It didn't seem possible the sky could be so clear. The expanse of azure above was so sharp, so cloudless, the sun burning so bright it was nothing short of impossible the day could be as frigid a one as Thena had ever experienced in the whole of her life. And yet.
Taking in a breath of frigid air and holding it, Thena hugged her arms around herself, taking in the blue-white sparkle of sun-kissed snow under a cloudless sky. The only break in the white surface was the shoveled path, twisting through the white expanse like a dark snake. But everywhere else the otherwise unmarred snow glittered and sparkled, coating everything in a blanket that cast a hush over the world. Even when she strained her ears, Thena couldn't make the hum of skycars. She couldn't hear anything.
It was… beautiful was too weak, too paltry a word.
Thena breathed in a little deeper and savored it; something about the air here reminded her of Mindoir. Clean. Earthy. Piney. Mindoir never got this cold, though. Didn't snow much, either—not like this, anyway. The colony, with its mild, temperate seasons—four of them, distinct and just long enough that by the time you were fed up the heat or the cold, it was shifting into the next season. She'd always been fond of late winter-into-spring as the cold released its grip, slowly, and rain-chill days with green buds and new leaves slowly pushing so very slowly out of dark, gnarled branches.
Seconds passed, maybe even minutes, before the cold began to sink through Thena's layers and settle into her bones. The wind was still bitter, no matter how pretty everything else was. Expelling a cloud of breath, Thena crunched through the snow, her boots marring that otherwise perfect, unblemished blanket.
Unblemished, but for the tombstones.
It was, in truth, easier to stand still. Every step was a battle that had nothing whatsoever to do with the cold or the snow. She'd been… indisposed after Akuze. Barker and McTavish had both sent her messages on Arcturus about Renata's funeral and how she'd been missed.
Thena had told her friends she hadn't been able to leave the station, doctor's orders. Probably not a whole truth, there; Doc Reyes would've done cartwheels if Thena had expressed interest in attending the service. And it wasn't so much that she hadn't wanted to be there, but rather her certainty that she wouldn't have been welcome.
She pulled a map of the cemetery up on her omni-tool, looking at the route to Renata's gravesite for what was almost definitely the hundredth time. It wasn't a simple path—lots of twists and turns—but the same could be said for the road that had brought Thena here in the first place. Seemed only fitting.
She walked on, alternating between taking the shoveled path and cutting with slow, trudging steps across gently rolling hills, covered in knee-deep snow. Slowing to a stop—again—Thena looked around and down at the map. Again. The quadrant with Renata's grave ought to have been right where she was standing. Unfortunately, the only sight that met Thena's eyes was an iced-over reflection pond and three solitary benches.
Steve hadn't been buried in a military cemetery. There were no uniform rows of easily-navigated, identical white stones for Renata Stevens, no. No, and more fitting for her that there weren't. Instead, she'd been tucked somewhere amid centuries-old headstones and marble-hewn angels with clasped hands and wings softened by age and the elements. Here, Renata was surrounded by lives that had been stopped mid-stride—like her own—and some that had gone on longer than anyone could have dared hope or expect. So many lives, so many stories, hidden and guarded by a dark wall of pine trees that stretched up high enough they scraped the sky.
She scowled down at glowing interface—the map that claimed Lieutenant Renata Annabelle Stevens was exactly where she wasn't.
Drawing in a deep breath of cold air, Thena closed her eyes and held that breath for a count of ten, letting it out, slowly. She did so three more times before looking harder at the little glowing map. She was in the right area, of that she was certain; it was only the… landmarks that had been causing her confusion. It wasn't as if she was lost; Thena knew perfectly well how to read a map, and in more than one language—she could handle this. This time. This time she'd find the right spot, the right marker. The right name.
—No, names carved into tombstones were never the names. Nothing that hurt this much could ever be truly right.
Thena picked her way between the rows of markers, peering at the names and dates carved deep into pale marble and granite. Why the hell do you have to be so hard to find?
I'm not hard to find, she imagined Steve tossing back. You just aren't looking hard enough.
Somewhere a bird cried out and Thena looked up in time to spy… something—something with a huge wingspan cut across the sky. A hawk, maybe. Maybe an eagle. She envied the bird in that moment—free, unencumbered, with little worry beyond food and shelter in weather like this. What was it like, to have no tethers pulling at your heart? To simply… be, to survive without so much baggage?
Over the next rise, at the bottom of the hill, stood an obelisk, taller and newer than the rest; it did not stand on a gravesite, but was instead set apart from the lines of graves and markers. Five snow-covered benches circled the memorial, their intricate metalwork peeking like dark lace from beneath the thick layer of white. Skeletal bushes surrounded the obelisk's base.
New, but not that new.
Taking care not to slip, Thena maneuvered her way through the snow to the memorial—tucked away in a place like this, doubtless it was a sight to see in spring, surrounded by new buds and and blooms, or even summertime, with dappled sunlight pouring through the pines and thick green grass underfoot. Now, though, it stood, cold and alone, foreboding and lonely, gleaming with a cold sort of beauty.
Then, as she reached the bottom, Thena's eyes met the words carved into the marble:
DEDICATED TO THE FAMILIES LOST ON THAT COLONY
GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN
APRIL 25, 2170
Her gut tightened; the sheer surprise at seeing such a reminder so far removed from the rest of civilization stole the breath from her lungs, but only for a moment. When that moment passed, Thena breathed again, and that sick, jittery sensation faded, leaving in its wake… something else less easily defined.
In the years that had passed since the raid, Thena came to view the event as something that had affected her, changed her irrevocably. In the landscape of Thena's life, Mindoir stood as a deep gouge, and the events after it as a gauntlet at the end of which something like normal hovered like a shiny promise. In the intervening years she'd staunched the bleeding, but the event itself was still… tender. Painful. But in the end it was something that had happened to her.
She'd never really considered anyone else's loss, anyone else's pain. She'd had her own to deal with for so long.
With slow, deliberate steps, she crossed the snowy expanse—only a couple of meters, though every step dragged like a hundred—and rested her gloved hand against the cold marble, her thumb stroking the carved lettering.
When all was said and done, memorials were for the living. Everyone knew that. Likely there were people who came to this spot and found some measure of solace in it, in remembering friends or family members who'd left Earth for what'd seemed like greener pastures at the time. Places like this were built so people could remember, a mnemonic device made manifest or a string tied around a finger.
Those who'd been lost would be remembered.
For two years, Thena had fancied herself forgotten. With more time that passed, she'd begun to look at the raid as an Alliance embarrassment, as something the brass would've rather let slip from their collective memories, like a piece of data obliterated by a virus.
And here, out in the middle of goddamn nowhere, was a piece of marble every bit as good as a chorus of voices singing out above the rest of the noise, cutting through the buzz and bustle of bureaucracy like a soaring soprano.
No. We will never forget you.
This place was for the living to reminisce, to pay their last respects, to say a final goodbye—and even though those words were beyond the ears of those for whom they were meant, they were still words that needed to be said, whether spoken aloud or… not. What else was life other than a cycle of remembrances? Someone would always be left to remember, and as long as someone did, people gone or lives lost still meant something.
Like the end of a solar eclipse, when the world below moved out of shadow and into daylight, something shifted inside Thena. Sadness remained. Even some measure of guilt remained. But the hovering sense of dread that said she didn't belong here, that she had no business being here—that… had faded a little. A very little.
You're not okay, Renata had told her once, and it's okay if you're not okay. She'd been right. Of course.
Thena took in another breath, deeper and deeper, holding it until it slowly warmed inside her before exhaling through her teeth. Steam passed her lips where it hovered a moment before dissipating upward. Then she turned, looked again at the map, and directed her steps back onto the shoveled brick path and onward to another vast square of graves and tombstones.
There, twelve rows in and eight markers down, stood a new marker, crafted of glossy black marble and still relatively unblemished by the elements aside from a thick layer of snow hanging heavily over the gently arced stone. It was too… new to be anything but exactly what she'd been searching for, and as Thena wove through the other stones and memorials, certainty grew in her chest, aching with every heartbeat.
The Alliance insignia, etched into the stone and lined with some kind of gold leaf, gleamed up at her. Below that read Steve's full name and rank. The dates of her birth and her death. Below that was the carved silhouette of a horse, mid-stride, its tail streaming out behind it. Simple. Straightforward. Unassuming.
Reaching out one hand, Thena brushed the snow from the stone, sending it sliding to one side where it cascaded in a stream of glittering dust, landing with a whisper-soft thump.
Bringing flowers had seemed ridiculous in the dead of winter, so she hadn't brought anything, but now, as she crouched down by the stone, she wished she had.
"Sorry," she whispered. "Kinda new at this."
No response came, not even from within her own head, which was strangely reassuring insofar as Thena's certainty of her own sanity was concerned.
"I'm sorry," she said again, the words catching in her throat. "I'm sorry I lived and I'm sorrier you didn't. And I wish I could be sorry I don't have as many nightmares as I used to—the nightmares are getting better and I—I think you'd be glad about that. I know… I know I used to—back in the Academy I used to keep you awake with the tossing and turning. You never complained. Left that part to Barker, I know. It's just—"
The problem wasn't that Thena found herself here with nothing to say, it's that she had too much and a torrent of words, of apologies and promises all stuck in her throat until—
With a wet sniffle, she knuckled away the tears with a gloved hand and sunk forward onto her knees. Snow crunched with her weight.
"It's not fair." The words came out too high, too thin to sound like her voice and tried again. "It's not fair," she managed. "I'm sorry. I'm whining. I know. It's only—"
It's only I can't help but think of how often you laughed and how much I loved hearing you laugh and making you laugh and nobody who loved laughter as much as you did should die like that, Steve. The world, the galaxy needs more people like you—there are too few of them as it is.
"—Why you? Why'd it have to be you?"
Tears came faster and harder, as if some long-festering wound inside had finally been lanced. Every sob pushing past her throat came out too loud, too sharp in such a quiet place. And yet… it felt good to cry.
You don't have to hold it all in, you know. Hell, you shouldn't. Bad things happen when you don't relieve those pressure valves, Theen.
Hunching her shoulders and bowing her head like one of the many trees around her bent under the weight of too much snow, Thena wept. The ebb and flow of memories washed over her, each one pricking her heart until it bled anew. Though she'd been there when Renata had taken her last strained, rattling breath, though she'd seen the light fade from brown eyes, Thena had been able to push aside the worst of her grief on Arcturus. Oh, she'd been hip-deep in denial, no doubt about that, but there was something to be said about picking one's battles. And at least she'd known she'd been in denial. But now—now she'd put herself face to face with the truth of it. There was nothing she could say, nothing she could do to change it—and with that acknowledgment, denial crumbled in the face of reality. And it hurt.
She cried until her head ached with it, until her nose was stuffed and swollen and her eyes burned. She cried until her throat had been scratched raw with every sob, until she'd wrung herself dry of tears. She sniffled once and breathed a shaky exhale, pressing one gloved hand to her forehead. Snow had worked its way through the material of her pants and, she strongly suspected, down her boots as well.
Then, if not as loud then certainly as startling a cracking branch or a bird's cry, there came from behind her the soft rasp of a throat clearing.
When Thena looked up, it was to find a middle-aged man swathed in a navy blue parka and a thick fleece hat. A tuft of auburn hair peeked out, pressed against his forehead above a pair of familiar brown eyes. The last time she'd seen his face, it had not been so lined with grief. On the contrary, it had been on the other side of an omni-tool, happily snapping pictures during the Alliance Academy commissioning ceremony.
A memory twinged hard in her brain: Steve's arm tight around her shoulders as they smiled for the camera and she murmured off-color jokes under her breath.
"M-mister Stevens," she stammered nasally, pushing to her feet.
She cast about as if some convenient excuse for her presence might've been found dangling from a low-hanging pine bough. I was just in the neighborhood was about as truthful as it was convincing. "Sorry," she finally managed. "I-I didn't think anyone would be—sorry."
His smile, though thick with melancholy, was genuine. "Don't be."
A thousand more apologies, all of them clamoring in her throat and running the gamut from I'm sorry I didn't come sooner to I'm sorry I came at all, died away. Unfortunately, this left Thena with little else to say.
"I apologize," he said, waving a hand at the stone, at the snow, pushed aside and sunken in where she'd knelt. I should've let you be."
Thena swiped at her face and sniffled. "No. It's—it's okay. It took me a long time to find the spot," she answered, somewhat lamely. "I-I'm only sorry I wasn't here for the—for the…" The word stuck in her throat and refused to form.
She swallowed hard. "Yes."
He nodded once. "Juliana and Akemi said you were on Arcturus and couldn't get medical clearance to come planetside."
Barker and McTavish. Of course. Of course they'd have told him. "Yes, sir."
Thick red brows furrowed in concern. "You doing all right now?"
"…Better, sir," she answered truthfully.
Again, Renata's father nodded. Such a simple gesture had no business conveying so much weight, so much grief. "Little by little, day by day," she said quietly. "Am I right?"
Thena chewed on her bottom lip, but forced herself not to look away. "Something like that, sir."
He chuckled, a worn, tired sound, but one that still carried with it the faintest thread of amusement. "Don't need to sir me like a soldier."
The man glared, but mildly, and with that same lingering glint of almost-amusement that made her heart clench and ache. "Walt."
Thena's mouth worked silently for a few seconds before her voice caught up. "S-sorry, Walt."
He nodded once in acknowledgement, then strode a few steps closer, hands deep in his pockets as he looked down at the marble marker. "Everyone says it'll get easier," he murmured. "I think that's a damned lie, myself."
Walt shot her another glare, reminding Thena so powerfully of his daughter that she couldn't decide whether to laugh or start crying all over again. "…Walt," she amended. "I don't… I don't think I follow you."
"Death," he said, the word belying grief that ran deep as his bones and exhaustion that ran deeper than that. "Losing someone you care about. Parent, spouse, sibling—child. People say it gets easier." He looked at the grave's marker for several long seconds in the snow-hushed silence. "I don't think—" His voice cracked on the word. "I don't think I'm inclined to agree."
"It doesn't," she agreed, thinking of lemon trees and math homework and homemade pancakes. "It never gets easier; you just—you learn how to live with it. You learn how… how to make it bearable for yourself. You… you heal, but you never really… get over it."
"Not surprised you know that already," he said quietly.
Thena shrugged, looking hard at the name carved into the stone. "Then there're days it just hurts so badly you feel like you could go blind with it. Sometimes you don't know what to do, or how to function. Like if you… if you could only know why it happened at all, then it might make everything a little less painful, a little less miserable."
"Ah," the older man said, "but that's not true either."
She looked up with a start to find herself on the receiving end of a shrewdly assessing gaze. "Isn't it?"
"You really think knowing why would make it hurt less?" he asked. "You think there's any answer that would ever be remotely satisfying?"
"Maybe. Depends on the answer."
A hundred thousand protests all welled up inside Thena. "But—"
"You were with her when none of us could have been," he said, moving forward and resting a hand on her shoulder. "Nothing's bringing my girl back. I'm still making my peace with that. But I know one thing for certain, Thena."
"What's that?" she asked, not sure she wanted to hear the answer.
"If you hadn't been with her, she'd've died on Akuze all the same, alone and afraid, like the rest of those poor bastards. If you're looking for a reason why you're alive and she's not—maybe that's it. Maybe you're alive so she didn't have to die alone."
She looked down at the stone, ran her fingers over its smooth arch. "I'm sorry."
"I already told you, didn't I? You've got nothing to—"
"I'm sorry I didn't come sooner." It wasn't an excuse; it was the truth.
"The important part was that you came at all," he said, giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Looks like you needed it."