Winning the Endless War
Author: Karen T
Disclaimer: Nope, the characters aren't mine.
Classification: Post-"Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part 2," Angst
Notes: My unending thanks to Michelle and Julie for their beta help. Yeah, this was jossed by the season 2 premiere, but it was still fun to write.
Kara decides it doesn't matter how she returned to the Galactica.
It doesn't matter how long she sat crying amidst the rubble of the Delphi Museum. It doesn't matter how many times she scrambled to her feet and pointed a gun at Boom-- at the toaster she used to call Boomer while Helo yelled at her to stop. It doesn't matter how many of those pin-up blondes they had to fight before they were able to get off the planet.
None of that matters. She's not sure if anything does anymore.
The space surrounding Caprica is dark and Kara squints at the dim glow coming off her tiny computer screen.
"Be right," she says, half to herself and half to the computer, as she punches in a series of codes. She's eager to get back to the Galactica -- her impending court martial not dampening her enthusiasm -- and is sure she's calculated the jump coordinates correctly. But she's taken quite a few blows to the head and it's become more difficult to focus. Plus there's the fact she has no guarantees the Galactica is where she'd left it. The fleet could have come under Cylon attack and been forced to flee. Or the rescue operation could have gone smoothly and they'd all moved on without her.
Kara doesn't like to focus on that last scenario.
"Be right, be right," she continues to mutter. Then she holds her breath, initiates the FTL sequence, and watches the numbers count down on her screen. Her mantra changes to 'Please, please' in her head.
The world stills, just for a millisecond, and Kara closes her eyes. If she's calculated incorrectly or the fleet has moved on, then she wants to hold off the crushing disappointment for as long as she can.
She feels the atmosphere bearing down on her skin, compressing it, as the raider jumps. Kara prays to the gods to be forgiving for her trespasses.
And then the jump's over and she opens her eyes to see nothing. No ships. No vipers. Nothing but an open expanse of darkness.
Suddenly she's acutely aware of how claustrophobic it is within the raider with Helo scrunched down by her left leg and his toaster down by her right. As she's gulping air down into her lungs, willing herself to keep her dismay from Helo, her mind racing with options of what she should do next, she spins the raider around and again stops breathing.
It's large. It's looming. It's the Galactica.
"Yes!" she shouts, laughing with relief.
"Did you do it, Starbuck? Are we there?"
She doesn't know how Helo manages it, but he somehow squeezes himself up to the front of the raider, their shoulders rapping against each other every time he adjusts his position. He gasps when he sees the Galactica before them.
"I never thought I'd be so happy to see that bucket of bolts," he says, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Why, Helo, I never knew you were such a sentimental fool."
Then he's shoving her and she's shoving him back and they're both laughing as if they'd just graduated from flight school. Kara doesn't have the heart to ask him to fall back and give her the room she needs to call the Galactica, so she draws her arms underneath her chest, her muscles protesting each time they're moved, and dials with her fingers tucked under her chin.
She doesn't expect whoops of joy to greet her through her earpiece, but she also doesn't expect the silence. Her brows draw downward as she tries again.
"Galactica, this is Starbuck. Do you read?"
She can see the CAP drawing closer to her position and knows the vipers will be upon her in seconds if the Galactica doesn't call them off.
There's more silence, then a crackle, and then, "Starbuck, Galactica. We read you loud and clear." The briefest of silences follows before Dualla's back, asking, "Gods, Starbuck, is it really you?"
Kara grins at the awe in the petty officer's voice. "Yeah, it's me. You can tell everyone that I ..." She'd planned on announcing how she recovered the Arrow of Apollo, but now those words feel inadequate to her. Should she ask for forgiveness first? Do those on the Galactica, not to mention those she'd left stranded on Kobol, care she found the Arrow? She feels Helo eyeing her, so she lamely says, "You can tell everyone the mission's accomplished."
"Will do. The portside bay's ready for you. Welcome back, Starbuck."
While Kara aligns the raider with the Galactica and Helo begins scooting back down after patting her shoulder, she punches a key on the keyboard and says, "Galactica, Starbuck. Permission to speak to Galactica actual."
Silence fills her ear once more and Kara fidgets impatiently until she hears Dualla's voice.
"Uh, Starbuck, I'm not sure--"
"C'mon, Dee," Kara cajoles. "I know the old man's pissed at me, but if he heard me out, he'd--"
"Starbuck, get in here and land that frakking raider. That's an order."
"Yes, sir," she says without delay once Tigh's clipped words come across the comms link. She accelerates toward the Galactica and tries not to wonder about Dee's hesitation and the noticeable strain in Tigh's voice.
Perhaps sensing her discomfort, Helo jokingly asks, "So I take it I shouldn't expect a welcoming committee when we land?"
"Shut up," she snaps, jabbing his shoulder with her left foot to emphasize her words. "I need to focus."
Except she doesn't. And isn't.
She fears the gods may have abandoned her.
It's not until the raider's come to a full stop on the bay floor and she's about ready to crawl out of its belly that Kara realizes she never mentioned to anyone the souvenirs she brought back from Caprica. She hopes no one shoots the toaster because that would definitely kill whatever welcome back party Helo might get.
"No! Stop! She's with me!"
"Stand down! Stand the frak down!"
Helo already has his weapon out of its holster, its muzzle pointed at the man closest to him. The toaster hides behind him, its head peeking over his shoulder every now and again. Kara sees the fear in its eyes.
For a second Kara considers grabbing it and throwing it to the ravenous pack of crew members who are yelling and circling them with wrenches, pipes, and other heavy objects in their hands. But then she remembers how patient and kind Helo was when she couldn't stop crying and couldn't form coherent sentences.
Drawing her own weapon, she stands with Helo and essentially forms a human shield for the toaster. She suspects she'll hate herself for this in the morning.
"Stand down!" she again shouts, her eyes darting through the crowd for the Chief's face. She knows he'd enforce order if he saw this chaos. Then she remembers why she doesn't see him anywhere on the deck. Frak. "What the hell is wrong with you guys?"
"Sir, that ... that ... thing," a pony-tailed crewman stammers, an outstretched finger pointed accusingly at the toaster.
Kara leans toward the woman, but snaps to attention when she hears Tigh's coarse voice ask, "What the frak is going on in here?"
The sea of crewmen quickly part to make a path for Tigh, and the moment Kara makes eye contact with him, she sees him roll his eyes. "Picking fights already, Starbuck?" he asks sarcastically.
But before she has a chance to respond, a Marine grabs Tigh's arm and says, "The Cylon who shot Commander Adama. Here's another one, sir."
Tigh's eyes grow large as he stares at the toaster, then at Helo, then finally at Kara. His expression is clearly asking her to explain the situation, but she's too preoccupied to answer. What did the Marine mean by 'The Cylon who shot Commander Adama'?
Helo steps forward and again blocks the toaster from view. "She's with me, sir," he says, his words precise and steady. "She's ... pregnant. With my child."
If it were humanly possible for a bay full of crewmen and Marines to utter a collective gasp of surprise, Kara is sure one would have occurred right after Helo's announcement. Instead the bay falls silent as Tigh looks at her for corroboration. She nods.
"Dear gods," he mutters, his shoulders slumping forward as he scrubs his face with his hands. When his hands have returned to his sides, Tigh sets his mouth into a straight line and shocks everyone by drawing his own weapon. "To the sick bay," he orders, gesturing towards the doorway with the muzzle of his weapon. "Gregson, Mallory, Chiu, Jeffries. Escort our recent arrivals to Doc Cottle."
"Sir, you don't--" Helo attempts to protest, but he's quickly silenced when Tigh glares at him.
"Don't test my kindness, Lieutenant," Tigh warns. "You're lucky I'm not sending you directly to the brig. Now, go."
Helo's expression grows grave. "Yes, sir," he mumbles.
As the four Marines surround Helo and his toaster and begin leading them away, Kara rushes to Tigh's side. "Sir, what did Clyne mean when he said a Cylon had shot Commander Adama?"
"I thought I told you to go to the sick bay, Lieutenant."
"Yes, you did, but I want to know what--"
Tigh abruptly stops walking and swivels around, his face inches from hers. "A lot of has happened since you chose to leave, Starbuck. Your decision had repercussions and that's something you're going to have to learn to live with."
Kara doesn't give him the satisfaction of seeing her jaw drop, but her stomach knots up as she watches him leave.
She corners Dee soon after her forced visit with Doc Cottle.
"What happened to the commander?"
"Starbuck, I don't--"
"What the frak happened? I need to know."
"I--" Dee stops to shake her head, her eyes cast down onto the floor. "It all happened so fast."
"But what happened?"
"We were celebrating. The commander was congratulating Boomer and Racetrack for blowing up the base star. We thought we were in the clear. And the commander reached out to ... I don't know. Probably to shake Boomer's hand. Maybe even to hug her. But then she-- Oh, gods." Dee covers her mouth with her right hand and Kara watches her gasp for air. "She shot him. Boomer shot him. She just pulled her gun out and shot him.
"People started yelling. I think someone tackled Boomer. And the commander, he-- He fell back. He never made a sound. He just fell back, and the blood ... Frak, Starbuck, there was so much blood."
Kara turns and walks away.
In the span of twenty minutes she walks by the sick bay four times, pausing outside the hatch each time before continuing down the corridor. Kara's just begun circling her way back for pass number five when Tigh intercepts her.
"Have you seen the old man?" he asks. His coat is rumpled, as if he's been sleeping in his uniform; the top button is also undone, and the unfastened flap bobs up and down as he fumbles with the folders in his hands.
"Yes," she lies.
He nods curtly and looks over her shoulder at the sound of far-off laughter. "He's strong. He'll be back on his feet in no time."
Kara agrees with an unintelligible murmur and tries to extract herself from the XO's company by pointing in the general direction from which he came. He, however, doesn't appear to notice.
"I know I was rough on you when you got back today, but ..." Tigh stops himself and purses his lips. Then he meets her eyes, his gaze cold with disappointment. "The truth is, Starbuck, you deserved it. What you did? Abandoning your duties? Believing some crazy schoolteacher's ideas? That was incredibly stupid. Even for you."
Clenching her teeth, Kara nods. She knows Tigh expects her to argue, get in his face and make disparaging remarks. But she won't since she can't find fault with his comments.
"And you may think," Tigh continues, "that the old man would've been proud of you for what you accomplished, but he wouldn't have. He would've thrown you in the brig for insubordination and grand larceny. That you can be sure of."
Again she merely nods, her nails digging into her palms as she curls her fingers inward. The XO narrows his eyes, clearly thrown by her muted response. Several seconds of silence tick by, and when she remains at attention with her mouth shut, he exhales and looks away, no doubt let down that she didn't give him cause to throw her in the brig himself.
"Due to the current situation, I've placed Captain Adama on temporary leave. He doesn't know I've known done this yet, but I'm sure he'll agree we don't have his full attention, especially with him staying by his father's side. With him out of commission, that leaves you as the new CAG. Gods help us," he adds with a sneer. "Think you're up for the job? The old man always said you'd make a good CAG someday. Not that I've ever believed that."
She ignores the swipes at her ego and instead blames the sudden upsurge of her emotions on Tigh's repeated mention of 'the old man' and how little sleep she's gotten in almost seventy-two hours. It's a miracle she manages to say "It'd be an honor" without breaking down.
"Don't prove the old man wrong, Lieutenant."
With a cuff to her left shoulder that leaves her slightly off-balance, Tigh abandons her to her thoughts. They, unfortunately, aren't in much better shape than her sense of equilibrium.
She doesn't know if it's because she's regarded as a loose canon within the fleet or because her dealings with Leoben have become completely exaggerated, but Kara finds herself on the receiving end of more questions than she wants regarding Shar-- Boom-- the toaster who shot the commander.
"She just sits there, Lieutenant! She won't say anything. She won't answer our questions. All she does is cry and say she doesn't know anything but that she's sorry. What do you think we should do?"
Kara shifts her eyes up without moving her head and stares down the young Marine before her. Even though her hands have curled up into fists, she reminds herself to breathe in through her nose, out through her mouth, and not punch the Marine. The poor guy hasn't done anything particularly offensive to her -- at least he waited until after she showered and changed her clothes, unlike several of his buddies. But she's reached her limit when it comes to toaster questions.
How should she know what to do? She's not a Cylon expert; that would be Dr. Baltar. Except he's still missing on Kobol, thanks in part to her. And while she might have considered herself friends with the toaster, she was definitely not as close to it as Tyrol had been. Except he, too, is still missing on Kobol.
Worst of all, she wasn't even here when the commander was shot.
Kara snaps her attention back to the Marine and sees him fidget under her stare.
"She won't talk?" Kara asks, her tone brusque.
"Yes. I mean, no. I mean, she won't answer our questions."
"Well then, let's give her something to talk to."
She pivots and marches down a corridor before taking a left, another left, and then a right. The Marine's staccato steps tell her he's struggling to keep up.
"Lieutenant, where are we--"
She throws open a hatch and sees Dr. Cottle look up from the clipboard on which he'd been scribbling.
"Starbuck," he says, impassively glancing at her before sliding his gaze to the Marine behind her. "Your knee bothering you?"
"No, knee's good. You done here?" Kara tilts her chin toward the other occupant of the room.
"Yes, I'm done."
"Starbuck," the toaster -- the other toaster -- protests when Kara grabs its left arm and pulls it to its feet.
Kara cuts it off by pushing it forward. "Move." And then, to the Marine, "Shoot it if it doesn't follow my directions."
The trio passes several groups of Galactica personnel as they wind through the various passageways, but everyone provides them with a wide berth and no one asks Kara what she's doing.
She knows only Lee or his father would have asked.
No one says a word until they reach the brig and Kara bangs on the hatch to request entrance. Not even the Marine who opens that hatch dares question Kara or the toaster's presence.
The toaster behind bars stands the second it sees Kara.
"Starbuck, Kara, thank gods you're here. You have to help me. I don't know what happened. I swear. Something inside me-- I didn't mean to hurt the commander. I don't even remember doing it. Is he okay? They won't tell me anything about him. Is he--"
Kara silences it by holding up a hand. "Since you can't seem to remember what we want to know, maybe this'll help jog your memory." She reaches back and pulls Helo's toaster towards the bars.
One of the Cylons utters a soft gasp -- Kara can't tell them apart -- as they stare at each other. She watches their expressions, wishes for them to despair, to beg for forgiveness and mercy.
She wants them to break.
But then she realizes they won't break because they're not human.
"Starbuck, can I tell you a secret?" "Is this about the Chief? Because we all kind of already know." "Frak, are we really that obvious?" "Don't worry about it, Sharon. It's sweet. But ..." "What?" "Sharon and Galen, sitting in a tree." "That's not funny, Starbuck." "K-I-S-S-I--" "Kara!"
She can still hear the laughter and it takes everything within her to keep herself from flinching. She won't break either. She can't.
"Have you ever been in love, Kara?" "Gods, we are not going to have this dis--" "Just answer the question." "No, I'm not-- I don't know. Maybe. Once." "I think I might be." "Really? Well, that ... that's cool, Sharon. Just be careful, okay? Love can hurt you like nothing else. Trust me."
The Cylon she'd considered her friend is the first to look away from its double. "I'm sorry, Starbuck," it whispers, the features of its face contorting from grief. "You have to believe me."
"No!" The word explodes from Kara's chest and she finds herself rushing the bars, wrapping her fingers around the steel and pulling as she strains to get as close to the toaster as she can. "I don't have to believe you," she hisses, her heart pounding so loudly in her ears that she care barely hear the roar of her thoughts. "And you want to know why? You're not human. You don't get to ask for forgiveness. You don't get my sympathy. You're nothing and I'll kill you myself. I'll kill you, Sharon. I'll--"
Kara yanks her shoulders out of the Marine's hands and stalks out of the brig. The sight of the toaster -- scared, weeping -- fills her mind and she's pleased, she savors it. She thinks it might just be enough to get her through the night.
But then, fifteen paces later, she stops dead in her tracks and is forced to press a hand to the nearest wall to maintain her balance.
She'd called the toaster 'Sharon'.
"Have you gone to see the president?" Dee asks, apropos of nothing as they both make their way to the CIC. "She's back on Colonial One, under twenty-four hour Marine surveillance. It's supposedly for her protection, but it's really because Tigh wants to make sure she doesn't try something stupid while he's preoccupied. She'll probably be glad to hear you found the Arrow of Apollo."
"Frak the president," Kara says, her face emotionless.
She doesn't really mean it, but she doesn't really not mean it either.
Things have never felt so uncertain.
It's midway through the third shift when Kara realizes how impossible it is to outrun your problems when onboard a battlestar. There are only so many levels to climb, so many hatches to throw open, so many turns to take before you're back where you started. In her case, everything starts and ends at the sick bay.
She stares at its hatch and sighs.
One would think that being CAG meant having an overabundance of duties, but she found out the hard way how untrue that was. She called all active pilots to the Ready Room to keep them appraised of what was happening and to encourage them in her own special way ("Let's make the old man proud. Good hunting, people."). She walked to the CIC and stood in a back corner as she pretended that her presence was Very Important to keeping everyone on their toes. She interrupted a card game and yelled at the nuggets for making a mess.
All of that took her no more than an hour to do.
In desperation, she volunteered to lead the third shift CAP and got as far as sliding into the cockpit of a viper before Tigh learned of her antics and ordered her to stand down. While he glared at her and asked if she had a death wish -- "When was the last time you slept, Lieutenant? A CAG should be smarter than this." -- she could tell he was actually impressed by what he probably thought was her resolve. She wasn't surprised that he didn't see her true motivation.
Sent to her quarters like a misbehaving five-year-old, she stayed there for thirty minutes, first standing with her back pressed against a wall, then lying prone on her rack, then sitting on the floor with her knees bent and folded into her chest. Her palm started to itch, and her feet yearned to run while her mind flooded with thoughts that bounced off each other, meshed together, grew louder and louder until she shot to her feet and did run.
Sweat slicked her back and gathered under her armpits, around her waistband, along her hairline as she stormed through the Galactica, her feet pounding down the corridors.
But that was several loops up, down, and around the Galactica ago. Now she's just outside the sick bay, bent at the waist, her palms pressed against her thighs as she struggles to catch her breath.
She's familiar with guilt, she admits, after having carried the burden of it for over two years. But she's practically paralyzed by it now.
"Be sure that whatever you're going to do, you're not going to regret it later."
Too late for that, she thinks as she spins the hatch lock and walks in.
Perhaps out of respect to the commander's rank or Lee's privacy, the main section of the sick bay has been emptied for the sole use of the Adamas. As expected, Lee sits by his father's bedside, his back to her.
The hatch clangs shut and her footsteps sound like strikes of lightning, but Lee doesn't turn. Kara hesitates and wonders if she made a grave error by intruding. She knows that despite whatever rationalizations she can spout, the truth will always be that she abandoned those who consistently believed in her, consistently forgave her, consistently loved her.
The urge to flee thrums through her body.
She's never been good at standing still. To be still is to be stagnant. And if you're stagnant, then you might as well be dead.
"You always been this morbid, Kara?"
Kara sucks in a shallow breath and gives her head a firm shake to dislodge the whisper of Zak's voice. And as the commander's face comes into view, she chokes down a gasp. She's never seen him so still.
The bed sheet has been pulled up to his chin and she can't help but notice how pale his complexion is. He's sleeping -- gods, she hopes he's sleeping -- and she's compelled to grip his shoulders and shake him hard. She wants him to wake. She needs him to wake. She needs him to listen to her apologies and watch her struggle not to cry.
But he just lies there, still.
Kara can feel her knees shaking.
Turning in the direction of the groggy voice, she sees Lee squint at her before rubbing his eyes with the butts of his hands. All her fears that he hadn't acknowledged her because he was angry were apparently misguided; he'd just been asleep.
"Heard you were back," he says, his words still shaking off the tinge of slumber.
She nods. The words she has to say are for his father and she doesn't quite trust what would come out of her mouth if she tried to speak to Lee.
He stares at her with one brow slightly arched. He's no doubt puzzled by this demure version of her. "Also heard you found Helo, with a toaster attached. Was it hard getting back with them in tow? Run into any trouble?"
"It doesn't matter," she says, her voice hushed.
She doesn't have to look at Lee to know he's still watching her with curiosity. "Kara--"
A swift glare makes him swallow the rest of his sentence, but he returns the glare and adds an eye roll for good measure. She's wallowing in self-pity and they both know it. She can tell from his posture -- the rolled back shoulders and forward lean -- that he wants to tell her to knock it off. But instead he says, his tone patient, "He's going to be fine. The bullets didn't-- Doc Cottle said the main thing he needed was blood transfusions, which he got."
She opens her mouth to ask where they'd managed to obtain enough blood for multiple transfusions when she catches sight of the white bandage wrapped around the middle of Lee's arm. Of course. Lee's family; she's not. Never has been, never will be.
"I should go." Amidst the sterility of the sick bay, she tells herself she shouldn't be standing there in her grimy tanks with the odor of her sweat a disruptive contrast to the sweet tang of rubbing alcohol.
The wise-ass. The screw-up. The perpetual occupant of the brig. That's who she is and where she belongs. There's no room for her beside the commander. Maybe that's something she's always known.
The screech of sliding metal resonates in the room, and she looks down to see Lee pushing a chair towards her with his feet. Without moving her head, she shifts her eyes up and to the right. Lee's smiling. "If you're going to stick around, Kara, you might as well have a seat."
She's aware of what he's doing and her temper is ignited by it. Sympathy is something Lee does best and while she's not surprised by it, she also doesn't want any part of it. She doesn't deserve it. "Lee, I--"
"Just sit down, okay?" he snaps. "So you screwed up. Big deal. Wait until I tell you what I was doing while you were gone. Anyway, I want you here and he does too."
A chin tilt directs Kara's attention back to the commander. She can still hear all the lies he told her, as well as all the accusations she hurled back before disappearing to Caprica. If only she could retract her bitter words. If only she hadn't allowed his lies and her anger to destroy everything.
"I frakked up," she says to no one in particular.
"We all did," Lee says solemnly. "It's what makes us human."
With her clothes too dirty and her skin too clammy and her conscious too weighed down with guilt, Kara wants to argue and make Lee see that she might be human, but she's no better than Sharon. But then his hand is around her wrist and he's pulling her down.
"Just sit, okay?"
She has her arguments prepared and her feet are ready to run once again, but when she turns to tell Lee that she's a lost cause his family should never have concerned themselves with, the steady tug of his hand makes her hesitate. And in that moment, she realizes how much she's depended on that familiar Adama pull.
She may not be family and they may not need her, but she needs them. So she sits.
And for the first time since returning to the Galactica, or maybe even since the initial Cylon attack, she's still. No yelling, no running, no fighting. It's just her, alone with her thoughts and two of the three men who've consistently believed in her, consistently forgiven her, consistently loved her.
With the future an unknown and humanity on the brink of extinction, maybe some things still mattered after all. Maybe some things always would.