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For once, Catalina was completely alone and for that she was grateful.
The Compost was empty and dark, save for the dim glow of the controls and the light from the stars she was gazing at through the view screen. She could faintly hear the hum of the engines, but the sound did not soothe her on this night like it usually did. She sat on the floor, head leaning back against the helm, and let out a sigh as she drew her knees up to her chest.
It was ten years ago today that she had lost her parents. Ten years of loneliness, of heartache, of missed life lessons. Ten years of a strained relationship with her siblings, of a volatile relationship with her aunt, of people thinking she was crazy because of Suzee.
What cosmic power had she angered to end up with the life she had? An orphan by the age of five, only one real friend to her name and an invisible one at that, a failed Starcademy cadet. There were many days when she wished she had been with her parents when their shuttlecraft exploded.
Catalina jumped and quickly wiped away some errant tears as she heard the door to the Compost open, briefly wondering who would be up at the ungodly hour. She cringed internally when she made eye contact with the intruder.
"Cat? What're you doing?"
"None of your business Harlan. Besides I could ask you the same question."
"Not that I owe you an explanation," Harlan drawled, "but I couldn't sleep with Bova's snoring, so I thought I'd come up here and make sure there were no threats stalking us while we sleep."
"Well there's nothing to report, so I guess you should head back to bed now."
"And miss an opportunity to irritate you? Not in a million years."
Oblivious to Catalina's annoyance and yearn to be alone, Harlan unceremoniously plopped himself down next to her on the floor. The pair sat in uncomfortable silence for several minutes, each shooting the other sidelong glances when they believed the other was not looking.
"So, what was up with you today? You were acting weird. Well, weirder than usual," Harlan smirked.
"Look, I'm not in the mood to deal with you right now," Catalina mumbled, rolling her eyes. "I'm just going to go to the galley."
Rising from the floor quickly, Catalina was surprised by a sudden pressure enveloping her left wrist. Glancing down to see Harlan's hand securely holding her wrist, she had to suppress the urge use her sonic scream. What part of not in the mood to deal with him did the Earth boy not understand?
"C'mon, I didn't mean to make you upset," Harlan said, gently tugging on Catalina's wrist. "Sit down drama queen."
Catalina huffed, but said nothing. The young cadets sat in silence, both unsure of what to say if anything. It was during this silence that Harlan got a good look at Catalina. The Saturnian looked disheveled, like she hadn't slept well in a few days. The dark circles under her eyes only accentuated the paleness of her skin and a few of her fingernails had been chewed to the point of bleeding.
Harlan frowned. He had noticed the subtle changes in his partner in crime over the past few days, but had chalked it up to 'female problems.' Although now, as he watched her gaze longingly at the stars with a vacant, dead look in her eyes, he knew something more important was troubling the girl.
"So, what were you doing before I got here?"
"The same thing I'm doing now," Catalina deadpanned.
"Staring into space?"
"No. I was thinking."
"What do you care?" Catalina mumbled, leaning forward so that her rainbow hair obscured her face.
Harlan let out a frustrated sigh. "Hey, I know you think I'm heartless, but something is obviously bothering you and I thought I'd try and to help you out, but you know what, forget it. It's not worth it."
The Earther was up and halfway to the door before Catalina could process what had happened.
"Ten years," Catalina whispered hesitantly. "It's been ten years."
Harlan stopped at the door, glancing over his shoulder at the girl now standing up and leaning heavily against the helm. He cautiously made his way back towards the Saturnian as she began to mumble almost incoherently.
"Ten years…I've been alone for so long…it was an accident, faulty wiring… I never got to tell them how much they meant to me, how much I loved them… I was so young…my Aunt used to yell all of the time, she'd smack us if we didn't follow her rules…I haven't spoken to my siblings for years, they think I'm crazy…maybe I am crazy…"
By this point Harlan had reached the babbling girl. She was shaking and beginning to sob; he was taken aback. He had never seen Catalina like this. He tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder as a form of comfort and was surprised when she collapsed into his chest.
The Earther let the Saturnian cry for several minutes, muttering about things he couldn't quite grasp. By the time she had cried herself out the young cadets were sitting on the floor in front of the helm again.
"I'm sorry," Catalina sniffled, wiping her eyes and attempting to straighten her clothes. "I didn't mean to…"
"Don't worry about it," Harlan mumbled.
He felt horrible. While trying to comfort the girl, the vacant, dead look in her eyes, paired with her disjointed sentences, surfaced memories Harlan would've preferred to keep buried. He should've known what was bothering Catalina days ago; he had seen the look in her eyes reflected in his own mirror more often than he'd admit.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Not really. There's not much to talk about."
Harlan nodded, he knew she was right, he'd been there. He sighed as he glanced at Catalina, angry at himself for not being able to figure out what was bothering her sooner. He needed to offer her something, anything, to try and comfort her.
"You know, when my Dad died…it destroyed me," Harlan began, waiting a minute so that Catalina could object to the story if she wanted to. When she made no move to stop him, he continued.
"I started acting out, my grades dropped, I'm sure I drove my Mom crazy. She used to tell me that the way I was acting was okay, that it was just my way of dealing with my pain and that I'd get over it eventually."
"And did you?"
"What do you think?" The bitterness in Harlan's voice was evident.
"Do you think it ever stops?"
Harlan arched an eyebrow in question.
"The hurting, I mean," Catalina clarified before her voice dropped down to a whisper. "'Cause my heart still aches."
"I know what you mean. There are times when I miss my Dad so much it physically hurts, you know?"
Almost imperceptibly, Catalina nodded her head in agreement. There was a lull in the conversation as the two became lost in their own thoughts.
"Grozit, it hurts… it hurts so much sometimes."
Harlan nodded. "The hurt dulls, but I don't think it'll ever go away."
"It's just…I don't know how much longer I can handle this and keep pretending I'm fine."
"Hey, c'mon now, don't talk like that. We both know you don't mean that. Besides, what about Suzee?"
Catalina grinned despite herself and nudged him playfully. "Why Harlan Band, are you saying you believe she's real?"
"No, but if she keeps you sane and happy…" he trailed off smiling cheekily.
Harlan rose from the floor and stretched languidly before offering his hand to Catalina, who accepted it while studiously ignoring the slight blush that was now creeping across her features.
"Well, uh, I guess we should get back to bed."
"Yeah, we should."
The cadets exited the Compost, not quite willing to leave each others company so soon after their discussion.
"I could, uh, walk you back to your—"
"It's okay Harlan, I think I can make it."
"Right, of course. G'Night, Cat."
Not waiting for a response, Harlan began to head back to the boys bunkroom, but turned around at the sound of his name being called. He was met with a slightly fidgety Catalina standing in front of him.
"Harlan, I, uh," Catalina began.
The girl struggled to find the words for a bit before shaking her head in frustration. Instead, she lightly placed her hands on his shoulders, before hesitantly winding her arms around his neck, pulling him flush against her body. Harlan returned the hug without hesitation, burying his face in her rainbow hair.
The pair remained in their embrace, clinging to each other, for several moments.
Words were no longer needed.