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The Dark Tea Break of the Soul

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"This'll help," Jeffers says cheerfully, setting down a tray. On it there are two vast portions of spotted dick and four coffees. "Caffeine and calories."

"I just want to die." Vine folds his arms on the sticky tabletop and rests his head. He doesn't dare close his eyes, though. "Dying is like sleep, right?"

"Not really."

Jeffers should know if anyone does. "Bugger," Vine says.

"You can do it! It's only twelve more days."

"Out of two weeks! We've hardly started." The coffee smells good; he drags a cup towards himself and tries to sip without raising his head. Two or three attempts from different angles prove that without advanced engineering it's simply not feasible. "I wish we'd just apologized. Why wouldn't you let me? I could've gone to the rehabilitation room and looked at kitten pictures, instead of working double shifts."

Through a spoonful of custard and raisins, Jeffers says, "I'm not licking the boots of that maniac York. And that's what he wanted. I mean, literally."

"I reckon he's feeling a bit vindictive. Reciting a love poem to the Commander over the shipwide intercom can do that." Vine stretches out his tongue, but it won't even reach to the rim of the cup. A straw, that's what he needs.

"Look, I didn't ask him to drink my special tea."

"You told him it was medicinal!"

"Medicine is just another word for drug. Anyway, I didn't want him to confiscate it."

"Yeah, that'd be why you hid the rest of it under my bed. Where he found it ten minutes after he stopped hallucinating." Reaching wearily for a plate, Vine starts spooning spotted dick into his mouth, sideways. Maybe this will give him the strength to sit up and drink his coffee.

"I told you I was sorry."

"No, you didn't. You never do." The spotted dick is rubbery and the custard has a skin on it. Vine pushes the plate away. He's not hungry. "You don't apologize because you never think you're wrong."

Jeffers chews slowly, ominously, and then says, "Don't have a go at me, mate, just 'cause I've got some backbone."

If he wasn't so tired, Vine would go and sit at another table. There are a lot of empty ones at 0345, ship's time. No reason he and Jeffers should sit together, or, come to that, take their tea break together." You're always getting me in trouble. And you laugh at me."

"I - "

"You make fun of my manscara!"

"No more than everyone else."

"Oh, that really helps." Vine closes his eyes for a few seconds of delicious black oblivion. When he opens them, he sees that Jeffers is eating his spotted dick.

Someday, when he's the landlord of the pub he's made up a hundred and twelve possible names for, he'll be able to wear whatever he wants. If anybody laughs or passes remarks he'll bar them. He can bar Jeffers pre-emptively. And York. He wouldn't serve York a pint if the man wrote him love poems, no matter how clever he is at rhyming.

He only needs to save sixty-five thousand more credits. Figuring taxes, inflation, and the fact that his pay's being docked for this two weeks of punishment duty, he'll be pulling his first pint in about eighty years.

His stomach hurts. His throat hurts. His eyes burn, which is odd because they're a bit wet all of a sudden.

"Don't," Jeffers says, softly. "Come on, don't. You're getting your makeup all smeary."

Vine blots his face with a serviette Jeffers gives him. It comes away streaked with black. He spits on a clean corner and grinds it against his eyes. Manscara. What a fucking joke.

"Don't do that either, you twat. Now you'll have to reapply the stuff. Give it here."

Vine digs the little tube out of his jacket pocket and puts it into Jeffers' outstretched hand.

"Lift your face up so I can see. Right. Hold still." The wand slides, carefully and gently, along Vine's eyelashes.

Jeffers hands the manscara back to him. "Better now?"

"No." Then, when that gets one of those looks Jeffers can manage with just the twitch of an eyebrow, Vine says, "Well, a little."

"Thought so."

Vine reaches for a cup and finds it empty. "You drank all the coffee."

"So I did. Get me another while you're up, will you?"