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Pareidolia

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The blanket of stars looked different every night, if you knew what you were looking for. The planets in concentric circles across the night sky, a million pinpricks of light, with the swirling clouds dancing across its surface like ice skaters.

Ed scratched his cheeks, still cold from when he'd shaved it, but now itchy from the five o' clock shadow. His jaw was in protest at his facial deforestation.

He shifted his weight against the bow of the ship, watching Ursa Major above his head, dwarfing him into insignificance as she slumbered. He couldn't join her though. He hadn't slept for days. Or weeks. He didn't know how long it had been, and asking Lucius just seemed pointless. What was the point of knowing? What was the point of anything?

The talent competition would keep him going. After that, he'd need to find something else.

The starscape had once given him meaning, given him purpose, given him perspective, but now it just seemed empty. Pointless. A bag of marbles spilled on a black floor, drawing invisible lines in nothing.

And then he saw it.

He sat up, like a lemur.

It was. He didn't know if it had always been there, or if even the heavens were messing with him now. A constellation he'd never paid attention to before. He could see it, even now.

The curve of a soft jaw, curls of sandy hair. It was so... gentle, it defied being drawn in the straight hard lines of the constellations he'd known. It almost filled the sky, a constellation of constellations, the North Star at the centre, the shine on a button nose.

He smiled, welled up. "I knew it. I fuckin' knew it." He pulled out the telescope from Stede's gown, and got a closer look.

It really looked just like him. The crinkle around his eyes, the pliancy of the cheeks he'd held so softly... "I knew you wouldn't just leave."

He staggered off the perch he was lying on to go tell everyone, to show them, and gasped as his eyes snapped open.

He was lying face-down on the floor in the captain's quarters. His stubbled cheek was sticky with dried drool, and he gripped the warm telescope that had still been in his hands when he'd nodded off.

For a few seconds, he just breathed, ragged and hyperventilating, as the loss washed over him in waves just as bad as it had been the first time. It crested over him again and again, and they may as well have thrown him overboard because he was already drowning.

He wailed, lying flat on the floorboards, unable to get up.

"You came back?" He heard it clear as a bell in his memory.

"I never left," he said out loud through the tears and snot. "I never... left."