Brave Like Soldiers
We would stand in the wind
We were free like water…
…Under the warmth of the sun
Now it's cold and we're scared
And we've both been shaken
-Rob Thomas, Ever the Same
TJ hit the keystroke to save the file she'd been going through the motions of updating and looked at her watch. It was too early to be awake, too late not to be sleeping, but somehow her body hadn't gotten the memo. The craving for the normalcy of day followed by night followed by day left an ache in her shoulders that no amount of stretching could rid her of. She watched the FTL aurora slide around the observation deck windows and wondered if she would ever feel the warmth of sunshine on her skin again.
She pulled her jacket around her shoulders. It wasn't cold - the temperature on the ship was one of the few things that she could count on to remain constant these days - but if she closed her eyes and breathed deep enough, she was sure that she could still smell a hint of rain and the leafy tang of growing vegetation woven deep into the threads of the fabric, and it made her mouth water.
Footsteps slowed, then stuttered to a stop behind her. Not the harsh tap tap tap of civilian footwear on metal deck plating, but the muted thud of Vibram boot soles, which she recognized as military. The slight scuff of a heel identified the visitor as Lieutenant Scott. She didn't bother pulling herself together and putting on what she thought of as her 'medic face'; performing an act that gave people hope while it hid the truth of their conditions.
He stopped some feet back from where she sat, perhaps unsure about intruding.
"Hey Matt," she offered softly.
"TJ," he answered. She caught the hesitation in his voice. "How's it going?"
She closed down the laptop and grabbed the stack of paperwork off the chair next to her, and he sat - slouched, actually - with the air of assumed nonchalance of someone wearing a uniform that never fully allowed them to relax. She could see the deep circles under his eyes and guessed that he was dealing with his own case of insomnia. Trying to readjust to being in constant motion again after a month of planet-side stillness.
"How're you feeling?" he asked, and she saw him wince as he tasted the words, as if he was trying to figure out what his next line was supposed to be. The guy was doing his best to fill the shoes he'd been left with, but there wasn't anybody around to show him how to properly break them in.
"You on duty tonight?" she countered, knowing he wasn't, telling him he didn't have to do this. He didn't have to waste the energy putting up the front when there were so many other things weighing heavy on his shoulders.
"No." He rubbed at his eyes and looked out the window. "Just couldn't sleep." He slouched lower until his head rested against the chair back and his legs stretched awkwardly across her pile of paperwork on the floor. He rolled his head towards her. "How are you doing, TJ?"
She nodded slightly and blew out a breath. "Between you and me, Matt?" and he nodded. "I'm… getting by." She shrugged. There were people on this ship with bigger problems than hers. Franklin might be out of the infirmary, but he still needed help with the most basic of tasks, like feeding himself. Colonel Young kept insisting he was fine, but the body heals slowly without proper food and rest, and she'd caught the drag in his step when he thought no one was watching. She'd treated three or four people today alone with complaints like headaches, insomnia, aches, pains… exhaustion.
And all she had to help these people with were a few crates of bandages, a limited supply of medicinal plants, and an over-developed sense of empathy.
"What about you?" she asked. "You doing okay since we got back?"
"Finally got a real bed again, and you think I can get any sleep?" he laughed, but it was too quick. Too pat, like he'd been prepping for an exam and had the answer key in front of him. He stared ahead, watching lightshow. TJ watched him. "We're dancing here, aren't we?" he asked, and his subtlety surprised her. In the short time since his posting at Icarus, she'd come to assume that what you saw with Lieutenant Scott, was what you got.
Matthew Scott ran much deeper.
"Would you have stayed?" she hesitated. "I mean, if I hadn't been there… if it had just been up to you. Would you have given up and stayed behind?"
"We took an oath, right? We promised to obey our orders," he said. "Colonel Young put me in charge of that expedition and told me to take care of everybody."
She wondered how many times he'd turned this argument over and over in his head.
"No," she said. "I don't buy that." She shrugged deeper into her jacket. "He ordered you to bring everyone back."
He let the silence stretch.
"You weren't giving up, TJ," he said finally. Turnabout.
He looked away from the window, but she couldn't meet his eye. Because she had been ready to throw in the towel. To risk being trapped on a planet that might not live up to its promise of paradise. To take the easy road.
She'd been ready to run again.
"Not what I'm asking, Matt."
"I have a son," he said quietly.
TJ looked at him, but his attention focused on the aurora again. "I didn't know that," she said.
He made a sound, too soft to be a laugh, but it twisted in her gut just the same.
"Yeah, neither did I. He's eight." He let the words hang between them for her to untangle. She wondered how many people knew.
Not many, she suspected, but she was starting to understand his about-face back on the planet. His sudden willingness to buck the Colonel's orders. Matt worshipped the ground that Young walked on. Or at least he used to. TJ wasn't so sure how things stood any more. With any of them.
"This isn't your mess to fix, Matt."
"TJ, I'm not-"
She shook her head sharply. "No." She leaned forward and rubbed her eyes. They felt grainy from the recycled air. "You don't have to sacrifice yourself to make up for anything. That's what you've been trying to do, isn't it? Trying to atone?"
She looked back over at him. His eyes were closed, but his face was pinched, tired. Thin. They'd been here less than half a year, back on the ship less than a week, and already he looked older to her. Some lessons had been learned hard and fast, and they all wore the scars from the collateral damage.
Most days, she tried not to look in the mirror herself, because she was afraid she might not recognize what she saw.
There were footsteps in the corridor. TJ looked at her watch again and still couldn't decide if it was early or late. She felt Matt's hand on her arm. The footsteps got louder.
He waited until she met his eye. "Then promise me that you'll stop putting everyone else ahead of you, once in a while." She caught the hint of the officer's voice he was growing into; a sternness inviting no room for argument. "You're not doing anybody any favors."
"Yeah," she reached down and picked up her laptop. It felt heavier, or else she was just too tired now to fight gravity. "I can do that. You going to stop throwing yourself in front of trains?"
The footsteps came to a stop. TJ looked up to find Colonel Young standing at the doorway, hands in his pockets, shoulders weighed down. "Little past your bedtimes, Lieutenants?" he asked.
She opened her mouth, maybe to give an excuse, but Matt squeezed her arm again. "Yes sir," he said. "And I was just telling Lieutenant Johansen the same thing."
Young grunted. "Sure you were." He nodded towards the door. "Go on."
TJ avoided looking at either of them while she gathered up her paperwork, but she couldn't help stealing a glance over her shoulder as they left the room.
Whether intentional by design, or an accidental quirk of Ancient aesthetics, whoever happened to be standing just inside the doorway of the observation deck was always in silhouette. It struck her that the Colonel, with his head bowed and his hands thrust deep in his pockets, ignoring the light show through the window as if were now as common-place as rain clouds on a Seattle afternoon, could have just stepped off the cover of some dime-store novel. A western, perhaps, with the lone hero walking, defeated, into the sunset.
She faltered, torn between a sense of obligation that went beyond any oath of fealty, and the desire to keep her distance in these close quarters.
Matt realized that she wasn't beside him and turned. Still, she hesitated.
He nodded in the Colonel's direction and mouthed the words, 'Go talk to him.'
Her stomach dropped and her mouth went dry, and the Colonel chose that moment to look back towards the door.
"Good night, sir," she said quickly as she gathered her files to her and pushed past Scott, not giving him the chance to catch up.
Perhaps she needed to run just a little bit longer.