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Warriors and Sentinels

By rap541

Word Count: 12,302
Date: 9/20/05
Series: Season 2
Rating: T
Category: Action
Pairing/Focus: Gaeta
Warnings: set after home
Summary: A look at whats going on behind Lt. Gaeta's cool exterior
Spoilers/Disclaimers:


Warriors and Sentinels

The ship had many secrets. Gaeta doubted that anyone knew them all. He knew more than most, because he watched things a lot more closely than people suspected. Sometimes, late at night, he wondered if anyone else had noticed the secrets that surrounded them all. He doubted it. Hardly anyone had time to breath, let alone worry about the oddities around them, but he did worry. He suspected that the Old Man worried as well, but he had been on the Galactica long enough to know that the commander had a number of blind spots when it came to the crew. Not that he faulted the man. After all, Commander Adama had never mentioned his secret as far as he knew.

The irony, Gaeta thought as he looked around the CIC with tired eyes, was that he was never supposed to be assigned to the Galactica. He hadn't even considered it. The Galactica was for those who were close to retirement, or unwilling to change with the times. Commander Adama was reputed to favor officers who had been Viper pilots. As an Academy graduate, he had qualified to fly a Raptor, but it was the one area in the Academy that he had struggled with. He hadn't even come close to qualifying for Viper training and he was glad he hadn't. He had done the obligatory tour at Picon Headquarters and was confident that the promotion to lieutenant was going to come with an assignment to the tactical officer spot on the Battlestar Atlantia. It was a plum assignment where he would learn and use the newest technological toys.

The real irony was that the scion of a rich upper class Caprican family who has pulled political strings to get the post on the Atlantia was dead, and Gaeta, who had viewed being ordered to the Galactica as a fate worse than death, was alive. Oh, everyone said that class and position had no bearing on assignments but he knew what had happened. No matter how competent or gifted he was, he was backwoods trash compared to a minor member of the Moyson family. And Adama knew that, and that Gaeta was being punished for the crime of doing better than he should.

" Mr. Gaeta, isn't your shift over? Col. Tigh rasped.

Gaeta looked at the time displayed on the wall. His shift had finished almost two hours ago. " Yes sir."

" Then get out of here. Its not like we give you an excessive amount of time to sleep." The colonel smiled tightly. Gaeta nodded and quickly left. Tigh wasn't a man to disagree with.

Tigh was also a drunk. If it was a secret, it was an open one. He had discovered it his first day on the Galactica, when Tigh walked by reeking of alcohol. The drinking had eased off a bit since the colonies had been destroyed, and then gotten much worse since Ellen Tigh had been brought aboard. Ellen, when not drunk herself, had a tendency to proposition anyone she fancied. She had cornered him in the officer ready room once. He doubted that he had been the only one. He also knew that she wasn't always turned down. Tigh was going to find out eventually. Gaeta doubted that he would do much officially, although there were some pretty strict rules about adultery. Unofficially Tigh could and would make the offender's lives a living hell. And it wasn't like life on the Galactica was such a treat.

Colonel Tigh was the Commander's biggest blind spot. Gaeta dreaded the fact that there was no way to override the seniority system. Having Tigh in charge of the fleet had been a disaster. A disaster that he had mitigated slightly by ignoring the obvious escape plot. If Adama died, Ellen Tigh would not allow the man to step down. That would be a real disaster.

Of course, he thought as he trod down the hallway towards his quarters, it wasn't like that was the only disaster they faced. On any given day, everyone in the fleet risked death. It was so stressful he hadn't been able to keep anything but sugary candy down since the disaster. Dr Cottle was sympathetic in his way. He had given Gaeta some antacid tablets, a box of candy and the suggestion to suck it up since life wasn't likely to get much better in the near future. That was much nicer advice than the people who were depressed got. Rumor was that Cottle wasn't above just tossing those people out with the admonishment of "I'm not a shrink".

If Cottle died, there would be no doctor at all. Every necessary profession was short staffed. Some of the fleet ships had engineering staffs that consisted of retirees and talented children. He personally did the FTL jump calculations for over half the ships in the fleet. There were people who could take over that chore, like Dr. Baltar, but they had other jobs to do as well.

And Dr. Baltar had his own problems and secrets. Gaeta had been pleased and honored to be assigned to work with him, but as time had worn on, things that had been odd at first had become…. Disturbing. Dr. Baltar talked to himself, and not just in a cheerfully eccentric way. Gaeta knew that intellectuals could be strange. It wasn't just the talking or the masturbation, or even the talking while masturbating. It was that Dr. Baltar seemed to be completely crazy. He didn't know what to do. There was no psychiatrist, there wasn't even an under qualified group counselor for the fleet, and Baltar was more than suffering from shock. But… Dr. Baltar was also the most brilliant man in the fleet by far. They needed him. So he made sure to keep an eye on Dr. Baltar, even though he was pretty certain that Dr. Baltar resented his presence more and more.

He almost went to bed. As the tactical officer, he was a member of the senior staff. He had a cabin to himself, one of the few times that being a bridge officer led to more privilege than being in the flight wing. He was tired, and the colonel hadn't been lying about how much he got for sleep. But… he wanted to be around people, at least for a while. There wasn't a formal officer's club on the ship, but there were any number of recreation areas that had been commandeered by the various different groups. The rec room that the bridge officers used was always empty. Most of the CIC staff had been reassigned before the Galactica's retirement ceremony. The few that were left were enlisted people and a few junior officers. Everyone was so busy, it was rare to see anyone relaxing in a public area. It wasn't like there were all that many bridge officers to begin with. He usually socialized with the enlisted staffers. On a more strict ship, that would have been a problem. On the Galactica, as long as he continued to avoid the colonel's wife, playing Warriors and Sentinels with enlisted people was fine.

Still, he hesitated before he entered the rec room that the air wing generally used. He wasn't really a pilot, and he wasn't in the mood to deal with the snippy comments of the junior pilot officers. He took a breath and went in. At worst he could make a quick exit. At best they might have some bottled fruit juice to drink. It would be nice to relax.

*** Kara knew she was frakked as soon as she looked at her cards. She was the queen of triad, no one disputed that, but some frakking bastard had decided to bring a kiddy game to the table and now she was losing badly. Worse, she was losing to one of the nuggets, a smug bastard called Smash. She was certain that he had suggested Warriors and Sentinels just to get a win he could crow over. It made her want to win that much more.

She just wasn't very good at Warriors and Sentinels. She had played before, of course. The strategy game had been popular for years. There were world tournaments, or at least there had been, complete with board, pieces, and specialized decks. There were even professional players, although it wasn't nearly as popular as triad. When Smash had managed to produce not only decks, but playing board and figures, she knew she had been had. The question was how to salvage the situation. It was understood that she would easily outfly Smash on their training flight the next day. However, it would hurt her rep to walk away from a card game the loser. " Ok boys, I'll concede this battle but how about best two out of three?"

Smash snickered at her. " I beat you once, I can do it again. Say, why don't we play doubles? Maybe partner play will make you more of a challenge." He leaned back in his chair and waited expectantly. Kara wanted to punch his blocky face.

Instead, she quickly scanned the room. Partner play was easier, she knew that, and Smash was being more arrogant than smart. However, her first choice for partner play was Lee and he was on patrol. Lee had the right sort of mind for the game. She understood strategy, but it wasn't a thinking process for her. She could make a split decision and know it was right. Lee was more methodical, but could weigh all the actions and pick the best one. There was no real bluffing in Warriors and Sentinels. Just straight thinking. Smash however wasn't thinking strategically at all. The smart thing would be to continue playing singles. He was preening like he had already won.

That was her advantage. That and the fact that the second smartest person on the ship just walked into the rec area.. She grinned. That was the Starbuck luck coming through, she thought as she stood up. " Gaeta, get over here, I was looking for you."

The dark haired man seemed to blush with surprise as he waded through the crowd to the playing table. She was surprised to see him, the CIC staff was generally too busy for much other than work and sleep and Gaeta more than most since he was assigned to assist with Dr. Baltar as well. She had played triad with him few times. He was a good player but not terribly daring.

However, that didn't matter. What mattered was that she knew that underneath the eager workaholic façade, Gaeta was a sharp thinker with tactics and strategy. Before the holocaust, he had been friendly and up for a good time as long as it wasn't too extreme. A goody two shoes, but all right. Funny even. He hadn't been much fun lately but hardly anyone had been. And hadn't the rumor mill been quite hot on who won the battle group amateur contest? " Come on, sit down. You're my partner for a Warriors and Sentinels match with these frakking idiots."

Gaeta looked at her and then at Smash, and finally at the board on the table. Then he smiled slightly. Kara winked at him. Gaeta was a by the book sort, and usually too busy and uptight for real fun, but she had heard things. Dee said he was wickedly funny when in the right mood, and Dee was a good judge. " Come on," she wheedled, " I'll buy you a drink."

" I can't drink, I have watch in twelve hours," he said quickly as he scanned the playing pieces and strategy board. " But if you can find me some juice, I think I could play for a little while."

She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him over to her side of the table. " You're a cheap date, Gaeta." To Smash, she said, " So who's your partner?"

Smash snickered again. " It doesn't really matter. Anyone can beat a CIC deadwing." He gestured to Gaeta's wing pin. Kara almost raised her fists, but stopped herself just in time. Smash was looking for a fight, that much had been clear to her, and she realized that he didn't really care who that fight was with. What he said was insulting, but only to Gaeta, the only one in the room it applied to. She wasn't in the mood to throw fists over it. Gaeta's eyes narrowed a bit but his pleasant smile did not leave his face.

Instead he gestured to the table. " I see you're using the midlevel tech deck with no modifiers for higher level space anomalies. That makes for a refreshingly simple game. Partner play requires a ten minute strategy session before the opening move. Lt. Thrace? We need to plan." He pulled her towards the back of the room. She would have been worried except that Gaeta's eyes sparkling with amusement.

"Funny, I would have thought you'd be pissed off." Kara said after a moment. Yes, she had made the right call. For the first time in a long time, Gaeta looked relaxed.

" I have two questions for you," Gaeta said firmly. " The first is how badly do you want to win?"

She grinned. Definitely the right call. " I want it bad."

Gaeta's grin broadened, giving his face an almost devilish cast. " Good. Now how badly do you want him to lose? Because I can make this long and painful or short and totally humiliating."

" Gaeta, I had no idea, that underneath your calm, cool exterior, there was a total asshole waiting to slip off the leash." Kara chuckled.

" Believe it." In a flash, his face became completely calm and serious. " Now shut up and let me talk. We have eight minutes left and it'll take that long for me to show you why you lost."

***

As he looked over the board, twenty minutes later, Gaeta realized he was being a total asshole, and worse, he was enjoying it. He didn't intentionally trounce people very often. It was rude, and he had been brought up with manners. In a casual game, while he still would have been winning easily, he would have made a few intentional mistakes, not only to let the other person save face, but to see if they would spot the opening. It made a dull game more fun. Experience had taught him not to constantly win, anyway. Then no one would play with him at all. He rarely played at such a low level anymore. Warriors and Sentinels was a children's game only at the lower levels. At the top levels, each move had to be backed up by astrophysics and strategic theory. That usually frightened off people who would otherwise be excellent players.

Like Kara Thrace. By rights, Thrace should be a good player. She was brilliant. The commander had been right to follow her plan to assault the fuel dump. But she liked flying more than strategy, and when she played, she thought in terms of a game and not an actual battle. In reality, partner play was incredibly difficult in Warriors and Sentinels, especially with new partners, but he had spent enough time watching her in battles and in the CIC to anticipate her moves. She had also been willing to listen to his quick lecture on how to win and it showed in her moves.

Pilots always preferred playing on the Warrior side. They understood the strengths on a more intuitive level. They tended to use straight forward attacks, which worked only when the Sentinel player defended in the same way. Smash certainly wasn't a thinker, he had won because Kara had used her pieces like Warriors, not Sentinels, and ignored her more obscure weapon cards. While both sides had an equal chance to win when the players were fairly matched, a stronger player who wanted to win quickly played the defending Sentinel side.

And so in a matter of minutes, he and Kara had beaten Smash and Racetrack in the first round. Racetrack was bright and had picked up on their tactics of swarming their pieces and picking off the opposition, while maintaining the defensive line around their fleet. While Kara and Racetrack had picked up that they were playing the same tactics they used when protecting the Galactica from Cylon attacks, Smash was still using the same blunt mass attack tactics that didn't work unless he could overpower the defenders with massive forces. It was obvious to everyone watching that Racetrack was using her moves to correct Smash's bonehead actions. Kara was clearly enjoying Smash's humiliation.

She was standing over Gaeta's shoulder, smirking and dancing around. He'd seen her do the same thing over winning at triad. He knew better than to try to get her to tone it down, and he didn't really want her to. Smash was a jerk, an ex shuttle pilot who hadn't even tried to get into the Academy, and Gaeta would be damned if he did anything to soften the blow to Smash's ego. He didn't usually get into pissing contests with the pilots, there were too many of them, and he was willing to concede that they did an important job that he couldn't. On the other hand, it wasn't like Smash was a Viper pilot yet. He was a trainee, not a particularly good one by all reports, and pilots were useless without support. Good pilots understood that, and even the ones who blustered the most about their exploits gave a nod to the support team. Smash needed a lesson on why it wasn't wise to piss off the CIC staff.

He set down his weapon card, and gestured to Smash's pieces, which were all clustered around one of Kara's Sentinels. " I just blew up a nuclear bomb that was stored on that defender ship. It took out all the pieces within a thirty hexagon diameter. That's all of your ships, Smash, and all but two of Racetrack's." He allowed himself a smug smile.

Smash looked at the card. Then he glared at Gaeta. " That's not right. You can't use nukes on your own pieces."

" Yes, yes you can," Gaeta said pleasantly, making sure to sound as arrogant as he could. " But more importantly, I can use nukes on my partner's ship as long as she is ok with losing a turn." He turned to Kara and asked dryly, " Starbuck, do you mind if I nuke your ship in order to win the game and save the fleet? I mean, you will lose your turn, so take your time. I know it's a difficult choice." Even Racetrack joined the room in laughing.

Kara stopped laughing after a moment. She sat back down beside him and took his hand. He struggled not to laugh, but her performance was marvelous. Her eyes were brimming with tears, and her expression solemn. " I think… " and she pulled him closer, her hands engulfing his, " It's a hard choice but… I think I'll be all right with losing a turn, Lt. Gaeta." She winked at him again. Then she dropped the act and began to laugh. As did almost everyone in the room. It was going to be a long time before anyone let Smash forget such a humiliating defeat. Kara pulled him to his feet. " Come on, " she said softly in his ear, smiling broadly. " Join the victory dance."

" I don't dance," he protested weakly.

Smash also stood up. " I want a rematch! With someone who doesn't frakking cheat!"

" He didn't cheat," Kara said with a sharp glare. The crowd murmured its agreement. Gaeta wasn't surprised. Smash wasn't well loved by the crew.

" I say he did cheat!" Smash snarled. "He's a cheater and a frakking Cylon!" That made Gaeta's blood boil. " First, I am not a Cylon. I was one of the first people tested. Second, I didn't have to cheat. You lost because you play like a frakking idiot, which isn't a shock because everyone knows you're a frakking idiot!"

Kara clapped, obviously amused. " Nice one! We definitely have to try this with alcohol sometime, Gaeta."

" No," he said, turning back to her, "I always have watch these days." At the edge of his peripheral vision, he saw something move, but before he could move, a blinding white hot bolt of pain exploded on the side of his head and blackness enveloped him.

*** It felt like his head was on fire with pain. In fact, his whole body seemed to hurt. Gaeta opened his eyes, and realized with fear that only his left eye opened at all and even then it was dark. He was lying on his back, it was hard and when he tried to sit up, he hit his head. " Ow!"

He started to panic. He was locked in one of the morgue body lockers, he was sure of it. "Let me out!" he shouted as he started to thrash around, which only made him panic worse since the space he was in was so small.

"For frak's sake, stop moving!" Suddenly it felt like the slab he was lying on was being rolled out and a bright light blinded him. " You just had to wake up."

" Doctor Cottle?" He blinked a few times, and slowly the gruff older man came into focus. " What's… what's going on?" Sickbay made sense considering how awful he felt but for the life of him, he couldn't quite figure out what happened. He'd been playing a game, Starbuck was whooping it up and then… " I think Smash hit me."

" Either that or you rammed your face into a meat grinder for kicks." Cottle took a long puff on his cigerette. " Look, we need to do a brain scan to make sure that the only thing you have to worry about is how pretty you'll look for the next few weeks. So stop squirming and freaking out."

" I thought… that I was in a locker in the morgue," Gaeta said sheepishly. Now that he knew where he was, he felt pretty stupid. A fight, Smash had hit him with… something. Of course he was in sick bay.

" Sure you did. Everyone thinks it's a morgue locker or a coffin, or that the walls are slowly moving in to crush them…" Cottle stopped after a moment. " Well, you probably didn't need that idea in your head, but don't worry. Just don't move. Moving triggers the killing mechanism." With that, he rolled the slab that Gaeta was lying on back into the machine.

Sometimes, Gaeta thought worriedly as he tried to relax, it was hard to tell when Dr. Cottle was kidding. ***

Commander Adama waited patiently while Dr. Cottle examined the scans. It had been a given that something would happen. Even in normal times, a ship in wartime was a powder keg. With every area understaffed, the crew didn't get to blow off steam with leave. There was really no place to go on leave, anyway. Sure, he could dangle a pass over to the Cloud 9 as a reward for a rare few, but the entire crew was burning out from overwork, and there was next to nothing he could do about it. Fights were going to happen. He just wished this particular fight hadn't happened.

" Well?" he asked. Cottle glared at him, but Adama didn't back down. Cottle didn't scare him. " Good news? Bad news?"

Cottle lit a cigarette. "The good news is that Lt. Gaeta isn't pregnant."

Adama rolled his eyes. Cottle was a damn fine doctor but he could be a real pain in the ass at times. " Good to know, although I hadn't realized that was a concern. Now, the bad news?"

Cottle tapped the scans. " Could've been worse. He's seriously concussed and not going to see out of his right eye for about a week, but no bleeding in his skull and no fracture. You probably don't want him doing any higher math for a while, but he'll be fine."

"Hmm, higher math is why we keep him so busy," Adama said. It was a problem. It wasn't that they didn't have anyone else who could plot an FTL jump, they just didn't have anyone who could do it so fast. Add in the fact that Gaeta was the senior watch officer, and it made him difficult to replace. Impossible actually. " Your recommendation?"

" I recommend you give him a week off to recuperate." Cottle said with a cynical chuckle. " What you'll end up doing is letting me keep him for the next 24 hours for observation, and then eight hour shifts instead of twelve for two weeks. Barring, of course, another life and death crisis." Cottle puffed on his cigarette. " You know, this sort of thing is going to get worse before it gets better. You're lucky we're not talking over a dead body."

" I know." There was always an undercurrent of tension between the airwing and people who supported it. There was blame on both sides. In the old world, it never would have gone so far. Jerry "Smash" Dondel would never have been allowed near a Viper, and Gaeta would have been enjoying his third month of duty on the command staff of Admiral Varley of the Battlestar Olympia. But that world was gone and he was living in the world where not only did he need every man and woman willing and able to sit in a Viper, he also needed his staff officers badly enough that even letting Cottle keep Gaeta for twenty four hours was a hardship.

" What are you going to do?" Cottle asked after a long moment. " You know it'll be bad for discipline. Gaeta looking like someone took an ambrosia bottle to his head is bad enough but it'll be worse if you don't send a message to the crew. The morgue is full up already, and I have better things to do than deal with than the crew assaulting each other."

" I'll send a message," Adama promised. The problem, he thought as he stalked out of the sickbay, was that it wasn't the message he wanted to send.

*** He was secretly glad that Dr. Cottle had insisted on reducing his work schedule. Gaeta felt like hell. He couldn't remember feeling worse. The very idea of walking anywhere, let alone to the CIC to work for eight hours was daunting. He buttoned his uniform, fumbling over it and then took a deep breath. Everyone is going to stare, he told himself, that's just what happens when you go to work with half of your face swelled up and turning dark purple.

There was a knock on the door. He stepped over and opened it. It was Dee, and she wasn't quite able to cover her surprised expression. " Oh my… I'm sorry… you didn't look this bad yesterday."

He chuckled even though it hurt. "I don't remember seeing you." A lot of people had wandered in and out to see him while he was in sick bay, but he'd been so miserable it had been a blur.

" You were unconscious," Dualla added helpfully.

" Did you need something? I was just going to head up to the CIC for my shift." He pinned on his insignia. " Dee?"

" I just thought I'd walk with you." There was an edge to her voice, worry, and he didn't like it.

" Look, I know I look really bad, but I can make it to the CIC, Dee." He thought he could make it, anyway. As long as he didn't have to run. Running was definitely going to set his already cringing stomach off.

"Have you really looked at yourself?" Dualla asked quietly. " Because you don't look like you should be on duty. You look awful."

" That's you look awful, sir," he said, smiling. Dee was a friend, and calling him sir had been a joke between them for almost as long as they had been assigned together. " I'm all right."

Dualla did smile, but she still seemed worried. She stepped into his cramped room and closed the door. " This isn't about rank right now. You're my friend and I'm worried about you. People have been talking. Smash has been making some threats. Nothing that you could take to the commander, but he's made it pretty clear that he wants a rematch. And not at cards."

" Why?" He gestured to his face. " I didn't exactly win that fight." In fact he was pretty certain that he had gone down like a flaming Viper into the deck. From what Dr. Cottle had told him, he was lucky to escape with just a concussion.

Dualla smiled. She took a seat on his bed and gestured for him to sit down beside her. "Yeah, that's pretty evident when we all look at you. But you made him look like a fool, in public, and worse, everyone thinks he's a frakking asshole for hitting you in the head with a chair over losing a game. Why didn't you want a court martial? He'd be in the brig for months."

" Commander Adama requested that I not press charges," he said after a moment. It was something he was starting to regret. Dee wasn't the sort to panic. If she was worried, then there was reason to be concerned. " Because of the pilot shortage." A court martial for striking a superior officer, especially in such flagrant circumstances, would have meant that after a lengthy stay in the brig that Smash would have lost his commission and been kicked out of the military. " I had to do what's best for the fleet. We need every pilot we can get."

" And it's hard to say no to the Old Man," Dee added softly. " Look, I know we're all supposed to be soldiers, and put the fleet above ourselves, but I have seen so many people die in the last few months, so many friends…." She looked at him intently, and took his hand. " You're my friend, and a good one, and I will be damned if I lose one more friend, especially to something as stupid as petty revenge. You're totally blind on your right side and you will be until the swelling goes down, and don't try to tell me that this is all cosmetic and you feel great, because it's obvious you can barely stand. That means that I am walking with you to the CIC today, and someone is walking with you back to your quarters when your shift is done. We've already gotten the schedule arranged. You will go along with this. At least until you recover."

He squeezed her hand reassuringly. " I think you're worrying too much. Nothing bad is going to happen. Smash would be an idiot to try anything, especially now, when everyone knows he's getting off light."

"He called you a Cylon. We all know its ridiculous, but there are a lot of new people on the ship. Someone might overreact and do something. We've both seen it happen." Dualla said it firmly. He saw her point. There had been a number of ugly incidents. People had gotten hurt. " Besides, Smash is an idiot, and you're not, and we need you a lot more than we need him, even if he is a Viper pilot." She paused. " I need you. I want you to promise me that you're going to be careful, and that you're not going to walk around the ship alone. At least until this blows over."

" All right, I give up. I promise." He smiled again to reassure her. Dee was a friend, and he could tell by her eyes that she was more than slightly worried. It was a little scary, he had to admit, but he was more concerned that the Cylon accusation would be a trigger for violence than Smash having a vendetta. At the same time, he couldn't help but feel real warmth. He didn't know about the civilian ships, but on the Galactica, people didn't talk about how much they worried about each other. He certainly didn't, and that was why his stomach was always upset, even when he wasn't concussed. It was why Dee's fingernails were bitten down to the quick. He could feel the roughness as he held her hand. " Thank you, it means a lot. Especially coming from you, Dee."

She pulled him into a hug. " I was scared yesterday," she said softly, " that I was going to lose another person I cared about. You mean a lot to me." She broke away from him and stood up, wiping her eyes. " We'd better get going. You know how the colonel is." Her voice dropped into a passable imitation of Colonel Tigh. " You're the last line of defense the fleet has."

He grinned as he carefully stood up. " You're the defenders, the guardians at the gate. Never forget that."

" You hold the fleet in your hands," Dualla chimed. They both laughed. She opened the door. " You know, you look bad enough, the colonel might share some of his stash with you."

" It can't be that bad. I mean, he doesn't even share with his wife. I would need to look much worse than this for that."

" Well, you do look pretty bad… sir."

*** Kara Thrace trotted into the CIC, carefully covering the amusement she felt as several of the CIC people openly glared at her. The whole situation was unpleasant. She had never seen hostility so high on board the Galactica. She felt badly about the fight, but she thought Dualla was being paranoid about the whole thing. Smash had been punished, recycled to the next nugget class, and doing janitorial duty to learn a lesson while he sweated out his time in the brig. She personally had punched the daylight out of him, and the nuggets had been doubly harsh. Yes, in a better world, in the old world, trash like Smash would have been tossed out, and good riddance. The problem was that even a poor Viper pilot was better than none at all. Lee had sternly lectured all of the pilots on the importance of not hitting the staff with chairs when there were losses at card games, and she knew for a fact that all of the pilots had been scrupulously polite and respectful.

Bad enough that Gaeta looked like everyone's bright eyed earnest little brother with the personality to match. Worse that he not only looked terrible, but he had not insisted on throwing the book at Smash. So the more Smash pissed and moaned about it, the more saintly Gaeta came off. She didn't like that Smash wouldn't shut up about Gaeta being a Cylon, but no one really thought that about him. Dualla and the rest of the CIC enlisted people, was just adding fuel to the fire by insisting that someone escort Gaeta from place to place. She had intentionally asked Dualla to be added to the list, partly to show some air wing support and partly to talk to Gaeta about having the whole business stopped. It wasn't helping mend the rift, and it was a rift that the air wing didn't want.

" Hey," she said pleasantly as she stepped up to Gaeta's station. " According to the schedule, I am supposed to be escorting you down to sick bay. Almost done?"

He held up his hand, gesturing for her to be silent. Looking at the screen he was working on, she realized he was plotting a lengthy FTL jump, the sort that the commander tried to plan well in advance. It was safer. Errors were deadly with jumps. It was better to carefully plan them. She could, in a pinch, plot her own jumps in something the size of the Cylon Raider or a Raptor, but moving multiple ships in formation took a great deal of care and skill. Finally Gaeta looked up. " Jump coordinates entered. Lt. Algee, you have the deck. Make sure to run the second pass over the coordinates." He stepped away from the console.

Algee cheerfully took his place. " Don't let her talk you into any card games," Algee warned, his deep voice rolling with humor.

" Don't worry," Kara said loudly enough for all of the people watching to hear, " I'm just here to protect and serve." She waited until they had left the CIC before she giggled. " You know how I know you are better? I can actually see both of your eyes roll. You look better by the way." It was true. Gaeta's face had resumed its normal shape, and the swelling around his right eye had gone down. He did still look like someone had pounded him into a pulp.

" It would be hard to look worse." Gaeta said quietly. He seemed embarrassed.

Kara wondered if he was embarrassed by the attention or by the fact that he had gotten cold cocked by Smash. " Too bad you didn't get cut."

Gaeta sighed. " Yes, I know. Women like scars. Dr. Cottle mentioned my misfortune in that respect."

Kara laughed. " Cottle has his moments." She waited for a laugh, or a chuckle, or even a smirk, but Gaeta was silent. " Something wrong?"

" I'm tired. My head hurts. Someone keeps painting the word "Cylon" on my door. I think it's that frakking idiot Smash. It has been a rotten couple of days. Most of my friends are worried that the second I go to the head by myself, I'm going to be killed. Dr. Baltar is mad that I am not allowed to help him, the colonel's wife keeps trying to sneak into my bed, and nothing seems to be getting better. Everyone is angry, and thinking about it makes my head hurt even more." Gaeta said it all in a rush, as if spitting out poison.

Kara grabbed him by the arm. " Gaeta… Smash isn't going to come after you. If he fraks up one more time, he will get kicked out, no matter how badly we need pilots." She wasn't entirely sure she believed that, but she knew better than to say anything else. Gaeta was a man, just like Lee and Helo and countless others she had known, and men didn't like to look weak. Even in a fight that didn't involve blindsiding an opponent with a chair, she didn't think Gaeta had the internal fire needed to best a larger opponent. " The problem is that this isn't going to calm down as long as the CIC people keep acting like we're all trying to kill them."

" I know," Gaeta said heavily. " It's a problem."

" It is. Why don't you ask Dualla to back off a little on this mission she's on to protect you?" Kara was pleased with herself. She knew that she wasn't good at solving problems by talking about them, but it seemed like it was going to work.

Until Gaeta started laughing. " Are you kidding? You have no idea what this is about, do you?"

Kara's eyes narrowed. Something about his tone told her that the smart mouthed asshole that Gaeta usually kept under wraps had suddenly slipped from his cage. " Why don't you tell me?"

He smirked at her. " You're a Viper pilot. You might as well be a god on this ship. Pilots always come first and none of you ever think that things are different for the rest of us. Don't you wonder why none of us ever come down to play cards any more? Why no one drinks or hangs out? We're working all of the time."

"Everybody works." Kara said easily. " There is the whole holocaust, end of the world, fugitive fleet thing happening you know." Somehow though she had a bad feeling that Gaeta was making a fair point.

" You work pilot hours, Starbuck. You fly a eight hour CAP, two hours of prep and two of post flight maintenance. Then you're off. After three days of that, you get two days of flight deck duty, that you all complain about, and the sixth day you get assigned to supervise a squad doing ship maintenance and trust me, you all complain about that too. Then you get a day off." Gaeta took a breath. " The only day I've had off was because of a concussion. Ever since the Cylon attack, I've been working twelve hour shifts at the minimum, usually more and even though I'm not a pilot, I don't get to ignore the general quarters call if there's an attack. You have to fly, but we all man battle stations to make sure we don't all get killed. That's just how it is in the CIC. There's not enough of us to cover normal shifts, and until we have enough pilots trained, that's just how it has to be."

" Pilots can die at any time," Kara shot back. " You go down the launch tube thinking it's the last time. It's stressful. You make a mistake and you're dead" She was angry, but she did see his point. The ship hadn't been fully staffed and between casualties and attacks, filling the pilot spots had been the priority, that and keeping the pilots in good health.

"Yes, if you make a mistake, you're dead. If I make a mistake, or Dee, or anyone in the CIC, everybody's dead. Mistakes simply can not happen at our jobs." Gaeta paced around her. " Every time we do an FTL jump, we are risking every life in the fleet on my ability to do math." He paused. " I can barely eat or sleep anymore. I started smoking just so I don't drink myself to death. Some people chew their nails until their fingers bleed. One guy was pulling his hair out until Cottle got him to shave his head. There's a petty officer, a woman, who can't stop stuttering, another one that can't stop shaking once she's off shift. Nobody quits, nobody complains, nobody minds that the only person who ever says thank you to us is the commander. We all do our jobs and work without even a chance of a break, and we do it because if we don't, then everybody dies."

Kara hesitated before she spoke. She knew what he was talking about. There were people having breakdowns left and right on the Galactica, and more in the regular fleet. " I hadn't noticed any real problems." Not like what happened down in the pilot barracks, with the day long crying jags or excessive promiscuous sex.

Gaeta rolled his eyes. " Of course you don't." He also hesitated, clearly searching for words. " You've heard the commander call the crew a family, right?" She nodded. " He's right about that, but he sees us all as his children, and that's not really how it is. Each area, the CIC people, the airwing, the deck crew, is its own family. We're all related, like cousins, but you're always closer to your immediate family than you are to your cousins. You never want your cousins to see how bad things might be at home, so you always put on a good show. We don't want to know what problems are happening in the air wing, it just makes us more nervous when we have to monitor the fight. We never let on what our problems are, because you have enough to worry about already. Everyone knows that there are problems, but no one wants to have them brought up in public, because it is family. And it's all falling apart."

" Because?"

" Respect," Gaeta said simply. " I know I will never save this ship by flying a Viper into battle, but that doesn't mean I am a useless piece of garbage in comparison to a Viper pilot. In fact, I have saved this ship and this fleet a few times, a few times more than Smash, and I did it from a console in the CIC. The people in the CIC? My friends? Like Dualla? They know that, just like I know that every one of them has saved this fleet few times. I am not going to tell Dualla, who may be overreacting a little bit, that I don't respect her concern, because she is my friend, and more importantly the only family I have left. You would be doing the same as her if this situation were reversed, except that the commander would have thrown the book at a tactical officer that hit a Viper pilot in the head with a chair. And you know that, but you don't know how that feels. No one is safe, and the air wing can do whatever the hell it wants without any real fear of punishment."

Kara opened her mouth to disagree. And then stopped. Gaeta was right, at least in theory. There was at least one member of the CIC staff that would get a wrist slap in a similar situation, and she was looking right at him. But he had a point. Almost anyone else hitting a Viper pilot would have been court martialed. He was right, and she understood suddenly that the problem wasn't going to away even if Gaeta was willing to ask Dualla to call off the escort service. Trust had been broken. Respect had been lost. " All right, how do we fix this?"

Gaeta shrugged. " I don't know, but something has to give."

They both jumped as the alert claxon blared. Kara immediately began running. " Can't stay to chat!" Gaeta followed her, but they were both halted seconds later as a metallic wall slammed down across the corridor. " What the frak is this?"

" It's a security precaution," Gaeta said after a moment. " We installed them after the Cylons boarded us. We must be near the life support controls." He paused. " We better find a phone and report in. We're not getting out until the commander calls the all clear."

" We're locked in this corridor?" Kara began to seethe.

" In the area surrounding life support yes. If the Cylons board again, it is supposed to make it harder for them to gain access, slow them up." Gaeta said. " I thought I saw a phone back this way."

" You did," a new voice chuckled. Kara and Gaeta turned, and saw Smash, dressed like one of the janitorial staff, holding the handset he had obviously torn from the wall in one hand.

*** Of course, Gaeta thought as he spotted Smash, of course I couldn't just be locked in to the life support hub during a Cylon attack. He doubted that Smash just wanted to talk. He glanced at Kara, and was surprised to see her look as worried as he felt. Then again, Kara Thrace was just as likely to be on Smash's list of enemies as he was.

Kara stepped forward. " Smash, we are under attack right now. This is not a good time for whatever you've got planned. In fact, now would be a really good time for you to consider how badly you want to be a Viper pilot."

Smash merely grinned. From one of his coverall pockets, he pulled out a gun. " You're on my list, bitch. But he's at the top."

" Where did you get a gun?" Gaeta asked suddenly. Out of all of the people who had access to guns, it seemed like Smash should have been the last person with a code to the weapons lockers. Then again…

"I'm still an officer, no matter how hard you tried to frak me over." Smash snarled.

" I didn't frak you over!" Gaeta shouted, feeling every last shred of calm leave him. " You hit me in the head with a chair because you lost a frakking game! What did you think was going to happen, you'd get a medal for that?"

The ship rocked just as Smash fired the gun. Gaeta stumbled against the shaking but still felt the bullet whiz by his head. Kara grabbed him and pulled him down the corridor. They ran down the corridor and turned into the main corridor that led to life support. Kara ducked into an alcove, and he followed her.

"That son of a bitch tried to shoot me!" Gaeta said between breaths. He felt almost blind from rage and fear. He slammed his fist into the wall. " Ouch! Dammit!"

Kara grabbed him by the shoulders and slammed him into the wall. " Listen to me very carefully," she whispered, her face grim and her eyes alive with anger, " Calm the frak down. This is not the time to debate with the crazy man on how you have had the moral high ground in your little tiff with him. It's also not the time to flip out." The ship rocked again, and he could feel the weapon impacts vibrate through the metal of the wall. He could also feel the white hot rage slipping away with every rumble. Kara shook him again. "Now, have I got the calm, rational Felix Gaeta back? The one that doesn't argue with crazy people? Because I need him right now."

Gaeta took a deep breath. " Yes, I'm all right." He willed his hands to stop shaking.

"Good." Kara let go of him. " How soon do the barriers come up once a battle is over?"

" As soon as the commander gives the all clear. Unless we're boarded. Then they stay up and the Marine units spread out to search and destroy the Cylon boarding team." He hesitated. " This is all theoretical, we've never had opportunity to test this."

" What other changes were made?" Kara asked quickly.

"If the Cylons get past the corridor barriers, there's a final barrier that cuts off their access. In theory, the time it will take them to take that down will give the remaining Marine units time to encircle the Cylons and destroy them." Gaeta said. " All the corridors leading into this area are blocked. There are two weapons lockers within the quarantine area. Again, in theory, people caught inside the quarantine zone are supposed to try to defend the life support core." The ship rocked hard, knocking both of them to the floor.

Kara looked over at him, her eyes twinkling. " You designed this frak up, didn't you?"

He nodded sheepishly. " I have my regrets now." Kara started to get up but he remained on the floor. The ship's walls and floors always seemed to hum with rhythm, it was something he had noticed when he was first been assigned to the Galactica. He knew how the ship felt when it was idling, when docking with another ship, when Vipers landed hard… and especially he knew what the ship felt like with a Cylon boarding party stomping through it.

That particular vibration had been burned into his brain. " We've got a bigger problem, Starbuck."

***

Kara resisted the urge to kick Gaeta up off the floor. Instead she grabbed him by the collar and hauled him up. " Yes, we do have a bigger problem, and he's probably looking for us," she hissed. She didn't expect Gaeta to suddenly turn into a hardened marine, but she also didn't expect him to be a useless wreck. " We have got to find a weapons locker."

He grabbed her hand and pressed it to the metal wall. " Feel that," he said intently. She started to pull away but stopped. The angry, irrational stranger of seconds ago was gone, replaced by the cool, collected, and scarily intent tactical officer. She knew that version of Gaeta and she bit back her sharp retort and let the ship's rhythms flow up through her palm.

"What is that?" she asked after a moment. "It" was a strange rhythmic thumping that she couldn't connect to anything she had ever felt before. It seemed to get stronger, tickling her senses. It wouldn't be long before they would be able to hear it as well as feel it.

"It's a Cylon boarding party. I remember. We could feel it in the CIC." He looked into the corridor quickly and then back at Kara. " We're the last line of defense. They'll be coming here. If they gain access to the controls, they'll kill us all and destroy the fleet."

" Well, we can't have that," she said breezily. She eyed Gaeta carefully. " I have to get Smash on board and fast. So you'll need to shut your smart mouth." And she would have to kiss the ass of a domineering idiot who had delusions of grandeur. She had done it before. Smash at least wasn't a drunken XO.

The two back out into the corridor. Kara could feel the metallic stomp of the Cylons rumbling through the floor. She also heard sporadic shots, which seemed to be getting closer. They didn't have much time at all, she realized. Ah well, she though suddenly, the gods hate cowards. " Hey Smash! Get out here! I want to make a deal!" To Gaeta she whispered, " Just follow my lead, and don't worry."

"What? Can't you hear the Cylons coming?" Smash entered the corridor. Kara spotted explosive grenades hanging off of his pockets. He apparently knew where the weapons locker and had picked up as much as he could carry. She sniffed critically. It was obvious that Smash had a lot of adolescent fantasies and issues surrounding guns. His eyes were glowing with excitement, another bad sign. She liked to fight, there was no denying that, but she fought to win. Smash reeked of being a glory hound.

" I hear them coming. I want to make a deal." She carefully stepped in front of Gaeta. " We both know that the Cylons are coming for the life support. You can't use all of those guns yourself, and believe me, if that's more than one centurion, you'll want the extra firepower."

" Yeah… " Smash nodded at that. " I'll give you a gun, but not him. There's going to be at least one casualty on the day I save the fleet from the Cylons." He started to unsling a rifle but hesitated. " How do I know I can trust you? Seems like the two of you are frakbuddies these days."

She grinned at him. " This is all between Viper pilots today, Smash. Your problem is that you don't get that being discrete sometimes gets you into less trouble. Do you think any of us like all the shit he's caused? He's a staff officer, it's not easy to get away with fragging him. Give me a gun, let's kill the Cylon and then I'll let you kill him."

Smash considered it for a moment. The pounding in the corridor grew louder. Finally he nodded agreement. " I'm the one that's gonna kill the Cylon though, understand?"

She smiled as she nodded. " Sure." He handed her the rifle. It held four explosive rounds only but she didn't complain. Lee had told her that they had rationed the heavier ammunition. Smash had the real prizes, four explosive grenades hanging off of a heavy-duty flak vest. Seeing that, she had an idea. Her plan was pretty solid, but there was always a chance that she would be killed, leaving Gaeta defenseless. " Say, why not give the deadwing the automatic pistol? It's not like it can penetrate that vest of yours, and we'll need something to draw their fire."

Smash's eyes narrowed but after a moment, he handed the pistol and it's ammunition to Gaeta. " Yeah," he said, " I can't imagine you're much of a shot."

Gaeta took the gun easily and began loading it. " I haven't fired a weapon since the Academy." Beads of sweat dotted his forehead.

It was a lie, Kara knew it, and Gaeta knew she knew it. Commander Adama was old fashioned in a lot of ways, and he insisted on his officers practicing with their side arms frequently. She was the best shot, followed by the small marine contingent, but Gaeta wasn't one of the chronic non qualifiers. It was useless against a Cylon, and he would have to get a head shot if it ended up a fight between Smash and him, but it was better than nothing.

Not that she planned to let it get that far. Smash wasn't going to leave the life support hub alive.

*** He felt like throwing up. Ship battles, where he was monitoring the battle and receiving and giving reports and orders, were terrifying in a way that usually left him feeling exhilarated and excited for hours afterward. It was, in a way, better than sex, a total rush to be on the deck controlling the battle. It made up for the extra long hours of making shower and laundry schedules.

This was different. Gaeta knew any number of people on board who were passively suicidal since the holocaust. He knew a smaller number who were actively suicidal and even they would shun the opportunity to die at the hands of a Cylon Centurion. He understood Kara's plan, and it wasn't likely to work, no matter how good a shot she was. For starters, he had read too many reports on what a Centurion could do. He had been the one to inspect all of the damage from the last boarding assault. People had been literally sliced in half. Torn into pieces. The odds were against any of them surviving to begin with.

He tuned out Smash's blithering, and assessed their position. The Cylons were moving fast, making quick work of the defenses. There had been just a few lectures at the academy on infantry tactics. The life support controls were shuttered with the strongest metal they had been able to find in the fleet. Judging by the near deafening pounding going on in the corridor to the west, at least one Cylon was going to make it through the barricade. The shooting had been heavy for a few minutes but was down to sporadic shots. The Marines had taken a beating, he was sure. There were alcoves that they could take cover in. The only idea he had that made any sense was to hide, hold their fire until the Cylons were close and then pray that they took out all of the Cylons before they tore open the life support controls and blew out all of the air into space. Even then, with full cooperation from Smash, they were probably all going to be killed.

It's the fleet that's important, he told himself as he knelt down in an alcove and wiped nervous sweat from his brow, the fleet has to survive. The survival of the human race was at stake, and as much as he didn't relish dying in a hail of gunfire, if it meant the survival of the species, it had to be done.

" I'm taking that spot!" Smash grabbed him and tossed him into the opposing wall. "You stay out of my sight or I'll kill you right now!"

*** Gods protect me from idiots, Cylons, and all combinations in between, Kara Thrace prayed as she watched Smash slam Gaeta into the wall opposite her. It would actually be easier to be by herself. It was certainly safer. Smash was not going to listen to any rational plan, she had no illusions on that point. Smash had his image wrapped up in proving himself to be the warrior he thought he was. Blowing away a few Cylon Centurions was somehow going to wipe away the events of the last few days, in Smash's mind.

She wasn't sure that being stuck with Gaeta was such a prize either. Smart, much less likely to kill her in a psychotic rampage, that was all true, but it was obvious that Gaeta had spent too much time on the CIC deck. He moved like a deck officer, and he was thinking like one and that had to stop if any of them were going to get out of the life support hub alive. She grabbed Gaeta as he was pulling himself up off the floor and dragged him over to a much less exposed spot than the one Smash was insisting upon. "Stop it," she hissed at him.

" Stop what?" Gaeta asked. He pointed at Smash, " He's going to…"

" I don't care," she whispered harshly. " Yes, he's going to get killed. That's no reason for you to volunteer to die for him. Stop zoning out, stop thinking so damn much. This is not the time to think. This is combat. Point your gun and shoot at anyone who shoots at you. Duck if they shoot back. Don't move from here unless I say so. Do you get me?"

She didn't have time to wait for Gaeta to think it over and acknowledge her. She dove back to her own spot and positioned herself. She could view the corridor the Cylons would use. Smash would have that view and a good look at the actual control panel area. He was also far more exposed than he needed to be. Gaeta was in a similar position to hers, less protected, but she didn't feel bad about that at all. Gaeta, if he fired his weapon at all, would just be a distraction. She had four explosive rounds and she prayed that there wouldn't be more than four Cylons. Each shot counts, she told herself as the corridor reverberated with the sound of tearing metal. One shot, one kill.

Smash started firing as soon as he saw movement. She cursed him under her breath and held her fire. There were three Centurions and Smash had the bulk of the good ammunition. Smash fired wildly and hit two of the Cylons but didn't take them down. They sped up, in that eerie way that Centurions had. Smash fired again, and took down the closest warrior. Despite her vow to not actively try and save Smash's life, she fired at the next Cylon. She winged it, and fired again and again, finally bringing it down. The third Cylon literally stomped on top of Smash. He was screaming, but then it suddenly stopped. She peaked from her position. The Cylon moved towards the life support controls. Smash's body was caught on one of its legs and he was dragged with it. She stood and fired her last round. The Cylon slammed into the wall, one of its arms severed, but still functional. It stepped up to the life support controls and started tearing at the barrier.

"Frak!" she shouted. " Gaeta, throw me your gun!" She would be damned if she spent her final moments waiting to die. She looked over to where Gaeta had been kneeling, but he was already moving, much to her surprise. " What the hell are you doing?"

*** Supply was a bottleneck in any war. That was the first thing a cadet learned in the opening strategy class at the Academy. Supply on the Galactica was a frakking nightmare, one that Gaeta dealt with constantly. The four explosive hand grenades that Smash had were some of the last in the fleet, and the dumb son of a bitch hadn't thrown any of them at the Cylon before the Cylon literally crushed him under its feet.

One, two, three, four, and then Kara was out of ammunition. That left him, with what amounted to a toy gun, and the sickening realization that he was living the last few seconds of his life. Even catastrophically wounded by Kara's last shot, the Cylon was still functional. Functional enough to start clawing at the barrier, and still protected by enough armor that shooting at it was an exercise in futility.

He didn't want to die. As terrible as the last few months had been, as tired and angry and numb as he felt most of the time, the last thing he wanted was death. At the same time, the fleet counted more than one life. If rushing the Cylon, blasting it with his gun, gave the marines just a few more seconds to get there and save the ship, then it had to be done. He closed his eyes just for a moment and wished something, anything, would come to him. But all he could think of was the stupid game that had led him to be in the position he was in. At least I won, he thought as he stood up, and with both of us dead everyone will calm down.

It felt like he was moving in slow motion, through an invisible liquid. Dimly he heard someone shouting but it was just background noise to the roaring in his ears. He looked into the life support control hub, gun raised. The Cylon was throwing off sparks as it pawed the barrier. Smash was lying at its feet. The grenades poked out of his bloody jacket, taunting Gaeta, just as Smash had taunted him during their game. He could see Smash's fingers open and close ineffectually. The Cylon realized that he was standing there and began to turn.

That was when it hit him. He was still going to die, but he knew how to stop the Cylon. He smiled as he lowered the gun, took careful aim, and fired at the explosive grenades still visible on Smash's jacket.

He felt the blast before he saw it. Then he felt nothing at all.

***

Kara couldn't figure out what Gaeta was doing. Aside from killing himself, and it wasn't like they weren't about to die anyway. She rose to her feet to try and tackle him down so at least she didn't have to watch the Cylon splatter him into the wall, but she didn't have time. Gaeta smiled, the same smile she'd seen him use right before coming up with a winning move, and fired his pistol. The explosion took her by complete surprise. She dove to the floor, covering her head from all of the flying metal. After a long moment, she raised her head.

Dust and smoke filled the corridor. She didn't wait for it to settle. They had to be certain the Cylon was dead, but as she looked at the gore splattered walls, she realized what had happened. Gaeta had fired at the hand grenades that Smash had been wearing. The Cylon was in pieces, as was Smash, the ricochet from the grenades had left both Smash and the Cylon in so many pieces, it was like looking at metal flecked hamburger. Problem solved, she thought grimly. She turned her attention to the next problem. " Gaeta?"

He was lying on the floor, face down, up against the far wall. The good sign was that he wasn't in pieces. The bad sign was that he wasn't moving. She knelt down beside him, and turned him over. There was a lot of blood. Gaeta was covered with blood and metal shrapnel, but she didn't see any spurting blood. " Don't be dead," she said softly as she felt his neck for a pulse. " Don't be dead, because the gods favor the crazy, and that was one crazy stunt."

Finally, she found a pulse. It surprised her to feel so relieved. She was getting tired of funerals, and she especially didn't want to bury someone who had saved her life with a move more crazy than any she had ever seen. All right, she thought to herself, it was going to be a few minutes before the rescue crews got there. Conscious was better than unconscious, she remembered that much from the first aid training class. " Come on, Gaeta, you're not dead, so wake up. Don't leave me hanging here, I need you to play cards with." She carefully tapped his face.

After a long moment his eyelids started to flutter. "No…" he mumbled.

" No? Are you too good to play with me?" Kara asked with a laugh.

He opened his eyes. " You play too rough." He started to sit up and stopped, obviously in pain. " Whenever I do anything with you, I get hurt. Look at me." He grabbed his chest, and pulled out a piece of shrapnel. " This was my best uniform. And my tattoo is ruined. What happened?"

" Ok," she said, taking the shrapnel, " I think we need to let Dr. Cottle pick the metal out of you. Don't you remember what happened?" She realized suddenly that she had seen Gaeta's head slam into hard metal at least three times in the last ten minutes. It hadn't been more than a week since the last head injury. There was a very good chance that Gaeta was not going to remember anything. " You fired into one of the explosive grenades that Smash had. I never thought a bridge officer could out crazy me."

" I'm the defender, the guardian at the gate. It's my job." Gaeta said tiredly. He closed his eyes.

Kara tapped him again. "No sleeping on duty." She was starting to worry. His last comment had been a little odd. " Maybe you'll get a medal. Or even better, a day off.. I think saving the ship should get you at least a day off."

Gaeta opened his eyes again. He looked surprisingly clear for someone who was barely making sense. " You're not telling anyone that I shot Smash in order to blow up the Cylon. You and I are going to tell everyone that Smash pulled the pin with his last dying breath. He saved our lives."

" I think you've hit your head one too many times," Kara said after a moment. " He was going to kill us both." She laughed. "This is what you call ironic. We're lucky Smash died when that Cylon stepped on him. He was going to kill us both, just for spite."

"I'm not an idiot," Gaeta said tiredly, " But the real story is that I killed him, and which story do you think everyone will want to believe? That a bridge officer gunned down a pilot, possibly out of revenge, or that the pilot gave his life saving the fleet and the two people he'd had the grudge with?" He hesitated. " You wanted a solution, well now you have one."

After a moment, Kara nodded. It was an elegant solution to the problem. Smash was enough of a bragger about his abilities that everyone would believe that he could have done something as foolhardy and suicidal. The truth made a fine tale, but Gaeta was right. There would be any number of people who would think that he killed Smash for revenge. The truth would make things worse for everyone. " All right, that's the story we'll tell, but you know, you'll have to teach how you do this."

He looked at her quizzically. " Teach you what?"

" How to be the perfect officer on the outside, and completely insane on the inside."

***

Gaeta tried not to laugh. " It's a lot harder than it looks." Even talking hurt, but as the shocked numbness started to wear off, he knew it probably looked worse than it felt. He felt like he had a thousand pieces of sharp, tiny metal bits driven into his skin, but he could breath, and pain meant he was alive. " I'm still alive."

"Try not to sound so surprised," Kara said with a laugh. She looked down the corridor. " I see the rescue team." Louder, she said, " It's about frakking time, Lee!"

Lee Adama entered the outside rim of Gaeta's vision. He was still in a flight suit, holding out a sidearm." I'm sorry, I was busy flying a mission against Cylon raiders while you were screwing around." He looked into the life support hub and grimaced. " What happened?"

" Smash had a grenade," Gaeta said quickly. He pulled himself up into a seated position, despite the pain. " When we ran out of ammunition he rushed the Cylon."

" Exactly!" Kara said, grinning. " He was a total bastard but he saved our lives." She gestured to Gaeta. " Hey Captain, even though I think most of the blood here on Lt. Gaeta is backwash from Smash exploding, it might be a good idea to call a medic." She gave Lee a meaningful look.

He could tell that Lee Adama didn't quite believe them, but he knew Kara would keep the secret. It was the fleet that mattered after all. One more secret on the Galactica wasn't going to be a problem. And he didn't mind that Smash would get the credit. The ship was saved, and the families that lived there wouldn't be at each other's throats.

He had won the game, after all. That was the important thing.