Title: Penultimate
Author: A.j.
Rating: Parental Guidence suggested for those under the age of 13.
Fandom: "Battlestar Galactica", Dad and Mom. Speculation fic (again), but no spoilers other than season 1.
Notes: For Little Red, who wanted something like this and who's had a bad day. Or an odd day. Or just a day. Mistakes are my own.

Summary: Beginnings mean nothing without endings.

&&&

She collapses while going over reports in his quarters.

They are going over the data she's to present to the Quorum in the next day's briefing. One minute, they're laughing about where Hamilton had dug up the hat he'd been wearing for the last meeting, and the next she is slumped over on the floor, shaking and bleeding from where her head glanced off his coffee table.

He thinks his voice cracks when he calls the medics.

&

"Goddamn." Cottle looks resigned over his clipboard. The weeks have not been kind to the doctor. Being one of the only certified physicians in the fleet has had him moving from ship to ship, training medics and assessing wounded and damages almost non-stop. Bill thinks he looks tired and more than a little worn. But not surprised.

Not in the least bit surprised.

"What's going on?"

The older man checks something off on his chart, and steps back to let a younger medic pass him. Then shrugs. "Looks like the cancer's gone to the brain."

The world takes a dramatic and rather airless pause for William Adama.

"Excuse me, what?"

Cottle ignores him to adjust the unconscious woman's IV line. He runs a hand over her forehead and makes a noncommittal noise. "I'm surprised she's lasted this long, really. Stubborn woman. She should be in and out now, until she's gone."

The doctor sighs with something Bill things might be regret, and shrugs his shoulders. "Damn shame."

"She has cancer?"

Cottle glances back then, vague amusement settling across his face. It alters a moment later. Bill's never liked pity. Hates it more than realizing that someone knows things he doesn't.

He stiffens his back, draws himself in and faces his subordinate.

"Tell me everything."

&

He feels infinitely stupid. Angry and lost and terrified and infinitely stupid. He can see it now. The illness. A hundred little details he'd marked down to exhaustion and stress now glaringly different in the harshly dim light of the infirmary.

Loss of weight. Tired bruises under her eyes. The odd space out during briefings.

Different pieces, same puzzle.

He wants to scream at her for this. Grab her by the shoulders and shake her until he stops being angry and she starts getting well.

He can't do this by himself. Gods, he really, really can't.

She is asleep in the medcot, still dressed in her button-up white shirt with the mend in the shoulder from where she'd tripped and ripped it on his bookshelf.

And in that instant he's overwhelmed at how much of his life she dominates. The tiny things - she actually likes the porridge in the mess - and the big things – mentally screaming at her in his head, and not his son, while they were running from his search dogs - and everything in between. Her sitting in his chair and laughing at him while wiggling her bare feet in his carpet. Smiling uncertainly, listening as he talks himself into or out of a problem.

A partner. Something like a friend.

He thinks the pain in his chest might be grief. But it's probably just rage. At the woman sleeping, hand curled towards her cheek, before him.

This woman who is dying. Laura who is dying.

He can't stay here now. Can't face this and its enormity.

And he still has to brief the Quorum.

The walk back to his quarters is long and fuzzy, and when he finally steps through the door the sight of her blood stops him cold.

Eventually, he gathers their papers and goes to work in command.

&

He says nothing when Gauis Baltar settles into the President's chair in the meeting. Just grits his teeth and schedules a briefing with the man for the next day. Then nods when the Quorum schedules the elections for the next week.

On his way back to command, he asks Murphy to get the blood off of his floor.

&

Two days later, he finds himself standing in the infirmary. He'd seen his son walk by on his way in. Had stopped to get a status report from a rather stunned corpsman. Apparently, the toilets on deck four are now working.

When he turns back, Lee's most of the way down the hall, shoulders drooped.

The pit in his stomach opens just a bit wider.

She's awake and sitting up. Her glasses on and sliding towards the end of her nose, she's reading something on a memo pad. For one single instant, everything that's been wrong and strange the last three days rights itself and the world makes sense.

Then he notices that the memo pad is resting on her lap, and her arms are limp at her sides.

Anger and fear burn hard. He almost turns to go, but her voice stops him in his tracks.

"I know you're pissed at me. Stop skulking around the curtain and get in here, Commander."

Despite himself, he chuckles. But her tactics work. He moves to the bed. Tilts his head and watches her.

She mirrors his pose. "Might as well say what's on your chest."

"You should have told me." He doesn't mean to sound as hurt as he does. She flinches at this and shrugs a little.

"I made my choices, Bill." It's the first time she's called him that. He knows why she's doing it now, and smashes down the flare of irritation. Damn woman's trying to play him on her deathbed. But then, it wouldn't really be her if she didn't make the attempt.

"Since you first came on board?"

She nods. "I was just supposed to decommission your ship and go home. Start treatment."

"And you did this alone?" Can't imagine that. Can't even frakking imagine dying like this and still fighting so others could live.

"No." He watches her fingers twitch on the beige fabric of her blankets. Absently, he notes that she is wearing her cardigan. She looked small in it. Alone. "Billy knew. From the first. And he was there."

He doesn't know what to say to that, so he just nods.

They are silent.

She shifts on her bed. Scooting forward as much as she can. Trying to lie down.

He wonders if he should go. Give her a moment.

"Can you help me?" She darts her eyes away, studying something across the room. "I can't really move too well right now."

And that quiet little admission guts him.

His hands are shaking as he tugs her feet toward the end of the bed through the blankets. She uses her torso to scoot slowly, and once she's situated, he moves around the side of her bed to readjust her arms. Folds them over her stomach before looking around for a chair. He finds one behind the next bed and settles into it.

He waits.

"I'm sorry." She isn't looking at him. Is staring over at her bedside tray, decidedly not looking at him. "I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything."

He almost laughs at that. Doesn't. Just sits and listens to her breathing even out.

When she's sleeping, he runs a finger across the strand of hair hanging off her pillow. He remembers how it looked in the artificial sunlight of the Rising Star, and thinks it's softer than he imagined it.

&

He comes back the next day after his shift is over, the collected works of Ellini Kyokara under his arm. Takes the chair he'd used the day before, and settles down and opens to the first short story. His voice is rusty on the metered verses, and he stumbles a bit. But his audience is asleep, and by the time he has to get up for a glass of water, the words are coming easily and sure.

Somewhere between the humorous adventures of Kyokara's young lovers and their eventual tragic downfall, he hears her breathing change. Lets himself come to a natural pause in the prose before stopping to wait.

It doesn't take long.

"You came back."

"I did."

"You're still pissed."

"Not gonna change any time soon."

She smiles, then grimaces. He knows she's probably rejected pain killers at this point. It's what he'd have done. There are thousands of others who might need them more. Thousands who'd live.

He reaches over then, and for the first time since they met in the hallway not two decks below them, takes her hand. "I wouldn't know what to say either, Laura."

I don't know what to do, he doesn't say.

She opens her eyes, smiling that secretive little smirk. Later, he he'll remember it as the last time he sees her and not the madness. Not the sickness.

"You'll do fine," she says. "If not. Well. Not much further we can fall."

He smiles at her through the big lump of emotion that's balled in his chest. Because there's nothing else he can do. She's done so much in the last weeks, for everyone but herself. He can do this for her. "We'll see. Go to sleep, Laura. It's okay. I'll be here for a while more."

Her hand is warm and dry in his as he reopens the book and finishes the story.

-fin-