If loneliness is measured in heartbeats, in every slow and weary contraction of the heart, then guilt and grief live in the silences between.

Rage and hatred, too. They boil around in there, hot as lava, seething and pushing against your ribs until your chest aches. Sometimes it all burns up into your throat and you have to press your lips together until they hurt, closing them against the words that would burst out of you. Instead you drop your head and take a deep breath to steady yourself. You fix your gaze on the decking or your boots or the place where a Viper wing tip catches the light and winks a flash of greeny-blue at you... looking at anything but the man you've come to hate.

You try to be subtle about it, but fail. You hope it's because you have a core of honesty that chokes on subterfuge and cunning. But in your heart you know that you're too raw, too off-balance to dissemble. So while you haven't yet unsealed your lips to let the words of hate and accusation and blame burst out, your stance — defensive, hunched over, warding everyone away — hasn't gone unnoticed. You aren't detached enough to hide it; no reserves of endurance there to help you. Whatever strength you once had, whatever fortitude and courage was yours, have all been burned away.

You're half ash, these days.
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Zac tries to act normally around you. You don't encourage him. You can just about screw yourself up to deal with him about work: do this, fly that patrol, take that picket. It takes every ounce of restraint not to add: Try to get back with your wingman alive this time, okay? We can't keep sacrificing pilots to save you.

You wish you don't have to see Zac, ever, to be reminded about who he left behind. You wish that someone else had sacrificed themselves for him.

You wish that Zac had been the one to die.
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You avoid Zac, walling yourself off. Zac creeps around the edges of that wasteland of yours, looking sorry and sad and waiting for you to forgive him. He doesn't dare say much to you. He tried. Just once. Most people don't dare say much because they, too, tried. Just once.

Athena dares.

"It's not his fault, you know." She puts a hand flat against your chest, to stop you. She doesn't know — how could she? — that all that stands between her hand and that boiling mess is a fragile barrier of blood and bone. Her palm rests right over it. "It wasn't Zac's fault."

You stand still, back stiff. Your voice is rusty because you don't use it much. "I haven't said anything to him."

"Exactly." She looks older, and tired. Everyone is older and tired, worn out by the never-ending task of protecting the remnants of humanity, guarding the fleet as it flees. "You haven't said anything to anyone, but he knows and it's breaking him up. He didn't cause the ambush. He didn't kill—" She stops unable to say his name. "It wasn't Zac's fault. We all loved him too, you know. We've all lost people we loved."

"I lost everything," you say.

"No, you didn't. You still have us. You still have Boomer, and the rest of your friends, and me and Zac and—"

"Everything that matters went." You move past her as her hand falls away. You glance back and she's raised her hands to her face to hide it. Her shoulders are shaking. Once you would have comforted her, but there's nothing like that left in you.

She leaves you alone after that.
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"I dream of him." You speak so suddenly you surprise yourself. "Every night."

Boomer's sad-faced. "I miss him, too."

Boomer might dream, too, but it won't be like yours.

In your dreams, he's just back from patrol and come to join you, the mattress dipping under his weight as he sits on the edge of the bed to toe off his boots. He doesn't speak but the hand reaching for you is warm, callused from where the Viper joystick rubs against it. The long fingers link with yours. The room is half dim light, half shadow and the edge of the light slides down over a cheekbone, slanting down his face. His eyes gleam. He's beautiful. He's smiling.

He kisses you. His lips open so you can taste him, offering you the hot slide of tongue and lips that snatches away your breath. His other hand smoothes down your side, fingers pressing and flickering away again.

You laugh.

You lift the bedcovers to let him in. Naked now, he slips in beside you, his long body pressing close to yours, tangling himself around you with arms and legs. He's warm, skin to skin like this, and there's strength in his arms and the way he turns you onto your back to roll on top of you.

His cock rubs against yours and you moan, your head dropping back onto the pillow. He slides into you, pushing you open and joining you together, and you can feel his hands tighten on you and watch his face flush and you know it, the instant he's going to come, and the heat's building in your own balls until you're yelling and it's like a sun glowing inside you, pulsing itself out as you writhe and gasp, and the way he says your name sinks into you like water into parched ground and brings a micron's peace.

Your face is wet every time you wake.

"Maybe Salik has something to help you sleep, to stop the dreams," says Boomer. "Help you forget."

Across the OC, Zac glances up and catches your gaze. Zac looks hopeful, eager.

You turn away, shaking your head. You don't want to sleep like that. You can't give up dreaming.

It's all you have left.




~end~
1000 words