Chapter 3: First Things First

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Sloane didn’t realize she was crying until she tasted salt on her lips. She brushed them away on her sleeve hastily as she heard the door open. She looked up, and was greeted by the specialist.

Kyle Daklan.

Sloane immediately stood, shoving her phone in her back pocket.  “Colonel Daklan.” She said by way of greeting. Even though she had known him since she was 16, she had trouble dropping the honorifics at times. 

Kyle wasn’t dressed like a Colonel. He was dressed fairly casually in a pair of sweats, and a light hoodie. He wore the watch his wife had given, and of course always had his claddagh and wedding rings on him. There was a silver device clipped to the ridge of his right ear, a device Sloane would recognize that doubled as both a phone and small computer. He closed the door behind him, but didn’t move into the room. He set his back against the door, and put his hands on the pockets of his sweatpants, regarding her. 

He’d known Sloane since she was 16. A baby really. As far as he was concerned, she was family. 

It might have made his next words surprising. “How long has it been since you fucked up?”

Sloane’s gaze stayed on Kyle, even as she flinched at the question. 

Tell him, Sloane. Tell him how you killed us. 

Her jaw clenched when Kenneth’s voice hissed in her ear and the silence in the wake of that question stretched. Sloane waited until she was confident that her voice would not shake or crack. “18 days, sir.” 

Kyle’s gave was unwavering from her face. “How many ghosts do you have?” 

Sloane’s eyes instinctively moved to each of those that haunted her. Kenneth was at her shoulder, slowly stealing her sanity with each condemnation. Lex was sitting in a chair leaning against the back with a knowingly smirk that mocked her. And Etienne… 

Etienne leaned against the wall with an encouraging smile, silently telling her to reach for the help that was being offered. 

Sloane’s eyes moved back to Kyle’s.  He had been more of a father to her than her own father. Her parents were SVT to their core,  the job always came first. And there was always a job. The Daklans’ showed up for her, they were there for her awards, her promotions, even for her birthdays. When Reyna claimed her as her own, so did her whole family. And now, when she was drowning… they showed up for her again. Her jaw worked over that emotion, and she couldn’t entirely keep it from her voice when she spoke next, “Three…sir.” 

Kyle thought that he would struggle to be a father. He really had. He’d worried so many times, that he wouldn’t know when not to be a Colonel. He wasn’t positive he’d always gotten it right, especially with Reyna. It was a hard balance right now, because he considered Sloane a daughter. He watched her face, the way her jaw worked, the glassy tint to her eyes, and he knew exactly where she was. Too well. And as much as every fatherly instinct in him wanted to hug her, and he would, that wasn’t what she needed at this very moment. 

“I want to know who they are, and what they’re telling you.” 

Sloane nodded sharply once. She opened her mouth and shut it, before she actually found a place to begin. “Alex. Lex. He hated when I called him that.” Her lip twitched like she wanted to smile, but couldn’t manage it. “He was EMC. I had known him for years. We did several missions together.” She paused, “He was the first to die.” Her fingers flexed into fists at her sides, “The HUDs were clear. They were…” She broke off, and took a slow breath, and when she spoke next her voice was steadier, “He was…freaked out by what he saw and I said the wrong thing, he got mad, stormed off. He walked right into them.” Her knuckles grew white as she continued, “I should have grabbed his arm. He would still be here if I just…” 

Her hand immediately went to her hair, before it dropped just as abruptly. Sloane was silent for a moment, her voice quiet and small, “He tells me that I still have pieces of him in my hair. That I look…” And she glanced down at her hands, and for a moment she saw red. She saw their blood sticking to her fingers, dripping from her palms and her eyes widened. Her gaze lifted from her hands and back to Kyle’s face, and for a moment all that was in her eyes, was a single desperate question, ‘what I have done?’.  

“Kenneth.” Sloane cleared her throat as the name tried to steal her voice,  “He was our engineer from SVT. He was next.” She paused, “Lex..set the grenades off that I gave him and I got pulled through a portal. I fought to stay with Kenneth, but then I wasn’t in the engine room anymore. I left him. I tried to get back but..” She took a deep breath, “His last words were for his brother.” Sloane flinched, as if someone had yelled into her ear, her eyes squeezing shut. “He says that I left him. That he died because of me. That they all died because of me. That I…don’t get to move on or be happy because…they can’t.” She swallowed roughly, “It’s true.” 

“And…Etienne…” 

The glassy tint to her eyes grew more apparent, the tears barely held at bay.  “Reyna said it’s not my fault but…they were my responsibility.  First one in…” and her voice cracked, “last one out.”

“It’s your first time isn’t it? Losing people you took responsibility for.” Kyle pushed off the wall, hands still in the pockets of his sweats and walked closer to her. “I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to think long and hard about the answer. And your ghosts don’t get to chime in because I’m your dad and I fucking said so. You ready? What do you want, Sloane? Do you want this to be it? Do you want your ghosts to run your life and make you see blood? Or do you want to do better next time?” 

Her dad? Sloane felt it when she lost the fight with her own tears and they spilled over onto her cheeks. Next time? She immediately recoiled at the idea of a ‘next’ time. Sloane took several steps back, as if taking those steps could put physical distance between herself and failing again. 

“I want to fix it.” Sloane took a steady breath, wiping at her face with her sleeve. Her eyes drifted to the ones only she could see now. “But I can’t. They’re dead, and I can’t fix that.” 

Kyle stopped when he was in front of her, his gaze on her face. There was understanding there, of a deep kind, sitting inside the gray. The kind of understanding that came with loss and living with it. “Here’s the reality of it, and you’re not going to like it. You’re going to lose people. Was it arrogant as fuck of you to think you wouldn’t? Absolutely. But, the best ones do think that, and the best ones are fucked up like you are afterwards because you understand that lives matter, that the people who trust you to be in charge, that their lives matter. So you’ve got choices now.” He reached up a gentle fatherly hand, helping clear off her cheeks. “The fact is Sloane, you don’t know how you did on that mission. You have no idea what ghost is lying to you and which one isn’t because you can’t see clearly. You can’t evaluate yourself objectively, because you don’t know how to grieve. You don’t know how to honor your dead, and send them on their way. After you’ve learned how to do that, then we’ll pick this mission apart, we’ll make you better than you already are, and we’ll find out whether you fucked up, or whether you just lost, Sloane. Because if you want to be who I think you are, you’re going to have to learn how to do that too. Catch is, you’re so good, you won’t lose often.”

“You sound like Reyna.” She smiled faintly. 

Sloane stilled when the realization hit her. The look in his eyes, the one that had always been there since she was a kid, she understood now, in a way she could never before. She had always thought it was just…from living for so long, and maybe that was still true, but it was more than that. It was… loss. It was being the one left standing when people around you fell. Sloane wanted to ask how he held on. How he kept going when it felt like that next breath wasn’t going to come. Her hand moved to her chest and that phantom feeling of something pressing against her ribcage threatened to make itself real. She could only imagine the things he’d lost in his very long life, and yet, he could still be more of a father than her own. Not that she ever held that against her parents, they had an important job to do. She always understood. But it had been lonely growing up, well, until she met Reyna. She never felt alone after her. 

Maybe that was the answer. In the moments you couldn’t fight for yourself, you fought for the ones you loved. You held on and stole that next breath for them. 

“Aren’t they the same thing?” Her voice was so quiet, like the question was a fragile thing, and maybe it was. Because it held hope, hope that she hadn’t failed the people that had counted on her. Hope in some small way, she could still fix this. 

“Losing and fucking up? No. Not even close.” There was a touch of amusement in his gaze, born from the understanding that came from the question. “But, I understand why you think that. When you fuck up, those missions will keep you up at night a little less, believe it or not. Because in that situation there’s something you can control, you can correct what you did wrong. Losing? You’ll adopt all kinds of terrible coping mechanisms for that, because it’s fucking bullshit, because it means there’s something out there that’s better than you. That’s a tough pill to swallow for people like us, but you know the reality of it, Sloane, you’ve just never had it staring you in the face before. I’ve seen the mission report. I don’t think you fucked up, I think you lost. That doesn’t mean it’s over though,” He reached up, gently touching the hand that was against her chest. “That means you’ve got new enemy now, and you’re going to learn how to beat it next time. But that comes later.”

The pain she could feel building in her chest lessened. Sloane held Kyle’s gaze for a moment, seeing the sincerity, the truth, behind his words. Her eyes shifted to those that haunted her, bloodied and broken. Sloane’s gaze moved back to Kyle’s, and there was a determination there, “What comes first?”

Eliza Neil
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