Author's Note: Thank you to everyone who has been reading and reviewing my series! I finally seem to be getting over the writer's block that has been plaguing me along with other RL business, and Episode Five: The Domino Effect is finally getting itself written. Yay, yay, yay!

Enjoy!

# # #

Part Four – A Spine of Steel

Nurse Marceline Jett took the small pale body from Cottle's hands; the tiny limbs flopping limply as she lowered the little form to the towel-covered table. Blue tinged from lack of oxygen, eyes slitted half shut. She worked swiftly with barely steady hands as Cottle paused in his own hurried work for a scant second,

"Is…?" He asked roughly, sentiment choking his throat. Marceline paid no mind to him, suctioning the mucus from the baby's mouth and throat and working over the little body,

"Breathe, baby, breathe." She whispered desperately, feeling totally inadequate. Marceline had only been working as a surgical nurse for a month. Two surgeries, to be precise, and she had never practiced obstetrics before.

"Come on, breathe!"

Her thoughts raced. They kept flicking back to those awful moments, the worst Marceline had experienced in her six months of nursing.

…The baby had been low down in the pelvis when Doc Cottle had opened Sharon up, head already moving into the birth canal. Cottle had sworn as he had freed the baby, hauling it through the comparatively small incision in Sharon Agathon's belly with no little effort. He had snapped for scissors and a cord clamp, and Marceline had retrieved them, heart racing and hands sweaty. Her stomach had lurched sickly as she'd looked at the horribly limp newborn Cottle cradled against his chest as his fingers fiddled urgently at the neonate's neck.

"Type B nuchal cord. You're gonna have to snip it."

Marceline had stared in terror for a split second, and then her body had automatically sprung into action. Clamp affixed, fingers scrabbling, slipping on the slick cord, trying to hook between the baby's tiny, fragile neck and the cord. She had managed it after what felt like an age, and slid the scissors gingerly through next to her fingers, gasping and flinching as the scissors slipped and scraped the baby's neck slightly. A tracery of red blood appeared on the soft flesh, and Marceline had whimpered and chastised herself as the scissors closed around one loop of the cord and cut. It had been surprisingly gristly and tough, but the surgical blades made short work of the first loop, and then the next, and the baby was free. Marceline had taken it from Cottle so he could turn his attention back to Sharon Agathon; tied down to the table so she didn't struggle if she woke, head lolling from the ether that Nora Oriana was applying, innards exposed to the room…

"Breathe!" Marceline pleaded, and then tears rushed to her eyes and she exhaled, a rush of disbelief and triumph as the baby's chest suddenly lifted and it inhaled sharply. Seconds later a thin wail issued weakly from its lips, and Marceline grinned, elation lighting her strained face.

"Oh good baby, good," She glanced down as she wrapped the skinny wrinkled body up in the towel it lay on,

"Good boy." She finished, heart beating exultantly in her chest, tense muscles finally giving in to the tremors she had been suppressing. The newborn boy kept yowling; thin, reedy cries, and Marceline cuddled him to her chest and rocked him gently, uttering little hushing sounds from her lips. She checked him over, taking his Apgar score – one when she had first taken him from Cottle, the baby now was a six, and as his crying grew ever louder and cheeks began to flush pink, she upgraded it,

"He's got an Apgar of seven, Doctor."

"Good." The one, reticent word expressed a wealth of emotion, and Marceline smiled down at the baby, and then up at Cottle. He was still busy with Sharon, and Marceline felt a slight twinge, looking at the unconscious woman. She hoped she made it – it wouldn't be fair if she died, not now.

"Once you're finished, take him out to his father, Marcy." Cottle told her without looking up. Marceline nodded, realised he couldn't see her and assented verbally, unwrapping the rapidly pinking body to do a more extensive check of the wee baby, ecstatic with relief.

# # #

Cottle's fingers were quick and nimble inside Sharon Agathon's opened up abdomen as the door swung shut behind Marcy. The damage was severe – the rupture had split her uterus like an overripe fruit. He could repair it well enough that it wouldn't need to be removed, but there was no way in hell that having children would ever be on the cards for her again. Her uterus was too weakened by the trauma sustained; another pregnancy would likely end in death for her and the foetus. She was unconscious, her husband was a wreck, and Cottle had to make a decision now. He paused in his motions, ignoring Nora's curious look, his hands poised above the incision. Godsdamnit. There was too high a possibility that Sharon could accidentally fall pregnant again – and it was a risk Cottle wasn't willing to allow.

"I'm going to perform a supracervical hysterectomy, Nora."

"Yes, Doctor." She replied briskly, glancing up at him with a question in her eyes, but saying nothing as she monitored Sharon's condition. Cottle didn't explain; he didn't need to justify the decision. It was the right one – the best option available. Cottle only hoped the Agathons agreed.

"Heartbeat stable, blood pressure low but steady." Nora informed Cottle, as she had periodically throughout the surgery and he nodded. The small operating theatre fell away, as he focused his full attention on Sharon Agathon's body. Cottle needed to make this quick – it wasn't good for Sharon to be under too long; especially with the amount of blood she had lost. Cottle cleared and centred his mind on the task in front of him, pushing away worries and doubts, putting total trust in his skill to keep Sharon alive.

# # #

Helo was huddled bent over on a chair in the hallway, head sunk into his hands, eyes red-rimmed and throat dry from retching earlier. It had been just over half an hour since he had been forcibly ejected from the theatre, and no one had told him yet whether Sharon was alive or dead. Helo's mind cringed and whimpered away from the thought, and he scraped his fingers over his scalp, small jerky motions, looking up at the wall opposite him, where the door to the theatre loomed. He couldn't hear a thing, and he had only gotten a sliver of a glimpse into the room, when the nurse had stuck her head out and called for another nurse, seeing him there and scurrying back in. And then, a few moments after that, Helo had seen Cottle standing by Sharon's body as the called for nurse rushed into the room, clicking the door shut behind her.

"Gods."

She could be lying in there dead by now. Already gone, and he wouldn't know. Helo jiggled his legs with nervous energy, wanting to get up and pace, wanting to curl into a ball and cry, and settling for staying where he was, eyes fixed on the plain grey door.

He couldn't live without Sharon. He couldn't. They had been through so much together. Been through so much to be together – to even have a chance at what was easy for other people. So many things they had overcome, so many rules they had broken and attitudes they had fought against. And then finally, when they were accepted as just another family among many, this happened. It was like the gods hated him. The thought repeated in his head over and over – she couldn't die. He couldn't live without her. He couldn't live without her.

Tears leaked from his eyes and Helo couldn't summon up the energy to wipe them away, as hopelessness consumed him.

He watched the door, waiting for it to open, and dreading it opening. Expecting Cottle to come out with a grim expression, and tell him the worst. Tell him that Sharon was gone. Helo swallowed and it hurt, but the pain was minor compared to what he was feeling, and he ignored it.

A reel of life without Sharon rolled through his head, and Helo couldn't stop himself from imagining all the moments. Telling Hera. Trying to make her understand that her mama would never be coming back. Lying in bed at night without her next to him. Looking forward to seeing her when he got back from a hunt, only for her to not be there. Milestones in Hera's life that would not be shared with Sharon. Moments that she would never get to see. Seeing the Eights, and being reminded of Sharon every single time. Reminded of his loss.

He watched the door, and with each moment that ticked by, the certainty of Sharon's death grew in Helo's mind, rooting itself there tortuously. He was dragged down, further and further down into dark grief, any hope that Sharon might live crushed beneath the weight of fear.

Helo's hands clenched into fists and his breathing came jaggedly as he held back sobs.

He watched the door through a wavering sheen of tears.

It opened.

His heart stopped.

A nurse stepped through – a solid woman with short dark hair and mahogany skin, holding something in her arms and smiling gently at Helo. She shut the door behind her, held out the bundle, nodding down at it and then at him. A muted cry emerged from the bundle of blanket. Helo blinked, eyes widening with sudden comprehension, body tensing with hope. In all his fear for Sharon, he had forgotten about…

"It's a boy, Mr Agathon." The nurse said in a low, melodic voice, holding out the white bundle still, and Helo felt a wild joy bubble up inside. The despair vanished, shoved aside entirely as he processed what the nurse meant. He shot to his feet and crossed the hallway with quick, tense steps, and looked down at the bundle the nurse was still proffering to him.

"It's…it's…" He stared at the baby dumbfounded, mind blank. The nurse smiled and pushed the baby gently at Helo, and he took it with careful hands, cradling the bundle close to his chest and absorbing every little feature.

"He's your son, Mr Agathon." The nurse answered helpfully, a slight smile on her face as Helo flicked a glance up at her.

"My son." Tiny almond-shaped eyes squinting up at Helo's face, whimpers coming from small thin lips, a tiny thatch of dark hair sticking up, round cheeks flushed pink. He was beautiful. Perfect. Helo gazed down at him wonderingly.

"My son." He repeated again in a bemused voice, shifting the baby into one arm and stroking one plump cheek with a finger. The little head swivelled and small mouth opened and shut hungrily as the baby rooted for a nipple. When none was forthcoming he scrunched up his face and let loose with a wail. Helo blinked and jolted, looking helplessly up at the nurse.

As he did, thoughts of Sharon returned, hitting him hard and he paled.

"Sharon?" He asked fearfully, rocking his son in his arms until the baby quieted. The nurse made a sympathetic face, and Helo's heart skipped and raced.

"She's still in surgery. But she's stable, so far, and Dr Cottle is a good surgeon."

"She's not dead?" Helo asked in a soft, blank voice, and the nurse looked startled, shook her head vehemently,

"No, no, Mr Agathon – she's not dead. No." She touched his shoulder in a comforting gesture and smiled at him hopefully,

"The odds are good." She said sincerely, and Helo mulled the words over carefully and then nodded.

"Good. That's good, then." And a little of his returned terror receded.

He looked down at his son again; working from a whimper back up to a full-blown wail.

"I think he's hungry." He said inanely. Such a mundane thing to be worried about while Sharon was lying opened up in the theatre, her survival not yet assured. The nurse nodded decisively,

"Of course he is, poor wee thing. Come on, follow me, Mr Agathon, and I'll make you up some sugar-water to feed him in a dropper." She smiled, speaking loudly to be heard over the baby's wails,

"He's a hungry little fellow, and he needs something to keep him going until his mama can give him a proper meal." She looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to follow her, and then seemed to realise Helo's reluctance to leave Sharon. She patted his arm, her cheery matter-of-factness disorienting Helo,

"Come on, Mr Agathon. Your wife is in good hands, and there's nothing you can do here. Your little one, on the other hand, needs his father to take care of him."

Helo let the nurse lead him away. Every step seemed to take an immense effort, and his instincts screamed at him not to go, not to leave her. He wanted to be there, had to be there, just in case… But then the baby wailed even louder, the pitch taking on a frantic timbre, and Helo found himself mercifully distracted by his small son.

# # #

It was good weather this afternoon. Pleasant. The sun was shining in a sky filled with drifts of white cloud, and the breeze was cooler than usual; a balm on the skin. Manya walked along slowly, full from lunch, drowsy from the heat – which while less than usual, was still intense – and not looking forward to the Council meeting. This was an issue that she sincerely wished had never arisen. One of those issues that never did anything but divide and cause tension and rifts, and the Councillors already had enough of those. She sighed, taking off her wide-brimmed sunhat and supplemented the light breeze by fanning herself with it, her high-heels making small clouds of dust in the street as she walked. Manya had never seen Romo as openly emotional as he had been at the last meeting. She had seen him express slight states of annoyance, disinterest, or pain at meetings – but never, ever had she seen such open anger. It was not a good thing. Not a good thing at all.

She understood his anger – she was in favour of revoking Roslyn's abortion law herself – but the degree of emotion he felt, and the expression of it in front of the other Councillors, now that was not good. It exposed his vulnerability in front of the Councillors who would happily try to find a way to exploit it. Not that the they could do anything outright, but what they could get away with was unpleasant enough.

When Sarah, the Cylon Eight had been appointed to the Council, the little alliance composed of Sheridan, Tercel and Jeffries had been highly displeased. They had dismissed Sarah's input during meetings, discreetly mocked her, voted against her in the motions she brought to the table, and, Manya suspected they were behind several incidents of vandalism. Graffiti scrawled across Sarah's house in the night. The incidents had upset the Eight greatly, and over time in response to the harassment, Sarah had begun to contribute less and less at Council meetings.

Manya saw her as a client, and she knew just how much Sheridan, Tercel and Jeffries had impacted Sarah. Not to mention that the end result of the campaign of harassment had destabilised Sarah's position on the Council, leading several of the other Councillors to distrust and dismiss her opinions. It didn't seem to the common observer like Sheridan, Tercel and Jeffries had done much, but their actions had effectively neutralised Sarah as a force of power on the Council. And they had done it in such a way that there was no option for recourse, no way to halt their campaign of harassment without looking reactionary. The injustice of it was a thorn in Manya's side.

Romo would not be so easily affected by such harassment, but still… Manya did not want to see Romo having to deal with trumped up accusations of his objectivity being compromised, of bias – the sorts of things that Tercel, Sheridan and Jeffries would put forward if they thought such tactics had a chance of hurting his image in the eyes of the non-allied Councillors, and thus weakening his political position.

She sighed, setting her hat back on her head and turned left down a narrow dirt street. Manya did not understand or like politics. She wished that she had never let Romo talk her into taking a position on the Council. Half the time she felt useless and ignorant; her only purpose to assure Romo a vote. Which it was, really.

Gods. Romo was a manipulative bastard. Manya was all too aware that he had her wound around his little finger. She would get irritated, argue with him, protest…and he would disarm her, finagle her into accepting the situation, whatever it might be. Sometimes she hated that about him, but most of the time she didn't have it in her to hate him. Her other, more positive feelings were too strong. Godsdamn him and his innate charm. Manya smiled to herself ruefully. If only he could apply his charm to Sheridan, Tercel and Jeffries. The mental picture of Romo trying to sweet-talk the three men around to his point of view amused Manya immensely.

The sun had passed behind a cloud, providing a blessed reprieve from its heat as Manya continued toward Romo's home, smiling at an elderly man sitting in the shade of makeshift awning in front of his house. Then Manya paused on the side of the road, cocking her head to the side. She glanced down a narrow, shaded alley between two buildings. She thought she had heard something. Manya narrowed her eyes and squinted into the shade, taking a step forward.

"Hello?" She called, and heard the sound again. A low whimper that crawled up her spine eerily. Mana licked her lips and took another step forward, feeling oddly nervous.

"Hello? Is anybody th–" She gasped as she saw a small shape, and stepped into the shade between the two buildings, suddenly worried, and as her eyes adjusted she saw what the shape was.

"Jake." Manya murmured, crouching down and holding out a hand. He looked up at her through bleary eyes and whined, seeming to recognise her. She bit her lip, holding out her hand and coaxing him closer with encouragements and gestures. He was balanced on three legs, the front left bent so his paw dangled a few inches off the ground, and his chest fur was matted and wet with what looked like blood. Manya winced as Jake stumbled a little closer, and then his legs seemed to give out and he crumpled to the ground with a weak yelp.

"Oh gods, Jake. What happened, boy?" She shuffled to his side on her knees, tentatively reaching out and stroking the silky fur of his head. His ear twitched in reaction, and one dull eye rolled to fix on her, but he made no other response.

"You're all right boy. It's okay." Manya soothed as she carefully – not wanting to risk a nip if she hurt him – parted the sticky fur on the left side of his chest. Jake whimpered, but was still.

"Oh gods, Jake." Manya's heart sank as her fingers pushed his long fur aside to uncover a ragged wound in the dog's chest, like a spear had… The natives, it must have been the godsdamned natives, she realised. Manya swore, feeling shaky as she eyed Romo's dog. She had no idea how Jake had managed to get back to Landfall from wherever he had been attacked with that awful hole in him. He must have dragged himself back here… Tears sprang to Manya's eyes and she stood, hovering over Jake and vacillating over what to do. She bent and tried to pick him up and he was too weak to even complain at the pain it must have caused.

"Frak." She swore as she tried and failed to lift him up.

"It's okay, Jake. I'm coming back." She told the dog stupidly, and with a pat to his flank, hurried out onto the street. She needed someone to carry Jake to the hospital. They didn't have a vet in Landfall – or at least, they did, but she was working as a nurse cum doctor, so the hospital was the best place for the dog. Manya glanced around desperately, and as luck would have it, a couple of patrol officers were passing through the intersection to her left. Manya kicked off her stupid restrictive high-heels and holding her hat on her head so it wouldn't fly off, ran barefooted down to the two LPOs, yelling,

"Wait! Wait! Please, stop!"

They stopped and spotted her, no doubt looking ridiculous, she thought, running madly down the street in her nicest dress, barefoot and hat crumpled askew. She skidded to a halt in a puff of dust,

"The – the President's dog. I found him, injured, just up there," She pointed,

"He needs to go to the hospital, and I can't carry him, he's too heavy."

Part of Manya's mind wondered if they thought she was stupid, so upset over a dog, but one she recognised, Salty, just asked,

"Jake?"

Manya nodded, breathless from her short sprint.

"Okay. Dixon, you keep on patrolling – I'll take care of this." Salty told the other LPO, and then turned calm eyes on Manya,

"Where is he?"

Manya led Salty to where she had found Jake, and he was still slumped in the dirt there, although marks in the ground made it seem like he had been trying to drag himself further. Trying to make it back to Romo. Oh gods, Romo. If Jake died, he would be devastated.

"Gods, he's in a bad way isn't he?" Salty asked rhetorically as he very gently scooped Jake up, cradling the dog in his arms. Manya swallowed and nodded, staring at Jake, his head lolling on Salty's tattooed arm, fur all matted and sticky with blood.

"I'll get him to the hospital, Ms Yelizarov, don't worry 'bout that. Maybe you ought to tell the President…"

"Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you." Manya smiled tightly at Salty as he hurried off with his burden, leaving her alone in the shade of the alley.

She let out a shaky breath and sagged against a wall, shutting her eyes and calming her racing heart. Her hat fell off and she scooped it up and leant her head back against the cool wall as she tried to compose herself. After a moment Manya breathed deeply and straightened, smoothed her hands over her dress. Her fingers left faint smears of blood from touching Jake's fur and she swore quietly. It was such a shallow thing to be upset about, but it was her one good dress, and now it was probably ruined. Blood wouldn't come out no matter how much you scrubbed.

She suddenly felt exhausted. She didn't want to have to tell Romo that Jake was hurt, probably dying. How could a dog survive with a wound that size? Gods. She wasn't a doctor or a vet, but Manya imagined the likelihood of Jake recovering was slim. She snagged her shoes up, not bothering to put them back on, and the dirt was hot beneath her bare feet as she made herself plod down the road to Romo's, dreading every step that took her closer. How in the world was she going to tell him?

She knocked on the door with a vague smile for the LPO that stood guard next to it, the guard's eyes curious on her dishevelled outfit. Romo opened the door, dark glasses hiding his eyes, but his mouth smiled.

"Manya. How nice." He smirked playfully, but the expression faded as Manya made no response, clutching her shoes in front of her and gnawing on her lip, trying to find words.

"Is there a problem?" Romo asked her quietly, flicking a glance at the guard and then gesturing for her to go inside. She slipped past him and took a deep breath as she waited for Romo to shut the door and face her.

"I found Jake." She began simply, and her tone told him there was something wrong. Romo's eyes swept over her and she knew he'd seen the small bloodstains on the skirt of her dress when his face paled slightly and his lips tightened. He was so observant – never missed a thing, Manya thought to herself inanely.

"Is he hurt?" Romo asked slowly, and she nodded, unable to speak. He froze for a second, and then sighed, looking down and then out the window, expression unreadable. Manya was silent, not knowing what to say.

"Bloody dog." Romo said a moment later,

"He disappeared this morning, and…" He shook himself and focused on Manya.

"What happened? Is he badly injured?"

Manya hugged herself tightly, the heels of her shoes digging into her side, fingers wrapped tightly around the leather straps and the straw brim of her hat.

"I don't know what happened, exactly, but from the nature of the…wound, I think it must have been the proto-humans. The injury was deliberately inflicted, and I don't think anyone in Landfall would purposely hurt Jake."

"Nature of the wound?" Romo's face was rigidly controlled and Manya's heart ached for him. She wanted to reach out to him, but she knew he would reject the gesture.

"It looks like he was hit by a spear, or something like it." Manya said reluctantly, looking down at her bare toes on the carpet,

"In – in his chest. It looked…it looks like he's lost a lot of blood." She finally forced her eyes back up to Romo's face, eyes still hidden behind his damned glasses; making it harder to read what little emotion he might show.

"Where is he?"

"I – I got Salty Cheung to take him to the hospital. I didn't know where else…" She trailed off, still hugging herself defensively,

"You should – we should go there. Now. I don't know how long…"

Romo flattened his lips and looked down at the floor, back up at Manya's face, head held at a slight angle as he regarded her.

"You don't think he's going to make it?"

The words were plainly said in a calm, blank voice, but Manya could feel the wealth of fear behind Romo's front.

"It was a very bad wound." She told Romo bluntly and he nodded.

"Right. Well, I better go to the hospital then." He glanced at his watch, such a blasé façade,

"I have time before the meeting." He moved to the door and pulled it open,

"Are you coming?"

Manya stirred herself to life, arms dropping to her sides and nodded quickly. She hadn't thought Romo would want anyone there if… She didn't think he would want her to be there in case his brittle façade cracked under the pressure. Perhaps he was opening up to her more than Manya had thought. Romo raised an eyebrow at her, impatient, and she refocused on the present.

"Yes, of course."

Romo walked quickly; so fast and hurried were his steps that Manya had to half-jog every few paces to keep up. He didn't say anything, but then Manya didn't expect him to. His mind was on Jake. Romo loved that dog – no, more than that. He needed him. Despite all Romo's casual flippancy towards the animal in the presence of others, and his protestations that Jake was mostly more of a nuisance than a joy, Manya knew he loved the dog. He had been a gift from Lee, or so Romo had told her – a replacement for the family cat that had survived the Fall of the Colonies, only to be killed by some stupid brutes, no doubt for no reason other than the fun of it.

Manya's breath was coming short as they entered the hospital and were greeted and directed briskly by a harried receptionist through to Room 12. They passed Karl Agathon in the hall, who had only eyes on the baby in his arms, and Manya wanted to pause and congratulate him. Now was not a good time though. She smiled at the man who didn't notice, and hurried after Romo. Room 12 was empty when Romo pushed the door open, and he stepped back, bumping into Manya. Manya put her hand on his arm, trying to reassure him,

"Maybe he's in surgery?"

"He's a dog. Do you think they'd operate on a dog?" Romo's voice was bitter and he shrugged Manya's hand off roughly; both clear signs of how upset he was. Manya bit her lip.

"Maybe. He is important. He's the only male we have… Anyway, we'll wait here until we have to leave for the meeting. He's probably with the vet."

Romo didn't answer, just sat down on a chair and pulled a pen out of his pocket, fiddling with it for lack of anything else to do. He didn't seem amenable to conversation. The room was hot and stuffy, and Manya sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose; another headache coming on. Gods, she wished she wasn't so prone to them.

She wandered over to the one small window and pushed it open with a creak, letting the breeze wash over her face. She leaned on the windowsill, staring out at the view of a few scattered houses and the plains beyond. She could feel the tension emanating across the room from Romo. It was all too tangible, and made her head throb even worse.

Romo had lost so much when the Fall had happened. Everything, really. Except for that cat, Lance. And then when he'd lost him too…well, Manya didn't know the whole story of what had happened, but Romo had intimated vaguely when pressed that he had pretended for some time that Lance had still been alive, which was never a good sign. If Jake died, Manya wasn't sure if Romo could cope, or if he would react like he did after … was killed. Manya's thoughts raced, half clinical, half personal. She worried.

Romo was an excellent President – the best choice in her admittedly rather biased opinion. If Jake died and Romo had the same reaction he'd had when his cat Lance had been killed, Manya rather suspected the Councillors would – fairly – hold a vote of no confidence in him. And then the Council would dissolve into ineffective anarchy as they each competed for the Presidency, leaving Landfall leaderless. And of course, there was the fact that she personally did not want to see him sink into depression and despair. Manya glanced over her shoulder at Romo, continuously clicking the pen and radiating nervous energy.

She would just have to hope he had grown since Lance was killed, because she didn't think there was much chance of Jake surviving. Maybe having her this time would make things easier for Romo, but she was unsure – she didn't want to assume she meant more to him than she actually did.

Manya bit her lip, worrying silently.

# # #

Starbuck looked up from her drink as someone sat down at the bar several stools down from her. She grinned at the new arrival, feeling happy in general; Joe agreeing to let her back into the bar – if she promised to behave herself – was one of those things that cheered her up immensely. With drink in hand, all problems had a way of disappearing. Or at least, temporarily not mattering before reappearing the next day with the added bonus of a hangover…but still. Starbuck was in a good godsdamned mood.

She lifted her drink in greeting,

"Hotdog. How's life treating ya?"

He lifted his head and she flinched, suddenly regretting her cheerfulness as she took in the dull hollows of his eyes, the strain carved into his features. He didn't say anything, just flagged down Joe and with a few terse words ordered a drink. Starbuck chewed on the inside of her cheek for a moment, and when Hotdog showed no sign of answering her, she asked nervously,

"You okay, man?"

Hotdog glanced over at her and she met his eyes and held them, waiting for him to answer her. It wasn't easy, keeping his gaze, but she'd be damned if she looked away. He looked like hell. Hotdog finally opened his mouth, and then Joe slid his drink across the counter with a nod, flinging a cloth over his shoulder and heading to the other end of the bar where another customer waved for a refill. Hotdog sighed, sipped at his drink, looked back over at Starbuck, and said flatly,

"Nicky's dying."

Starbuck blinked.

"Frak. That's…frak." Starbuck was lost for words – wished she'd never said a godsdamned word to him. Nicky dying? Gods, that was some awful, heavy shit. She swallowed hard, trying to think of what you were supposed to say to something like this, and came up with a blank. A 'sorry' sounded too all-purpose, too flippant–

"I've only had him for just over nine months. Nine months." Hotdog shook his head and stared down into his drink. Starbuck sat silently, his words sinking into her skull and draining away all her happiness. How much worse must he feel, if she felt this awful and Nicky wasn't even her kid. She didn't even really like kids.

"Just nine short godsdamned months and I'd frakking die for him if I could." His mouth tensed up with anger, hand clenching around his drink and muscles in his jaw twitching,

"And I can't. I can't godsdamnit." He spat the words out and drained his glass, slamming it down on the bar and waving at Joe for more. Starbuck licked her lips, thinking, and when Joe came over she intercepted him with a word,

"Joe."

"Yeah?" He looked at her suspiciously.

"A bottle of your finest for Hotdog, here – on my tab."

"Sure thing, Starbuck." Joe agreed, but gave her a look that said, 'make sure you frakking behave'.

She ran her finger around the rim of her glass, sighed, and said,

"I'm no good at giving out fancy words of advice. I dunno how to say something that'll make you feel better 'bout the godsdamned shit hand you've been dealt. But I can get ya good and frakked, listen if ya wanna talk, and make sure you get home safe after you've drunk yourself under the table."

Hotdog huffed a short laugh, lopsided smile making a brief appearance on his face. There was genuine gratitude on his features as he met Starbuck's eyes and nodded slowly.

"Thanks, Starbuck."

"Welcome." She shrugged off his thanks, uncomfortable with the emotion behind it, and slugged back half her drink. Joe shoved the bottle of booze on the bar between Starbuck and Hotdog, and she shifted down the bar a ways so she was next to him. Topped up her glass, poured him a measure, and then lifted her glass,

"To forgetting, for a while." She said flippantly and downed her drink. Hotdog grimaced, leant over the bar a bit, elbows resting on the smooth wood and mumbled,

"Don't know if I want to forget, or remember, right now."

Starbuck winced in sympathy and fiddled with her glass. Like she had said, she was worse than useless when it came to being comforting and saying the right thing. She racked her brain.

"Forget. There's always time for remembering – too godsdamned much if you ask me – but the opportunities for forgettin' are few and far between. Gotta take advantage of those times when they present themselves."

It wasn't much in the way of comforting, but Hotdog just nodded like he appreciated the words. Drank. Starbuck mentally waved goodbye to her relaxing afternoon, and slouched over her drink, playing with the glass. She knew she better pace herself – the way Hotdog was gonna be drinking Starbuck reckoned he'd be legless in a few hours. She had to be sober enough to drag his ass home. Frak it. Hearing Hotdog's tragic godsdamned situation had left Starbuck feeling in need of getting good and drunk herself. And she couldn't.

Frak.

# # #

Author's Note: And that's Part Four! It was, I thought, slightly more cheerful than the last few chapters, not that that's saying much. Still pretty depressing, I guess. But torment and suffering is good for the characters – it gives them, um, character. Heh.

Please, leave me your feedback in one of those…what are they called? Oh, that's right – reviews. I looove getting those :D

Episode Five: The Domino Effect is all fully plotted and as of this posting I have written 6,000+ wds, ie. an almost complete chapter. My chapters are getting so much longer…

I have also realised it will most definitely need to be M-rated.

It focuses on Starbuck, Lee, and Romo, and will contain adult themes including the topic of suicide, relatively graphic sexual content, and ditto violence. It will be a delicious angst-fest, and now that I'm finally getting over my stupid writer's block, is/will be a hell of a lot of angsty, dirty, and vicious fun to write.