Disclaimer: Kaitlynn Wells asked for this fic so this is for her. And it also is, as always, for Laura and Bill.
It is still there.
The lump in his throat has not dissolved during his way back to Galactica: physical distance has not translated itself into emotional distance. It is a trick that often worked well for him in the past.
Not this time.
The lump was still there when he closed the hatch to his quarters behind him, trying to leave the universe (and her with everything else) outside with that simple gesture. Pain, like a ghost, can move through walls and bulkheads, though. He should have known better by now.
He has then tried to numb it with his end-of-day routine: he has taken off his jacket, left it hanging from the back of a chair, washed his face and hands, dried them with a towel, tossed the towel over his shoulder. Then he has sought his own reflection in the mirror.
That has been his mistake.
Finally, his emergency resource: he has tried to drown it in a tumbler of ambrosia, just like one would introduce a rusty screw in a tank filled with an abrasive solution. After all, alcohol is a suitable substance to cleanse objects, to disinfect wounds. Emotional wounds should be no different. However, the moment his gaze drops inside the almost empty glass swirling between his fingers, the amber liquid revolves capriciously, drawing the features of a face he recognizes.
It is just not going to work.
He has tried everything. He has tried everything and now he just leans back on the couch letting out a muffled grunt. His head tilts backwards; he lets his eyes shut. There is nothing he can do. Accepting his defeat, he brings his attention to the lump in his throat and conjures the pain from behind closed eyelids. Refusing to open his eyes, he slides a hand in the pocket of his pants. His fingertips brush the soft shape of the box that contains her gift: the Admiral wings. The pressure in his throat becomes more imminent.
Not even with those wings would he be able to fly right now.
Bill pulls out the box and lowers his gaze trying to summon up the courage to open it. He does so slowly, as if he were afraid that it could explode, or that a deadly vapor could escape through the slit the moment he lifts the lid. There is nothing he fears more than the content of this box. Bill brushes his fingertip along the edge of the pins gently, clenching his jaw as the mist invades his eyes like a sudden river flood.
He never really thought he would finally get them. He cannot even remember the exact moment when he stopped caring. Now that he finally has them, he wonders if his mind and his heart will ever be able to truly appreciate their meaning, the achievement they are proof of. The pride of having deserved them, at least in someone else's opinion. In Laura's opinion: the one that matters most to him, he realizes. He wonders if he will ever be able to look at those pins, to touch them as he is doing right now, without feeling overwhelmed by his gratitude towards her, the sadness of her goodbye and the pain of losing her. Wearing those wings will always be much more about honoring her memory than about the satisfaction of pinning rank to his lapel.
He contemplates the idea of just crashing the box against the bulkhead and break it in a thousand fragments as a part of his heart is asking him to do; to literally destroy the object that will always be, more than anything else, the symbol of her leaving. Those two cool metal pieces are burning against his fingertips harder than his wedding ring ever did.
He wonders if she can imagine how bittersweet this gift really is. He wonders if she knows how those two pins tie him to her and her memory forever. It is a knot made of gratitude, trust, affection but also grief, sorrow, loss. Tomorrow, the knot will also be made of memories.
The same materials of the lump in his throat.
His only comfort comes from the awareness that he managed to thank her like he really intended to. He is sure because everything has been spontaneous, all has happened in the spur of the moment. He has just obeyed his impulses, caught up in the warmth that had imploded in his gut; listened to the sudden awareness of his own need of her when he saw her falling apart before him, struggling and failing to keep her dignified façade, her cheeks already wet. Torn between the sweetness of holding her and the pain of having to do so, he let his lips take over and consummate their mission. The only reason he had not been aware of all this before was that he had not wanted to be. So far it had always seemed too risky: for humanity's survival, he muses.
Now he seriously doubts it was just that.
He probably would have never kissed her had she been healthy; had she had years of life ahead. Maybe his fear of loving her would be even bigger if he were not about to lose her, so soon after having found her. Maybe he would be even more afraid if there were time to build something. To face consequences. Maybe it is because they are running out of time, because of that inexorable clock that is ticking away the last minutes of Laura's life, that he has found himself compelled to tend to the essential: his emotions, his feelings.
She had responded. After the initial shock, he had felt her lips react, move softly against his, reciprocating his gesture. Accepting him. He had found himself swimming in a gentle but irresistible current of energy that, at first sight, just seemed to no longer exist in that ailing body.
Would Laura have done the same had she not been so close to her own death? What does it mean exactly that she responded to his kiss when she has almost no time left to live? Is her reaction, because of this, even more valuable, more meaningful? Or maybe it is just the other way around? Maybe it was just a faint echo, nothing more than an instinctive reflex?
Bill is not sure he wants to know. It is not like he can ask her anyway.
The phone buzzes. After a second, Bill closes the box, places it next to him on the couch and gets up to answer the call. He stays still for a moment, standing by the table, his hand gripping the receiver. He shakes his head in an attempt to clear up the fog in his mind and get his focus back on reality. He hopes he will be able to produce a steady voice; he will not be sure until he speaks.
"Sir, I have the President on the line."
His heart skips a beat, then it starts racing. Concern spreads like a virus through his bloodstream.
"Put her through."
"Right away, Sir."
His jaw clenches and he holds his breath as he hears the familiar sequence of clicks revealing that the call is being transferred to a secure line. Then, a few seconds of silence. Impatience is eating him up alive. He is about to say something.
Thank the gods. His muscles relax a little. Laura's voice, barely a whisper, sends both a surge of electricity and a soothing caress through his nervous system.
"Laura, are you OK? Do you need me?"
"No, thank you. Billy has already put me to bed."
He notices the hint of an apology in her tone and immediately understands how literal her expression is. She has not been assisted to get to bed: she has quite simply been put there. He knows it is absurd and out of place but he wishes he could have done that himself. He wonders if Laura would have preferred that too, or if it would have made everything harder for her; less dignified, more embarrassing. The exact limit of their friendship suddenly seems so blurred, much more diffuse than the line between civilian and military matters that they themselves agreed to draw one year ago.
"I just… I wanted to thank you."
Bill stays silent. It is hard to know what she means exactly. And there is nothing to thank him for anyway. Gestures that come from the heart demand neither gratitude nor reward.
"You made me forget my illness for a second. Feel… alive."
He swallows. These words make the reason for Laura to thank him rather evident. An intimate joy washes over him at her words. He has been able to give her this; something so valuable. If only he knew what to say next. He has no frakking idea. Maybe he can just say the truth.
"You're extraordinary, Laura."
"I'm dying, Bill."
His silence is thick with rage and despair. He knows her. He understands what she is trying to do: warn him. She wants him to stay strong; she is trying to force him to protect himself before it is too late.
But it is too late already.
"Two compatible things." He rasps.
He hears a sigh at the other end of the line.
"I'm sorry, Bill. I've no time left. I'll just… keep doing this while I still can."
This. Her duties.
What he does not know is how much longer he will be able to carry on with this conversation. His knees are wobbling. He leans on the edge of the table, grips it with his free hand until his knuckles turn white. He is grateful that she cannot see him. Witnessing the effect that her words have on him would only put more weight on her shoulders. She needs exactly the opposite: a lighter burden, to be allowed to leave in peace. She needs to know that she can trust him, that he will do whatever it takes to save humanity.
He wishes so badly to hear her validate his feelings. He is not expecting her to reciprocate, certainly not in her current state. He would just like to be sure that she accepts his gesture, that she does not reject him.
Her silence is so long that Bill has trouble waiting. He is about to say something when her voice reaches his ears again.
"I wish I had time."
Bill holds his breath. What, Laura? Time for what? Is there really anything we could do about this anyway? But yes, if only you had more time. If only you could stay. I don't want you to leave. You can't even imagine how badly losing you hurts.
"Don't apologize, Laura. It is what it is. There's nothing to explain."
"I know. But I… I had nothing. No one. I didn't expect anything. But it turns out I have your… friendship."
Her voice drowns in a coughing fit. Bill's entire body tenses as he waits for her to recover.
"You're very important to me, Bill. I wish I were healthy. There's nothing left for me to give."
Bill lifts a hand to his cheek. He brushes a tear away with the back of his fingers, knowing it is useless because another tear will come after this one, and then another and another. He swallows hard.
"This shouldn't have happened."
"It's not fair for you."
"Laura, please. Let me speak."
She stops. Good. He needs to be sure that he has her attention, that she will listen to him. Bill allows himself a moment: never before was it more important to him to be able to convey exactly what he means.
"It's not your fault. I choose this, I want this. I'll be with you until the very end."
Bill's words are met with a silence he is not sure how to interpret. He would even fear Laura has passed out if he were not hearing her breathe: the air gets inside her with a big effort, gets out in a whisper. Bill swallows hard for the umpteenth time.
"It's not true that you've nothing left to give. That could be true for other people maybe but not for you. Not even now. You give so much, Laura. You are so much."
"Bill, the fleet depends on you to survive. I'll be leaving soon enough."
"My point exactly. The fleet will always be there."
Bill can easily imagine her shaking her head from side to side, stubborn and impatient. You don't understand, he is sure she will reply when she speaks again. It's not possible. There's no time left. It's not on me that you must focus your attention and your energy. You will be on your own soon enough. Stay focused on your mission, on our mission, because I will no longer be there to accomplish it with you.
But Bill does think of her. He wants to do anything for her and cannot think of one single reason why that should be wrong. He is not even sure he can do this without her anyway.
This silence is too long. Far too long, Bill realizes. A jolt brings back his mind that had momentarily drifted away: he no longer hears her breathing.
Nothing. The void, the abyss opening wide and deep at his feet.
"Laura, are you there? Say something, please."
A moan. A muffled moan at some distance from her receiver. Then, the most absolute lack of response at the other end of a line that has not been cut yet. This can only mean one thing.
Bill hangs up, yanks his jacket from the back of the chair in passing and storms out of his quarters.
Bill lays his hand against the thick curtain and stops for a second. He needs to catch his breath. He needs to pull the pieces of his soul together: he knows too well he is about to see something he is not really ready for. He is not sure he will be able to take it.
The short raptor flight to Colonial One has passed in a blur, in a nightmarish state. His mind was numb, obfuscated; he has seen himself full-speed, running along a dark, sinister, never-ending tunnel. He cannot remember starting the engine. He cannot remember any of the faces he must have crossed along the way. He cannot tell whose voice has cleared him for takeoff. He retains a vague awareness of having refused the company of a private who seemed puzzled that he wanted to leave in the middle of the night; of having cut off his questions with just his frown and a brisk gesture of his hand. He has no recollection of his own arrival either, and no memory of his race from the landing bay to this very spot. He guesses he has run all the way through the corridors as fast as possible because he is painfully out of breath now. But he is here. He is finally here and fixes his gaze on the heavy curtain that preserves the President's privacy.
He waits a little bit until his heartbeat slows down to a more tolerable pace. He lets out all the air in his lungs, gives himself one more second to muster the courage he is going to need. Then he pushes the curtain aside and walks in.
The room is as dark as if the blackness of the surrounding universe had extended its cold tentacles inside it. Bill blinks trying to accommodate his pupils to the lack of light and looks left, where he knows the couch is; Laura's makeshift bed. That is where he expects to find her.
And there she is. Pale and quiet. Breathing. Her chest rises and falls under the sheets that cover her up to her armpits. The air gets stuck sometimes as if it were hitting some kind of obstacle inside her. Bill sees her soft features contort and feels his own do the same like a mirror, as if he could feel her distress in his own body. From the corner of his eye he sees the receiver of the phone properly hung up, placed on her nightstand close to her pillow. He wonders if she has managed to hang it up herself and how long it has taken her to recover enough to do so after their talk and her sudden fit of pain. He comes closer slowly, grabbing a chair in passing. Careful not to make any noise that could wake her, he places the chair as close as possible to the bed, facing her. He sits down and watches her.
Laura has not moved. Bill cannot tell if she is asleep. There is no way he can know. With that godsdamned breathing anyone would have trouble to get to sleep: maybe she is just focused on her own breathing. So focused that she has not heard him; that she has not noticed his presence. Or maybe she is just refusing to acknowledge it.
Suddenly, Bill becomes aware of his own actions. He is here. He is here and that means that the moment to pretend, to hide, has long passed him. He outstretches a hand and brushes a lock of hair from Laura's forehead. His fingertips feel the fever and the thin layer of sweat on her skin. He withdraws his hand and breathes in deeply, watching her face all the time. He does not wonder if she can hear him. He does not care. He is going to say it anyway.
"Don't go, Laura."
A few seconds slide by. Then, as if she were caught in some kind of retarded effect, Laura blinks and cracks her eyes open. She looks in front of her first, towards the shadows. Bill sees her try to focus her sight. He keeps watching as she blinks harder; the effort draws a small frown between her brows. Then, she rolls her head to the side and meets his eyes. She watches him silently and Bill lets her do so in identical silence. He is not going to ask her if she has heard the words he has just whispered. He is not going to ask her what she thinks of the fact that he is here by her side. He is not going to ask if she is surprised. Somehow, her eyes are giving him a clue already.
In part, she is surprised. In part, she is not surprised at all.
Laura smiles. Her pupils shine in the darkness. Bill wants to think it is not just the fever that makes them sparkle.
There is abandon in her voice. There is gratitude. There is, also, a nuance of tender remorse, as if she were still in a position to worry about him, of regretting the vain distress, the unnecessary bother she has caused him. And there is something else: something Bill does not dare to name.
He smiles back.
"Why are you here?"
"We were talking and suddenly you stopped speaking. I couldn't hear you. I thought something bad had happened."
She shakes her head weakly on the pillow.
"I'm fine, Bill."
Frakking stubborn woman. If she keeps going like this, "I'm fine" will be her last words on her deathbed. Impatience kicks in. He has no intention to let her die alone, as determined as she seems to do so. In the last second, however, he decides to try something else. A glint crosses his glance and playfully blinks at the woman in bed. When he speaks, there is neither disdain nor fear in his voice; rather, a teasing note.
"But I'm not. It is rude and distasteful to leave a friend hanging on the phone, you know."
There is a pause. Laura bites her lower lip and Bill knows he has found just the right tone. The sense of humor that tinges his words stops Laura from contradicting him. Her weakness should be more than enough to wipe away any intention of arguing she might have at this advanced point in her illness. However, Bill knows that the strength of her spirit can still overcome the prostration of her body and allow her to confront him if she really wants to. His heart dances as he realizes what this means: Laura will be herself up to the very last second of her life. And that is how he likes her; he would not have it any other way. He wants it all: her stubbornness, her persistence, the clarity of her mind, the intelligent glint in her eyes.
This is more than he could ask for already.
She is watching him quietly, earnestly. Bill realizes that she has been waiting for him to wake up from his mental digression and be present here with her again.
"Why are you doing this, Bill?"
He does not answer. There are no words with which he could articulate the appropriate answer, the authentic one. The one that would do justice to what she deserves to hear. Instead, he just stays still, looking at her intensely. His pupils meet hers and Bill physically feels the light in his own eyes shift as he plunges in her gaze. Then, he takes her hand, wraps it in his own and lifts it to his lips, his eyes still locked with hers. A second later, he lets his lids fall shut and focuses on the touch of his own lips on her skin.
His eyes are still closed when her hoarse voice reaches his ears again. Maybe it is because of that, because there is no visual interference, that her emotion hits him clearly, unmistakably.
"I'm sorry, Bill. I don't want to leave you alone."
So she heard him. She was awake and heard his wish, his plea. Don't go, Laura. Don't leave me alone. And now, suddenly, Bill feels the urge to ask her what she means exactly. There are many kinds of loneliness and being left alone as the leader of the fleet is far from being the worst. He wonders if Laura knows, if she can guess that the loneliness that will eat him up alive when she is gone is the most atrocious, the most excruciating kind of loneliness: the one you only feel when you lose the people you love most. He opens his eyes and locks them with hers, and in the same place where he just showed Laura his unspoken answers for her to read, he now presents her with a silent question mark.
Laura lifts a hand and lays her palm against his rough skin, leaving it there for a few seconds. Then she brushes her thumb across Bill's lips gently and Bill knows that she is not just thinking of the loneliness of leadership, of the difficulties of making decisions without a mirror, a partner, an accomplice. Laura, just like him, is thinking of the deep, intimate grief of losing not just what they are and have already, all they already built together, but also, especially, all they will not have a chance to explore, to share.
Laura's gesture is thick with warmth and reciprocity. It is the end of her resistance. It is, at last, her acceptance of a feeling that cannot be changed or ignored no matter how inconvenient the circumstances are. They would be even less convenient, Bill suddenly realizes, if Laura were not going to die.
Bill lets out a deep exhale he is not sure how long he has been holding. He lifts one hand to his lips, where Laura's fingers are still resting, refusing to leave. Bill takes those fingers in his hand gently, bows his head and kisses her palm.
"Are you… staying?"
It is implicit in Laura's tone that she will accept an affirmative answer. She even fails to conceal a hint of hope in her question.
Maybe she is no longer trying to hide it.
"Take a wild guess." Bill prompts, smiling.
Laura smiles back with teary eyes.
She pats the space on the cushion next to her, lifts the corner of the blanket and shifts to the side to make room for him. Her invitation is unmistakable but Bill just looks at her, petrified.
"I… I wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable."
She cocks her head and smiles tenderly, mischievously. Bill understands how absurd, ridiculous and out of place his sudden bout of shyness must be looking to her. She is dying. Very soon. What can be done that is so reproachable? What is so wrong in accepting her request, bringing his body close to hers, holding her in his arms? Bill shivers at the realization of what he is about to do. He cannot tell if it is out of fear or out of joy.
"I'm cold. Please."
Bill stares back at her for a few moments, then nods. He leans over to take off his boots and socks and sets them neatly aligned at the foot of the couch. Then he stands up, takes off his jacket and folds it with military precision before placing it on the same chair he was sitting on. He takes off his belt, rolls it up and places it on top of the jacket. He leaves his pants and tank tops on.
Then he turns to Laura.
She is watching him with an indefinable expression. Bill smiles coyly, sits on the edge of the couch and slides under the cover carefully. He shifts and moves searching for the right position. He does so as gently as he can so as not to disturb Laura, so as to stop his weight and his bulk from causing her discomfort. Once he is ready, he turns his head to her. Laura is so close. He can already feel her body warmth and it bathes him like a blessing from the gods. She smiles. Tentatively, Bill extends an arm towards her. Laura moves just so and Bill wraps her in his embrace carefully, almost afraid of doing so, as if he feared she could break if he holds her just a little too tight. As if he barely dared to take what he wants most, which is also what he is about to lose. Laura has far less doubts than he does now: she molds her body to Bill's and cuddles into him. She lays her palm on his chest and Bill covers it with his own; her head on his shoulder and Bill brings her closer.
Bill nearly startles when he feels her cool palm on his cheek. Laura is pulling down gently. He gives her his eyes and is met with a sad but splendid smile. He gives in, closes his eyes again. One second later, Laura's lips brush over his. The sweetness of her touch is almost too much for him to bear. She lingers for a few seconds, then she lets herself fall back into his chest.
Their muscles relax slowly, their features soften, their breathings synchronize. Soon later, Bill understands Laura has fallen asleep and marvels at how easy her breathing seems now, instead of ragged and labored as it was when he arrived. He, however, soon figures out that the position he adopted will no longer be so comfortable in a few minutes. The arm that holds Laura against him is getting pins and needles. But Bill would rather kill himself than wake her, he would rather see the human race extinct than lose her contact.
He narrows his eyes. Through the slit, he watches the shadows.
None of this would be happening if she were not about to die.
Bill curses the gods that this is the only reason why he can have her.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it!