Section Five

 

 

 

 

FORWARD TO REAL TIME. YET AGAIN

 

“If he can run like that, Adama, there's not that much wrong with him,” Tigh observed.

“Thought I was going to be late,” Apollo said breathlessly, coming to a halt beside them at the back of the Alpha Bay.

“They're still a few centons out,” Tigh said. “What kept you?”

“A discussion with some of my pilots.” Apollo's voice was so grim that Adama turned his full attention onto his son for a micron then looked thoughtfully at Tigh.

“Ah,” Adama said. “Pegasus.”

The colonel grimaced slightly. “They aren't assimilating too well,” he observed.

Apollo looked startled.

Adama smiled. “Don't ever make the mistake of thinking that because the colonel and I are on the bridge most of the time, we don't know what's going on. I'd hoped things were settling down, but I know they're difficult.”

“I've never said anything.”

“You don't need to,” Tigh said. “I spent a few centars on the Pegasus, remember.”

Yes, and had come back as resentful as Apollo about the way Cain's personality cult blinded the Pegasus crew to anything other than Cain's point of view. Adama had spent some considerable time listening to the colonel's views on Cain and the Pegasus, his own reaction veering between complete agreement and loyalty to a man he still counted as one of his oldest friends, despite the manifest flaws.

“They're a pain in the astrum,” Apollo muttered. “But nothing I can't handle. I just laid down a few ground rules that they had better follow.”

“They're good pilots,” Adama noted.

“Very good,” Apollo agreed. “But they've no idea about working as part of a team. Cain trained ‘em too well, and they cling too much to the Pegasus.”

“You'd do the same if the positions were reversed. The Galactica's your home. You'd not want to forget it.” Tigh was unexpectedly understanding, and Adama had to hide a smile. Was this the same Colonel Tigh who'd come back from the Pegasus so angry about his treatment there that he'd threatened to blow the ship up himself? And he'd meant it.

“We need them,” was all Adama said, mildly.

“I know.” Apollo sighed and then shrugged. “I can handle them,” he repeated. “I think I just scared them all out of a year's growth. If that doesn't work then I really will start busting heads.” He looked apologetically at his father. “I don't think I made any friends there, though.”

Adama nodded, knowing exactly what Apollo meant. Sheba. “Sorted?” he asked.

“Comprehensively,” Apollo said with a laugh that was more than half-rueful. “Let's say the little talk you wanted me to have with her isn't needed any more.”

Adama glanced at Tigh. He'd already confided some of his disappointment to Tigh, the best friend he had left, but he didn't think that Apollo needed to know that. He appreciated Tigh's tact. The colonel took several steps away from them and seemed to be studying the ceiling with an interest that was really quite surprising given how long he'd served on this ship.

“We'll discuss it later, perhaps.” He was still sorry, still hopeful that something could be recovered from this.

“Later is always good,” Apollo said.

Tigh's communicator sounded. He spoke briefly to Omega, then rejoined them.

“Five centons. They just passed the pickets.”

Adama turned to lock gazes with Apollo. “All right about meeting them again?”

“Why not?”

“They did beat the living daylights out of you,” Tigh pointed out.

Apollo shrugged. “They over-reacted. Zhimn apologised very nicely.”

Adama smiled. The usual black jokes: Apollo wasn't as relaxed about this meeting and the raid as he pretended. But at least the boy wasn't badly hurt. He'd thought his heart would stop when he'd turned on the gold channel and seen how badly beaten Apollo looked, blood everywhere, and his face laid open to the bone. He'd thought the worst, and everything meaningful had stopped for him until Apollo had climbed slowly and painfully out of his Viper a couple of centars earlier. He'd had Apollo down in Life Centre almost before the captain's feet had touched the flight deck. Salik had been acerbic and casual enough to reassure even an anxious father who was blaming himself for ignoring the uneasy feeling he'd had when he'd sent Apollo back to K'far.

“This agreement you came back with isn't as good as we hoped,” he said now. “Do you think they'll keep their side of the bargain?”

“It was the best that Zhimn could manage in the circumstances, sir,” Apollo said, rather stiffly, and Adama belatedly realised that he'd taken it as a criticism. “The K'far Senate was pretty antsy about getting involved at all. They still don't entirely trust us.”

“I meant only that I'd hoped for a full joint raid, but their agreement to give us air-space support will be very helpful. You did well to salvage as much as you did.”

“I don't know if Zhimn would have agreed to joining us on the ground. They're pretty slow moving.” Apollo touched his injured cheek delicately. “Bulky and strong, as I can personally testify, but not fast. They were really concerned that would cost them more casualties than was politically acceptable. We can live with it, sir. It frees up most of the warriors to go planet-side and support Trent's raid on the base itself. And Zhimn's pretty sure that there is a baseship around somewhere close. We'll need their help if we're to take on both a baseship and the ground base.”

“Yes,” Adama agreed, still uncertain. He had been prepared to work with the K'far Shon, but a couple of sectons of cordial relations hadn't prevented them from “over-reacting”, as Apollo generously put it. He wasn't feeling so generous and it seriously affected the level of trust he was prepared to place in the aliens. And not just because it was his son who had been maltreated. ”I've told the Council about the Cylons,” he said.

“Diversionary tactic?” Apollo asked, and Tigh chuckled appreciatively.

“Well, it certainly took their minds of the Danae,” the colonel agreed.

“For the moment. That one will come back to haunt us.” For a centon Adama brooded, then pushed it all away with an impatient gesture. He'd always known it would happen one day, that one of the ships would try and leave the convoy and he'd have to act. “But even the Council will defer censuring me until after we've dealt with the Cylon threat.”

“Censure you?” Apollo looked startled. “But you had to turn back the Danae. We couldn't risk a war with the K'far Shon, not with Cylons around as well.”

“You had no choice, Adama.” Tigh said.

“None at all, as long as the K'far Shon had Apollo.” Adama agreed, seeing his son's frown. This was a damnable situation that five yahrens hadn't resolved. If Starbuck had been around, he'd ask him for the odds on Apollo being undoubtedly grateful for the prompt action that saved him from anything worse, and equally as resentful that the action came because he was the commander's son. Well, there was nothing Adama could do about it. He'd have done whatever was possible to rescue any one of his officers. The fact that it was Apollo who was in danger added an edge that stretched the boundaries of “possible”, that was all.

Apollo suddenly grimaced at him. “I just remembered I convinced them that you'd never deliberately send the Danae back and put me in danger because of me being your son. We can't get away from it, Dad, being related. Sad, huh?”

“Inevitable,” Adama conceded, realising how closely their thoughts must have coincided. But there were more disturbing things to worry about than Council strictures for his high handed way of dealing with the Danae crisis. “I should warn you, though, Apollo, that it diverted the Council nicely but not in a direction that I think you'll welcome. Several of them expressed concern about the thought of you being on K'far when this all happened.”

Apollo stared at him, then grimaced again. “Tomas?”

Adama nodded. “He managed to make himself heard. Although Joel told him that everyone was at risk as long as that Cylon base was there, Tomas was very agitated about you being in danger. He seemed to rank it with sacrilege and heresy. I don't think he'll leave it alone, Apollo.”

“Oh, great! That is all I need. I'd hoped that the idiot had cooled off about that after the last little comment, before I went to K'far the first time.”

“I can understand their concern, son,” Adama said mildly enough, but Apollo evidently wasn't in the mood to listen.

“He's pretty close to Cantor, right? I mean, right up there in the Kobolian hierarchy with you and Solon, one of Cantor's right hand men. I should have known that devious bastard wouldn't take no for an answer.”

“Which devious bastard?” Tigh asked.

“Cantor.” Apollo almost spat the name out.

Adama frowned at the disrespect for the Vicar-General. “What do you mean?”

“I'm seriously thinking of breaking my word about keeping my last conversation with him confidential, that's what I mean. I do not trust that man, Dad. Not one iota.” Apollo took a deep breath, then said in a calmer tone, “And just what did the Council say to Tomas, apart from Joel's decidedly helpful intervention?”

“That they would like to talk with you,” Adama said. He sighed. He knew that Apollo would be furious about what he – and Adama – thought of as unwarranted interference. “Look, son, I know you're mad about what you see as superstitious nonsense, but thousands of people in this fleet don't feel that way…”

“And those idiots in the Chapel are encouraging them to think of me as some sort of saviour!” Apollo's scorn was palpable.

“They obviously don't know you personally,” Tigh murmured, and grinned when both father and son glared at him.

Then Apollo suddenly grinned and relaxed, Adama almost seeing the tension drain out of him. “Well, that's one sure-fire way of beating Cantor that I hadn't considered. I've just got to make sure that I meet personally every single member of the fleet, preferably when I'm in a snit, and that should do a lot to reduce the holy reputation.”

“More seriously, I think we'll have to sit down and work out how to handle this, how to find some sort of balance between you and the significance of what happened to you,” Adama said. “I'm sorry, Apollo, but I think this isn't something we can ignore any longer. It's not going to go away and you're going to have to find a way to deal with it.”

Apollo's frustrated sigh could probably be heard by the entire fleet. “I know,” he said glumly.

“They're here,” Tigh said, gesturing to the forcefield across the entrance to the bay. A big, ungainly shuttlecraft was manoeuvring its way through the open portal.

“There's no time now,” Adama said, putting a hand on Apollo's shoulder. “We'll talk later.”

“It's always later,” Apollo said. “Everything important recently, I've been pushing back to later.” He gave his father a tight little grin. “Except, of course, later never comes. There's where safety lies.”

“Not forever.”

Apollo shrugged. “Long enough.” He turned to look at the K'far Shon craft as it came to a ponderous halt on the flightdeck. “Of course, I have alternatives. I told you once that I thought they wanted to adopt me. I might just see if I can persuade Zhimn to renew the offer.”

“I thought that you said that you didn't like wet climates?” Tigh said, straightening up his uniform, and flicking at dust on his shoulders.

“I could learn to love mildew,” Apollo said and stepped forward to bow to the big K'far Shon who was walking down the shuttle ramp. “Welcome to the Galactica, Ma'am. I'm delighted you could come. May I introduce Commander Adama and Colonel Tigh? Gentlemen, this is General Zhimn of the K'far Shon. Our ally.”

 

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

TIMELINE INTERSECTION 1

To the breadth and depth and height my soul can reach

 

Wriggle.

He was doing it again. Apollo could feel it, even in a darkness so profound that he couldn't actually see Starbuck, though the lieutenant was lying next to him on the bluff overlooking the enemy base. No noise, just that almost boneless wriggle of Starbuck's long body. Apollo suddenly remembered the feel of that body writhing under him, Starbuck moaning with pleasure as they made love, the warmth of skin in contact with skin, the taste of Starbuck's mouth… he forced the memories away fast.

“Starbuck,” he said a slight note of complaint in his voice. “What's wrong with you? Lie still.”

“It's the ground.” Starbuck's voice came out of the darkness beside him. Very close beside him. “It's hard. I've got stones digging in where no stone ought to dig. They're hard too.”

“Most stones are,” Apollo said, dryly.

There was a sigh in the darkness, a recognition of Apollo's lack of sympathy. For a centon Starbuck was still, then he was at it again. Wriggling again, but this time coming in closer, so his body was almost touching Apollo's and the captain could almost feel the heat.

Wriggle.

“Starbuck.” Apollo began again

“And the air stinks,” Starbuck said, and Apollo's mind's eye saw the lieutenant's nose wrinkle in distaste.

Most noses were inexpressive organs, but as usual Starbuck defied convention. He could convey a multitude of emotions with that unassuming appendage, and Apollo really loved the way that Starbuck's nose wrinkled up when he laughed. No, he told himself firmly. He used to love that. Now he hadn't any right to.

“The sulphur. We won't be down here long enough for any permanent effect. Don't you ever listen to my briefings?”

“No,” said Starbuck. “I know you'll tell me again anyway”

Apollo's turn to sigh, but he was too tired to be angry. He'd put those dangerous little pills down the turboflush and, since the General had arrived on Galactica, he'd not been able to take time out for even the bone-deep exhaustion to knock him out. Wired by stims again, he'd spent the last twenty four centars in intensive planning and negotiation meetings and briefing the troops, barely stopping to eat.

It hadn't been all bad. The Pegasus pilots had been subdued and quiet, resentful, but behaving themselves, leaving him hopeful that they could work something out there. Sheba was another thing altogether. She pointedly ignored his very existence, an outcome that he found curiously liberating. Like Starbuck said, it worked for him.

And Starbuck… well, he couldn't work out if that had been good or bad. Starbuck had been there with him the whole time. Not pressing him to talk; even that one time when they'd found themselves alone in the duty office between briefing meetings with the K'far Shon, Starbuck hadn't put any pressure on him. All Starbuck had done was get him some tea and sit silent and supportive on the other side of the desk and watch him drink it. Of course, there was always the danger that someone could walk in on them at any time and Starbuck wouldn't want the discussion to be interrupted, but somehow Apollo didn't think that was why Starbuck had grinned that old insouciant grin at him and let him alone.

With anyone else there, all they'd see was the typical loud and debonair Starbuck, wise-cracking and funny, and you had to look hard to see that under all that, Starbuck was working quietly and hard with Boomer to take some of the almost crippling load off Apollo. Starbuck always did that, hiding his light under a bushel, hiding the quiet competence under the flair.

Apollo had begun to wonder what else Starbuck could hide.

He hadn't come to any conclusion. Between planning the raid, putting off the Council's desire for a meeting, soothing the warriors' natural distrust about working with the people who'd beaten him up, and avoiding private talks with anyone who looked like they might have anything at all meaningful to say, he'd had only the odd centar snatched here and there to lie in the dark of his room, stare at the ceiling above him and think about Starbuck.

But now, here on this dark, sulphur-smelling planet, he wondered if his days of avoidance were over. There was no-one else within a couple of hundred metres to hear, nowhere to hide. He wondered if Starbuck was still grinning.

Wriggle.

Starbuck was so close that he and Apollo were almost one body lying there in the darkness watching the Cylon base at the bottom of the hill through the night glasses built into their battle helmets.

“Apollo?”

Apollo stiffened slightly. Had it been a mistake, not assigning Starbuck to someone else? But the lieutenant had been his wingman for so long, he couldn't imagine going into battle with someone else to watch his back. It would be like going into battle without something utterly necessary to him, like his right arm. Or his heart.

“What?” he asked guardedly.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Mmnn.” Non-committal. Hiding the apprehension, the fear that he'd betray himself somehow.

“We're about to go into that base and one or other of us might not come out. Just in case, I've got to know. Time for the talk, Apollo. I want to know. Why did you do it?”

For a moment, Apollo's sleep-starved brain ticked over on automatic. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do what?

“Why did you end it?”

Apollo sighed and pulled off his helmet. He buried his face in his hands in something very near despair, his worst fear realised. It just wasn't fair. He had the raid to get through, the almost certain firefight to follow, the Fleet to protect, the Council's increasing tendency to treat him as some sort of religious icon to worry about, the Vicar-General's ambitions to try and spike… and it just wasn't fair of Starbuck to make demands on him. But then, Starbuck had had the right, once.

“Apollo?”

What was it his father had said about later not being safe forever?

“I suppose I got scared,” Apollo said at last, feeling empty and drained of emotion. He was just too tired to resist, to protect himself any more. “I was in so deep, and I got scared. You'd had so many before me and I'd seen you with them a thousand times. Nothing ever lasted. You weren't taking it seriously. Oh, it was a lot of fun and the sex was amazing, but you didn't love me. You said it yourself when you kissed me for the first time, up in the Dome. Cassie had wanted too much, you said, when all you ever wanted was to have fun. All you ever wanted, you said. It's not enough for me, Starbuck. Not nearly enough. It was only a matter of time before you moved on, and I thought that if I didn't do something fast, it would kill me when you dumped me for the next one. I thought if I controlled it, if I ended it before I drowned, I'd handle it better.”

There. All said, all out in the open. All his fear and folly. His cowardice. Nothing big and planet-shattering, just his fear of being hurt and the overpowering need to have something unattainable, to have Starbuck love him. Not just want him, lust after him, desire him, but love him.

Starbuck was silent for a centon. “There hasn't been a next one,” he pointed out. He sounded as carefully emotion free as Apollo had.

“No,” said Apollo, surprised, as if he'd only just realised. He'd seen Starbuck with Boomer and Jolly and the others, but no one person. No next one. “No, there hasn't.”

“That's because I didn't want a next one.” Another silent centon, then Starbuck asked abruptly, “Did it work?”

“What?”

“Controlling it, and dumping me first. Did it work?”

“No,” Apollo said. “I felt - feel - just as bad. And I lost out twice over. I lost my best friend as well as the person I loved. No, it didn't work.”

He'd said it. He'd said that he loved Starbuck. And although he'd carefully put it into the past tense, that part at least was a lie. He still loved Starbuck, so much that his bones ached with it. He wondered if the confession gratified Starbuck, if that was the revenge Starbuck was looking for.

“Good,” Starbuck said, and Apollo winced at the satisfaction in Starbuck's tone. “I'm glad you're unhappy about it, Apollo, because I sure as hell am. I'm unhappy I got dumped and I'm really unhappy you didn't talk to me about it first. Maybe I could have convinced you I didn't want a next one. That you were what I wanted.”

Apollo said nothing, but rolled over onto his back and looked up into the black sky. No stars, just thick, lowering black clouds so dense that the very air seemed dark. His head was aching savagely, a combination of anxiety, lack of sleep and the sulphur in the atmosphere. He wondered if Starbuck was happier now, now that he knew that Apollo was hurting.

“For a time,” he said at last. “Maybe I was.”

“Maybe you are,” Starbuck corrected him, tone hard now, angry. “I can't believe you, Apollo! Talk about arrogant bastards! You had to make all the decisions, didn't you? Did it never cross your mind to ask me what I felt and what I wanted?”

“You'd already told me.”

“You should have asked me what I want,” Starbuck persisted.

“Ask you what? Ask you to love me?” Apollo shot back. “You made it plain that wasn't on the cards, the day we got together. Have fun, you said. A shame about Cole, but at least you had fun, you said. That's what really matters, you said. Well I did have fun, Starbuck, but I want more than that. You can't give me more. End of story.”

Another silence.

“So if I've got it right, you dumped me because you got scared?”

“Yeah. You were right about me being a coward.”

“But not because you're scared of what your Dad'll say, just because you thought you wanted more than I did. You thought it wasn't going anywhere.” Starbuck sounded considering, not angry.

“Not where I wanted it to go, no,” Apollo said. He felt exhausted, as if he'd just run a dozen miles in an oxygen-poor atmosphere. It would be so good to sleep. For Starbuck to love him into sleep. So good.

“And yet you never once thought to ask me for some directions,” Starbuck wondered.

“To where?”

Starbuck was suddenly on top of him, rolling onto him to hold him down. Despite his fatigue, despite pre-battle nerves, Apollo's body responded to that familiar weight, and he caught his breath.

“How about here, where I belong?”

“Do you, Starbuck?” Apollo raised his arms to hold him, then remembered abruptly and let them fall. He didn't try to shift Starbuck though. It felt pretty good, where he was.

“I think so. Don't you?”

“I wish.” Apollo realised with a slight sense of shock that despite his resolutions not to do it, he'd got his arms around Starbuck, to hold him. He couldn't remember doing it. In fact, he could distinctly remember not doing it. But Starbuck felt very good there. Starbuck's hands were tracing the line of Apollo's mouth and jaw, caressing, making Apollo shiver with anticipation. He raised a hand to touch Starbuck's face. Starbuck had shed his helmet too, and Apollo tangled his fingers in the thick hair.

“Idiot,” Starbuck said, and his mouth came down hard on Apollo's, forcing it open.

Apollo sighed gently and gave himself up to the kiss, meeting Starbuck's tongue hungrily, tasting him again, taking the tongue penetrating his mouth as a hot foretaste of that other penetration he longed for. He muttered something incoherent when Starbuck eventually raised his head, complaining at the loss.

“Where to, Apollo? Where do you want us to go with this?”

“Everywhere.” Apollo lifted his hips slightly, pressing his increasingly urgent groin into Starbuck's. His focus on the operation, on the battle to come was gone. All he wanted was Starbuck inside him, pounding him, every little pain and ecstasy wiping out the last few miserable sectons.

“And always? Is that what you want?”

“But not what you want,” Apollo said, sadly.

“How do you know? You never asked me. Ask me now.”

Was this his punishment? To be brought to this, all the barriers fallen like dust because of one kiss, so that Starbuck could reject him, laugh at him, tell him he was too serious and he wasn't fun any more?

“Ask me.”

Apollo closed his eyes against the stinging. Just the sulphur, he told himself. He tightened his hold on Starbuck.

“Apollo.”

“All right. What do you want, Starbuck?”

“At last! Are you finally consulting me about directions?”

He nodded, then realised that Starbuck wouldn't be able to see him. “Yes.”

“Ask me again.”

Apollo swallowed hard. He hadn't expected Starbuck to be so cruel. “What do you want, Starbuck?” He could barely get the words out.

“You, you thrice damned idiot. I want you. You're the one I want.”

“Am I?” Apollo asked, wistful, wanting it to be true, wanting it so badly that he ached.

“I should beat you black and blue,” Starbuck said, and there was a funny note in his voice as if he wasn't sure to laugh or cry. “And if the fish hadn't got there first, I might just have done it.”

Apollo opened his mouth to ask what the hell was happening, when Starbuck's mouth came down on his and everything faded away again.

“I want you, oh Captain, my Captain,” Starbuck said, against his lips. “I want you now.”

Strong hands were tugging at his belt, opening his uniform and sliding inside. This was madness. They were about to attack… they were only a few hundred metres from a couple of thousand Cylons, for frack's sake! He had to do something. Do something sensible and captain-like and Apollonian… he lifted his hips again, letting Starbuck pull his pants down, and wriggled until they got to his ankles.

He kicked off one of his boots to get free of his pants as much as possible. Starbuck's fingers were pressing against his lips now, and he opened his mouth obediently, sucking hard on them, to wet them. He moaned softly as the wet fingers circled his opening, then one pushed inside him, seeking out the little gland. His body jerked convulsively as Starbuck found his prostrate, and finger-fucked him vigorously. And then there were two fingers, and three, widening him and stretching him.

“We'll have to make it quick,” Starbuck said, voice soft. “Turn over.”

“No. Face to face.”

“It'll hurt you more.” Doubt in the voice coming out of the blackness.

All he could see of the face he loved was a blacker shape. He raised a hand to trace the line of Starbuck's mouth. “But you can kiss me, this way,” he said simply, asking.

Starbuck laughed. “You impossible romantic,” he said, and did it, his mouth hot on Apollo's.

His legs were up over Starbuck's shoulders now, and there was something a lot bigger than fingers pressing up against him, breaching him, forcing its way up inside him. Oh God, it hurt. It hurt. Not enough lube in spit, just not enough. His breath caught in his throat.

Starbuck stopped, breathing heavily. “Apollo?”

“Don't stop,” he managed, and moaned as Starbuck resumed pushing. He forced himself to relax, to open up, to embrace the pain gladly. Gentle as Starbuck was, it hurt, and it seemed forever until he felt the roughness of pubic hair brushing the sensitive, sensitised opening and the heavy weight of Starbuck's balls pressed up against him. He felt so full that he'd never be able to move.

“All right?”

“I love you,” Apollo said, for the first time.

A micron of stillness, then Starbuck was kissing him and moving in him, slowly at first, soothing away the pain with kisses and slow thrusts up against the magic little spot inside him. It felt like fire had replaced his blood, and all of it concentrated on that little place.

“Faster,” he said, against Starbuck's mouth, terrified that Trent would call him. Any centon now, Trent would call him and tell him they were ready.

Starbuck grunted and settled in to a steady pounding, still kissing him frantically, every thrust hitting his prostate, flashing more fire through him. The pain rose until he thought he'd have to cry out with it. Starbuck kept going, pounding him relentlessly, kissing him relentlessly, ravaging his mouth, smothering the gasps of pain. Then the familiar miracle happened. The pain was gone in a sudden flash of fire. It was good, it felt so good, and Apollo was pushing his hips upwards to meet every stroke, almost screaming with it, wanting Starbuck in harder and deeper and faster. Somehow Starbuck increased the pace, hammering away at him powerfully; his breath, Starbuck's breath, coming in gasps. It wouldn't take long. It wouldn't be long.

Pleasure was building in him, as relentless as Starbuck, an intense, all consuming heat under his skin, spreading from his groin. He felt like he was melting, the pressure building in his balls to an unbearable sweetness. He came with a deep-voiced groan, the sound torn out of his chest. Sobbing for breath, he gasped as Starbuck's hands tightened around him. Starbuck thrust in hard, once, twice, a third time, and the third time he stayed in as far as he could get, pushing hard as he flooded Apollo with liquid heat, dropping his head onto Apollo's chest and muffling his cries in the captain's tunic.

“Love you,” Apollo said again, breathless, stroking the blond hair spread across his chest. “I'm so sorry, Starbuck. I'm so sorry. Stay with me, Starbuck.”

Starbuck pulled him into a rough embrace. “Idiot,” he said softly. “I'm not going anyplace. You don't get rid of me that easily.”

Not the words Apollo wanted to hear, but maybe all he'd get. All he deserved. More than he deserved. He held Starbuck close, feeling their hearts slow to normal, scattering little kisses onto the golden hair. Then the communicator on his wrist chimed into the thick dark air.

“We're at the perimeter, Captain,” Trent cut in. “Waiting for you to join us”

Apollo reluctantly freed his arm. “Five centons.”

“Wilco.”

Starbuck sighed and moved, his softening cock slipping out of Apollo's body. “It's all in the timing,” he said wryly. “Remind me to speak to Trent about his talent for preventing post-coital confessions.”

Apollo pulled on his pants hurriedly. “Where's my boot?” he hissed, brought back to the mission with a shock that was like a physical blow, incredulous that he'd been able to forget it.

“Here.” Starbuck pressed it into his hand. “I guess the moment's past.”

“For what?” Apollo was hunting for his helmet now.

“Confessions. I'll save it until later.” Starbuck caught hold of him and kissed him quickly, savagely. “When we get back we're going to have that talk, Apollo, about where we're taking this, now we're back with something to take somewhere.”

“All right,” Apollo said, kissing Starbuck back quickly and half distractedly.

“I never thought that making love with me could be such a short lived ecstasy,” Starbuck said, laughing quietly.

It stopped Apollo for a centon. Making love, Starbuck had said. Not sex. Making love.

“Sorry, but…”

“I know. Idiot.” The way Starbuck said it sounded like a caress. “We'd better get moving. Trent was sounding a bit tense, and I'll bet he hasn't our method of relieving battle nerves.”

 

 

 

 

Starbuck peered over the rock to watch the Cylon centurions pouring in from all directions, their metallic casing dulled by the light of a cold grey dawn. It couldn't be said that this planet was any more attractive in daytime, or that Cylons dotted about the landscape improved it any, but Starbuck thought of that ridge behind them where he'd loved Apollo, and found he loved the planet too. He loved everything about it, from its grey treeless wilderness to its smelly atmosphere, but second in his affections after the bit of scuffed ground behind him where he'd got his Apollo back, came this very convenient rock.

“This is a nice rock,” he said brightly. “Very useful.”

“Uh-huh,” Apollo said, wriggling round said rock to check on Trent's progress.

“So big and substantial, and sort of comforting to hide behind.”

“Uh-huh,” said his lover again.

Starbuck smiled at him, resisting the temptation to touch him. One touch and he didn't think he'd be able to stop, and that wasn't too bright an idea with old Boom-boom only inches away on Apollo's other side and half the Cylon army heading in their general direction.

“You know this idea you have for making us all the same kind of Warrior and combining the two services, making us do ground operations like this with Trent's people?”

“Uh huh,“ Apollo said yet again, obviously concentrating on whatever was in the sights of his laser rifle. He fired once and took out a Cylon, the laser bolt blowing out its chest circuitry.

“Nice shot,” Boomer said quietly.

“Well, the idea stinks, Apollo,” said Starbuck, as if there'd been no interruption. “I want a nice safe Viper. Right this centon and no excuses.”

“I've got one waiting for you at the landing field,” Apollo promised, wriggling back behind the safety of the rock.

“That's nice. But it's there, and I'm here.” Starbuck popped up and pulled off a shot, before dropping back into cover. “With the tinheads.”

“Yeah,” Boomer muttered. “Who invited them?”

“You'll have to have words with Trent,” Apollo said. “I told him to keep his voice down and not wake the baby.”

“Oh I will. When he gets out of the base.”

Starbuck popped up again to fire on a Centurion. A number of darker shapes were running in their direction, taking the Cylons from behind. “He's on his way.”

“Good. I want to get topside and deal with those raiders.” Apollo glanced over the rock again.

“Let's hope the K'far Shon and Bojay are doing that for us,” Starbuck muttered. It had been the most frustrating thing in the universe, hiding behind the planet's moon and having to let the raiders go past, not daring to attack and so alert the base.

“Amen.” Apollo flicked on the command channel in his helmet. “All sections lay down covering fire. Help them home, people.”

An instant later, the infantry lieutenant skidded to a halt beside them and then ducked down behind their friendly little rock. “There you are!”

“All clear?” Apollo asked.

“I was the last out. Everyone's clear. I lost Mak though.” Trent glanced at the chronometer on his wrist. “The charges will blow in two centons. You'd better get your heads down.”

Apollo used the command channel again and passed on the order. He glanced up as a K'far Shon fighter screamed overhead, a dark silhouette against the grey sky, to strafe the Cylon columns milling about on the plain in front of the base.

“Oh good,” he said “Air support.”

“That's where I should be,” Starbuck said mournfully. “I'm not cut out for ground activities. I'm too ethereal for this. Of course, our know-all captain doesn't agree.”

“I know what you mean,” Trent said, not looking up from his watch. As he tilted his arm Starbuck caught a glimpse of the numerals in the brightening light. “Like when he had me starting Viper training? I get hellishly airsick, but did he care?”

“There's not a lot of air up there, Trent,” Apollo said. “Think of a Viper as a drop capsule with a window and a stunning view.”

“What I like about a drop capsule is the lack of a view. I don't have to worry about which way is up. One centon, Boss.”

Apollo remained patient “In space whichever way you're up, is up.”

“Don't worry, Trent,” Boomer said. “We'll fit your Viper with sick bags. Of course, you'll get to clean it out yourself.”

“Thanks,” Trent sighed, evidently unconvinced. “Thirty microns.”

Apollo passed the warning on, speaking calmly and quietly. Wondering if the captain was as scared as he was, Starbuck listened to him, both beside him and in his helmet. It was nice getting Apollo in stereo and remembering that a centar ago that quiet voice had been incoherent with need, reduced to the animal growl that he loved to provoke, knowing that he was the only one who could make Apollo do that. Starbuck felt so warm that he would bet on his ears glowing. A pity that Trent interrupted when he did…

“You have all the joys of a drop capsule to come, Starbuck,” Trent said. “Ten…”

“I suppose if I said I got claustrophobic without a view, I'd be on report?” Starbuck said. The thought of being encased into a steel coffin and dropped out of a spaceship to do a drop, to fall down through the atmosphere to carry out ground raids, frankly terrified him. He'd never admit it, taking refuge in the ages-old rivalry between the two forces that Apollo was slowly and carefully melding into one, but he had a lot of time for Trent, who'd done as many drops as Starbuck had flown missions.

“… five, four, three, two… “

Trent's voice was drowned in the dull, flat booming noise that came from deep underground. For a micron there was a complete and utter silence, something more profound than the mere absence of sound, then the entire world erupted with a gargantuan screaming roar. The ground shuddered and heaved underneath them.

Starbuck threw himself forward, reaching blindly for Apollo and, clinging together, they rode out the blast wave. It was like an earthquake, the ground heaving like the flanks of some gigantic animal, rippling like a daggit's skin might ripple to dislodge a persistent flea. Then shrapnel thundered down on them. Starbuck clutched Apollo close, hearing his wild breathing, feeling the little stabs of pain as he was hit with sharp-edged pieces of stone and metal. He squeezed his eyes tight, trying to find the words to tell Apollo, to tell him now, before it was too late. But his voice failed him and bright colours flashed behind his eyelids. He pressed his face to Apollo's shoulder. Apollo smelled of spice and over it all, of sex and passion. Apollo gave him something to cling to.

Everything was noise and thunder, confusion and pain. Then just as suddenly everything stopped, snapping back into an almost painful clarity. A few more pebbles bounced down beside him, then nothing.

Silence.

Starbuck raised his head and opened his eyes. He could just make out Apollo's white face a few inches from his own.

“Fucking hell!” said the captain, reverently. “Are you all right?”

As an interim measure, while he thought about it and because he didn't quite trust his voice, Starbuck nodded.

“Maybe I should have used a little less explosive,” Trent said, scratching at his ear. It had been nicked by a piece of shrapnel, and blood was pouring down his neck in what Starbuck, if it had been his ear and his neck, would have thought of as quite extravagant and unnecessary amounts.

Starbuck shrugged his shoulders experimentally, dislodging the little stones and the shrapnel. The thick flight jacket had absorbed most of the impact. “You okay?”

“Fine.” Apollo touched the command circuit again. “All sections report in, and heads up, everyone! There were a lot of centurions outside the base. They could still be active.”

“I think most of them got caught in the blast.” Boomer knelt upright, looking back towards the base. “There's nothing moving out there.”

“Good. Lieutenant Trent.”

“Sir?”

“I think it falls to you to report your success to the Galactica.” Apollo sat up, dislodging a reluctant Starbuck who would happily have held him all day. “Once you've done that, I need to talk to the commander or Colonel Tigh.”

“Yes sir,” Trent grinned at him, teeth white against the dirty, dust-streaked face. He raised his voice. “Diz!”

His top sergeant was there in an instant, the powerful communicator in a backpack. She wriggled free of it, and powered it up.

“All quiet,” Boomer said, and turned around to sit with his back against the rock. “That was a quite a blast,” he said admiringly to Trent, who looked modest.

Starbuck grinned at Boomer happily. Boomer raised an eyebrow and jerked his head slightly in Apollo's direction. At Starbuck's happy nod, the dark lieutenant's face took on an expression that Starbuck vaguely connected with silent prayer. Thankfulness, probably, given the slow wink Boomer gave him.

“I'm through, sir,” the sergeant said. “Commander on Gold one.”

Trent reported in quickly, glowed visibly at Adama's words of praise and handed the mike over to Apollo. Starbuck joined Boomer, staring back over the deep crater where the base had been, steam and vapour curling up out of the rubble. Nope. Trent was wrong. So far as he could see, Trent had used exactly the right amount of explosive.

“The recovery boat's on its way in,” Adama said without preamble. “It should be with you in centons. We need the rest of your Vipers in the air, Apollo. That group of thirty Cylon raiders you reported is engaging one K'far Shon squadron on the edge of the Fleet and Lieutenant Bojay has just called in from the main rendezvous point. Zhimn's forwards scouts reported a baseship heading this way, and we've just picked it up on sensors. ETA, one centar.”

Apollo looked down at his watch. “We'll be airborne in less than fifteen centons, sir. I'll get the boat in, then we can go out to join the others and the main K'far Shon fleet and meet the baseship. I'd like to keep it well away from the fleet.”

“Me too. Good. I'll speak to Zhimn.” A pause. “Carry on, Captain. Well done.”

“Yes, sir.” Apollo nodded thanks to the sergeant, and grinned. “You heard the man. Let's go.”

Starbuck heard the recall signal inside his helmet, but he was already moving, jog-trotting beside Apollo back up the slope and heading back for the area where they'd left their Vipers after sneaking in under cover of the planet's moon and then dipping in under the Cylon sensors. When they got to the top of the ridge he glanced to his left. Somewhere over there. He'd loved Apollo somewhere over there. Something to be thankful for, for the rest of his life.

Not that he was letting Apollo off easily, of course. He could be very creative when he felt that he was owed, and Apollo definitely owed him. He caught Apollo's glance as they ran and Apollo smiled at him, and Starbuck's warm feeling took on a volcano's heat. Yeah. Bloody creative. He was looking forward to it.

Twelve centons later he was back where he felt he belonged, in the familiar confines of his Viper. There was, of course, a fly in the ointment: takeoffs from the ground were invariably a great deal more uncomfortable than being shot out of launch tube. Gravity, thought Starbuck as he was pressed back into his seat, was a highly over-rated phenomenon.

“Close up around the boat,” Apollo ordered. “We don't want to lose our heroes at this late stage.”

Starbuck took his Viper over in a lazy dive, getting into position off Apollo's right wing, right at the front of the pack of Vipers. Behind him the Vipers closed around the lightly armed shuttle that had come to take Trent and his infantry off the planet. Only Blue and Red squadrons were there, the core of the original Galactica strike wing, the ones Starbuck knew the best and trusted the most. Apollo's assessment too, he thought, although the captain would probably never admit as much, even to Starbuck. It certainly hadn't been guilt that had had Apollo sending the other squadrons off under Bojay's command to join the K'far Shon, however much it had gratified the Pegasus lieutenant. Starbuck reckoned that the captain was just very clear about who he wanted with him, who he could rely on. The Pegasus people had been more co-operative since Apollo had dropped on them hard, but they weren't Galacticans yet.

Another fifteen centons, then Apollo's voice again in the cockpit. “Listen up, people. Change of plan. The K'far Shon report that two, repeat two, baseships are moving into this quadrant. Red squad two, escort the boat in. The rest of you with me, turbos in.”

Starbuck eased over into the slight change of course, kicking in the turbos, effortlessly keeping up with Apollo. No apprehension yet, just a heightening of his senses, a little excitement.

“There they are,” Apollo said at last.

The sky ahead was full of ships. A cloud of Vipers and the larger K'far Shon fighters, surrounding and protecting three huge, slow moving K'far Shon gunships. They were already drawn up in battle array. Beyond them, two baseships spewed out raiders by the hundred.

“Shit!” Jolly said, voice edged with fear. “I haven't seen that many since Cimtar!”

“We'll take them,” Apollo said, calmly. “Remember the plan. We take care of the raiders and let the K'far Shon gunships take out the baseships. Follow me. We're veering off to come in on the raiders' right flank.”

“Yeah, Jolly,” Starbuck said, encouragingly, his Viper only a few wingspans from Apollo's, following like a shadow. “Try thinking of it as a target-rich environment.”

“Thanks, Bucko.” Jolly sounded a little calmer and infinitely more sarcastic. “Luck.”

“The lady's always with me.” Starbuck cut to the private channel. “Take care, Apollo.”

“You too, Starbuck.”

It was all they had time for. Within microns Apollo had cut back to the command channel. “Close up, everyone. They haven't seen us yet, and are they going to be surprised!”

 

 

 

 

As ever after a major battle, the Alpha bay looked completely chaotic.

It wasn't, but there were so many ships and so many running people, so much shouting, it looked like a panic, a rout. But every person there was running and shouting to some purpose, each move choreographed and practised. Vipers were landing every few centons, in waves of four of five. As each rolled to a stop, the ground crew swarmed all over it, getting the pilot clear and the Viper itself up into the lifting racks. After a normal patrol, the ground crew would do a comprehensive check of the Viper before lifting it up into the one of the overhead gantries and taking it through to one the cavernous hangars on each side of the landing bay, where the Vipers were stored in racks suspended from a ceiling so far above the deck that it was lost in shadow. Normally, one of them would walk the Viper into the hangar, doing a visual check on the underside as they went.

Not today. Today the ships came in, the pilots were hustled out, and the crews had the fighter into the overhead gantry within centons. No-one bothered with anything but the most cursory checks, to weed out those Vipers with obvious damage and send them into the starboard hangar for later assessment and maintenance. And almost before the Vipers were hoisted up onto the overhead rails and transported out of the landing bay, the next batch was coming in.

The Alpha Deckmaster was in the midst of all this apparent chaos, barking orders into a headset. She barely acknowledged Boomer as he darted through the teams of techs and headed for the relative quiet and peace of the command station at the back of the bay.

Apollo had landed in the same batch of Vipers as Boomer. He must have been first out of the Vipers and was already at the command station, beside the main computer terminals, talking to Colonel Tigh. Boomer only glanced at the screen with the colonel on it. He was more interested in the one beside it, the one that had the direct link to the Telemetry desk on the bridge. It was scrolling up the Vipers that Telemetry hadn't yet been able to account for, listing Viper number and pilots names. Behind him he heard someone screaming for the paramedics, and he turned to watch. A pilot was being lifted out of her beat-up Viper by two ground crew, body limp and boneless-looking. Her head, still in the heavy helmet, lolled helplessly. It was a miracle that she'd been able to land at all.

“I don't know how long he'll be with the Council, Apollo. They're taking leave of the K'far Shon. The commander wants to put as much space between us and this area as he can, before the Cylons come to see what happened to their base. The whole Fleet's starting to move.”

“Okay. I've got more than enough to do here. Catch up with you, later, sir.” Apollo broke the connexion and turned to Boomer. He nodded towards the damaged Viper the ground crew were lifting away. “Who was it?”

“Bree, I think. The medics took her straight down. That was one hell of a fight!”

“Yeah,” Apollo said. He was looking at the screen. “We lost a few.”

Boomer nodded. He knew it. Even with the K'far Shon, it had been a hard and devastating day. The screen showed thirteen confirmed dead. He knew, too, that Apollo would agonise about their losses for days. ”You okay?”

“Fine, I think. Tired.”

“It was one hell of a day.”

Apollo turned away from the screen. “Seen Starbuck?”

Boomer almost winced at this travesty of a casual enquiry. “Not since it started. You?”

There was a flicker of anxiety in Apollo's eyes. “We got separated about forty centons ago, just before the K'far Shon got the second baseship, when that wave of raiders hit us. I think there was something wrong with his communicator. I couldn't raise him later.”

Boomer's eyebrow rose. Starbuck normally stuck to Apollo like glue. “He'll be along,” he said, comfortingly.

“Sure.” Apollo turned back to the scrolling list.

Fourteen confirmed dead, and seven still missing in action.

Boomer said nothing, standing with him as they waited, watching the screen. He was beginning to feel sick. Starbuck's name and Viper number moved slowly up the screen in letters as green as Apollo's eyes. Jolly came to join Boomer, Giles behind him.

“Greenbean?” Boomer asked quietly, after a few centons.

“Took a hit,” Jolly told him. “It's not serious, but the medics took him down to Life Centre.”

Boomer nodded. Others were there now, to watch the screen, Gillian and Kyle among them The news was spreading

Fourteen confirmed dead, two returned, one located and returning, four missing in action.

“Captain Apollo?”

“Yes?” Apollo turned eagerly. “Oh. What do you want, Lieutenant?”

Boomer watched with faint suspicion as Security Lieutenant Elisa and two black-dressed Council security men saluted. Security were hardly amongst the most popular crewmembers, scorned by the warriors for opting for an easy life. If the expressions of the rest of the pilots were anything to go by, his views were shared by everyone else.

“Mr Reese's compliments, sir, but we're here on Council orders…”

Apollo had already turned back. “Later,” he said dismissively.

Elisa was left with her mouth hanging open, cut off in mid-word. She made as if to catch Apollo's arm, and Boomer's hand shot out to stop her. Boomer shook his head, then nodded significantly towards the screen. He wasn't sure if the Lieutenant would catch the hint – she wasn't a warrior, after all - but Elisa nodded, shrugged and stood back. Boomer watched her for a micron then turned his attention back to the screen.

Fifteen confirmed dead, one more located and returning, two missing in action.

“Who's on Beta deck?” Apollo asked abruptly.

“Bojay's counting ‘em in.”

“He's seen nothing?”

“I'll check.”

Fifteen confirmed dead, one returned, two missing in action.

“Nothing,” Boomer said.

Apollo's hand suddenly closed on his arm, so tight that Boomer winced with the pain.

Sixteen confirmed dead, one missing in action.

Sixteen confirmed dead, one missing in action.

Sixteen confirmed dead, one missing in action.

One missing in action.

“Shit,” a pilot said from the small crowd behind them. “Not Starbuck.”

Missing in action. Not devil-may-care, indestructible, lucky Starbuck.

“Oh Lords,” someone else said, half whispering agreement.

If Starbuck was missing, if they had got Starbuck, then none of them were safe. Not Starbuck. It couldn't be. Any micron now he'd land his Viper, and swagger up to them, sticking a fumerello between his teeth and asking who'd seen the cards last. Not Starbuck.

Sixteen confirmed dead, one missing in action.

The hand on Boomer's arm slackened its hold. Apollo was shockingly pale, the dark purple bruises in stark contrast to the bloodless skin. He swallowed hard, the green eyes glazing, and Boomer got an arm around him, scared that the captain might just go down.

“Steady,” he murmured. He saw Jolly close up on the other side of Apollo, helping to hold him.

Sixteen confirmed dead, one missing in action.

Missing didn't necessarily mean dead. Not with Starbuck. Not Starbuck.

Sixteen confirmed dead, one missing in action.

For a micron, Apollo was almost a dead weight leaning on Boomer, then he drew a shaky breath and straightened up.

“I'm going out to get him,” Apollo said, and Boomer was momentarily astonished at the calmness. He turned in Boomer's grip, looking across the deck for the person he wanted. “Ford!”

He pulled free. Boomer caught at him again. “Apollo…”

“I'm going out to get him,” Apollo repeated, and his voice went up a notch. “Ford!” He started across the deck, pushing through the group of pilots as if he didn't see them.. “Ford! Get my ship ready!”

“Captain!” Elisa put out a hand, palm flat and hard against Apollo's chest, stopping him. “Sorry, sir, but my orders are to prevent you from leaving the ship under any circumstances.”

“Get out of the way,” Apollo said. He tried to push past.

“I'm sorry, sir. But I can't let you leave.” Elisa looked regretful, but signalled her two security men. “It's Council orders, sir.”

“I don't give a …” Apollo looked over Elisa' shoulder. “Ford!”

“I'm on it,” Ford yelled back, hustling the ground crew around a parked Viper.

“No, sir. You aren't going anywhere.” Elisa was quietly firm.

“Get out of the way,” Apollo said again.

Elisa shook her head and stood firm. “No, sir.”

“You're outnumbered,” Boomer said, grimly. “We're going to look for Starbuck and you're not stopping us. No-one's stopping us.”

Elisa put a hand on the laser at her belt. “I have my orders, Lieutenant.”

“Screw your fucking orders.” Jolly, usual friendly expression grim and hard, came to stand shoulder to shoulder with Boomer.

“Now get out of our way,” Kyle said, moving up.

Elisa glanced at her two security men and nodded. “Grab the captain,” she said tersely, and pulled the laser. “Stand back!”

“Hey!” Apollo seemed only to realise who was trying to stop him when the two security men bulled straight in and caught him by each arm. He was dragged to one side, protesting incoherently.

The pilots surged forward, enraged, defiant, shouting. Out of the corner of his eye, Boomer could see Ford at the other side of the deck, yelling and racing forward, abandoning the Viper to reach Apollo. The other ground crewmen were close behind Ford, one of them waving a wrench. For an instant he wondered what they were doing. He'd forgotten that Apollo's ground crew were as loyal as any pilot. Elisa, looking scared rigid, raised the laser, ready to fire. Pushed forward by the people behind, half-reluctant, half-spoiling for a fight, Boomer realised they were only a micron away from a real confrontation, a micron away from mutiny.

Thankfully, someone else realised it, too.

“Halt!” Apollo's voice over-rode everything.

It was his hard, I'm-in-a-steaming-temper voice, the one that had everything in the vicinity with anything remotely resembling a sense of self-preservation, stiffening into a salute, just in case. In the sudden tense silence, pilots and ground crew glared at Security men, the menace in the air almost palpable.

“What's going on?” Apollo asked Elisa quietly.

“I'm sorry, sir.” Elisa backed up a step, her eyes leaving the pilots only to flicker nervously over to the ground crew. “The Council's orders are that you aren't to leave the ship. That's all I know.”

“That bloody religious crap!”

“I don't know, sir.” She was nothing if not dogged. “The commander sent us to take you to the bridge office.”

“Dad?” Apollo sounded incredulous. “He's not falling for this?”

“I don't know, sir,” Elisa said, yet again. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, holding the laser steady, ready to act. She had locked eyes with Boomer for a micron and he knew she'd shoot if she had to. He hoped the laser was on stun.

It was down to Apollo now, Boomer realised. They'd take their cue from him. He and everyone there, ground crew as well as pilots, would jump security if Apollo gave the word. They'd follow his lead, as they always did. They'd do what Apollo wanted. Just one little word. Just one. And then they could be off to find Starbuck.

Apollo's shoulders slumped. “Oh fuck,” he said, sounding worn out.

The anticlimax came like a kick to the gut. Boomer relaxed and let out his breath in a long sigh, only just realising that he'd stopped breathing for a few microns while everything hung there. He wasn't sure whether or not he was relieved. Behind him the pilots were muttering to each other, and he heard more than one echo of his sigh. The tension bled away as quickly as it came.

Apollo shook his head. “Ford, get as many ships turned around as you can. Boomer, get everyone ready to go. I'll be back soon.”

“But, Captain!” Giles protested. “Starbuck!”

“Get them ready to go. Tell Bojay.” Apollo shook himself free of the two Security men and walked away towards the turbolifts. Elisa hesitated, then ran after him, Security hard on her heels.

“Shit!” Giles said. “He won't leave Starbuck out there, will he?”

“Will he fuck!” Boomer snapped back. “Don't be stupid. You know better than that.”

He looked after Apollo, looking at the weary set of the captain's shoulders, the barely reined in despair, and he hoped he was right. He glanced at the screen, where the Telemetry count was still spooling remorselessly.

Sixteen confirmed dead, one missing in action.

“You heard the man,” he said, dully. “Get to your ships.”

Sixteen confirmed dead, one missing in action.

 

 

 

 

“Are you responsible for those two guards?” Apollo burst through into the bridge office door, shouldering Tigh out of the way to get past.

“Hey!” the colonel protested.

Adama looked up at Apollo, his first reaction to be startled and angry at his son's rudeness, his second to be anxious and concerned. Apollo looked terrible, all huge green eyes and livid bruises. Tigh glanced at Apollo then at Adama, evidently deciding to let it pass. He put a datapad on Adama's desk.

“Captain,” Adama said warningly.

“Did you set them on me? What the hell is going on?”

“Captain!” Tigh‘s tone was sharp with displeasure.

“Call them off!” Real hysteria threatened in Apollo's voice. “I've got to get out there!”

Adama could actually feel his mouth tightening with irritation. The day that Apollo had arrived on the Galactica, they'd hammered out what they had called, not without some sardonic amusement, the Rules of Engagement. Put simply, on duty the familial relationship was put to one side. He was to treat Apollo in exactly the same way as any other member of the Galactica's staff and Apollo wasn't to expect any special treatment. On the whole it worked. It wasn't human to forget entirely that Apollo was his son, but few observers would have realised it from their official demeanour. If anything, according to Tigh, he was harder on Apollo than on any other of his officers, determined that they would never give anyone cause to claim nepotism.

He'd been furious when Tomas, taking advantage of the absence of some of Adama's closest allies on the Council, had persuaded the remaining members to restrict Apollo to the ship until the Council could consider properly the risks to him in letting him carry on as Strike Leader. Joel and a few others had agreed out of malice, enjoying the opportunity to irk Adama, and would just as easily change their minds again. But it had been enough to ensure that Apollo's freedom was at least temporarily curtailed. Adama's outward serenity at the Council meeting had been impenetrable, but he had no real expectation that his son would be as calm. He was only sorry that Security had got to Apollo before he could.

But whatever the circumstances, he wouldn't take this from any officer under his command. Especially not from Apollo.

“That's enough!” His voice was even sharper than Tigh's had been. “You forget yourself, Captain.”

“For the Lords sake!” Apollo muttered, but it was enough to stop the threatened hysteria.

“I think, Commander, that this might help,” Tigh said quietly, and pushed the datapad across the desk.

Adama knew what it was. Tigh had paged him only a centon before to say he was on his way in with the list of the dead and missing. Aware of Tigh's significant look, Adama scanned it quickly. When the name leapt out at him, he was almost surprised at the rush of pain.

Starbuck was missing. Starbuck. He could barely believe it and he had to read the name several time to realise it. Starbuck missing? Irritating, infuriating, irreverent, insouciant Starbuck, missing? Yes, well, he was all of those and even that Starbuck would be sorely missed. But of all the memories and incidents that rushed at Adama, it was images of the loyal, loving and essentially lonely Starbuck that he remembered. He'd grown fond of Starbuck as Apollo had grown close to him, but he hadn't realised how fond. Only the loss of Apollo could hit harder.

He sighed and nodded at Tigh. “I'll talk to you later, Colonel. If you'll excuse us for a few centons...”

Tigh nodded. The look he gave Apollo was measuring, almost concerned and anxious, and he paused on the way out when the door slid aside and saw the two security guards. He turned back, looking astonished.

“Adama?”

“I know,” the commander said, tone grim. “I'll deal with it.

Tigh shrugged and left.

Adama waited until the door slid closed again. “Apollo, I'm so sorry.”

“He's not dead,” Apollo said quickly. “I know he's not dead. I've got to get out to look for him. Call them off.”

“It's the Council's orders, Apollo. I'm sorry. With Anton and Haleth over on the Danae trying to mediate that mess, they outvoted me this time. We'll sort it out and rescind the order as soon as I can get a full Council together, but until then you're not to leave the ship.”

“This is Starbuck we're talking about! I've got to go look for him.”

More than thirty yahrens now. Nearer forty. He could barely believe it, but he was only a couple of yahrens out of the Academy when he had stood like this in front of the commander of the Atlantia, pleading to be allowed to look for a missing pilot, the Lieutenant Apollo for whom he'd later named his eldest son. Pollo. A yahren older than Adama, they'd always been together, his closest friend since childhood. They'd gone through school and the Academy together, had served together, hadn't been separated for more than a few sectons for most of their lives. Until then. And Pollo had never come back, leaving a gaping hole in Adama's life.

But it wasn't all black, he reminded himself. In an idle, ambrosa-fuelled moment, he'd once made a promise to Pollo that, should the need arise, he'd look out for the girl his friend had intended to marry. Two sectars after Pollo's death, he kept his promise. Six yahrens later, they were sealed, and two yahrens after that Apollo was born, named for the man both he and Ila had loved.

Nothing and nobody had ever filled the space Pollo had left. There'd been other friends – Cain, and Tigh, and Adar – but none of them had been Pollo. Even now, so many yahrens later that Adama wouldn't have recognised himself in the brash young man he'd been then, Pollo was still a missing part of himself. He knew what Apollo must feel with Starbuck gone. He'd felt it himself.

The memory gentled his voice. “No-one's going looking for anyone. We can't, Apollo. The Fleet's moving as fast as we can. We have got to get out here.”

Apollo gasped. He looked shocked, dazed, as if Adama had hit him. “You… you can't mean that!”

It was like living through a recurring nightmare. Long ago he'd had to leave Pollo behind because duty demanded it. His son had gone through that once already, with Zac. Adama knew exactly how Apollo had felt at Cimtar, knew what this new abandonment would do to Apollo. He knew how much Apollo agonised over Zac. He'd worried intensely the yahren before that grief and guilt would push his sensitive eldest son too far. His need to help Apollo understand that it wasn't his fault and that, once again, circumstances, cruel and pitiless, were against them, pushed even the shock and sadness about Starbuck away.

It was hard to sound gentle and forceful at once, but he had to do it. “Apollo, think! That was a fully operational base that you destroyed down there and two supporting baseships. Two! This isn't some far flung outpost of the Empire, some forward exploration base. They're out here in force and it won't be long before they come looking to see what happened here. We have to be well away from here before they reach us.”

“I know that!” Apollo shot back at him. “I've known it since you signalled that there were two baseships. But we can't leave a pilot behind! We can't leave Starbuck behind. Not Starbuck!”

Not Pollo, either. But he'd had to, in the end.

“I haven't any choice. I will not risk the fleet for one pilot, even if he is your best friend. I can't do it, Apollo. I'm sorry.” Adama's heart was aching for him, realising in full the dilemma the Atlantia's commander had found herself in forty yahrens earlier. He was anxious, too. Apollo looked like he'd pass out, and Adama tensed, ready.

Apollo looked around almost blindly, and half fell into the seat in front of the desk, gripping the chair arms with fingers that trembled visibly.

“I've got to find him.” Apollo said, at last, his voice trembling as badly as his hands. “I had to leave Zac, and that was bad enough. That almost killed me. I can't leave Starbuck behind.”

Adama had to crush down a hundred memories of cheerful, energetic Zac. He carefully averted his eyes from the holopics on the desk. They were the constant, silent reminder of everything he'd lost in the ashes of the house on Caprica, and a few centars before that, in the skies above Cimtar.

“I know it's hard…” he began, knowing for himself how hard it was. Sometimes, he missed Ila so badly he could barely find it in him to go on. Sometimes, duty and honour and service were thin, cold insubstantial substitutes for the dead.

“You don't know anything about it,” Apollo said from behind the hands he'd raised to hide his face.

“I know he's your best friend. I do understand that you care for him. I know that your mother loved him, that Zac and Athena did.” Adama paused, and said, sincerely, ”I know that leaving him behind will be like leaving another son.”

“I can't leave him.”

“We have no choice.”

“You do have a choice. You can choose to let me go back.” Apollo dropped his hands. “All right, I know you can't hold the fleet back, I see that. But I could go. I have to go.”

Adama had known this was coming, and for once blessed Tormas' piety and Joel's malicious animosity. Apollo was in no condition to go back alone and they'd at least given him the excuse to keep Apollo safe on the Galactica. “The Council wouldn't allow it. They won't allow you to leave the ship.”

“Countermand it.”

“Not at this moment, no.” Adama was regretting the times Apollo had seen him do just that. “Even if I could, I wouldn't.”

“Because I'm your son!”

“I care about you very much,” Adama said gently. “But mainly because of the information you have in your head. The fleet needs you. It needs you more than it needs me or the Council or anything else you can name. You can't go back alone. That's a risk too far.” Adama shook his head, looking more impatient now. “This is something we'll sort out with them. As soon as I can get all the Council here, I'll sort it out. But until then, those two security men will stay with you at all times. If you attempt to launch, they'll stop you any way they have to. They will do it, Apollo. These are orders, and you will obey them.”

Apollo stared at him as if he'd never seen him before. “Orders? Are they all that matter to you? Order. Duty. Service. That's all there is?”

“You know better than that. But you also know how important Duty is.”

“Fuck that!” Apollo said, with unaccustomed crudeness. “I have to find Starbuck.”

Adama tried another tack. Apollo seemed to be beyond reason. Perhaps military structure and discipline would give him something to cling to, as Adama had clung to it, as a protective armour. He put a slight chill into his voice.

“What you have to do, Captain, is send out as many patrols and pickets as you can, given the state of the Vipers after the battle, and you'll wait on board this ship until the Council calls you to talk to you about the future.”

“What fucking future?”

“Apollo…”

“I don't have any future! Not without Starbuck. He's not just my best friend, Dad, he's more than that. Much more than that. He's my life, my lover, everything that matters to me. I'm begging you, please let me go and find him.”

It was like a shock of icy water. Adama stared at his son, almost dispassionately noting the intensity of the grief, the agonising terror that Apollo had only the barest control over. How foolish of him not to realise what that had meant! He'd mourned the first Apollo, true, but it wasn't that memory that came to him now. Instead, he might have been looking at an image of himself in those cold, bloodless, lifeless centons after he'd realised that Caprica and Ila were gone. For a centon he forgot how to breathe, wondering if the surge of feeling was grief for Ila or distress over what his son was saying.

It all made sense. His son and Starbuck, together. Somehow he wasn't as surprised as he thought he ought to be. Starbuck. It had always been Starbuck, he realised belatedly, as a thousand memories of his son and Starbuck flashed across his mind. Nothing ever overt, just a rightness there, a closeness that was more than was usual, even closer than he and Pollo had been.

“I love him, Dad. There is no way I'm going on without him.”

Adama drew a deep breath. “You mean that.”

Apollo nodded.

“Dear God,” Adama said blankly.

He realised that Ila had known. Ila had always known. I like that boy , she'd said at the end of Starbuck's first visit. He's very good for Apollo. Apollo needs someone to make him laugh and make him take things less seriously. Starbuck does that in a way no-one else can. Even me . She'd laughed a little, always defensive against Adama's teasing about Apollo being her favourite. She'd seen it, though. Ila saw her son, undeniably her favourite child, for only a few short sectons every yahren, but she knew him better than Adama did. Adama had seen him every day for over five yahrens and he hadn't known. She'd known and accepted it yahrens before, and he hadn't even seen it.

Well, now he saw it. He wondered what he ought to feel about it. Shocked? Horrified? Repelled? He didn't think so, but he was feeling swamped by all the heightened emotion Apollo was radiating. His distress over Apollo, that was what dominated him now. Then he remembered that cool, strained goodbye on the Alpha deck when Apollo had gone back to K'far, his easily dismissed wondering about them, and he vacillated now between wondering what Starbuck felt for Apollo and marvelling at his own blindness. He realised that all he was aware of was a heart-felt pity for what his son must be feeling, and grim helplessness at the necessity that drove them onward.

“I told you there was someone,” Apollo said. “Starbuck.”

“And him? He feels the same?”

“Yes,” Apollo said, sounding a touch uncertain, rubbing at his eyes with his hand.

“Dear God,” Adama said again. “I don't know what to say…”

“What's to say?” Apollo asked impatiently.

“Are you… I mean, have you…?” For the life of him, Adama couldn't find the words to ask.

“Are we lovers? Yes.” For a micron Apollo looked like he might lose control altogether, but somehow managed not to. His hands were shaking badly.

“Oh.”

Irretrievable then. In that instant, Adama consigned Sheba and his plans for her and Apollo into the realms of the unachievable and accepted that, at least. The consequences of what Apollo was saying, that took some adjusting to. Adama was relatively neutral, given his religious upbringing, to homosexuality. It was a slightly different matter when it was his son in a physical relationship with another man. Actually it was very different. He just wasn't sure yet what he felt about it.

“So now you know.” Apollo sounded oddly tired and defiant, all at once. “And you know why I want to go back for him. Could you leave Mother behind if you had the chance to save her?”

“It's not the same!” Adama protested. Something in him shrank at this mention of Ila, from the memory of the burnt-out house and his failure to protect her.

“It is exactly the same! I love him and I need him, and I just can't do this without him.” Apollo gestured around him. “None of it. He makes all this crap worthwhile. All the bitching from the Pegasus people; being cold half the time because the ship's powered down to conserve fuel; never having enough to eat; being shot down that bloody launch tube and being scared all the time; all that stuff about the Ship of Lights… all of it. I can do all of that if he's here. I can't do it without him.”

Adama shook his head. “Oh Lord. Apollo…”

“Please.”

“I can't do it. I can't risk the lives of everyone in this Fleet for one man. I can't. No even Starbuck. I couldn't do it even for you, though it would break my heart.”

“Countermand the Council order.”

“You're needed here.”

“I won't be much use to you. Countermand the order.”

“Not with you in this state, no.” Adama straightened up. “You're in no state mentally to be out there and I won't allow it. I'm sorry, Apollo, but the decision stands. We move on. We have no choice. We'll sort the Council as soon as we can, but if you attempt to leave the ship, those guards will stop you if they have to stun you and lock you up to do it. Now, please get the patrols out. You have a fleet to protect and I know you well enough to know you'll do your duty.”

Apollo stared, shocked, and Adama had to harden his heart, force himself to be the commander and not the grieving, loving father that he wanted to be. And would be but for Duty and Honour and Service and the need to keep Apollo even, to give him some structure to cling to. He wasn't, though, immune to the thought that it might be the wrong structure. It had worked for him. It might not work for his son.

“I'm sorry,” Adama added in a softer tone. “I'm sorry about Starbuck.”

Apollo got up and walked to the door. He said nothing.

“Apollo.”

Apollo turned at the door, his expression cold and closed, locked away. His voice was the same; cold, emotionless, remote.

“I've given up a lot to Duty. What I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, that all went. I don't suppose I had much choice, conditioned from the day I was born. Self doesn't matter: a Caprican always does his duty.”

Adama sighed silently. He would have preferred a storm, a furious Apollo to be soothed back to equanimity. He was used to that. This chilly control, however spurious, frightened him. “I'm sorry, Apollo.”

“I'm sorry too, because if I have to lose Starbuck, if all there is to this is duty, Commander, then all you've got is a captain. I'd prefer it if you addressed me that way. The patrols will be out in fifteen centons.”

“Apollo!”

But Apollo had gone.

“Damnation!”

He debated about going after his son, debated about whether it would do more harm than good, glancing down at the holopics as he thought about it. One caught his eye. He studied it for a centon: Apollo and Starbuck on each side of Ila, grinning at each other over her head, taken only two yahrens before. Obvious, really, when you looked at them and knew. Obvious. How had he missed it?

He picked up the holopic and stared at his dead wife. Ila smiled back at him, forever fixed and lovely, as he remembered her.

“Well, love,” he said. “I think I messed that up pretty well. Quite up to my usual standards.” He waited for the response that would never come. “Yes, I know. I really am helpless without you.”

 

 

 

 

“You're not serious!”

Apollo wrapped both arms about himself, as if he were feeling the cold and leaned up against the command station wall. He was shaking visibly. He gazed out past Boomer's shoulder through the open door to the Alpha deck, watching the techs and ground crew clearing up the last debris from those damaged Vipers that had limped home. Alpha looked normal again.

“Orders.” He said it very quietly, dull with misery.

“You can't do this! Everyone's ready to go. Every pilot who can is sitting in the tubes waiting for you to send them out to find him.”

Apollo couldn't stop the shaking. It was getting worse, taking over an entire world that was made up of pain and helpless rage. He couldn't speak, just stare at Boomer's angry face and somewhere far away inside of him was the Apollo who envied Boomer the simple emotions and reactions he was denied himself.

“They won't stand for it. I won't stand for it!”. Boomer's eyes flickered past him, to the two silent security guards standing a couple of metres away near the door. “We can take them, if that's what's stopping you. We can do it. For God's sake, Apollo!”

Apollo glanced around. One guard shifted his weight, hand ready over the laser in his belt, nervous and ready. The other, older, stared back expressionlessly.

Apollo shook his head. “We can't disobey a direct order.”

“Just fucking watch me!”

“Boomer!” Apollo's hand shot out to grip Boomer's arm. The lieutenant threw up his arm to shake free, but Apollo tightened the grip until he saw the angry brown eyes wince. “Don't you think I haven't been through that? God but I want to be out there. I can't tell you what this is like…” For a micron he lost it, and had to struggle to keep control, closing his eyes. “But we turned the Danae back. You know why.”

“What the fuck has that to do with anything?”

“Everything. If I say to hell with it, and we go after Starbuck because we don't like this order, not only do we risk the Fleet right now, but we could never be trusted again not to defy orders that don't suit us. Then it's all over. All that holds us together is the discipline. Without that, what can we hold to? Everything breaks down and it's every man for himself, just like the Danae. There's barely enough of us in the fleet to start over. Without something holding us together, the fleet would scatter. Everything would be finished and it will all have been for nothing. All the deaths, all the misery, all of it. Wasted. I know that. I knew it all the time I was begging him to let me go and find Starbuck. I knew he'd say no.” The torrent of words stopped, and Apollo, remembering the intense blue eyes he'd drowned in, said more slowly and painfully, “God help me, but I understood why he won't stop and why he won't let me go back.”

It felt like the blackest betrayal. In his mind's eye, the blue eyes turned away from him, hidden by a fall of dark blond hair. A shoulder was shrugged at him, a voice saying something sadly, quietly, about the commander's son and duty. But it's not like that! It's not as easy as that, Starbuck. It's not as easy as that!

“Screw all that! We can't leave Starbuck. I thought you loved him!”

It was like a physical pain. Involuntarily, he remembered the shock of the K'far Shon soldier grabbing him by the hair and slamming his head against the corridor wall outside Zhimn's office. There was the same overwhelming burst of pain, the same few microns of complete disorientation when the world whited out and there was only a buzzing in his ears and the pain, so intense he thought his bones would melt with it. Only this time the pain wasn't in his head, but somewhere in the middle of his gut. He dropped Boomer's arm abruptly, wrapping his arms around himself tightly, protectively. He was shaking so badly now that he had to tighten his jaw to stop his teeth rattling.

Oh God, he wanted to do it. He wanted to do it. He wanted to scream and fight, pound his fists against something until they bled. Anything to make the pain come from outside.

“Apollo?”

Be damned to being the stoical blue-blooded Caprican making the supreme sacrifice for the greater good. He'd been there, done that, and he couldn't do it again. Be fucked to that! He wasn't Adama. He wasn't able to switch on that damned serenity and hide behind it and he didn't care if he was falling short of those impossibly high standards his father lived by. He couldn't do it. He couldn't.

“Apollo?” Boomer sounded suddenly frightened and uncertain.

Some other arms around him were holding him up against the giddy darkness that threatened him. Boomer's voice was in his ear, apologising, soothing and comforting.

“Hey, is he all right?” Another voice, close, vaguely and professionally concerned.

“Get the fuck out of here,” Boomer snapped. “I can manage him. Apollo? Hold up, old buddy.”

Apollo sighed and opened his eyes. Somehow Boomer had got him into one of the chairs in front of the monitors. Boomer was on his knees beside him, one hand smoothing his hair comfortingly, the other supporting him, stopping him from slipping out of the chair to the floor. The older of the two guards was hovering indecisively behind Boomer.

“Easy, Apollo. You nearly lost it.”

Apollo stared. What was Boomer thinking? Nearly? He raised his hands to his face, and covered his eyes.

“I have lost it. Everything that matters.”

“Is he okay?” the guard asked.

“Will you two please wait outside?” Boomer's voice was edged with so much menace that the politely phrased request was a downright threat.

“We aren't supposed to leave him,” the other guard said.

“There's only one bloody door. If you're on the other side of it, he isn't going anyplace without you knowing, now is he?”

A pause. Apollo pressed his hands up against his eyelids until the bright sparks flashed across the darkness like comets.

“Okay,” the older guard said at last.

Feet moving away, and the almost silent hiss of the door mechanism closing behind them as they went.

“All right?” Boomer asked, his hand still gentling Apollo's hair.

“I don't think I can get through it.” Apollo dropped his hands, lying back in the chair. “Living even one night without him, what kind of life could that be?”

“I know,” Boomer said awkwardly. “I'm sorry, Apollo.”

Apollo only shook his head. Boomer didn't know. He couldn't know.

“They won't let this happen, Apollo. Starbuck's special, a kind of touchstone. They think about everything he's always got away with, the number of times he's come back, how lucky he is. Every single one of them's sitting out there in the launch tubes thinking that if Starbuck's gone, if even Starbuck can't get back, then what hope have they of getting through?”

“More than me.” Apollo straightened up in the chair. Boomer's hand dropped away from his hair. “More hope than me, because I can't do it, Boomer. I can't let Starbuck go and I can't let you all mutiny to go find him. I can't! I'm trapped, trapped… and it's worse than Zac, a million times worse. And I can't do anything!”

“I know, but we have to do something. We'll have a mutiny on our hands. And the fleet's moving at flank speed. We're moving further and further away from him.”

Apollo nodded. For a long centon he stared at the computer screens. They were silent and dark now. “I can't mutiny, Boomer. I can't do it. But I can't leave him behind.”

“It's one or the other, Apollo.”

“No. We work within our orders. Get out the patrols. But not Blue. Hold Blue in the tubes.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don't know yet, but I want Blue to do it. I trust you the most. Send the others out ahead and to the flank. Tell them that we're doing something.”

“Are we?”

“Yes. Yes, we are. Get them out.”

“All right.” Then more confidently, more convinced: “All right.” Boomer stood up, hesitated, then put a hand on Apollo's shoulder. “I trust you too, to find a way out of this.”

“Don't do that,” Apollo said, bitterly. “Zac trusted me. Serina trusted me. And look what happened to them.”

“And we trusted you at Cimtar, at Carillon, at Gamorey and a hundred other places. We're still here and we still trust you.”

The hand on his shoulder tightened briefly. Apollo said nothing. He left it all to Boomer, not bothering to really listen as the lieutenant talked to the bridge then to each of the squadron commanders, the low rumble of Boomer's voice in the background no more than a half-disregarded comfort. He stared at the blanked off computer screens, feeling as hollowly blanked off as they were.

If he let it happen for even the briefest centon, his mind slid away from the miserable here and now, to the last moment of happiness he'd had. If he let it, his body remembered the roughness of the ground underneath his back, the wonderful weight in his arms, Starbuck powering into him, the sharp burning pain and the love and passion and pleasure that drowned it all. He swallowed hard against the need to cry and forced himself to think of what he could do.

Missing in action.

And not for the first time, either. If it came to it, over the last yahren, the bridge crew must have sighed in exasperation every time he and Starbuck launched, waiting fatalistically for one or other of them to vanish. The first time was the worst, when Baltar had captured Starbuck, just before Kobol. Wild with fury about Serina being made Apollo's wingman, Starbuck had launched before they could stop him. Apollo and Serina had ended up relaying to find him, Serina fixed on the Galactica, Apollo fixed on Serina, extending their sensor range to try and reach him.

Relay.

Relay!

Bloody hell. Relay!

He straightened up as Boomer turned away from the comms desk.

“They're away,” Boomer said.

Apollo nodded. “I want you and Blue to patrol the rear. We've got to be sure that we aren't being followed.”

Boomer looked at him for a centon, then smiled slowly in unspoken understanding. “You've got it.” The smile faded a little. “It's been a couple of centars, and I've no idea where he might be, Apollo. His Viper has to have taken a hit, and he could have spiralled off in any direction. If it took him some time to get it back under control, he could be anywhere. I don't know where to start.”

“Get back to the battle site and park one Viper there to lock onto the Galactica. Use it as the locus for the search pattern. If you send everyone else out in pairs they can get to the limit of sensor range and then one locks onto the first Viper. The other goes on to the limit again. It'll double your search area.”

Boomer's smile was back. “Brilliant!”

“Let's hope it works.”

“I'll do my best to get him back, Apollo. I promise.” Boomer caught him and hugged him roughly.

“Please,” Apollo choked out. “Please find him for me.”

 

 

 

 

When Boomer had gone, he couldn't stay long in the chair in the cold command station. The tension made him ache, muscle and bone, as if he had a bad fever. Sitting still intensified the ache, had him drumming his feet on the floor in an effort to relieve the strain, desperate to do something that meant he wasn't sitting passively and helplessly while someone else looked for his lover. Only centons after Boomer had left to launch Blue Squadron, he pushed himself impatiently to his feet and followed. He brushed past the two security guards without acknowledging them, but he knew they would trail after him wherever he went.

Aft or forward? Aft would take him to the landing bay; forward to the launch tubes. He hesitated, but in the end it didn't really matter. Nothing mattered. He turned forward, the two silent security guards a few feet behind him. The launch bay was almost empty, with nothing but the faint smell of solium from the Viper turbos. He stared for a moment down the dark tubes where, centons earlier, Boomer and the others had launched. It was very quiet. There couldn't be more than three or four techs busy tidying up, getting the overhead rails back into the ready position. Not that there were any more Vipers to bring out of the hangars and settle into the launch racks. Every Viper fit to fly was in the air. Except his.

He turned abruptly on his heel and headed aft. For a little while he wandered the Alpha bay, his two escorts close behind. The landing bay was as quiet as the launch tubes. There weren't many people about, and with the exception of Ford, who talked to him about something - God alone knew what - they left him alone. After a few centons Ford gave up and just held him for a micron or two. Apollo barely noticed that or the way that Ford stood watching him as he drifted away.

Everything was so very quiet. He used up several centons crossing over to the Beta deck, letting the mechanics of getting there occupy his mind. Into the turbo lift that took him, in a flash of speed that took only microns, diagonally up the huge wing that held the Alpha deck out from the main body of the ship, decanting him into the Alpha ready room. A few metres down a corridor and he was in the travel tube that cut across the main ship to the turbolifts on the port wing, then down to Beta. Nothing. Bojay was gone too, ranging ahead with the rest of the Vipers, checking the route the Fleet had to take in its headlong dash to safety. Its headlong dash away from where they'd left Starbuck.

Back up into the main body of the ship, to wander like a restless ghost on the main troop decks. The mess rooms, the OC, the exercise rooms, the barracks, everywhere quiet and deserted. Nothing to do, no-one to see.

That wasn't true, of course. He could go up a level to the Infantry barracks, check on Trent. But he didn't want to. He didn't want to talk to anyone. He didn't want to have to find some way out of his distraction, or even try and let the routine keep him going. That took energy he didn't have to spare from insulating himself away from everything. This half-life was painful, but seeing the real thing going on all around him, trying to pretend it still had any meaning, that would be more painful still.

On another pointless, fruitless meander around the troop decks, he paused inside the doors of main gymnasium. Sergeant Kennedy, who ran it and took hand to hand training, nodded at him for the third time, the creased face oddly anxious and sympathetic. Apollo looked around vaguely. Still no-one here, except old Kennedy and he would wait to be spoken to. He wouldn't disturb Apollo unless invited. Apollo ran a hand along the handrail of one of the treadmills. Like a housewife looking for dust, he though suddenly, and had to fight back the urge to laugh. Once he let that out, hysteria wouldn't be far behind. There'd be no getting it back into its box.

Where to next? He should visit the wounded, he knew that, but he couldn't face that just yet. Not Life Centre, not yet. Once more he shut off his brain and let his feet take him where they would.

Somehow, it wasn't so big a surprise that he finally found himself pushing open the big doors to the Kobolian Chapel. His boots sounded loud on the aisle floor, walking on a deck painted with symbols and images to mimic the inlaid floors of the great Kobolian temple in Caprica city. The temple was ruins now, along with its symbols. Fitting.

The two guards clumped along behind him with an indifference that was trained into them. It was their job to escort him everywhere: escort him they would, no matter how often he dragged them around the ship. It was his only, and very faint, revenge.

The lone priest at the altar got herself into a little flutter with excitement at seeing him. Blushing, she hurriedly put down the Book she had been reading from and hurried forward to meet him, smiling broadly, eyes bright with excitement.

“Cantor,” he said curtly, speaking for the first time in over a centar.

She blinked at him in surprise, taken aback by the curtness. “You want to see the Vicar-General?”

He nodded, and turned away to stare at the altar and the candles. He concentrated on watching the flickering flames for a little while, only vaguely aware of her hesitating for a centon or two before scurrying away. The flame was something to concentrate on now that he was standing still, something to take his mind of the ache in his bones now that he was forced into inactivity again.

The thought struck him that, little as he believed, it might help to go through the form. It was something to do, anyway. The box of small candles lay on a table on one side of the chapel. Not a white candle this time - they were for the dead and he refused to believe that Starbuck was dead - but a pale mauve candle, a Candle of Intercession, perfumed with the scent of lavender to please the Lords of Kobol. Why lavender should propitiate Them, persuade Them to grant prayers, was a point of doctrine that didn't concern him just then. He doubted whether there was any rational explanation beyond the demands of tradition. It didn't matter, anyway. This was hollow form, not substance. His substance was lost out there somewhere, waiting for rescue. If Boomer never found Starbuck, all that would be left would be hollow form, without life or substance.

It was the work of a centon to take one mauve candle and light it at the huge altar candle. He breathed in the thin, perfumed smoke that reminded him somehow of his mother, and set the candle in the great, wax-encrusted rack to one side of the altar. For a micron the flame faltered, then Starbuck's candle burned clear.

Well, maybe it would help.

“Captain?” The priest was at his elbow and had been for some time, he realised. She'd been waiting patiently for him to notice her, evidently unwilling to disturb him.

“Cantor?”

“This way, sir.”

She led him to the vestry behind the main Chapel, the two security men in close attendance. There were several priests and acolytes here, busy with whatever it was that priests did, robing themselves for some service, readying thuribles and censers. They didn't quite sing hymns and genuflect as he passed, but even in his distraction he knew that he was the centre of their attention. Eyes followed him, uncertain smiles flickered in his direction, ready to broaden if he noticed them. He focused on the office door and kept his eyes there, unwilling to make any kind of connexion.

Cantor's incense-heavy office was behind the vestry. The priest opened the door and stood to one side, bowing slightly. Apollo walked in, the door closing behind him, leaving his escort on the other side. The two guards didn't attempt to follow him in.

“My son,” Cantor said, in his rich voice.

Apollo nodded a greeting of sorts and took the chair opposite Cantor's desk when the Vicar-General waved a hand towards it. The incense smelled heavy and oppressive, too rich for Apollo's taste. He preferred the clean sharpness of the lavender. He looked around the room for a centon, noting the tapestry hung walls. Some parable from the Exodus, he thought, looking at it critically. Lord Aerion's Fall, possibly, if the object that the Angel was holding was a flaming sword. The tapestry was old and faded and difficult to make out… he frowned and concentrated. Yes. Aerion. His far ancestor if the Book was to be believed. Aerion the Heretic. That was promising.

“They said that you had been hurt, down on K'far.”

Cantor's voice called him back, made him take a deep breath and shake off the curious detachment that was armouring him. The Vicar-General leaned forward and a gentle hand touched Apollo's wounded cheek. Apollo jerked his head back quickly. He hated being touched by strangers. Cantor's pleasant expression didn't waver.

“That will scar,” he said. “That's a shame.”

It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.

“Call them off,” Apollo said, abruptly.

Cantor raised an elegantly curved eyebrow.

“Call them off. I've got to get out there.”

“It was a decision of the Council, my son, that you should not be risked unduly. They are unhappy, I believe, that you are endangered on missions and in firefights. I understand that the pilots are on patrol now that the battle is over. The Council is unlikely to be willing to risk you on such mundane duties.”

“Starbuck… one of my pilots is missing. I need to get out there to help find him.”

“Ah,” Cantor gave him a gentle smile. “You take your responsibilities seriously. As I do mine.”

“I know that you put Tomas up to this. Call him off.”

“Sire Tomas is a councillor, not a priest. How can I command him?”

“He's in your pocket.”

“You flatter my poor abilities to influence,” Cantor was still smiling. “Sire Tomas is a true and faithful son of the Church, that is all. If he occasionally speaks out and uses his influence in matters that involve the Church, to ensure that She is strengthened and can flourish, then that is no more than I ask of any Kobolian. No more than I expect.”

Apollo looked the man in the eyes. Cantor's face was still gentle and smiling; the eyes were cold, assessing. Apollo nodded, understanding Cantor perfectly.

Cantor had won. The Vicar-General had obviously been gambling on Apollo not being able to tolerate being sidelined out of command, expecting that he'd compromise. What Cantor couldn't have known was that with Starbuck missing, Apollo would capitulate completely. If he had to do public penance on his knees and kiss Cantor's feet every day for a yahren, he'd do it. Only Starbuck mattered.

“Whatever it takes.”

The gentle smile didn't waver. “I don't understand you, my son.”

Apollo's mouth twisted. The man wanted his pound of flesh, as well, did he? It didn't matter. Nothing mattered except getting out there to find Starbuck. “I understand things a little better now, father. I understand that all Kobolians have a duty to defend the faith and do all they can to promote the Church's interests. All my life I've been brought up to do my duty. I'm sorry that it's taken me a while to see my duty here.”

Cantor smiled broadly. This time when he leaned forward, Apollo didn't move, allowing the Vicar-General's broad thumb to trace the sign on his forehead that signified forgiveness for sins sincerely repented. The hypocrisy was enough to sicken him. They both knew how meaningless this all was. They both knew that he had no choice. All Cantor couldn't know was just how desperate he was.

“I had every faith in you, my son.” Cantor held out the hand that wore the Episcopal ring, and Apollo slid out of the chair to kneel and kiss it. “I have prayed that you would remember where your duty lay.” He laid the ringed hand on Apollo's hair.

Apollo barely noticed. “Yes, father.”

“I will try and ensure that the duty is not too onerous, but there will be times when the Church looks to you for support. I'm sure that we can rely on you.”

Apollo nodded. “Yes. I understand.”

“I have your word?”

“I promise.”

“Good. That I know I can trust to. The one thing I know about you, my son, is that you keep your promises.”

“Yes,” Apollo said. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. “Now, please, ask Tomas to rescind the Council order.”

“Of course. In due time.”

Apollo froze, staring up at the smiling face.

“I understand that Tomas has gone across to the Danae to join Sire Anton. There's a lot of work to do there, a lot of mediation and counselling to do. Tomas thought that Anton would be in need of some extra help.”

“But Haleth's there with Anton.”

“So I understand.” Cantor smiled, his hand still resting on Apollo's hair. “Unfortunate, since I believe that the Council must have a least ten members present to form a quorum. There can be no meeting until they all return.”

“You knew that,” Apollo said, barely a whisper.

“A temporary delay.”

Apollo shook his head. This was a casual and cruel demonstration of Cantor's power. The Vicar-General, of course, thought only to impress upon Apollo how much he now depended on the good offices of the Church if he was to have anything like a normal life. Cantor couldn't realise how urgently Apollo needed to have this prohibition lifted, how desperate he'd be.

“Look on it as an exercise in patience and fortitude, my son, and a remembrance that everything comes from the spiritual.” Cantor smiled. “Tomas and the others will be back in a few centars. Until then, you will have to treat this as an unexpected rest from your other less important, temporal duties. Use it as a time of reflection.”

Apollo looked into the cold grey eyes. No pity and understanding there, just a cool triumph. He moved his head back out of reach of Cantor's hand, and got slowly to his feet. The Vicar-General's smile became indulgent. He'd won and he knew it.

Apollo took a step away. He felt sick now, the acid burning its way up through his chest to sting the back of his throat. He wouldn't care about humiliating himself if he could have gone to find Starbuck. That Cantor had chosen this moment for a little demonstration of ownership was a bitterness that Apollo stored away to deal with later. Other things were more pressing.

“You know, the very best card player I ever knew told me never to overplay my hand. He said it was one of the reasons I so seldom win at Pyramid. You should have taken lessons from him.”

“I have your sworn word.” The smile had faded, the mouth thinning down unpleasantly.

“Yes, you have,” Apollo said. “And much good may it do you.”

“Much good it will do the Church, my son. And that is all that matters.”

“Not to me,” Apollo said. “Not to me.”

 

 

 

 

Flip.

Grab.

Flip.

Not the datapad this time. Not even one of the Pyramid cards Starbuck was so fond of.

Memories, instead.

Words and images shone brightly in his head, drowning out even the numbers the Ship of Lights had put there. They flicked into his brain to catch his attention for a micron, then almost before he'd had time to register what it was he was seeing and hearing, the next memory flicked into being, was caught for that fleeting centon, then flicked away again.

He'd left Cantor without another word and got himself back to his office, closing the door in the faces of the two Security men, locking it to keep the world out. Back at his desk, he sat for a long time, looking down at hands that trembled constantly, like those of an old man with palsy, and he remembered. Even when he covered his eyes with those shaking hands, still the images spooled across the insides of his closed eyelids.

Flip.

“My name's Starbuck, Captain. Lieutenant Starbuck.”

“Lieutenant First Class?”

“Yeah. But don't let that fool you. I wouldn't want you expecting a first class lieutenant.”

Grab.

“Is he allergic to me, or something?”

“Er … he needed to … er … you know… go.”

“That's odd, Lieutenant Boomer. I know I'm still trying to find my way around this ship, so I might be wrong, but I think the ‘flushes are in the other direction.”

Flip.

“So, from what you're very carefully not saying, it's the family connexions he objects to. Well, I can't do anything about that, but If it's family he wants, he can have some of mine. I've a younger brother that I'd pay to have taken off my hands. I've a sister, too… nah. On second thoughts, I've a spare great aunt, somewhere. He can have her instead. She's eccentric, shaves more often than I do, and she's well past childbearing age. Offering your sister to someone with Starbuck's reputation is probably not a good idea.”

“You caught on to that fast.”

“I may be over-bred, Boomer, but I'm not blind.”

Grab.

“It's getting to the point of it being either him or me, Dad. I'm going to make him my wingman.”

“What difference do you expect that to make?”

“If he dislikes me that much, constant companionship should drive him crazy. He's got a few choices. Transfer out, kill me, kill himself or realise that I'm not so bad after all. I've no idea which one he'll go for. It'll be interesting to find out.”

“Very interesting, as long as it's not option two. I'd never explain away that one to your mother.”

Flip.

“Well, you can fly, anyway.”

“Careful, Starbuck. That came close to sounding approving. Grudging, but approving.”

“Don't push it, Captain. But getting us through that firefight is worth a beer.”

“All right. And if you're buying, the name's Apollo.”

Grab.

“Triad? Well, I played at the Academy, Starbuck, but that was a few yahrens ago. Not much chance, since. An-Nath doesn't have room for a Triad court.”

“Fancy a match against Boomer and Kyle?”

“You want me to play the ship's champions? Sheesh. Well…okay. Just don't expect too much.”

Flip.

“We hammered 'em, Starbuck!. We could take this next championship, easy.”

“You could have told me you were that good!”

“I don't understand why you're so mad that we won.”

“You said you were out of practice. I didn't think we could take them. I had twenty cubits riding on those two winning.”

“You bet on us to lose?”

“Better get used to this, Captain. I'll bet on anything.

Grab.

“The commander just announced the news about An-Nath. I figured you wouldn't want to come to the OC, so I brought the OC to you. A bottle of ambrosa's worth, anyway And I thought if you wanted some company…?”

“Come in, Starbuck. I'd like that.”

Flip.

“It can't lose. C'mon Captain, I swear this system just can't lose! All I'm asking for is fifty lousy cubits!”

“Fifty!”

“Forty, then. Forty?. Okay. Thirty five, and that's my last offer.”

‘”Thirty five cubits!”

“Thirty five lousy cubits….”

“But they're my lousy cubits, Starbuck. I'm sorta attached to them.”

“But we'll be rich. We can't lose, Apollo! Trust me.”

Grab.

"I always get pretty nervous when you sound like you're making sense, Starbuck. There's something unnatural about it."

"I thought it made you nervous when I said 'Hey, Apollo, I have an idea…' "

"Nervous? Hades, Starbuck, that scares the felger out of me! Especially when you say ‘Hey Apollo, I have an idea for a new system and all I need is twenty cubits…' "

“Funnily enough, I do have a new system… Apollo! You get back here at once! And stop screaming!”

Flip.

“Of course I'm serious. Why shouldn't I be serious? All I'm suggesting is that you come and stay with me rather than spend your leave in an army hostel someplace. I already told my mother I was bringing you home.”

“I dunno. This isn't some plot to marry me off to your fat, plain sister, is it?”

“Make your own mind up on how plain she is when you see her. Of course, you touch her and you're a dead man.”

“She's a final yahren cadet, right? If I touch her, she's the one likely to kill me.”

“That's my baby sister, all right. You're coming, ok?”

Grab.

“I like him, Appy. I really like him.”

“I'm glad, Mother, but will you please stop calling me Appy? I grew out of that about fifteen yahrens ago and if Starbuck hears you…”

“Morning, Siress Ila. Morning, Appy. So, Appy, we heading out to the beach today or what?”

“Apollo! Stop that at once! Starbuck's your guest!”

Flip.

“Starbuck can't go on patrol with you. He's sick. Right, Starbuck?”

“Uhhhh. Well. You know…”

“Well, that's kind of sudden. I don't know who I'll get to go on this patrol with me, with everyone wanting to celebrate the Armistice and all. I just don't know who I'm going to be able to find. Yes, Ensign Zac? You have a suggestion?”

Grab.

“This patrol, it's… er… its… er… it's kinda the last one we'll ever have… er… well, you know, the way we are.”

“Starbuck, are you jealous?”

“Er... yeah. I guess. In a way, I am. Don't tell anyone else, huh?”

“No, I won't tell anybody. You know something? I think what you're trying to say is pretty nice. We've had a lot of good times.”

Flip.

“Hey, hey, hey! It's against regulations to hug a junior officer. Unless you mean it.”

Grab.

“You're adopting, Boxey? That's one hell of a responsibility, Apollo.”

“I married his mother and didn't take care of her. The least I can do is take care of him. He's a good kid.”

“Maybe you need him as much as he needs you, if only to stop you from blaming yourself for something that wasn't your fault.”

“I'm going to need your help, Starbuck.”

“You always did.”

Flip.

“They were right, Apollo, whoever they were on that Ship. We do need you here. At least … well, I can't speak for the other 122,000 people in this fleet, although I think they're beginning to share my point of view, but I need you here.”

Grab.

“You look like… you're not going to kiss me, are you, Starbuck?"

"You know, I think I just might .”

Flip.

“We're not going anywhere, Starbuck.”

“Yeah? You have a particular route in mind?”

“I don't know. I just don't think we both want the same things. It's going nowhere.”

Grab.

“Love you. I'm so sorry, Starbuck. I'm so sorry. Stay with me, Starbuck.”

“Idiot. I'm not going anyplace. You don't get rid of me that easily.”

Flip.

Grab.

Of course, he cried. He sat slumped forward, folding his arms on the desk and laying his head down, he cried like a broken hearted child. For a little while he was able to drown out the memories. For a little while.

Flip.

“My name's Starbuck, Captain. Lieutenant Starbuck.”

“Lieutenant First Class?”

“Yeah. But don't let that fool you. I wouldn't want you expecting a first class lieutenant.”

Grab.

.

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