Section Four
 
 
 
STILL IN REAL TIME

 

“And why do I get the feeling that you and the commander and the colonel weren't too surprised by Bojay's little discovery?” Boomer asked.

Apollo shrugged. “Let's just say that our fishy friends gave me cause to worry about what was ahead of us.”

“So that's why you were so cautious about sending us out there,” Bojay said. “You could have told us.”

“I could have,” Apollo agreed. “But I was ordered not to.” He glanced around. “And I'd rather we weren't talking about this in a corridor.”

“I wouldn't mind going over it,” Bojay said. “Your office?”

Starbuck grinned to himself at the almost wistful tone of Bojay's voice. The ex-Pegasus lieutenant could barely hide his grievance that the office wasn't his.

Apollo looked at them all. Eleven of them, counting himself. “It'll be a bit snug around the shoulders with all of you lot,” he said doubtfully. “But okay. I'll fill you in on the K'far Shon.”

“You need a bigger office,” Starbuck said, gently fanning the flames, watching Bojay's little half-hidden wince with satisfaction.

“I manage,” Apollo said as they crowded into the turbolift. “Just don't expect tea and biscuits.”

He didn't say much else until they got down to the troopdecks. Starbuck, too, let the others chatter on about inconsequential things, staying as silent as the captain, and contented himself with watching Apollo, trying to be unobtrusive about it. He wondered what Apollo thought of the tirade on the flight deck earlier, whether he'd blown it for ever. Apollo had looked startled, true, but not really angry. More bemused, perhaps. And the captain had just let him go when Jenny had come to run through the launch sequence. Starbuck was pretty sure that Apollo hadn't left the flightdeck until he'd launched. He'd twisted in his seat, peering back over his shoulder through the clear tylinium cockpit of his Viper as the little fighter was lifted into position at the entrance to the launch tube, and he was certain that he could glimpse Apollo still standing where he'd left him, watching.

Well, God alone knew what it meant. But he was determined to have the threatened talk with Apollo, to find out exactly what it was he'd done. Or not done.

Apollo wasn't kidding about the tight fit in his office. There weren't anywhere near enough chairs to go around. Starbuck leaned up against the filing cabinet, shoulder to shoulder with Boomer, Dietra on his other side. Apollo gave up his chair to Sheba, who didn't hesitate to take it, and perched on the desk.

She's probably as ambitious as Bojay, Starbuck thought, and infinitely more intelligent and ruthless. Sheba's the one to really watch for. He shifted his attention to the captain, saw the odd little grimace Apollo made as Sheba settled herself into the chair. Apollo was smart. He probably knew that.

“Okay. I don't think I'll have long before I have to go, so let's make this quick. There were a few strange things I noticed when I was down on K'far.” In a few words, Apollo sketched out his assessment of the K'far Shon's defences. “So, no, I don't think I was too surprised when Boj reported in. Except, I wasn't really expecting Cylons. I just knew there was something up ahead that we'd have to watch for.”

“From what you're saying, they're devoting all their energies towards defence. What's the point of going back to talk to them?” Gillian tapped nervously on the desktop with one nail-bitten hand.

“To offer an alliance,” Apollo said. “We – the commander, Colonel Tigh and me – decided it was worth a try once we'd sussed out whatever it was the K'far Shon were defending against. They may agree, if I can convince them that their firepower and our manoeuvrability would make us formidable allies. And we've gained brownie points because we've stuck absolutely to our agreement with them, trying to let them know, indirectly, that we're honourable and trustworthy.”

“You haven't told them about Starbuck then,” Drake said.

“Sore loser,” Starbuck said amiably. He'd taken most of Drake's pay off him a couple of nights before. Drake wasn't a man to forgive that easily.

Apollo had looked away for a micron, now he shrugged. “I keep Starbuck in reserve as our secret weapon,” he said, tone credibly light. “So now you know. We'll hold here for a few days, until I can get to K'far.”

“Why bother?” Bojay said. “If you're right and they're scared of the Cylons - ”

“Everyone in their right mind's scared of the Cylons,” Boomer cut in.

Bojay ploughed on over him. “ - they're not exactly going to be that much help. We don't need them. We can take that base on our own.”

“I wish,” Dietra said.

“Maybe we can,” Apollo said. “But it'll take everything we have and we can cut the risks considerably if we get the K'far Shon to help.”

“Is that all you ever think about? Cutting the risks!”

“It's my job,” Apollo said, voice quiet, but Starbuck recognised the storm signs even if Bojay couldn't. “It's not about death and glory, Bojay. It's about getting our people to safety.”

Bojay shook his head. “If it came from anyone else but you, I'd think you were as scared as the K'far Shon.”

“Hey!” Starbuck was first in there with the protest, but the other Galactica pilots were right there with him.

Apollo's mouth had thinned out into the hard line that reminded Starbuck uncomfortably of the commander. “Your point being, Lieutenant?”

“I don't understand you,” said Bojay. “I've read your record, seen the bloody medals and I just don't understand you. Why are you always this… this cautious? We don't need the K'far Shon. We can do this on our own. We want our revenge on the Cylons for everything our people have suffered. Yet you spend all your time trying to duck a fight!”

Trent and Kyle were scrambling to their feet, and both Starbuck and Boomer took a step forward. Apollo held out a hand to stop them.

“The lieutenant's entitled to his opinion,” he said in a quiet voice. “And nothing about what he's implying is news to us, right? We know what you think of us, Bojay, and we always have. But if the last six sectars of working with us hasn't been able to convince you otherwise, I don't know what could.”

Bojay shrugged expressive shoulders. “You're fair pilots. I don't understand your attitude. I know you probably aren't as experienced as us at taking on the tinheads - ”

“Really?”

There was no mistaking the coldness in Apollo's tone, even by someone as thick-skinned as Bojay.

“All I meant was that it was pretty intensive around Gamoray,” Bojay said. “We were on constant alert - ”

“Whereas we were on this pleasure cruise!” Starbuck said brightly. The glare he gave Bojay would have fried a Cylon's circuits. He could barely believe that he'd once called the boray a friend. What in hell had working with Cain done to the man?

“Problem was the people in charge of the light entertainment,” Dietra said in the same bright tone that Starbuck had used. “They had no idea that we'd prefer singalongs to battles!”

“How lucky for us that we ran into you at Gamoray,“ Kyle agreed. “Now we can be better than fair. We can learn from the best.”

“The best of the best,” Boomer corrected him.

“C'mon, I didn't mean anything,” Bojay said.

“We had our fair share of battles with the Cylons before we met up with you, Lieutenant,” Apollo said quietly. “We avoided them if we could, given that over two hundred ships in this fleet are filled to overflowing with refugees and most are very lightly armed and vulnerable. I caught your little comment in the Command meeting. You can call trying to protect the civilians “running” if you like, but still we've seen quite a bit of action. We don't glory in it or boast about it, but we've seen it.”

“Damn right!” Boomer said.

“Look - ” Bojay began in a more mollifying tone.

Apollo's voice was still quiet. “Your attitude puzzles me, Bojay, because you know all this. You know that we fought every inch of the way to Gamoray. I've lost count of the number of smaller colonies we worked our way through on our way here, looking for survivors. Many were burnt out, quite a few were under Cylon occupation. Most we had to fight our way in and fight our way out again. You know all this.”

Bojay held up his hands. “Look, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything.”

“Oh, but you did. The same thing you're always implying. That we aren't as brave as the Pegasus, that we aren't as bold as the Pegasus, that we aren't as good as the Pegasus. Well, maybe we're not. But we were there, Bojay, where we were needed, and you have absolutely no idea what it was like, have you? I guess it's hard for you to visualise and understand, given how insulated from it all, how safe you were out here, away from where it happened.” Apollo's tone suddenly sharpened. “Don't you dare talk to me about what our people have suffered! What do you know about it? You didn't see it. You weren't there.”

Bojay stared, apparently momentarily speechless.

“Boj,“ Sheba said, in a warning tone, sounding a touch uncomfortable. “Leave it. They weren't Pegasus. They don't understand.”

“Oh, I think we do,” Starbuck said, and the others nodded, faces unfriendly. “We just don't like it.”

“We don't like it at all,” Gillian echoed, giving Sheba a disdainful look.

Apollo hadn't taken his eyes of Bojay. “Frankly, I can live with your opinion of me. I don't mind that you think we're chicken hearted, and that we're more concerned with defending the fleet than destroying the Cylons. We have different priorities, you see. But then, we take seriously the responsibilities that you shrugged off two yahrens ago after Molecay.”

Apollo's voice had returned to the quiet, almost tired, tone of before, as if he couldn't be bothered to get angry with Bojay. Starbuck gave him a sharp look, knowing him so well that he saw the strain that Apollo was trying to hide. For me? he thought, with a surge of hope. Maybe Boomer's right, and he feels as bad about this as I do. Then why did he do it?

Apollo stood up. “You're on the Galactica now. The rules are different.”

Bojay spluttered, Starbuck noticed with real glee that he took no pains at all to hide. Sheba was red-faced. Drake looked stunned. They all looked as if some easy target that they'd expected to walk right over had unexpectedly bitten them. Hard.

“I'm really too busy to waste energy in getting mad with you today, Bojay. Besides, that what you're hoping for, isn't it? To provoke me into losing my temper and looking stupid. Sorry to disappoint you.”

“I - ” Bojay started.

Apollo didn't wait for him to finish. “I've given you more than enough time to adjust to the Galactica, and I'm running out of patience. This discussion is over and I don't want it repeated. Now, I've a lot to do to get ready for K'far, and if you'll all excuse me, I'd better get on with it. You all have your orders. I expect them to be carried out to the letter.”

They all stared at him. They were used to Apollo losing his temper and yelling. This calm coldness was new and even Starbuck was impressed. Apollo looked more like his mother than Adama, but the cold implacability was so like the commander that it was quite scary, this irrefutable demonstration of the laws of genetics. Starbuck forbore to say so. He knew that Apollo's relationship with his father could be a little spiky, even though a deep undercurrent of mutual affection shored it up. He didn't think Apollo would welcome the comparison, just then, but he still gazed on Apollo with a kind of proprietorial pride. Attaboy! That was telling the borays.

“Brilliant,” he couldn't help murmuring. He grinned at the impatient look Apollo gave him.

“Is that understood?” Apollo asked.

There was a prompt nodding of heads. Even Bojay, looking as if he'd been hit by a shuttlecraft, murmured his understanding and headed for the door at something approaching light speed, Drake and Sheba on his heels. Sheba gave Apollo an odd look, Starbuck noticed, like she didn't know what to make of him, that he'd surprised her somehow. Lilias followed more slowly. Starbuck thought that they'd been surprised and had probably only retreated to regroup. The Galactica probably hadn't heard the last of the Pegasus. Not yet. But the little victory was sweet. The other senior lieutenants filed out with big grins on their faces, each with a nod towards their Strike Leader.

Starbuck hesitated. Boomer glanced back at him.

“Bucko?”

“I'll be there in a centon, Boom-boom.”

Boomer glanced quickly at Apollo, nodded, gave Starbuck a thumbs-up for luck and let the door slide closed.

“I do want to talk to you, Apollo.”

“I know.” Apollo looked up. He looked tired and vulnerable. “Not now, Starbuck. I don't have the time. And I need to think.”

“No,” said Starbuck, with more compassion than he felt Apollo strictly deserved. “I won't push it now. But definitely when you get back. This is too important to leave it hanging much longer.”

Apollo nodded. “When I get back,” he echoed.

Starbuck watched him for a centon, still hesitating, but beneath his delight in the way Apollo had taken down Bojay, a small kernel of apprehension was growing. It was the same niggling little feeling he got when a bet was about to go sour on him. Something was going to happen. He didn't know what. He just knew that he couldn't let it happen without saying something.

“Take care of yourself down there, Apollo.” He paused, hoping the special little name would say everything for him. “I'll be thinking about you.”

He was conscious of that intense green-eyed stare, the bemusement on Apollo's face, as he turned and left without another word, before he completely blew it by hurling himself physically onto Apollo.

As he darted along the corridor to rejoin Boomer, he wished he'd said more. He just didn't know what. His mouth twisted into the infamous grin. Well, that wasn't true, and Starbuck knew better than to ever lie to himself. Ever. The conman couldn't be conned, Starbuck couldn't be out-Starbucked. He knew what he'd have liked the courage to say, he just didn't know how it would be received and he was too scared to risk it. Stupid, because… well, you never knew what might happen and then his chance would be gone.

He really did have a bad feeling about this. Something was definitely in the air, like the smell of thunder before a storm. A bad one, maybe.

He shrugged, trying to shrug off the mood. He'd bet his abilities against a storm anytime. Anytime at all.

 

 

 

 

“Your ship's ready,” Adama said quietly.

Apollo started slightly. “Dad! You made me jump. I didn't hear you.”

“I'm in stealth commander mode,” Adama said, with a faint smile, watching as Apollo stuffed a datapad into a bag, on top of the spare clothing already there. “I thought you wouldn't mind if I walked you to your Viper.”

“Scared I'd forget where it was?” Apollo returned the smile with one as faint as Adama's own.

“Hoped you might remind me,” Adama retorted. “I get off the bridge so seldom these days, I've probably forgotten how to find Beta deck.”

“Just as well.” Apollo swung the bag up onto his shoulder and led the way out of his office. “Ford's got my ship on Alpha.”

Adama gave him a hard look. “You know, you're so damned smart that I just know that you inherited it from me.” He was pleased to see Apollo's face relax into a more natural and convincing smile. “Seen Boxey?”

“Yeah. His teacher let me take him out of class for ten centons. He knew as soon as he saw me that I was going away. He's not very pleased with me about it.”

“He's only six. Old enough to know he's afraid every time you go on a mission, but too young to deal with it. You were the same at his age, when you realised what it was I was heading into whenever I had to go away. You always acted like you had the entire responsibility for the family on your shoulders.”

“I thought I did,” Apollo said.

Adama bit back a sigh. Only too true. His serious eldest son had always thought that he had to take responsibility, be the one to support his mother and protect his younger siblings. Because I was never there, he thought. Not when it mattered, and not even when it didn't.

“Well, you didn't do too bad a job of it, I suppose,” he said.

“Given the material I had to work with,” Apollo said and grinned at him. “At least Thenie's turned out all right.”

“You're not so bad yourself,” Adama said, gruff but sincere.

Maybe it was because Apollo had always taken responsibility, and had almost taken on Adama's role in the family, that their relationship was more complex. It had always been an issue with Apollo, especially when he grew older, that Adama came home on leave and expected him to revert to just being one of the kids. Apollo had almost seen it as a form of usurpation, of enforced abdication. He had always been more difficult for Adama to deal with, more resentful of the demands made on his father, and, ultimately, on him. Adama's relationships with Athena or Zac were gloriously uncomplicated by comparison. But he had always found himself walking more warily around his self-possessed, serious-minded, responsibility-ridden Apollo. It was only in the last five yahrens, serving together, that they had grown closer.

“Compliments?” his son said now, giving him a slightly suspicious look. “That sounds to me like sugar to sweeten the pill.”

“We are far too alike, you and me,” Adama said, recognising his own reaction to unexpected praise.

“Uh-huh. Do you want to tell me what this is all about?”

Adama followed his son into the turbo lift. “Sheba came to see me a little while ago. Now don't get on your high horse with me - ” He had seen the instant reaction, the thinning of the mouth so that it looked less like Ila's and more like his own. “I made it clear that I'm not interfering, and I haven't forgotten what little you've told me.”

“You didn't tell her!” Apollo said, then almost instantly: “No. You wouldn't. Sorry.”

Adama inclined his head at the apology. “She said she doesn't know where she stands with you, Apollo. I didn't enlighten her. After all, all I know is that someone else stands there instead, but you haven't told me who. And maybe she has some justification for her confusion. I believe you took her to the Rising Star the other evening.”

“Dinner, that's all,” Apollo said, impatience in every line of him.

“But it's giving her some very mixed signals. I told her that I'd ask you to talk to her when you got back. Please do that, Apollo. Make it clear to her that you don't have a future together, if that's your final decision, and be done with it. She deserves that much consideration and I think she's genuinely fond of you.”

“All right.” Apollo's tone was stony.

Adama sighed. “I'm sorry. I'd have liked you and Sheba to have made a go at it. I think Cain would have too.”

The look Apollo gave him betrayed something more than impatience this time. “Dad, I can't think of anything worse than be shackled to a female Cain. You know what they're like, the Pegasus lot. They're all like Cain. Cocksure, reckless, blindly over-confident, bloody arrogant. I'm sorry if I'm upsetting plans you and Cain made when I was in my cradle, but I don't want to be married to that!”

“That's a little ungallant, Apollo,” Adama said, tone mild.

“Merely accurate.”

Adama thought briefly of Cain. The man had been the epitome of the brash warrior, with a very strong sense of his own rightness and superiority, of his invincibility. A supreme self publicist, he had been full of braggadocio and an unflinching belief in his own abilities, fostering a reputation for recklessness and a kind of instinctive military brilliance.

Five yahrens before, Apollo had been dragged, almost literally, from An-Nath base to serve on his father's ship. The Pegasus had been in position to pick him up from An-Nath and deliver him, mutely resentful, to his new command. Apollo, spending a secton on the Pegasus in transit, had found Cain's arrogance and boastfulness almost intolerable and seriously questioned the basis for the reputation for brilliance. He hadn't hesitated to tell his father so, either, in spite of – or because of – knowing that the two older men were friends.

“You never did like him,” Adama conceded. He smiled at his censorious son. “I'd say, though, that you're as convinced of your own merits as Cain is of his. The difference is that Cain's insecure enough to need to make the world recognise his.”

“Are you suggesting that because I've been brought up in a tradition of duty and service, I've never needed public recognition of my achievements?” Apollo asked.

“No. I'm suggesting that your insecurities lie in different directions.” Adama refused to react to Apollo's little jibe, but he recognised it for what it was. “Talking of which, please don't think that you've wriggled out of talking to me, either. I'll wait until you get back, too, Apollo, but we will talk.”

Apollo shook his head. “You don't give up, do you?”

“No.”

“Then I'd better get a list made out. If I have to talk to you, Sheba and… and other people, I'm going to have to get Council Security to police the queues.”

<<Alpha Deck>> the computer intoned.

“Security override gamma –five-seventeen. Hold here,” Adama ordered.

<<Acknowledged.>>

Apollo turned to face him and raised an eyebrow. Adama thought he looked amused – and a little bemused, too.

“I want a word with you before you got out there and I lose my chance,” Adama said, searching for the words he wanted to say. “Going back to K'far… well, we both know that could be chancy, Apollo. They were very clear that they expected us to keep going. They don't want us here. You may face some hostility.”

“I think Zhimn will listen to me. I don't think she'll leave me sitting outside that grid.”

“It's not that I'm worrying about.”

“And I don't think they'll fire on me.” But Apollo's tone was considering, rather than one hundred percent confident.

“What if you're wrong?”

Apollo grinned. “Then promote Boomer. He's up to it.”

Adama prayed briefly for patience. He wanted a serious discussion, not Apollo hiding everything with the usual black jokes warriors used to deal with battle nerves. “It's a big risk.”

“That's what I get paid for, taking risks. Of course, you don't pay me anywhere near enough.”

“I wanted to tell you… to say to you, before you went… “ Adama struggled for a moment, then with a gesture of frustration: “Look, Apollo, I don't really understand how we've managed to get so far apart in these last few sectars. I regret it very much, especially if it's all tied up with the way I reacted to the Ship of Lights and what happened to you there. I wanted you to know that. You're very much more to me than a route map, and I should tell you that more often.”

Apollo was looking astonished at this uncharacteristic display. He nodded.

“I have to send you into situations like this all the time, to risk you.” Adama put a tentative hand on his son's arm. “I wanted you to know that I hate it, Apollo. I never do it without a struggle.”

“I know.”

Adama knew he did. It had been one of the reasons they'd both fought against Apollo's posting to the Galactica, their fear that, despite their best efforts, the familial relationships would make their already difficult lives almost impossible.

“But I don't regret for an instant having you here, with me.” Adama hugged him briefly. “You mean a great deal to me. Take care, son.”

“I will.” Apollo's grin was slightly sheepish. Neither of them were much for demonstrations like this, but he returned the hug. “You too. And take care of Boxey for me.”

Adama nodded, knowing what Apollo was really asking him. If he didn't come back... Adama pushed that thought away. Apollo always came back. Always. If only that vague feeling of unease, of apprehension, hadn't come over him, Adama wouldn't be acting like this, like an over-protective father, fussing.

“We'd better get moving,” Adama said reluctantly, knowing that everything would be on hold for him until Apollo did indeed come back, safe and well. “Security override gamma-five-seventeen. Open doors.”

<<Acknowledged. Alpha deck.>>

The doors opened silently.

“At last!” Starbuck said in greeting. “I was just about to send for the lift engineers.” His expression of dismay when he saw Adama was comic. “Ah… Sir!”

He and Boomer stiffened into salutes.

“Relax,” Adama said, hiding a grin. “Here to see Apollo off?”

Boomer nodded. “It struck us that the K'far Shon might not… well, what I mean is… er… good luck, Captain.”

“Thanks.” Apollo handed his bag to Ford, who nodded at the commander in what might have been vague respect before jog-trotting back to Apollo's Viper. “I hope I don't need it.”

“The others send their best,” Starbuck said. “I thought you'd not want a crowd to attract attention, but they wanted to be here.”

“How'd you manage to dissuade them from coming?” Adama asked curiously.

“Easy,” Starbuck said, with what seemed like a fair assumption of ease. “I threatened to call in all the gambling debts I'm owed. Works a treat, sir.”

Adama shook his head. “A pity I'm so circumscribed by the military code. I could do with an imaginative solution like that to use with the Council. You'd better be off, Apollo.”

“I'm on my way.”

Boomer clapped Apollo on the shoulder. “I'll mind the store. Take care.”

Starbuck hesitated, and Adama could have sworn to the little sidelong glance he got. Oddly, Starbuck didn't touch Apollo, the way Adama would have expected of Apollo's closest friend, to say goodbye. Maybe he felt constrained by the commander's presence.

“Yeah, you be careful. We'll talk when you get back.”

A sidelong glance from Apollo as well, but Adama forgot it momentarily in the little flurry of activity that saw the three of them escort Apollo across to his ship. Apollo's flight crew had already brought the little ship to the entrance to the launch tube, and they stood back, watching as Ford oversaw the crew detach the Viper from the overhead gantries and go through the pre-flight checks with Apollo.

It seemed too soon to Adama when Ford sealed down the canopy and the Viper suddenly shot down the tube, leaving nothing but the rush of air in its wake and the half-glimpsed wave of a hand from Apollo.

Beside him, Starbuck sighed, and Adama looked at him thoughtfully. Someone else who wanted to talk to Apollo. Perhaps his son hadn't been exaggerating about queues. But Starbuck's name hadn't been mentioned.

“He wasn't joking about the number of people who want to talk to him,” Adama said, fishing tentatively for information. “You, me, Sheba. Who else is there?”

“No-one, I hope,” Starbuck said, still staring down the launch tube. Then he turned the dazzling smile on his commander. “Sorry, I've got to rush, sir. Boomer here has me on picket duty in five centons, and nothing I could say would change his mind. I'd better go and launch.”

“You should try to get him into debt as well, then,” Adama said. He nodded his acknowledgement as Boomer and Starbuck saluted and faded away. He watched Starbuck go, then turned back to look down the dark, silent launch tube.

I wonder, he thought. Then pushed the thought away, unfinished.

Not that.

 

 

 

Apollo had never seen an embarrassed looking fish before, but there was no denying that was exactly what General Zhimn resembled. She met him in her office, with elaborate ceremony and full regalia, in stark contrast to the easy relationship they'd built up on his first visit. The formality made him wonder if they were being monitored. She did not seem comfortable.

“I'm grateful that you agreed to see me,” Apollo said, adjusting the tiny translator unit in the ear piece.

He meant it. He'd sat in his Viper on the extreme edge of K'far's defence grid for over six centars while his request for a meeting was considered. He'd not been bored. Instead, he'd been acutely and constantly aware of the nearest laser turret and the fix it had on his little fighter. Every centon had seemed like a day. He couldn't relax, tensed over the Viper's controls in case he needed to sheer off fast if his sensors picked up the spike in the turret's power cells that would be the K'far Shon powering up the laser to take pot shots at him. He could have sat out the wait at a safer distance, but this was a carefully thought through approach, his holding position intended to signal both readiness and the confidence that he could handle anything they threw at him. A similar line of reasoning had meant he'd come in a Viper to signal that this was military business. The polite, uncomplaining wait should have conveyed his peaceful intent.

Diplomacy, he thought, could get bloody complicated.

The General inclined her massive head. Her aides stood to one side of the room, watching Apollo intently from those disconcertingly bulging eyes.

“You are here on my personal recommendation to the Senate,” the General replied. “My personal recommendation, and my reputation.”

“Then I'm doubly grateful.” Apollo paused – not to think of how he'd do what he'd been sent to do. That had been decided during the tedious wait for clearance to land - but for dramatic effect. He thought wryly that his mother would have laughed and recognised a little bit of herself in her otherwise rather staid eldest son. Ila had loved a good dramatic moment and had milked mercilessly every one that came her way. “We've found them.”

A hissing breath from Zhimn. “So soon?”

“We move fast,” Apollo said. “One of our scouts found the base twenty centars ago.” He paused, glanced at the silent aides. “I was not surprised.”

She gestured at the aides, who bowed and left in the same silence that they'd watched, and as the door closed, the big mouth widened into something he hoped was a smile. “That was my intention,” she acknowledged. “I would rather we spoke of this privately, Apollo. I am not entirely convinced of the disinterested loyalty of all my subordinates.”

Apollo thought of Bojay. “You and me, both. Can I speak freely, Ma'am?”

“We are neither of us diplomats or politicians,” she said, invitingly.

“All right. First, I wanted to thank you. We were ready, and without your help we may not have been.” He paused again. “We know them, Ma'am.”.

“Indeed?” She was quiet for a centon. “They are not as we are, not flesh and bone and blood,” she said. “We found that difficult to adjust to. There was nothing to appeal to, no common experiences that we could share the way we could share with sentient beings such as you humans. There was nothing to reason with.”

“They were once living like us. But not for a long time, now. They're cyborgs, mostly machine.”

“Implacable.”

“But not invincible. Our war with them goes back a long way. We've fought them for the last millennium, with a fair amount of success.”

He couldn't read the expression on her face. If she'd been human he'd have said she looked thoughtful and calculating, but he was very wary of putting human emotions onto an inhuman face.

“Yet, you lost.”

Time for honesty. Diplomats might fudge this: Apollo wouldn't.

“Yes. In the end.”

Another centon of silence.

“You can't return here,” she said flatly. “The Senate would not allow it. This is our place.”

“We have a place of our own, somewhere.” Apollo closed his eyes for a micron, willed the bright numerals to scroll. “A long way from here. We don't want to return, Ma'am, I assure you. Our way lies before us, not back here.”

“So why are you here?”

“It was a long war; a hard war. It's swallowed up thousands of generations. But for most of the time, we held them at bay, General. At the end, they only defeated us because we were betrayed. But despite that, we've survived.” Another little pause to emphasise the dramatic potential of what he had to say. “And we know how to fight them.”

“Then you will be able to pass them, on the way to the place you're seeking.”

Shit. This fish wasn't biting.

“Oh yes, I believe so.” Apollo spoke with the deliberate understatement Anton had taught him, conveying a conviction and confidence he wasn't sure he really felt.

“So why are you here?” she said again.

He hoped that it was speculation and interest in the bulging silvery eyes. Once more he opted for directness.

“They won't go away, you know. Like you said, they're implacable.”

“They will not get past the grid.”

“Probably not, but are you prepared to be on the defensive for ever? They'll come eventually: maybe not today, or next yahren, but sometime. They will come. And when they do, here you are. The grid might stop them getting through, but all they have to do is sit out there and you can't get out. Trapped.”

She lowered her head to stare for a micron at her desk, but he was sure that the almost spherical eyes could still see him clearly. He couldn't be sure that her reactions would be the same as his would be in the same circumstances. She wasn't human, after all. But he did think that, human or not, any military officer hated the thought of a siege.

“Yes,” she agreed.

“If we hit the base, I'm not saying that they still won't come, eventually.” No people knew better than humanity that the Cylon Empire had a long arm and great ambitions, but Apollo forbore to say so. “But you'll win a great deal of time, and they'll be more wary. It's worth considering.”

“What is?”

She sure as hell was going to make him work for it.

“Hitting the base together.”

Silence. Then she looked directly at him, and again the big mouth curved in a smile. He smiled back, his suspicions confirmed. He was the excuse she'd been waiting for, the excuse she needed to take on the cautious politicians.

“You knew I'd come back, didn't you?”

“I was certain of it.” She leaned back in her chair. “It was no accident that you spent all your time here with me, Captain Apollo. I was impressed by the assessments of your armaments and the speed and manoeuvrability of your Vipers. I had to know if I would be as impressed by the people operating them.”

“I hope we passed muster.”

The smile again. “You'll do,” she said, sounding so much like Adama that Apollo had to hide his amusement. It was trained into senior officers, then, that gruff acknowledgement of the abilities of others. “The Senate is impressed, too, with the way you have kept rigorously to the agreement. I think we can work together.”

Gods, that was easy. Too easy?

He smiled. “I'd expected to have to make more of a show at negotiation.”

“As I said, we aren't politicians or diplomats. We're soldiers, Captain, and time is too precious to waste in unnecessary forms and formalities. Besides, if I get agreement, that's when the real discussions will come. Now, I must consult the Senate.” She touched a bell on her desk. Behind him the door opened. “You will be taken to some more comfortable quarters to rest. It may be many centars before I have an answer for you, perhaps days.”

She rose, and Apollo scrambled politely to his feet. He offered her the same salute he would have given his father, then he bowed deeply, respectfully, in the K'far Shon fashion.

Good start. Let's hope she could deliver. And then, as she said, the real work of negotiation would begin.

 

 

 

 

“I think I've waited long enough,” Adama said. “Is that man in control of his ship or is he not?”

“I'd say not,” Tigh said judiciously, watching the screen and the tiny, fading image of the Danae. “Seems pretty clear that he hasn't been able to deal with the insurrection. I'd say the mutineers are still in charge. She's still heading back the way we came.”

“Oh, that's *really* likely to please the K'far Shon!” Adama said, almost sounding angry before the habitual calm settled over him like a mask. He looked at Tigh, and the colonel could see the anxiety. “And they have my son down there.”

 

 

 

 

At first, Apollo thought it was thunder.

As he'd said to Colonel Tigh, K'far was as wet as Aquaria. All the time he'd spent there, both on the last visit and this, it had rained constantly. Usually, the rain was gentle and remorseless, falling in a steady, warm stream; sometimes thinning to a damp, fine mist that frosted his hair with premature silver. But several times he'd watched the clouds form into huge black thunder-heads, and the storms that followed had been spectacular.

Again the loud banging sound, and Apollo forced open eyes that were heavy with drugged sleep. It took him a few microns to work out that the noise was someone banging at his door, not thunder.

“All right!” he said thickly, and almost fell off the bed. Still dressed – all he'd done before taking the little oblivion pill had been to shrug off his jacket and pull off his boots before falling into bed – he stumbled across the floor of the dark room towards the door. Natural caution had made him lock it. Now it sounded that whoever wanted him was getting impatient.

He was only four feet from the door when it crashed open and bright light spilled into the room, blinding him. A dark shape, more than one, burst in.

“Hey!”

The leading K'far Shon, no more than a bulky silhouette against the light of the corridor outside, swung something dark up at him. The butt of the laser rifle took him under the chin, the force of the blow snapping his head back and lifting him off his feet, hurling him backwards. The bright lights exploded inside his head. The pain was astonishing, stunning.

A booted foot connected with his ribs, once, twice, then he was being dragged to his feet, too dazed to retaliate. His legs wouldn't hold him up as the squad of K'far Shon soldiers dragged him bodily down the corridor. When they stopped outside a door, he raised his head muzzily, spitting blood and fragments of a broken tooth.

“Wha… ?”

“Kesh!” The soldier on his left snapped at him.

“But…”

A huge hand connected with his right cheek in a back-hander so powerful that he would have fallen again but for the other K'far Shon holding him up. The soldier who'd hit him grabbed him painfully by the hair, and casually slammed him up against the wall.

“Kesh!”

Yeah. Kesh. Shut up, you bloody fool. Shut up. Kesh.

The door opened onto an empty office. Zhimn's office. Two of the soldiers pushed him bodily into the chair he'd sat in just a few short centars ago, then released him and retreated towards the door. For a few centons Apollo sat slumped in the chair, breathing heavily, trying to get his head to work past the soporific in his bloodstream and the stunning effect of the short, sharp, beating he'd just taken. His face and ribs hurt like hell, and his mouth was full of blood.

The hand he raised to his cheek was shaking with reaction. Shock. He was in shock. His cheekbone was sore, but not broken. There was blood all over his hand when he took it away. The big bastard had laid his face open.

The blood in his mouth came from the broken tooth. He ran his tongue around his mouth, carefully exploratory: thankfully nothing else was broken, no loose teeth, and he'd not bitten his tongue. Small mercies.

There was the inevitable fountain set into the wall. With a glance at the two silent soldiers blocking the door, Apollo pushed himself to his feet and staggered, rather than walked over to it. He could almost feel them tense up, but when he made no threatening move towards them, they relaxed again. Threatening! If his face didn't hurt so badly, he'd laugh at that. Either one of them would make two of him. They were built like shuttle craft. He wasn't so stupid or so doped that he'd have a go at them. At least, not until the odds were better and he had a laser in his hand.

The water was ice cold. Still muzzy from the sleeping pill he'd taken earlier, he opted for ducking his entire head under the slow, steady stream. The shock of cold water made him gasp, but he endured it for as long as he could, letting the water cut through the drug until he felt more awake. The water ran over his face, turning the water in the bowl red. He rinsed his mouth in the clean water, wincing as the cold bit into the exposed nerve in the broken tooth, then straightened slowly, ignoring the guards' evident amusement, and their low-voiced, incomprehensible commentary on his performance. His translator unit was back in his room, but soldiers were soldiers the universe over. He could take an educated guess at what they were saying.

He got back to the chair. This time it was more of a walk than a stagger, and although his knees were still shaking, he had enough control to be able to get there without falling over. He still hurt, and his head was aching savagely. But it was clearer, less as though someone had come on him while he'd slept and stuffed his brain with cotton wool. Low grade cotton wool, at that.

What the hell had happened? When Zhimn had left him to go and talk to the K'far Senate, everything had been going so well. It couldn't have been anything he'd done. He'd seen and talked to no-one since the silent aide had escorted him back to the suite he'd occupied before and, a centar later, another silent aide had brought him dinner. He'd spent his time alone, if not exactly virtuously. Thinking of Starbuck had rarely led to the path of virtue and he'd come twice, pleasuring himself while dreaming of those blue, blue eyes, before cleaning himself up and taking the pill that led to oblivion and no dreams at all.

He dropped his head into his hands and waited, fighting off the pain and the nausea, fighting off the clinging effects of the sleeping pill.

All he could do was wait.

 

 

 

 

Adama shifted in the command chair and glanced at the Communications officer.

“Hail them again.”

“Yes sir.” A pause, and she shook her head. “No answer, sir.”

“Their demands were quite explicit,” Tight said quietly.

“And not unexpected. I can perfectly understand that after a yahren of being cooped up on these ships, there's an awful lot of people who would like to settle at the first habitable planet. But not here! Even if that base wasn't a factor, the K'far Shon won't allow it.”

And there was Apollo.

Tigh nodded. “I've got Blue and Red in the tubes,” he said. “The other squadrons are on standby.”

He didn't blame Adama for being concerned. The Danae was heading back into K'far space, moving slowly but inexorably back towards the second habitable moon in the K'far system. All her hapless captain had been able to tell them was that his bridge was under occupation by several of the leaders of the survivors who lived on the Danae, and that he was helpless to prevent them from taking over. Since then, negotiations with the mutineers had been brief and unsatisfactory. The Danae refused to return to the Fleet; the commander, ignoring a nervously vacillating Council completely, refused to let the ship secede. Stalemate.

“To do what? Fire on our own people?”

“It may come to it,” Tigh said. “If we could hit something non-vital and shake her up a bit, it may make them listen to reason. Otherwise, we could hit the main boosters. Unless Captain Theo is working with them, they probably don't have enough technical knowledge to get the impulse engines on line. Then we could get a boarding party onto her. It's about time Lieutenant Trent earned his keep.”

“Please God, I hope it doesn't come to this. The political fall-out will be inconceivable.” Adama paused. “They don't show much sign of listening to reason.”

“Captain Theo said they'd killed three people to get onto that bridge,” Tigh reminded him. “Desperate people breed desperate situations, need desperate measures, Adama.”

“Sir!” The Comms officer looked up and gestured urgently at the commander. “Sir, Captain Apollo on Gold channel 1. He says it's urgent.”

Adama closed his eyes for a micron and Tigh blew out his breath in a long silent whoosh, sharing his relief. At least Apollo was still alive.

“I think we knew that,” Adama said, calm monolithic. “Patch him through.”

 

 

 

 

As far as he could tell, given that his chronometer was on the little table beside his bed, it was a centar at least before Zhimn came in. Apollo spent it stoically enduring the increasing discomfort, the only palliative available to him being two further trips to duck his head under the cold fountain, to keep it clear and keep alert. Some little part of him noted the efficiency of the filtration system: every time he got there the system had cleared the bloody water. Every time he put his head under the jet, he bloodied up the little pool again. Wondering at what point he or the filtration system would win the battle kept his mind of the tight spot he was in, definitely kept regretful thoughts away from Starbuck and occupied his mind while he waited for Zhimn.

She wasn't alone. He thought that he recognised one of the three K'far Shon with her as one of the dignitaries who had greeted him and Anton sectons ago, but the others were strangers. Apart from Zhimn herself, none were in uniform.

Zhimn's big face was expressionless as she looked him over, showing nothing. He knew that if he looked anyway near as bad as he felt, the signs of rough handling had to be pretty obvious. His face was still bleeding, after all. She spoke briefly with the two soldiers, then took her seat, watching him with cold eyes. Her voice when she spoke to Apollo was flat and unfriendly, but he didn't understand a word.

He gestured at his right ear. “No translator,” he said. It hurt to talk.

She said something else, and he shrugged helplessly.

“It's in my room,” he said, hoping that was what she'd asked.

She scowled and snapped out an order. One of the soldiers left at a run. They waited in silence until the soldier came back with Apollo's bag with all of Apollo's possessions tumbled into it. Zhimn gestured to Apollo and the soldier proffered the bag.

His chronometer and the translator unit were stuffed into the top. No laser, of course – that was stuck prominently in the soldier's belt, out of reach - and Apollo thought wistfully of the little knife in the outer pocket of the bag. Not a hope of getting it. They were watching him closely, and they'd probably have his hand off at the wrist if he tried it. He'd have to rely on his wits. Trouble was, between the soporific and the unexpected beating, said wits were pretty rattled.

He fastened the chronometer around his wrist and fixed the translator into place.

“You understand me now?” Zhimn demanded.

Apollo nodded. “What's this all about?”

The cold, disdainful look intensified. “We trusted you.”

“I'm not aware I've done anything to betray that trust.”

“Your people are invading our space,” she said, coldly. “This is some trick of yours, coming here pretending to seek alliance.”

“Invading?” he said incredulously.

“One of your ships turned back. We've been monitoring your Fleet carefully. The ship is heading towards Flas.”

“The other moon?” Apollo stared, then shook his head. He regretted it instantly. His bloody head felt like it would fall off. “Just the one ship?”

“Yes.”

“Not the Galactica?”

“I'd have killed you out of hand if it had been the Galactica,” she said, with a grim seriousness that convinced him she meant every word.

“I don't understand what's going on. But I meant what I said to you. Our destination lies a long way from here, Ma'am. We've no intention of staying here.”

“This ship has,” one of the civilians said, not the one he'd met before.

“I very much doubt that they have the commander's authorisation. There's people in the fleet that are desperate to find a home, it's true, but the commander wouldn't even consider settling here. Apart from the fact that he is very committed to our destination, he's very conscious that this is your space. Flas is not free to be settled. He knows that. And he wouldn't do anything while I'm here, that would alarm you.” This, at least, could sound convincing because of its truth.

“We had an agreement with your people. We welcome those who keep faith with us. We'll have nothing to do with those who break it,” Zhimn said.

“The commander would not do this,” Apollo insisted.

“It seems he has. It seems he thinks nothing of risking you.” This time the smile was cold. “It looks as though it's not only your subordinates whose loyalty is suspect, Captain.”

“He wouldn't do this. He may have to risk me now and again, but he'd never deliberately create the risk. Not with me in the frame. Believe me. The commander is my father.” Apollo's sore mouth twisted slightly as he heard himself say it. Gods! He'd spent yahrens trying not to trade on that relationship! Well, he hoped that Adama would have the last laugh on him this time.

There was a silence whilst the K'far Shon digested that.

“I see,” Zhimn said, at last. “You said nothing of this, earlier.”

“There was no necessity, earlier. Whatever is going on, he'll be trying to stop it. If you're monitoring the Fleet, you'll know that.”

Zhimn inclined her head towards him. “Perhaps.”

“Let me talk to the Galactica. Please. It's the only way to find out what's happening.”

Zhimn looked at him thoughtfully for a few microns then glanced at one of the civilians, the one who'd spoken earlier. He nodded, and Zhimn gestured at one of the soldiers.

“Agreed. A link will be established with your Gold channel. It will take a few centons.”

“Thank you.” Apollo was as grateful as he sounded.

Another short silence, then Zhimn said, looking at his face. “The guards tell me you refused to let them into your room.”

“I didn't refuse to let them in, Ma'am. I was asleep. They woke me and it was a centon or two before I realised what it was.”

“You slept through them banging on your door?”

Apollo sighed. It looked like his little flirtation with the soporifics was over. He hadn't realised how deeply they were putting him under. He should have thought of this before. What if he'd been home on the Galactica and there'd been an alert or something? He'd have been useless, worse than useless. He had been so stupid he could barely believe it.

“I don't sleep well. I took something - a mild sedative – to help me sleep. It knocked me right out.” He touched his throbbing cheek gingerly. “From now on, I'll stick with the insomnia.”

“It might be safer,” she said, dryly.

Apollo's grin hurt his mouth considerably. “Less painful, anyway. They took me by surprise.”

“These are my personal guard. They considered that my honour had been compromised by your people's actions.” Zhimn glanced at the guards. “Their loyalty is very comforting.”

“I'm sure,” Apollo said, tartly.

Zhimn glanced up as the guard returned and pointed to the wall mounted screen. “The link is established. You may use this screen.”

Apollo got slowly to his feet and walked to stand in front of the screen. Almost immediately it focused into an image of Adama, looking almost close enough to touch, impossibly remote in reality. The commander's mouth hardened when he saw Apollo and his eyes narrowed, but it took someone who knew him well to see his anxiety. His voice and expression remained calm.

“Captain Apollo.”

“Sir. There's a… a problem here.” Apollo hoped that sounded diplomatic and delicate enough. “I understand that one of the Fleet's ships has broken away.”

“The Danae. A group of mutineers have overpowered the bridge crew and refuse to negotiate.”

“The Danae? Well, that doesn't surprise me. Sir, this is making discussions here a little – er - difficult. I'd respectfully suggest some stronger negotiating line is needed with the Danae, if we're to get the alliance we want. Something along the lines of a shot across her bows.”

Adama thought for a moment, then nodded at someone out of the picture. It had to be Tigh.

“Fighters launched. Will the K'far Shon allow us to pursue the Danae and bring her back?”

Apollo turned to Zhimn. “Ma'am? I see no other way.”

“That means them bringing their fighters into our space!” One of the other civilians protested, the one he'd met when he and Anton had first arrived.

“Our fighters were in your space for days, sir, without incident.” Apollo kept his gaze on Zhimn. “And not even our Vipers could get past your defence grid.”

“It's too risky,” the civilian said.

“Trust me,” Apollo said to Zhimn. “Please trust me.”

 

 

 

“Ford said that he looked pretty rough,” Starbuck said.

Boomer sighed. “You told me that already. Several times. And as I've said, also several times – but if you don't mind repeating yourself, why should I hesitate? – obviously, he can still fly a Viper and he didn't need to be carried down to Life Centre.”

“It could still be serious.”

“You said that, too. Several times.”

Starbuck chewed nervously on his bottom lip. “Thing is, Boomer, I had this feeling, the kind I get when the cards are about to go sour on me. A kind of premonition, I guess. I just knew something was going to happen. I shouldn't have let him go without talking to him first, but he's so bloody good at avoiding talks he doesn't want to have! I've been tormenting myself with thinking about what if he hadn't made it back and he never knew how I really felt?”

“No, you haven't,” Boomer said flatly.

“Huh?”

“You haven't been tormenting yourself at all. What you've been doing, old friend, is tormenting *me*. And I wish you'd stop.”

“Well, excuse me!”

“Eventually. But only if you snap out of mystic mode and maybe buy me another beer as compensation to having to listen to you when you're in emotional turmoil.”

Starbuck, outraged, glared at Boomer's unconcern. “He's your friend, too!”

“I haven't forgotten. But the commander did say that he'd managed to talk to Apollo who said everything was all right, he was able to fly himself home again and, as you've told me about eight times, Ford said that he didn't need any help to get out of his Viper. So because he's just my good friend and I can think about him without my gonads going into a frenzy and zapping my brain with lust, the way yours apparently do, I can stay cool about it all. I'm prepared to be optimistic about his chances of survival. Yours, however, are decreasing by the micron.”

Starbuck sniffed disdainfully. “ I'm worried, that's all. A bit of empathy, that's all I'm asking for.”

“A punch on the nose is what you're asking for, Bucko. A split lip isn't going to increase your attractiveness quotient so far as Apollo's concerned.” Boomer looked past Starbuck, towards the door of the OC, and grinned. “Unless, of course, you two could make it a matching set. That's one hell of a shiner he's got.”

Starbuck twisted in his seat so fast that his head spun. “Apollo!”

His yell of delighted surprise silenced every voice in the OC for a micron as everyone stared at their battered-looking Strike Captain. Then the noise was tumultuous with relieved yells and cheers. Apollo grinned, protesting faintly as he was grabbed by the nearest person and passed from warrior to warrior, progressing across the room from one hug to the next. Starbuck, beaming happily, noticed that even Bojay slapped Apollo on the back as he was passed on to Blue Squadron's table.

Forgetting completely that he no longer had the right to do it, Starbuck, grinning widely, flung both arms around the captain and hugged him hard. For an instant he closed his eyes and pressed his face into Apollo's hair, turning slightly so that his lips pressed in somewhere perilously close to the captain's ear, savouring the feel and smell and touch of him. Apollo's hair was very soft and smelled faintly of herbs of some kind. Well, of something green and wholesome, anyway. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the familiar, delightful scent. He'd always loved Apollo's hair. He'd always loved Apollo. He just hadn't always realised it. But he knew the depth of it when Adama, looking grave, had taken the debrief meeting on the Danae incident, just after dawn, ship's time. Starbuck had been badly frightened when Adama had told them about Apollo's transmission from K'far and the all-too-evident injuries. He'd spent the last fifteen centars being badly frightened. He could have lost him. Dear God, but he could have lost him.

For the instant that Starbuck held him and loved him, Apollo was rigid in his hold. Then the captain sighed gently and relaxed, leaning against him for a micron. But he felt Boomer pull Apollo away. He didn't want to let go. He really didn't want … reluctantly, he released Apollo and let Boomer put his arms around the captain for a centon. While all of Starbuck's instincts were for a dramatic scene of love and avowal, nothing would irritate Apollo more in public. It would have to wait. But please, let's not wait too long, Apollo.

“I'm glad you're back,” Boomer said in his usual un-extravagant fashion.

Starbuck managed to find words to say, that meant he didn't blurt out his true feelings.

“Are you all right?” he demanded, not caring if it sounded trite. He pulled Apollo back and, hands on Apollo's shoulders, he looked the captain over anxiously. There was the gloriously black eye that Boomer had already admired, a nasty bruise on the underside of his chin, and his right cheek was blackened and abraded, one deep cut needing two sutures to hold it together. But Apollo didn't look to be too terribly injured. Boomer was tiresome, but right.

“Don't I look it?” Apollo was giving him that bemused look again, as if he couldn't work out what Starbuck was up to.

“You look like you were run over by the Galactica,” Starbuck conceded.

“It feels like it,” Apollo said ruefully. “I'm not sure I wasn't.”

Boomer grinned. “You weren't.”

“Are you sure?” Apollo said doubtfully

“Yup. And given your sister's on the navigation desk this secton, it's just as well.”

“We like to keep these things in the family. It must have been a shuttlecraft then. Someone picked up a shuttle and hit me with it.”

“Oh, that good, eh?” Starbuck bestowed another crushing hug on him.

Apollo choked slightly as the air was squeezed out of his lungs, and Starbuck was in the seventh heaven when Apollo grinned at him, apparently unoffended. Dear God, let's hope that this meant he'll be willing to listen to reason. Starbuck grinned back, letting his joy and relief show without reservation.

“And not helped by your touching belief that breaking every bone in my body will make me feel better, Starbuck.”

“Ingrate,” Starbuck jeered. “We've been worried sick about you. The commander said you'd got roughed up a bit.”

“Ah, well. Sire Anton's been teaching the entire family the correct use of devastating understatement.” Apollo touched his cheek gingerly. He stared at Boomer with what Starbuck recognised instantly as the intimidating and threatening just-what-do-you-think-you're-doing-messing-with-my-baby-sister glare. “And just how familiar are you with Athena's schedule, lieutenant?”

Boomer laughed. “You ask her, Apollo. I'm under orders to say nothing.”

Which, of course, tells us everything, Starbuck thought, pleased that at least one of his most relentless pursuers had found another interest. Now if only someone would take Cassie out of the picture too, he'd celebrate for a secton. Then Starbuck's happy, relieved feeling vanished abruptly as a sharp elbow connected painfully with his ribs.

“Geez!” he said, complainingly as he was roughly shouldered aside.

“Apollo!” The screech was an octave or so higher than Starbuck had achieved, as a newly-arrived Sheba hurled herself onto the captain. “Oh Apollo! I was so worried…”

Oh great. The cavalry's arrived. Well, the horse, anyway. If her face got any longer, you could put a bridle on it.

“Oh. Hi,” said Apollo, with all the lack of enthusiasm that Starbuck could have hoped for.

“You have very bony hocks, Sheba,” Starbuck complained, rubbing at his ribs, knowing she wouldn't even hear him. Sheba had an enviable talent for closing out what she didn't want to hear. He sat down again, reluctant to leave the field to her. He watched her fuss over Apollo for a centon, but even to his apprehensive eyes, Apollo's discomfiture was very apparent. Starbuck brightened.

“What happened, Skipper?” someone asked. “All anyone knew was that the fish had worked you over, and we've been pretty worried.”

“They got a bit het up over the Danae's little escapade, and thought we were up to no good,” Apollo said, carefully disentangling himself from Sheba. “Unfortunately for me, I was handy for them to vent their suspicion on. It's all sorted now, though.”

Trent joined them, slipping into a chair beside Boomer. “It looks painful. You okay?”

“Oh it is,” Apollo agreed mournfully. “But I am.”

“You most certainly are not! Have you seen Salik?” Sheba demanded.

“The commander marched me straight down to Life Centre, the instant I finished reporting back.”

“And what did he say? Shouldn't you be resting?”

She smoothed Apollo's hair back from the black eye in a way that had Starbuck seething with impotent jealousy. He scrupulously avoided catching Boomer's all-too-sardonic eye, and had a sudden, quickly suppressed, fellow-feeling for Bojay who was watching this little scene from Silver Spar table and looking as though he relished it as little as Starbuck did.

“I'm fine. All Salik had to do was clean me up, put a couple of stitches in my face and crown a broken tooth. He told me the rest was just superficial bruising.” Apollo looked thoughtful. “I wonder if Anton's been teaching him, too?”

“Well, you know how much he likes to get into really big stuff,” Starbuck said. “In Salik-speak, ‘superficial' ranks right up there with halitosis and hypochondria.”

Both Apollo and Sheba glared at him.

“Meaning?” Apollo demanded with menaces.

“Meaning that you aren't going to die on us just yet.” Starbuck put on his most innocent face. “Why, you didn't think that I meant you were imagining it all?”

“I could live with that. It was the halitosis that was worrying me.”

“Very funny, Starbuck,” Sheba said, crossly. “If you've nothing constructive to add…”

“But I have!” Starbuck protested. “I entirely agree with you, Sheba, that Apollo ought not to be overdoing things. You need to rest, Captain, and stay off your feet.” He wrapped a hand in the back of Apollo's flight jacket and pulled sharply, so that Apollo half fell into his usual seat. He kept his hand flat against the small of Apollo's back for a micron, enjoying the feel and warmth.

There wasn't room at the table for another chair. Starbuck smiled blandly as he knew how at Sheba, who was glaring at him with poorly-hidden baffled fury on her face. On her long, horsey face.

“See? Now he's comfortable. Aren't you, Apollo?”

“Yeah. Thank you, Starbuck,” Apollo said dryly.

Sheba tossed her head. Lords, any centon now and she'll paw at the deck with a hoof and whinny, Starbuck thought, carried away with his equine imagery.

“I'll talk to you later, Apollo,” she said and moved off towards her own usual seat with Bojay.

She glared at Starbuck as she went, a look that he returned with the smile turned up several gigawatts in the hope of annoying her further. It worked. She flounced off to her seat and Starbuck turned the big smile onto Apollo. Lords, but he was happy to have Apollo back, and in one piece. He could almost feel himself glowing.

“I heard the K'far Shon general was on her way here,” Giles cut in. “What's she want?”

“To apologise, maybe,” Trent said in a grim tone that suggested the apology might not be well received.

“We already kissed and made up,” Apollo said. He sipped at the beer that Boomer pressed into his hand.

“Well, I can hope for a general amnesty then,” Starbuck said, and smiled seraphically at the sharp look Apollo gave him. He regretted it within a few centons as Apollo retreated behind the barriers again. But he'd had his Apollo back for a centon or two, and that was heartening. It meant Apollo was still there, hidden behind Apollo somewhere, and Starbuck was confident in his ability to eventually charm his way behind the most impenetrable barrier.

“What happened with the Danae?” Apollo asked. “I guess the Council's pretty jumpy about it. They called the commander back into a meeting while we were at the Life Centre. All he had time to tell me was that she was back, and I knew that anyway. I saw her as I came in, sitting out there with most of Green in close escort. What happened?”

“Well, now. There were a few malcontents…” began Boomer.

“On that ship? There were about four hundred of them!” Bojay interrupted, shouting from the nearby Silver Spar table.

“Who's telling this story, may I ask?” Boomer demanded, indignantly. “Well, as Bojay so justly implies, virtually the entire ship's company decided they didn't want to go any further, so they hi-jacked the ship. We had to stop her, but… well, I don't have to tell you about all the issues involved in Vipers taking on one of our own, unarmed ships. They didn't believe us when we said we'd fire. We'd planned it all out with the commander and Colonel Tigh. They wanted her crippled and helpless but with as little real damage as possible. Starbuck took me in close in a shuttlecraft, and I did me a little spacewalk. I disconnected the main navigational relay on the port side, then walked up the centre line to the booster array and closed down the engines . While I was busy with a bit of constructive vandalism, Starbuck docked with her and let Trent and his free-loading mudbrains off the shuttle to earn their pay. Then he came back for me. By the time I was back on the shuttle, superman Trent here had stormed the bridge and the Danae's brief adventure was over.”

Trent merely grinned, and stroked at his moustache with the stiff steel fingers of his artificial left hand.

Sheba was laughing. “It was really funny, Apollo. All she could do was go around in slow circles, with us laying low energy blasts on the outside to rattle them up a bit, to give cover for Trent's people going in and retaking the bridge.”

“Funny?” Apollo looked fleetingly puzzled. “There's a lot of families on board that ship. Anyone hurt?”

“Shocked and scared, mostly, but a couple of the mutineers wouldn't come quietly,” Trent said, soberly. “We had our lasers on stun until they started shooting at us for real. I didn't lose any of ours, Apollo, but I had to take out one of the rebel leaders, a man called Venn. I'm sorry about that.”

“Me too, but I guess you had no choice.” Apollo glanced around the crowded OC. A hundred warriors were hanging on every word. “Talk later?”

“I'd appreciate it,” Trent nodded.

Get in the queue, Starbuck thought indignantly.

“I don't know why we gave them the kid glove treatment,” Bojay said. “I mean, all right, I know the arguments for it, but I don't agree with them.”

“It's a bit of a problem with civilians,” Starbuck said, giving Bojay a look that he hoped was as unfriendly as he felt. “They will insist on believing that they're in charge. Anyone would think that we lived in a democracy.”

“Oh very funny, Starbuck,” Bojay said. “You know what I mean. We wasted a hell of a lot of time reasoning with those people and look what the result is. We still had to use force to turn her back, and Apollo got the shit kicked out of him.”

Starbuck's eyes narrowed. He would swear to the satisfaction in Bojay's tone at that last statement. He was pretty sure that Bojay thoroughly enjoyed the idea of Apollo getting a kicking. Probably wished he could do it himself. Well, the worst thing that Starbuck could wish for him was that he got his heart's desire. If ever a man deserved Sheba, it was good old Boj.

“Your point being?” Apollo asked

“That we should have gone straight in. These people have got to realise that they can't act like this. They could have put the whole fleet in danger.”

“Agreed, but they didn't. Just me, and I got away with it.” Apollo shrugged that away. “But Starbuck's right. This is a democracy, not a military dictatorship. At the end of the day, we serve the people out there, even those on the Danae, not the other way around. We go forward as long as they give us a mandate. We have to persuade them that what we're doing is right.”

“So Commander Adama said. I didn't agree with him, either.”

“Now there's a surprise,” Boomer said.

“Cain wouldn't have done it that way,” Bojay said, angrily. “He wouldn't have wasted time talking to those borays. He'd have just told them what to do and made them do it.”

“And there's another surprise,” Jolly said.

“Adama is not Cain,” Apollo said.

“Patently obvious!” Drake joined in. “They're very different. Very, very different.”

The OC was so silent that a pin dropping would have sounded as loud as a nuclear explosion. Apollo went very still, and Starbuck reached out instinctively to put a comforting - restraining? - hand on Apollo's arm.

“Excuse me,” Apollo said to him, very quiet. He got to his feet, and headed for the Silver Spar table. Starbuck reached out after him to stop him, then let his hand drop. This had a strange inevitability about it. It had been brewing for sectars.

“And that means?” Apollo said, voice still quiet.

“That they do things very differently, that's all,” Drake said, all innocent insolence.

“And that's a problem?”

Bojay shrugged. “Only for you and those like you and him."

“I think Apollo's going to get a bit cross,” said Starbuck, wondering whether he was going to enjoy the scene or wanted to curl up and die somewhere to avoid it.

“Can't blame him” said Boomer, sighing. “I'd hoped Bojay would have taken the hint from the last time he took Apollo on over this. I'm as sick as Apollo is about that lot perpetually saying how perfect Cain was and how second rate we are. Cain maybe would've just left the Danae to it, and he certainly would throw everything at the base, but that doesn't make him right.”

Apollo nodded at Bojay's comments, and turned on his heel, walking over to the bar. Bojay looked astonished, then contemptuous.

“Like father, like son,” he said, with a meaningful snigger.

“Oh shut up, Bojay,” Starbuck said wearily, watching, like everyone else, Apollo talking to the head steward, but he was as surprised and disappointed as anyone.

Until that is, the steward rang the closing bell. It was shockingly loud in the quiet room.

“Everyone out!” Callan let out his usual stentorian bellow at least four centars early. “The OC's closed to everyone except the senior command staff. Everyone out!” Apollo spoke briefly to Callan, and the steward added, “Anyone else still in here in one centon precisely will be scrubbing the flightdecks for the next two sectons! Everyone out!”

Apollo leaned up against the bar and watched as the room emptied. The warriors, muttering and complaining, went slowly and unwillingly, despite the threat of one of Apollo's least loved disciplinary measures, and it took nearer five centons for the OC to be cleared. Only the senior lieutenants remained, glued to their seats.

“Tell us what happens,” Giles pleaded as he and Jolly reluctantly went towards the door, pushing a protesting Greenbean out ahead of them.

“Get out of here,” Boomer said, indulgent. “You'll get a full report.”

“What's he up to?” Gillian asked quietly, coming to join them. Kyle and Dietra were with her.

“God knows,” Starbuck said, as bemused as any of them.

“Concussed, do you think?”

Starbuck swivelled in his seat. It was Lilias, putting some distance between herself and her old Pegasus comrades.

“I don't think so, only mad.” Starbuck pulled out a chair for her. “Let's just see what happens, shall we?”

“Shouldn't you be with them?” Kyle nodded towards Bojay, Sheba and Drake.

“No,” Lilias said serenely. “I don't happen to agree with them.”

Apollo waited until the door closed behind the last warrior and came back over to stand between the two tables.

“I've sent everyone out because I really don't think it's a good idea for them to see us at each other's throats,” he said, quietly. “I'm not impressed by the attitude of the ex-Pegasus squadrons, and I think we need to deal it with here and now. But without witnesses.”

“We've got different…” Bojay started, but wasn't allowed to go on.”

“I wasn't finished,” Apollo said in a voice that became dreadfully quiet. Bojay went red and shut up. After a centon's pause, Apollo went on, “Despite what you might think, I don't always agree with the commander's decisions myself. I don't require you to, either. But I do expect that once those decisions are made you respect them and him, particularly in here in front of all the other warriors. If you have real problems with command decisions there's a procedure for dealing with it formally. I suggest you make use of it. First step is for you to register your dissent with me – we'll take that as read, shall we? So I'll move right on to the next stage and present your comments and views to Colonel Tigh.”

“Hey, we don't want to do anything official!” Bojay protested, then went red again.

“No, I didn't expect that you would. Now, I'm aware that Commander Adama has a different style to Commander Cain, although I think it goes deeper than style and touches on real values. Let's get it right out into the open what your beef with Adama is.”

There was a short silence.

“It's nothing to do with you, Apollo,” Sheba said, tone patronising. She had been looking uncertainly from Apollo to her old shipmates, but had evidently decided where her loyalties lay. “We're used to something different, that's all. We're used to following someone with courage and ... and energy and vision...”

Apollo choked.

“Oh dear,” said Boomer quietly. “Foolish girl. I can hardly bear to watch”

“He's going to go ballistic on that one,” Dietra said. .

Starbuck agreed, awed at Sheba's audacity. Making such a malicious little jibe about Adama to Adama's son was either brave or stupid, he wasn't sure which. He was pretty sure it was genetic, though. “This is going to get nasty.”

Apollo took a deep breath. His normally pale face was flushed with temper. “As opposed to following someone who has never forgotten his oath to protect his people and who has always put duty before a desire for personal glory, you mean?”

“Ooh, nice,” Trent breathed. “How'd he manage to get that out without tripping over it?”

“That's just the warm up,” Starbuck murmured, surprised himself. “Wait till he hits the turbos.”

Sheba went white. “What the hell are you implying?”

“I'm not implying anything. I'm telling you that I distrust vainglorious braggarts who abandon their oaths of allegiance to go running off to indulge themselves in fighting the Cylons, rather than take on the far more difficult and demanding task of forgetting themselves and fulfilling their duty to their people.”

“Turbos in. Forward laser cannons armed and targeting,” said Boomer, joining Starbuck's game.

It was Sheba's turn to gasp in outrage.

“How dare you!” She could barely speak. “My father is a great warrior - the best there ever was! He is not a braggart! And how dare you say he betrayed his oath? We've been fighting Cylons ever since Molecay -.”

“So have we,” said Apollo, obviously delighted to have hit back at last. “But in defence of this Fleet and the survivors of the Colonies, not for personal gratification.”

“The man's a hero! He's won more medals than anyone else ever did!” Bojay was as furious as Sheba. .

Starbuck watched and listened with surprise and pride. He'd be the first to say that an indignant Apollo could be a totally incoherent Apollo. But today the captain seemed blessed with eloquence. Obviously, over six sectars of needling by the ex-Pegasus contingent had given him plenty of motivation to get in a few hits of his own. It was a beautiful sight to see, and he sighed happily as his Apollo demonstrated conclusively that quiet and steadfast didn't mean inferior and weak.

“I'm not saying he didn't. I am saying that the secton I spent on the Pegasus five yahrens ago, he told me the tale of how he won them virtually every time I saw him. Cain's story bored me then and it bores me now. I'd be far more interested in his explanation of why he took the Pegasus on an unauthorised personal crusade rather than do what he swore an oath to do, and protect the Colonies. If we're really going to get into an argument about this, then I'm damned glad that I never had to serve with a brilliant self-publicist hell-bent on personal glorification, who seemed to have scant regard for honour or duty and who left the Colonies to the Cylons by deserting - ”

“Target acquired and hit!” said Starbuck, but even he winced at that one

“- and I hope the others agree. I hope they're as proud as I am that we never forgot that our duty was to save our people, even if you lot do think that's a mundane task below your superior abilities. I hope they see that they've at least been honourable. At least they don't have twist the fact that they have betrayed their oaths and failed our people and present it as something glamorous and glorious.”

“Target destroyed,” said Boomer, sounding very, very satisfied.

“Strewth!” said Kyle.

“Awesome,” agreed Starbuck, impressed by this unexpectedly virtuoso performance. He restrained himself from bursting into applause, but only with difficulty. He glanced at Lilias in sudden concern about her reaction to Apollo's bitter words, but although she was pale, she remained composed.

“You bastard!” Bojay spat out, leaping to his feet, followed by Drake. “We never deserted!”

“Oh, you mean you had orders to leave the fleet at Molecay? Strange, that. No-one else did.”

Apollo, thought Starbuck, was getting really good at sneering. Really very good indeed. He wondered if Sire Anton gave lessons in that as well.

Bojay could only splutter some helpless defiance.

“Don't think of all us that way, Captain. They didn't ask us,” Lilias spoke up. “I was an ensign then. I don't remember being consulted about taking off.” She paused, then said sourly, “I had an older sister on Sagiterra, and two nephews. I'd have liked to be there when they needed me.”

“Lilias!” Drake said, incredulous.

Starbuck remembered that she and Drake had something going. Probably not now, though. He could feel her trembling, and put a hand on hers. He caught Gillian's eye, and after a micron's hesitation, Gillian put an arm around Lilias' shoulders. Lilias looked at Starbuck gratefully, and smiled her thanks.

“We went to fight the Cylons!” Sheba spat out, her voice going up another half octave.

“Really?” Apollo said. “And you think that it was perhaps Father Yule's elves we faced at Cimtar?”

Ooh. This sarcastic understatement thing would bear further investigation. It was pretty good stuff in trained hands. Starbuck could just feel the beatific smile spreading across his face.

“Ever since we came up on you, you've all been telling us about how superior the Pegasus was, that your commander was better than ours, that you're all such superior warriors to us. I bet if you'd have been at Cimtar you'd have wiped out the Cylons on your own while we stood on the sidelines to watch. Of course you weren't at Cimtar, were you? You'd already deserted. Still, it's pretty obvious that you can't be expected to do anything but sneer at inferior types like us. No doubt that's how Cain's trained you all, to have no regard for anything or anybody beyond yourselves. But the Pegasus is gone and Cain is gone, still more concerned with his personal crusade than protecting the fleet. He deserted you too.”

“No!” Sheba protested.

“Time to grow up, Sheba. All of you. You don't meet the Galactica's standards, and either you shape up or I arrange your transfers to the civilian shuttle service. Am I understood?”

There was a stunned silence. It was like the other day in Apollo's office, only better, Starbuck thought. The other day he only hinted at how he really feels about them. Too bloody subtle for the borays. This full-guns-blazing stuff is wonderful.

“Am I understood?” Apollo asked again.

Before anyone could speak his communicator sounded. Without taking his eyes from the Pegasus people, he raised it to his mouth.

“Apollo.”

“Commander's compliments, Captain, and would you join him on Alpha immediately?” Tigh's disembodied voice was loud enough for everyone to hear. “General Zhimn's ship will be here in fifteen centons and he'd like you to do the formal introductions.”

“I'll be there, sir.” Apollo closed off the communicator. “General Zhimn's come up to talk to us about the raid. It's on, and the K'far Shon will give us some support. In a centar or so, the commander will call you to a command meeting. The General will be there and if she doesn't see loyal, respectful lieutenants you'll not only be out of the raid, you'll be piloting the shit wagons for the rest of your lives.” Apollo took a deep breath. “Now, I'd better go. Boomer.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You can get Callan to reopen the club.”

“Good. I need a drink,” Starbuck muttered, watching the love of his life give the Pegasus contingent one more glare, before turning away and heading for the door.

They watched him go.

“Geez!” Bojay said, letting out his breath explosively, one arm around Sheba's shaking shoulders. “The bastard!”

“Can it,” Trent said. “You deserved every word. And even if Apollo's too polite to resort to fisticuffs, I'm sure as hell not. One more word and you'll be spitting teeth.”

“Fisticuffs?” Kyle grinned.

“We have a way with words in the infantry,” Trent said with a shrug. He closed his remaining hand closed over the steel fingers of the artificial left hand in what Starbuck could only see as a highly significant way, creating a fist. “It comes from being able to read.”

Bojay did a bit more spluttering.

“You know, he'll be feeling guilty about losing his temper right about now,” Boomer said, keeping his voice down. “We don't want him coming back all apologetic, now, do we?”

“I'll go and keep things on the boil,” Starbuck offered, instantly. He got to his feet and grinned over at Bojay and Drake, both trying to comfort a Sheba who was almost beside herself with temper. “Pegasus was a winged horse, wasn't he? Very appropriate.”

“What the hell are you on about?” Drake growled.

“Nothing. I was just going to suggest that you and Boj try a sugar lump.”

 

 

 

 

“Hey,” Starbuck said gently.

Apollo hadn't made it far out of the OC. He was leaning up against the corridor wall half way to the turbo-lift, aware of, but ignoring, the looks and murmurs of those crew who were still hanging about near the OC waiting to find out what happened. He looked almost blindly at Starbuck.

“I shouldn't have done that,” he said.

“Like hell. It was great, Apollo.” Starbuck put an arm around his shoulders and turned to look down the hall to the gathering warriors. “Hey! You lot! Buzz off into the OC – the captain's reopened it. Unless you really do want to scrub the flightdeck floors?” Then after a centon, “That's shifted them. They were staring at you like you'd grown an extra head or something.”

“Were they?” said Apollo, indifferently. He sighed, only slowly becoming aware of the arm around his shoulders. It felt so good that he decided to let it stay there. “Maybe, it's almost as bad. Sometimes I think I'm not fit for command. I shouldn't have let them get to me like that, Starbuck. It's a piss-poor commander who can't control his temper.”

“You're the best this ship's ever had and they'd have provoked a saint,” Starbuck said comfortingly. “And God knows you aren't a saint, no matter what the religious nuts think. It was long overdue, Apollo. You should have said all this sectars ago. They really deserved it, and don't you regret a word. If you apologise, then there's not one Galactica warrior who'll forgive you for it. We loved it and we're behind you every step of the way. They've spent all this time getting right on our tits and trying to undermine you. Bojay's a great one for questioning everything you do, to make you lose confidence.”

“Sheba's the one to watch,” Apollo said. “I can't believe my father wants me to marry that woman.”

He felt Starbuck stiffen. “Does he?” the lieutenant said.

“Yeah. But I'm not going to.”

They grinned at each other.

“Good,” Starbuck said. “Listen, I know you don't have time now, but -”

“Apollo!” Sheba's exit from the OC was explosive.

“Shit!” Starbuck muttered. “Don't you dare apologise!” He watched her come towards them. “Sheesh. Charge of the Light Brigade!” And at Apollo's puzzled look: “For a horse she has such a nice, high-stepping action, don't you think? She'd look great pulling a cart.”

Apollo choked down a giggle. God bless Starbuck! He can always make me laugh. Then the thought came, unbidden, about Starbuck and fun, and he sighed silently.

She came to a halt in front of them, face red with anger, and her eyes very bright with tears. She looked almost pretty, Apollo thought in a detached kind of way. Once I thought she was very pretty. But not now. God knows, not now.

It took her a centon to be able to get the words out coherently. “Outside of work, I never, ever want to speak to you again, do you hear me?”

Apollo thought about it. “Fine,” he said. The arm around his shoulders tightened.

“Works for me, too,” Starbuck said cheerfully. “Include me in.”

She looked taken aback, as if the calm reception was unexpected. Apollo reflected that he really was too soft hearted and that she'd expected him to crumble and apologise.

“We're finished. You can tell your father that I want nothing more to do with you. He'll have something to say about that!”

“Possibly,” Apollo said. Adama would probably have plenty to say about the way he handled – mishandled – this. He looked at her with acute dislike, but he could see how distressed she really was. Innate kindness made him soften his tone. He ignored Starbuck's exasperated sigh. “Look, Sheba, I'm sorry if that all upset you, but I like hearing what you had to say about my father as much as you like my opinion of Cain. What you said to me in the Cylon raider a few sectars ago - ”

“You can forget that! I didn't bloody mean it!” she snapped, reddening even further.

“Good. Because I can't return it. I intended to tell you that when I got back. It hasn't got anything to do with today. This has just precipitated it.”

She glared at him for a centon. “You conceited bastard! As if I care! I don't care. I don't.”

“That's fine, then,” Apollo said, still feeling kind. It was dissipated almost immediately.

“And I'm sure that your father will be very interested to know that the first person you run to is Starbuck. Very interested!”

“Who else?” Starbuck said. “We've been friends for yahrens.”

“Is that why you never tried to make it work with me?”

Apollo stopped feeling kind. “Make what work? There wasn't anything to work. And there never would be.”

She gasped at his directness, and he had an immediate pang of guilt for being rude. But Starbuck's arm was very comforting, and he wasn't going to let her get to him.

“Bastard!” was all that she could manage, before pushing past them and heading for the turbolifts.

He watched her go. Beside him, he knew that Starbuck was watching him.

“All right, Apollo?”

Apollo sighed. “Yeah. That was a bit cruel of me, though.”

“The hell it was. She deserved it. But if I was you, I'd be careful about letting her get behind you. She's likely to put a laser bolt up your backside, if she gets the chance.”

“At least that's one less talk I have to have.”

“You're not getting out of the one with me,” Starbuck said firmly.

“Later,” Apollo said, his heart sinking. Never, if I have my way. “I've got to go.”

“Yeah. I've noticed that you're bloody good at getting out of discussions you don't want to have. You watch out for the Poisonous Princess, you hear? If she can screw things up with your Dad, she'll do it.”

“I'll watch her. And you be careful yourself. If she finds out you described her as a horse, she'll be after your blood.” Apollo congratulated himself on the light easy tone he achieved.

Starbuck's arm around his shoulders gave him a little shake before falling away. “I'm very well aware of the social solecism of a mere nameless orphan calling a blue-blooded lady like that a horse. My only defence is that I think she's a particularly well bred horse.”

Apollo laughed shakily. “You're impossible. Hey – keep an eye on Lilias, will you? It took a lot for her to do what she did today.”

“I will. Will you be okay?”

“I'll get over it. You're right about them deserving it, but I do feel bad about Sheba. She did feel something, I think.”

“All she felt was how nice it would be to be commander's daughter again and lever a few privileges out of it.”

“Maybe.”

“No ‘maybe' about it. If you had any sense at all you'd stick with those of us who love you for yourself.” Starbuck touched his shoulder and turned away. “See you later, Apollo.”

Apollo stared after him as he walked jauntily back towards the OC, mind in turmoil and pulses racing like a teenager's. What the hell did that mean? What the hell could it mean, coming from Starbuck.

Nothing. It means nothing. But I wish it did. I wish to God it meant something more than having fun. But right at the start you told me it didn't, that it never did, and I can't have more than you're willing to give. And that's not enough for me, Starbuck. Not nearly enough and worse than nothing.

So, yeah, Starbuck. See you. See you and be remote and distant, wall myself off again because that's the only safe thing to be. You almost got through again today, Starbuck, and I can't afford to let that happen.

See you later.

 

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

FAST REWIND

RETROSPECTIVE 4 :DENOUEMENT

Starbuck threw the vid remote across the room with a muttered curse. Bloody IFB! Couldn't come up with decent programming if their lives depended on it. All the idiots had were tapes of cheesy old soap series featuring the improbably rich and beautiful, all leading improbably rich and beautiful lives with improbably perfect teeth and improbably big hair. He was sick of it all.

He glared at the wall hung chronometer in his quarters as if it had mortally offended him. More than a centar late. A whole frakking centar! And obviously there was a communications blackout, or Apollo had lost his voice, or something. He had a good mind to go to the OC and find a game and congenial company, and be damned to bloody captains who had the cheek, the barefaced insolence to stand him up!

Again.

He started walking backwards and forwards again across his tiny living space, unable to sit still, kicking out angrily at nearby pieces of furniture as he passed. After a centar of pacing and kicking, he caught up his jacket and headed for the door and the OC. When Apollo turned up, he'd just find Starbuck gone, that was all. Starbuck wasn't here for Apollo's convenience, after all, to be picked up and dropped without notice.

If Apollo turned up.

That thought annoyed him so much that he kicked the door of his quarters in lieu of being able to slam it so loud the hinges rattled. That was the worst of technology. How the hell could you slam a sliding door and relieve your feelings? Bloody inconsiderate designers!

Starbuck paused outside the OC door, took a deep breath and jammed a fumarello into his almost-perfect teeth, gave the lock of hair that was hanging into his eyes a toss back in best soap hero fashion, and pasted a typically insouciant, patented devil-may-care-Starbuck grin onto his face. The man heading into the warm, smoky, alcohol-tasting atmosphere was the usual Starbuck. The careless, care-for nothing Starbuck.

“Bucko!” Boomer waved from their usual table. “Where've you been? Come and help, for the Lords sake! Even Jolly's beating the shit outa me here.”

“You were always crap at cards.”

One quick, all encompassing glance around assured him that Apollo wasn't there. Not sure whether to be furious or disappointed, Starbuck sauntered over to table and settled on the arm of Boomer's chair. He glanced over the hand that Boomer was holding and shook his head disparagingly.

“How much have you bet?”

“We're going up in one cubit stakes.”

“Big game, then,” was the sarcastic rejoinder. “Boom-boom, one cubit stakes are for games with Boxey. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“Yeah, I heard Athena caught you teaching the kid to gamble. Word is that she chased you half way across the ship waving a blaster at you.”

“Women always chase after me. Athena's just one more victim of my fatal charm.” Starbuck shrugged. “Still, Boxey's education is coming along a treat, even if I've had to switch to betting in mushies to keep his watchful aunt from abusing me.” They laughed at the rolling eyes and the theatrical and protective curving of his hands over his genitals. Starbuck grinned at them, glad of an audience, putting on his best performance. “And unless you're all going to start playing in mushies, you can deal me in and see some real action.”

“Hey, I was ahead here,” Jolly protested. “By all of …oh, four cubits.”

“Just enough to buy me a beer, then,” Starbuck said. “A fair return for the excitement I bring to your life, old friend.”

Jolly dropped his cards onto the table. “And now we'll be betting big stakes, my luck'll change.”

Starbuck pulled a chair forward and squeezed in, gathering the cards up. “The Lady's with me, Jolly. She always is.”

“It's that fatal charm again,” Giles said sourly.

Starbuck laughed, sounding convincing even to himself, and took up the cards, quickly shuffling them in deft hands. “Seen Apollo anywhere?” he asked casually.

“Not since we came off duty,” Boomer watched as those deft hands dealt the cards. “Why?”

“Just wanted a word. It'll keep.” He studied the cards for a micron, wondering at the way the symbols blurred slightly for a micron. He blinked hurriedly to clear his eyes. Where the hell *was* he? “Now then, dear friends…”

“Why is it that when you say “dear friends”, I hear the word “suckers” instead?” Boomer looked up from his cards.

“Experience, Boom-boom. You know those cubits will be over here in my warm embrace before the night's over. Why not just hand them over and save yourself the grief?”

“I might as well get some entertainment out of seeing you win all my money.” Boomer looked sorrowfully from his cards to the pile of cubits in front of him.

“Just kiss the money goodbye and start playing.” Starbuck lit the fumarello, and retired behind the smoke screen. He tossed down a discard, picked up a replacement from the pack and smiled. Waving the fumarello in one hand, he turned the smile onto his friends. “Ten cubit stake, and raise you all ten. The Lady's loving me tonight.”

And maybe she was the only one that did. For a long time Starbuck played his usual erratically brilliant game, winning most hands and losing only a few. He smiled and joked, drank beer and ambrosa and smoked his fumarello, and tried not to think about that old, old saying.

Lucky in cards. Unlucky in love.

No. he didn't want to think about that. And just where in Hades was Apollo?

“Ah, salvation!”

Boomer sounded so relieved that Starbuck looked up from the cards he was studying. Jolly, definitely a poorer man than he had been before Starbuck's arrival had just dealt him a doozy of a hand. Almost a Great Pyramid. All he needed was one base card, and the game was his.

“Huh?”

“The man himself. The Anointed One. The man who's going to save the sorry remnants of my pay packet.”

Starbuck knew then. Apollo. But he didn't turn his head to look, keeping his eyes on his cards.

“The captain has landed,” Boomer added and beckoned.

“So? How's he going to save you, Boomer? He's a worse card player than you are.”

“You said you wanted to talk to him.”

“It'll keep,” Starbuck said, resentful. Three frakkin' centars late! Damn right it'll keep.

“Looks like he wants to talk to you.”

Really? Well it would have to wait until the game was over. Best hand he'd had all night.

“Apollo, you have *no* idea how glad I am to see you!” Boomer said in greeting.

Be grateful someone is, Starbuck thought sourly, looking his wonderful hand over again, concentrating on the cards. Apollo had to be just behind him. He could smell the hint of spicy cologne, the one that Apollo liked. He had to be there. But Starbuck would be damned before he turned to look.

“Starbuck's winning again, is he?” Apollo's voice, almost in Starbuck's ear.

“Take him away and save me,” Boomer begged.

Starbuck felt the touch on his shoulder, tentative.

“I'll do what I can. I need to talk to you, Starbuck.”

“When I've finished this hand,” Starbuck said, hardening his heart, fighting down the impulse to give in immediately and go wherever Apollo wanted, whenever he wanted. He still hadn't so much as turned his head to look.

“For God's sake give him a direct order,” Boomer pleaded. “I'm down to my last cubit.”

“And when did Starbuck ever obey one of my orders? Sorry, Boomer, you'll just have to make the sacrifice. I'll be over at the corner table, Starbuck.”

“Sure.” Casual sounded good, Starbuck decided. Casual sounded very good. Don't let him realise how mad you are. How hurt you are. “You still playing, Boomer?”

“Do I have any choice? I have to say, Apollo, that I'm deeply disappointed in you.”

“Join the queue,” Apollo said, and walked away.

Starbuck risked a glance then, watching Apollo's back as the captain headed off for a quiet table in the corner. Apollo had a half-bottle of ambrosa in his hand. That wasn't exactly a good sign. For a centon he stared, than deliberately forced himself to look back at his cards.

Ten centons later he scooped his winnings into his pocket, and, to loudly expressed delight at his departure – “Friends? You think we're your friends? You know us,” Boomer said when Starbuck protested at this cavalier treatment. “We're the suckers. The *poor* suckers.” – he walked over to join Apollo. He slid into a chair and took the glass of ambrosa that was waiting for him.

“I thought we had a date tonight,” he said, trying not to sound angry or complaining, although God knew he felt he'd every right. They were sitting just in front of one of the speakers and he pitched his voice to carry under the pulsing beat of music, knowing, unless they started yelling at each other, that they wouldn't be overheard.

“I did say I might not make it,” Apollo reminded him, refilling his own glass.

“Again.”

“What?”

“Not make it again. That's twice this secton you've let me down.”

“Boxey comes first,” Apollo said. “I couldn't leave him until Athena came. You know he has to be my first priority.”

“And I don't even make the list. Yeah I know that. You could have called, at least.”

Apollo shrugged. “Would I have got you? It didn't take you long to get down here and find some company.”

Starbuck fairly gaped at the unfairness of that. “Soooo sorry. Was I supposed to just sit there for… what …” He glanced at the chronometer on his wrist. “More than three centars until you bothered to contact me? No way, Apollo. I don't sit around waiting for anyone, not even you.”

“So I see.” Apollo shrugged.

“Besides, Athena came off duty two centars ago. It took you that long to get Boxey over to her place?” Starbuck watched the normally pale cheeks flush. And just what was going down here?

“I was thinking,” Apollo said slowly.

“Shit. With you, that's always a bad idea.” Starbuck pulled the half bottle closer. “Chances are, I'm likely to need this.”

A pause while Apollo stared at the opposite wall and Starbuck waited. Then it came.

“We're not going anywhere, Starbuck.”

The jolt was like an electric shock. For a fleeting micron Starbuck wondered who'd just kicked him in the gut. The hand that held the glass to his mouth trembled slightly, and he had to steady the glass against his lips before he could sip at the fiery liquid. He stared over the rim at Apollo's set face, and he knew, then. It was over. Only two and a half sectars of extreme happiness and delight, and it was over.

“Yeah?” he said when he could be sure his voice was steady. “You have a particular route in mind?”

“I don't know.” Apollo's voice could hardly be heard over the music. “I just don't think we both want the same things. It's going nowhere.”

“I don't remember being asked for directions.” Starbuck put the glass down carefully. He felt sick, like he'd taken poison, great roiling pains in his gut and an almost overwhelming need to bite down hard on the bile in his throat. Shock, some quiet detached part of himself said. You weren't expecting this. “What are you saying, Apollo?”

“You know what I'm saying.”

Starbuck nodded, somehow fighting down the sickness. He felt the sweat bead on his forehead under the thick fringe of blond hair. “I can guess. Can't bring yourself to say the words, huh?”

Apollo said nothing, looked away.

“What's bugging you, Apollo?”

Apollo looked back at him, face still pallid and drawn. He shrugged. “I guess I'm just not… not happy about things, Starbuck. I hate skulking about trying to keep it a secret from everyone, like I'm ashamed of it.”

He wasn't happy? He wasn't happy? But Starbuck had done everything he knew to make Apollo happy. Happier himself than he'd ever been, he'd thought – hoped – that Apollo had been too. He'd failed, then, in everything. Was this what Cassie had felt? Athena? God, but they'd laugh at him over this. The serial dumper, dumped on his arse at last.

Hurt beyond endurance now, Starbuck snapped back. “Aren't you? Ashamed of me, I mean!”

“I just don't want any more hassle from Dad. I'm getting enough about this Iblis thing without getting grief over that as well. And there's Boxey to think about…”

He hadn't denied it, Starbuck thought, miserable and furious all at once. He hadn't denied that he was ashamed of what they had, what they were doing. Apollo's green eyes met Starbuck's for a centon, then slid away.

“Is this what this is all about? Your father?”

Apollo shook his head. “Not entirely. Part of it, but not… look, Starbuck, it's just all too difficult, okay?”

“He'd hate it,” Starbuck muttered. “That's what bothering you? You've always been scared of him, of what he'd say. Is that it?”

He watched as something in Apollo seemed to collapse, the shoulders slumping wearily.

“It's not about him. It's not him I'm scared of. I want… I don't know what I bloody want!”

“I thought we were having fun,” Starbuck said. “I thought we were happy.”

“Fun.” Apollo's voice was dull.

“Yeah. I was having fun, anyway.” Starbuck was kicking resentfully at his chair leg, trying to control the anger and the hurt. “I thought you were, too.”

“We want different things,” Apollo said again. “We should never have done this. It was a mega mistake.”

“You're fucking right it was a mistake! My mistake,” Starbuck's voice was just under the level of the music, hard and relentless as the beat itself, vibrating with anger. “My bloody mistake.”

“Mine. I knew better. I was stupid to let myself think it could work.” Apollo's head was bowed over his drink. “I'm sorry, Starbuck. I just want to go back to where we were.”

“Not much chance of that, Apollo.” The anger was buoying him up, keeping the tone even. He picked up the glass again, suddenly wanting to hurl it at the man across the table. He drained the ambrosa instead, feeling it warm him inside where he was suddenly so cold and hollow. “You bloody coward,” he said, venomous, anger making him shake.

Apollo winced.

“You're bloody pathetic, do you know that? You can't even tell me decently. You have to do it here, knowing I won't make a scene for you. Shit, I was mad to think that you'd ever stop being the commander's son, even in bed!”

“I told you it's not about him. It's about me and you and we don't want the same things, Starbuck!”

Starbuck put the empty glass down, and stood up. “Apollo, you have no fucking idea what it is I want because you've never bothered to ask me! Well, right now, I want to get back to the card game you interrupted, and you – well, I guess you'd better get back to that quiet little life you had before you made that big mistake. Go back to being the commander's dutiful little son.”

He turned back to the table where the rest of Blue were playing yet another of their interminable games of cards. He took a deep breath and fished another fumerello out of the breast pocket of his flight jacket. He glanced back at Apollo's pale face, and he managed the smile, the usual insouciant smile. He slid into the performance like the actor he was. His favourite role: the careless, care-for nothing-and-nobody Starbuck. The Starbuck nothing and nobody could touch. The Starbuck who couldn't be hurt.

“See you around, Captain,” he said, and walked away without looking back.

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