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Time, Spirit, and Sinew

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The other side smells like sunshine over the ocean, like wildflowers waving in the breeze.

One minute she's standing next to Lee, her eyes glued to him, memorizing him, as he tells her all about what he wants to do now, and he sounds so earnest, so ready for the world around him, that she smiles and can't help but love him and can't help but envy him and can't help but miss him already.

The next minute her world is black, her skin warmed by the sun and kissed by a gentle saltwater breeze. She opens her eyes, and she's standing on the deck of a boat making its way to flower-dappled shoreline. There are people there, standing, a few waving, and hope lurches wildly in her chest.

It's not a desperate hope, like what clutched at her when she sent the Galactica on a blind jump only half a day ago or what had her pleading with Lampkin to help her get Sam to sick bay. Instead she feels electric with anticipation, hoping not against hope but because she knows she should be exactly here right now. The shoreline tugs at her like Earth did, but there's no confusion, no frustration. No signs to second-guess or signals to find; there's just a perfect undeniable pull. She leans on the railing in front of her, shields her eyes from the sun as the boat gets closer.

She sees more familiar faces than she ever would've expected. Family and friends long gone. People who once had strong bonds with her that faded over time and then broke irrevocably when the Cylons attacked. People she would've given anything to save. People she could never really let go.

Her eyes sting when she spots her father near her mother, the two of them looking as mismatched as ever, and when her eyes fall on Zak her hand flutters to her mouth, knuckles pressing against her lips, and for one wild moment she can't decide whether to laugh or cry. In the end, she leans over the railing, eying the water level as the ship comes to a near standstill, and she doesn't wait for it to meet the dock. Instead she climbs onto the railing and leaps right off of it. She lands with a splash, hearing laughter and cheers, but the water's shallow and she's not even as soaked as she could be as she runs up onto dry land.

The first one to meet her is Zak, and he doesn't utter a single complaint when she stops abruptly in front of him, biting back emotion, and only smiles when she finally throws her arms around him.

His arms wrap around her and he smells so faintly of cologne that, just like the first time she met him, she'd swear he walked by someone using it instead of putting it on himself. The moment is so overwhelming that words can't even make it out of her throat at first.

"I am... so sorry, Zak," she tells his ear, eyes cast up and cast down and looking sideways but anything but still in her effort not to tear up. She has the vague sense that it won't be the only time.

"I know."

***

She loses track of how many hugs and how many salutes and how many claps on the back she gets. It's too many to count, and she spends so much time on the verge of tears or laughter -- sometimes tears of laughter -- and later, after she's had a long moment with each of her parents, after she's said frak it and grabbed Kat in a bear hug, after she's saluted both Major Shaw and Admiral Cain with every ounce of respect she has in her, she returns to Zak, who's never strayed far for long.

She smiles and shakes her head. "I don't understand how this works."

His eyebrows arch, and he holds his hands out, both a gesture of helplessness and an invitation for her own. "And you're coming to me for insight?"

One corner of her smile twitches uncertainly as she takes his hands. "You did get here before me. So where are your loved ones?"

He shrugs. "We all get here after we die, and everybody we loved who got here before us is waiting on us when we arrive. I've had my welcome party already, Kara. This is for you."

She feels her uncertainty lingering on her face.

"There's a lot going on. Maybe we're divided. Maybe we're infinite. Maybe while I'm here for you, I'm in my own personal slice of the fields, too. Maybe right at this minute I'm also at my mom's, telling her a story Lee made me swear to keep secret when we were little. Or maybe, now that you've gotten here, we're elsewhere, somewhere more personal to me, making out like only the almost-married can while we're standing right here talking."

"This is frakking impossible." She laughs, shaking her head, for once not even knowing where to start. After a moment, once her laughter has died down to a simple smile, she looks him in the eye. "If you're anywhere telling any embarrassing stories about Lee, I think your ass is safe for a while longer."

"Good. I've still got a few up my sleeve."

***

It satisfies some rarely-acknowledged part of her to be the reason these people are gathered. She sees her mother talking to Admiral Cain under a tree and introduces Zak to Laura Roslin, and after a while she quietly moves away from the thick of the gathering.

There are people she'll have to wait on: Lee, the Commander, Helo, Sharon, even Saul frakking Tigh and Ellen. What about Sam? She finds herself looking back to the water more than once.

"You look preoccupied, Starbuck."

To her surprise, it's Kat. She glances to the grass beside her in invitation. "It's a frak of a lot to take in."

As Kat lowers to the grass, she crosses her legs and glances out to the water herself. "I don't think it's a lot to take in. Just a lot to..." Her shoulders jerk in a shrug. "Feel."

She eyes Kat, studying her face. "What about this has all happened before and will all happen again?"

Kat snorts. "Thanks for the reminder. I've been waiting for my chance to do a repeat performance."

With a wry smile, she shakes her head. "I don't think it's like that." She looks up sharply. "It better not be like that."

"Starbuck, you are not joking." For a moment it looks as though Kat's going to laugh. "All I can tell you is no one I love has left or gone back or whatever. Can't say there's not plenty of time for that to happen, though."

"Guess I'll find out."

The silence that settles between them is a shade away from companionable, but Kat's the one to break it. "I can't believe Hot Dog outlived us both. That lucky motherfrakker."

The sentiment rips a laugh out of her. "Are you kidding? That kid had the two of us saving his ass for so long he could never have gone before us."

***

The fields aren't timeless. There's day and night. There's sleeplessness and rest. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Seconds, weeks, and years.

Does she need to eat? She has no godsdamn clue, but it doesn't stop her from enjoying meals or having ambrosia.

"Would it be a happy afterlife for Starbuck without ambrosia?"

"Being dead doesn't mean I can't kick your ass from here to New Caprica, little girl."

From her chair, Kat chuckles. "Now that's more like it. It's like I never left Galactica."

She lets out a short snort of laughter in reply. "Speak for yourself. The food's ten times better here." She does clink glasses with Kat, though, and then has a liberal drink from hers, taking the opportunity to cast her eyes up at the stars.

As much as she's relished the mid-day sun and as often as she's spent time admiring the orange and pink and indigo bruises sunsets paint across the sky, she likes nighttime best. The pinpoints of stars up above her make being here feel more like being home. "You know what this place needs?"

"More unattached men?" Kat raises her eyebrows. "I swear to gods, Starbuck, my welcome committee had more in it."

"And I thought I had a one-track mind. If you're not getting enough action I'm sure there's some other slice of your afterlife with better odds." She rolls her eyes, but not without amusement. "I mean Vipers."

Something to fly.

Kat smiles. "Now we're talking."

At least they've put together a pyramid court. It's turned into her outlet again, much like it was throughout her teens, and maybe it's just the fact that it's her afterlife but there's rarely a shortage of people willing to play a little pyramid. She takes on anyone willing.

Still, she misses being in a Viper, and it's a feeling that tugs at her most at night, lit by a moon she doesn't know.

***

She's spent more than one awkward conversation with her mother, one complete with a real hug and blinked-back tears. She's spent time at a piano with her father, plunking out the same old song she used to love and learning a few other melodies at his side. She's even reminisced with Boomer over ambrosia and some good old-fashioned stubborn tension.

She thinks she likes that not everything's perfect.

But Zak is just as she remembers him: warm and determined, sweeter than she deserves, and game for anything. He loves her without apology or expectation, and it's something she's come to recognize she's had more than once now but still something she isn't sure she knows how to handle.

They lie down, their heads nearly touching but their bodies apart, in the grass beside the pyramid court after going one-on-one, and he's no pro player but he's not bad.

"You're getting better."

"You're always a good teacher."

Her heart sinks. She tongues the side of her mouth self-consciously. "I don't know how you can say that."

His head turns toward her, watching her over the grass, but she doesn't turn to meet his eyes.

Biting her lip buys her a second to try to piece the right words together. "You weren't a bad pilot, Zak, but you were not ready. Your maneuvers were too messy, and I knew better." She finally exhales, turning her face toward him, almost wanting him to be mad at her. "If I had failed you like I should have, you wouldn't have been in that accident."

He moves his hand closer to hers, curling two of his fingers over it. "It's all right."

Disbelief twists her mouth and forces her eyebrows to rise.

"It can't not be all right, can it?" He sits up, but his hand doesn't move away from hers. "Kara, I've thought a lot about this and I don't know what to say. I wish you hadn't, but you used to like to tell me there are no takebacks and that's never been more appropriate. Besides," he goes on after a moment, "if I step back and look at it from all sides, you loved me so much you tried to give me everything I wanted most." Slowly, his shoulders rise and then fall. "How can I be mad at you about that?"

Forehead wrinkling, she shakes her head slightly, almost as though he's speaking a language she never learned.

His eyes seem to flit over the tattoo branding her arm. "Well," he goes on gently, "how many other people have you done that for?"

***

It's a friendly game of two on two: she's with Jean Barolay against Racetrack and Crashdown.

"Oh!" she whoops, delighted, when Jean gets a shot around Crashdown and scores. "You guys are going down."

"Whose idea was this?" Racetrack glares at Crashdown. "Us against Captain I-Almost-Played-Pro and a frakking C-Buc? Next time I'll take Starbuck and you get Jean."

"You'd give me the real pro?" He laughs, coming around to square off again at their safe zone.

"You need all the help you can get," Racetrack mutters.

"Come on, kids!" she taunts over their bickering. "You gonna play or you gonna cry about it?"

As soon as her hand finds its way around the ball she gets tackled hard from behind and it pushes a laugh out of her lungs. She deserves it, she thinks, and she bites her lip to keep from laughing more the entire time she scrambles for control of the ball again, both of her opponents fighting her for it while Jean hovers at her side, ready to take advantage of the moment it's dropped again.

"Barolay!" she hears from the sidelines, but she ignores it until she notices Jean still and Racetrack look up. The ball's made its way under her stomach, and she grabs it before she glances up as well.

The sight of Sam knocks the breath out of her harder than Crashdown's tackle did, and for the space of a heartbeat -- two heartbeats -- all she can do is study him.

It's her Sam, tall and upright, head covered in hair, not the Sam she had to share with Galactica, not the rambling hybrid she returned her dog tags to in the end. She sees the chain around his neck, and the moment seems to stretch out until she can hardly stand it.

"That ankle's looking tired," he tells Jean. "Why don't you let me take your place? If nobody minds, I could stand to stretch my legs."

***

The gathered crowd starts to break up after the game, pats on the back given to Racetrack and Crashdown and congratulations lobbed at both her and Sam.

She watches Jean grin and punch him in the arm and give him a hug, but over that head of red hair his eyes find hers again. On the verge of smiling, she can't bring herself look away from him; it was hard enough to keep her eyes off him all throughout the game and now she has no reason to do it. Inside her head, apologies can war with come-ons and compliments can have it out with confessions, but this is her slice of the fields and she can watch her godsdamn husband as much she wants.

When he approaches her again, she swears he wants to grin and won't let himself. "Nice to see installing a regulation pyramid court is a priority even after death."

Tipping her head at him, she grins without apology. "Well, some things you can't go without."

A step closer to grinning, he nods as though he can't fault her, and the way he stands in front of her feels almost like he's presenting himself.

She wants to put cracks all over that barely-there sense of containment, wants to push him over the edge to flashing that grin for her. "What the hell took so long?" Her arms need little invitation to wrap around him, and once her head meets his chest she shuts her eyes tightly.

It's almost a relief when he doesn't hesitate to return the hug, his arms crossing over hers and holding her there with him. "Galactica couldn't make another jump." His laugh is a rumble against the side of her face; he's warm and solid and whole beneath her palms. "I kept thinking Kara is going to kick my ass, this is taking forever but I could only do so much."

The idea wrenches a laugh out of her, and she opens her eyes to steal a glance up at his face. "For a guy who just spent months stationary, you've got some nice moves."

"I know," he assures her, pressing a kiss to her temple. "At my welcome party your pants are already coming off."

The other side smells like sunshine over the ocean, like wildflowers waving in the breeze, and it just got even better.