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Breathing Room

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Fic: Breathing Room (1/2)
Pairing: Kara/Lee
Setting: An extended timeline set during the events of Pegasus
Rating: R
Length: 12,846 words
Warning: Talk of rape
Summary: Kara and Lee adjust to their new, very separate lives on the Pegasus. Badly.
Losing you is like living in a world with no air



The air on Galactica held the faintest metallic tinge, hints of rust and acid that the Bucket’s ancient CO2 scrubbers could never fully expunge. But on the Beast, recycled oxygen pumps cleanly through new pipes. The faint plasticine odor that lingers reminds Kara of the hospitals she’d been in and out of as a kid. Its sterility permeates the brightly lit corridors, burning her nostrils and throat each time she inhales.  

Once, a lifetime ago, she had gone hiking with Zak in the Picon mountains. It was supposed to be a romantic weekend away from the prying eyes of instructors and students on the base. Yet it was the altitude that had left Kara gasping and lightheaded, her pulse racing dizzily. The higher they rose, the thinner the atmosphere had gotten.

On the Pegasus, that feeling rushes back to her unexpectedly. Surprisingly familiar, as if it were just yesterday and not years ago that she experienced the same thick pressure in her chest, her nostrils flaring, shoulders hitching as she filled her lungs.

There’s no altitude in space, though, Kara thinks, as she moves through the ship’s sleek compartments with their glass-paneled walls and electronic keypads.

There’s no atmosphere here at all.

***

The worst thing about being stationed on Pegasus is that there’s so many godsdamn people everywhere. The Beast is twice the size of the Bucket and has three times the personnel Galactica did even before the war, and Lee is surrounded by bodies--a constant, churning mass of humanity that is probably making Laura Roslin smile, her whiteboard count increased exponentially.

Now he waits in long lines at the mess and jostles for space at the sinks in the head, and when he crawls into his rack, the noise follows him, a strange and cacaphonous orchestra filling his head. Lee tosses and turns on a mattress that’s harder than he’s used to and tugs a pillow that’s too soft over his head to block the sounds.

There are nine other soldiers bunking in these quarters. On Galactica the bunkroom had been full of noise, too, even in the middle of dogwatch. But Lee had committed to memory Duck’s heavy snores,  Helo’s grunting sighs, the soft trilling noises Kara would probably be mortified to know she made in her sleep. Here, each sound is jarring in its unfamiliarity.

He lies still, eyes closed, and tries to breathe, deep and even, an attempt to lull himself to sleep, but instead his brain churns and churns, his breathing becoming erratic. The wall presses against his arm, and Lee shifts and wonders if this new bunk is narrower than his old one.

When Wishbone starts coughing in the rack above him, a deep rasping sound that makes Lee’s own chest ache, he gives up and opens his eyes. He levers himself out of bed, giving up the pretense, and pulls on sweats and sneakers.

Running, he sets a steady pace. By the time Lee makes it to the aft causeway on Deck E, the halls are deserted and his footfalls echo loud against the metal decking. His calves burning, he ducks through a hatch at random, an old gym from the looks of it, and drops to the dusty leather mats. Lee waits for that constant sense of claustrophobia to recede here, alone, in a darkened room at the ass end of the ship, but it does not. He sits in the quiet, the place silent save for the sound of his own breathing.

Later, when he’s back in his rack futilely hoping for sleep to descend, he’s restless again. His hand strays to the curtain, pushing it aside. Lee blinks rapidly, eyes adjusting to the harsh lighting that permanently illuminates the bunkroom. For a flash of a second, as his pupils dilate, his gaze falls to the rack across from his, and an image of blonde hair spilling over grey linens forms on his retinas. Lee blinks again and it fades, leaving only the back of Hammer’s shaved skull in its place, the moment simply a trick of light and memory.

He sighs and closes the curtain, waiting for sleep to claim him.

***

Kara shoves her helmet off, fingers scrabbling to unhitch the metal collar, even as she stands and swings a leg over the side of her ship. She’s coming off another double rotation, her blood singing like she’s on stims, even though she hasn’t taken any. Descending the ladder, Kara jumps the final few steps to the deck and rounds on the viper, her eyes going wide when she sees the damage from that direct hit she took in the last pass. It’s a wonder she even made the trap in once piece. Kara laughs shakily at the sheer audacity of it and pulls off her gloves, running a hand through her sweaty hair.

“Something amusing to you, Lieutenant?”

Kara stifles a groan and rolls her eyes at the CAG’s annoyed inquiry. If she’s learned anything in her first few days on board, it’s that Captain Cole “Stinger” Taylor is an even bigger pissant than she first thought. She pivots to face him, and he’s already droning on. “Because I’m not feeling particularly amused seeing as how I’m looking at a broken frakking viper that’s gonna cost hours and manpower to fix. Hours and manpower that I don’t frakking have. And all thanks to your careless hotdogging.”

Rage rushes through her and Kara steps closer. “That careless hotdogging saved half of your squadron’s asses, sir.” She sneers, “I got blasted by heavy fire from 8 raiders out there and I took out every last frakking one of ‘em--with zero help from any of your crew, I might add--and I still landed that bird in one piece on the frakking deck!”

Stinger’s face had slowly been growing a deeper shade of red with every word, and now he barks, “Lieutenant, step back and fall in! Atten-shun!”

Her temper still roiling, Kara doesn’t move.

“ATTEN-SHUN!” Stinger yells again. “That’s an order, Lieutenant!”

Kara clenches her jaw and slowly steps back and straightens, her back ramrod stiff, one arm crisply bent in a salute. Stinger’s eyes narrow and this time he shifts closer, his foul breath washing over her face as he speaks in a low, threatening growl. “I don’t know what the hell that daddy’s boy was teaching you on Galactica-” The hand at Kara’s side clenches into a fist as the hackles raise on her neck. Son of a-- “but on my ship, you will show me the respect I deserve. And that goes for my birds and my crew, too. This is war, Thrace, not some frakking holo-band game you’re playing.”

She almost spits in his face at his presumption that she needs a reminder of that fact. But Kara controls it, her voice even, deceptively so, as she says,  “So, it’s not a game, but we’re keeping score, is that it?” She raises an eyebrow. “That’s what all those pretty little paintings on your birds are for, right?

Stinger glowers. “Let’s get one thing straight, Thrace. I don’t like you or your overinflated ego.” He jabs his finger into her collarbone but Kara refuses to flinch. “I could bust you down to rook so fast your head would be spinning.” He pauses, his voice low and murderous. “On this ship, we work as a team. No hot dogs, no superstars, just one well-oiled machine. Do you get that?”

A few of the deck crew has stilled and stepped closer, watching the spectacle of the CAG and the fleet’s top gun squaring off. The side of Kara that’s never backed down from a fight thinks if they want a show, she’ll give ‘em one.

So she shakes her head, and clucks her tongue theatrically, loud so the rest will hear. “Silly me,” Kara tilts her head. “And here I thought the machines were the ones we were fighting.”

Stinger’s face darkens with fury for an instant, and then he smiles, flashing a cold, teeth-baring rictus of a grin that shoots a shiver up her spine. “Maybe what you need is a cooling off period down in the brig until you’ve got things straight, Lieutenant.”

Kara grins then, about to tell him to bring it on, when one of the viper pilots, a tall redhead, steps forward suddenly. “Captain, sir?”

Stinger doesn’t move. “What is it, Lieutenant?”

“The Admiral asked to see you. In her quarters.”

He doesn’t turn or respond right away and tension crackles in the recycled air. Stinger keeps eying Kara for a protracted moment, and then finally smirks. “Case, show Lieutenant Thrace here where we keep the victory paint.” Then he pivots and stalks off the deck.

Kara takes a breath, her eyes fluttering shut for a second as the adrenaline and tension start to subside. She steps forward and falls into pace with the other pilot, who’s already moving towards the supply shelves..

“Starbuck, right?” The tall redhead glances furtively over at Kara. She lowers her voice slightly. “Look, LT, you better watch it. The brig is not a place you want to be.”

Kara snorts. “I’ve spent almost as many hours in hack as I have in the cockpit. It’s NBD.”

Case stops as they reach the supply shelf. “Not Pegasus hack,” she says solemnly.

“What, like there’s something special about your brig?”

The pilot doesn’t answer as she selects a can of black paint and a brush, then pivots, striding back towards Kara’s scorched viper. Kara strides fast to keep up with the woman’s longer legs and rolls her eyes. “Trust me, Case, four walls, a cot, a set of bars--you seen one hack cell, you seen ‘em all.”

They stop a few steps later in front of the still smoking bird. When she turns, and presses the can and brush into Kara’s hands, there’s a vulnerability in her eyes that surprises Kara. “Let’s just say it’s not a pleasant place to be, especially if you’re a female.”

Kara blinks, startled by the implication, and stares at her, eyes wide. Is she saying what I think she’s saying? She’s about to ask Case to spell it out for her, when the pilot looks away, over to the viper, and whistles.

“Looks like that was an awfully close call, Thrace.” Her gaze cuts back to Kara and she tilts her head slightly. “Guess luck’s on your side today.”

Marcia Case turns and walks away, and Kara watches her go for a long moment, her brow creased. Finally she looks down at the can in her hand and carefully pries off the lid. She hasn’t touched paint since...Kara racks her brain...Gods, Flattop’s 1000th landing. It took the two of them three hours to get that red paint off the bunkroom floor, she remembers with a smile. For a second, the sound of laughter echoes in her ears. Kara sighs. Then she sets her jaw, swirls the brush into the dark liquid, and lifts it to her bird.

****

Lee grabs his tray from the mess counter and turns, searching the tables for a place to sit. The room is crowded, and it takes a full minute before he spies an empy space at the back. He makes his way over and it’s not till he’s almost upon them that he realizes the CAG and his cronies fill the other chairs. Lee’s step falters but only for a second. He’s still a captain, for godssake, and this isn’t the lunchroom at Caprica High.

Lee eases his tray down, and folds into the chair as five sets of eyes swing toward him, conversation stopping momentarily. He lifts his head, nods at the officers--all men, all senior pilots--clustered around the table. The silence stretches as he stabs at his plate and lifts his fork to his mouth, methodically chewing and swallowing noodles, his eyes focused on his dish. After what seems like an eternity, they resume their conversation.

“So, uh, anyway, like I was saying, Cain said we need a way to shut that hub down. If those bastards can’t regenerate, or whatever the frak they do out there, then they’re as good as sitting ducks and we can just pluck those motherfrakkers off, one by one.”

“Yeah, but they’ll pick up our signal and blast us out of the sky before we even get within 50 yards of that hunk of junk.”

“What if we go radio silent?

“No good. They’ll still see the EMT signal on dradis...or whatever the frak they’ve got.”

“C’mon, man. There’s gotta be a blind spot. We just fly right on into that and those frakking toasters won’t know what hit ‘em!”

“Maybe. We’ll need to run recon but it could work.”

“It won’t,” Lee mumbles to himself, when he can’t take it anymore. Unfortunately Stinger’s ears work better than his brain.

“What was that, Captain? You got something to add?”

Lee swallows a sigh, and looks up finally. “It won’t work. We had a mission on Galactica a while back, where we needed to infiltrate a tylium refinery they were guarding. They patrol constantly. No blind spots.”

Stinger’s staring at him, eyes narrow and a look on his face like he just stepped in dogshit. “Oh, please, Adama,” Stinger says, kicking back his chair on two legs and throwing his arms wide, “enlighten all of us with your years of hard work and experience.” Lee hesitates to answer the obnoxious prick, knowing a setup when he hears one. “You got a better solution?”

His mouth tightens and Lee carefully lays his fork down on the tray. He’s overwhelmed with desire to tell this raging asshole to go frak himself, but Stinger, like it or not, is his superior officer. “You could try faking them out with a simulated EMP. Disables their warheads and scrambles their dradis. Might just buy you enough time to get close before they can stop you. Then it’s just a race.”

They all stare at him, their faces blank and scowling. “A simulated EMP?” one of the men finally asks, his voice dripping with skepticism. “Where’d you come up with that idea?”

“It was an experiment, part of a misdirection tactics course I took at War College. I used it when--”

But Stinger’s racuous laughter cuts him off. “Oh, well, of course! This little trick the daddy’s boy picked up at his fancy War College, why that’s just gonna save the day!” The other men join in the guffaws and Lee sighs. Frak ‘em. Let them figure it out for themselves if they’re too damn stubborn to listen. He turns back to his food, and a minute later, the pilots pick up and leave.

Lee just keeps his head down, concentrating on getting to the bottom of his bowl. Pegasus’ food stores were massive; the food has spice and actual taste, but it’s all like wet cardboard in his mouth and he can’t swallow fast enough. The lunchroom’s still crowded, yet no one comes and takes up any of the empty chairs surrounding him. Lee finds himself wishing for some of that paperwork he once despised so.

Maybe it’s more like Caprica High than he thought.

***

Kara jerks upright, restless and disoriented, scenes still playing in flashes behind her eyelids as she blinks awake. That smell again in her nostrils. Phantom pain and the feel of gauze wrapping her fingers. The tall man wearing a lab coat over his BDUs, holding a red lollipop. Her mother’s brittle smile and a faint, disembodied voice echoing in her ears: “What a brave little girl, you have, Sergeant Thrace. Kara didn’t cry out once.”

She shakes her head forcibly for one sharp second, then freezes and throws back the covers. CAP’s in 45 and Taylor will have her ass if she’s late. She’s got no time for frakking ghosts this morning.

The head is full, as usual, every showerhead occupied, making the air thick with humidity. Kara bends to spit toothpaste into the sink and when she straightens, she actually sways a little, her head going dizzy for a few seconds.

“Frak me,” she huffs, mostly to herself, hunching over the sink and gripping it hard. “When the hell they gonna fix that damn thing anyway?”

Marcia, or Showboat as Kara now knows her, is at the mirror next to her and looks over curiously. “What thing?”

“The filtration system. It’s gotta be broken or something.” The woman’s eyebrow quirks skeptically, and Kara blurts, “What, don’t you feel it? Like there’s not enough frakking air in here.”

The skepticism shifts quickly to what looks an awful lot like pity, and anger sweeps through her, but for once, Kara just bites her tongue, lets it drop. Marcia’s a friendly, one of the few, and she’d like to keep it that way. The Gods know she doesn’t need any more enemies.

Apparently though, their exchange was overheard. She catches more than a few hostile glances in the mirror. Then Twitch, a smartmouthed EMT who’s always giving her shit in the flight briefings, muscles by, deliberately knocking her shoulder back hard, and muttering none too quietly about “bitches who don’t belong here.”

The guy’s 6’2” and built like a brick shithouse and though that’s never stopped Kara before, the vibe in the room is poisonous. Marcia’s earlier warning about the brig, where she’ll surely end up if she takes a swing at this douchebag, replays in her head. It’s just enough to check Kara’s natural inclination to follow him and plow her fist through his face. Instead she grips the sink hard enough that her knuckles turn white and her fingers ache.

She doesn’t make a sound.

***

They’ve been on the Pegasus for nearly a week and the ship is big enough that Lee hasn’t actually seen Kara since day three. Their shifts somehow never coincide (which he highly doubts is coincidental at all), with her flying CAP or doing maintenance when he’s off, and vice versa. The ship’s big enough that they’re even assigned to different briefings and mess times. But today she walks into the mid-morning briefing, and Lee’s so surprised his own mouth falls open.

He raises a hand in greeting but Kara doesn’t even look up, just slumps into the first open chair, and drops her head down onto her folded arms. So Lee gets up and moves into the seat next to her, and leans over, pitching his voice low, “Hey.”

Her head jerks up, eyes wild. “Sorry, didn’t mean to star-” he starts to say as she fully turns to him, then breaks off abruptly. “What happened to your face?”

Kara shakes her head, a small, tired smile on her face. “Good to see you too, Captain.”

Lee stares at the purpling bruise on her jawline, feeling a sudden unwarranted fury steal through him. “What happened?” he repeats sharply.

She pulls a face, half frustrated eyeroll and half mulish stubbornness, and he doesn’t think she’ll answer at first, but then she does, her voice pitched more quietly. “Had a little disagreement with Narcho on the flight deck earlier.” Kara forces a smile but the shadows under her eyes are deep. Lee waits for her to say more, but she doesn’t. Just stares at him, her face maddeningly blank.

He’s having trouble keeping his eyes away from her discolored skin. “Kara, you have to be careful,” he hisses, voice strained.  “We’re not on Galactica anymore. This ship...” Lee doesn’t finish the thought. He doesn’t have to.

“No frakking kidding,” she spits out, cutting him off. Kara’s face sours as if she bit into a lemon. “I’m not an idiot, all right? I made one crack about his shitty landing on the hangar deck, and the next thing I know he’s taking a swing and there’s a whole crowd cheering the bastard on.”

Now his head is filled with thoughts of them ganging up against her and jumping her.  

Kara must see some of it on his face, because her expression softens a little and she says quietly. “I’m being careful, Lee. I didn’t even hit back, alright?”

He should be happy to hear that. But somehow her concession just makes the whole thing worse. Kara Thrace has never once, in all the years he’s known her, troubled herself with being careful about anything. Careful is the antithesis to Kara’s very nature.

Lee’s jaw clenches but he drags in a breath and gets to his real point, the one he came over here to tell her. The plan he came up with when he was running laps last night and passed by that gym again.  “Look, Kara, I had this idea,” She raises an eyebrow, and he leans closer, lowers his voice some more. “I found--”

“Captain Adama!” Stinger’s loud voice cracks from the front of the room and he jerks upright in his seat. “If you have something to add to my briefing, I’m sure we’d all benefit from the sharing of your precious wisdom. Perhaps you have more War College tricks you’d like to instruct us on.”

Lee clenches his jaw, but says as mildly as he can, “No, sir.”

“Well good. And captain, the next time you find yourself so bored that your attention is wandering, perhaps you can spend some quality time brushing up on the raptor operations manual.”

Lee’s eyebrows pop wide and he can see Kara’s jaw drop out of the corner of his eye. She grumbles something that sounds suspicously like “frakking pissant.”

“Lieutenant Thrace, one more word and you can join him.” Lee braces himself, cringing already as he expects a stream of invectives to come tumbling from Kara’s lips.

"Or maybe you'd rather cool your heels in hack?"

To Lee's utter surprise, Kara’s jaw snaps shut and she is silent.

Stinger turns and glares at Lee stonily for another thirty seconds, but Lee just stares back until he looks away. When the CAG resumes droning, he sneaks another glance at Kara. She’s staring straight ahead, not at Captain Taylor but at the empty whiteboard, that blank look back in place. For the flash of a second, Lee almost doesn’t recognize her.

One week. He wonders how long it’ll be before he looks in the mirror and sees a stranger there, too.

***

Half-past midwatch, Kara stumbles through the bunkroom hatch. The artificial lighting overhead stings her pupils, already raw and red from three days of almost constant rotations. A locker closes with a hard bang, and Kara jerks, her whole body stiffening at the noise.  

Frak. She hasn’t felt this wired since the early days of the war when the cylons wouldn’t stop coming and Cottle’d forced ‘em all to take stims.

And at least back then she’d been able to bitch to Lee about it. She hasn’t even seen him once since that briefing three--or was it four?--days ago.

She grimaces and crosses the room, her eyes automatically scanning its inhabitants, noting the number and location of her fellow pilots as she quickly changes into sweats. Her sneakers are jumbled at the bottom, and she considers grabbing them and going for a run to try to burn off all this excess energy. She hit tired six hours ago and blew past exhausted at four; there’s no way she’ll be able to sleep now. But of course, frakking Stinger has her on the frakking schedule for morning CAP anyway. If she doesn’t sleep now, she’ll regret it. Resigned, Kara jams her feet back into her boots, and turns toward her rack.  

She freezes; the curtain is half-open.

It’s half-open and Kara knows for a frakking fact she closed it the last time she actually slept in it, even if it was nearly 72 hours ago. She closes it every time she leaves the bunkroom.

Kara shoots another fast glance around, but no one’s watching for her reaction. No one’s paying her any attention at all. Taking a breath, Kara warily approaches the bunk, her imagination reeling through all the presents her new friends might have left her, then yanks the curtain back in one swift move.

There‘s nothing there but a folded piece of paper on her pillow.

Frakking paranoia. Shaking her head at herself, Kara grabs the note and reads the quickly scribbled words. Then she shoves it in her pocket, yanks the curtain closed once more, and leaves quarters.

The aft wing on Deck E is dim, unlike the rest of the ship. No bright flourescents down here and the hatches are the old fashioned kind, no fancy electronic panels on them. It’s also deserted. For a second, as her footsteps echo on the metal decking, Kara wonders if it’s a setup. But no one’s following her, she made sure to check, and the likelihood that someone could replicate that textbook-perfect handwriting...

She approaches a hatch that’s ajar and the numbers match the ones on the note. Through the opening, Kara can see athletic mats and a punching bag in the corner and not one of those  electronic bikes and nautilus machines that the “workout centers” closer to the pilots quarters hold. She slips quietly through the hatch.

Lee’s standing in the center of the mats, barefoot, in just shorts and tanks, dark head bent low as he swings his arm in circles. She stands in the doorway for just a minute, watches muscles tense and ripple under pale skin as he stretches. It is good to see him, she thinks, with no irony this time. Something loosens in Kara’s chest and she takes a breath, her deepest in days, and exhales slowly. The hiss of it cuts through the room’s quiet like a dagger, and Lee’s head rises. “Hey, you made it!” His eyes are wide with surprise, his mouth gaping slightly. “I wasn’t sure you would.”

There’s something about that look, a familiarity in the expression that she hasn’t seen since...before she left for Caprica, maybe, and her gut twists unexpectedly. Kara turns away, shrugging off her hoodie, her movements deliberately slow, as she tries to get rid of the stupid grin tugging at her lips.

“Barely,” she snorts. “I think if that jackoff CAG could schedule me 24-7 he would. Gave me a double CAP then made me do frakking gimbal checks on the hangar for third shift. Then, the second I climb out of the godsdamn cockpit, he’s on my ass about how he needs my flight reports again because he conveniently misplaced them.” The anger's already fading in the telling. It’s a relief after almost two weeks of biting her damn tongue. She smirks. “He’s lucky Laird dragged him off to fix some crisis. I was about a breath away from asking him if he’d checked up his ass, seeing as how his head is always up there anyway.”

“I’m sure Taylor would’ve loved that.” Lee raises an eyebrow, as he bends, gripping his ankles, and Kara watches the muscles in his back flex and loses the train of her thoughts for a second.

She nods as he straightens and looks expectantly at her. “Probably would’ve sent my ass to the brig for insubordination.” She grimaces, her lips compressing into a tight line. “Seems to be his favorite threat.”

The thought of it loses some of its power here in this deserted room with just Lee, though. Kara rolls her shoulders, hears an audible click as the muscles unclench. She breathes in, and for once, it doesn’t feel like there’s a compression band around her ribs.

“Maybe we should report him,” Lee muses, after she opens her eyes again. Disgust creeps through the words.

“To who? You think Cain gives a crap about her CAG giving us a hard time? Gimme a break, Lee.” She drops into a lunge, and he does the same, his movements the mirror image of hers.

“Look, I can handle his petty bullshit, but scheduling you practically around the clock like this? It’s dangerous, and it’s not gonna do Cain any good if the Fleet’s best pilot starts falling asleep at the frakking stick.”

Kara raises an eyebrow. “Kinda ironic considering the precious and scarce rack time the Fleet’s best pilot is giving up for your little social call here. So, to what do I owe the honor?” He doesn’t have gloves on, but he’s wearing sweats and he’s stretching... “What? You couldn’t schedule a sparring session at a normal hour?”

A guilty look flashes in Lee’s eyes briefly but disappears as his face tightens. “Not sparring. Self-defense.”

Her gut clenches at the words, the tension flooding back suddenly. Kara glowers at him, even though she’s not fully sure why she’s arguing. “I can take care of myself, Lee. Always have.”

“I know,” he actually winces and rolls his eyes, like he was waiting for this. “I know you can, Kara, but gods, just listen to me for once, alright?!" Lee steps closer, his voice tight, and she holds her breath, marveling, not for the first time, at how damn easy it is for them to fall into this pattern, the relentless push-and-pull. He lowers his voice, as if someone might be listening even though they’re in the frakking bowels of the Beast. "Stinger put me on guard duty yesterday, down in the brig and--”

“Guard duty!? First he tries to bust you down to raptors and then--”

“Shh, wait, wait, just listen, alright,” he insists. “They have a prisoner down there. She’s a cylon. Remember that Shelley Godfrey, the reporter on Galactica?”

Kara nods slowly.

“It looked like her, that model,” he grimaces a little. “But Kara, she was beaten. Badly. And...” he stops, his mouth twisting, and recognition floods her. So Case was right. She feels bile rise in her throat despite how lightly Lee is treading. “And worse, according to the marine down there." His gaze is sharp, eyes intent on hers. “We need to stay alert. This ship is...it’s dangerous.”

Kara’s used to seeing Lee concerned. Concerned, pissed off, mildly annoyed and about a jillion different expressions in between, but this look, this look makes a shiver race down her spine. So she just nods, one quick bob of her head, and his face changes, and gods, that look--it’s fleeting but unmistakably grateful, and Kara turns away again because it feels like someone spun the FTL drive up without giving warning.  

She swallows hard and toes off her boots, kicking them aside, then steps forward, trying to focus her scattered brain. Kara hasn't taken self-defense classes since the Academy. Tentatively she shifts into a defensive position, raising her hands in front of her. “Start like this?”

Lee turns a critical eye on her, starts circling Kara. He stops behind her and nudges her right heel with the side of his foot, widening her stance. She feels the solid warmth of him at her back, and then his fingers are curving around her biceps as he repositions her, squaring off her posture, and Kara has to actually shut her eyes, her nostrils flaring. The way her body reacts to his touch is so visceral and so immediate that her knees nearly buckle. It occurs to Kara that she can’t remember the last time someone laid a hand on her without intending to do damage.

“Hey. You okay?”

Lee’s voice is soft in her ear and Kara steels her nerves, her chin lifting and her voice edged with more impatience than she actually feels. “Yeah, yup. Let’s do this if we’re gonna do it, Apollo.”

Amazingly Lee doesn’t push, just circles around to face her and nods, then advances, reaching out as if to grab her. Kara ducks, spinning away. Energy thrums through her again, but with purpose now, as she begins to assess Lee’s movements, anticipating and dodging and striking with better timing as she remembers the way his body works. And the way hers does around him. They find a rhythm, and for a while, it’s almost like dancing.

"Good," he says, some minutes later, as she spirals smoothly out of his attempt at a chokehold once more. “Next time, don’t just evade, make a hit to the--” his breath whooshes as Kara strikes out.

“Solar plexus? Yeah,” she answers, flashing a grin. “Think I got that one.”

“You know this is self-DEFENSE right?” Lee wheezes, bent over. “You’re supposed to be fending off an attack, not striking first, Kara. And gods, you don’t have to hit with full power.”

“That wasn’t full power.”

Lee lifts his head, eyes narrowing slightly as he straightens. Kara shrugs. What’s he expecting, that she’d just roll over and simper like those bridge bunnies on Galactica he’d been teaching?

“I’m just saying, you could take it a little easier, that’s all.”

“Aw c’mon Lee, aren’t you the guy who was just saying we had to get serious. Now you want me to go easy? Where’s the fun in that?” And this is fun. It’s been so long she almost forgot what that felt like. Kara smirks a little and shrugs, feigning innocence. “Unless, you know, you can’t handle--?”

He’s moving before she even gets the last word out, and the next thing Kara feels is the thump of her back hitting the mat. Lee’s face is close, his eyes glittering, “I’m sorry, what were you saying? I was too busy schooling your ass to catch that last bit.”

Kara grins in answer, so wide it makes her cheeks hurt.

Three hours of parrying and blocking later, she collapses again to the mats, sweaty and breathing hard. Kara sucks in deep lungfuls of air, and thinks it’s about damn time they fixed the frakking filtration system. That weird empty plastic odor is gone. All she can smell now is sweat and leather and Lee.

CAP’s in four hours and her body protests as she clasps his outstretched hand and lets him pull her up off the mat. Kara just grins and takes another deep breath.   

***

They meet every night after that, schedules permitting.

Lee is discreet in his comings and goings, not wanting to have to answer any uncomfortable questions, but no one ever asks. And if Kara gets any flak for it, she doesn’t bring it up.

Likewise, no one ever comes down to Deck E, and in his head, Lee starts to think of it as their hallway, the gym as their room. It gives him a furtive thrill. He’s never had anything with Kara that wasn’t marked by the presence of a third party--Zak, his father, duty--trapping them in a constant pendulum cycle of tension. In some ways, it feels like this is the first time they’ve ever been truly alone together.

Some nights they don’t actually practice at all, just sit on the mats and talk. This is new too. One night, after Kara’s done presenting her litany of grievances and injustices of the day, she tilts her head sympathetically, and asks, cloying sarcasm in her tone, “And how was your day, honey?”

It’s nothing.  A stupid, throwaway joke, meant to amuse with its pretence at normalcy in this abnormal reality. He’s meant to respond with his own bitter list of slights and stings, but Lee can’t. He can’t even speak because suddenly he is pierced with a longing so fierce it steals his breath. For the first time in ages, Lee remembers what life was like before the war. He remembers what it was to want something more than just getting through the frakking day in one piece. He remembers the things he once thought he’d have someday: the house with the porch swing, the kid with a ball in the yard, the woman to come home to every night.

“Hey, you alright? Lee!” He jolts out of the reverie. Kara’s shaking him, watching him with wide fearful eyes. “Frak, you looked like you were gonna pass out.”

“No, I’m...I’m fine,” he lies and attempts a smile.

She shoots a skeptical glare at him. “Seriously? Because if you puke on me, you are in for a world of hurt, Apollo.”

Lee’s smile deepens with genuine amusement as he takes in her suspicious, flashing eyes and wonders how bat-frakked he must be to ever imagine Kara Thrace filling the role of his personal domestic goddess in this or any lifetime.

***

Irony: the frakking filtration system does actually break.

It’s been hot as Hades on the ship for the last twelve hours as technicians work to fix the problem. She’s stripped down to just a bra and shorts and Lee’s tanks are off too. But they’re still practicing, because they were both too prideful to claim the temperature as an excuse to quit. Heat suffuses Kara’s body, her limbs loosening with every move. The more she relaxes, the slower her reflexes become.

Lee feints left and Kara shifts right, but he’s already moving with her, one arm wrapping around her waist. His free hand closes on her left elbow so she can't jab it into his gut and he pulls back, hauling Kara up against his chest and kicking her feet out from under her. Lee’s voice is a low hum right in her ear, “You’re slipping, Kara. C’mon, I know you can give me more than that.”

His skin is slick with sweat, sliding against her own damp flesh as he holds her off the ground, their breath coming heavy. Kara can feel her body rising and falling in rhythm with his as Lee pants against her neck, dragging air into his lungs. Suddenly there are flashes in her head of exactly what she can give him.

She twists in his arms, slips her leg through his, to hook one foot around his ankle. But Lee’s  quicker, trapping her thigh between both of his and holding her immobile. Kara can’t get any leverage in this position, can’t really even move, but she tries valiantly anyway. As she wriggles to get loose, and he struggles to hold her still, her hip presses into Lee’s groin and she feels the unmistakable evidence that she’s not the only one with a good imagination. Lust kicks through her gut, but before she can even register it, never mind do anything about it, Lee drops his arms, stepping away so quickly she almost stumbles at the loss of resistance.

“That was... that was better,” he says, but his voice sounds strangled and he won’t meet her eyes.

She’s still breathing hard too, her head spinning a little, as Lee pivots, walking off the mat. For a second, her body actually wavers, one foot already lifting to follow. She studies his back, the curve of his bent neck, and suddenly Kara is swept by the most intense urge to press her mouth to the flushed skin between his shoulder blades.

It’s crazy, of course it’s crazy, and she doesn’t do it, though it’s a near thing for a few seconds. Frak, the heat must really be getting to her. Well, that, and the fact that she can’t even get five minutes to jerk off in privacy on this frakking ship. It’s nothing, Kara decides.

The next day, though, when she’s stretched out under a viper doing some mindless maintenance check, Kara’s brain decides to do a little replay action. It’s so sharp she can actually feel his hands on her body, the warmth of his breath against her neck, the hard muscle pressing--.

Frak.

Godsdamn Frakking--

Yes! she realizes. That’s the solution. Not with him, of course. She’s not stupid. And not with a pilot. Too messy. But there’s almost two thousand people on this ship. Some marine maybe. Or a petty officer. Someone who won’t ask any questions or give her any grief. Someone who sure as hell won’t remember her name in the morning.

It’s a good plan. Kara keeps an eye out for prospects all afternoon. There’s a tall towheaded medical officer in the mess who seems promising, but when she catches a sharp edge to his braying laughter in response to some sexist crack his buddy makes, Kara changes her mind, instantly dismissing him as a possibility. She keeps looking, but somehow no one seems to meet her suddenly discerning standards.

It’s frustrating. The Gods know she’s had her share of one-night stands with pretty strangers before. Hell, it’s not even the first time she tried to make this particular substitution, Kara thinks grimly, resolutely ignoring the flashes behind her eyelids of Baltar’s greasy-faced shock and Anders’ blissfully dumbfounded grin. But things are different now, here on this ship. Anonymity is a double-edged sword, and not quite the comfort it used to be. Everything’s different now.

When the pressure and the tension and the godsdamn mental replays get to be too much, Kara gives in. She locks herself into the furthest stall in the head, clamps her lips together and slips her hand down her pants. She clenches her eyes shut, her fingers strumming furiously between her legs, but it’s his hands she feels and his face she sees as she comes fast and hard, gasping in air.

When she finally catches her breath again, it strikes Kara with grim irony that despite the myriad ways her life has changed lately, apparently, some things remain the same.

***

Every day on the Pegasus is long and stress-filled, the frayed edges of the people surrounding him becoming more transparent. Tension seems to be mounting between the ships, the crews, the Old Man and the Admiral, but Lee only has suspicions, based on whispers and vibes. He’s just a captain now, no longer privvy to anything or anyone of import. He almost longs for those days as military advisor, caught between the rock of his father and Roslin’s hard place. It’d be an improvement to feeling so godsdamn useless all the time.

Escaping here each night is the only thing that makes the days bearable. Lee’s aware of this, in the back of his mind, but he tells himself that practicality and preservation are what spur his steps, what makes him arrive just a little earlier each night. Then he makes the mistake of showing up Taylor by knowing more than him in a briefing and the jackass sticks him with a double maintenance shift that runs well past their meetup time.

Lee is nearly 45 minutes late by the time he pounds down the hallway and sees that the hatch-- which they always dog, just in case--is ajar. He freezes, breathing hard, and suddenly panic is coursing through him. The rational part of his brain tries to insist that’s stupid, that Kara probably just left, figuring he wouldn’t be able to make it. But a genuine, if ludicrous, fear that something has happened, that someone has taken her, overwhelms him, propelling him quickly through the hatch on shaky legs.

But Kara’s still there. She’s curled up in a corner of the mats, her sweatshirt balled under her head, her chest rising and falling. Relief flooding him, Lee stops inside the entry staring and llistening to her soft, trilling sighs. When he can breathe again, he slips his shoes off and closes the hatch as quietly as he can. Then he crosses the room and sits down next to Kara, and just watches her sleep. Something in Lee’s chest unravels and swells, like a rope released from a slipknot, as he studies her face, slack and unlined. She looks peaceful and innocent and a whole lot of other adjectives he never thought he’d use to describe Kara Thrace.

Lee sits like that for ages, unmoving, barely breathing, until he has to shift, his limbs growing stiff and numb. As he does, Kara stirs awake, blinking up at him. “Hey Lee,” she says, and her lips--her lips just curve into this sleepy little smile that makes him feel like someone just slipped a knife between his ribs and twisted it. It takes a few seconds before Lee manages to say, “Sorry I woke you up.”

“S’ok. Tried to wait for you--” the rest of the words are lost to a huge yawn, and he can just make out “triple shift” and “tired” with her hand muffling her mouth. Her eyes are fluttering closed, but she keeps trying to open them again, and Lee touches her shoulder.

“Go back to sleep, Kara,” he says, his voice just above a whisper.

“Should get up,” she murmurs, though her eyes are still closed and she makes no move to do so. “Got CAP at 700.”

“I’ll wake you.” Lee doesn’t have to be back on duty till midday shift, and suddenly he’s not tired anyway. “Just get some rest.”

“Mmmfph,” is all she can muster in response, but Kara wriggles closer and rests her head against his thigh. Lee hesitates for a second, but then reaches down and smoothes her hair back, tucking the wispy flyaways behind her ear. He settles back against the wall, his eyes locked on the curve of her cheek and the line of her jaw, as he strokes his thumb back and forth over the fine blonde strands. Lee knows he should get up and type in the code to dog the hatch just to be safe, but he can’t make himself move, and in the end, he figures there’s no point.

It’s almost funny. He’s spent all this time worrying about the imagined dangers they might face on the other side of that hatch, but Lee never once stopped to consider that the real danger might be on this side of it.

****

Another day, another insanely early CAP shift. Kara swallows a huff of laughter that blurbles up unexpectedly. She doesn’t even get a cubit for her troubles these days.

Amazingly though, she’s not tired. She slept better on the gym floor last night than she does in her own rack.

Kara shoves her toothbrush into her kit before her brain can start pointing out exactly why that might be, and heads around the partition to the shower block. They’re still all full, so Kara strips down, the movements jerky as she tries not to dislodge the towel she’s holding around herself. Modesty isn’t her default setting, but she has no desire to tempt fate.

As she wriggles awkwardly, Kara hears a loud, braying voice that she recognizes as belonging to one of the more arrogant pilots, Thumper.

“...those two idiots from Galactica are down in the brig, Charlie told me.”

“They really kill Thorne?” Kara doesn’t recognize the speaker, but she’s distracted, her mind already trying to puzzle out who from Galactica was being held in the brig.

“Yup, but they’re claiming self-defense. Said they were protecting that cylon whore Husker’s been keeping.” Kara hears a spitting sound. “Can you believe that? Killing an officer for one of those skinjob motherfrakkers? How sick is that?”

Kara’s brain is churning. Sharon. It’s gotta be Sharon. Protect her from what though? And who-- she stops, the obvious answer making her gut clench with fear.

Narcho goes on. “Scuttlebutt says the raptor jock was the one frakking her, but their chief of the deck is the one who did Thorne.” He chortles, the sound ugly and echoing off the tiles. “Hell, maybe they were both frakking her. She is a hot piece of ass, for a toaster.”

“Thorne...” the other man says and lets out a low whistle. “Man, I can’t believe Cain didn’t airlock ‘em on the spot!”

“No kidding. Maybe she’s getting soft. Bet they don’t last the week though.”  

Kara’s palms are red, the nails biting into the skin as she clenches and unclenches her fists. She wants to go over there and demand to know everything, maybe even storm the CIC in this damn towel.

Helo.

And the Chief. Gods.

There’s a line behind her and someone says “Hey, move it.” and Kara snaps out of it and steps forward to the recently vacated spot. She ditches the towel reluctantly and moves under one of the gleaming showerheads emitting thick blasts of hot water.

Kara closes her eyes, lifts her face to the spray, and wonders what the hell is going on. How the Old Man can let this happen. If her friends are going to be alright. None of it makes sense, and anxiety makes her chest ache. But not for the first time in recent weeks, she can’t seem to figure out what to do. And Kara can’t help but think that the old Starbuck would have known. She would have used that trademark out-of-the-box-thinking to get them all out of this mess, pulling off some kind of insane act of courage and luck.

Trouble is, she seems to be in short supply of both these days.

***

Lee doesn’t hear about it till dinnertime. Two ECOs and a petty officer are gossiping gleefully in the mess about how Helo and the Chief are now occupants of the Pegasus brig. He doesn’t get all the details because they stop talking when they notice him listening, but he gets just enough to send his brain into overdrive. It keeps churning through his maintenance shift and his CAP patrol and he goes straight from the hangar deck to the brig.

Karl and Galen’s moods are grim but calm. He assures them his father will intervene, though privately he doesn’t know what good that will do. Cain’s authority is absolute. Surprisingly, Karl tells him Kara hasn’t come by and Lee wonders if it’s possible she hasn’t heard. When he gets to the gym ten minutes past their usual meeting time, she’s already there, doing pushups on the mat.

“Hey,” she says, climbing off the mat and beaming at him. It’s this really wide frakking smile and there’s an honest-to-gods bounce in her step as she comes walking towards him. “Bout time you dragged your sorry ass down here, Adama. Thought maybe you were standing me up. AGAIN.”

But she winks as she says it, her eyes bright, and Lee swallows hard, because clearly she doesn’t know. He reaches out, squeezing her arms, “Kara, I have to tell you something.” She stares at him quizzically, and he wets his lips and says, “Listen,  okay? The Chief and- and Helo, they’re in trouble.”

But he stops then, because the light drains right out of her eyes and her face pulls tight for a second. If he’d blinked, Lee would have missed the guilty look that flashed briefly there before she gets her triad face on again..

“Yeah, heard about that,” Kara says quietly.

That surprises him enough to let go. He waits for Kara to go on, but she doesn’t. “I went to see them just now,” he says, frowning. “They’re worried about the sentencing but holding tight.”

“Good. That’s... that’s good.” Kara nods, but her voice is flat and she’s not meeting his eyes. She ducks and starts fiddling with the laces on her boots.

“Kara, gods, is that it? That’s all you have to say?”

“What do you want me to say, Lee?” she asks, voice mild as it floats back up to him. “I mean, yeah, this sucks, but what can we do about it? It’s Cain’s call. She’s the admiral.”

Lee stares down at her in shock. He expected fury, outrage, some crazy escape plan from Kara, not this...acceptance. He watches as she yanks the laces loose, three quick tugs, then straightens and steps out of her boots before looking back up at him. “You ready or what?”

He hesitates, wanting to say no, wanting to insist they sit down and talk about it and come up with some sort of solution, but the problem is he’s already thought it through six ways from Sunday and has yet to come up with a single useful idea. Almost on autopilot, his head still clouded with dark thoughts, he joins Kara on the mats, and they start going through the moves. He’s slow and unwieldy tonight, and Kara is able to disarm him, knocking him down easily several times. His mood gets blacker and blacker, as Kara’s seems to grow lighter, smirking and gloating about each victory until Lee finally has to turn away so that he doesn’t reach out and shake her.

He walks to the cubbies on the far wall, giving himself a minute to calm down, and blindly grabs one of the props then walks back to Kara, holding the tool in one hand to mimic a dagger. “OK, now let’s bring a live opponent into the mix.”

Kara’s eyebrows shoot up and suddenly she starts snickering. Lee grimaces. “What?”

But she doesn’t answer because she’s laughing uncontrollably suddenly, the sound tinged with hysteria, as she bends, clutching her stomach.

He frowns, annoyance rising to a fever pitch. “What the hell, Kara!? I thought we agreed to take this seriously.”

“We did, we did, but oh gods, Lee,” she wheezes, still laughing a little as she took in the long, slim plastic wand that was meant to stand in for a knife.. “I - I just,” she wipes tears away from her eyes, trying to regain her composure, “-didn’t expect you to whip out a frakking dildo, that’s all.”

Lee watches her laughing and his fury and frustration just boils over.

“Gods, You know what? Forget it. This is stupid and a waste of my time. And here I thought that what happened to Helo and the Chief--” he breaks off, shaking his head, his jaw tight. “Nevermind. Clearly it’s all a frakking joke to you,” Lee spits out, then in a lower tone, almost under his breath, adds, “Same old Kara.”

He throws the plastic knife down and pushes past her, but not two seconds later, Kara’s sticking her foot out and hooking it around his ankle, knocking Lee off balance, then pushing him down to the mat. She pounces on top of him, hands spread on his chest, thighs straddling his, and leans down to snarl into his wide-eyed face.

“Frak you, alright? You really think I don’t give a shit that one of my friends almost got raped today and two more are probably gonna get airlocked tomorrow?” she snaps, her voice tight with anger.

“Well what the hell am I supposed to think, Kara?” Lee grimaces, his own anger still heating his blood. “You’re laughing and smiling and acting like it doesn’t even matter. And I just think, now, more than ever, we have to take this serious--”

She explodes, her hands thumping against his chest for emphasis and Lee grabs her wrists, because, well, it actually hurts a little.

“Seriously, Lee? You think I don’t know how frakking serious things are around here?! Right, that’s why I only shower in the middle of dog hours when the head’s empty and I sleep with my godsdamn boots on every night in case I need to make a run for it!” Shock rushes through him, and shame that he hadn’t known any of that.

“You think that I don’t realize just how beyond frakked we are here and how there is nothing that you and I can do about it?” A strangled sound slips from her throat. “All day long I have just been trying my damnedest to shut that down and just hold it the frak together. And I am so frakking tired of it! I am constantly looking over my shoulder expecting to see a godsdamn knife sticking out of my back!” Lee frowns, and starts to speak, to tell her she’s not alone, but Kara’s hands tighten on his chest, nails biting into the skin as her face twists and she continues. “ I am on my guard 24-frakking-7, Lee--out there!”

Kara’s shaking with anger or frustration or both, and then her mouth screws up and her shoulders just slump. His hands tighten around her wrists, and wide, wounded eyes fix on his as Kara shakes her head. “But in here? With you? I just- It’s not- This is the one place-” She stops, her eyes popping fearfully at the rush of words uttered, and her lips clamp shut.

Lee’s heart lurches. Almost automatically his hands slid up from her wrists to grip her biceps, his thumbs smoothing back and forth over her skin. “With me?” His voice is soft, encouraging, but demanding. His pulse is racing. “You what, Kara?”

Her mouth opens, then closes, then opens again, and Lee waits for what feels like forever for her to finish. Her shoulders heave once, but she doesn’t look away from his eyes.

“I can breathe.”

***

Lee’s thumbs stop moving, and he freezes for one long minute, and Kara is immobile too, wondering what possessed her to say it. Then his hands tighten on her arms, tugging her down until her forehead tips into his. “Yeah,” he says and exhales hard, like he’s proving her point. “Yeah.” His breath is warm against her cheek, and relief and a quiet exhilaration rush through Kara. Suddenly the tension drains out of her body completely, leaving her boneless as Lee slips his arms around her, presses warm palms to her back. For once, Kara doesn’t fight it, just melts into him, shifting and stretching her legs out on top of his, until their bodies fit together from head to toe.

She’s moving on autopilot now, focused only on how good this feels, and how much she needs this. Kara slides her hands down and under Lee’s shoulders, her head slipping sideways till she can tuck it into the crook of his neck. Lee’s skin is warm and sweaty, but she doesn’t care. She breathes in his smell, familiar and spicy, and exhales hard, her lips grazing his neck.   

She feels his fingers in her hair, tugging the elastic loose and threading through the strands. A quiet sigh escapes his lips, the breeze of the exhalation whispering across her temple. Kara wants to say something, or open her eyes, but she’s too frakking tired. Her entire body feels heavy, almost drugged with exhaustion suddenly.

They stay like that, not talking, barely even moving for a very long time. Lee’s chest rises and falls, and lulled by the motion, Kara’s breathing syncs to his rhythms. His other hand is on her back now, rubbing in long slow strokes that are spreading languid warmth through her whole body.Kara presses her face tighter to his skin, her lips parting on a rush of her breath. Lee makes a humming noise, and she feels his throat quiver against her cheek.

His palm is warm though the thin fabric of her tank as he glides back and forth, slow and methodical, until, mid-upstroke, the cloth suddenly bunches, gathering under his hand. Skin drags against skin, his splayed palm smoothing over the bumps of her spine, and Kara gasps, all that languid warmth catalyzing in an instant to something sharper. Lee freezes, his hand high on her back, thumb brushing the clasp on her sports bra, and his throat pulses as he lets out a longer, deeper rumble, halfway between swallow and moan.  

It’s a desperate sound, one of raw need and hunger, and Kara’s mouth rounds, a breathless “ohhh” rushing out of her. She arches her back, lifting her head, so she can see his face, because she wants to, needs to, see his eyes. But they’re closed, face screwed tight as if in pain, his mouth open, and all she can think again is “Ohhh.”  

Kara shifts, drawing her knees up to straddle his hips, and Lee’s eyes open at the movement. Her face hovers above his, close enough so she can see the pupils blown black and the shimmer of moisture on his lips as his tongue swipes across them. Kara’s eyes flicker from his to his mouth, then up again. He is unmoving, unbreathing; watching, waiting. “Lee,” she murmurs, and for the first time since she’s met him, it’s not a question, but the answer.

And she closes the tiny but seemingly interminable distance, and touches her mouth to his. It’s soft and tentative, just a hesitant brush of skin meeting skin, but Lee’s hands tighten on her back and in her hair. And it’s enough to embolden her, she presses her lips to his more tightly.

Fear and adrenaline and lust swirl through Kara, but mostly relief. When she finally pulls back and her eyes open, Lee is still staring at her, the desperation gone, replaced by a look that mirrors all the emotions churning in her own gut. She swallows hard, her pulse jumping suddenly as her heart starts to beat triple time. Then Lee’s hand, the one that’s still threaded through her hair, tugs her head down again. Their noses bump, and Kara’s lips curve in an unbidden smile, as she tilts her head in invitation once more.

Their mouths meet softly, once, then again, and then the third time, his lips press hers harder, more purposefully. Kara sighs a little into his mouth. The kiss deepens, their tongues twining together, and another soft, hungry noise slips from Lee’s throat. Her own desire swells at the sound and Kara lifts her hands to cup his face, her lips and tongue claiming his more urgently now.

For years, she’s fantastized about this, his body against hers, his mouth on her skin, and Kara is determined not to rush it, to feel each and every second of this. After a year and a half of living in close quarters, Lee’s body is both familiar and a revelation, and Kara can’t stop touching him. She keeps her eyes on his, watching for every change in his face as she pushes her hands under his tanks. He shudders and groans as her palms stroke over his chest, easing the fabric up far enough until Lee takes over and strips it off. It’s nothing she hasn’t seen before but context is everything and now Kara’s mouth goes dry. She leans down again, pressing her mouth to his neck, sliding her tongue down to trace around one pink nipple.

He doesn’t stop her until she reaches down and fumbles at his waistband with clumsy fingers, then Lee blinks and squeezes her wrists in his hands. Kara lifts her head to find his blown pupils focusing on hers, as he murmurs, “Kara, wait, what- what are we doing here?”

A quick quip about having to explain how sex works is right there on the tip of her tongue, but Kara pauses, because somehow it feels cheap and too easy. Something indefinable has shifted between them over these past weeks, and Kara realizes, all of a sudden, how wrong she was before. She doesn’t just need this--sex or a warm body or even a temporary grab at comfort--she needs him. And she can’t lie about it, not to him, not to herself. Not anymore.

So she takes a breath and looks Lee straight in the eyes, and answers honestly. “Something we should’ve done a long time ago.”

His eyebrows raise a little at that. “Yeah?” He asks, disbelief and maybe a little bit of hope in his expression. It’s the last part that gives Kara enough confidence to nod solemnly and say “Yeah.”

Lee smiles then, really smiles--the kind that crinkles the corners of his eyes. And Kara has to kiss him again, her heartbeat loud in her ears.

It’s slow, measured at first, as they take their time, indulging in the taste of each other, the sounds they’re making. But comfort and deliberation give way to passion and urgency before long, and soon they are naked, their bodies aligned, and when Lee finally, finally pushes inside her, filling her completely, Kara exhales hard, her breath hitching as they fuse together, and her whole body shivers violently. Lee freezes, his eyes wide on hers, his hand stroking soothingly down her back. “Hey,” he breathes, alarm in his voice, “Are you okay?”

Kara stares at him, a slow smile curving her lips until she’s almost laughing, and she nods. “Yeah,” she answers, her fingers stroking his cheek as she bends to kiss him again. Kara shifts, rocking her hips into his, taking him deeper. Her lips slide over to Lee’s ear and she whispers, “I am now.”

****

They wake, still tangled together some hours later, to the irascible beeping of Lee’s watch alarm. He’d set it back when they first started spending full nights in the gym, a reminder to get back to their racks before reveille. Kara stirs on his chest, her hand groping out blindly for his wrist to click off the alarm. The noise cuts out abruptly, restoring the room to blissful silence, but Lee’s wide awake now.

He opens his eyes reluctantly, savoring the warm weight of Kara’s body draped across his. The buzz of last night still runs through his veins, lighting up his nerve endings. Since the first night he met Kara Thrace, Lee recognized the inevitability of this happening, sooner or later, but he never could have imagined it happening like this, here and now and in the midst of a complete shitstorm of war and strife. There is an unquenchable joy suffusing him, but it’s warring with fear and apprehension. The simple truth is that he has no idea how to handle this. Maybe Kara thinks it was a mistake. Maybe the guilt and the shame and everything, the whole mess that’s kept them apart, will just reestablish itself as the status quo. His stomach churns sickly at the thought.

Then Kara shifts, and her face presses against his chest briefly, before she lifts her head and meets his eyes. Lee stares back, his breath held for an endless moment. Kara’s face is inscrutable, big eyes just staring back at him silently. He doesn’t have any idea what to do so he just waits, heart pounding in his chest.

And she smiles. It’s slow and almost shy and Lee doesn’t think he’s ever seen a smile like it  on Kara’s face before. But he stops thinking about it when she leans down and brushes her lips against his softly.

Relieved, Lee takes a breath and wraps his arms around Kara, pulling her closer. They kiss unhurriedly, mouths lazily exploring each other. Lee slides a hand into her hair, his palm cradling Kara’s skull as his fingers thread through the silky strands.

They don’t break apart until the loudspeaker crackles, setting condition one throughout the ship. It’s like being doused with cold water, the reminder of where they are is so instantaneous, and Lee feels a fresh wave of nausea crash in his gut. In unspoken unity, they roll apart and start getting dressed, tugging clothes on hurriedly and running fingers through unruly hair. But when Kara heads for the hatch, he has to grab her arm.

“So what happens now?” Lee blurts suddenly.

He’s not actually sure if he means personally or professionally, or both. Kara just stares at him, wide and solemn hazel eyes lifting to his. “I don’t know,” she says, frowning. She seems like she’s a million miles away suddenly, and Lee wonders if his relief before was premature. If she’s suddenly having regrets.

“Kara, are you-” he pauses, having trouble making his mouth say the words, “Are you sorry we---?”

“No,” she cuts him off quickly, startled eyes meeting his. “Are you?”

“No, gods no.” Lee pulls her close again, wrapping his arms around her and squeezing tight, grateful and relieved and happy, the anxiety put at bay for the moment. When they break apart, he kisses her forehead, and Kara smiles at him. A tentative look creeps across her face. “See you tonight?”

He smiles wryly. “Same time, same place.”

She nods and then salutes, throwing him a wink that leaves him grinning as they exit the room and head off in separate directions.

***

The cylons are back, Karl’s still in the brig waiting for a probable airlock, and yet Kara can’t keep the smile off her face. She grins foolishly all through patrol, in the head, through the mess line, and making her way down three causeways, until she reaches the brig. And then she stops smiling.

She stands outside the glass of the nearest cell, looking at the cylon imprisoned inside. The woman is bruised and battered, her hair matted and rings around her eyes, only a potato sack shift for coverage. Kara’s teeth clench, fury and disgust and shame rising inside her.

She moves on eventually, heading for Karl’s cell, but as the guard lets her in, Kara can’t shake the guilty feeling she has. It’s not right. None of it is right. She sneaks a look at the guard, but he doesn’t look back. His eyes are cold and dead, and it scares Kara because she’s seen that same look staring back at her from the mirror.

Something has to be done.

***

Lee snaps off his collar, restless with unspent energy. Even blowing cylons out of the sky and the catalytic effect of an FTL jump can’t tamper it. He wants to do something or go somewhere. Yesterday, he was frustrated but resigned to the fact that he was powerless, but today....anything seems possible.

He goes right from the deck to an emergency mission briefing and waits for Kara to come through the doorway. He knows her schedule as well as his own, and she should be here. The briefing starts in two minutes, and his gaze drifts from the clock to the open hatch. Kara pops through at the 30 second mark. Her eyes scan the room, and then her lips curve slightly and she heads Lee’s way, dropping into the empty chair next to him.

“Cut that kind of close, didn’t you?”

“Hey, listen.” There’s a crispness to her voice, an energy that’s new. “I went to see Karl in the brig.” Kara shakes her head, frowning. “We gotta do something, Lee.”

His eyebrows rise, but before he can answer her, Stinger strides into the room and they all rise to attention. The CAG starts talking about a recon photo mission on a cylon ship, suggesting they can hide behind a moon with a large magnetic field to hide the dradis signal. Lee tries not to roll his eyes. It’s a foolhardy plan, obvious and unlikely to outwit the cylons. Next to him, Kara shifts, leaning over and whispering, “Did this jerkoff have a brain tumor for breakfast?”

Lee stifles a grim chuckle, but Stinger’s already calling her out. “Starbuck, you have something to add?”

Kara shifts, leaning forward and Lee holds his breath. He can feel the energy coming off her in waves now. “Yeah. Your plan sucks,” she growls.

He’s torn between cheering and worrying, when Stinger predictably threatens her with hack. For a second all he can picture is that blonde cylon in the brig, lying beaten on the floor and Lee’s heart drops.

He expects Kara to shut down, let it rest, so his jaw nearly drops when she answers Stinger with a definite challenge in her voice, “I like hack.”

Lee drops his hand under the table, reaching out and squeezing Kara’s knee, and a second later her hand covers his, fingers curving tightly. Kara points out the problems with the plan and insists they need the blackbird to pull off the recon.

Lee holds his breath, waiting for Stinger to say it, for marines to storm in and drag Kara off to the brig, but surprisingly he just takes her off the mission and Lee can exhale finally. No sooner does he, than the CAG’s attention turns toward him and for no good reason at all, busts him down to raptors.

Kara mutters “son of a bitch” viciously and clenches his hand again just as Stinger dismisses them. Reluctantly Lee lets go and they stand, making their way to the hatch, when the CAG suddenly calls Kara back. She shoots Lee an eyeroll and he stops, planning to wait, until Stinger adds, “You’re dismissed, Apollo.” Lee hesitates for a second but then files out, his temper doing a slow boil. Kara’s right but there’s no way Taylor will listen to her. The man’s ego won’t let him, even if the blackbird’s stealth capabilities are the only way they could possibly pull off this recon. It’s smaller, lighter, faster, and with the black carbonite shell almost impossible to see on Dradis. In fact, they could probably get right under the cylon’s noses, closer than anyone would....

And just like that, Lee knows what he has to do.

Ten minutes later, he’s back outside the ready room as Kara exits, her face like a thundercloud as she falls into step with him. “They expect us to take this lying down?” Kara murmurs, incredulous. Lee’s eyes dart around them to the pilots streaming past. The corridor is too full, this isn’t the place, so he keeps walking. But Kara grabs his arm stopping him. “And now you’re flying a frakking raptor?” she hisses. “It’s humiliating.”

Lee just stares at her for a few seconds, privately blown away that her anger is on his behalf. Overcome, he grabs her elbow, walks Kara behind the nearest hatch he can shut and pushes her up against it, kissing her hard. She actually squeaks in surprise but her hands curve around his neck and her lips part under his eagerly. When they finally pull apart, Kara laughs, her eyes sparkling in a way Lee hasn’t seen in weeks. “What was that for?”

He doesn’t answer at first just reaches down and unzips his duffel. “Because you’re right, Kara. We have to do something.” Lee pulls the bag open so she can see inside.

“A surveillance package?” Kara’s eyebrows rise and a wicked grin spreads on her face.

He tilts his head and says, “Go grab the blackbird and take some pretty pictures of our cylon ship.”

“Copy that,” she murmurs. Then she tugs on his neck, and presses those lips to his again for just long enough to make Lee wish they had time to for more than a quick kiss.

But duty calls. He hands Kara the bag and they slip back out of the hatch, and head for the flight deck. They’ve barely taken two steps onto the floor when they hear the CAG’s voice, echoing from the other end of the bay where the raptors are, reaming out some poor deckhand.

Kara ducks out of sight behind a plane and swears under her breath. “Frak, I don’t trust that bastard as far as I can throw him.”

Lee nods grimly. “The feeling’s mutual.” Thankfully, the shuttles to Galactica are departing from the other end of the hangar. “Just stay out of his line of vision, alright? I’ll create a distraction if necessary, but hell, he’s probably already got a list of things he can’t wait to chew me out for.” They exchange commiserating glances, and she nods.

Lee knows he needs to go. The longer they stand here, the better the chance that Kara will get caught, and then she really will end up in hack. But he’s having trouble making his feet move. That small voice, the one that’s always niggled at him, every time he’s written her name on a roster, or looked over to see her face lit blue in the cockpit next to his, is louder than ever now. What if this is the day she doesn’t come back to him? If she dies today trying to execute his plan, when they’ve only had one night together... Well, it’d be the kind of cruel irony Lee’s always known the gods capable of.  He steps a little closer to Kara, wishing he could kiss her, touch her face, her hair....something. But the deck is crowded and too many eyes are already looking their way. He should go.

He’s already turning, when she reaches out and stops him, wrapping a hand around the zipper of his partially closed flight suit. Her face has grown solemn. “Hey,” she says, as she tugs the zipper slowly up to his collar. Kara’s eyes are soft when they lift to meet his. “Be careful out there, huh?” Her lips curve into a smile, and she winks, then lets go. Kara abruptly pivots, stalking off, her pace quickening as she disappears behind an artillery rack.

Lee watches her go, his heart full, and thinks how strange it is that nothing’s changed but everything has at the same time. For the first time in two weeks, he feels hopeful, and maybe it’s a false hope, because who knows if this crazy plan will even make anything better, but it feels good to be doing something, moving forward finally. Moving forward with Kara, too.

He has no idea what’s going to happen in the next day or hour or even the next ten minutes, but somehow that prospect isn’t half as scary as it was yesterday. His heart is light as he heads for the raptor where Stinger is waiting, glaring at him. Bodies jostle him on all sides as he shoves through the crowd.

Lee just takes a deep breath.

-fin-