Zak doesn’t die right away. Instead, he suffers, burns crisping his skin, broken bones in three of his limbs, ribs that splintered under the force of the impact tearing his internal organs in a starburst of unfixable ways. It’s his face, though, that troubles Lee the most, weirdly perfect, a little pale, with just a bruise on his cheek as his helmet protected his head. Even the ventilator tube poking out of the side of his mouth doesn’t mar the perfection. It's as if he’d had a biking accident instead of sending his ship tumbling end over end in a white hot fireball, as witnesses gasped and covered their shocked mouths as emergency personnel ran towards the burning frame until it came to rest in the grass of the landing field.
‘Pilot error’ is what the official report would say, describing in terse terms how Zak had botched his landing, coming in too fast, at an angle the defied a good pilot’s logic. His viper sheared the ground in a spray of sparks until the whole thing ignited and started its fiery journey, bouncing and flipping like a child’s firework on the ground on Colonial Day.
Hours after the accident, Lee approaches the window of Zak’s room, clear glass with fine silver metal filaments embedded inside, as if someone would come along and smash it to get to the room’s occupant. Lee stands close, his hand pressed flat on the glass. It’s cool against his palm as he gazes towards Zak’s bed, a white tent covering him neck to toes, hiding the horror of what the doctor has described as un-survivable burns and internal injuries.
“It’s a miracle he’s still alive, son,” the gray-haired doctor had told him, a hand on his shoulders as if he were his own child. “A few more hours is about all the time you have.” His voice had been deep with a slight Gemenon twang around the edges. Lee had simply nodded, feeling the shocked weight of being the sole representative of his family as his father rushed towards Caprica from some unknown place in the Twelve Worlds. His mother, he knew, would come later, flinging herself into the scene with a horrified gasp.
Lee watches the blips on the monitor against the far wall of Zak’s room. ‘Extremely painful’ is what the survivors of burns say, an understatement for the agonizing, searing pain that makes them want to die more than live with months of skin grafts, burn masks, and salves of a thousand different varieties. Lee’s fingers coil into fists, feeling the soft undamaged flesh of his palm, the sharp pinch of his fingernails pressing into it.
Behind him he senses movement, knows before he turns around that it’s Kara returning from a phone call; the first time she'd left his side. He doesn't turn around, just feels her shoulder brushing his. Her hand finds his fist, pulling at it until he releases and slides his fingers between hers.
“When’s your dad coming?” Kara’s voice falls flat onto the glass, her face reflected back at him against the backdrop of dim light in Zak’s room.
“Couple of hours. I don’t know if he’ll hold on.” It’s unimaginable to think Zak will be gone and that there’s nothing they can do.
Lee continues to stare at his brother, trying to make sense of it, shape it into something familiar that he can use to cope. Zak’s never been in the hospital before and Lee’s suddenly taken to a time when Zak would have been scared, terrified to be separated from his protector, while doctors and nurses talked in hushed tones, skirting around the harsh truth that he would not survive. Lee knows their words would mean nothing, Zak having been mostly unconscious since the crash, but Lee imagines it nonetheless, the scared little boy, startling at every thunder boom from the space in his room between the bed and the wall. He often found Zak there, running his toy car up and down the comforter, making trails and passages across the checkerboard pattern, carefully chosen in brown and blue to contrast Lee’s in green and grey. Always, his mother had made them similar yet different enough to individuate. It was like she’d spent time thinking about how to market them to each other, look we’re not the same, but see how close we are, her own little army defending her against their father.
Now, Zak lies alone, protected from germs by the curtain of white and the sealed, hushed room (why Lee doesn’t understand if Zak’s just going to die), but he’s secretly grateful that they won’t let him inside where he imagines he can smell the burned flesh, the tylium, his own sweat. No, he wants to stay here, holding Kara’s hand, pretending that this moment hasn’t changed everything.
Kara sniffs, breaking his thoughts, and he turns to see her face wet with tears. The three of them were close, but Zak and Kara had become inseparable in flight school, instant friends who might have been more if Lee hadn’t met Kara first, her solid frame slamming into his as he rounded the corner at the Academy. She hadn’t even apologized, just reared back and laughed at his startled expression and scowl. She kept on moving, catching his eye over her shoulder as he stared at her ass. He was smitten.
“I thought he was going to be fine,” Lee says, breaking the silence, feeling a deep truth coming out of his chest, breaking into the room the way a monster chases you in your dreams, door splintering, footsteps booming in its wake.
“I should have stopped him.” And there it was. Lee had known he wasn’t ready, had known in his gut that Zak was never cut out to be a pilot. Not the way Kara was, her finesse and bravery just the trappings of a real and deadly skill. She was born to fly (and so was Lee if he admitted it to himself). Zak, though, he was an imitation, a cardboard cutout of a handsome pilot with bright white teeth and boyish charm who could convince you to buy any product he sold. Lee, Kara, his father (and some instructor Lee has yet to eviscerate), bought it, plunking down cubits and pride and waiting for delivery.
“Wasn’t your job, Lee.” Kara looks at him, her eyes dark green, red-rimmed from crying, the pallor of her skin so white that he can see the veins under her eyes.
“It was my frakking job.” Lee yanks his hand away and leaves the window to stare at the purple upholstered visitor chairs against the wall.
It had always been his job, and he realizes now that he hadn’t done enough, hadn’t forced the issue with his father or Zak or even Kara, who were all so willing to believe. Truth be told, he'd believed, too, later when he'd done okay, never imagining in his worst nightmares that flying would hurt him, put him through this horror of burned flesh and a winding-down life.
In a gulp, Lee’s eyes fill with stinging tears that he swallows away. Not yet. He hasn’t even talked to his mother, on holiday in Scorpia, where once a year she spends her savings to lie in the sun, crisping her already leathery skin into a fine brown patina. Lee winces at the thought of her rushing through the door, face grim and needy, eyes wide as if she’s never faced a difficult moment in her life, long nails clamoring for his shirt sleeve to get her through it all.
“What should I do? What do you need?” Kara’s behind him, voice firm and strong, a startling contrast to his mother’s pleading tones rattling through his head. Kara, who’s been through her own hell and back, more hospital visits than she can count to mend some bone or cut or “fall” that she’d suffered at her mother’s hands. He blinks over to her, sees the tears have dried, replaced by her determined face, the one she gets when he disappears, hiding inside himself to withdraw from whatever problem he thinks he can’t handle. She’s so frakking brave that it half-shames him for a moment before he pushes it away. That’s not Kara. She loves him.
Lee manages a hint of a smile, his face softening enough that Kara steps forward to slide her hands around his waist, strong and firm, muscle against muscle until he shifts in her grip, looping his arms around her shoulders to bury his face in her hair. He needs her. He needs her so frakking much that it feels like drowning, like frantic feet searching for the bottom of a muddy lake, feverishly hoping that he hasn’t waded out too far. Lee squeezes tighter – this is one of those moments, he realizes, that he can lean on her, stop pretending that he’s not running away, not terrified of what will happen next.
“Just stay with me. Help me deal with my parents. Gods, Kara, they’re going to be a wreck.” He doesn’t want to think about how they’ll really be, shooting passive-aggressive arrows between them, not-so-hidden blame in sharp words until one is laced with poison or pierces too deep and they start shouting, his mother reaching for Lee’s arm, drawing him into the fight. This is the thing that he can do without, the pistols-at-dawn beginning that ends in a bar fight with broken bottles and missing teeth. Lee doesn’t want to be around when that happens.
Lee catches movement in Zak’s room, a silent movie of nurses rushing in with stern faces, whispering urgently, their movements carefully choreographed to save lives, or in Zak’s case, ease death. He sees the white sterile tent move, imagines Zak’s deep groans (the only thing he can let himself think; imagining screams is too terrifying).
Kara, sensing Lee’s tightening frame, turns and he hears her sharp intake of breath, the catch in the back of her throat and the swallow as she takes in the silent scene. The corner of the tent has fallen away, revealing an oozing blackened arm, angry red gashes of flesh, muscles naked without their covering, shining instead with an ointment or covered loosely with gauze. It reminds him of sausages, cooked too long on a grill in the summer, their blackened skin broken open in long strips. He shudders and closes his eyes. How can this be Zak? Please let go, Zak. It’s okay. And then he needs to tell him.
Lee releases Kara and steps towards the door in one gesture, leaving her staring after him, eyes wide and concerned, body tensed to take a step with him, but he frowns, a slight twitch of his head that tells her to stay. He needs to do this by himself and come back to her.
The door to Zak’s room opens as he steps near, his hands twisting together in fraught worry. “I’d like to see him,” Lee says to the nurse as she pulls her paper mask off to look at him. His voice clearer than he expects, although the air in his lungs is shaking.
She’s barely out of her twenties with her hair pulled back into a once tight ponytail, now hanging limply behind her head. Her gloves snap as she yanks them off, rolling them inside her yellow paper gown before stuffing them both into a bin with a bright red biohazard sign. He thinks he sees a glint of admiration in her appraising gaze, or maybe that’s just what he wants to see because this might be the worst idea he’s ever had. That’s barely Zak in there.
“I’ll ask the doctor,” she says and slides past him to walk the short distance to the nursing station to pick up the comm.
Lee stands awkwardly staring at the stacks of factory-folded yellow gowns and masks, boxes of gloves with latex fingers blooming out of the open slits in sizes medium and large. It never occurred to him that gloves would come in sizes, but it seems obvious now.
Behind him he hears the murmur of the nurse on the comm and glances back, meeting her eyes briefly before she drops her gaze. The area is still and silent otherwise and he just wants to get this over with.
The woman’s face is grim as she approaches, retracing her steps back to Zak’s room, an outstretched arm reaching for a gown. “You’ll have to wear protective clothing.” He still doesn’t know why they take precautions with a dying man, but he nods dutifully and holds his arms out like a zombie (more or less how he feels) and she slides the gown over the sleeves of Lee’s duty blues. It makes a soft papery sound when it reaches his shoulders. The nurse, Hannah, her name tag says in tiny block letters, nudges his shoulder and he turns around, facing the door to Zak’s room while she ties the gown. Lee spins back, legs shaking, and she’s holding out a mask and gloves. He puts them on and steps inside the dimmed room.
He feels ridiculous and important in his new costume, the mask smelling like stale paper and his own breath. For a second he wants to run, grab Kara’s hand and leave Caprica, run as far away as they can until all of this seems like a bad movie and they’ll return to find Zak alive and well and the three of them will laugh about it forever.
The air is cooler inside Zak’s room, carefully controlled, Lee’s sure, and his pounding heart creates heat that feels trapped inside his paper coverings. There’s no burning smell, no tylium, just something medicinal, probably the salves that coat Zak’s body, their sharp odor finding its way under his mask. He tries not to breathe.
There’s a plain metal chair next to the bed and he sits on the edge, not quite looking at his brother, not getting close enough to touch. Not yet. He glances back at Kara, seeing the lines around her eyes deepen, mouth frowning in tandem with her wrinkled brow. Her hand is splayed against the glass, an offering of support he thinks, and he smiles a little before he realizes she can’t see it under the mask.
Lee drops her gaze and nudges the chair forward, now or never, he coaches himself, and leans towards his brother, keeping his eyes carefully trained on his pale perfect face. He tries not to think this is the last time he’ll see him alive.
“Zak. It’s me, Lee. I’m here. Can you hear me?” He smells the stink of his terrified words against his mask and he repeats himself, “Zak? Can you hear me?”
“Zak?” The muscles in Lee’s arms feel heavy and stiff as he reaches out to touch Zak’s forehead, just above the bruise on his cheek, to stroke his dark hair. He feels Kara watching and takes a deep breath of her bravery. Zak doesn’t rouse and his heartbeat blips at a constant rate.
“Zak, I’m here.” Lee leans forward, the smell of the salves pungent as he holds his face inches from Zak’s.
Lee can’t touch him anywhere but his face and hair, an intimate gesture that reminds Lee of their childhood, snuggling together under the thick comforter as a winter storm dumped snow up to windows of the cars on the street. They’d giggled until dawn, knowing full well that school would be cancelled. Even now, Zak’s laughter rings in his ears, bright and free, practically unchanged into adulthood.
“I don’t know if you can hear me, but I just want to say I love you, Zak.” The hundred other things he thought he might say dissolve as tears soak his mask and his chest begins to shake with sobs. He breathes hard, his face becoming sticky with sweat and snot and tears that make him want to rip the mask away. He keeps his hand on Zak’s hair instead, skimming his fingertips across the military-short spikes. He looks like such a little boy with close-cropped hair, all ears and eyes and his killer smile pulling everyone into his sphere.
When the machine blips erratically, Lee’s eyes widen, his face panicked for a long second until the heart monitor calms again. Silently, the nurse moves into the room, but Lee stays in place, one hand on Zak’s forehead, the other gripping the edge of the sheet near his knee. “I’m sorry, Zak,” Lee moans, voice low and plaintive.
The nurse leaves the room as silently as she came and Lee finally sits back, releasing his now-stiff fist from the sheet and glancing towards the door. He wants to wipe his face, but he can't because of the paper coverings and gloves. Kara is there in the distance, pacing, and he suddenly needs her at his side. Knows that Zak would want her here, too. They loved each other, Zak more than Kara, a secret he'd tried and failed to keep for so long. With that, a tiny stab of guilt finds Lee again. What if Kara had made him happy before he died? he asks himself, wanting to make one of those crazy wishes that only gets made when things are desperate. I'd give up Kara for Zak, he resolves in his head like it's some kind of penance or sacrifice, but it doesn't really help. None of it matters anyway, he thinks grimly, his mind returning to the sharp smell of antiseptic, a comm ringing in the distance. He's going to die anyway.
Lee glances one more time at Zak’s face before rising. It’s pale and slack, the bright contrast of unmarred skin seems gray now that Lee is so close. He doesn't have long. Lee pushes the chair back, a scraping sound hitting flatly against the walls and feels his legs wobble as he moves slowly to the door. Kara looks up, her face pained, eyes wet again.
Lee snaps off one glove and pulls down his mask and wipes his nose with the back of his hand. He puts a steadying hand on the door frame. “You should be in here, too, Kara. He’d want that.”
She shakes her head, glancing past Lee’s shoulder into the room, her face suddenly afraid. Why, he wonders and then extends his hand. “I’ll stay, too.”
After a moment’s hesitation, she slips her fingers into his palm and he waves the nurse over again. He helps the woman silently dress Kara in the paper gown, but when Lee pulls a mask off the shelf, the nurse stays his hand. “Doc said it was okay to leave it.” Lee swallows and suddenly he wants to pull up his own mask again, to pretend that he’s keeping Zak alive, but Lee simply nods and turns towards the door.
Kara grabs his hand and squeezes. He squeezes back.
They go together to say goodbye.