Safe

Twenty-two days after The A-Team's escape from Fort Bragg, Apollo has an unexpected late night visitor.

Tucson, Arizona. 1972

"Gods, Star...you look like sh..."

"Shh!" Starbuck said, the corner of his mouth quirking up in a grin as he looked down at what Apollo held in his arms. "Not in front of the newcomer. She's gorgeous. What's her name?"

Despite his worry at his friend's condition, and his curiosity as to how Starbuck got into his house at 2am and was now standing in front of him in the living room, Apollo found himself responding to the grin with one of his own. "Her name's Stella. And she's 13 days old. And nice of you to want to wait a bit before corrupting her." He looked searchingly at his friend in the dim light. "Seriously. You look awful. Are you hurt?"

Starbuck shook his head, still studying the baby in Apollo's arms and still with that grin on his face. "No. It's been a long twenty two days, but..." he finally looked up from the bundle in Apollo's lap and met his eyes. "No. I'm not hurt."

Starbuck glanced away. Apollo wasn't sure he believed him. In the low lighting he saw no evidence of injury, but the news reports about the A-Team's escape had been clear about the number of troops and weaponry the military had sent on the team's trail. Hurt or not, his friend had spent the past three weeks running, and exhaustion showed in every line of his body. Even in the dim light, Apollo could see Starbuck's hands trembling before his friend noticed his gaze and clenched them into fists.

"She's beautiful, Apollo," Starbuck said softly. "I'm glad I got to see her." He started to back away, uncertainty clear in his eyes and his body language. "But you know I really shouldn't be here."

"No!" Apollo tried to keep his voice calm, aware of Stella in his arms. Apollo looked back down at her, now sleepily blinking her eyes and sucking half-heartedly on the bottle.

He removed the bottle and shifted her to his shoulder and started gently patting her back.

"Apollo…"

Apollo didn't let him finish. "If you're about to say that you're on America's top ten most wanted list and you shouldn't be in my house then shut up right now." Apollo fought to keep his voice even. "Yes, I know you're wanted for war crimes that I can't even imagine you're guilty of anyway because what the hell would you need the money for. Yes, I know you escaped with your team and now you're being hunted. And yes I know that you're all considered armed and dangerous fugitives and anyone who sees you is supposed to call the police." He paused, noting that he now had Starbuck's full attention and his friend's eyes were wide and shocked. He took a deep breath. "I don't care."

"You should." Starbuck's voice was flat.

"I. Don't. Care." Apollo repeated, willing Starbuck to see the truth in his words. "You're my friend. You're obviously exhausted. We can talk about all of this tomorrow. and yes my father does have an opinion that you should probably hear directly from him." He plowed on. "But right now, you need a shower, food, and sleep." Apollo could see Starbuck wavering. "Star…" he let just a hint of the Flight Captain into his tone as he pointed at the stairs with the hand that wasn't holding his daughter on his shoulder. "Guest room, you know where it is. There's a new toothbrush in the top drawer in the bathroom."

"Apollo…"

"Stop saying my name over and over and stop protesting. I don't want to hear it. Go."

He got a faint real smile in response to that, along with a quiet "Yes, sir." thrown over Starbuck's shoulder as his friend headed for the stairs leading up to the bedrooms.

Stella was asleep on his shoulder. He smiled faintly down at her, then headed up the stairs to put her back to bed, tell Sheba about their unexpected visitor, and scrounge for some old sweatpants and a t-shirt.

His skin was practically crawling with dirt and sweat, and Starbuck was pulling his filthy shirt off before he was halfway up the stairs. He waited until he reached the small bathroom in the guest room before he dropped the shirt to the tile floor, then pulled the boots and socks from his swollen feet, grimacing at the musky smell, and stripped all the remaining clothing off, kicking it all into a pile in the corner.

His back and arm muscles protested the stretch as he reached into the shower to turn the water on. Staying in Apollo's house still seemed like a terrible idea, the tiny baby in Apollo's arms only reinforcing to Starbuck that this home was no place for a fugitive to be. But Apollo's obvious concern, coupled with the temptations of a hot shower, an actual bed, and at least a few hours of sleep while not needing to watch his back had convinced him to head up the stairs.

Waiting for the water to heat up, he brushed his teeth and looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. He could see why Apollo had looked so worried, even with what little he'd probably been able to see in the dim lighting downstairs - he'd always been slender, but the weeks on the run had left him almost skeletal, and the dark circles under his eyes looked almost like bruises. He had at least been able to shave a few times, so he was only sporting a few days worth of stubble, but twenty-two days of too much running, not enough food, and far too little sleep were clearly taking their toll.

Hannibal, B.A. and the person they knew as Templeton Peck had stayed together for the first week and a half after going over the wall at Fort Bragg, but when the search parties seemed to be getting uncomfortably close Starbuck had hesitantly suggested that they split up and meet up in Los Angeles a few weeks. The decision for everyone to head to Los Angeles had already been made, as Hannibal felt it was an ideal place to disappear, and they were also hoping to find Murdock there. Murdock had not been implicated in their final mission to rob the Bank of Hanoi, but in the weeks that had followed the team's arrest they had lost touch with him. The last Starbuck had heard was that Murdock's mental health, already shaky since the experiences in the prison camp, had deteriorated rapidly since the teams's incarceration, and he'd been sent back to a VA hospital in Los Angeles for treatment.

Initially reluctant to separate, Hannibal and B.A. had finally agreed with him that alone, they could more easily blend in to their surroundings and hopefully evade capture. Starbuck had certainly found it easier in the 11 days he'd been on the run without them - with his hair growing out and his scruffy appearance and clothing, he knew he looked like nothing more than a wayward college dropout or draft evader, hitchhiking his way across the country. He had no idea how Hannibal and B.A. were faring as they made their way as well, and he was trying not to think about what he would do if he turned up in Los Angeles, but they did not.

Easier going didn't mean anything about it was easy, of course, and he was near the point of physical and mental collapse when he finally hit the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona - if he hadn't been, he would never have stopped at Apollo's house. It was dangerous for him to stop anywhere, and even more so for Apollo to allow him to stay. In the three years since the Galactica and her fleet had made planetfall, Apollo and Sheba had settled down in this small southwestern city, Apollo earning a Masters degree and teaching Anthropology at University of Arizona, Sheba reluctantly playing the part of dutiful wife and mother to a now-10 year old Boxey, and all the while both of them continuing to work with Adama, helping to clandestinely settle the nearly quarter of a million refugee colonists on the planet, and beginning the slow and painstaking work of bringing Earth up to the capabilities the planet needed to defend itself against the cylons.

It was hard work to even identify the few people on Earth to whom they could expose who they truly were, much less to work through the logistics of bringing the planet's technology and people up to where they needed to be. Starbuck's mission in Vietnam had been recruitment - find a select few to recommend for the highly classified training program that was being put together for the people that would ultimately join the Galactica in the defense of the planet.

He'd certainly succeeded in the recruitment mission, finding and recommending a number of potential candidates for training in multiple areas, including flight training, ground troops, technology, and medical. But he couldn't fulfill his mission without being dragged into the spectacularly messy war, and he had encountered all the ugliness that people could throw at each other as a result.

Starbuck's eyes skated idly over the most physical of the reminders - the scars from the prison camp that wrapped their way across his chest and ribcage and crisscrossed his back. Now six months old, many were starting to fade to silver white, but where the deepest and most infected wounds had been the marks were still an angry red. He pushed away the memories of fear and pain as the steam started to rise from the shower, turned away from the mirror, and stepped in.

As the near-scalding water began to beat into his sore muscles and sluice away the grime and dried sweat, he was hit with a wave of fatigue so overwhelming that he nearly fell. He braced his hands on the shower wall and fought off the dizziness, then, when he could trust himself to stay standing, reached for the shampoo and then the soap. He scrubbed everything from his hair to his feet, watching tiredly as the dirt ran down the drain. He rinsed, did it all again, then leaned his arms on the shower wall and tiredly rested his head on them, letting the hot water continue to pound onto his back. The adrenaline that had kept him moving over the past three weeks was clearly wearing off fast now that he was clean, warm, and actually safe for the first time since he'd set foot in Vietnam almost two years ago.

Starbuck often thought what he'd really succeeded at in Vietnam was getting a crash course in the barbarism of humanity. It had been generations since the people of the Colonies had fought wars with each other, focused instead on the enemies that came from the stars. Starbuck was no stranger to the ugliness that humanity was capable of - the Colonies were not without evil people and evil deeds, and as an orphan he had often found himself the target of both from a very young age. But the open warfare of human against human was a new experience for him, and the experiences of the past two years had left him raw, and scarred in more ways than one.

"Star?" Apollo's voice jolted him out of his muddled thoughts and the haze of exhaustion. He blinked, realizing the water was off and Apollo was standing in the door to the shower holding a large towel. "You back with me?" His voice was gentle, but there was darkness in his gaze. It took Starbuck a minute to realize his friend was looking at the scars.

He tried to focus his sluggish thoughts enough to respond. "Yeah." His voice sounded hoarse and tired even to his own ears. He reached for the towel. "Sorry." He murmured.

"Don't apologize." Apollo said softly as Starbuck stepped out of the shower and started rubbing the water from his hair.

Starbuck rubbed the towel a little harder on his ribs and back than he needed to, in an attempt to make sure Apollo knew the scars were not a source of physical pain. "I have a lot I need to apologize for, Pol. I'm not even sure I know where to start."

Apollo's voice hardened ever so slightly. "Then don't start. Not tonight." Apollo took the towel and handed him the rolled up sweatpants and t-shirt as he finished drying off. "If anything we should be apologizing to you."

Apollo must have seen some of the confusion Starbuck was feeling on his face, so he went on. "We should never have sent you there." His voice suddenly sounded thick and tight. "We should never have sent any of you there." He reached out with his hand and gently brushed the scars on Starbuck's ribcage.

Starbuck couldn't control his flinch back from both the touch and the words, and Apollo quickly jerked his hand back. No longer able to meet his friend's eyes, Starbuck dropped his gaze to the sweatpants, seeing the ever so faint remains of the Caprican Flight Academy logo on the leg as he unrolled them. At least it gave him the excuse to change the subject. "Hard to believe you still have these, Pol." he said as he pulled them on.

"Wasn't that long ago." Apollo responded quietly.

Starbuck yanked the t-shirt over his head. "Well, right now it seems like a million years since those days, not ten." He looked down and ran his fingers over the worn logo on the sweatpants. "Most of the time in 'Nam it felt like none of it had ever happened at all, like it was all some kind of weird dream." Suddenly struck with how ridiculous he sounded, he made a face. "Ugh. Sorry. Don't listen to me."

"Hey." At the gentle touch on his jaw, Starbuck looked up. Apollo's expression was serious and dark. "I'll listen to you anytime. You know that. But right now, you really need sleep."

Starbuck felt his throat tighten. There had been so little time or place for kindness in his life over the past two years, and Apollo, as always, was so open and willing to give it. He vaguely wondered if Apollo would still be so willing once he heard any of the details of what Starbuck had been doing in Vietnam. Once he knew how many people he'd killed with his sniper rifle, or the full story of how they had all escaped from the prison camp. He shivered slightly at the memory of the black serrated knife in his hands, slick with blood. "Pol…" He swallowed, trying to get himself under control, recognizing that his utter exhaustion wasn't helping.

Apollo seemed to recognize that too, pointing him out of the bathroom and giving him a nudge towards the bed. "Sleep. It can all wait until tomorrow."

Starbuck surrendered to the simplicity of the request, dropping down onto the bed as Apollo switched the lights off.

"You're safe here. Don't go anywhere, ok?" Apollo asked.

The warmth of the comforter and the softness of the bed and pillows were already pulling Starbuck into sleep, but he maintained enough presence of mind to answer his friend.

"I won't." He curled an arm under the pillow and took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to let go of the past twenty-two days, the past two years, and all of his roiling emotions, for long enough to just rest. "Pol?" he murmured, "Thank you."