Section Six

 

Uuuhh..

Uuuhh.

"Geez," someone says.  "What a fucking mess."

Uuuhh.

That’s not breathing.  That’s a kind of reedy screaming, a high-pitched whine as fluid-damaged lungs strain to get anything at all into them.  That’s a man dying, the air rattling in his throat with each paroxysm, with each cracking, unsteady, labouring breath.

Shit.  That’s me.

Uuuhh.

"Stay with me, Boss.  Stay with me."

Uuuhh.

I know that voice.  Trent.  It’s Trent. 

I open my eyes to look at him, but I can’t see anything.

"Where the fuck’s the medics?" Trent’s screaming it, sounding terrified.  "Where the fuck are they?"  Then to me, in a softer voice, cajoling and pleading: "Take it easy, Apollo.  Stay with us.  Starbuck’s coming.  D’you hear me?  Starbuck’s coming."

Uuuhh.

Uuuhh.

"Salik’s on his way," Bojay says, sounding breathless.  "Two centons, tops.  Shit!  He looks dreadful.  He still with us?"

"Just."  Trent’s real hand is brushing my wet hair back.  "Just."

Uuuhh.

"Anything we can do?"

"No.  Don’t move him."  Trent glances up at the filtration column.  "I’m guessing he came down that.  God alone knows how much damage there is."

Uuuhh.

"Fuck," says Bojay, tone reverent.  "He’s bleeding a lot."

Uuuhh.

"Did you kill that Otori up there?" Bojay asks.

"He tried to stop me getting in here," Trent says, sounding grim.  His hand’s still smoothing my hair.  "Easy, Apollo.  Starbuck’s on his way.  Just don’t leave us, okay?  Stay with it."

"I called the commander," Bojay says.  "He’s on his way over."

"He’d better be fast," Trent sounds grim again.

Uuuhh.

There’s noise up at the top of the column, where the access hatch is.  Someone’s bursting through, running and shouting.  Shouting my name.

"Apollo?  Apollo!"

Uuuhh.

Uuuhh.

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

Someone’s holding me so tight I can hardly breathe.  All I want to do is snuggle in, living this embrace, the frantic murmuring as he holds me safe. 

"Oh God, I love you," he says, over and over.  "I’ve got you safe.  I’ve got you safe, Apollo.  I love you so much, so much.  Can you hear me, Apollo?  I’ve got you safe, and I’m never, ever going to let you go.  Can you hear me?"

Starbuck?

Starbuck’s holding me.  And he’s telling me again that he loves me, that we’ll be together for always, that he’s never, ever, ever going to let me go.

"Dear God," my father says.  "Dear God."

He leans over me, brushing my hair back and pressing his lips to my forehead.

"Apollo?"  And after a centon: "Can he hear me?"  he asks.

"No, I don’t think so.  He’s not really conscious," Salik speaks quietly. 

"His eyes are open," Dad protests.

"He’s virtually comatose, Adama."

That thin, reedy screaming has faded to a soft constant moaning.  It’s bloody annoying actually, like listening to a radio transmission through an ion storm; something on the edge of hearing that’s not close enough to hear the words.  I wish it would stop.

It’s fractionally easier to breathe.  But it all hurts so much, I’m so tired, so very tired that I can’t find the energy to speak, not even to respond to Starbuck.  Starbuck’s lips are against my temple, kissing me and mouthing the words against me, telling me that he loves me.  He’s holding me safe in his arms at last, and it’s so good, so good, and I’m too tired to tell him.

"I’m glad you’ve arrived," Salik says.

"How bad is it?"  Dad sounds heavy, distressed.

Cole won’t come here where Starbuck is, I know that.  But Zac’s here, somewhere on the other side of me from Starbuck, a dim shadow.

[Dad sounds worried] Zac says.  [You always were his favourite]

He broke his heart over you and Mother.

[And bang goes his heart again today]

Salik’s voice drops, but I can still hear him.  "Bad, Adama.  He’s got Cholassian, of course, and it’s no light dose this time around.  He’s already in renal failure, his lungs and heart are failing… and this is the pneumonic form, Adama.  His lungs are so full of fluid he should have drowned.  I’m trying to get him stable enough to take an anaesthetic…when he came down that filtration column he broke his leg, badly, in two places.  One’s a simple fracture and I’ve already fused the bone, but the other’s a compound femur fracture, and I can’t fuse that until I’ve straightened it.  And I need to suture his back.  He tore it to shreds coming down the column…" Salik’s voice trails away, then he says, more firmly, "I need the protection of the law here, Commander, and for you to make a decision."

"Decision?"  Dad sounds like he doesn’t like what he’s hearing.

[Uh-oh.  You listening, Appy?]

"The state he’s in, the anaesthetic will probably kill him.  The Lords know that it’s the last thing I should try to do with him.  Either we can try to save him, and risk losing him in surgery – and even if he survives that his chances of surviving the Cholassian are pretty slim – or I can make him comfortable and we can let him go."

The way Jianne made my poor priest comfortable and let him go.

[Thought so]

"No!" Starbuck lets me go and joins them.  "No!  You’ve no right to ask him.  It’s not his decision to make!  You can’t let Apollo die.  We’ve only just got him back, you can’t let him die!"

I turn my head very slowly.  They’re standing a few yards away from me, and Dad has his arm around Starbuck’s shoulders.

"The commander is Apollo’s legal next of kin, Starbuck," Salik says gently.  "It’s his decision to make."

"But that’s crazy!  We’ve been living together for over a yahren!" 

"He’s very ill, Starbuck," Salik says.  "He’s dying."

Starbuck catches at my father’s hands.  "Commander!  You know what I was going to ask him that night.  You know!"

"And I think I know what his answer would have been, Starbuck."  Dad pulls him close.  "But Starbuck, look at him.  We can’t let him suffer.  We can’t let that go on."

"You’ve no right!"

[You’d better do something] Zac says.  [Dad seems surprisingly keen to pull the plug on you.  Maybe you’re not such a favourite after all.  Maybe he hasn’t ever quite forgiven you for that time you tried to fight him over the Academy]

That was a lifetime ago, and he won.

[Well, maybe he’s not forgiven you for Starbuck.  It’s not exactly what he wanted for his son and heir, and you know it, no matter how good a face he’s putting on it]

You’re just jealous.

[I’m dead.  And so are you, unless you do something about it]

Iblis’ last triumph.  He knew they were here.  That’s what Sheba meant; that’s what the new number sequence meant.  Drake must have made it back after all, and Dad turned the Fleet to come and find me. 

And once Sheba realised the Fleet was here and they couldn’t get away, she and Iblis meant them to find me.  He didn’t get Sheba to hide me in the filtration tower so that they couldn’t find me, but so they’d find me too late.  He wants me to die, and he wants them to have to live with it for the rest of their lives, that they told Salik to let me go.

[Clever] Zac agrees.  [And malicious and evil.  And he’ll win, Appy, if you don’t do something]

What?

Starbuck’s sobbing.  I can hear him, far away.

[You’d better tell him, maybe?  You know, all that romantic guff earlier about how you were going to use your last breath]  Zac sounds much clearer and closer than that distant sobbing, and I can almost see him.  [Well, now’s your chance.  Tell him]

So I think about that.

Zac’s memory can be inconveniently good.  It’s true that I was going to use my last breath to tell Starbuck that I love him.  That there’s never been anyone for me like him: not Serina, not even Cole.

I guess that now is as good a time as any.

Starbuck.

Starbuck?

[Louder, you idiot] Zac says.  [He’s outside your head.  He can’t hear you]

"Starbuck."

The blood’s pounding in my ears with the effort.  The soft moaning sharpens into a huge, gasping breath, maybe the very last one, after all.

"Starbuck?"

"Apollo!" 

He’s back in a micron, getting his arms around me, giving me a place to die in.

Safe in his arms, at last.

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

"Hello," says Cole.

He’s not changed one iota since I last saw him, standing on the shuttle deck, watching as I stepped onto the Pegasus’ shuttle that was taking me away to rendezvous with the Galactica on the other side of the star system.  Cain would be delighted, he’d said when Marcus contacted him, to give his old friend’s son a lift to his next posting, and catch up with Dad on old times at the same time.

I hated that bonhomie, that look-at-me-what-a-hero-I-am ebullience, that larger than life personality that was taking me away from my lover.

I’d kissed Cole goodbye in the quiet of my quarters after our last night together, promising that I’d be back, that we’d be together again.  He was calm and resigned by the time we met up on the flightdeck for the last time.  They were all lined up to say good bye, everyone from Colonel Marcus to the ground crew sergeant, but it was Cole I watched as the shuttle lifted off, twisting in my seat to catch a last glimpse of his sad face and the uplifted hand.  The last image I have of him.

I never saw him again, until now.  He looks just the same.  He’s still young and beautiful, tawny hair falling round a face that I’ve never forgotten in more than six yahrens now, brown eyes warm and loving, and they’re crinkling at me the way they used to do when he was going to tell me he loved me.

This time I can touch him.  He’s real and warm and breathing, laughing as I pull him towards me.  I run my hand down the side of his throat and down over his shoulder and chest.  He always leaves the first couple of fasteners on the flight-tech’s coverall open, so I can slide my hand inside to find a nipple and twist it gently.  He likes me doing that.  He always did.  He gasps, and his hands close on my backside, pulling me in close, and move gently up my spine, warm and real through my uniform tunic.

"I love you," I tell him, remembering how wonderful that first ambrosa-tasting kiss was, in that dark storeroom, so many yahrens ago.

"Love you, too," he says, and gets his hands around the back of my neck to pull me in for the kiss.

He tastes just the same as he always did.  Clean and fresh, and reminding me of something green and growing, of spring.

"God, that’s so sick," Zac says, cheerfully, watching us with a critical expression on his face.  "Sometimes, Appy, you sound like those crap romantic novels that Grandma used to read.  What he reminds you of is being young, the way I am."

I kiss Cole again before pulling away slightly, still holding him as I look for Zac.  He looks just the same too, in his brand new Ensign’s uniform, so clean and fresh the creases could cut steel.  It reminds me sharply of the time in the bachelor quarters, with Starbuck leaning up against his bunk, laughing quietly, as Zac cajoles me into letting him come with me on that last patrol in Starbuck’s place.

"Well, it’s better than usual," he says.  "Usually, when you think of me, I’m about ten yahrens old.  I suppose that feeds the guilt complex a bit better.  At least today you’ve let me grow up at bit."  He comes and puts his arms around both of us, giving us both a hug.  "It’s good to see you, Appy," he says thickly.

"I wasn’t sure before." I say.  "You always sounded less than delighted to be anywhere near me." 

Zac grins.  "That’s because it was my job to prod you into action, big brother.  I had to be a bit provocative, now and then.  Besides, it’s what I’m good at, after twenty two yahrens of being your irritating little brother."

"Yeah, it was all too, too familiar," I say, grinning back at him.  It’s wonderful to have him back, to have my old mistakes washed clean like this.

"It wasn’t your fault, Appy," says Zac.

I know.  At last, I really know that.  I could no more have prevented him being killed in battle, a hero, than I could have prevented the Cylons destroying the Colonies.  It’s just something that happened. 

Zac nods approval.

I turn to look at Cole.  "And your job?"

His eyes are warm.  "Just to love you."

"Lords," complains Zac, eyes rolling in disgust.  "A match made in Heaven.  But just  thank heaven you can’t have children with each other.  They’d be made from pure sugar."

Cole just laughs and kisses me, then holds me close, grinning at Zac over my head.

[Are they still out there?] Starbuck asks.

We all turn to look at him, but he’s little more than a faint wavering outline bending over me.  I can’t quite focus on him.

I try to reach for him.  I want him.

"No, I’ve got you now," Cole says, and his lips brush my forehead.  "You’re with me, Apollo."

I look from Cole, clear and warm, to that faint outline that’s Starbuck. 

I love Cole.  I love Starbuck.

But one’s dead, and the other means everything in life to me.

"With me," Cole says.

"He won’t allow it," Zac says, warningly. 

Who won’t allow what?

[They’re praying] Dad says, mildly enough. 

[There’s dozens of them]

I can tell Starbuck’s nervous, and his arms tightens around me for an instant, to keep me safe.  I love that.  I love that feeling.  I take a step towards him, and Cole’s arms tighten around me, to hold me back.

[They’re lighting candles and praying for him, that’s all]

[If they hadn’t kidnapped him in the first place, they wouldn’t need to be fucking praying now] mutters Starbuck and he pulls me in close to kiss me. 

I can just feel the touch of his lips on mine, little ghost kisses that remind me of something lost and gone, something I loved so very much.  It breaks my heart.

I love him so much.  So very much.

"You love me," Cole says.  "You love me, too.  Stay with me."

When I reach out a hand to touch Starbuck, there’s nothing there.

I don’t want to lose him. 

I really don’t want to lose him.

I look at Zac and Cole.  I’m in my uniform, not the thin sleep suit I should be wearing.  I’m well and strong.  They’re real and I can touch them.  I can kiss Cole, I can hug Zac. 

Dying then.  Or dead.

"Yup," says Zac.  "Afraid so, Appy."

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

I sleep a lot now.

I don’t know how long it’s been.  I sleep, wake briefly, sleep again.

Starbuck’s always here with me, caring for me, nursing me. 

I’ve been here before, with someone else doing this for me, someone else caring for me, someone else’s voice quieting me when the pain gets too much for me to bear without me whimpering like a helpless child.  Only that time there wasn’t the too-bright light, the machines whirring quietly beside me.  That time there wasn’t a warm body lying next to mine, holding me carefully.

That time it wasn’t Starbuck.

"Starbuck"

He slides off the bed so I can see him without having to turn my head, kneeling beside me, his arms around me.  He looks pale and tired, but he’s smiling in delight. 

"I’m here, Apollo," he says.  "I’m here."

"Starbuck," I say, satisfied, and that little syllable has to say everything of how much I love him, how much he means to me.  I manage to get a hand to touch his hair.  The littlest of tugs is all I can do, but it’s enough to bring him in close and kiss me.

I fall asleep again while he’s doing it.  

Safe.

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

I don’t know how long I’ve been sick, or how long Starbuck and Dad have been here.  I sleep, wake for longer and longer periods, sleep again.  Usually they’re both here.  Sometimes it’s Salik or Cassie, and once or twice Jianne, here instead of Dad.  Starbuck’s always here.

Sometimes I even talk a little to them, a word here or there, disjointed and disconnected.  I know it’s disjointed and I get frustrated, and it’s really infuriating when they turn to me with exaggeratedly attentive faces, encouraging me to talk.  They get so hearty and enthusiastic about any word I manage to get out that I begin to feel quite stupid and dull witted. 

And in the middle of a word, in the middle of telling him that I love him, I fall asleep again.  It’s all quite annoying, really. 

Especially when I wake up and find Starbuck sitting looking at me with an expectant expression on his face.  "Three words," he says when he sees I’m awake again.  "Three little words, Apollo.  Let’s see if you can manage all of them this time.  In sequence, would be nice, if not strictly necessary to the overall sense and meaning."

He's practised saying that.  I’m not sure he deserves to be told anything at all, so I just look at him, and smile sleepily.

"Oh Apollo," he sighs.  "I’d have had more luck training Muffy."

He leans in and kisses me.

Well, who needs words?

And after a few centons I’m awake enough to tell him what he wants to hear, and for some considerable time after that, he’s too busy kissing me to talk sensibly about anything.  My mouth must have healed because it doesn’t hurt, and doesn’t revolt him.  At least, if it does revolt him, it doesn’t stop him from kissing me.

There’s a lot of words, half broken sentences that tell me that if I was in hell on this ship for all those sectons, Starbuck was in a worse hell back home.  At least I knew he was alive.  For sectons he thought I had to be dead.  Not knowing almost killed him, he says, kissing my eyes and face, and if it hadn’t been that Boxey needed him, he didn’t think he’d have got through it.

He sits and holds me for a long time, not talking much, just holding me.  It feels so good that I could stay like this for ever. 

"Boxey?" I say after a while.

"Fine."  Starbuck wipes his eyes, with one hand, then gets his arms tight around me again.  "Out of his head with delight that we’ve found you and desperate to get you home, but he’s fine."

"Did I die?"  I ask, after another silence.

His arms tighten on me.  "Don’t be nuts," he says, but there’s a choke in his voice.

"Zac told me."

He pulls away from me and looks troubled.  He puts a hand against my forehead.
 
"I’m not delirious," I say, and grin at him to reassure him.

"You were," he says, and his eyes are watchful.  "You were very delirious.  You spent most of the time talking to Zac."

And Cole, I think, remembering Cole holding my hands while Starbuck and Dad watched Salik and Cassie working on me. 

Cole and Starbuck, and me strung out between them.  Wanting to go, wanting to stay.

And then Aerion, commanding and uncompromising, sending me back, and Cole shrugging, his face sad and resigned the way it was on An-Nath’s shuttledeck.  His good-bye kiss was warm and gentle before he let me go again, letting me leave him behind again.  And then it was Starbuck’s arms around me, his hands holding me safe.

Cole’s dead and gone.

But Starbuck seems to be reluctant to mention him.  It’s funny, reminding me of the way Cole always used to fade out if I thought of Starbuck.  But Cole’s gone now and Zac’s gone, fading back into memories, and we’re here.  There’s no need for Starbuck to be jealous.  I mean, if I was jealous of every one of Starbuck’s past lovers, I’d have no time for anything else. 

Not that I am jealous.  Why should I be jealous?

"Apollo," he says quietly.

I blink and stare at him, momentarily bemused.

"Just testing.  You were fading out on me."

"I’m all right."

"Well, you will be," he says.  "Salik says, and I quote, that you show quite remarkable resilience.  I’m not sure he approves of it."

"Huh?"

"He expected you to die, and you didn’t.  He doesn’t like being wrong, doesn’t the good doctor."

I’m not sure he was.  I’m sure that I died and Cole and Zac were there, and… well, maybe it was a dream.  Maybe it was all a dream.  Starbuck wants it to be a dream, so maybe it was.  Nothing more.

"Of course, I love it when he’s wrong.  Did I tell you how much I love you, Apollo?"

"Tell me again," I say.

Well, Starbuck’s not a man to refuse an invitation.  I never thought that kissing could be so exhausting.  I think he forgets I’m not supposed to get excited.  Either that, or his hands have ideas of their own, and I’m struck by the strange way in that he seems to have more hands than should be humanly possible.

I’ve missed that; the Starbuck octopus effect.  It’s always been one of the more exciting and pleasurable experiences in being Starbuck’s lover, with the wonderful element of surprise and anticipation, because I never know where one of his hands will end up next.  Keeps you on your toes, I can tell you.

I’ve really missed that.

But then he remembers, as he puts it in remorseful tones, that I’m to be dull, dull, dull; and the number of hands reduces to something close to normal human levels.  And when no amount of pouting on my part persuades him to relent, I realise what my second most wanted thing in the world is.

"I’d like some tea," I say.

"Really?" Starbuck sounds delighted, and I reflect that even a longing for something as mundane as tea is a sign of hope and returning life, and things must have been pretty grim for him to be this pleased.  "Great!  I’ll ask Liu to get you some."

Liu?  Liu’s alive?  I feel guilty for not asking before.

"But Zhyn knocked him down, stabbed him …"

"A drug of some kind in a hypo," Starbuck says.  "They’re Otori, remember?  He’s fine.  He’s been outside the door for days.  Your Dad reckons we might get rid of him if we dynamite him out of the way, but otherwise he seems to think he’s a fixture in your life from now on."  He grins at me and says, in a fair approximation of an Otori accent:  "I have my duty, friend Starbuck."

I smile at him and he groans and kisses me again.

"Stop that, Apollo.  It makes you look beautiful, and I can’t be answerable for the consequences."  He takes a deep breath and returns to the subject of my Honour Guard.  "I guess I can live with Liu around.  It’ll handy to have a permanent Boxey watcher on call, for when I want to get you to myself for a while." 

"Soon," I say, promising him, and a few more kisses later, he finally puts me down against the pillows and heads for the door and Liu.

I look around.  We aren’t still in the hold.  A fair sized cabin, this, with a fresher off it.  Bigger than Dio’s quarters, but not thankfully, the cabin where Sheba… I wonder what’s happened to her?  Where they’re holding her?

But I’d rather watch Starbuck than think about her.  So I do.  I watch him talk to someone out in the corridor, then step to one side to let Liu come in.  I’m too tired to talk much, but I smile at Liu, and he grins slightly, ducks his head and says that he will be delighted, Kinan, to go and fetch tea, and thank the Lords that our prayers have been answered…

I smile and settle back where it’s warm and comfortable, and I close my eyes for a micron.

I never do get that tea.

I’m asleep before Starbuck can turn around, I think.

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

Starbuck asks Liu to get Dad, picks me up and settles me against his chest.  He has to be careful because I’m still linked up to a lot of machines and there’s tubes and intravenous lines everywhere, but I’m not comfortable anywhere else.  I put my palm flat against his heart, and I can feel his heartbeat in my hand. 

He’s real, and I’m alive, and we’re together.  That’s all I need.

"Staying awake this time?"

"I’ll try," I say. 

"Good.  Last time, your Dad hared in here to find you snoring again.  And I’m fed up with telling Boxey that he can’t talk to you just yet because you’re asleep.  He’s beginning to suspect me of conning him."

"He’s really okay?"

"He is now," Starbuck says, nuzzling my hair.  "He can’t wait until we get you home again.  I can’t wait to get you home, Apollo."

"Sure he’s okay?"

"Sure I’m sure.  I talk to him every day, while – surprise, surprise – you’re asleep.  I’ll bring a comlink down here tomorrow and you can talk to him yourself."  Starbuck looks at me critically.  "You look better than you did.  You were a pretty scary object for a few days, and I wouldn’t have let him see you, even if I could.  He’s been frightened enough."

I decide that I won’t ask for details.  I really don’t want to know.  "I can’t wait to talk to him."

"Tomorrow.  It’s after midnight, ship’s time, Apollo, and he’ll be asleep.  I always call him at breakfast…"

"To do his rituals with him?" I ask, and smile when he nods at me.  "Thank God.  It ‘s only a little thing, but it’s important to him.  It’s been worrying me."

Starbuck grins.  "It’s very important, and you can have the job back in the morning.  According to him, you’re the only one who can do it properly anyway, because you’re his proper Dad and the only one who can sound like *your* Dad.  He’s a funny kid.  He says Anton doesn’t quite get it right, and that plummy accent has him in stitches."

"Anton?"

"He’s staying with Anton at the moment, and they’re both pretty brisk and cheerful now they know how resilient you are."

"Why isn’t he with Athena?"

"She’s too busy having babies all over the place," Starbuck says.

"Already?"  I say, aghast.

"Apollo, it’s been more than two sectars since the wedding."

"Two sectars?"  I must have lost track of one helluva lot of time.  She had at least nine sectons to go after the wedding.  I think I can remember six sectons or so here on the Icarus, maybe even seven if I stretch it, but not nine.  I can’t have been ill for more than a few days, surely.  Not a couple of sectons.

"She had the baby three days ago, just about the time Salik gave in and said that you would make it."  His arms tighten on me again.  "So we had good news going in each direction.  It made up for a lot."

"What?"

"A little girl.  Boxey’s disgusted, of course, but Boomer’s pretty incoherent about her.  I guess from that, that she’s pretty spectacular."

Dad comes in with Liu, looking eager and almost young, despite the white hair.  He doesn’t say a thing, just rushes over to take hold of me.  He holds me so very tight that I have a little difficulty breathing again.  When he lets me go, all he can say is my name, over and over, as he uses one hand to brush away his tears, the other to brush my hair back out of my eyes.

I decide to let him.  I decide that I like him doing that, and I’ve missed it, and that the resentful silence about myself that I’ve directed at him for the last fourteen yahrens is over.  It isn’t needed any more.

I’m all right, I tell him.  And I tell him to stop worrying, that I’m all right.  And I am.  I’m confused and I don’t understand anything that’s going on, and I can’t work out at all how they got here, but I’m going to stay awake this time and I’m all right.

"I knew you’d changed course," I say, as Liu bows ceremoniously and pours me tea in the fine, handle-less porcelain cup I’ve grown used to.  "I felt that.  Drake got back then?"

"Not exactly," Starbuck says slowly, helping me hold the cup steady.  

The tea tastes wonderful, and I can feel it strengthen me.  I smile my thanks at Liu, noting his new face markings, and he nods back at me, grave and as outwardly unemotional as ever.

"We found him, Apollo," Dad says quietly.  "He managed somehow to keep his ship on an interception course.  One of our patrols picked up on a distress beacon, found his Viper and brought it in.  He’d been dead for several days, but he left enough information to tell us where the three missing ships were, and that you were a prisoner here, on the Icarus; that you were sick, and that the sickness was spreading.  He knew he wasn’t going to make it back, but he tried to make sure that if we found him, we’d find you."

Oh.  I’m sorry about that.  I’ll miss him.  I think back, to him and Dio playing those endless silent games of chess, caring for me and plotting how to get me out of here.  And in the end they’re both gone and I’m still here.

Dad gives Starbuck an odd look.  "Apollo?" he says gently, a little anxiously, and I realise that I probably faded out for a centon or two.

I just nod.  "I’ll miss him," I say, and put it all away, to think about later when I’m able to.  When I can, I’ll remember him and Dio properly, as they deserve to be remembered.

"He said that it was Sheba who shot him down," Starbuck puts in, not remarking on me saying I’d miss someone I’d once despised.  "Did she go after him?"

"Yes.  And it’s true, she did kill him.  She was crowing about it.  She even gave me a data crystal taken from her Viper."

"Showing her attacking him?" demands Dad in disbelief.  I hope he’s thinking hard about his marital plans for me and that it makes him a humbler parent in future.  Actually, I’d just settle for being parented in a less directive and managerial manner, but I guess I can dream. 

I nod.  "I don’t know where it is now."

Liu grins, refills my tea and presents me with two data crystals.  "I thought that you might want these, Kinan," he says, and with a neat bow, he leaves us.

"I do wish they’d stop calling you that," Dad says, anxiously. 

Well, as a good Kobolian, he’s probably at least reasonably familiar with the Prophecies, and I’ll bet he rushed off to look it up as soon as someone first referred to me as the Kinan.  And he doesn’t like it.  Interesting.  He always wanted me to have a religious reaction to what happened to me, some sort of revelation.  Well, now I have, finally, he’ll have to get used to it.

"It’s who I am," I say, and he flinches.  I hand him the crystals.  "It’s one of these.  The other one’s of you two on IFB.  Dio did it for me."

"I heard about Dio," Dad says, gently, taking the crystals.  He puts them carefully into his belt pouch.

I nod.  I can’t talk about Dio yet.  Not yet.  But I’ll have to ask about her, I guess.  I need to know where she is, what they’ve done with her.  I lean back against Starbuck.  "What’s happened to them?  Cantor and Zhyn and Sheba?"

"Later, maybe,"  Dad says, looking anxious.

"I want to know."

Dad looks at Starbuck again.

"I’m fine, you two.  Please tell me."

"All right," Dad says, reluctant.  "But I’ll make this short.  You look tired."

"No!" Starbuck says, astonished.  "You’ll be suggesting he’ll be falling asleep, next."

Dad just grins, then says, soberly, "Cantor’s been pretty sick, but Salik thinks he’s likely to survive to stand trial.  Tomas is dead, from the plague.  So is Zhyn, but not because of Cholassian, although Salik says he would probably have died anyway.  Trent shot him when he tried to stop anyone getting into the filtration tower where they’d hidden you.  Trent shot to kill.  We were pretty certain you were on board and Trent wasn’t in the mood for negotiation."

So Zhyn finds his own Paradise, although, as a good Kinan should, I led him to it.  I remember what he said to me, sectons ago, about the Fleet.  *The Lords punish us, constantly, for their wickedness.  They send plagues to torment us.* 

I wonder if they do irony in whatever hell Zhyn’s burning in right now.

"Good." I smile slightly at that.  "The plague?"

"On the turn," Starbuck says.  "We’re still in quarantine and will be for at least the next two sectons, but it’s slowing and Salik says he has it under control.  The dying’s stopped, anyway."

"How many died?"

Dad looks quickly at Starbuck.  "Don’t worry about that right now."

"How many?"

Dad sighs.  "It took such a strong hold before Jianne realised what it was."

"How many, Dad?"

"On the Icarus, over four hundred.  Another three hundred or so on the other two ships.  We’re still counting."

Shit. 

Aerion’s warning about the consequences of failing to walk with his Anointed was grim indeed, his arrows tipped with contagion.  That’s an awful lot of silence.

"Apollo…" Dad starts.

I don’t let him finish.  I know what he’s going to tell me: that it isn’t my fault, that I was an unwitting carrier, that a disease is an act of God, not man.  I know all that.  But it doesn’t make it any easier to live with the memory of Dio’s weak voice trying to sing the service when his mind was gone with fever, or the face of the dead child that Jianne was covering with the blanket.

"It’s all right," I say, and I know by his expression that he’s not fooled by that for a micron.  But I need to think about it, to get it into its proper perspective in my own way, and no amount of talking will help.

Xuian may.  Aerion gave Xuian a true vision of the consequences of trying to twist the prophecy.  That I can maybe live with, to put the blame back six thousand yahrens, onto the shoulders of my unscrupulous ancestor and his mad prophet.

Starbuck’s arms around me tighten, and I lean back against him.  This is just so comforting, to feel safe again after all these sectons alone.

"Sheba?"  I ask, not able to put it off any longer.  "You haven’t mentioned Sheba."

Dad coughs, and looks non-plussed.  "Actually, Apollo, I don’t quite know what to tell you."

"I was with her when Trent called me to say he’d found you," Starbuck says.  He sounds a touch ashamed of himself.  "To be honest, Apollo, I wasn’t above roughing her up a bit to get her to tell me where you were, but…" he pauses, and I feel him shrug, "It’s weird.  It’s like there’s nothing there at all.  She just sits there, rocking backwards and forwards, and doesn’t say a thing.  Like she’s catatonic."

"She isn't faking it," Dad adds, homing straight into my first reaction to the news.  "Salik's not had a lot of time to assess her fully, of course – he’s been run off his feet trying to get this outbreak under control – but all the tests and brain scans he’s been able to do show no higher brain functions whatsoever."

I stare at him.  "What?"

"There’s nothing in there, Apollo," Starbuck says. 

"Nothing?"

Dad shakes his head.  "There’s just enough going on inside her head to keep autonomic functions going, but Salik says that there’s absolutely nothing else.  No speech, no thinking, no personality.  She's mindless, Apollo.  Wiped clean.  Erased.  Salik doesn't have the first idea of what caused this."

I do, though.  Iblis failed, and he isn’t going to stick around inside Sheba when she won’t be in any position to do me any damage.  He’ll know that she’d end up on Prison Barge for life, for Drake’s murder alone.  There’s no point in staying in those circumstances.

So, he’s gone, leaving a barely animated corpse behind him.

I get very quiet, thinking about it, and I think that they get worried, sending Liu for help.  Salik, when he comes, gives them a talking-to for exhausting me, and fusses over me like he’s getting a child to sleep.  He gets the intra-gastric feeding tubes into me and tells me to go to sleep and stop causing trouble.  I’m very tractable, and close my eyes until Salik shoos Dad out and Starbuck climbs carefully onto the third of the bed that’s all that’s left for him, and holds me close for the rest of the night.

But although I’m very tired, I don’t sleep so well this time.  Instead, I listen to Starbuck’s even breathing, feel his warmth close beside me, feel the weight of his arm holding me.

And I think about Iblis.

He’s gone.  He’s gone, abandoning the poor creature he’s animated for so long, destroying everything she was, and leaving a breathing, mindless shell behind to carry my son for me.

Poor Sheba.  Poor dead Sheba.  I don't know that there was anything of her left at the end, as Iblis slowly and subtly burnt her away from the inside. 

Iblis’ revenge, to remind me how fleeting are our victories.

But he *is* gone.

This time, anyway.

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

I’ve told them what happened with Sheba, both what I think that Iblis did and what I know that I did.

Starbuck says that they know about her trying to get pregnant by me.  Jianne had told them that much, not long after they got here, when they were trying to piece together what happened to me. 

"It doesn’t matter, Apollo," he says, but there’s a little shake in his voice.  "We know that you wouldn’t have done it.  Jianne and Liu told us how you were drugged."

I’ve had too much else to think about since it happened, sectons ago now.  But having to tell them about it now makes me wonder again how much the drugs stripped away the civilised veneer and turned me into an animal that only wanted to rut, and I still wonder if I really enjoyed hurting her.  But most of all, the hurt in Starbuck’s voice upsets me.  It does matter.  It matters to him, and it hurts him.

"She engineered the whole thing, Apollo," Dad says, when Starbuck’s hushed the frantic apologies with his mouth and I’m calmer and reassured that he forgives me.  Dad’s disapproval is for her, not me.  "Put it out of your mind.  I’m sorry that it happened, and I wish to God that we could have found you earlier, but put it out of your mind."

He’s more worried about what I say about Sheba having been mindless and dead ever since Iblis was here, and that what’s animated her since then has been his dark spirit.  I seem to be the only one who could see it, as if the Ship of Lights left me with some sort of sensitivity to Iblis. 

What concerns me is how long it took for me to notice, how long it took for me to realise that the reason I turned away from Sheba was that I could somehow sense what had happened even if I didn’t recognise it at first. 

What concerns Dad, I think, is that she might be what I say.  If he accepts that, he might have to accept how much I’ve changed too.  Too much for his comfort.  He tries to dismiss it as fevered imaginings on my part, but I’m very firm about it, and between that and the acceptance I’ve reached about what it is, exactly, that I am, he accepts that there’s something to be inquired into.  Then he tentatively asks me if I’ll talk to a priest about it all.

I stare at him for a micron.  I can’t believe that he’d ask that.  "The only priest I trusted is dead," I say.

"There are many who Cantor didn’t trust to bring with him here, Apollo," Dad says.  "I think that anyone he didn’t want with him, is worth us at least considering as decent."

I lie back against Starbuck, and watch the dialysis machines idly for a centon or two.  They’re cleaning my blood, Salik explained to me this morning, because my kidneys are shot to hell and can’t function properly yet.  That’s what the pain in my lower back was: renal failure.  A consequence of what the priests conspired to do that might mean I never get into a Viper again and, if I don’t recover some kidney function, could eventually kill me as certainly as the Cholassian fever killed Dio.  And yet he expects me to trust them?  I do not think so.

"I’ll consider it," I say, and I can almost feel Starbuck’s surprise.  "Now Dio’s gone, I’ll have to think about how Cantor’s to be replaced.  I’ll need to consider who’s in the running."

I can’t say that it ever crossed my mind before this micron that if anyone’s going to choose the next Vicar-General, it’s going to be me.  But it’s crossed my mind now.  Dio was not the sort of priest that that hierarchy would have chosen, but he’d have got my vote and that, frankly, is all that counts.  The Lords know that my poor Dio would have died rather than be thrust into such a role, and he’d have hated the responsibility.  But that’s all right.  Whoever is the next Vicar-General is going to find his or her role greatly reduced in importance.

After all, the Church has the Lords’ Anointed now.

And one who understands a little better the imperative of a Lord’s bloodline. 

Dad knows exactly what I mean, and chokes, white with shock.  Starbuck shakes with silent laughter, his arms tightening on me.  He ducks his head to plan a kiss somewhere behind my left ear.

"That’s my smart lover," he says.

Dad gives me a very doubtful look, opens his mouth, closes it again, and rapidly changes the subject.

"I’m sorry I wasn’t around earlier when you talked to Boxey.  I was on the comlink to Tigh."

"You missed hearing him?" Starbuck asks, amazed.  "When the link came through, the screech he let out could have been heard all the way to Earth.  It’s a wonder he didn’t blow every circuit on the ship."

"He’s only a little boy," Dad says, indulgent.  "And he has every right to be excited."

"I was talking about Apollo."

Dad laughs, but he’s still looking shocked and worried.  I’ve got him nervous, I think.

"It was wonderful," I say, and mean it.  Seeing and talking to my excited little son after so many frighteningly lonely sectons had been the second most wonderful thing to happen to me, ever.

The first most wonderful thing to happen to me, ever, kisses me behind my ear again.  He likes kissing me in unusual, not to say unsuitable, places.  Well, they’re very unsuitable when a directive and managerial parent is in close proximity and wants to know why you’re going pink and you’re wriggling, and your temperature isn’t going up again, is it?

Well, yes, Dad, it is, but it’s not the Cholassian fever.  It’s the fever that is, thank God, incurable.

"We had some fun thinking up names for the baby," Starbuck says, coming to my rescue before Dad reaches terminal fussing mode. 

"Yeah."  I’m grateful for the diversion.  I think Dad is trying to forget his fright and apprehension about what I might do to the church, which I can understand, but I’d rather he didn’t forget it in fussing me to the point of insanity.  "Boxey told me that Thenie got sentimental enough to want to call it after me if it’d been a boy.  Boxey thinks she still should."

"There’s no feminine form of Apollo," Dad says, looking puzzled.  "Is there?"

"Boxey came up with one," Starbuck says.  "How does Apollina grab you?"

Dad winces.  "By the throat," he says responding with a Starbuckism and doing so with remarkable aplomb.

"Actually, I think that you’ll find that Apollonia was a reasonably common name in some parts of Caprica a few thousand yahrens ago," I say, a scholar to the last.

"There are good reasons it died out, Apollo, believe me."

"How about Apollette, then?" Dad suggests, gamely entering into the fray.

We consider that one.  I imagine my sister’s likely reaction, and shudder.  There’s no amount of sibling sentimentality would get us past that one.  Not with whole skins, anyway.

"Nah," Starbuck says.  "Sounds like something I’d wear on my shoulder with my dress uniform."

"All the better for ripping off when you’re finally cashiered," I say. 

His mouth is on my ear, the warm breath tickling me.  "For screwing with my commanding officer in the turboflushes?"

I can feel myself go red.

"Why, Apollo," he says, delighted at the wriggle and protesting murmur that provokes in me.  Then more thoughtfully:  "Apollo.  Apollo.  Now there’s one variant we didn’t consider!  What about Polly?  Polly’s a nice name."

"Oh please!"  Dad and I say, united in revulsion.

Actually, I’m more apprehensive than revolted.  And I have good right to be.

"Well, I like it.  And if Athena rejects it, I’ll use it myself."

"Don’t you dare!"

"Hush, Polly.  You know what Salik says about you getting excited."  The bastard gives me a sweet smile.  "It’s a pity Thenie can’t call the baby after me."

" ‘Stella’ would be close," Dad says over my spluttering.

Starbuck’s unimpressed.  "Too refined and Kobolian sounding.  I’m an unreconstructed peasant, remember?  How about Starbuckina?  Starbuckette?  Starbucka?"

"At least the last one rhymes with your primary talent," I say, to get back at him.

Starbuck sighs.  "And don’t I wish you were well enough," he says regretfully.

Dad goes pink around the ears and gets up hurriedly.  "I think I’ll…er… I’ll just go and call Tigh," he says and leaves as fast he can and still retain the trademark Commander-dignity-and-stateliness.

I grin at Starbuck.  I’ve missed this.  Just being able to talk to him and make him laugh, I’ve really missed that.  And the thought of what we did in those turboflushes… well, I have really, really missed that.

"You know," I say, invitingly.  "I’m getting better by the centon."

Never let it be said that Starbuck is slow to take a hint.

He’s not slow at all.  And blow me, if that octopus effect isn’t back.

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

I look terrible.

Starbuck’s sound asleep on his half of the bed, tired out with days of nursing me.  Not with anything else, unfortunately.  I am getting better, but not that much better yet.  I still fall asleep while he’s getting me excited.

But at least I’m better enough for Salik to unhook me from the dialysis machine.  Only temporarily, he says, to see how things go, and he still has various tubes and strong polythene bags attached to me whose purpose I’d rather not think about, but it’s encouraging.  It’s encouraging enough to make me risk waiting until Salik has bustled himself off to see to the rest of the invalids on this ship, and then slowly and carefully, getting myself out of bed and into the flush.

It takes a long time and I have to cling to the furniture on the way, because my legs have apparently been amputated while I’ve been sick and replaced with rubber.  Now that offers some interesting possibilities for the future in tune with Starbuck’s known sexual fetishes, but as locomotory devices, rubber legs leave a lot to be desired.

I don’t need to use the flush – after all, I’ve a polythene bag to deal with that kind of thing, always supposing my recalcitrant kidneys decide to resume duty – but I do want to clean up a bit, and there’s something childish in me that’s beginning to resent having to be washed and dried like Athena’s baby.  I can do these things for myself, and to prove it is one hell of a step back to normality. 

What I never thought about was the mirror in there.

I look terrible.  There’s pinkish new skin around my mouth where the sores were, and my cheekbones stick out like shelves.  I daren’t even think about how much weight I’ve lost, but if Boxey made a ring with his thumb and forefinger, he could probably enclose my arm in it.  Okay, an exaggeration, but only a slight one.  I do not look healthy.

The most shocking bit is the definite flashes of silver on each temple.

Oh great. 

I’ll admit my father looks fine with white hair.  He looks distinguished and venerable, every inch the wise and great Commander, the leader of our people on this great quest.  But he’s more than forty yahrens older than me, dammit!  I don’t want to look venerable until I’m at least as old as Sin itself.  Failing that, until I’m as old as Anton.  Given that the two are almost interchangeable, that’s a good long time to go.  But I’m only thirty one!

But it’s not age.  It’s not even because I’ve been so sick.  It’s Aerion’s mark on me, a sign of revelation, of accepting that I am of his bloodline.  In a few sectons, I’ll look exactly like him.

And that’s scary.

"Apollo!"

I turn too fast, taken by surprise at Cassie’s sudden appearance at the fresher door, and I have to grab at the basin as the dizziness flashes over me.  She’s beside me in a micron, getting an arm around me to hold me up.

"Boj!"  she says sharply.

I’m not entirely sure what Bojay’s doing in here, but I’m not complaining.  He replaces the basin as my main stay and support, and before I can even get my head together enough to speak, the two of them have me back into the bed.

"Sorry," I say when I get my breath back, as Cassie plumps up pillows and jams them behind my shoulders with more force than I think is strictly necessary. 

Cassie takes a step backwards, and her hands go automatically to her hips.  For some reason that escapes me, that particular stance always seems to feed feminine ire and  aggression. 

"And what the hell do you think you’re doing?" she demands, and she really is angry.  Since she gave up socialating, Cassie’s been very determined to be a lady and she almost never swears.

"Didn’t want to wake Starbuck," I say.

Oh boy.  That was stupid.  As Starbuck would say, that was tactical error number twenty two in the Spurned Lover Handbook. 

Cassie glances at him, still sleeping beside me despite the disturbance and noise, and just seeing the pair of us on the same bed is enough to get her bridling with annoyance about who she lost out to.  Not that she should complain, given how fast she jumped back into Cain's bed when the great hero honoured us with his brief presence before deserting again.  But when did pointing out someone else’s faults and failings ever have any good effect, especially when the other person has the whip hand here and is more than likely to take revenge by sneaking on you to your directive and managerial father?  

"That’s what he’s here for!  He’s supposed to looking after you.  Believe me, Apollo, the rest of us have more than enough to do without adding you to the workload.  Why were you out of bed?"  But she’s lowered her voice from a Valkyrie-like screech to something that won’t have bats falling from trees in all directions.  If we still had bats and trees, that is.

"I just wanted to get cleaned up a bit." I say trying to sound ingratiating, but thinking that all I sound is whiny.

"Don't you even think about it.  We've had enough fun and games keeping you alive."  She glowers at me, and turns to Bojay.  I don't think it’s my imagination that he’s been trying to make himself invisible or that her voice softens for him and him alone.  "You can have ten centons with him, and he’d better not be tired out when I get back here.  And you…" she turns her attention back on me and her tone sharpens.  "… I promise you that I’ve ways of dealing with unauthorised activity.  The next time you fancy a little walk, you wake that useless lump of space debris beside you and get him to do it, understood?"

I nod meekly, saving up her description of Starbuck for his later delectation.

"Good."  She gives me one more glare, softens her expression for Bojay, who looks mutely grateful, and flounces out.

We watch her go in an admiring silence.  I don't think that I’m a coward, but I wait until the door has firmly shut before speaking to Bojay, and then it’s only to observe that he's a brave man. 

"She’s quite something, isn't she?" he says, looking at the closed door with a fatuous expression on his face. 

Well, yes, if your taste runs to blondes with curves.  Mine runs to blonds with muscles and a five-o’clock stubble, so I have to say I’m unmoved by her performance of red-blooded womanhood.

Bojay, however, looks very moved.  He sighs happily, and comes to sit by the bed.  "I asked your Dad if I could come and see you," he says.  "How’re you feeling?"

"Better," I say.  "Although I don't ever want it to be this close again."

"You said it.  I was down that filtration tube only a couple of centons after Trent."  He grins at me.  "You did not look well."

I think I can remember, vaguely, that he was there, but I’d rather not think about it.  So instead I look as encouraging as I can, given what I think he's come to talk to me about.  He looks uncomfortable, and shifts in his chair, so I take pity on him.   "Sheba?"

He nods, and when he speaks it’s in hesitant half-sentences that keep trailing away.  "I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted her spaced, but I just wanted… I mean, there’s a few of us still care about her… not just because she’s Cain’s daughter, I mean…"

He shrugs at me, helplessly.

"I’ve not seen her, you know that," I say, carefully.  "But Dad has, a few times.  He feels responsible for her, since he and Cain were such old friends and when Cain went he wanted her to be a part of the family."

"Yeah," says Bojay, a touch sourly.  He wanted her then, and he was as jealous as hell about how much my father wanted her part of the family, as his daughter in law.

"Have you seen her?"

Bojay nods.  "Yesterday.  It’s… it’s horrible, Apollo.  What’s the commander going to do?"  He spreads his hands, in a helpless gesture.  "She’s not fit to be tried.  What’ll he do?"

"He agrees with you.  She isn't fit to be tried: not just for the conspiracy to kidnap me, but for desertion and poor Drake’s murder.  She’ll be looked after, Boj, I promise you that."

Dad had already told me that we'd have to take some responsibility for Sheba’s future care.  I can't say that it thrills me, but I agree with him.  Starbuck’s a bit less easy to convince, and I don't think he’ll be better pleased if she really is pregnant.  But for all that she needs to be looked after, and who else can take the responsibility?

"On the Barge?" he asks, voice sharp.

I shake my head.  "No.  That wouldn't be right.  Salik’s already talking about getting her onto the long-term care facility on the Alcestis.  She needs twenty-four centar care, and he doesn’t have the facilities for that on the Galactica."

"Along with all the other mental patients?" Bojay says, and his mouth twists.  Then he sighs, and it’s in stark contrast to his happy thinking-about-sex-with-Cassie sigh of a few centons ago.  "Do you know if Salik thinks there’s any chance of a cure?"

I keep to myself the retort that not even modern medical science can cure something that’s really been dead for two yahrens.  There’s no point in letting everyone know that Iblis never really left us, until now.

"From what Dad tells me, Salik isn’t very hopeful.  It’s not just like a mental illness that might respond to treatment, but more like severe brain damage.  I don't think that can be cured."  I watch him.  "I’m sorry, Boj.  I know that you felt a lot for her once."

He nods.  "And that makes me feel responsible.  Look, Apollo, we’ve been talking about it, those of us from the Pegasus.  I fully accept that the commander will do the best for her that he can, despite everything, but can I be in on it, too?  As a kind of Trustee, I suppose.  That’ll help reassure everyone."

"I don’t see why not.  I’ll talk to him about it," I say readily, and it does seem a good idea.

He’s satisfied by that.  "Good."  He pauses then says, painfully: "It really was her?"

I nod.  "She shot me and Starbuck down with a stunbolt.  She arranged for me to be brought here, working with Cantor and the Otori, mainly with the Otori High Priest, Zhyn.  She brought her flight here when the Icarus left the Fleet, and when Drake tried to get back for help, she shot him out of the sky."

"I heard the transmission he made," Bojay says, and for a centon he buries his face in his hands and his voice is muffled.  "The commander called me into his office and played it to me, before we turned the Fleet to come and look for you.  He wanted my advice on how much of it to release to the troops."

"What did you say?"

"All of it, I told him.  The Pegasus people had to understand what happened to Drake and why we were after her."  Bojay looks up.  "I know you didn't have much time for him, Apollo, but Drake was a friend, too.  I thought he was an idiot to chase after her, with what she’d become, but he didn't deserve that."

"No, he didn’t.  And you’re wrong about what I thought about him.  I liked him."

Boj looks surprised.

"He became a friend," I say, but it’s too long and complicated to explain.  But I think about my first recorded miracle, although there’s no Dio now to record it for me, and I’m sad and sorry about them both.  "Have you had his Farewell?"

"There’s not been time," Bojay says.  "I mean, we had the funeral, but not the service yet.  I guess we’ll do it when we’re out of quarantine and I can get the whole Pegasus contingent back onto the Galactica."

Minus Drake, of course,  And minus Hector, dead in the rioting on the Calliope.  And minus Sheba.

But not minus me. 

We’ll hold a Farewell for both of them, for my dead priest and my dead pilot.   "Wait till I can be there,"  I say.

"Sure." Bojay’s still looking a bit surprised.  Then he goes back to looking uncomfortable again.  "Do you know why?  Why did she do it?"

Oh yeah, I know why.  She was a little pawn in the long battle between Iblis and Aerion, a meaningless organism to be used and discarded in the game.

The way I am, too, maybe.  Maybe not a pawn, but definitely one of the pieces, one for Aerion to play.  I don’t like that, but I don’t know what I can do about it.  Aerion saw to that.  He saw to it that his Chosen One has no choices himself.  He likes irony, does the Heretic.  I expect it amuses him.

But all I say to Bojay is that Sheba thought that the people on the Ship had given her a task to do, to bear my son.  All of this mess came about because she’d convinced herself about that.

"And is there any chance it’ll happen?" he asks, looking grim.

I sigh and nod.  After a lot of quiet argument – quiet, because it happened this morning after Starbuck fell asleep, and I didn’t want him waking and worrying and hurting about it - Dad’s agreed to take his head out of the sand on this one and he’ll ask Salik to check if she’s pregnant.  Dad, of course, says that if she is, the child could be mine, or Drake’s or Cantor's or Zhyn’s or… well, fill in any masculine name of your choice. 

The point is that I need to know, and the DNA tests will show us straight away if the child’s mine or not.  Then Starbuck and I need to talk about what we’re going to do.

"That might be a bit harder to swallow, given the state she’s in," Boj says, and his tone is a touch unfriendly.

"She wasn’t like that then," I say, snapping back at the implication I’d take advantage of the mindless thing she’s become.  "And I was drugged!"

I am really beginning to get quite defensive about that, I realise.  There’s food for thought there.

He blinks in surprise.  "Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest… I mean, of course you wouldn't… on hell!"  He gives up on it and sits there looking unhappy.

"Salik’s checking," I say.

"What if she is?  What’ll you do then?"

I look down at Starbuck.  He’s snuggled in closer, his arms automatically reaching for me, where they belong.  I don't want to hurt him.  I don't want to hurt him at all.  And this will hurt him, and it’ll hurt Boxey, who’s insecure enough without this.

But if the child is mine – and it is mine, I know it – then I have a responsibility for it, deeper than anyone else can know.  Because when he’s born, those shining numbers will be inextricably woven into his DNA, the way they’re woven into mine.  As long as he lives, he will be like me.  He’ll be the Kinan, the Star Seer, the Redeemer chosen by Light.

The Lords’ Anointed. 

I have to protect him.  It’s not going to be easy, and both Starbuck and Boxey will need to adjust to this, but I’ve got to protect me and the child, so that no other faction in these Fleet thinks that to take him will give them a fast track to Paradise.

I sigh.  "I don’t know," I say.  "I don’t know."

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

"She is pregnant," Dad says, heavily.

Not long after Starbuck woke up, sleepy and apologetic for leaving me to my own devices – and he leered when he said it - Salik came back and checked me over.  He said nothing about my little escapade, so maybe Cassie didn't tell on me after all, but he greeted the contents of the polythene bag with all the delight of a gourmet for the finest wine in creation.  Personally I was unimpressed.  Actually, what I was, was grossed out and embarrassed by the whole thing, but Salik said that it proves that the dialysis has given my kidneys time to recover and they’re working again.  Maybe not at full capacity yet – and he laughed inordinately at his own little medical joke – and maybe they never will be, but they are working, at least enough to keep me alive.  So he’s stopped the dialysis altogether, and now all I need worry about is getting to the point where I can dump the bags and use the flush like a normal, rational human being.

So we’re celebrating the successful completion of phase one of what Starbuck insists on calling my toilet training.  He’s holding me very carefully – because of the grey hair and the thin and spiky sharp edges, I say, needing something to gloom about – and he laughs, kisses me on each silvery temple and gets back onto the bed to hold me tighter and get a couple of hundred of those hands of his to work their tactile magic. 

And that’s how Dad finds us.  Being tactile.  So he goes pink, and blurts out the news.  Probably out of sheer embarrassment.

"Shit," I say.  I’m not surprised, but I am sick about it.  Beside me Starbuck gets very still.  "And it’s mine."

"Yes," Dad says, sadly.  "Salik’s just done the DNA tests."

For a micron Starbuck puts his forehead against mine, and closes his eyes.  Then he gets up quickly.  "Excuse me," he says, and is gone.  He’s left this room for the first time in days.

I don't call after him, but it’s like being thrown back a couple of sectons, to being alone and dying.  Dio’s dead, and Drake and Cole and Zac, and Starbuck’s just left.  I’m bemused with it.

"I’m sorry," Dad says, awkwardly.  "Shall I go after him?"

"No," I say slowly, and not quite sure.  Then more certain, I shake my head.  "No.  He has to come back on his own."

"It’s hurt him a lot." Dad sighs, and shakes his head.  "I should have thought about that more.  I’m sorry, son.  I was just so…"  He pauses and sighs again.

So what?  So appalled? So horrified?  Shocked?  Disgusted?  Or so pleased he’s getting a grandson out of me at last?  A proper heir.  He loves Boxey, I know, and won’t ever make any distinction between Boxey and a grandchild by blood, but it’s not natural for him not to want to see his own bloodline continue.

Aerion’s bloodline.

Of course, depending on how you view Sheba and what animated her, we might be talking about Iblis’ bloodline too, and I’d prefer childlessness to that one.

"I know," I say, opting for platitude and deciding that I really don't want to know what he feels about it.  I’ve enough trouble with what I feel about it. 

He goes very quiet, still embarrassed I think with being so precipitate about it.  I sit up slowly.  The space beside me where Starbuck was, seems very cold and empty.

We’re quiet for a few centons.  When Dad speaks and I look up, I’m slightly surprised to realise that I have Xuian’s prophecy open on my knees and I've been staring down at the words that Aerion entwined into my DNA.  And into my unborn son’s.

I don’t remember reaching for it, but it feels right to have it in my hands again.  Liu brought me the book as soon as he knew I was going to be all right, and it’s sat on the little stand beside my bed for the last few days, close and comforting.  But so far, untouched, as if with Starbuck here I didn’t need it as much as I did when I was alone.

Well, now I do.

"What are we going to do?" Dad asks.  "It’s not too late for a termination."

I watch my fingers smooth over the ornate tooled leather cover of the Prophecies, tracing the deeply incised patterning.  It feels very familiar and comforting.  I nod.  "I know that.  And, given a choice, that’s what I’d really like.  But I don’t think that is what Aerion intended.  I think he intended this."

"Apollo…"

Dad really doesn’t know what to make of the revelation I had.  Now I’ve finally had it, I think he really wishes he still had his heathen of a son instead.  He finds the one he’s got now, a little disconcerting.

"Many necessary things are uncomfortable, Aerion said,"  I say. 

He wasn’t lying.  He knew, thousands of yahrens ago, that the Colonies would go and he did nothing to prevent it.  He intended all this to happen.  Oh not just so I’d be around, but because there’s been a long war between Iblis and the rest, and we’re pawns, to be used up in battle.  Lords alone know how long that battle’s been going on, and Lords alone know when it will end.  This is just a skirmish.

Dad looks both horrified and sceptical at this explanation, but lets me talk on.

"Maybe this is Aerion’s way of making some amends.  You’ll need the child as insurance, because I don’t think that I’ll ever see Earth.  The child is needed, and you won’t get a son of me any other way."  I close the Book.  "Now I have to decide what to do."

But really, I know what I have to do.  There’s things I need to do with the Church and with the Otori.  I look up at him.  He’s as senior a Kobolian as I’ll be able to lay my hands on at short notice, and can represent the Church in the absence of her Vicar-General.  And I rather think that the High Priest of the Otori is outside my door right now, guarding me.

"Can you get Liu for me?"

Dad looks taken aback.  "Don’t you want to discuss it?"

Dumb question.  When did I ever want to discuss anything that touched me deeply?  But what choice do I have this time?  "Yes.  But this affects Liu too.  Please, Dad."

Patently bewildered, he does what I ask.  Liu looks as inscrutable as ever when he comes in, and takes the seat I wave him to.

"Kinan," he says, in greeting.

I nod back, and then take a deep breath.  "She’s pregnant, Liu," I say.

There’s the smallest of smiles.  Whatever else happens, my Otori are relieved.  Not least, because this sickness has shown them just how vulnerable they are if anything happens to me. 

"And the child will be the Shield." 

He nods.  "Yes, Kinan."

"Liu, I need to know how far this oath of yours will go."

"Only you can release me and Garth from the oath,"  Liu says promptly and I’m surprised and glad that big Garth’s survived.  "We will recruit a new Honour Guard once the sickness is fully passed."

"Even though I brought the sickness?"

Liu looks briefly uncomfortable.  "You prophesied in the Temple, Kinan.  You warned us that you could not lead us on a different path, that we had tried to make you walk in a way other than that given you by the Lords.  We brought the punishment on ourselves."

Good God.  The ability of the religious mind to find meaning in anything continues to surprise me.  But I need this man.

"I’m so very sorry, Liu, about what happened.  And grateful for your understanding, if the oath still stands."

"The oath still stands, Kinan."

"Then can I extend it?  Can I ask you to extend it to my sons – both of them -  and my partner?"

If I still have a partner.  If he comes back.

Liu tilts his head to one side as he thinks it over.  "To the Shield, yes, without reservation.  To friend Starbuck and your other son... well, it will be unusual."

"I desire it, Liu."

"And in return?"

"You get what you wanted.  The Otori will be my people, and my son’s."

Dad stirs uneasily and opens his mouth to protest, but he’s close and I shoot a hand out to grasp his and warn him to be silent.  This is too important for him to get moralistic about it.  Thankfully, he subsides.

Another centon’s thought, and Liu nods.  "We are yours, Kinan," he says simply.

I have a sudden doubt about what I’ll do with about five hundred religious fanatics all of my own, then decide to worry about it later.  After all, it’s why I’m here, and I can always balance them against my more refined Church.

"And your priests?"  Liu asks, with a sharp, knowing glance from me to my father.

"I’ll choose one of them to be Vicar-General," I say, and look sadly at my father.  "Under my direction."

"Apollo!"  Dad says, outraged and astonished.

Liu nods.  "Good."  He stands up, and bows, ceremoniously and with a restrained pride and reverence. 

It’s irrevocable now.  The first steps on the path that Anton warned me of, irrevocably taken.  And now I have a couple of churches to run, and I wonder how long it will be before they try to bring me the sick and the dying.  Not that it will do them any good, of course.  I’m the Guide, not God.

Dad waits until Liu goes before storming at me, demanding to know what I think I’m up to playing with people's deepest beliefs like this.

I shake my head at him, sadder than ever.  Liu’s right, and Dad will have to live with it.  He isn't going to like this, and he isn't going to like what I’ve become, and he definitely isn’t going to like what I’m going to do to the Church.  He’ll always mourn for the Church that’s gone.  He’ll come to understand it, one day.  He won’t like it, but he’ll understand. 

And maybe then he’ll forgive me for what I’m going to do.

Both the Church and the Otori have lost their way, lost in rite and ritual that's come to mean more than the faith itself.  I’ll have to change all that.  Who better to carry through the reforms than someone as practical and cynical as me?

Mai Aekestre Sem-ve Rhamminadth Kobol-galathdh Kinan gesinthe-ka voi, fro-sa Aekestrennt mai Citrudth voi.  Bystre Kinan sen-za, wei sen-zi drydtha Inspel, mai gardhe drydtha Rhinn.  Gesinthe Kobol-galathdh Kinan, tha-lei phosasdth.

No.  There’s no getting away from this one.

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

Starbuck’s back when I wake up.

He’s sitting beside me, holding one of my hands in his, and his eyes are red.  "Sorry, Apollo," he says quietly.  "I guess however much I rationalise it, it still bugs me that you slept with her."

"How much?  I mean, so much that you can’t forgive me for it?"

"I know you were drugged," he says, and he doesn’t actually answer my question.  "I know that you wouldn’t do it, otherwise.  But…"

"But you can’t help wondering if I liked it?  Or worrying that I seriously thought about sealing with her once?  Or that it meant something?"

"I guess," he says, sadly.

"I can’t remember much about it.  Except that I dreamt of someone else."

"You talked about Cole a lot," he says quietly.  "You were dreaming of him."

Or haunted by him.

"Yes."

But not of me?"

Aha.  And there it is.

"Not all of the time," I say, steady as I can.  I start to sit up and he reaches for me, to help.  "When I was awake and rational, I thought of you all of the time.  Have you ever felt so tense with wanting that your bones ache with it and you can’t keep still?"

He nods.  "I suppose."

"That’s how I was most of the time, almost mad with wanting you.  But I think sometimes when they drugged me, it was like being dead.  I think that then I was thinking of the dead, not the living."

He’s still holding my hand and I put my other hand over his. 

"Sometimes I think that the dead have too strong a hold on me, Starbuck.  Sometimes I think that they’re too close for comfort.  When I’m awake and know you’re alive and here, I can keep them away.  But when I’m alone and sad, those ghosts get pretty strong."

"And now?"

I grin at him.  "I’m awake and reasonably rational and I want you more than anything in the universe.  My bones ache with how much I want you."

He thinks about it, smiles slowly and nods.  "And the ghosts?"

"Just that.  Just ghosts."  I reach for him and his arms come around me automatically.  They’re gone and you’re here."

He’s quiet for a long time, his face in my hair, my face against the side of his neck.  My breath’s warm on his throat and I can feel his heartbeat against my lips where they’re resting against the pulse. 

"I want you to get Sealed again, you know," he says.

"Do you, Starbuck?"

He nods, and laughs shakily.  "I spent ages priming Boxey, getting him on my side.  I want you to Seal with me, Apollo."

"Do you, Starbuck?"

"Yes.  Will you?"

"Yes," I say.  "Oh, yes."  Then because I was politely brought up:  "Yes, please."

The smile’s like a sunrise and the kiss takes me to heaven and beyond.

Oh yes.  Starbuck’s back when I wake up.

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

We’re going home tomorrow.

I can barely wait.  I want to see Boxey, Thenie, Anton, and Boomer… everyone.  I can barely wait, counting the centons until Starbuck carries me onto the shuttle to take me home.

The Cholassian’s finally over and Salik’s raised the quarantine.  More than seven hundred people died on these three ships, victims of their own desire for Paradise, victims of Aerion and Xuian, victims of Iblis and, I guess, victims of me.  That performance in the Otori Temple has passed into the stuff of legend; the plague seen as divine punishment for the attempt to force me into taking a different route.  The legend’s growing, Liu says, and he’s the man for legends.

It makes Starbuck uncomfortable, so we try to pretend that it’s nothing to do with us, not with the Starbuck and Apollo who’re getting Sealed in less than forty eight centars.

Of course, we don’t always succeed in keeping it at bay

"Your Dad explained about this prophecy stuff," he says into the dark.  He has his arms around me, and he knows that I’m too excited to sleep.  He's snuggled against my back, the pair of us fitting together like spoons, warm and comforting.

"I hate it," I say, and sigh.  That’s not a lie.  I understand it and what I’m supposed to do, what I’m supposed to do just by being, but I don’t like it any better than Starbuck does.

"We always knew something really weird happened on that Ship," he says slowly, and I think he’s trying to work his way through it.  "Will it make a difference, Apollo?"

I think about how to explain this.  "Remember the first time you kissed me?"

He chuckles, a rich sound in the darkness.  "Apollo!  It’s engraved on my heart, that is!  You were hiding in the Dome from…" he pauses and then says, carefully.  ".. the party and being centre of attention, and I came up to get you and you came over all hot and unnecessary.  The next thing I know you’re diving down after my tonsils and have your hands in my pants."

I grin.  "Really?  You call that bit of rewriting history ‘having it engraved on your heart’?"

"Details," he says, dismissive.  "I kissed you, you kissed me, hands were delving into pants all over the place.  Who knows what came first?  I was more interested in what came after.  Actually, I was interested in just coming, with you coming right along with me."

"Me, too," I assure him, because underneath the banter I can feel his uncertainty and anxiety and I want him happy and confident that I love him.  "Do you remember what I said was bothering me?  I was worrying about not knowing what I was supposed to do, why the people in the Ship had given me the numbers.  I was worried I’d get it all wrong."

"Your masochism gene kicking in again."

"Exactly.  Well, all that’s happened here, Starbuck, is that I’ve found out what they expect me to do.  That’s all.  That’s the only difference.  Everything else about you and me is the same."

He thinks about it.  "I guess the difference is that we know a little bit more about how weird all that stuff on the Ship was, then."

"That’s about it," I agree.

"It’s a bit scary, Apollo, the way Liu and the other Otori treat you.  They really look on you as something holy."

There is real dismay and apprehension in his voice.  I think that if anything scares Starbuck more than marrying me, it’s the thought of marrying the Kinan. 

I turn over carefully, so I can feel his warmth breath on my face.  I have to find a way to reassure him, to convince him that all that’s happened is that we’re a bit clearer on the weirdness, that I’m still the same Apollo he loved in the Dome over two yahrens ago, that he’s been living with for eighteen sectars.

"The holiness is barely skin deep, Starbuck," I say.  "And we both know you’ve been *way* deeper than that."

My hand brushes against his cock as I speak, and he jumps and laughs and hardens, and he kisses me.  And it’s all right again.

For now. 

Because we’re going to have to work on this, to keep it where it belongs.  Outside our bedroom door I’m going to be Captain Apollo, Strike Leader; and I’m going to be the commander’s son, Athena’s brother, Boxey’s father, and, in a few sectars, I’ll be Rhinn’s father, too.  And most of all, and scariest, I’m going to be the Kinan, the Lords’ Anointed.

But inside that door, I’m just Apollo.  Starbuck’s Apollo. 

Please God, let me always be Starbuck’s Apollo.

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

I make two visits before we leave.

The shuttle will be here in a centar.  Boomer’s driving it, after, he claims, fighting off virtually every pilot in the squadrons for the honour.  If it wasn’t that he’s bringing Thenie and Boxey with him, I’d put this sudden aggression on his part down to a desire to escape domestic harmony for a couple of centars.  I can’t wait to see Boxey.  When I talked with him this morning, my son was almost incoherent with excitement.  I think he’s almost as excited at seeing me as he is about an unexpected day off school.

Well, I’m pretty excited myself.

I’m already up and I’ve even got dressed, still in soft Otori linens.  Boomer offered to bring me a uniform, but, hell, it wouldn’t fit me anyway, so what’s the point?  These are just something to get me home in, and Starbuck’s decided that they’re really quite sexy.  That isn’t a description that Liu appreciates, but he does appreciate me wearing them for the first of my visits. 

I wear them to go to the Temple.

I can’t walk very far yet, and there’s no hover chair on the ship, so although I manage the short walk from the doors to the altar with help, Starbuck carries me from our quarters to the Temple itself.  He’s not normally keen to go to Church, but this one he says he won’t miss.  I think that nosiness is warring with apprehension in him when I tell him I’d like to go.  With Dad, it’s straight curiosity.

The service is very short.  Barely thirty centons, compared to the two centars I used to spend sitting in this throne watching the Otori thinking of Paradise, while all the time I thought of Starbuck.

This time I can watch him, sitting in the front row, beside Dad, the Otori behind them.  He’s sitting in Dio’s seat and for a little while I remember my dead priest, but mostly I just watch Starbuck and think about how much I love him and that tomorrow Dad will wrap our hands with the chain from Aerion’s medallion and we’re getting Sealed.

I wish Dio was here to do the ceremony for us. 

The Otori still watch me avidly, but there’s fear there now.  Fear of me, fear of what happened, and fear that they’ll be left behind as a punishment.  When Liu tells them at the end of the service that I’ll be there regularly to share their services, there’s an almost palpable air of relief and thankfulness.  They know they won’t be left behind, and they know they still have me.

I’m going to have to learn Gemonese, I realise, listening to the halting greetings as Starbuck helps support me out at the end of the service.  They don’t crowd me, seeing that I’m still pretty unsteady on my feet, but those we pass close to, do reach out to touch me as we go.  I recognise many of the faces now, and Jianne’s among them, smiling at me.  I stop to take her hands in mine, and try to tell her how grateful I am, and I’m delighted when Liu pauses to speak to her too.

I guess even a brush with death doesn’t stop me being romantic.  I just like to see everyone paired up as happily as I am.

As soon as we’re outside the door, Starbuck lifts me up to carry me the rest of the way.

"And I thought Chapel was boring," he says acidly, but quietly, as he gets me into the turbolift.  He and Liu are getting on really well and he doesn’t want my Otori priest to be offended.  "You could have warned me."

"The long suffering eye rolling was too good to miss," I say.

"That seat flattened my backside," Starbuck grumbles.

"I see where the delusions of grandeur are coming from," Dad says, sour and censorious.

Starbuck had merely looked bemused and bored throughout the service.  Dad had looked disapproving, and the frown had grown heavier at what he sees as Otori leanings towards deification.  He still isn’t even near forgiving me for what he thinks will be a threat to the Church.

Well, he’s right there.  I foresee some interesting times ahead in the father-son relationship.  And maybe in the Kinan-Council relationship as well, as the Council realises that it’s not as important as it thinks it is.  Very interesting times indeed.  

Starbuck grins, but it’s not very convincing.  He wasn’t comfortable with the service, but he’s even more concerned about this second visit, the one we’re making on a massive detour on the way to the shuttledeck.

Not to Cantor, although he’s asked to see me.  He’s doing the contrite and sorry-for-my-mistakes-I-was-misled-and-tempted act, but I’m not interested in that.  He’s going to the Barge for the next ten yahrens, and the only time I want to see him is across the court-room floor when the sentence is pronounced.

This is a quiet set of quarters not far, I think, from Dio’s.  Small, but reasonably comfortable.

She’s here, with Cassie.

Starbuck sets me down in a chair.  He makes to step back, but I catch at his hand and keep him near me.  His fingers are trembling in mine, but after a micron he squeezes my hand, and holds on like he’ll never let go.  His free hand rests on my shoulder.

"How is she?"

Cassie shrugs and shakes her head.  "No change."

The face that’s looking vaguely towards us is slack jawed and vacant, the eyes glazed and unfocussed.  Cassie seems to have been brushing her hair for her and cleaning her up, and that strikes home, that she can’t even do that for herself anymore.  There’s food spotted on her tunic, and Cassie leans forward to wipe spittle from her mouth.  Cassie does it with a professional detachment, as if Sheba is a stranger. 

There’s a sour smell in the air.  Cassie sees that I notice it.

"She’s incontinent, of course," Cassie says apologetically, as she gets up to go.  "I’m sorry.  You got here a little earlier than I was expecting and I didn’t get time to clean her up properly."

"Thank you, Cassiopeia," Dad says.

"Jianne will be here in ten centons, to take over from me." Cassie smoothes back Sheba’s hair, and with a nod at me and Starbuck, she leaves quietly.

For a long centon I look at Sheba.  If I lean forward, I can reach her.  I don’t particularly want to touch her, but I take her by the chin and turn her face up so that I can look into the empty brown eyes.

And that’s all there is.  Not even the merest glint of red far down in their depths, not even when I probe.  I can’t see or feel anything inside the empty husk he’s left behind, whatever sensitivity the Ship of Lights gave me to his presence is untriggered, everything telling me that all that she is now is a shell, burned out inside by his corroding presence. 

He’s gone, for now.

He’ll be back, of course, because it’s in his nature to hate and corrupt, and he hates us more deeply than we poor humans can even begin to imagine.  But I’ll know it and I’ll be ready.  Rhinn and I will be ready, because that, too, is part of what we’re about, part of what the Ship of Lights created us for, part of our inheritance from Aerion.

It’s my job. 

And it’s an hereditary one.

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

"Morning, Dad," Boxey says, and dives headfirst into the bowl of porridge. 

I watch him wolf it down like he’s not seen food for a secton, and grin back. 

"Good morning, my son," I say and he snorts appreciation through his milk at the wicked impersonation of my father at his most stuffy and dignified. 

Over by Boomer on the sofa, my father sighs.  For some reason, he’s never seen the funny side of this.

"Are we awake?"  I ask my son.

"Uh-huh." 

"And ready to face school?"

"I suppose," he huffs, and reaches for more milk.  He grins at me through a white milky moustache.  "Do I have to …?"

I put my head on one side, considering.  "Oh, I guess I can make an exception today."

"You mean," he says hopefully, enjoying pretending that he doesn’t already know.  "No school?"

"No school." 

"Cool," says Boxey, his face almost splitting with the delighted grin.  "Two days in a row!"

"You watch what you’re doing with that milk", says my sister, butting unceremoniously into our ritual.  She shifts little Meriel on her hip, giving Boxey and Starbuck suspicious glances.  She still, it seems, has visions of Boxey and the raspberry juice, and since she’s just forced Boxey into clothes she deems suitable for a wedding, she has a proprietorial interest in keeping him looking clean.

Boxey looks at me over the rim of his glass, his eyes sparkling, and looking so innocent that I’m definitely looking for the bodies.

"Better not," I say regretfully.  "She’s going to be mad enough when Merry’s sick all over her…" I pause and, right on cue, my niece, who has to be Zac re-incarnate, coughs milky sick all over Athena’s chest.  "Just like that."

Hurricane Athena is rather more muted than usual, I notice, sitting back and letting her sort the world out in her own inimitable way.  Motherhood seems to have softened the edges a bit, but she’s no less efficient.  Within centons her dress has been rescued, her husband and child marshalled in due order, and her father and nephew chivvied into line. 

I can only hope I’m as efficient as I sort out the rest of the world.  Well, I can only do my best and take any tips she hands out.

Boxey rolls his eyes from me to Merry.  He’s taken the news of a forthcoming sibling reasonably well – so far, at least, while said sibling remains more theoretical than actual.  I’m not so sanguine that it will always be this easy - but he and Starbuck are united in wanting nothing to do with the mechanics of dealing with babies.  Starbuck, indeed, says he had too close an acquaintance with toilet training me to cope with babies as well.  They are, he says, uninteresting alimentary canals that are sick at one end and shit at the other.  At least, he says, he got some occasionally interesting conversation out of me and no-one protested when he got bored with conversation and opted for kissing me senseless instead.

Boxey isn’t quite sure what an alimentary canal is, but is wholeheartedly in agreement anyway.  With the exception of the kissing, of course.  Not that I believe that Starbuck’s that serious.  I live in reasonable hope that our new son will turn him to mush.  After all, I’ve noticed that when a certain three-secton-old alimentary canal's still milky-blue and slightly unfocused eyes are fixed on him, Starbuck melts. 

The mother of that particular alimentary canal sends her charges briskly on their way and comes over to me.   "Don't be late," she says admonishingly. 

She eyes me critically, and leans down to polish at a medal that isn’t shiny enough for her, and we smile at each other, remembering those few centons before I took her in to give her away to Boomer. 

"Welcome home, Appy," she says quietly, and kisses me, before heading off to herd her brood to the Chapel.  She has a bright greeting for Liu and Garth as she passes them, and Liu nods to me as he lets the door close.

That leaves just me and Starbuck.  He looks like he’s scared of something, uncharacteristically nervous.   "It’s all right for you," he says.  "You’ve done this before."

"Not like this," I say, and watch as something tense in him relaxes.

"Better or worse?"  he asks me.

"This is Heaven, Starbuck," I tell him.  "Heaven."

And the Lords’ Anointed should know.

He grins at me, but doesn’t come to kiss me.  Not yet. 

Although they brought me home from the Icarus yesterday, I’m not out of medical hands yet.  Starbuck collected me from the Life Centre only a half centar ago.  All Salik will give me yet is a twenty four centar pass, although he says that if I survive a wedding night with Starbuck the prognosis is pretty good, and I might be out permanently pretty soon.  In the meantime, Starbuck is to remember my still-fragile state and be gentle.  Salik has a quite evil laugh, I notice, and I never saw Starbuck blush before. 

And he’s treating me a bit like I’m made of breakable porcelain.  I’m not that strong yet, but I won't break.  Although, to be honest, I’m not sure whether his restraint is because he’s taken Salik’s warning to heart, or whether he’s just nervous.

I think he’s just nervous.  I think he’s just nervous and disbelieving, scared that if he touches me it’ll all shatter and fall apart, the way his life has always been fragmentary and insecure.

It’s my job now to convince him we’re shatter-proof.  And we’re here for ever.

"Love you," I say.

He takes a deep breath and smiles, shakily, then gets up and goes to the music system.  He picks up the remote control and comes over to me.

"I know we can’t have our wedding party yet, but do you think you can manage one dance with me?"

"Here?" 

We’re not having any kind of party after the ceremony.  Instead Starbuck’s bringing me straight back here to rest.  If I have anything to do with it, though, I won’t be resting alone.  If I’ve got that twenty-four centar pass, I’m damn well going to use it, with prejudice.  After all, I’ve no objection to lying back and letting him do all the work.

"Here and now," he agrees.

Lead me to it," I say, and he helps me up.

For a micron, he just holds me until the world steadies, then when I’m okay, he points the remote at the system.

It’s the song that we danced to at Thenie’s wedding, almost three sectars ago, the one he knows I love.  Starbuck moves slowly to the music, and I let him lead the way, hooking my arms around his neck, letting him take most of my weight, and looking into those blue, blue eyes.

Here in these arms, our history begins. 

"Happy wedding day," he says and he kisses me.

It’s like a dam bursting.  Suddenly, Starbuck’s holding me so tight I can hardly breathe, kissing me madly, almost in a frenzy. 

He’s kissing me, kissing my eyes, lips, throat.  All I want to do is snuggle in, living his embrace, the kisses, the frantic murmuring as he holds me safe, his hands caressing me.  He’s telling me he loves me, that he’s always loved me, that he’s got me safe, that he’s never going to let me go.

Starbuck’s holding me and kissing me, his mouth hot over mine, his hands sliding in to touch me.  And he’s telling me again that he loves me, that we’ll be together for always, that he’s never, ever, ever going to let me go.

I hold on tight.  He knows I love him.  I don’t know if he knows how much.  I have to tell him.  He has to know that I live and breathe for him, that I want my life to be lived with him.  I have to tell him that, at least.

"Love you," I say, knowing now that the dream of so many sectons ago, when I was cold and wet and ill from the filtration column, the dream poor Dio woke me from, was a true dream. 

This is my prophecy, the only one that matters to me.

He pulls back and smiles at me.

I’m home.

 

~end~

 

 

******************

Pretentious authorial notes:

The Tenth Prophecy of Xuian, translated from High Kobolian

Mai  Aekestre      Sem-ve         Rhamminadth Kobol-galathdh Kinan gesinthe-ka voi,
And Redeemer  Light-chosen, Star Seer,    Kobol-Lords Anointed walks with ye,

fro-sa Aekestrennt mai Citrudth voi.    
brings Redemption and Peace to ye. 

Bystre Kinan sen-za, wei sen-zi drydtha Inspel, mai gardhe drydtha Rhinn.
Watch Anointed (his) path, for in path, lies Salvation, and in (his)-seed lies Shield.

Gesinthe Kobol-galathdh Kinan, tha-lei phosasdth.
Walk (with) Kobol-Lords’ Anointed, (verb tense offering alternative) be silent.

 

And the Redeemer chosen by the Light, Star Seer, the Anointed of the Lords of Kobol walks with thee, bringing thee Redemption and Peace.   Mark well the path of the Anointed, for in his path lies Salvation and in his seed is thy Shield.  Walk with the Lords’ Anointed or be silent.

 

Apollo Smintheus

And the dedication to Apollo Smintheus?  Well, before the Olympian Gods became pre-eminent, pre-Classical Greece was full of Gods, small local Gods, specific to one village or place.  There were lots of Athenas, and Heras and lots of Apollos.  As the Olympian Apollo, second only to Zeus, moved in from Asia (or the far Hyperborean North?) and gradually grew to be the only Apollo, he absorbed the local versions, taking on their attributes and characteristics – and worshippers, of course.  So you have Apollo Phoebus, the "brilliant" as Sun God; Apollo Xanthus the "fair"; Apollo Nomias, the God of Shepherds; Lycian Apollo, the Apollo of Light; Apollo Pythias, Apollo of the Serpent, the Python of the Oracle at Delphi, his greatest place of power; and many more (Apollo Chrysocomes,  Apollo Parnopius, Apollo Loxias ….). 

And Apollo Smintheus, Apollo of the Rat. 

It could have two meanings: the Apollo who drives away the rats and mice who threaten the harvest, or the bringer of disease.  And the rat, of course, is the harbinger of plague.  So, combining this with his divine persona as Apollo Hekatabolos, the Archer God of sudden death, the arrows of Apollo Smintheus might just carry contagion.

Now, I do realise that the link between rat fleas and plague came a couple of thousand years after the Greeks were trying to define their gods, but given the storyline here, the co-incidence appealed to me.  And as someone on the mainstream list once wrote, the Greeks knew what they were doing when they made Apollo a God.

And don’t let anyone ever tell you that slash isn’t educational.

 

 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

 

SAFE

 

Here in these arms, our history began
Before there was you, there was thirst in my heart
Look at my lips, you will see I have drunk
From the river that flows to the sea of true love.

Safe in these arms, that’s where I want to be.
Safe from the harm in these arms, that’s where I want to be.

If I may die, let it be here with you
For here with you, I shall surely be safe
Safe from the hate, from the lies, from the vultures of Christ;
I need no Gods, I’ve no fears, I have you.

Safe in these arms, that’s where I want to be.
Safe from the harm in these arms, that’s where I want to be.

In your arms…

Safe in these arms, that’s where I want to be.
Never let me, never let me, say you’ll never let me go.
Take me in your arms and hold me, say you’ll never let me go.

                                                                   Butcher/Somerville

 

 

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