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Kara's viper is the last in, dropping onto the deck bare seconds before the Galactica's FTL engines engage. She doesn't even bother to crack open the cockpit or take off her helmet. She just sits there, sweating with adrenalin, leaning back into the firm embrace of her seat, eyes closed to minimise the sensory distortion as time and space warps around her--reality a giant elastic band stretched almost to snapping point.
Having her eyes closed doesn't really help much. Her inner landscape is making an FTL jump too: fatigue making it feel as though her emotions are encased in a distant bubble of glue, while, simultaneously, she feels rubbed raw by the constant combat manoeuvres. It's entirely possible that, any time now, the bubble will defy both gravity and inertia and drop down on top of her, sticking to all her rough places.
And then she'll drown.
She knows she's going to have to hit the drugs soon. Before she goes down hard and takes someone else with her.
She doesn't bother trying to look co-ordinated when Cally reaches in to help her climb out of the cockpit. That kind of bravado wore out about twenty ends-of-the-world ago.
They don't speak.
The only thing keeping them going now is ritual. The well-drilled military ritual of combat that their bodies can keep on following without conscious thought.
Cally lets go of Kara's arm once they hit the deck, and she moves off to inspect the latest damage--a deep score on the underside of the wing.
Kara waits. She can see Tyrol already on his way over, clipboard clutched tight in his left hand.
5... 6... 7...
Tyrol has grease in his hair and a char mark on his overalls. Kara can't remember if they were there last time. It's all beginning to blur together.
"Anything I should know?" Tyrol asks, his voice rough.
And this is ritual too, although not a military one. Kara can sense the techs focusing on her, waiting for the Starbuck comeback. Waiting for a laugh. A brief return to normality.
She stares at Tyrol for an endless moment, groping for inspiration.
Not a fracking thing comes.
She shrugs and starts to give her report. "The stick," she says, and then, like a gift, it's there on the tip of her tongue. "My stick's a bit stiff."
Tyrol nods, fighting to keep a straight face. That's part of the ritual too.
"It could use some lube." Kara arches an eyebrow. It actually hurts, as though she's been using it to fight cylons. Although, comparatively, it's not quite as painful as her right thumb, which feels like someone's been scraping the bone with steel wool.
Behind her, she can hear the techs snickering, even over the sound of the pneumatic riveter.
"Well, we can't have that," Tyrol says, making a note on his clipboard. "I'll put Cally on it." He looks up at Kara and, straight-faced, says, "She's developed an excellent stick-shift technique."
Kara glances over at Cally, who's blushing as red as her overall.
"I can do it," Kara offers, and, with an effort, manages a leer. "I don't mind getting my hands dirty."
Tyrol finally cracks. His grin is so wide it makes his teeth look impossibly white against the dark shadow of his unshaven cheeks. "We've got it covered. Go take a nap."
He biffs her on the arm with the clipboard. "Pilot fatigue is the highest risk factor in viper damage, Kara."
Kara hesitates for just a moment, then nods and heads off to the commissary.
The corridors are almost empty. The few people she passes are all hurrying, faces pale, eyes bright with stimulants.
Most of the other pilots are already in line.
While she waits, she tries to gauge her hunger. It's difficult. She mostly just feels nauseous with fatigue. Her stomach's an uneasy acid swirl.
She decides to forgo solid food. It's more important to stay hydrated anyway. It's a constant balancing act to drink enough to replace what she loses during combat, but not so much she ends up flying with a full bladder.
Her skin feels horrible, as though it's covered in mucous--it has to be at least seven or eight missions worth of nervous sweat. She can't remember the last time she had a shower.
In the end she just takes an energy shake and a bottle of water, drinking half the water before she's even reached the exit.
She gulps down the shake on the way to the barracks, but saves the rest of the water. She'll drink it just before she heads back to the flight deck.
She stares at her bunk for what feels like an eon, while trying to weigh the pros and cons of sleeping versus washing...
...eventually deciding that she can't bear to be inside her own skin for a second longer. She shucks off her uniform, grabs her towel, toiletries and fresh underwear, and hurries to the washroom.
It's almost private. There are only two other pilots using the facilities, both in the far corner of the washroom.
Kara luxuriates in the one-minute burst of tepid water, making sure she's wet all over. Once it cuts off, she begins to lather vigorously. The soap on her skin feels like a benediction from the gods.
It's only as Kara lifts her arms to scrub at her hair that she realises that the two other pilots are Stu and Abel, and that even though they're both slick with lather, they're no longer washing. Instead, they're leaning against the wall, legs entwined, chests heaving with effort, giving each other handjobs.
Stu's face is hidden against Abel's shoulder, his back rigid with tension, buttocks rhythmically clenching and releasing.
Abel's head is thrown back, the long column of his throat a coffee-coloured invitation to bite. His mouth is open and he's making gasping noises with even slick slap of Stu's hand against his cock.
Kara looks away. Closes her eyes. Tries to close her ears to the sounds of sex and the sudden rush of her own blood.
Beneath the slippery film of soap bubbles, her body is a livewire. Shocked into sudden awareness of life. Of pleasure. Of want.
She restarts the water and rinses off.
Every drop that hits her skin--runneling along her body's curves and dips--feels like foreplay.
Her legs begin to tremble when she washes the soap from her bum and crotch. It feels so good, and she's tempted. Gods, she's tempted. It wouldn't take much at all. A couple of strokes, that's all, she's so fracking close. And she wants the release of orgasm so badly. Holding it in aches like swallowed tears.
She can feel her vaginal muscles clenching involuntarily. She's so hyped up that just that small movement is almost enough to bring her off. And she knows from experience that while she's this high on endorphins and left-over adrenalin, orgasm will give her a dreamy euphoric buzz that'll last for hours...
...but the downside is that she'll want to sleep afterwards. Deep and long. Getting off now will slow her down. Dull her edge.
And she'll have to take the fracking drugs that much sooner.
She'll lose her combat instincts that much sooner.
She'll probably die that much sooner.
Kara presses both hands flat against the cold metal of the wall--away from temptation--thrusts her head right under the noisy rush of the nozzle and lets the last few seconds of water sluice down her back.
Her legs are still trembling.
She tells herself that sublimation is her best friend.
As soon as the water stops, Kara grabs her towel and wraps herself in it without bothering to dry off. She grabs her things and makes a dash for the exit.
Her hand is actually lifted, just a hairsbreadth from touching the door, when Abel groans in a way that sends molten shards of want slamming into her spine.
She lunges through the door, her nipples tight beneath the rough pull of the towel, needing to get back to the safety of the barracks and her waiting uniform, right fracking now, before she gives in to instinct and invites herself into a threesome...
...so she barrels through the door, all her attention on what she's leaving behind her instead of what's coming up in front of her, and of course, there's someone walking in the hallway right outside the fracking washroom.
She tries to stop but her bare feet skid on the deck.
Toiletries and underwear go flying as she grabs at the flight-suit in front of her, fisting the heavy material in both hands, trying to regain her balance. Her momentum knocks him off balance too, and he grabs back, his hands sliding on her wet skin before his fingers finally grip around her upper arms, pressing in hard enough to bruise.
While they jostle for balance, both of them too punch-drunk to be steady on their own feet, let alone steady for someone else too, Kara finds herself staring into a pair of startled blue eyes.
And of course it's not just someone she's crashed into. Not just fracking anyone pressed against her as close as a lover. Not just any man's hands touching her bare skin.
They stand there and blink at each other for what feels like a millennium, while Kara's wet feet threaten to slip on the deck again, undoing their tentative success at finding equipoise.
This close to Lee's face--close enough to see the fine stress lines and purplish rings around his eyes, the chalky pallor of his skin, the tense clench of his jaw--Kara realises, with a funny spinning feeling, that when he's tired, Lee really doesn't look anything at all like Zac.
Nothing at all like Zac.
In fact, he looks... a lot like Lee.
Just... infinitely like Lee.
It's a revelation that rocks Kara's world.
Lee's glance flicks down, takes in Kara's precarious towel-and-water ensemble. He hastily looks back up at her face.
"Why are you--" Lee cuts off the question, a muscle in his jaw twitching. "Never mind. I don't want to know."
Kara can read his mind: he doesn't want to have to take official notice of anything hinky going on.
"Sorry," she says, still feeling off balance, and is instantly furious with herself. She's never sorry!
Lee blinks a bit at that, then grins. "I'll be sure to make a note in my log."
"Oh, frack you!"
He looks at her again, letting his gaze linger a little this time, then leans forward to whisper conspiratorially. "If I didn't know better, I'd almost think you meant it."
She glares at him in confusion. Her body is still thrumming with want, and the way he's looking at her... it almost sounds like a proposition...
...and her chest feels like it's full of helium at the thought that he might actually be asking...
"But I know you're not up for it," Lee says, and lets go of her shoulders. His grin gets impossibly wide. "Because I hear you're having some stick problems."
He steps back quickly, because, after all, he knows her well.
Kara's vaguely aware, as she lets go of her bunched fistfuls of his uniform, that her eyebrows are aching like a sonovabitch, so she knows she must be wearing her Killing-Cylons face.
When Lee gets a good look at her expression he starts laughing; deep, helpless laughter that has him clutching at his stomach. As he laughs the tension lines ease from his face, and he suddenly looks like an Adama again--hints of Zack revealed in the angle of his chin, the sweep of his forehead, the way he's holding his body.
And who knew regret could feel as shitty as this? No wonder she usually avoids it.
"I'll show you stick problems!" she says, and pulls back her right arm so that she can sock him a good one.
That's when she feels the knot in her towel unravel.
Her towel pops undone without a sound and slips at least an inch before she manages to get it back under control. Not that control helps all that much.
Kara's uncomfortably aware that she's showing an awful lot of... pretty much everything. She can feel herself blushing, and it's utterly humiliating because she hasn't been embarrassed by her own nudity since second year at the Flight Academy.
"Ah," says Lee, looking a little flushed himself. "I'll just..." he waves at the washroom door and steps around her, looking very eager to be out of the corridor and away from Kara's recalcitrant towel.
She nods, relieved, and moves out of his way, wanting nothing more than to escape to the barracks and put her uniform back on.
Mindful of her towel, Kara bends over to pick up her toiletries. It's only as her hand is closing over the still-slippery soap case that she remembers.
Stu and Abel.
Stu and Abel are fraternising while on duty... in the fracking washroom the CAG is about to walk into.
"No!" She whirls around and grabs the back of Lee's flight-suit. "Don't go in there!"
Kara takes a step back, trying to pull Lee away from the door, and her foot comes down on the soap case.
It's a chain reaction. Lee clutches at the wall to stop himself from going over. It doesn't work. His hands, still wet from touching Kara, slip down the wall with a loud squeeeeeeeer. He falls in slow motion, ending up sitting in a heap on the deck.
Kara pinwheels her arms wildly and staggers backwards. It works. She manages to save herself from a heavy fall, but she ends up halfway across the corridor, in full view of a crew of hurrying technicians...
...without her towel, which is lying in a crumpled heap next to Lee.
The technicians jostle to a stop, their eyes and mouths round with surprise.
Brent recovers first, letting off a loud wolf-whistle and clapping enthusiastically. The other techs are quick to join in, stamping their feet and letting off loud Wooo, Wooo, Wooos.
Kara bows, holds up her hands, and when the noise tapers off a little, says, "Thank you. I'll be here all week."
"Now I know it's the end of the world," says Brent. He tears his eyes away from Kara and looks down at his watch. "In seven fracking minutes!" He sets off down the corridor with one last leer cast over his shoulder. "That's not the decking we're paid to inspect, people. Pick it up!"
The other techs reluctantly turn and follow him.
Giving up on the crumpled towel, which is clearly inadequate as a clothing substitute, Kara snags her underpants off the deck and steps into them.
"What the hell is going on, Kara?" asks Lee, who's making no moves to get up from the deck. Her singlet is next to his knee, and he picks it up and holds it out to her.
She takes it and slips in on, managing, by some miracle, not to put anything through the wrong hole.
"The washroom's... occupied," Kara says, once again able to look Lee in the face, now that everything important is safely covered.
"Occupied," Lee says, slowly. His neck and ears are flushed red.
Kara gives him a meaningful look. "Stu and Abel."
"Oh," says Lee. "Oh!" And his neck is flushing even redder and he won't meet her eyes.
The past brushes against her with butterfly wings. It's something she'd made herself forget: the way the pattern of his blush gave Zack away when he was really hot for her... up-against-the-wall, hard-as-diamonds, couldn't keep his hands off her... hot like that.
And Lee's still sitting on the deck. Neck burning red as a beacon.
Kara nods, staring at Lee's neck. And suddenly the words are right there on the tip of her tongue. For a brief moment she considers biting them back... but it's the end of the world in six minutes, and she really doesn't want to miss her chance.
"Yeah," she says, lifting her eyebrow provocatively. She doesn't even begrudge the pain. It's going to be worth every bit of it. "Turns out I'm not the only one with a stick problem. It seems to be going around."
"Right," he says, and his voice is a little unsteady, but that could just be fatigue. "Thanks for the heads up."
Kara smirks. "Any time, Captain." She turns as though about to leave, and Lee lets out a sigh of relief.
She stops, turns back. Leans over--slowly--to pick up her forgotten toiletries and towel. "Oh, and Lee?"
Lee nods, and his eyes have a kind of glassy look to them.
"If you need... a hand... with any other stick problems that might arise?"
Lee is staring up at her and his lips are going red. He licks them.
"I hear that Cally has a really good stick-shift technique."
The look on his face is priceless. Payback has never been so sweet.
Kara doesn't wait around. She runs back to the barracks at her best speed.
The five-minute warning klaxon sounds just as she makes it to her bunk. She throws on her uniform, grabs her half-drunk bottle of water, and runs for the briefing room.
30... 31... 32...
Sitting through Lee's briefing is a special hell. He keeps shifting from foot to foot in a way that has her mouth yearning for moisture, despite the water she's just drunk.
He could be speaking in cylon machine-code for all the sense she can make of his instructions.
All she can think is... It's not the end... It can't end like this...
...because ever since she's known him, Kara's never won a round without Lee eventually getting his own back...
...It can't end like this... It can't end.
She isn't repeating it to make it true. She's repeating it because it already feels true.
Kara sits in her viper waiting for the end of the world.
She's thinking about what she's going to do tomorrow, after she's had some sleep and some solid food and a cigar and maybe another shower.
The stick is loose and easy beneath her palm.
She knows she's going to have to take the drugs soon. Her emotions are still encased in a distant bubble, so she's not entirely sure if she's happy or not. But right now she's buzzing, body alert and ready for action.
All her instincts are telling her she's going to win.
When the cylons come, punctual to the second, she's the first one out of the launch tube.