“Hey stranger,” she’d greeted, hugging him, her face pressed against his shoulder. Finn muttered a hello, a little distracted by the familiar aroma of her floral shampoo and cleanly pressed military uniform. But evidently he was not the only one with a sense of smell, because when Elsa pulled back, she wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“God, you still smoke? I thought you gave that up.”
“Old habits die hard,” he replied, sending her a knowing look, to which she smirked, somewhat sadly.
“So — been awhile, eh?” he’d sighed, as they sat down and signaled for the bartender. He surveyed Elsa over the rim of his glass as he took a drink, noting all her familiar features: her short chopped blonde hair; her dainty upturned nose; her smirk. The biggest difference was her uniform — it was decorated with more patches and medals of distinction than the last time he’d seen her.
“Look at you,” he said, impressed. “You’re a captain now.”
“And so are you.” She put a hand on his wrist. “So. Tell me about the Beacon.”
It was too easy, Finn thought, to fall into familiar rhythms with this woman. Twenty minutes of small talk passed before Elsa abruptly finished her beer and straightened up, sending him an amused look of accusation.
“I know you’re going to ask me about the wedding,” she said, which was accurate. “So why don’t you just get it out of the way?”
Finn set down his pint of beer, readying himself. “Alright. Here’s my first question. You’re getting married in, what? Three weeks? Why the rush?”
“Because we have no reason to wait, Finn,” she said simply. “We only want a small wedding here on the station.”
Elsa’s smirk tinged with bitterness. “I was hoping you’d be mature about this.”
“Maturity was never your strong suit,” Elsa agreed. “Listen, I’m sorry if I blindsided you with this news. I consider you one of my closest friends.”
“But to be be honest,” she said, frowning, “I didn’t think you’d really care.”
Finn went still with surprise, certain he’d heard incorrectly.
“We dated for three years, El,” he said blankly. “And I kind of thought we were still dating. Of course I care that you’re getting married.”
“When I asked you to come back to Carthis, you barely answered my calls for three months. You’ve got the Beacon. You’ve got all these jobs to do. You’ve got Corra.”
“I’ve — Corra? What does that mean?”
“You told me you’re sleeping together,” she said, sounding amused. “Isn’t that still going on?”
“Well, yeah. But … it’s not serious.”
Elsa pursed her lips, like she was fighting back a smirk with difficulty. “You do realize,” she began knowingly, and Finn knew he was really in for it, “that that’s exactly what you used to say about us? ‘We’re just hooking up. It’s not serious.’ And then what happened? We were together for all of school.”
She paused pointedly. Unease was spreading through Finn, but he still grunted, “Just say it, Elsa. Whatever you’ve been sitting on for the past year, let me have it.”
“Really,” he sighed. “I’m a masochist.”
“Alright. Remember the other night when you left that drunk message for me?”
“Vaguely … “
“It was hard to tell because you were slurring so badly, but basically, you asked me why it never worked out between us. And there a lot of reasons, but I can give you one of them, and it’s you don’t realize when something good is right in front of you.”
“You asked for it. Finn, you’ve been terrified of commitment this whole time. If something good is there, you don’t need to run from it.”
In equal measures, Finn was desperate for this conversation to end, and yet he was deeply curious for more.
“So you’re telling me I have feelings for Corra,” he deadpanned, staring at her. “That comes as news to me.” Did she know something he didn’t? He felt cornered, and oddly like Elsa was onto something.
“I didn’t say that,” she pointed out with a suspicious smirk. “But if that’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Maybe you should consider it.”
Finn winced. And yet when he lifted his glass to finish off the dregs of his beer, he found himself wishing this evening had gone differently — he really would have much rather spent it with Corra. A fleeting pang of regret went through him, and he thought Elsa was probably right when she sighed, “You’ve always been slow on the uptake.”
– – –
Tension was filling the war council room like rising smoke. A dozen Carthian officers crowded the large round table, their faces lit in eerie blue light from the three dimensional projection of Vescent’s capital that rotated between them. It was past midnight, and they’d been at this meeting for nearly two hours, planning out each and every minute detail of Vescent’s liberation.
Standing out as the only person present without a military uniform, Leta stood beside Gates with her arms crossed, her eyes reflecting the map of her home city.
“Well?” grunted Gates, using his cane to quickly move around the table. He seemed to possess an odd amount of energy for someone his age. “We’ve heard a lot, but we haven’t heard from our Chief Strategist yet. What intel have you got for us, Arsen?”
All eyes in the room swung toward Arsen, the latest officer Leta had met. The man was of medium height, sturdy built, and clearly younger than Gates, or at least considerably less scarred. His jet black hair was not without a light touch of gray. Despite the signs of age, he, like Gates, seemed rather eager for this conversation.
“Preliminary recon suggests we’ll face automatic missile resistance, here, here and here,” he said, touching three points on the map, making them flash bright red. “Any air assault is going to need to start by taking them out.”
“They’re likely to be reinforced so I recommend putting three destroyers in the first wave,” he went on. “We can run shields at full capacity and use remaining power to barrage the launchers, clearing the way for the rest of the fleet.”
“How will that impact civilians?” said Leta, throwing a look toward Gates in particular. He stood closest to the table, frowning. The glow from the screens illuminated the deep scars on his face even more dramatically.
“We intend to keep our air efforts limited to known Society facilities to limit civilians caught in the crossfire,” Arsen replied. “How possible that will be given the number of facilities and effectiveness of our weaponry against them is something we’re looking into.”
General murmurs of agreement rippled through the room. Just when Gates said, “Alright, let’s table th — ” a sudden voice cut through the room, bold and irritated.
“That’s stupid. You’ll just be sacrificing your best ships for no reason.”
Leta felt a bolt of shock, but then it did not surprise her at all, to see the tall figure of Fiearius standing in the doorway. Jaw clenched, he strode deeper into the room, his eyes on Vescent’s map.
Puzzled murmurs broke out, but it was Arsen who laughed darkly, “Excuse me? This is a closed meeting, you can’t just–”
Gates held up his palm to silence Arsen. Then he nodded at Fiearius. If he was irritated by the interruption, he did not show it. In fact, something like puzzled bemusement passed through his gaze.
“Those turrets are built to detect ships of that size,” Fiearius went on, crossing into the room. “You send ‘em in there first, you’re just gonna have about ten minutes of ‘who’s guns are bigger? “You’re better off with smaller ship. A fighter, a transport even. Anything small won’t even attract their attention.”
Arsen snorted. “A smaller ship wouldn’t have weapons capable of breaking through the reinforcements.”
“No, but they can slip right through the landing defenses,” Fiearius remarked simply, mimicking a ship with his hand as it flew down into the holographic city. “And then walk right in here.” His fingers walked to a nearby building. “And shut down the power.” He glanced over at Arsen and smirked. His mouth then formed an ‘o’ of realization and he added, “Also, you missed a couple spots, here, here, here and here.” He pointed to various points on the map, turning them red as well.
Stunned silence filled the room for a moment. A twisted smirk touched Arsen’s face, but his eyes were cold.
“So,” Gates grunted. “You’re late to your own meeting. Decided to lend your help after all, Captain?”
Dryly, Fiearius said, “Gotta finish what ya start, or so they say.” Across the table, he met Leta’s gaze knowingly. She shook her head, biting back a tiny smirk that read I knew it.
“Glad to hear you’ve come to your senses,” said Gates briskly. “And your allies? Have you spoken to Ms. Utada?”
Fiearius waved him off impatiently. “I’ll go to Archeti and convince her, don’t worry about that. For right now though, catch me up.” He leaned forward on the table and looked around the room. “What’s the plan?”