Better Than Drinking Alone
rating: +10+x

“You did what?

Ethel Kursh towered over the HR Director’s desk. Her tall stature helped the intimating shadow that fell on Stanford Li, who squirmed back in his seat. He gave her a cautious grin.

“I signed you up for the Interchange. Now, I know, I know, I should have asked-“

Ethel slammed her hands on his desk. Stan jumped back.

“Should have?” she scolded. “You shouldn’t have even thought of it in the first place.”

Stan pushed his rolling chair back and gulped. He needs to argue well here, thought Ethel. Otherwise, he’s toast.

“Look, Ethel, I just thought… you’ve been sulking alone for the past few, uh, 30 years? As long as I’ve known you at least. I get you have your reasons-“

“My ‘reasons’? Stanford, you of all people understand my issues with dating. Also, if you’ve suddenly forgotten, I am 50-something years old that works in Human Resources. These are not appealing factors to a dating pool of the 20s - 30s Foundation employees.”

Ethel continued staring at Stanford, who sat tall in defiance of his HR Deputy Chief.

“Well, it’s not like it’ll matter. The Interchange is anonymous until day-of, and dates are expected to remain-“

“‘In their meeting locations until the designated allowed leaving time’, yes, I’ve read the rules”. Ethel rolled over a chair and sighed into her characteristic poised stature. “Who designed this anyhow?”

Stanford gave a nasal chuckle. “Who else but the Site Directors League?”

Ethel rolled her eyes. “Of course. Them and their tiring social initiatives.”

“Yeah! That’s supposed to be our job.” Stan laughed to himself again. Ethel raised her glasses to rub her bag-covered eyes and sighed for the 3rd time since the workday started.

“Alright. Well, unless I can convincingly fake an anomalous illness of some kind, I may as well prepare. Do you have the HR record of my ‘date’?”

The HR Director gave a sarcastic look of shock in return. “Ethel Kursh, the Interchange is meant to be an anonymous exercise in romance, and even if I did, it would be a great abuse of my power as HR Director to-”


His shocked expression turned into a grin, as Stanford slid a paper dossier across his desk to Ethel. As he did, he used his other hand to push his rolling office chair back, gliding away from an already-studying Ethel.

Her date was someone named Jay Everwood.

Ethel stood outside the restaurant, looking at the sign with disdain. Above her, in neon golden lights, read the fake French name: La Foundatione.

Ridiculous, thought Ethel. I can’t believe I have to go here.

La Foundatione was the SCPF’s version of a candlelit dinner - specially upgraded with Ambrose Restaurant culinary tech (and some of their employees). They were notoriously low bar, especially compared to the uptight, dignified establishment it presented at surface value. It was also the place Ethel had been told to meet her date.

The HR File was short. This Jay Everwood person, they were a lot less excessive than the kind of people Ethel dealt with at Site-37. She appreciated the break; as much as the Site was her home, it was also a mess constantly left to be cleaned up.

A short HR File for a clean record meant remembering the specifics was easier. Their date was a young 30-something. Jay worked at Site-55 - Ethel recognized that as the hub of GOI Research. They were themselves a lead on said groups. Jay had a history of depression and had suffered a redacted accident that lost them an arm. Most importantly, though, they had something closely in common with Ethel - something Ethel hadn’t seen at all in her years at the Foundation. They were asexual. She appreciated that there was something between them they could work with.

Even if Stanford's forced inclusion made her unhappy, Ethel had begun to appreciate the idea of the date over the past few days. Research had collected some favorable quotes about Jay, so she thought it surely couldn't be that bad. The age difference concerned her, seeing as she was about 2 decades older than her GOI Expert date.

Ethel took in a deep breath, flushing out all of the lingering doubts, and stepped into the front entrance of La Foundatione. She ignored the waiter attempting to alert her to today's specials, all in a fake French accent Ethel knew was fake from seeing that personnel's HR File. She made a mental note to talk to the Site-Director about at least hiring some native French speakers if this potshot establishment wanted to continue.

La Foundatione was, like every Tuesday evening, empty. It was a strange coincidence of the Foundation that Tuesdays were almost always busy. Ethel appreciated that the date would at least be quiet — less dramatic drunks or science arguments in the background.

She pulled out her phone to check the Interchange instructions again.

You'll be sitting at Table 3, a premium romantic location in the candlelit back of La Foundatione, The Foundation's premiere dining establishment for-

Ethel put the phone back, not bothering to read the rest of the senseless plug and scanning the restaurant for a "Table 3". The tables were not numbered. There was also not a "candlelit back" area, as the entirety of the restaurant was one open-concept room. She looked over to the bar — the bartender was sleeping overtop the counter, a martini held precariously by his limp hand. Looked like she was choosing.

She sat down at a 4-seat table (the only kind of table available) near the sleeping bartender and pulled out the printed copy of Jay's HR file. Yes, it might be weird, but Ethel preferred to be prepared to some degree for the night. Maybe this is why she didn't get a lot of dates. No, she thought, that can't be it. This is probably normal.

The date was scheduled to start at 6:30 PM. Ethel arrived in her closest thing to casual-formal clothes possible, all green of course, at 6:00. At 6:05, she looked up from the HR dossier in her hand to see one Jay Everwood enter La Foundatione.

She immediately begin to analyze Jay, just as she'd been trained to do over the years with all her HR assignments. They wore a pair of long jeans, a WondertainmentTM button-up shirt, and the customary Foundation lab coat, complete with a Site-55 patch attached to the right arm. When Ethel first joined the Foundation, she thought the lab coats were just a drab sign of scientific beauracracy. Over time, though, the idea of the uniqueness one could bring to the style fascinated her; and Everwood seemed to hit the mark on being interesting enough to pull it off. They looked good, actually. Pictures in HR Reports barely did anyone justice.

Ethel watched Jay as they entered the restaurant, looking at the empty chambers with the kind of fascination only a researcher could have. They didn't notice Ethel initially, focusing on the slumbering bartender. Jay tried to give the guy a couple of pokes, seeing if they could catch his attention. He stayed snoozing.

Ethel straightened her back and looked towards Jay, unsure if she should wave to catch their attention. When the bartender didn't wake up, they did another scan of the room, only then noticing one Ethel Kursh, slowly pushing a conveniently hidden HR Report deeper into the green leather handbag. No matter how normal Ethel thought it was, she didn't feel like taking any chances.

The young doctor couldn't look more apologetic as they sat down across the table from Ethel. "Oh, shoot, sorry, I didn't notice you there. Just was taking a look at all the Ambrose- sorry, are you here for the Interchange?"

Ethel let out a light sigh. "Yes, I am. Ethel Kursh, HR," she said, trying her best to suppress the natural plain energy her voice carried.

"Well, very nice to meet you, Ethel. I'm—" said Jay, with enthusiasm disguising the heavy bags under their eyes.

"Jay Everwood, yes."

Jay raised an eyebrow and grinned slightly. In an instant, Ethel realized the mistake she made.

"Or, so I've heard. I've seen your file before, I'm sure. Yes. Sorry."

They let out an awkward laugh. "Heh, that's no issue. Didn't realize HR had a case on me - did I take too much coffee again?" Ethel didn't laugh, and Jay slumped slightly into their chair. Ethel wasn't sure what she missed — HR files for staff weren't formatted in a way to talk about coffee. She raised her left hand for a handshake, before noticing Everwood's lack of a left arm. She quickly drew it back and gasped. "I am so sorry, I didn't mean to—"

"It's alright, no issue," Jay said in a teasing voice, "don't HR staff reports mention that kind of thing?"

Ethel thought back to the dossier she had only just pushed back into her handbag. It did, in fact, mention the lack of a left arm. Great, she thought, I'm already off to a terrible start. Then Ethel remembered the important part of the HR file.

"Uh, yes. Look, I feel as though I've given a bit of a rocky entrance. Let's start over."

"Yeah, sure."

Ethel took a deep breath in and recomposed herself. Even if she didn't sign up for this, this was an opportunity, and she wasn't going to be wasting it over simple bureaucratic mistakes. "Hello, my name is Ethel Kursh, HR, Site-37, and I am asexual. Your HR file, which I did manage to read beforehand, apologies, indicates you are as well. I've tried before, a long time ago, and that's not the life for me."

Jay seemed slightly taken aback for a moment, which scared Ethel, but they seemed to catch onto the way Ethel talks. She hoped that meant this would go well.

"Right, kay, full introduction. I'm Jay Everwood, GOI Research, Site-55. I am also asexual, yeah, and my story is pretty on point with yours. A couple of not-great experiences in the past and the discovery it's not for me, you get the drill."

"Indeed I do."

"You know," Jay said, the grin returning to their face, "I haven't been on a lot of dates where people have been fine with giving a lot of information up-front."

Ethel pursed her lips, forcing down the doubts that had been collecting at the back of her head again. "Well, I haven't been on a lot of dates, period. Not at this age, especially." That was funny, right? Would Jay find it funny?

Jay laughed, and Ethel let out a concealed sigh of relief. "Really? I mean, you still look great, and you're in HR, so you'd figure you meet a lot of people."

"None that I can engage in a relationship with; and, thanks, but there's no need. I'm a 50-something-year-old woman, I'm far past my prime."

Jay looked surprised. Ethel worried for a moment. "You're 50-something?" Damn it. She didn't mean to let that slip.

"Yes, I am."

"Huh. Interesting. I mean, I couldn't tell from… yeah, just from looking at you I wouldn't have noticed."

The doubts rushed back to Ethel. She didn't want this to be the breaking point of their date, especially with them needing to stay here for the next few hours. She subtly checked her watch. 6:21 PM. She needed to ask the question.

"Jay, can you be honest with me?"


"Does it make you uncomfortable that I'm 50-something, and you're… what was it, 30-something?"

Jay looked dead-on at Ethel, seemingly processing a response, before sighing.

"Um. I wouldn't say it's 'uncomfortable' per se, it's just a little surprising. Not was I expecting, though I guess I couldn't expect anything seeing as this was anonymous? Maybe they shouldn't have made it anonymous, I'm not even sure what the purpose of that would-" They stopped themselves, and nervously scratched the back of their brown, tufty hair. "Sorry, I tend to ramble. No, it's not uncomfortable. Just…"

"Just not going to work?"

"I wouldn't say that, we haven't even gotten to talk very much. Let's talk- can we keep talking?"

"I'd like it if you answered this in full. I don't want to raise my hopes too high if this can't go anywhere."

Jay was silent, and Ethel's stomach plummeted. "Sorry, no, I didn't mean it like- I didn't want to push you, I just-" she stuttered, "It's hard. Being this age, living a life like the one we have."

For a moment, her date didn't respond. The doubts continued to climb up the stem of Ethel's mind, gnawing at her with the insecurities she normally controls completely. She didn't understand why, in a simple situation like a date, she couldn't stop them from rising. Was it attraction? Stress? She told herself beforehand the date wasn't going anywhere, so why did she care so much? Did she lie to herself?

Finally, Jay sighed and placed their hand on the table, tapping their fingers against the poorly-disguised cheap wood.

"You don't need to apologize, I, uh, understand pushing it. If I have to be honest, I don't know. I'm sorry. You seem like a very nice, well-put-together person, and I'm so happy to meet another ace person here, but… I don't know."

Ethel's stomach dropped again, a different kind of fall this time. For the first time in 30 years, she finally had a date, and she just fumbled by bringing up the negative immediately. She couldn't help but stare down at the table, the doubts finally digging into her mind.


Her head spiked up. She wiped the small amount of water collecting in her tear ducts, something she didn't understand the reason behind, trying to cover it as a clean of the glasses. It didn't work.

"Ah, yes, sorry. Hello."

"Are you okay?"

She stiffened. It had been a long time since anyone asked that question. She didn't know the answer.

"I… I don't know."

"Oh. Do you want to talk about it?"

"You want to keep talking?"

"Of course I do! Yeah, sure, we might not exactly click as a couple, but we're still on a date, and I still like your vibe. It's not like they'll even let us out anyway." Jay looked back towards the windows at the front of La Foundatione, where several armed agents stood outside. That's incredibly concerning, Ethel thought. Concerning to the point of needing to strongly email the Directors League later. She rubbed her temples together and looked at the sleeping bartender. The martini in his hand fell over and splashed on the floor.

Ethel turned back to Jay. "That is… yes. Alright. If you would like to keep talking, then I would love to as well. The company is appreciated. Thank you. I'm sorry for throwing a lot at you at once, I understand that-"

"It's okay. I think most people would rather understand each other beforehand, eh?"

Ethel glanced at the Human Resources Staff Report, the corner of which was sticking out of her green handbag. She thought about all the reading she did. All the doubts that were now falling, writhing away, and dying out as the person in the chair across from them smiled and tapped their fingers on the table. Ethel smiled. This was a good night.

"So," Jay asked, walking back to their table with a cup of water, the only drink they could find behind the bar that wasn't alcoholic, "What is Site-37?"

Ethel swirled around the cup of scotch in her hand, before taking a shot. "A Foundation Secure Facility. Also, are you sure you wouldn’t like some of this?"

Jay sat down and sipped their water, bracing from the unexpected cold and artificial taste. Expected from the Foundation's mess of an independent water system. "Can’t slash don’t drink. Doesn’t mix well with my medication and I’m not a fan in the first place,” Ethel made a mental note of that, “And, yeah, I know that it’s a facility, but what do you guys do over there? What’s your thing?”

Ethel raised an eyebrow. “Our ‘thing’?”

“Yeah, like, how Site-19 is R&D&C, 43 is Acroamatic Awhatever, 55 is where a lot of us GOI people work. All I've heard about 37 is HR and the, uh, microwave crisis. What the hell is a microwave crisis anyway? That's all Rex could find."

"Rex, they’re your…?"

"Assistant. He's great — we spent all of last night going through every Foundation facility trying to figure out what kind of date a Site would throw at us. We found yours, and the only thing we could pick up on was… microwaves."

Ethel rubbed her temples together and took another shot of her scotch. "Yes, among our many HR cases and humanoid anomalies, we have… microwaves. Or, well, a lack thereof. I can send you the file later, it's a bit of a mess."

"What kind of a mess?"

"The kind of a mess where we can't bring in microwave foods anymore."

Jay let out a fake gasp and placed their hand on their cheek, the shocked expression dripping with sarcasm. "No! What will they do without microwave pizzas?"

Ethel smiled. "It's the microwave coffee that bothers them."

"Coffee? Can you microwave coffee?"

"Apparently," Ethel said through a laugh. Before long, both of them were laughing, the notion of a microwave coffee so ridiculous to Jay, and the comedy known only to Ethel in that Site-37 had a coffee machine. 3 coffee machines.

The alcohol had begun to seep into Ethel's thoughts. The night was aging, and she had moved past the cup of scotch to the whole bottle. She laid back in her chair and stared at Jay Everwood, seated across from them, talking about Ambrose Restaurants with a scowl on their face.

"I mean they're fascinating, but they're also such fucking rats. Do you know how hard it is to get into an AmbroseTM Restaurant?"

"Uh. No. How hard?"

"Incredibly easy! They leave everything anomalous out into the open for us to walk in and take our notes on, so long as we stay paying customers."

Ethel cocked her head. "Isn't that a good thing?"

Jay groaned. "For any other group of interest, yes, it would be fantastic. I'd like it if the GOC or, I don't know, even Wondertainment, were like that. But Ambrose is just so fuckin’ simple.”

“Struggling to see the problem here.”

“The biggest problems hide in plain sight! We all get distracted by their fettuccini with eyes or unreal soup and we miss out on, I don't know, inter-dimensional stuff we almost know for certain Chaz pulls.”

Ethel sat silent for a moment, before taking another shot of scotch and laughing. “Jay, dear, it seems like you’re looking too far into the… sorry, Ambrose is what again?”

“Anomalous restaurant chain.”

“Yes, that.”

“Well, also, containment. Containment is a problem with them. Most of their business is under-the-veil establishments, fuelled by their Marshall, Carter, and Fart partnership,” Jay said, their serious demeanor losing itself at the nickname they gave the anomalous auctioneers, “But it still leaks out sometimes. One guy who doesn’t realize the bread bowl requires an active blood sacrifice and we have a breach on our hands.”

Ethel stared in shock. Jay’s face went flush, a reaction they likely thought was embarrassing, while Ethel thought it was endearing. “I guess I probably should’ve… mentioned that first.”


The two sat in silence, only broken by the snoring of La Foundatione’s drowsy bartender. Ethel made a mental note to write him up for something later. She wasn’t sure what, but something. Jay began to tap their fingers again while Ethel swirled around the bottle of scotch.

“You know what,” Jay interrupts the empty air, standing up and almost knocking over the chair behind them, “There’s gotta be something non-alcoholic in here I can drink. Right?”

Ethel stood as well, slightly wobbly from the scotch in her system. She normally held it well, but she hadn’t drunk this much in a long time. “Somewhere. Should we awaken the bartender?”

They both look over at the bartender, the martini glass still smashed on the floor beneath his hand. Jay and Ethel look back at each other, and in perfect unison:


Ethel sat on the bar, her stitched overcoat finally unbuttoned to counteract the heat of La Foundatione's poor air conditioning. She took another shot of scotch, and tossed the bottle to Jay, laying on the floor. They caught it with a shake and placed it on the floor. Ethel shook her hand in dismissal, the alcohol slowly catching on.

"Sorry, didn't mean to… I know you don't drink."

"Don't care, it was a fun catch. Unexpected since these weigh, what, 2 pounds or something? But still fun."

Ethel laughed, a snorty and New York-raised laugh, and looks around La Foundatione. It was then when she finally noticed the jukebox, connected to a small SCiPNET Phone stand. She pointed over. "Hey, Jay, dear, do you think we could use some music?"

Jay shot up from the floor. "Damn right we do, this place is too quiet. Too much of that ‘Ethel Kursh’ lady talking, I’m sure.”

Ethel rolled her eyes and hopped off the bar and slowly stumbled over to the jukebox, Jay watching and laughing as she jumped into the poorly spaced chairs and tables. Eventually, she reached the box and connected her phone, scrolling through SCiPIFY. "What’s your favorite song?”

“Barnacle Goose, Born Ruffians. Absolutely.”

Ethel had never heard of that song. “Oh, yes, that’s a good one,” she stumbled out, holding onto the empty shot glass in her hand. Jay laughed, and Ethel sputtered. “Sorry.”

They waved their hand dismissively. “Doesn’t matter. I want to hear your favorite anyway. Song of the night?”

Ethel thought about it for a moment. What was a good song? Yet with the scotch coursing through her, it slipped out into her typing on the phone before she could even think about it anymore.

Jay and Ethel stood on the bar, arms over each other's shoulders, as the tune of Billy Joel’s 1973 classic blared through an 11-volume jukebox. The chairs of La Foundatione were thrown to the side, the bartender still knocked out overtop the bar; a tripping hazard Jay tried to avoid more than Ethel. As the blocked sky above the restaurant’s windowless walls and solid roof turned to night, and the stars shined back down on Site-19, Ethel Kursh, and Jay Everwood sang. Ethel sang for the story of the song, the childhood it filled for her growing up, and the place it represented. A place of companions and better family than friends. She looked to her date, now companion, through her sullen drunken eyes and smiled. They might not be the romantic partner promised by the interchange, as the slight pang against Ethel’s heart reminded her, but they were a friend.

As the lyrics of waitresses and businessmen passed, Ethel and Jay sat down and clinked their glasses of wildly different drinks together in cheers, and sang along.

“Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness,” shouted Jay, raising a non-alcoholic Shirley temple to the sky. Ethel took in another shot of scotch and laid back on the bar, head barely leaning over the edge.

“But it’s better than drinking alone!”

Jay Everwood climbed up the three flights of stairs lining the Site-19 residential wing, pulling a knocked-out Ethel with their one available arm. The one time the prosthetic might have helped, they thought. Eugh. I can do this anyways.

It was a tiring pull up, but eventually, they reached the door to Ethel's guest room. Jay hadn't even realized it was right next to theirs. Convenient, they thought.

Digging through the pockets of Ethel’s cardigan, the hallways of the facility were silent. Most personnel were probably working night shifts or taking advantage of the fortunate moment to sleep. Jay appreciated that, seeing as nobody could witness them fumbling through an unconscious person’s pockets.

“Now that would be an HR issue. Heh.”

Ethel groaned, likely not in a full state of consciousness, though Jay liked to think of it as a laugh at their joke. Who was going to prove them wrong anyway?

They finally found the key and unlocked the door, the loud metal creek causing them to look around for any interlopers. There weren’t any. Jay carried Ethel over to the low residency bed and tried their best to drop her on with the utmost precision — a precision that ended with a very loud ‘foomf’ as the 50-something-year-old plopped onto the bed, rolling into the knit green blankets she brought from home. Jay took a seat on the rolling chair in the room to catch their breath and caught themself staring at the sleeping Ethel Kursh. Noticing the serenity in her breath, the faded green color palette that surrounded her, and the bags under her eyes that looked just the slightest bit less baggy, Jay smiled.

Sure, we didn’t end up dating, they thought. But it's nice to know you're not alone.

This was written for RomCon. Big thanks to Uncle NicoliniUncle Nicolini for lending me their character. Please check out their take on this interaction posted here!

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