Section Two

 

REWIND TO REAL TIME AGAIN

 

“Can we talk?” Apollo tugged at his father's sleeve to catch his attention, not caring that he was interrupting Adama's conversation with Anton. Anton would understand.

The old man merely smiled at him, understanding indeed. “A good idea,” he said. “Our discussion can wait, Adama.”

“A moment, Anton, and we'll be finished.” Adama, his expression showing mild irritation at Apollo's hastiness, turned to his son. “The bridge office. I'll be along in ten centons.”

Apollo nodded, and left, barely managing to acknowledge the councillors he was passing on his way out. Tomas moved hesitantly to stop him – doubtless to talk mystical mumbling with him, Apollo thought uncharitably, and he quickened his pace, trying to look intimidatingly unapproachable. It must have worked. Tomas fell back, looking disappointed and Apollo whisked himself into the turbo-lift before he could feel remorseful about his abruptness.

The look Tigh gave him when he got back to the bridge was knowing, and not unsympathetic.

“You should have been off duty over a centar ago,” he remarked as Apollo gloomed his way across the bridge to the dais where the colonel was sitting in the command chair, keeping all the forty or so bridge personnel under his watchful eye. “I'm not paying you overtime, mind.”

“There's a surprise.”

“So why are you here?”

“I want to talk to the commander when he gets back.”

Tigh grinned. “He's on his way?”

“He should be here in a few centons.” Apollo turned to lounge against the dais railing, his eyes on the huge sensor screens at the front of the bridge. He watched the stars drift by, only marginally curious at that moment about what this new course would bring them, more concerned with what he had to say to his father. And at the back of his mind, like nagging toothache, more concerned about what he was going to do about Starbuck, about the mistakes he'd made. The huge, humungous, life-shattering mistakes he'd made.

“I've sent Green and Gold squadrons out beyond the pickets,” Tigh said after a centon or two. “They're doing the preliminary mapping of this star system.”

“Uh-huh,” Apollo said.

Tigh shook his head, grinned, and let him be. Grateful for that, Apollo watched absently as the whole Fleet moved slowly into position on the edge of the new system. They were safe – relatively - at the rim, and the two squadrons would be out there doing what they'd done for sectars now, the cautious probing of new territory before risking their remaining ships.

It was a scouting method born out of the long journey amongst the star systems that had bordered human territory, as they made their cautious escape from the Cylon enemies who had defeated them. Few of the old ships among the ragged fleet that held the survivors from the Colonies were capable of sustained super-light speeds, and they'd had a frustratingly slow journey. The routine was simple, but effective. The fleet sat in hyperspace at the edge of each new star system, waiting while Viper patrols hopped into the system and checked it out for safety before returning to escort the refugee ships into normal space. The fleet then crossed the system at just-sub-light speed, waited more or less patiently whilst the next system was checked out, then made the short hyperspace jump to follow the Vipers. Slow progress. Agonisingly slow. The techs were working to upgrade the ships, but with over 200 ships in the fleet it would be yahrens before they were all capable of the same speeds as the Galactica, if all of them ever were.

It had been a long-drawn-out beginning to their search for a semi-mythical world few really believed existed; the haven that Adama was determined to find.

Earth.

The home of the thirteenth tribe.

Sanctuary.

Well, maybe. And even if Earth existed, Apollo doubted that they'd find it in his lifetime. Even without knowing how slow their progress necessarily was, the knowledge that the Ship of Lights had given him, that had seemed to have soaked itself into his bones somehow, confirmed just how far they had to go. Even if he survived every battle and encounter – and the lives of Viper pilots were notoriously short – he'd be far older than his father was now before they got there. The Lords alone knew if Adama would see Earth.

The rear sensor sweep showed briefly on the smaller screen to his right, and caught his attention. He watched as the little dots of light, those tiny flickers that represented the other ships of the fleet, followed the Galactica to God alone knew where. An uneasy little voice reminded him that now the fleet was following *him* to God alone knew where. He shivered at that. For a centon he remembered Joel's angry predictions of unrest and violence. He knew that Joel could be right. On their way, they'd combed more remote colonies for survivors, and the ships were full to bursting point now. Even the Galactica had opened up one of its more remote decks to refugees, taking most of the orphaned children until they could be found new families. Conditions on some of those ships were approaching critical. Food shortage or no food shortage, they had to do something soon to relieve those social pressures. And he didn't want it to be his responsibility. He had enough to worry about without that.

“Commander on deck!” Tigh didn't shout. He didn't need to. Everyone heard him clearly, and those whose duties didn't require them to keep their eyes and their attention fixed firmly on the sensor arrays, stood briefly at attention.

“At ease,” Adama said. He looked at his son and jerked his head towards the office door. “Colonel, if I could impose on you for a few more centons…”

“I'll have some coffee sent in,” Tigh said, and turned to give the order to one of the yeomen.

Adama followed Apollo into the office and settled down into his usual seat at the head of the big table. “Sit down, Apollo.” There was a little less of the commander and a little more of the father in his tone this time. “You look tired.”

“I am tired.” Apollo dropped into his own usual chair, at his father's left. He was still feeling the slight headache that being forced to recite the co-ordinates always gave him. He rubbed at his eyes to help it to dissipate.

Adama nodded, and waited, then seemed to recognise Apollo's reluctance to begin. “That was quite the show you put on in there,” he said.

“Show!” Apollo said, disgusted, and the little fire of anger warmed him. “Did I pass the test then?”

“It wasn't quite a test, Apollo,” spoken in what Apollo always thought of as his father's martyred what-I-suffer-for-the-sake-of-my-ungrateful-children tone. It was the tone he'd heard far too often in adolescence when he'd done something his father hadn't approved of, like taking time out with friends when Adama thought he should have been studying. “The Council was intrigued by your assertion that you could feel which way was right. You can hardly blame them for wanting to know if it was real.”

“It wasn't an assertion. They asked.” Apollo sat back, his hands resting lightly on the polished table top. He watched his fingers flex and curl, watched their dim reflections flex and curl in the deep brown and gold tones of the wood.

“Nevertheless, they needed to know what it meant.” Adama paused, and Apollo winced slightly as the tone of martyrdom deepened. “I did too, Apollo. I'm sorry that you didn't feel able to share that particular insight with me before now. It's cost me a great deal today.”

Apollo's jaw dropped slightly in surprise at the implied accusation. Wasn't it his turn to be aggrieved? Eyes narrowing, he glanced sideways at his father. Adama looked calm as ever, but his mouth was tight with annoyance. Apollo wondered, then understood. By demonstrating so publicly that they didn't have to cling to the route that Adama had wanted to stay with for – what was it he'd said? – ethical reasons, the route that Adama had fought the Council to maintain, Apollo had, in Adama's estimation at least, undermined his father's position. A fair amount of Adama's authority came from his prominence in the Kobolian sect. Undeniably a good man, his major flaw, in his son's humble opinion, lay in having an almost biblical certainty in the rightness of his actions. He evidently felt that having that called into question compromised him and his authority. Apollo remembered the little feeling of gratification at proving his father was fallible. Unsurprisingly, it looked like that wasn't a sentiment Adama shared. He wondered where it had come from, this faint desire on his part to needle his father, to get his attention. He was too old for that, surely? Was his misery making him revert to the insecure teenager he'd been all those yahrens ago?

Apollo was careful to keep a self-justificatory whine out of his voice. Today was not a day to regress to that all too familiar feeling of teenage impotence railing uselessly against authority. “There was nothing to share, Dad. I didn't know until it came up then. It's not something I think about much if I can help it. It was only when Joel pressed me that I realised it.”

“Really?”

Apollo winced. His father did irony only too well. “Really. Look, do you really think that if I knew about something as spooky as that, I wouldn't have told you? It's freaking me out, what they did to make sure…” He paused. “To make sure I couldn't get it wrong,” he finished slowly. Despite the eeriness of what had happened, he felt a little comforted, reassured that he really could do whatever it was the Ship of Lights expected of him.

He endured the sharp look from those equally sharp blue eyes, meeting Adama's measuring gaze.

Eventually Adama nodded. “It is a little unexpected,” he conceded.

Apollo greeted the masterly understatement with a sour grimace. “Is Anton tutoring the entire family?”

“I don't know what you mean.”

“Nothing,” said Apollo.

Adama looked doubtful but let it pass. “I suppose the point is that we should all be reassured that you can't get it wrong. They chose well, Apollo.”

“I wish they hadn't.” Apollo watched the flexing fingers begin to tremble, and stilled them with an effort. “I'd rather they'd chosen someone who could cope with all this. I don't know that I can.”

Before the commander could speak again, the yeoman arrived with coffee for him, and tea for Apollo.

“I don't know how you can drink that stuff,” said Adama in a casual, friendlier tone, as the yeoman carefully poured the drinks.

“Mother's fault. She passed on a lot of her bad habits to me.”

Adama waited until the yeoman had left. “She had some good habits, too, son, that you'd do well to follow. Not least, she never shrank from facing up to the truth. In all reasonableness, Apollo, don't you think that you'd be less upset and that this insight might have come to you a little earlier if you'd stop avoiding thinking about what happened?”

Apollo hunched a shoulder and curved his hands around the comforting warmth of the cup. He sipped at the hot tea. Just as he liked it, its strong aromatic fragrance strong in his nostrils as he raised the cup.

“It's not as though there isn't plenty of help and advice available,” Adama went on.

That provoked Apollo beyond all his resolutions to keep silent through the inevitable lecture.

“Oh? From whom?”

“Cantor is very eager to talk to you, Apollo.”

I bet he is, thought Apollo sourly. He had no doubt that Cantor was deeply frustrated at his inability to use Apollo's experience to further his ambition and strengthen what power base he had. Irrespective of his reluctance to talk about what happened, Apollo had never much liked the man who, after the Destruction, had assumed the role of Vicar-General of the High Church of Kobol. The old Vicar-General hadn't survived the Cylon attack that had levelled the main Kobolian temple on Caprica. Come to think of it, Apollo hadn't liked her much either.

“I don't like him.”

“Neither do I, much,” Adama admitted. “As a man, I mean. But I revere the office he holds, and respect that. I wish you'd seek his help.”

“I don't see what help he could offer. He wasn't there. And I'm pretty sure that what happened doesn't fall within accepted doctrine.” If it did, it was in a bit of the Book that he didn't remember, despite all those centars he'd spent having the Word drilled into him when he was a child and the yahrens of historical study later. The memory of those childhood centars was what kept his touch light with Boxey, requiring the boy only to say nightly prayers, no more.

“All the more reason for seeking guidance.”

Apollo's shoulder hunched again. “Dad, why don't we just accept that despite what happened I'm not finding it an enriching spiritual experience? Nothing that you or Cantor could say will change that. I know that you - and others – take it as some sort of reassurance that we're still protected by the Lords of Kobol, that whatever divine forgetfulness or dissatisfaction brought on the Destruction has been appeased somehow. I don't feel like that. It's just… just something that happened and that I have to deal with.”

Adama didn't bother to hide his pained sigh, and the martyred tone was back in force. “I know you've not been quite as committed, in religious terms, as I'd like… “

“I don't disbelieve, Dad,” Apollo cut in. “It's just not as important to me as it is to you. Sorry, but that's the way it is.”

“I'd hoped that this experience would change that.”

“Well, it didn't. There may be people who'd be in some sort of religious ecstasy at being chosen like that for… for whatever it was they chose me for, but I'm not one of them. I'm sorry if that disappoints you, Dad, but if you'd just accept that I'm exactly the same Apollo as before, then we'd both be a lot happier.”

“You don't look very happy,” Adama pointed out.

Apollo took a deep breath. Oh Lords, was it showing so badly? For a micron he longed for Starbuck's touch so desperately that he thought the longing must be tattooed on his skin for everyone to see. Probably in flashing neon lights and with a booming soundtrack.

“I would be,” he countered, pushing thoughts of Starbuck away. “I'd be a lot happier if you and the Council would stop playing games with me.”

“We aren't playing games,” Adama said, voice sharp. “This is deadly serious. The survival of our people depends on this!” Another impatient sigh. “I shouldn't have to tell you this, Apollo. Your own conscience, everything your mother and I tried to teach you, must tell you that it's your duty to do everything you can to serve.”

“It does,” Apollo shot back, getting really angry at Adama's obtuseness. “I may not be religious, but don't worry, I haven't forgotten what's expected of me. I never have before. But it doesn't mean I have to like it or accept that I have no control over anything any more.” He took a deep breath. “I don't like it. I don't like being treated like a walking data bank, as if I've got no more value than those numbers in my head. And I really don't like it when you do that.”

Adama stared. “Me?”

“You. I'm not a commodity, religious or otherwise. It would just be nice for you to look at me without the calculating gleam in your eye as you try to decide whether I'm an asset in your latest power ploy with the Council.” Ignoring his father's protest, Apollo was determined to say his say. Definitely time for the tame animal to do a little biting, to remind Adama that he still could. “I'll do most things I'm asked to do, Dad, and I don't complain much, but I'm not going to play that game. You and the Council now have two variant routes to the same destination. So far as I'm concerned, that's one more than you really need. I don't want to have to keep doing this. I don't want to have keep remembering about Iblis and what he did, and it's really getting to me that you can't see that.”

And if his father had an ounce of compassion in those religious bones of his, Apollo thought sourly, he'd know that without having to told.

“Apollo!”

Oh, but that had cracked the calm. With what? Outrage? Guilt? But Apollo was standing firm on this.

“I'm your son, not a route map. It's time for you to remember that.”

“I've never forgotten it!” But Adama looked thoughtful, as if Apollo's words had hit home.

Apollo watched the spluttering for a centon, and decided he'd made his point. He made his tone soft and agreeable. “All right, if you say so. It doesn't feel like it sometimes, that's all.”

“Then I'm sorry you felt that way. It wasn't intended. I may have been… over-excited by the possibilities offered by the information the Ship gave you. I'm certainly very proud that they chose you for this.” Adama sounded stiff, but touched his son's shoulder in silent apology. He was never a very demonstrative man, and Apollo knew that was all the contrition he was going to get.

Apollo took a mouthful of his cooling tea and decided it was time for a peace offering in return. He didn't want the bite to be fatal. “And I'm sorry if today's revelation put you in a difficult position. It wasn't intentional. You know I'd never do that.”

“I know,”said Adama. “And in the scheme of things, I suppose it doesn't matter. The new route will still get us there.”

“You hope.”

“I have a great deal of faith in you, Apollo.”

Apollo grinned, more than half at himself and the little glow the words gave him. Sometimes the shy teenager seeking parental approval wasn't very far away after all. And it was really unfair of Adama to do this. The old man knew him too well, knew exactly what buttons to press.

“Misplaced, probably.” He glanced at the chronometer on his wrist. “Lords! Boxey…”

“With Athena?”

“Boomer. I said I'd be at the Rejuv centre more than a centar ago. I'd better go.” He pushed himself to his feet.

“We never seem to get the time to talk,” Adama said, putting out a hand to stop him. “Five centons more won't make any difference.”

Apollo fell back into the seat. “Talk?”

Adama smiled. “Don't sound so surprised, Apollo.”

“I'm not,” said Apollo, not sounding, even to his own ears, very convincing.

“We do talk occasionally.”

“True. It's just that we were never really into the father-son baring of souls bit.”

Adama laughed. “I'm not about to start that now. It was just… well, it struck me this afternoon, and again just now, how tired you're looking. It must be hard for you, with Boxey. You took on a great responsibility, there, Apollo.”

“He's a great kid, but hell, he has so much energy.”

“And I've not missed the fact that you've been taking extra duties this last couple of sectons.”

Apollo looked away for a micron. There were never enough people to do everything that needed doing. And keeping busy meant less time to gnaw over the Starbuck fiasco. “Someone needed to do them.”

“Yes, but does it always have to be you? Your dedication to duty impresses me a great deal, son, but you shouldn't let it be the be-all and end-all. Even I don't do that.”

“I like to keep busy,” Apollo said, searching now for a neat exit line. Despite his assertion that he wasn't into soul baring, Adama was treading close to dangerous ground. The old man chose the damndest time to show his concern. Maybe it was compensation, another unspoken apology for what he and the Council had been putting Apollo through.

Adama sighed. “I know, Apollo. But it's been almost a yahren. Time to let it go.”

A yahren? It felt like one, but it had only been just over two sectons, twenty long empty days and twenty even emptier nights… Oh. Adama meant Serina. And Mother and Zac. All those deaths that lay on Apollo's mind like a shroud, the ones he felt responsible for. The ones he was beginning to forget in more recent misery. Guilt washed over him.

“I have,” said Apollo, speaking with some difficulty, trying to keep his voice from shaking.

“Really? I had hoped that you were. Despite what you think, I don't see you as a commodity and I worry about you, son. I want you to be happy. I hoped that you were thinking about trying again with someone else.” Adama looked at him, until Apollo began to squirm slightly and guiltily under the paternal concern. “Sheba's a fine girl, Apollo.”

Sheba! Apollo bit down the hysterical giggle. Sheba! And he'd thought that Adama had, somehow, guessed the truth.

“And you know that I'm more than happy to have Boxey if you need some time to yourself. I know you took him willingly, but there's no denying children are a tie when you're trying to engineer a night out.”

“You're not joking,” said Apollo, stifling the still-threatening hysteria, remembering some of the ploys he'd been put to, to get time out for him and Starbuck.

“So just let me know, and leave Boxey with me. You deserve some time, and Sheba... “

“Thanks, Dad, but there's no need.” Apollo wondered how the hell he was going to get out of this one. “I mean, you're right. Sheba's a fine girl. She'll make someone a good and lovely wife.”

Pause while Adama assimilated and processed that. “But not you.”

“No,” Apollo said gently, knowing the disappointment he was inflicting. “Not me. I guess she's just not my type, Dad.”

“I'm sorry about that, Apollo. Are you sure?”

His father's attempt not to sound martyred again was heroic, Apollo thought with faint affection. He knew how much Adama hoped that he and Sheba would make a go of it, that Adama had had visions of two great military dynasties becoming one. Adama and Cain had probably plotted that when he and Sheba were still in their cradles. He nodded, and Adama sighed.

“That's a shame. You look good together.” Adama paused. “There'll be someone you do think is your type, Apollo.”

Apollo got to his feet. This was too, too close. “There was,” he said in a choked voice. “And I blew it.”

“Apollo, what happened at Kobol wasn't your fault.”

Apollo headed for the door. He stopped just in front of it, staring at its blank grey surface, losing himself in it for a micron. He was aware of Adama's anxious gaze, the alarm in his father's voice. He knew just how much his father had worried over his depression following Serina's death.

He thumbed the keypad, and the door slid aside. He hesitated, feeling that Adama deserved some sort of reassurance.

“I wasn't talking about Kobol,” he said miserably, and got out before Adama could ask him any more.

 

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FAST REWIND

 

RETROSPECTIVE 2 : A consummation devoutly to be wished

“Gods, there has to be a law against what you're doing to me with that mouth!”

“You want me to stop?”

Apollo jacknifed up and caught Starbuck by the ears, pulling his head up to kiss him hard and long.

“I want you to never, ever, stop, you hear me?”

“I'd hear you better if you let go of my ears,” Starbuck said with a very unromantic giggle. “I know they're kind of handy, but if you pull them out of shape and spoil my boyish beauty, I'll get my revenge.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I'll be forced to do this…” His head, released from Apollo's hold, ducked down and he bit lightly at the inside of Apollo's thigh. “Or this…” He was licking and nibbling his way up the underside of the weeping prick. “Or this…” He took one of Apollo's balls in his mouth and sucked on it hard.

“Oh Gods! That mouth!”

“You seem to like it,” Starbuck said in the tone of one asking for reassurance. If reassurance took the form of having his head tugged up for another long breathless kiss, then he got it in abundance.

The first centar in the Dome had been a centar of deep, increasingly urgent kisses, of hands exploring bodies that were long familiar to each other, but which had taken on a strangeness that needed to mapped out anew. Some kisses were so deep, Starbuck would swear later that Apollo was using his tongue to check out Starbuck's lungs from the inside, and Apollo's hands on his body were hot and possessive as they explored this familiar-unfamiliar territory. Not that he was complaining. He was too busy responding in kind. A small part of his mind recorded the observation that five yahrens of the kind of non-privacy of military life meant he'd seen Apollo naked more times than he cared to remember, but he'd found more erogenous zones in the last five centons than five yahrens of looking had ever shown him. He'd liked looking, but touching, and kissing and licking … well, no contest.

A centar after that first, all consuming kiss; after orgasms that should have rocked the ship from stem to stern and that came only from touching – *only* touching, a bemused Starbuck noted as he spurted all over Apollo's hands like an out-of-control teenager – and they'd managed to get their hands off each other long enough to get back down to Apollo's quarters. They both wanted more than kissing and touching. Luckily they hadn't ran into anyone on the way – “Just as well. It might just be possible to think up a reason for how I got my uniform this untidy,” Starbuck had said. “But even I'd be hard pushed to explain away the stupid grin and the just-fucked look.” – and within microns of Apollo locking the door of his quarters they'd left a trail of clothes behind them on their way to bed.

That part of Starbuck's mind that was still operating, that wasn't focused solely on how Apollo tasted and sounded, was slightly surprised at the skill with which the captain was licking, kissing and touching back. Not his first, then. Time enough later to find out who and where and when. Right then, Starbuck's very pressing erection was demanding attention and release.”

“Starbuck?”

“Hhmn?” Starbuck was enjoying the taste of the inner right thigh. For some reason it tasted saltier than the inner left. He switched back to check, and grinned at the moan from his normally buttoned up captain. Yeah Definitely saltier. He liked salty.

"Do you want me?”

Starbuck looked up long enough to stare. "That's a trick question, right?"

“I mean, do you want to be inside me?”

“Definitely a trick question.”

“It's just… it's just that it's been a while for me, Starbuck.”

Starbuck laughed at him. “Don't worry. Looks like you haven't forgotten what to do.” He darted up for another kiss, pressing his body against Apollo's, holding his lover still, managing to keep his fingers inside Apollo where they were busy twisting and stretching, getting him ready. Apollo's legs were parted widely to let him in. Gods, but that quirky little grin Apollo gave him made something inside him melt. His tongue licked and kissed its way around the jaw line, as he gently ground his hips against Apollo's, rubbing their cocks together. “I won't hurt you,” he promised.

“I know.” Apollo smiled up at him. “But not too energetic, Starbuck. I want to be able to walk in the morning.”

“Dream on. I'm going to be battering you into the headboard. All night.” Another kiss; another little movement of the hips and the sweet, electrifying feel of Apollo rubbing up against him.”

“I guess that decides the question then,” Apollo said against his lips.

“Mmn?”

“Whether you're a bottom or a top.” Apollo's hands were smoothing over his back in long lazy sweeps. Every time his finger tips ran over the little spot at the base of Starbuck's spine, the lieutenant shivered.

“I love both. But tonight I want you so much. So much.” Starbuck lost it again for a few moments of kisses that made him feel as if his brain was exploding.

“All yours,” Apollo said breathlessly.

“Now?”

“Oh, I think so. Oh yes. Definitely now.”

One last kiss and Starbuck slid to one side and sat up with his back against the wall at the head of the bed, welcoming the chill of the metal on his spine, hoping the cold would help him keep some control. This was so beautiful, so very beautiful. All he'd ever wanted. So lucky and so happy…

He spread his legs and pulled Apollo across to sit astride him, facing away, holding him in his arms. Pulling back gently, he guided Apollo carefully onto his hard prick, gasping at the sensation of it nudging at the cleft in Apollo's arse. He wasn't able to help himself when the blunt head found the entrance it was looking for, and the tight little ring of muscles caught and held him, hot and tantalising. He pushed forward, listening to Apollo's rapid breathing, not wanting to hurt, but Apollo was ready, and he slid in easily and smoothly until his lover was impaled, seated firmly in his lap.

Apollo made what Starbuck considered to be a very satisfying noise, a deep groan that seemed to be torn from somewhere deep in his chest, and spread his own legs, leaning back against Starbuck's chest, and tilting his head back invitingly. Not the easiest of angles, but Starbuck managed to get his mouth onto Apollo's, nibbling at the full lips, whilst his hands roamed over Apollo's body. Hard fingers rubbed mercilessly at nipples and the hard cock, growing more gentle as they tenderly stroked Apollo's balls and down between the captain's outspread thighs down to the place where they were joined. Apollo moaned again, and started to rock on Starbuck, rising and falling on the hard shaft, slowly at first, just little movements that had Starbuck rubbing gently up and down the hot tight channel.

It wasn't a position that lent itself to energetic and vigorous sex, but despite what he'd said about battering Apollo senseless, Starbuck was more than content that their first lovemaking should be gentle and restrained. They didn't need wild energy, something that would reduce this moment to mere sex. This was more loving, more intense, more significant than that. He was deeply embedded in Apollo, and even the slight rocking movement kept his prick up tight against Apollo's prostate, and the pleasure it sent through him made want this moment to last for ever. This was heaven. This was… oh God, he'd died and gone to heaven.

Apollo somehow wrapped his legs around Starbuck's, managing to gain a little leverage and rocked back harder against his lover. It was Starbuck's turn to moan, and on each thrust they gasped in unison. Starbuck bit at Apollo's neck and shoulders, little biting kisses and then little licks from a hot, wet tongue to take away the sting of the bite. His hands, fingers hooked, clawed their way up the inside of each of Apollo's thighs, from knee to groin, making Apollo whimper, to close around the thick, hard prick that he hoped would be inside him at least once before morning.

Apollo was the one in charge here. Starbuck himself could barely move, little thrusts of the hips to try and drive himself in deeper whenever Apollo surged backwards, but Apollo dictated the pace. Slow at first, then quickening as the heat rose. Starbuck brought his hands once more down the silky skin of Apollo's inner thighs, smoothing and caressing away the sting of the earlier clawing and once more enclosed Apollo's prick in them. This time he kept them there Slicked with lube, his hands pumped on Apollo's prick, keeping the same rhythm as the increasing tempo of the thrusts of Apollo's body, listening to the little moans and sighs and making a few of his own.

It felt amazing. Again there was the odd mix of familiar and unfamiliar. This was nothing he'd not done a hundred times before, but never before with Apollo. Never before had it felt so right, so perfect. The heat of the channel he had created inside Apollo to hold him was perfect, the grip of Apollo's body around him was perfect, the sensation of rubbing against the tight rectum was perfect, the feel of Apollo in his arms was perfect.

Apollo's hands were over his now, holding them closer still as they mercilessly moved up and down. The feel of the long fingers over his was, given what they were doing together, astonishingly intimate. Everything they were doing was that, of course, but this said so much of trust and acceptance that Starbuck's throat tightened.

The little rocking movements had become full thrusts. Apollo got his knees under him and rose on them on every stroke, until only the tight ring of muscles at his entrance was holding the head of Starbuck's prick inside him. Each time he'd pause for a micron, until Starbuck could have screamed with the tension of it, then drove down hard. Each time he pushed down to take Starbuck's entire length inside him, they both cried out, sharp breathy little cries of pleasure and need.

“Apollo!” The name was torn out of him; the name he wanted to say like a benediction as he came

He was close, he was so very close. Every thrust was like fire and lightening zinging down his shaft to his balls, and then there was the intense pain-pleasure as everything in the universe contracted to that one place, and he was shooting hard into Apollo, moaning his pleasure and release and chanting Apollo's name. His hands hadn't stopped their work, and Apollo came an instant after him, almost screaming as he filled Starbuck's hands.

It was a few centons before Starbuck got himself and his breathing under control. He lay back against the cool wall, holding Apollo close to him. He felt the wriggle as Apollo got his legs out from under himself, stretching them out so he was lying on top of Starbuck, his head on his lover's shoulder, Starbuck's softening prick still embedded inside him.

For a long time they lay still. Starbuck had one hand across Apollo's chest, holding him close, the other gently cupping and stroking his lover's genitals, smoothing the still-warm jism into them where he'd taste it later. He could feel the beating of Apollo's heart gradually slowing to normal.

He nuzzled the side of Apollo's neck and kissed it gently, tasting the salty sweat. He had to say something. He had to say something that would let Apollo knew what this meant to him, but for once his usually-glib tongue let him down He wanted to say something romantic, something apt, something that would let Apollo know how he felt.

Fear stopped him. He'd never had anything in his life that lasted. Not family, not home, not love. Shuttled from orphanage to foster family and back again a dozen times before he left school, he'd long ago given up on finding anything secure and permanent. His whole life, the whole Starbuck persona was built on taking what you could whilst it lasted, because God knew it wouldn't last long. Nothing ever did.

He couldn't say too much. He couldn't, didn't dare, open himself too much. Not yet, not even with Apollo.

But he had to say something. Something that at least let Apollo knew that this had been a wonderful thing they'd shared. And if he was lucky, Apollo would hear the real words, what he was really saying.

“My,” he said, admiringly. “Aren't you the noisy one!”

 

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

 

FAST FORWARD TO REAL TIME

 

“He's late again,” Boxey said

“He's a busy man.” Starbuck looked over his cards and pursed his lips thoughtfully. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Boxey imitate the pursed lips and thoughtfulness and grinned to himself. The kid wasn't bad company.

“Do you think he'll be long?”

“Can't tell.” Starbuck wasn't too sorry that Apollo had been delayed. The longer he'd had to think about it, the more he'd come to think that persuading Boomer to let him pick up Boxey was a bad idea. A mega-bad idea. After centars with the Council, Apollo was hardly going to be in conciliatory mood. This was a waste of time. And worse, it could be just so counterproductive if all he and Apollo could do was snipe at each maliciously. “Depends on how soon he can get away from the Council.”

“Athena says he's working too hard and he'll break down,” Boxey was frowning at his cards in patent bewilderment, then looked up at Starbuck with real anxiety. “Like droids break down? Like when Muffy broke?”

Resolving to have stern words with Apollo's sister about watching her mouth when a certain child with acute hearing was in range, Starbuck looked as reassuring as he knew how.

“People aren't droids, Boxey,” he said. “Your Dad's just very busy, that's all. He'll be just fine.”

“He's so tired and sad all the time, he's no fun,” Boxey complained.

If Starbuck had been a daggit, his ears would have pricked up at that, and his tail would have started a tentative wagging, like a puppy hopeful to please. Tired and sad, eh? Maybe this wasn't such a waste of time.

“He seems okay,” he said.

“Athena thinks he's missing my Mom,” Boxey continued, squinting at his cards. “Do you?”

Put on the spot, Starbuck could only curse Athena silently. This was a topic on which he had difficulty being objective. He'd never really forgiven Serina for taking what was his and hadn't mourned her when she'd gone, despite his attempts to. He could hardly say so to Serina's son.

“I think he always will, a bit, the same as you do,” he said carefully

“I don't remember her very well. It was a very long time ago, when I was little.”

Starbuck grinned at that. He supposed that a yahren was a long time when you were only just six. “And you have your Dad.”

Boxey nodded, and spread his cards out on the table. “Dad's great.”

“Yeah,” agreed Starbuck.

“Are these any good, Starbuck?”

Starbuck stared down at the Grand Pyramid, complete with Sphinx and capstone, and groaned. He dropped his cards with a theatrical flourish and put his head in his hands.

“Did I win again?”

Starbuck could only moan. He pushed the stake across to the table to his six-yahren-old nemesis.

“Oh good.” Boxey tore the wrappings off the mushie with very nimble fingers. “I like playing with you, Starbuck,” he said expansively through a mouthful of the sticky sweet.

“I love it too, Boxey,” Starbuck said with towering insincerity, and was not comforted when the child laughed at him.

“You can have a bite,” Boxey offered generously, proffering a rather soggy looking mushie. Then before Starbuck could take advantage of the offer, the boy's face lit up. “Dad!”

The mushie was crammed into an already overfull mouth to free both Boxey's hands to greet Apollo. An Apollo who, even as he hugged his son, was giving Starbuck a look that reinforced every one of the lieutenant's misgivings. There were times, Starbuck reflected, when the normally fiery tempered Apollo took a leaf out of his father's book and acted like he could put an iceberg to shame for coldness. This was one of them. It was like looking at a remote stranger. Starbuck had to control an involuntary shiver, feeling a kind of emotional frostbite.

“Boomer got held up, sending Gold and Green squadrons out to check out the new system we're moving into,” he said quickly, anticipating the question. “Colonel Tigh has him running around between the flightdecks and the duty office, keeping tabs on them. So I agreed to collect Boxey.”

“Uh-huh.”

Non-committal, but not out and out hostile. Maybe he was too tired for hostility, thought Starbuck, who was willing to take even non-committal as a hopeful sign.

“I thought Bojay would be on duty by now.” Apollo glanced at his chronometer.

“If you were Colonel Tigh, who would you want in command when you're going into an unknown system? Steady old Boomer or trigger-happy Bojay?”

Apollo nodded. “Yeah. Point.”

“He sidetracked Bojay by putting Silver Spar on alert while Gold and Green are out scouting. Boj's sitting this out in a launch tube and, in my opinion, that's the best place for him.” Starbuck shrugged. “I didn't mind helping out by looking after Boxey. I've missed him.”

“I won a mushie from Starbuck,” Boxey said proudly.

“Oh? And where did Starbuck get mushies?”

“That, I'll have you know, was the last of a very carefully hoarded supply.” Starbuck looked ruefully at the wrapper. “Choco flavour. My favourite.”

“And mine,” Boxey agreed. “It tasted great.”

Still not a smile on Apollo's too-pale face. Starbuck could almost see the effort it took for him to remain calm. “Good. Say thank you to Starbuck and come and have something to eat.”

“Can Starbuck come with us?”

“He's too busy,” Apollo said quickly.

“He said he had nothing better to do tonight than teach me Pyramid.”

Starbuck winced slightly. Boxey wasn't picking up on any of the signals. Apollo's back couldn't be more ramrod straight if he was on parade, his face cold and set with something very close to anger. He obviously hadn't expected to meet Starbuck and, just as obviously, he wasn't very happy about it. Starbuck felt his stomach knot at the look on Apollo's face. It was over, it was over, and the sooner he got used to it the better. He turned away a little, trying to hide what he felt about that. He'd told Boomer that the wound wasn't fatal. From the ache in his guts, he wasn't sure of that any more.

“Oh. I'll find someone to play with,” he said lightly.

“I'll bet,” said Apollo.

“There's always someone to play with, Apollo,” Starbuck said, carefully. “Problem is defining the game to make sure you don't get burned.”

He met the sharp glance Apollo gave him.

“Don't worry, Starbuck. You're fireproof.”

“Yeah. I've got the scars to prove it,” Starbuck said.

“Are you mad with Starbuck, Dad?” Boxey asked

“No,” Apollo said.

“Starbuck's been fun.” There was reproach in Boxey's voice now.

“That's what he's good at. We'd better go and eat, Boxey.”

“The food's awful,” Boxey complained.

“It's better than nothing,” Apollo pointed out.

“Not much.”

Boxey and Starbuck said it in unison, then looked at each other and Boxey laughed.

“Can't we stay a bit longer? I'm winning.”

“Don't you have homework from school to do?” Apollo demanded.

Boxey nudged Starbuck so obviously that Apollo's eyes narrowed. Cover blown already, Starbuck thought with a suppressed sigh. He nodded down at Boxey and gave Apollo a tentative grin.

“Sums,” Boxey said, gloomily. “We did some sums today.”

“Enjoy them?” Starbuck asked, playing his part. To a not very receptive audience, he thought glumly. Starbuck was very aware of the cold expression on Apollo's face changing to impatience. He had to get Apollo to go along with this. He didn't want Boxey hurt by Apollo being indifferent or serious.

Boxey shook his head. “Sums are rotten. I'm not very good at them. But I know how many you get when you add one bean to three beans.”

“How many?” Starbuck gave Apollo a pleading glance, one that asked him to play along.

Boxey counted on his fingers. “You get four beans,” he said, triumphant.

“So what do you get if you add one Viper to three Vipers?”

Boxey's expression was all that Starbuck had coached it to be, his very best bewildered-infant–of-tender-yahrens expression. He looked from one adult to the other. “I don't know,” he said. “We haven't done Vipers. We've only done beans.”

Starbuck grinned down at him and they both turned to look expectantly at Apollo. For a long centon Apollo and his son stared at each other, then Boxey lost it. He giggled helplessly at the reluctant smile on Apollo's face.

“I told you not to giggle! I told you that we'd never fool your Dad if you giggled.” Starbuck was so relieved by that little smile that he was giddy. “How many centars have we practiced that?”

“I was good!” Boxey protested, pulling his father into the free chair next to him and climbing up for a bone crushing hug.

“Cute kid done to perfection,” Starbuck agreed. “But you've got to control that tendency to laugh and ruin it. It's all in the timing, Boxey. You laugh after you've pulled off the scam.”

“And there speaks the master,” Apollo said.

Starbuck felt a stab of anger. It wasn't him who'd ended it. Why the hell was Apollo acting like he was the injured party?

Apollo turned his attention back to Boxey. “I think that someone not too far from here could do with some extra lessons.”

“I can add it up!” Boxey said hastily. “It was just a joke to make you laugh, because you've been so sad.”

The look Apollo gave Starbuck would have blistered paint. “Who told you that?”

Starbuck put on his best injured innocence expression. “Not me, buddy. I've got no stake in how you feel, remember? You pulled the rug on that one.”

Apollo's expression darkened. “You mean I didn't wait until the end of the scam? Family failing, then.” He set Boxey on his feet and went on, with formality. “Thank you for looking after Boxey. I'll try and make sure that you don't have to risk your secret hoard of mushies again in the near future.”

“Apollo…”

“Not now, Starbuck. Not now.” Apollo grasped Boxey's hand. “Say goodnight, Boxey.”

“Goodnight Boxey,” said Boxey and giggled again.

“Please, Apollo.” Even Starbuck was surprised at the level of pleading he got into his voice. He didn't want Apollo to go away mad at him. He didn't want Apollo to go away.

“Starbuck…” Apollo broke off as his communicator buzzed quietly. He raised his right wrist and glared at it. “I don't believe it! They can't want me back again! I'm off duty, for Sagan's sake.”

The communicator buzzed again.

“You'd better answer it,” said Starbuck quietly. He smiled reassurance at Boxey, who looked apprehensive about his father having to leave him. Again.

“I suppose.” Apollo raised the communicator to his mouth. “Apollo.”

“Bridge, Captain, on the double.” It was Tigh.

“But, Colonel Tigh…”

“Sorry, Apollo. We need you up here. We're in first contact.”

“On my way.”

“Shi… Lords,” Starbuck breathed, suddenly remembering the wide eyed boy still holding Apollo's other hand and correcting himself hastily. Then all brisk practicality, something he'd cheerfully admit he'd learned from Apollo: “Leave him with me. I'll find someone to take care of him then get down to the flightdeck.”

Apollo nodded. “Thanks. Try Ford. Boxey's friendly with his son, Dillon.”

“Do you have to go?” Boxey asked.

“ ‘Fraid so, Boxey. I'll try not to be long.”

“You always say that,” said Boxey, and sighed. He took his hand away and tucked it into Starbuck's.

“I have to go,” Apollo said apologetically. He ruffled Boxey's hair and gave his son a brief hug. He turned to go, then paused, and for the first time in sectons he sounded and looked less unfriendly. Starbuck knew it was because he'd taken one worry off Apollo's shoulders: that was enough to earn him something. A thaw, maybe. A slight thaw, but Starbuck was all too aware of the uncertainty with which he was living. A thaw now didn't preclude a cold snap later.

“Thanks, Starbuck.”

Starbuck allowed the tight, hard feelings to flow away, basking for a micron in the softened tone of Apollo's voice. It wasn't much, but it was better than the frozen iceberg treatment.

“Anytime, Apollo. Anytime.”

They watched him go. Then Boxey turned to Starbuck.

“What scam were you trying to pull on Dad?” he asked curiously.

“I wasn't,” said Starbuck, depression settling over him until he felt like there was a lead weight in his gut. “He just thought I was.”

“Is he mad at you?”

“Yeah. I guess.” Starbuck tried for casual.

“He'll get over it.” Boxey sounded confident and knowing. “He always does with you.”.

“I live in hope,” Starbuck said, and sighed to himself. “It's all I've got.”

 

 

 

“What do we have, sir?” Apollo joined Tigh on the dais. His father was at the sensor desk, watching the console display carefully and Apollo saluted when the commander glanced up. Adama acknowledged him with a brief nod and turned back to the sensors.

“Gold started picking up audio transmissions almost as soon as they did the jump into the next system, once they'd got in past the outer planet. They weren't in a language or a frequency we've come across before, so at least we knew it wasn't Cylon. They moved in slowly to check it out, and then we started picking up on visuals.”

“What's the system configuration?”

“Five planets,” Omega, the Bridge Sub-captain, standing on the other side of Tigh, answered when the colonel nodded at him. “The outer three are gas giants, most with captive moons. The two inner planets are small and barren, but two of the solid moons orbiting the third planet are planet-sized and have oxygen-rich atmospheres, and one is definitely inhabited.”

“And some technology, if they're broadcasting.”

“Pretty technologically sophisticated, so far as we can tell from this distance. They've certainly got a planetary defence grid that seems to be the equal of anything we had.”

Tigh turned from the main screens to give his attention to Apollo. “They're sophisticated enough to be able to detect intruders, Apollo. Lieutenant Gillian reported that Gold has been scanned. Green's gone in from the other side to see what's there, and they'll still be hidden by the sun, out of reach of the planet's scanners and the planetary defence system. I've ordered Dietra to hold there for now.”

Apollo felt the area between his shoulder blades itch uncomfortably. Just caution, he told himself, the natural and necessary caution they needed to get through situations like this. Situations he was trained to handle. He wasn't really afraid. Just over-trained, maybe.

“Any reaction to the scans? They must realise we're here.”

“Not yet. We're monitoring all transmissions carefully. So far, there's been no change to suggest alarm on their part, or any indication they're making any kind of military preparations.” Omega shrugged and moved away to the sensor desk.

“We've no indication of their military capability, of course, although the defence grid suggests that they've got into space,” Tigh said. “We're just waiting.”

“The worst bit.” Apollo watched on the command console monitors as his pilots scrambled into their Vipers. “Excuse me a centon, sir.”

He had donned a headset as soon as he'd got onto the Bridge. For a few centons he traded information and orders with Boomer in the duty office.

“Gillian's got the whole of Gold sitting back by the fifth planet, relaying everything through to us,” Tigh continued, as if there'd been no interruption, as soon as Apollo's attention was back with him.

“She's good. Almost as good as Boomer.”

Tigh agreed. “She's handled this really well. Tell her so, Captain, when the opportunity offers.”

Apollo nodded, and leaned forward to look at the communications station screens. “Is that the transmission?”

“That's it. We think it might be some sort of public broadcasting, a planetary vid system of some kind although the Lords only know what the programmes were about. Not very human looking, are they?”

Apollo studied the screen. All he could see of the alien was the upper torso, the exposed skin a gleaming slate grey. It was humanoid in shape, at any rate, although the hairless head was disproportionately large and seemed to flow out of the body with very little in the way of shoulders and a neck. Apollo couldn't quite work out how, without strongly defined shoulders, the alien managed to keep on the draped, slightly metallic looking, tunic it was wearing, but something stopped it from slipping. The big face was dominated by the prominent eyes, a silvery grey and with vertical pupils, like a cat's. No nose, although two dark lines running down the centre of the face where a nose would be on a human, suggested nostril slits, and a gaping mouth with very thin lips. He caught a glimpse of sharp teeth.

He was drawn back to the big eyes. They seemed not to be set into the head, but stood slightly proud of it, bulging, likely giving almost 360 degree vision. The alien seemed almost to be goggling at him out of the screen. Apollo thought that it gave him/her/it an anxious, uneasy expression, but he cautioned himself against reading anything into that. It was a fallacy, and one that could cost lives, to assume human characteristics and emotions. The simplest explanation was that with eyes that prominent, it was doubtful the alien could do much other than goggle. .

“Like nothing I've ever seen,” he said, after a moment's study. “Obviously sentient and able to communicate, but it's hard to see how they get enough subtle movement with those mouths to form words.”

“They manage,” Tigh noted, tilting his head to listen to the stream of incomprehensible liquid sounds coming over the speakers.

“The skin looks shiny, and possibly a bit scaly, although that might just be the quality of the transmission, given our distance. They're not pretty.”

“We'll look as ugly to them, I expect.” Tigh gestured to the Comms Officer. “How's it going?”

“The computers are working on it, sir. It's a complex language. It may be centars yet, Colonel, before we have a workable vocabulary, and even then the finer grammatical rules may be beyond us.”

“Thank you, Ensign,” Tigh said. "Let's hope they crack it before I send you down there, Captain.”

“Why me?” Apollo complained.

Tigh's fingers lightly brushed the insignia on Apollo's shoulder. “Comes with these, Captain."

“Huh.” Apollo paused, listening to the voice in the head set. “Lieutenant Boomer reports full readiness, sir. Blue and Silver Spar are in the tubes on Alpha and Beta respectively. Red's on standby on Alpha. Yellow's on picket duty around the Fleet perimeter and reports that everything's quiet”

“Good. But with luck we won't need any of them today.”

“I hope not,” Apollo said, sincerely. Another brief conversation with another of his officers. “Gunners all report readiness.”

“Good,” Tigh said again.

Satisfied that his officers, both pilots and infantry, were exactly where he needed them if he had to put his hands on them in a hurry, Apollo turned back to watching the screen. “Apart from their public broadcasting, what else are we monitoring, sir?”

“The full frequency spectrum. We can't work out which frequencies take their military traffic yet, not until the computers crack the language and give us a useable translator.”

“That'll help,” Apollo said and slid into the seat at the command console. For the next centar he monitored the readiness of his forces and occasionally watched the still–incomprehensible broadcast. There were more aliens on the screen now, full-height, bi-pedal, and with two arms. The hands had inordinately long fingers, and he thought that he could see a thin, semi-translucent webbing between them.

“Anything on the language yet?” Adama asked, from the command chair he'd resumed almost a centar before.

The Comms officer shook her head. “We've got some rudimentary vocabulary, Sir.”

“Keep working on it.”

“Commander! Long range scanners indicate a multiple launch from the planet's surface. Six ships, sir.”

“Warn Gold and Green leaders, please,” Adama said without a hint of any emotion. “Go to amber alert. Constant monitoring.”

Apollo, already alerting Boomer and Trent over the headset, watched his father with a faint feeling of pride. Nothing could faze the old man. His calm was monolithic. He caught Adama's eye and nodded towards the monitors that showed Blue and Silver Spar in the tubes. After a micron's thought, Adama nodded.

“Launch Blue and Silver Spar,” Apollo ordered and into the headset: “Boomer, we're launching. Get Red into the Alpha tubes and report when ready.”

A part of him listened to Rigel's voice, as she got the two squadrons airborne. The familiar old litany that was the last thing that every pilot heard as they shot down the tubes.

“Core Command transferring control to probe ships. Launch when ready.” A slight pause. “Blue's away, sir. And Silver Spar.”

“Patch me through to them.” Apollo was over by the navigation desk, working on the star charts that the Nav-officer had on the screen. “Blue and Silver Spar Squadrons, this is Captain Apollo. Proceed to co-ordinates 34.66 by 465 by 82.3 and await further orders. Lieutenant Bojay, you have command until further notice.”

He waited for Bojay's acknowledgement, filtering out the satisfaction he could hear in the man's voice, and switched back to Boomer. “Boomer, where's Red?”

“Going into the tubes now, Captain.”

“They're taking too long!” Apollo fretted only briefly over the delay, and nodded to Rigel. “Launch Red, and give them a rendezvous course to join the others at the holding point. Comms, patch me through to Lieutenant Dietra.”

He ordered Green squadron out of the lee of the sun where they'd been waiting patiently and sent them to a point where they could help Gillian's squadron if needed, yet still stay out of the immediate notice of the aliens. Then, wondering if there was anything else he should remember to do, he asked for the Yellow leader, Lieutenant Lilias.

“Commander! They'll contact with Gold in three centons,” the scanner officer called.

“I see,” Adama said quietly. “Go to red alert. Communications, warn the Fleet that we're about to make a first contact.”

The bridge lights flashed red, and klaxons sounded all over the ship. The already frantic activity on the bridge increased.

“Lilias, we're on red alert. Keep the Fleet from scattering. Patch into channel 22 and you'll be able to monitor what's going down. Apollo out.” Apollo glanced at the screen, then went back to the Command dais, where his father and Tigh waited. “We should get Gillian to transmit back what she's picking up,” he said quietly. “There'll be better resolution closer in.”

Adama nodded. “Make it so, Captain.”

Apollo spoke quickly to the Gold Leader, then to Boomer as he watched the scanner readouts that Gillian started transmitting. Sometimes he wished he could be cloned. He bloody needed to be, sometimes. “Boomer, get yourself launched and take over from Bojay. Tell Ford to get my Viper ready. I'll join you as soon as I can.”

“Done, Captain. Your ship's ready to go.”

Good old Boomer. Best second in command a man could have. Apollo turned back to the pictures Gillian was transmitting back. The ships were bigger than the Vipers, coming up fast.

“Gillian.” He spoke quietly over the link. “Defensive posture only. Defend yourselves if necessary.”

“Don't worry – we will!” Her voice was tinny as she acknowledged the order.

What she was doing was acknowledging that he'd taken responsibility for that off her hands. Well, that was what he was trained for, too.

“They're transmitting!” the Comms officer shouted, excitement making her voice crack. “Computers translating now.”

“They've taken up a holding pattern ten kilometres away,” Gillian reported, her voice shaking a little with tension.

“Repeated transmission,” the Comms officer was keeping up a running commentary. “Maybe a standard greeting.”

Apollo felt the tension building and once more ran over everything he'd done, hoping that he'd thought of everything. Everything depended on him doing his job right, on him not forgetting anything. He listened in the headset to the traffic between his squadrons, listened to the message, watched the screens.

“Blue, Red and Silver Spar at the holding point, sir,” he told the commander.

Adama just nodded. It was Tigh who betrayed his stress.

“Where's that translation?” he demanded.

“Coming through now, Colonel.” Like Apollo, the Comms officer was listening intently into a headset and trying to watch the screens at the same time. “Here we go…” She hit a button on the console and put it on audio.

“…in peace. Welcome. We welcome all those who come to us in peace. Welcome. We welcome all those who come to us in peace. Welcome….”

Apollo blew his breath out in a silent sigh. So far so good.

“Can we respond?” Adama asked.

The Comms officer nodded. “We've enough to send a simple message. Standard good wishes response, sir?”

“Yes.” Adama looked at Tigh, and smiled tightly. “Yes. Tell them that we do indeed come in peace and we're looking forward to talking with them more fully.”

“Done, sir.”

“Captain.”

He looked up and at his father, sitting above him on the command dais. “Sir?”

“Join Gold Squadron, Captain, please. Time to open negotiations.”

 

 

“How do you pronounce it?” Siress Tinia asked.

“K'far Shon,” Apollo said carefully. “It isn't pronounced the way the computer spells it. The F sounds more like a V, there's a sort of click where the apostrophe is, and Shon sounds more like “shown”. He smiled tiredly at the councillor. “It took me a while to get my tongue around the exact pronunciation, but they didn't seem offended. Thankfully. The plant's just called K'far. I think the name doesn't mean much more than the “people of K'far.”

The initial negotiations, if they could be dignified with such a title, had gone well. He had carefully mapped out a hint – no more – of their strength to make sure the K'far Shon thought twice about jumping them, while he tried to test the aliens' strengths and weaknesses. He had no doubt that the K'far Shon were attempting the same assessment of him and the Colonial fleet. He and the K'far Shon flight commander had talked, tentatively at first, then with more confidence as the computers got up to speed with the vocabulary.

He had said later to his father and Anton, before he reported formally to the Council, that the discussion had been pretty much on the level of drawing a metaphorical line in the sand and telling the other side bad things would happen if they crossed it suddenly. But if they all behaved themselves and played together nicely, nothing bad would happen and they'd all get ice creams later for being good.

“It didn't improve much with the increased vocabulary, either,” he had observed.

Anton had laughed at him. “You seem to have reduced the definition of the art of diplomacy down to its essentials, Apollo.”

Reaction to the tension and lack of sleep, and the amount of chemical stimulants still in his bloodstream keeping him alert enough to do his job, had made his answering smile mechanical. “Just my lack of subtlety, I expect.”

Now he waited as the Council considered his report and debated what to do next, how to answer the K'far Shon's polite invitation for further discussions.

“You did well, Captain,” Adama said quietly. The commander was always sparing with his praise, but it was enough to gratify Apollo, particularly since he knew that diplomacy could hardly be described as one of his strong points. Apollo had long ago realised that he was better at fighting than talking.

“Thank you, sir.”

“This could save us if we can trade for supplies,” Joel said eagerly. “Did you tell them we'd like to trade?”

“I told them that would be an objective, yes. But I was very careful not to reveal quite how desperate we are.”

“You're learning,” Anton said approvingly.

“Even I couldn't get that one wrong.” Apollo gave the old man a look of genuine affection.

Anton laughed and Apollo relaxed, letting the discussion flow around him. There was the minimum of fractious argument, for once, as the councillors agreed the composition of the diplomatic mission to the K'far Shon. Everyone was relaxed and relieved, aware that this could be the help they needed. Even Joel had listened to Apollo's report of the initial contact with equanimity, and was now smirking his way through the meeting, taking the credit for forcing the navigational change that had already led to such a potentially beneficial meeting.

The councillor's sly little digs at Adama annoyed Apollo. He was briefly amused to realise that while he had no objection to needling his father himself, looking on it almost as if it were a filial duty, he definitely didn't like it when his father's enemies tried the same thing. Maybe the degree of malice involved was the deciding factor. The hard little smile he gave Joel when the councillor glanced at him had the man looking both puzzled and faintly alarmed, and Apollo wondered if Joel was realising that, should Apollo's fantasy ever come to pass, the smug self-satisfied councillor would be the first one out of the airlock.

And then he decided that if Joel was to be first, Councillor Tomas would be a very close second. No doubt about that at all. In fact, he might just have to tether them together.

“We are agreed, then. The mission will be headed by Sire Anton, with Siress Tinia and Sire Solon in support, and Captain Apollo as military liaison.” Adama's voice speaking his name had him dragging his attention back to where it belonged.

Military liaison? But that would mean he'd be away for days. Half reluctant, half delighted at the prospect of getting off ship - and away from Starbuck - for a while, he willed himself to relax, trying to relieve the tension that was tightening his neck and shoulders. He was operating purely on stims now, with no sleep in almost thirty centars. He hadn't even managed to see Boxey before being called in to give his report, and the child would be in school now. He regretted that. It might be days before he saw his son again. He only hoped that he could find something on K'far that Boxey would deem an acceptable present to make up for his absence. Wondering what the K'far Shon would offer their outraged offspring in similar circumstances at least took his mind off Joel and the Council's endless discussions.

Until Tomas put his foot in it.

Over the last three sectars, Apollo had become increasingly and uncomfortably aware that the more religious amongst the refugees – and there were many – were beginning to look upon him differently. He was used to being in the public eye, of course. As third in command of the Galactica, as commander of the forces that protected the Fleet, he wasn't exactly unknown to the people crammed into the little ships that were all that were left of the once great Colonial civilisation. There had always been respect and admiration for someone who risked his life daily for them. That had always been difficult enough for Apollo to cope with, but since Iblis, things had changed. And not for the better.

Only the day before Adama had reminded him that the Kobolian Vicar-General was eager to talk to him. Apollo didn't doubt that for a moment Cantor was open in his attempts to gain what knowledge he could of the Ship of Lights, to milk Apollo's memory of everything that had happened, everything that had been said. Apollo might have very cynical views about Cantor's motives, but the influence the man had should never be underestimated. And he was having an influence, encouraging the new perception of Apollo.

Soon after the incident he'd had more than one conversation with the Vicar-General, trying to work out what had happened, trying to reach some understanding he could accept and could live with, and that didn't either overawe or limit him. Cantor hadn't helped. Cantor's mistake with Apollo had been to assume that he shared the depth of his father's faith, and that he'd be thrilled and delighted by what Cantor said to him. Apollo didn't think that Cantor had expected him to turn away from whatever counsel and advice the priest could offer. He knew his reaction had surprised and disappointed Cantor, and his father. Well, it was a shame to disappoint Adama, but he didn't think he could trust Cantor's counsel, not if the priest really believed what he had said, what Apollo knew Cantor had been telling others with all the authority of the infallibility associated with being Vicar-General: that Apollo had been Chosen, that he had been blessed and touched by the Lords of Kobol on the Ship of Lights.

As an “explanation”, it stank. Not only was it no help at all, it had so much potential to blow things up out of all proportion that, frankly, it scared him. But most of the Fleet seemed to believe it now, believing that the people of the Ship had been the Lords of Kobol, and that they'd chosen Apollo to.. to do what? Save the people? God alone knew. Apollo certainly didn't. But to all the Colonials, and to the Kobolian sect in particular, everything that had happened to Apollo was thick with religious meaning. The Lords of Kobol were the most important religious figures, demigods themselves, angels, intermediaries between God and Man.

To be touched by one of them was almost to be touched by God.

It was certainly one reason, apart from personal antipathy, why prosaic, practical, I-don't-believe-anything-I-can't-touch-for-myself Apollo avoided talking to the Vicar-General anymore. Uncomfortable with religious fervour at the best of times, he balked at becoming an object of religious awe and reverence.

And now this.. this idiot on the Council! This religious fanatic, this… this thrice damned idiot!

Apollo glared at the normally inoffensive and quiet little man. Tomas had listened to Adama's announcement, his expression astonished and shocked. Almost distressed.

“But surely...” Tomas blurted out. “Surely we can't… Adama, surely we can't risk… can't we send someone else, perhaps?”

Apollo stared at him, but the man's voice was lost in the discussions again, as he so often was. Joel's loud confident tones over-rode him, asking about the timing of the mission, its exact goals. Apollo wasn't even sure that anyone else had heard the anguished protest, although, more likely, they just took no heed of it, as usual. Even Adama rarely heeded Tomas. It was just one more Tomas speech that was as disregarded as the councillor himself. If anyone bothered to think about it, it would be dismissed as some of Tomas' typical religious murmuring.

And that, Apollo thought, almost panicked by the implications of what Tomas had said, was entirely the problem. If he hadn't been drowned out by the louder, more confident voices on the Council, what would the man have said? That Apollo couldn't be risked, that he was too precious, too necessary to be risked? Too frakking holy?

For the first time since this whole business began, Apollo had the religious epiphany his father and the other Kobolians had been waiting for. It wasn't much of one, admittedly. He didn't see visions, find prophecies flooding through his brain, heal the sick or discover a hitherto unrealised talent for raising the dead.

But he did have to fight the urge to fall on his knees and loudly thank whatever Gods there were that Tomas was an insignificant little man who was, as usual, drowned out by Joel and Piers. Indeed, he'd go so far as to say that he was so grateful to Joel, that his religious conversion had gone so far in starting to believe that even the most obnoxious councillor could be his brother in spirit, that he could look on the weaselly, self–satisfied face and, for the first time in sectars, not think longingly of airlocks.

 

 

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FAST REWIND

RETROSPECTIVE 3: Pillow Talk

“I think,” Starbuck said slowly. “I think that my brain leaked out of my ears.”

“I'll take that as a compliment,” Apollo roused himself to say. He was half asleep, lying on Starbuck with a boneless abandon.

“Oh, it was. It's not often I'm shagged into brain death.”

“I'm flattered, but I'm going to have to move,” Apollo said reluctantly, aware, now that Starbuck had disturbed him, of the protesting muscles that hadn't been so vigorously used – or misused – for a long time. “My backside feels like you have a Viper parked in there.”

“Then I'm the one who's flattered.” The unromantic giggle again, that made Apollo smile to hear it. Starbuck's voice took on a sly, cajoling note. “Although shuttles are even bigger.”

“I might have just allowed you to park your Viper, Starbuck, but I'll be damned before I pander to that ego of yours.” Apollo winced as he eased himself up, and Starbuck slid free. “I may never be able to walk again,” he added mournfully, as his lover pulled him back down beside him and into a tight embrace.

“The sacrifice is worth it,” Starbuck reminded him. “Nice?”

“Nice,” Apollo conceded, submitting to being kissed and snuggled. Another long, languorous kiss. “Oh, very nice.”

Starbuck laughed. “If not entirely new. You've done that before, oh Captain, my Captain. Spill the beans.”

“Beans?”

“Who, where and when. Out with it.”

“Having sex with you means that I now have to tell you my entire sexual history?”

“Hey, just be grateful it doesn't have to be a two way process. We'd be here for a secton or two if I had to tell you mine. Come to think of it…” Another long kiss. “… that's not a bad idea, spending a secton in bed with you. Come on, Pol. Tell.”

“Pol?” Apollo said, surprised.

“Well,” Starbuck said slowly. “Apollo's my captain, the person I have to share with everyone else in this Fleet, a kind of every day person. Pol's mine, and for special occasions. Do you mind?”

Apollo thought about it for a micron. He hated nicknames and had always come down pretty heavily on anyone who tried it on. But at the same time, the exclusiveness of what Starbuck said, the special-ness, counter-acted the little sting left by Starbuck's indirect boasting about his energetic lovelife with others.

“No, I don't mind.” He surprised himself when he said it. “Now and again. On special occasions. But not in front of anyone else, okay? I don't mind it if it's just you.”

“Promise.” Starbuck solemnly crossed his hand over his chest. “Cross my heart and hope to die. So tell me all about it. I was sure I'd be your first.”

“It never does to be over confident.” Apollo snuggled in closer, one hand stroking down over the taut, flat plane of Starbuck's stomach. “You know I was on An-Nath Starbase before I came here? That was a good posting, Starbuck. I didn't have anything to prove. Most people didn't even bother to look me up in the army lists much less do intensive research to find out who my father was. I was accepted for myself, and I liked that. It made me a bit bolder about deciding that I could live the way I wanted to.”

He slid a hand around the Starbuck's semi-hard prick. The rumours were true, then. The man was insatiable. He gently rubbed a finger across the flared head, spreading the pre-cum that was already seeping from the sensitive little slit, and grinned when Starbuck gasped and arched his back.”

“Apollo!” Starbuck protested.

“An-Nath wasn't a big place.” Apollo squirmed around enough to lick at a hard little nipple and Starbuck gasped again. Very gratifying to get the great Starbuck gasping like that. “There were just over a couple of hundred of us, all told. I had a brief fling with one of the admin staff, but we didn't last long: she was moved to another posting. Then one night I was in the bar when some of the flight technicians came in, and I got to talking with them. After a couple of centons, there was only me and Cole left, talking about everything, and nothing. I liked him.”

“So you seduced him?” Starbuck's hands were returning the favour, and Apollo almost purred as his cock was given some earnest and expert attention.

“I guess. Not straight away. But a few nights later I made sure that we had a bit too much to drink and we ended up in a storeroom.” Apollo laughed. “I had all the pass keys, luckily. Being second in command had its advantages. We hadn't the faintest idea what the hell we were trying to do. There was an awful lot of sweating and grunting, a lot of effort for very little in the way of reward. We managed it the next time, though. Several times.”

“Several times?”

“I was younger then, Starbuck. Barely twenty four.”

“We aren't that old yet,” Starbuck said, sounding slightly affronted. “Was it fun?”

“Fun?” Apollo thought about it. “Yes. More than that, though. It meant something, although at the time I didn't know what. I thought then it wasn't serious, really, but it was good for both of us. At least…” he paused then said more slowly, “I thought it wasn't serious until I got posted here, and I didn't get much of a welcome. I realised I missed him. And then two sectars later the Cylons got An-Nath. Cole didn't survive. Then I wondered a lot if it might have been serious, really serious, if I'd let it be. I think he'd have like it to be.”

Starbuck's hold tightened for a centon, one hand stroking Apollo's hair comfortingly. “I'm sorry, Apollo.”

“It's more than five yahrens, Starbuck… and you never knew him. Why should you be sorry?”

“Because he's dead, and because you didn't get much of a welcome, I guess. I was behind most of that, you know.”

“I know.” Apollo grinned at him. “You used to call me Daddy's boy when you thought I couldn't hear you.”

“Actually, that was the least I called you and I didn't care whether you heard me or not.”

“But you care now?”

“Nah. I still don't care what you hear me call you.” A kiss softened the words. “What was he like?”

“Quiet, like me. But blond, like you. Looks like I always end up with blonds. Serina was the sole exception to that rule.” Apollo thought back. “He looked good.”

The hold on him tightened again. “As long as you had fun, Apollo. That's what matters.”

“I suppose,” Apollo said. Was that really all there was, then? All that mattered?

Starbuck moved fast, rolling to lie on top of Apollo, holding him down with his weight.

“And are you on for some more?”

Apollo grinned, and slid a hand between Starbuck's legs, giving the rampant erection a little tweak on the way. “I could be persuaded.”

“And, believe me, I can be persuasive,”

Apollo had a sudden stab of doubt about just how persuasive Starbuck could be, then that wicked mouth came down on his.

“You know,” Starbuck murmured. “I read somewhere that the average person spends two sectons of their lives kissing.”

“Is that so?” said Apollo as best he could, given that Starbuck's tongue was outlining the shape of Apollo's mouth, and Starbuck's teeth were nibbling at Apollo's lip.

“Uh-huh. But me, I was always above average.”

His tongue pushed into Apollo's willing, hungry mouth, and in Starbuck's immortal phrase, Apollo thought that his brain just leaked out of his ears.

Maybe nothing else mattered, after all.

 

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FORWARD TO REAL TIME AGAIN

 

“That bloody woman's talking to him, now.” Starbuck glared over Boomer's shoulder.

“Her name's Sheba,” Boomer said gently.

“I know her name, dammit! Get over there, freeze her out and talk to him.”

Boomer shook his head at the sad deterioration in the once invincible lieutenant.

“Boomer!” Starbuck sounded so anguished that Boomer's better judgement deserted him completely. “You promised!”

“I will talk to him. I will.” Boomer's tone was patient, as if talking to a fractious child. “I promised you I would.”

“Before he goes,” Starbuck said, urgent.

“Well, I won't get the chance after he's gone, now will I?” The impulse to roll his eyes in despair fought with the desire to clip Starbuck about the ears for being a nuisance. Out of consideration for Starbuck's already lacerated feelings, he opted for eye rolling.

“Stop rolling your eyes at me and go do it.”

“All right. But get out of sight. It won't help his temper if you're hanging about like a bad smell. Disappear.”

“Please, Boom-boom. I'm relying on you.”

“Get out of here, Starbuck. I'm on it. It's the mistake of the millennium, but I'm on it.”

Boomer took a deep breath and straightened his back. He put both hands on Starbuck's shoulders and forcibly turned him, sending him out of sight with a forceful push. Watching Apollo and Sheba, he wandered over towards them. Mistake? This was going to be more than a mistake. More like a catastrophe, a calamity, a disaster…was there a worse word than disaster? Something that described something so gut-wrenchingly, bowel-crunchingly awful, it was, well, indescribable?

“I wish you'd let me come too,” Sheba was saying as Boomer came within hearing range.

Boomer hesitated. Unlike Starbuck, who'd just bull straight into this, his way was to take a more elliptical approach, wanting to minimise the chances of Apollo blowing a fuse. Whilst he was pretty sure that Apollo's temper was more likely to be soothed than provoked by being rescued from Sheba's clutches, he had to weigh that against the racing certainty that Sheba would spread him all over the bulkheads for interrupting her on the hunt. The difficulty was deciding which way to jump.

He caught up a datapad and sidled over to the shuttle, pretending to be checking something against the data on the board. It gave him time for an internal debate about whether he was more scared of Apollo or of Sheba.

“The Council's decided who should be on the away team,” Apollo said.

“I could pilot the shuttle.”

Boomer, fascinated by the sight of Sheba doing winsome, counted the pause. …eight, nine, ten…

“Thanks for the offer, Sheba, but it's a bit of a waste to have fully fledged fighter pilots doing routine shuttle duty. I've got Ensign Lars and a couple of cadets lined up for this: they need the flying time.”

Boomer could only admire the way that Apollo's tone stayed even, then became confidential.

“And, really, Sheba, I'll be a lot easier in my mind if you're up here. Although, these people seem friendly enough, I'd rather the best, most experienced combat pilots were here to protect the Fleet, just in case. This is where you're needed. I rely on you.”

Boomer raised the datapad hurriedly, hiding his grin at the expression on Sheba's face. A thwarted Sheba was definitely one of his favourite sights. He coughed gently, and stepped forward, deciding that Apollo had evidently managed to get out of this one by himself and if he was to keep his promise to Starbuck, he'd better act soon.

“And, of course, I rely on you to help and support Boomer,” Apollo added, turning his head slightly to meet the outraged eyes of his second in command.

Sheba gave Boomer a hard look. Boomer smiled back blandly as he knew how.

“Need a word, Captain,” he said, all crisp military efficiency,

Sheba got a little closer to Apollo. “Maybe when you get back then?” she said. “Talk?”

“Sure.”

They watched her reluctant exit in silence for a centon, then Apollo blew out a very gusty sigh. Boomer grinned at him.

“You'd earn more brownie points if you'd got here to rescue me two centons ago, Lieutenant,” Apollo grumbled at him, rubbing his eyes, yawning.

“I value my skin. Whole and undamaged.”

“Above the well-being of your commanding officer?”

“Yes.”

“I'm crushed.”

Boomer eyed him with concern. “You look like it. You look like all hell. Have you had any sleep?”

“No.” Apollo held out a hand that was shaking almost uncontrollably. “But I soon will. I think I'm coming down from the stims. I've got the shakes bad.”

“They're dangerous to use, Apollo.”

Apollo shrugged. “I don't like them, either, But you tell me how else I'm supposed to get through an entire duty shift, then a Council meeting, then another Council meeting, then a first contact, and then yet another Council meeting, then getting ready to go to K'far ...”

“You need some rest.”

“I'll get some. It's a ten centar flight in to K'far in a shuttle. I'm not piloting that thing: Lars and his cadets are. I'll sleep all the way.”

“Good. I'd hate to think of you flying when you're this wired. And you ought to put in some complaints to the Management, Apollo. They should be getting someone else to do some of the work.”

Apollo grinned slightly. “I'm not sure I'd cope with that. I'd fret myself into a decline. Maybe I'm just too conditioned, or overtrained, or something. I think I've been brainwashed into thinking that I should do everything.”

“That I can believe.” Boomer watched as the ground crew bustled around the shuttle, doing the final checks, and meekly handed over the purloined datapad when Ford, Apollo's ground crew chief, let out a bad-tempered roar over its absence. “Can we talk?”

“I don't have much time,” Apollo warned. He nodded towards the turbolift. Anton and the others had just arrived. “We're taking off in five centons. You're okay about being in command, aren't you? You've done it before, and I've every faith in you.”

“I'm not worried about that. I am worried about Starbuck.”

Boomer told Starbuck later it was like someone pressing a switch. The barriers slammed home so hard that he could almost hear them, and he was on one side and Apollo was remote and distant on the other side where Boomer couldn't reach him. It was an unnerving experience. He'd seen it with others, but he'd never had Apollo mad at him before.

“Then I don't have any time at all.”

“Apollo, please.” Boomer hesitated, then abandoned subtlety altogether. “He told me.”

Apollo stiffened. “He told you?” There was disbelief and sudden anger in his voice. “He told you? And just what did he tell you?”

Trust Apollo to make it even more difficult.

“That you and he … well, that you broke up with him a couple of sectons ago.”

“Did he now? And what fucking right did he have to tell you or anybody?”

“He needed to tell someone. And his best friend doesn't seem to be available right now.”

“He had no right.” The green eyes were like ice. “It's got nothing to do with you or anyone else!”

“He's breaking up, Apollo. He needed to talk to someone.”

“Have a good laugh, did he? It's what he's good at, laughing and having fun.”

“He cried,” Boomer said flatly.

Apollo stared at him. “I don't believe it. He doesn't know how.”

“And that was one of the lowest things I've ever heard you say,” Boomer said, disgusted. “He's bloody good at hiding, that's all. And if you knew him as well as you think you do, you'd know that.”

Boomer thought that Apollo was looking slightly ashamed of himself, and that made him aggressive.

“This has nothing to do with you!”

“Believe me, I really didn't want to get involved in this, okay? But I promised Starbuck I'd try and do something.”

“There's nothing to do. I won't discuss this.”

“Then I'll just talk to you. You don't have to answer. Look, maybe you had good reasons for doing what you did…” He held up a hand as Apollo opened his mouth to speak. “No, let me finish. The point is, Apollo, Starbuck doesn't understand what he did wrong and he's hurting pretty badly about the whole thing.”

“It was what he didn't do,” Apollo muttered.

“Huh?” Boomer tried to encourage the barriers to open a bit further.

“Nothing.” Apollo evidently repented having said as much as he did. He turned away. “It's between me and him, Lieutenant, and I do not appreciate you sticking your nose in.”

“I'm your friend, Apollo. His too.”

“Really? We'll see about that. I don't expect even my friends to butt into my life, uninvited.”

“Apollo…”

“That's enough, Lieutenant.” Apollo's voice was sharp enough to cut through the shuttle's hull, and it was a major miracle that he was managing to keep the volume down. His face was flushed with anger, although his eyes remained chilly. Very, very chilly. Very like the commander's when the commander was in a snit. “You're way out of line here. I will not discuss this with you or anyone, and you can tell Starbuck that when I get back, him and me are going to have words about him talking to all and sundry about my private affairs.”

“They're his bloody affairs too,” Boomer said, through teeth that he would give anything to grind with building resentment and anger. Trust Starbuck to land him in the felger! He just knew he should have stayed out of it.

For a micron that seemed to stop Apollo in his tracks. “Then you go and talk to him about it then, but you're sure as hell not talking to me.”

Boomer held up a hand in surrender. “Okay. I'm sorry. I just wanted to help.”

“You can help by minding your own bloody business.” Apollo took a deep breath. “And if you've got so much free time to chat with Starbuck about things that don't concern you, let's see about utilising some of that usefully, shall we? After all, you did suggest that I get some help with all the tasks the commander expects of me. You're nominated.”

Boomer sighed soundlessly. In the felger so deep he needed breathing apparatus.

“When I get back, I want reports on a weapons audit, a review of every Viper we have with a full service history and assessment of repair and refitting needs and a personnel and training review on every single one of the pilots and cadets.”

“Apollo…”

Icy stare.

“Captain,” Boomer tried again, very aware that Apollo was so far away behind those barriers as to be on another planet.

“And you can sort out the storerooms on both decks and do a full inventory. That's long overdue. I'll inspect the storerooms when I get back. Is that all very clear, Lieutenant?”

“Sir.” Boomer was having a very hard time in keeping his teeth from grinding. The bastard had just unloaded every shit job on him.

“Captain!” Anton called. “We're ready to go.”

Boomer didn't really know Anton well, although he knew Apollo was fond of the old man, but at that moment, he could have kissed the councillor. Fervently, and full on the lips.

“I'm on my way.” Apollo didn't even turn his head to acknowledge the councillor, cold eyes still holding Boomer's. “Then we understand each other, Lieutenant. Dismissed.”

“Sir!” Boomer stiffened into the kind of salute he thought he'd left behind on the Academy parade ground, so by-the-book you could smell the ink. He watched Apollo stalk away to join the councillors at the shuttle, and prudently faded back out of sight just in case the irate captain thought up something else and decided to turn back for one more go at him

Disaster? There just had to be a stronger word for it than that.

“Well?”

He'd been so busy scuttling to safety that he hadn't seen Starbuck until he bumped into him. He looked grimly at the eager blue eyes and the hopeful expression on Starbuck's face, and watched it crumble away.

“Oh,” said Starbuck, forlorn.

“Oh, is about right, buddy. As in, Oh! I just got my sorry ass comprehensively chewed off. As in, Oh! Apollo is so mad at me, I'm in for a lifetime of getting my sorry ass comprehensively chewed off. As in, Oh! the bastard's just dumped every lousy job on me that he could possibly think of.”

Starbuck nodded. “He wouldn't listen, then.”

“He is just sooo pissed off at us.”

“Oh well,” Starbuck said. “It was worth a try.”

“The hell it was!” Boomer tried to steady his voice. “Nothing was worth that. I've never had Apollo mad at me like that before. Gods, he may just never forget it, either.”

“Sorry.”

If Starbuck felt as miserable as he sounded, Boomer should have been awash with sympathetic tears. As it was, Boomer was still too mad to be awash with anything, although being awash with ambrosa was a prospect that became more enticing by the micron. Especially if Starbuck was doing the buying.

He leaned up against the flightdeck wall and they watched together in silence as the shuttle lifted up off the launch pad, and ghosted silently out of the bay.

“Well,” said Boomer after a moment or two of silent consideration. “That's decided, then.”

“What is?” Starbuck was almost inaudible, his face downcast.

“I am definitely more scared of Apollo than Sheba.”

 

 

 

Flip.

Grab.

Flip.

Grab.

Another pyramid card flicked into the air, another card caught by a dextrous twist of a supple wrist. A capstone, the topmost card in the pack, the one that made all the difference between winning and winning a great deal indeed.

Starbuck could do this all day.

“What's up with him?” Giles asked quietly.

Starbuck heard him, but ignored him, concentrating on the cards he was spinning through the air. He balanced the card, half on the edge of the table, half on the backs of the fingers of his right hand.

Flick

Grab.

“Nothing,” Boomer said. “Why?”

“This is Starbuck, remember? He's not usually this quiet.”

Quiet , maybe. But not bloody deaf!

“Ah well, Apollo doesn't usually go off anywhere without him,” Jolly said. “Maybe he's pining.”

Starbuck heard the slightly warning note in Boomer's tone.

“Pining for a drink, I'll bet,” Boomer said and signalled to one of the stewards.

Flip.

Grab.

“Seems a bit weird, Starbuck being this quiet,” Giles persisted. “You don't think he's sick?”

Flip.

Grab.

Yeah, sick. That about sums it up. Sick with frustration and misery, because he still didn't know what he'd done. Three long sectons now since the day he'd sat in here and heard Apollo say that they wanted different things and it was over. He wished now that he hadn't pretended that it meant nothing to him, that he'd yelled and thrown things until he had Apollo's attention and could make him tell him what was wrong.

And couldn't we please fix it, Apollo, because I know what I want. You.

Flip.

Grab..

It had taken him a long time to realise that for the past five yahrens he'd wanted Apollo. He remembered the day Apollo had arrived on the ship, transferring in from An-Nath Starbase to replace their old captain, killed a couple of sectons before in a fire fight. It would be fair to say that their commander's son was not exactly welcome. What was it Boomer had said? About as welcome as Corellian bed lice? Well, quite a few of the pilots would have preferred the bed lice, given the option.

Flip.

Starbuck had carried out the most imaginative campaign against the new captain, doing everything he could think of to run Apollo ragged and show The Management that they could impose their favourites but needn't expect them to be welcomed. It stopped only when they went into their first firefight, and Apollo had shown he could more than do his job. He'd been all over the sky wherever the battle had been thickest, with Starbuck, his reluctant wingmate, constantly in his wake, trying to keep up. They'd stepped out of their Vipers at the end of the fight, and Starbuck had given one of his ironical bows, bought Apollo a drink in the OC and made the most important friendship of his life.

Grab.

Since then it always seemed like Starbuck was always trying to keep up. Not overtly, maybe, but a lot of things that Apollo thought were important became important to Starbuck as well, the brash care-for-nothing lieutenant mellowing considerably under his captain's influence. At one time, going on a home leave meant a six secton's carouse from one nightclub to another, with the days merely a brief chance to recuperate before the fun started again. But his last two home leaves had been spent in a real home, with a real family that accepted him almost as one of their own. If the commander objected to finding his most troublesome pilot infesting his guestroom for the duration of what was supposed to be a break from his responsibilities, he never said so, seeming to accept Starbuck as readily as Ila, Zac and Athena did, as a natural adjunct of Apollo. It was the closest thing to a family Starbuck had ever known, and he'd loved it.

Flip.

Grab.

Only since the Great Destruction did he realise what had made it home to him. Apollo was all the home and family he wanted or needed. When Serina made her play for Apollo, the sudden realisation had been almost blinding. He'd been so intensely jealous he could barely bring himself to be civil, and only the thought of upsetting Apollo had kept him within bounds. He hadn't been able to totally hide his jealousy from Apollo, but the captain had taken it as a token of their close friendship, nothing more. Starbuck's misery was as unexpected as it was deep. His relief at Serina's death had made him uncomfortable with guilt, but he thanked the Lords every night for a second chance.

Flip.

And when he'd though Apollo was ready, that he was over Serina's death, he'd made his move. For a few short sectons it had been heaven. When had it all started to go wrong? When had Apollo decided it had all been a mistake?

Grab.

Why had he decided it was all a mistake? What had Starbuck done for Apollo to throw away five yahrens of the closest friendship either of them had ever known? How had he hurt Apollo so badly?

Flip.

Grab.

What the hell did I do to hurt you so badly you'd do this to me? I'm sorry, Apollo. I'm sorry, whatever it was. Please don't do this. Please.

Flip.

Three sectons of hell. Three very long sectons since Apollo had finished it, and now he was down on K'far and anything could happen to him and Starbuck would never know what he'd done, why Apollo had left him.

Grab.

Was this how it felt to other people when I left them? Did Athena feel like this, so hopeless and miserable that nothing in the world seems worth doing, and even breathing's an effort? Did Cassie feel like this after I broke it off with her? Cassie cried, I remember, and I was a bit mad with her, embarrassed by all that emotion. I didn't know how to handle it. They'd be laughing now, if they could see me. I don't know how to handle this either.

Flip.

“I said, do you want a drink, Starbuck?” Boomer's voice.

Starbuck held up the hand that wasn't occupied with flicking cards. *Wait*.

Grab.

Flip.

Grab.

“Seven hundred and fifty,” Starbuck announced. “My personal best.”

“Oh. So that's why you were concentrating so hard!” Giles grinned at him.

Yeah. Guess so. Believe that and you'll believe anything.

Starbuck took the drink that Boomer was holding out. “Thanks. Well, now I've confounded you all with my dexterity and skill, what next?”

“Use the cards for the reason God invented them?” Trent, the Infantry lieutenant suggested. His steel left hand flicked at the cards on the table with a clumsiness that was in ironic counterpart to Starbuck's deftness. “You can show off your dexterity and skill and make money at the same time.”

Yeah, why not. What else is there? He's gone, he's gone, and I don't know why and it hurts like all hell. It's like the Starbuck he'd helped put together, the one who came to expect a home in Apollo, a friend, a lover, has been stripped away again and all that's left is the old Starbuck, the one who never had anything and expects nothing. Homeless again.

Starbuck stuck a fumerello between his teeth and turned on his best gigawatt smile. "Sounds good to me. About time I showed you suckers how to play cards.”

Yeah. Well, what else was there?

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