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this is the only always

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“You almost died,” Keyla whispers sometime later.

Hours later, after you’ve saved the day. After you’ve been commended, debriefed, and finally finally dismissed. You walk side by side back to your shared quarters, your heart pounding to a steady rhythm of you’re alive you’re alive we’re alive.

You don’t say anything about Keyla’s vice grip on your bicep—you never want her to let go. But you don’t say anything about the clench of her jaw or the haunted-ness in her eyes either, not even when she goes to brush her teeth and stumbles out minutes later looking wild and lost.

Her unfocused gaze lands on you and she freezes up, her hand pressing hard against her sternum. You stand in front of her and count breaths, in and out, and when the shakiness has steadied, you wipe the tears from her face and pull her to bed.

You’re both exhausted but too wired to get anywhere close to real sleep. You slip in and out, body winning brief battles with your mind. Keyla is restless beside you, unable to stop fidgeting and something is wrong, something is eating away at her mind, but she is stubborn, and you are patient, and right now you just want to be close. To hold her in the catharsis of another impossible day.

Eventually, she slips from the bed and you force yourself back to some kind of alert consciousness. You know her logic of if I keep moving it can’t catch me too well, counting her footsteps as she paces across the room. You stare at the ceiling and try not to think, because thinking will take you back to that empty corridor on the lower decks, to that last glimpse of her face, to the grief hollowing out your chest and what was almost a goodbye.

What should’ve been a goodbye, and—

“You almost died,” Keyla whispers.

You are unsurprised to find the piercing blue of her augmented eye staring right at you from the other side of the room, in the way you both hate and love, the way that makes you feel exposed to your very soul. The soft glow of the Federation shield barrier catches on the edge of her implant.

There is a panic in the undertone of her words and your heart hurts to think about what is going on in her head. Keyla, who feels so viscerally, so much deeper, and whose brain has a habit of creating its own monsters. Keyla, who had to watch you disappear into that unknown fate, knowing her own life could come at the cost of yours.

And even though you are both here, right where you should be, you know that the grief and the panic and fear always scream the loudest, her mind caught in endless loops of what-ifs.

She can see you in the dark, so you simply reach for her, hand extended into the space between you. Sometimes you feel like you are always reaching, like that three-meter gap between your consoles is a permanent distance you will constantly need to bridge, but nothing you do for her could ever be a burden. Besides, you always reach out, and she always responds.

Keyla crosses the room noiselessly and crawls back under the covers at your side. You settle facing each other, her eyes searching your face—one unnaturally blue, one a little teary—and you aren’t sure what she is looking for.

“I just, I keep thinking—” She cuts herself off and blinks a few times, wiping her fingers quickly across her cheek. Her next exhale is a little shaky. “Sorry, I’m—I’m a mess.”

“Take your time,” you whisper back and you wait, eternally patient, while she chews on her bottom lip and tries to get her words together. Her hand comes up between you and she hesitates for a moment before pressing her palm against your chest, over your heart, and there’s a heaviness to the action, a grief. You feel it weighing against you, against her, filling the space around you.

You cover her hand with your own, watch as she closes her eyes and inhales, exhales slowly. “I keep thinking that I’m going to turn around or—or look over and you aren’t going to be here. That you’re going to be gone.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“But you did.” Her eyes fly open and they are piercing and beautiful and scared. Something behind your ribs tugs painfully, a knot forming in your throat. “You did and I—I couldn’t do anything and you almost—Jo, you could’ve—”

Her words catch and she rolls away, onto her back. You give her the space, let her slow her ragged breaths, if only because you need the moment too. It hurts to know that you’ve hurt her; it steals the air from your lungs and cracks something deep in your chest. The pain she is stuck processing stems from you, and you would give anything to take it back. You don’t know how to make this better, easier. You don’t know how to get across to her brain that if it were possible to never leave her side again, you would make that promise faster than a jump with the spore drive. Instantaneously, and forever. You would promise her so many impossible things.

“I’m sorry,” you say because it feels like a good place to start. You keep your eyes trained on her face, rimmed gently by the light outside, and try not to let your voice break. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” she whispers. “You had to, I know you had to, otherwise we all—I just, I can’t—” She cuts herself off with a sniff. There’s a shake in her hands as they come up to fully cover her face, something to hide behind, and it hurts. She sounds so small, here in the dark, and it hurts.

“I’m sorry anyway.” You mimic her position, shifting so you are shoulder to shoulder. Her skin is warm against yours and you ground yourself in it. You don’t want to talk about this, not really, but you know that she needs you to, and you decided a long time ago—a war and a wormhole and 933 years, give or take—that you would do anything for Keyla Detmer. “I had to stop myself from turning around, from looking at you, or I wouldn’t have been able to…I didn’t want to leave you, Keyla. Not like that. Not ever. But if I didn’t, if I failed, you would’ve—and I couldn’t risk that. Not you.”

“Every step was for you,” you say to the ceiling and try not to think about how, to your last breath, the very fiber of your being was screaming her name. Focus instead on Keyla, who is here beside you and very much alive. Keyla, who finds your hand and threads her perpetually cold fingers with yours. Keyla, who holds on.

“I can’t lose you,” she says. Her voice is heavy with tears. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

You let her words settle over the room. Another impossible promise sits on your tongue and you swallow it, take a moment to just listen. Her breathing is quiet but harsh, choppy, and you can feel her frantic heartbeat through your joined hands. You bring hers to your lips, press a kiss to each of her bony knuckles. “You would be very dehydrated, for one, with no one around to remind you to drink water.”

“What? Jo—”

“And you would probably develop very very poor eating habits, always skipping breakfast and only coffee for lunch and forgetting that vegetables even exist.”

“I would not!” She rolls back towards you and there are still tears in her eyes, but there is also a small, stubborn smile.

“Michael would make you drink those gross nutritional supplements.” You face her again, your hands together on the mattress between you. “And Sylvia would reprogram the replicators to only give you salads.”

An almost-laugh makes its way past her lips. “Please, Tilly would let me eat all the ice cream I wanted.”

You reach your free hand to cup her cheek, running your thumb back and forth under her eye to catch the new tears as they fall. You linger, and she turns her head just slightly to press a kiss against your palm.

Her eyes lock on your again, searching.

“But there would be no one to hold me when I wake up from the nightmares,” she says quietly. A gravity falls over her face. This is the Keyla only you get to see, so far removed from her macho pilot persona. The Keyla that is yours and only yours. “Or calm me down when I’m freaking out on the bridge. Or back me up in stupid arguments even when we both know I’m wrong. Or…or do this—”

She leans closer, brushes her lips against yours just enough. You are used to her kissing like the world is ending, with all the fire and passion of a supernova, but this one is soft and light and everything.

“Not even that guy from spec-ops?” You can’t help but tease when she pulls back, her forehead resting against yours.

“No one else. Only you.”

Her words send a shiver down your spine. You love her, you love her, and you run your thumb along the sharp cut of her jaw and kiss her again. The pressure behind your eyes finally breaks, your own tears mixing with hers, salt-water on between your lips.

She shifts away to wipe the collar of her shirt across her face. When she looks back at you, all you can think is beautiful. She is always beautiful—was beautiful even as she watched you walk to your death—but never more so than here, curling herself against you in your bed. She kisses the edge of your jaw, your neck, your collar bone, and tucks her head into your chest.

“I love you, too.” Her voice is muffled by tears and your t-shirt, but you feel the words against your skin. In the tightening of her arms around your waist. In her pressing impossibly closer. “I didn’t get to say it back and—I love you so much.”

You close your eyes, let her words sink into your bones. The warmth spreads, grows, eases the tightness beneath your ribs, around your heart. You imagine collecting all the warmth and using it to drive the darkness, all the shadows and monsters, from her mind. If only for now, if only for tonight.

If only so you can have one more moment together to just be.

“Always,” you say back. You can’t help your smile, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “And more than anything.”