Axel listened to the log. Again and again Axel listened to the log. Even when the setting sun cast a purple glow through the large windows of his office, he listened. As the sun sank, he could almost imagine the shadows Peter described, the long tendrils reaching out and sucking away all the light.
God. He wished he had a drink. Hearing Peter’s voice hurt. A cavernous ache in his chest that only grew with every time Axel’s aching finger hit replay. But he couldn’t make himself stop. The sound of his office door opening drew his attention, though he couldn’t make himself pause the recording. Peter’s tinny voice described the planet as Axel scowled, glaring at whoever dared interrupt his ruminating.
“You didn’t knock.” he said as cooly as he could, gritting his teeth at the way his voice creaked slightly. But his agitation ebbed away as soon as he saw who it was, leaving him feeling drained and tired. He’d been feeling that since Janus returned with their grim tidings, and Axel’s world had fallen apart.
“Didn’t think I had to.” Rori said as she approached his desk, “Have you eaten today?”
“Rori.” he gave a weak imitation of his usual smile, “What brings you to my humble abode at this hour?”
“Didn’t see you leave.” she shrugged, “Got worried.”
“Aww, for little old me?” he asked as cheekily as he could, though Peter’s voice still running lowly prevented him from truly joking as he normally would. Rori eyed the device in his hand, something akin to pity sparking in her eyes that immediately put Axel on the defensive. He hated being pitied.
“Axel...” she hesitated, “What are you doing with that? I thought we’d already gotten everything we needed from it.”
“Just... doing some research.” he waved, “Seeing if I missed anything, you know? We still don’t know exactly what happened, I figured I could try to learn a little more.”
“After the two hundred and sixth time you listened, I’d assume you’d have realized that there’s nothing more to be gained.” she said gently, “Did you swipe that from the evidence locker?
“Perhaps. But I own the evidence locker, so I think I’m well within my rights.” He tetchily jabbed his finger down on the pause button, and Peter’s voice cut off in a way that made Axel’s heart clench slightly. Rori looked at him with a kind of sadness that, for a moment, reminded him of their mother.
“When’s the last time you slept?” she asked quietly, and he snorted despite himself.
“My brother is dead, and you expect me to sleep?” he asked, “Come now, Rori, you know me.”
“I do know you.” she nodded, not rising to his tone, “And I know you’re gonna run yourself into the ground chasing down whatever did this, even if it kills you.”
“Would you not do the same for any member of your team? Of your family?” Axel asked, and her frown deepened.
“Not sure I’d steal from an evidence locker, especially something I didn’t need.” and Axel tightened his grip on the recorder, fighting the irrational urge to hit play again and drown her out, to fill his ears with the voice of a ghost.
“Maybe I just wanted to hear my little brother’s voice.” he bit out, “Is that a crime?”
“If you have nothing to add to the case at this time, you should go.” he couldn’t look her in the eyes, staring at the recorder instead, “I assure you that I’m fine, you have nothing to worry about.”
“Axel, I am constantly worried about you, especially in light of recent events.” she said, and Axel made a derisive noise.
“I’m your boss. You worry about your own problems, let me handle the big ones.” Her eyes flashed at that, and her hand moved as if to take the recorder from him. Axel snatched it back before she could, clutching protectively to his chest and glaring at her, daring her to try again. She looked at him like she’d just proven some point, and he finally saw the weariness in her shoulders, the tension in the lines around her face. He felt a little bad for his behavior, but before he could apologize, she spoke.
“Axel.” she looked him in the eye, all business, “When I accepted this job offer, you were just my weird boss. Now it’s been years and I’m not afraid to call you a friend. A good friend.”
“Aww, Rori!” he grinned with an echo of playfulness, trying to lighten the mood even as he held the recorder like a lifeline, but she wasn’t done.
“And friends look out for each other.” she continued, “I promised Peter I would look after you, you know. I promised him I would keep you safe.”
“Oh. Did you, now?” he asked through the sudden lump in his throat, “How did that even come up?”
“He thought I was making moves on you and warned me about his ‘fiery wrath’ should I overstep with you.” she sighed, and Axel gave a watery laugh, emotion swelling in his chest.
“Seriously?” he laughed softly, “Who’s the big brother here, Petey? And anyway, Rori, aren’t you a huge lesbian?”
“Your brother’s gaydar sucked.” she nodded seriously, and Axel laughed again, fighting back the stinging in his eyes.
“It does.” he murmured, absently stroking the recorder, “It did.”
“I miss him.” his voice cracked as fresh tears welled up, “So much, Rori. It hurts.”
“I know.” she murmured, “But refusing to sleep and torturing yourself with those logs won’t help. You’re just hurting yourself.”
“I know.” he wiped the threat of tears away angrily, sniffling, “God, I know. But he’s my brother, Rori. My baby brother, and he’s gone and I sent him up there to die.”
“You couldn’t have known.” she said softly, eyes sad as she gently pried the recorder from his grip. He let it go without a fight, slumping back into his chair, bereft.
“It doesn’t matter.” he buried his face in his hands, “He and Chel are dead because of me. Because I thought I knew better. I couldn’t just leave him alone, I had to push. I always had to push and now he’s gone.”
“If you tell me it wasn’t my fault again, I’m promoting Declan to Head Engineer.” he sniffled, and she fell silent. They sat in silence for several moments, and then he heard Rori get up. He figured she was leaving, and thus was surprised to feel two strong arms wrap firmly around him. He stiffened, eyes flying open as she held him securely. He made a questioning noise, and she rubbed his back in gentle, soothing motions.
“You’re not alone.” she murmured, “You can cry if you need to. It’s not healthy to hold it in.”
“I don’t have to cry.” he whispered, voice hoarse, “Why should I be allowed to cry after what I did?”
“Hey.” she squeezed him slightly, cutting him off, “No. Stop blaming yourself.”
“I physically can’t do that.”
“Then just be quiet for now.” she pulled him closer, “I’m here. You’re safe. We’re gonna find out what happened and your brother will be able to rest easy. Okay?”
“Okay.” he echoed hollowly, resting his head on her shoulder.
“Axel.” she said warningly, and he sighed, slumping into her embrace.
“We’re gonna find out what happened.” he repeated, the words like ash in his mouth, “And Peter will be able to rest in peace.”
“Good.” she murmured, rubbing his back as he felt the tears threaten to break again, “It’s okay. It’s okay. You’ll be okay, Axel. You’ll be okay.”
In the dark office, in his best friend’s arms, with the ghost of his brother lurking in every shadow, Axel Crichton finally cried.