea who was on the guest list. I promise I’m not stalking you or something.”

“You’re not a waiter, Vincent! Your a crawler captain! Where’s that ship of yours that was so damn important to you that you dangled me over a precipice until I apologized for insulting its honor?”

“In the staff hangar!” said Vincent. “Void’s sake, this is just a side gig!”

“Oh.” Michael’s shoulders slumped a little. “Good.”

“Is that why you dragged me into the bathroom? To ask where my ship was?”

Michael sighed and leaned his back against the wall, putting a hand to his face. “I don’t know. I just… I never expected to see you again. Not here. Not ever.”

“Yeah, me neither,” said Vincent. They fell silent. Someone in the lady’s room flushed a toilet. “I’m sorry, by the way. For dangling you over a precipice. We were safe…but it was completely out of line.”

“It was,” said Michael, then dropped his hand and looked at Vincent head-on. “But I don’t think either of us were at our best that afternoon.”

Vincent reached a hand halfway out to touch Michael’s shoulder, then pulled it back. “So how’ve you been? It looks like you married up, at least. Good thing you didn’t get stuck with me.”

Michael shrugged. “The spire’s nice enough. But “up” is subjective, isn’t it?”

“I mean, Emanuel and I haven’t gotten off to a great start, obviously, but I’m sure he has his good points.”

“The only thing we have in common is our birthday and the fact that we couldn’t find love on our own terms.”

Vincent swallowed. “But at least the sex is good?”

“What we have is platonic at best,” said Michael with a sneer. “He likes to put on a show for his spire-born friends. Pretend we’re the perfect couple. How he tells it, it’s embarrassing enough that no one of his stature would agree to marry him, so if we want to have any social standing at all, we have to pretend we’re completely in love, and it was fate that brought us together!” Michael clasped his hands together in mock revery. He must have noticed the crestfallen look on Vincent’s face, because after a short pause, he shrugged. “I don’t blame you. I put you in an impossible situation.”

“The government put you in an impossible situation first.”

Michael shook his head. “Voids, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone speak ill of the Perfectorate.”

“Sorry,” said Vincent.

“No, it’s refreshing!” Michael picked up a towel and fiddled with the corner. “Damn, sometimes I feel like that night we spent together was the last time I really felt alive. Not that it’s had much competition this past year, but…” He shrugged.

“I’m sure there’s good parts. I mean, you’re living the good life! Did you see those centerpieces?”

“Yeah, the centerpieces are good.” Michael slumped a little farther down the wall.

This time Vincent really did touch his shoulder. “Things will get better, huh? Things will work out. It’s what I keep telling myself.”


Vincent started to pull away, but paused just long enough to sweep Michael’s bangs out of his face. “You didn’t keep up with the red, huh? Too bad. It looked good on you.”

“Emanuel made me dye it back before the official ceremony,” said Michael. “He said it looked ridiculous.”

Vincent remembered the giddy joy on Michael’s face as he’d looked in the mirror for the first time after they’d dyed it. Vincent knew that look anywhere, the look of someone realizing, for the first time, that they could be who they wanted to be. It was bad enough that so many employers required conformity, but to take away the individuality of someone you were supposed to care for? He couldn’t keep the anger off of his face. “He doesn’t get to make you do anything. You don’t have to stop living your life just because you pulled some asshole’s name out of a hat.”

Michael blinked a few times. “I… It’s just… You know what? You’re right.” He leaned forward slightly. Vincent did too. And he hadn’t meant to, and they hadn’t discussed it, and it was an awful idea, but all of a sudden they were making out against the cool marble wall of the men’s room, and he didn’t want to stop.

“Let’s dye all my hair green this time,” said Michael when they pulled apart.

Vincent kissed him again, then stepped back. “I…I have to work. You’re married to a spire-born. We’re being stupid.”

“You’re right.” He paced to the mirror and splashed cold water over his face. “It’s stupid.”

“I should go.” Vincent paused by the door, looking back at Michael for a second. “Nope. Yep. Gotta go.” He fled the bathroom and hurried to the kitchen, completely guessing at his tables’ orders. He hid in the hall until the plates were ready, then took them to the table. Everyone else was already eating.

“My glass has been empty for ten minutes,” said Emanuel.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said Vincent, but he wasn’t.

“Excuse me, waiter, this isn’t what I ordered,” said a woman in a magenta dress.

“I’ll see about it right away,” said Vincent, but he wouldn’t.

“Emanuel, let’s buy the centerpiece,” said Michael. 

Emanuel scoffed. “We can’t just buy the centerpiece.”

Michael bristled at the word ‘can’t.’ “Yes we can. We have the cred.”

“And who do you want me to give the money to, the waiter?” Emanuel jabbed a thumb in his direction. “Now be quiet. You’re making a scene.” Vincent took that moment to flee to the kitchen. What had he gotten in the middle of? 

“You don’t get to decide everything about our lives!” he heard Michael say as he speed-walked away without the appropriate dishes. He wondered if anyone was betting on when he’d get fired, because his money was on three minutes from now.

He almost walked straight into Olina carrying a tray of desserts from the kitchen. If their positions had been switched, he would have dropped everything, but she corrected with expert precision. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I just made out with my ex in the bathroom.” He ran a hand through his hair. Sure, it wasn’t uncommon for people in arranged marriages to mutually pursue other romantic interests, but Michael had made it pretty clear that Emanuel wouldn’t look kindly on that, and Emanuel had enough wealth and influence to attend fundraiser dinners like this. He really couldn’t afford to keep making powerful enemies.

“Void’s sake, Vincent! I vouched for you!”

“I asked you to switch me tables!”

She exclaimed in frustration. “I got your table! I got all of our tables!”

Vincent stood in the hall for a second, unsure of where to go, then turned around to see the head waiter staring him down with crossed arms.

“Coastrunner! Number seven needs three drinks and an entree, and numbers eight and nine say you haven’t even taken their orders yet!”

“Olina said she would…” He paled a little. “I had more than one table?”

The head waiter stuck an open hand in his direction. Vincent stared at it. “Your jacket.”

He tried to shrug it off as quickly as possible, but it got caught on his shoulders and he floundered there with his arms stuck in the sleeves while his boss’s eyes burned holes through his forehead.

“You’re washing dishes for the rest of the night, and then you’re never working in a tier five facility again.”

“Yes, sir.” Vincent finally freed himself of the jacket and dashed to the sink. He couldn’t express how happy he was to be allowed to hide in the kitchen until this whole thing was over. It wasn’t like he was going to get any tips anyway. And it wasn’t like he’d have the chance to wish Michael a proper goodbye. He’d be lucky if no one found some technicality they could fine him over.

At the end of the night, his back sore from bending over a countertop that was slightly too low for hours and his fingers wrinkled and raw from the hot water, he went to his locker, pulled his street clothes back on, and made his way to the staff hangar, avoiding as much eye contact as possible, only to find Michael leaning against Shelby’s door holding a parchment-wrapped package. “I thought you’d never show up.” He pressed the object into Vincent’s chest. “Here, this is for you. Now we can both live the good life.”

Vincent peered through a tear in the paper. It was the centerpiece from Michael’s table. He looked back up. “Thanks.”

“Let’s go somewhere.”

Vincent wanted very much to pull Michael inside the ship and head straight for the farthest reaches of the city states, everyone else be damned, but he was trying very hard to stop screwing up his life over ideas he knew were bad before they started. He’d been turning over a new leaf. He was discovering this whole, new, practical side of himself that was good at budgeting and grocery shopping and staying out of trouble. “We’d have to go in my outdated, poorly welded ship,” said Vincent, sure a reminder of their last fight would make Michael come to his senses.

“She’s a classic,” said Michael. He patted her side. “I’m sorry I ever said otherwise.”

Well, shit. “Don’t you have to go home?”

“I don’t have to do anything.” Michael puffed out his chest, the buttons on his silk shirt straining a little over muscles that were even more defined than last time they’d met. 

Vincent bit his lip. “I gotta go pick up a contract for the morning. I can’t afford to miss work.”

“I’ll hire you. I need to hire a transport ship, anyway. Emanuel left hours ago.”

“I don’t want to put you out.”

“The money’s not an issue.”

Vincent had run out of arguments aside from the fact that he was probably about to have an affair with a spire-born’s husband. But was that really such a big deal? The guy was a dick. And maybe he’d never find out. 

“Please,” said Michael. “I promise I won’t propose again. And I got a whole bottle of coconut rum from the bar.” He held up a sealed bottle. Vincent had hardly bought any since his trip to the debters’ “retirement” center, and he was excited about the prospect of a drink after they’d found somewhere to stop for the night, but he was far more touched by the fact that, after all this time, Michael had remembered his favorite brand.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, the side of him that impulse-bought oil paintings and then had those oil paintings tattooed to his face quietly tied a gag over his practical side’s mouth and stepped up to the microphone. “Where to?”

“Anywhere but here.”

“You got it.” Vincent unlocked Shelby’s door and helped Michael inside. They didn’t even make it past the entryway. He sure was glad he had the privacy blinds down.

A few hours later and several islands away, with Vincent’s new sculpture now clamped to the dashboard, they pulled the blinds down again for round two, then opened the rum and passed it back and forth. They were sitting on the floor of his cramped living quarters, but this time Michael didn’t complain about his lack of a kitchen table.

“We should make breakfast again in the morning,” said Michael. “Is there a story nearby?”

“I have eggs this time,” said Vincent.

“You what?” Michael spun around and opened Vincent’s icebox. “You have groceries!”

“It’s been a year.” Vincent shrugged. “I finally had time to make it to the store.”

“Wow!” Michael picked up an apple and stared at it. “Voids, you’re really broke, aren’t you?’

“Maybe I just grew up a little.”

“And the waiting job?”

“I enjoy the honor of serving the Perfectorate’s best.” Vincent took another swig of rum. He tried to keep a straight face, but ended up laughing so much he could hardly swallow. “Just kidding, man. I’m really damn broke.”

“I’m sorry,” said Michael. He stretched out to touch Vincent’s toe with his.

“It’s not your fault.”

“I could have fixed it.”

“It wasn’t meant to be,” said Vincent.

“Yep, it wasn’t meant to be. I’m sure you had your reasons.” Michael sighed and traced a panel on the floor, then smiled up at him. “But things are gonna get better! We’re having fun now. We’re doing what we want.”

“Here’s to that!” Vincent also stroked Shelby’s floor. If only he could tell Michael what those reasons were.

They passed the bottle back and forth for a while. Eventually, it got late, and Michael started slurring his words enough that Vincent hid the rest of the rum in a cabinet and passed him a glass of water instead.

“You want some toast?” said Vincent.

“Toast!” Michael threw his hands into the air like toast was the most exciting thing he’d ever heard of.

“A toast to toast!” They raised their water glasses, but when Vincent actually tried to stand up and walk the yard to the kitchen, he realized he was pretty trashed too. Where had his tolerance gone? He started laughing. “I can’t make it! It’s too far!”

“No!” Michael shook his fist at the ceiling. “Wait! I think I can reach!” He threw his hand up over the counter and pawed around until it landed on the toaster. “Got it!”

“And what are you gonna do?” said Vincent. “It’s not just going to make toast itself!”

“Come on, Ii’l toaster, help us out!” And that’s when the aeo magic ebbed out of Michael’s fingers. The toaster pulsed with green light, then waddled across the counter on its stubby legs and started trying to open the bread box with its handle.

Vincent’s mouth dropped open. Michael looked like he might be sick. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!” Tears trembled at the edge of his voice. He reached out for the toaster and it crawled into his hands. He lifted it off the counter and cradled it in his lap, scratching behind its toast slots like it was a cat.  “It was an accident! It’s harmless, I promise. See?” He held it out to Vincent, the little metal creature trembling with shared fear.

Vincent petted the toaster, then touched Michael’s hand. “Calm down. It’s okay.” He was trying not to bawl himself. He was trying not to throw something at his pillow.

Michael shook his head. “No one’s ever caught me before. I’ve only ever done it a few times. Please don’t report me to the inquisitors. Please!”

“I won’t! I get it!”

“No one gets it. Everything they teach us in school is wrong. I…”

Vincent put a finger to Michael’s lips, tears pressing at the corners of his eyes. With his other hand, he stroked Shelby’s floor. “It’s safe, babe. You can wake up.” In a moment, the cab was awash in green light. 

“HELLO, MICHAEL.” Shelby said over her speakers. “IT IS NICE TO OFFICIALLY MEET YOU.”

“Y…you too.” Michael looked around, wide eyed. The toaster nuzzled into his elbow.

“See why I didn’t want to sell the ship?” said Vincent.

Michael nodded, grasping his hand so hard it almost hurt.

“HOW ABOUT TOASTER AND I WORK ON THE REFRESHMENTS?” A telescoping arm slid out of the wall above the counter and opened the bread box. Toaster scrambled up to help while Vincent and Michael looked at each other, neither saying what they were both thinking. If only they’d had more time.


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