Section Five


"It's good to see you back in uniform," said Adama. "It's good to have you back."

"I've been back for sectars," said Apollo uncompromisingly.

"You know what I mean," said Adama, sighing slightly. This was going to be another uncomfortable meeting. He was glad he'd chosen the relatively neutral ground of the Bridge Office rather than his quarters for this. "You're moving into the troop decks?"

"I already have. There were some single quarters on Level 6 that the Quartermaster was able to give me."

"Good. It'll be better when you get back into some sort of routine." Adama hesitated, then held out the flat medals case. "I wanted to give you these."

Apollo reached for it automatically. He opened it to look at the rows of bright medals, all hanging on their colourful silk ribbons. The thin strips of ribbon to be worn on his battledress were lying on the top. Apollo's long fingers touched them for a moment, then he shut the case decisively and put it into his pocket.

"You're not wearing them?"

"Worthless trash," said Apollo harshly.

"You earned them."

"I know. Doing my duty, protecting the people. Not enough, though, was it?" Apollo shrugged indifference. "It doesn't matter. Is that all?"

"No. I wanted to talk to you."

"Not a good idea. We just end up saying some very regrettable things to each other."

"I'd hoped that after this morning, we could try and pick up the pieces," said Adama, but the hope was not a strong one.

Apollo laughed. "I don't think so. Too many of them, Commander. And let's be honest, what sort of repairs can we make when you have to wait for the Council to give you the go-ahead before you even try?"

"That's not very fair, Apollo."

"Why should I be fair?" Once more the thin shoulders were raised in an indifferent shrug.

"Please listen to me, son…"

"Captain." Apollo corrected him.

"What?" Adama was momentarily bewildered.

"The use of the word 'son' implies a relationship that doesn't exist any more." Apollo was implacable. The worst of it was that there was no hint of anger in his tone. It was perfectly pleasant, as if they were discussing the weather. "No longer valid - except biologically, I suppose, and there's nothing we can do about that. It seems to me that the only relationship we have left is professional. You're the commander: I'm a captain."

"You can't mean that. I'm not even going to be allowed to talk to you?"

"I can't stop you talking. You outrank me."

"But you won't listen." Adama had to blink back tears.

"So far I haven't heard anything worth listening to," said Apollo coolly. "All I know it that you're sorry I'm not dead."


"Well, how else can I interpret everything you've said and done, and everything you've not said and done?"

"If you really believe that, then there's nothing I could ever say to make you change your mind and forgive me. I'm sorry, Apollo. I'm sorry that I was overwhelmed by the ..the horror of what we found when we opened up the Black Ship. I'm sorry that it blinded me to the possibility that I had you back. I'm sorry that what happened to you made me reluctant to trust either you or my own feelings about you. I'm sorry. What else can I say? I was wrong, terribly wrong, and I hurt you, and I wish to God I'd cut off my right hand first?"

"Very touching," said Apollo.

Adama sighed and nodded defeat, for the moment. "Very well, Apollo. I understand that I'm not to be forgiven. Please don't include Athena and Boxey in this, will you? She's done a lot in the last few sectons to persuade me that it's you, and he's a child. You can't blame a child."

"I'd never blame Boxey," said Apollo stonily. "And things are okay with Thenie. But there's the whole problem with me and you in a nutshell, Commander. You had to be persuaded."

"I'm sorry." At least he might be able to get Athena to mediate, then, Adama thought wearily.

Apollo said nothing to that at all.

"And what about Boxey? What do you want to do?"

"He's your responsibility now," said Apollo, and this time couldn't hide the distress that caused him.

"That's something we can resolve in time. He's settling down, Apollo, getting used to having you back and to the changes in you. I don't want you to stop seeing him."

"I've no intention of that." Apollo looked down at his combat boots for a second. "But there's no rushing anything. It'll just have to work itself out."

"Along with other things." Adama sighed. He tried to concentrate on business. "I'm not giving up, Apollo, but there's no point in cutting at each other today. We have to find some way of working together."

Apollo nodded. "Agreed. I've accepted the Council's conditions, and I'm under your command. So you can treat me like any other of your officers. No more, no less."

Adama nodded, and sighed. "All right. If that's the way you want it, we'll agree on that for now. But there's one other thing, Apollo. I think you misunderstood what happened at the Council today."

"Oh?" Apollo stiffened.

"Starbuck wasn't set to watch you by the Council and didn't report back to them on anything to do with you. Please believe that. He did talk to me about you, and I passed some of that on, if I thought it would strengthen our case."

"I won't discuss Starbuck with you or anyone." said Apollo stonily. "I don't think it comes within the terms of the professional relationship we have, Commander, to discuss my private life. Now or ever."

"Apollo, you were wrong about him. Please don't be as unjust to him as you think I've been to you."

Apollo shook his head. "This has nothing to do with you. I've done everything you wanted of me: I made no claims on you, stayed clear of you. The least you can do is return the courtesy."

"I'm not trying to interfere in your private life," said Adama tetchily. "I'm trying to stop you hurting the one person who's never wavered about you for a centon. I had to tell him you were dead, Apollo, all those sectars ago. I remember what he looked like. I've just seen him looking like that again. He loves you: don't forget that."

Apollo stood up. "If that's all, Commander?"

Adama sighed. Apollo was just so stubborn. "That's all. There's a Command meeting as usual; at nine tomorrow. I expect you to be there."

"Geez, what'll we do?" Giles asked. "Now he's back on active duty, he can come in here every night."

"So what? You don't have him as a neighbour," another pilot said sourly. "He's got Ryan's old quarters. Probably shot Ryan out of the sky himself, too."

"Worried that he might get hungry in the middle of the night, Jack?" Drake asked from the Silver Spar table. "Better lock your door and get yourself a few Kobollian medals to ward off the Evil Eye."

"Very funny," said Boomer wearily.

"Won't be for Jack, if the Zombie needs a quick transfusion," Drake said with a grin. "We don't know how much of a thirst he'll work up hooked into this new Viper. That's right, isn't it, Starbuck? He's going to be wired into it, just like the Black Ship."

Starbuck ignored him.

"Bloody cyborg," someone else said. "

"Maybe he won't come down here much," opined Greenbean.

"Not if he knows what's good for him." Drake agreed. "I think we can make it pretty hot for him."

"Keep it down," said Bojay quietly.

Starbuck glanced at him, knowing Bojay all too well. The new captain's concerns about Apollo's return to duty centred not on any supernatural fears, but on the very natural fear that the former Strike Captain would forget who now ran the squadrons. As Starbuck knew, Bojay had detested Apollo for yahrens. They'd all been at the Academy together and Bojay had been one of a number of cadets who'd spent a large proportion of their time resenting the Battlestar commander's son who'd won all the honours, been Senior Cadet, worn the Sword of Honour at their Graduation parade. Of course, Apollo could have done a lot to mitigate these poor personality traits but he'd inexplicably not looked to Bojay for friendship but to a nameless orphan. Starbuck remembered Bojay's reaction when he heard that Apollo had been promoted to captain before he was twenty-five: it had almost resulted in a burst blood vessel. He supposed that for Bojay finally getting control of the Galactica's squadrons had been a victory of sorts and one that he wasn't prepared to let go.

Drake had to know that as well as Starbuck did. He had been in the same Academy class and had been a long term observer of Bojay's jealousy and dislike. He could feed that, make use of it, have free rein if he chose to bait Apollo: Bojay wouldn't stop him.

Starbuck, feeling sick, looked away again. These people would line up to torment Apollo.

"Will he use the OC much?" Boomer asked Starbuck quietly.

Starbuck looked up. He could remember with great clarity the numb feeling he'd had when Adama had told him Apollo's Viper had been destroyed in the battle with unknown hostiles. The numbness had closed over the shrieking thing inside him that battled to get out, keeping him shocked and quiet and withdrawn. Everything and everyone around him had sharp jagged edges that tore at him. Every day and every long night he'd been choking down the hurt. Now he felt like that again, hurt and torn. Adama had promised to speak to Apollo, to try and smooth things over, but Adama had failed. He felt as dreadfully alone as he had when Adama had said He's gone, Starbuck . But this time he'd have to drag through the long days watching Apollo's ghost tormenting him by its closeness and its unimaginable distance.

"I suppose. He's entitled to," he said dully.

Boomer looked at him more closely. "Are you all right?"

Starbuck said nothing, shrank a little further into himself.

"What's the matter, Starbuck?" Boomer persisted. "Apollo?"

"I don't think Drake'll make him very welcome," Jolly said, assuming that Starbuck was worrying about the reception Apollo would get.

"It's going to be pretty uncomfortable," agreed Boomer.

"It'll work itself out," said Starbuck.

"I hope so. Here he is," Giles was facing the door. He was the first to see Apollo, back in uniform, walk into the OC.

Starbuck looked up eagerly, hopeful that what Adama had said had got through. But as the OC went quiet, and Apollo looked around with a cold, remote expression on his face, the green eyes swept indifferently over Starbuck and the rest of Blue Squadron. Starbuck flinched.

Ignoring everyone, acting as if he was alone in the room, Apollo walked up to the bar.

"A beer, Callan," he said quietly.

The barman swallowed hard and nodded. He offered the bottle and the glass tentatively, almost as if he expected Apollo take his hand with it.

Deliberately, slowly, Apollo poured the beer, watching the head form. "Thanks."

He turned, gave the OC another sweeping glance. There was a spare table in the corner, the one that Croft used on those rare occasions when he came into the OC. Croft wasn't popular either, no-one being keen on trusting an ex convict. Starbuck watched him as he carried his beer over to the table, still in that dreadful, watching silence. Apollo settled down and took a book from his pocket, shook his long hair over his face and started to read.

The OC took a collective breath and the muttering started.

"Geez," said Giles, again. "I didn't think he'd have the nerve."

"He's a member of the OC," said Starbuck, watching Apollo closely. Once he'd always known what Apollo was thinking and feeling. Now he wasn't sure. "He's the senior member, remember. He outranks Bojay."

"That'll make our captain feel better," Boomer said sourly.

"What are you going to do, Bucko?" asked Jolly.


"I mean, stay with us or sit with him?"

Starbuck frowned. "You mean I have to make a choice?"

"Yeah," Greenbean said, not unkindly. "He's not one of us, Starbuck. Not any more. Where do you stand on that?"

Starbuck's frown deepened. Where did he stand? A few centars ago he wouldn't have hesitated, but Apollo had pushed him away. Dumped me, he thought with a flash of indignation, and for nothing he'd done. What was the point of sticking with someone who didn't want you anyway? Who'd damned near throttled you in a corridor?

"You'd be fool to do it," predicted Jolly. "I don't think there's much support here for him."

Drake's loud voice cut through the quiet, uncomfortable, unfriendly muttering. "Callan! Four beers over here, and a pint of human blood for the zombie in the corner."

"I thought it would be machine oil," one of his supporters in Silver Spar said, with a grin towards Apollo. It wasn't a friendly grin.

Apollo didn't look up. He turned a page of the book as if he hadn't heard.

"Maybe he takes that as a chaser." Drake laughed heartily. Quite a lot of the OC joined in.

Starbuck looked from Drake to the corner table. Even at that distance he could see the tension in Apollo, the pallor of the downcast face beneath the obscuring curtain of hair. He made up his mind, swallowing down the last of his beer. He slid out of the seat, and glanced around the Blue Squadron table.

He shrugged. "It's still Apollo," he said quietly. "I'm sorry you lot can't see that."

"Don't do it, Starbuck," Boomer said, equally as quietly. "Things could get nasty."

"They already are, Boomer. They stink," said Starbuck and walked to the bar.

He took two beers from Callan and walked across to Apollo. Another tense silence fell.

"I thought you might need another, Apollo," said Starbuck, not bothering to lower his voice and putting a beer in front of Apollo. "Although laughing at what passes for wit in here isn't liable to bring on dehydration."

The silence was uncomfortable. The pilots watched to see Apollo's reaction. Quite a few of them, those he'd counted as friends once, looked uncomfortable. Apollo put down the book and raised an impassive face to Starbuck.

"Thanks," he said. "The embalming fluid is getting a little low. I think rigor mortis is setting in."

"Attaboy," said Starbuck approvingly, and slid into the seat beside him. "At least as good as their efforts at comedy."

Apollo's cold eyes swept over the pilots. More than one couldn't meet his gaze. Boomer, in particular, turned away, embarrassed. There was a flicker of pain in the green eyes. He and Boomer went back a long way, as far as he went with Starbuck, the three of them sharing a room at the Academy.

"Less spite, more self-deprecation maybe," he said with a shrug and reached for his beer.

Starbuck dropped his voice as the OC turned away, and something like normal talk resumed. Drake was still grinning unpleasantly at them, silently promising more of the same.

"Why let them get away with it?"

"Why give them the satisfaction of letting them realise that they're getting at me?" Apollo asked. "They're people I've worked with and flown with for yahrens, and none of that matters to them anymore. Only this matters." He gestured angrily at the implant. "I won't let them drive me out. I can put up with it."

"They'll get used to you being here," said Starbuck.

"The old Starbuck mantra."

"I think it's true. Of course, I'm excluding Drake from the equation. Pity he made it through Enemy space intact. If I'd had any sense or foresight I'd have arranged to be behind him one day and accidentally put a laser bolt up his rear thruster."

"Hard to get behind him," said Apollo dryly. "He was never keen to be in the front line in a fight."

Starbuck laughed and gave Drake a contemptuous glance. "That's true enough," he said.

"But he's venomous when crossed. So why have you?"

Starbuck looked him in the eyes. "Crossed him? You mean, by sitting here after you dumped me? He doesn't matter a Cylon's fart. You matter a hell of a lot more. You were wrong today, and I think you know it. To be honest, I almost washed my hands of you. You hurt me a lot, Apollo. But I decided that I'd invested too much in you to let you throw it all away. When you get over your spat of bad temper, I'll still be here. I've done a lot of waiting in the last few sectars. I can do a bit more."

"And you think it's worth it?"

"God knows," said Starbuck frankly. "All I know is that it's what I want."

He looked around the OC, meeting the hostile, frightened glances and he grinned at Apollo cheerfully. It still hurt, what Apollo had done, but Starbuck knew just how hurt and confused Apollo was, bewildered by sectars of isolation.

"Of course," he said. "At my age, and with my fading charms, I don't have much choice, do I? If I don't get you back, who else is there to tell me I'm beautiful?"

"There's always Reese," Apollo reminded him.

Starbuck merely shuddered.

"We've been working flat out down here to get it ready. I put in the final modifications to the flight controls last night," Wilker said, ushering Apollo out of the turbolift onto Alpha flightdeck. "After I've hooked you up, don't launch until I get back to the Bridge. I've set up a new monitoring console up there." Wilker glanced round the deck. "All the patrols are out now, so the deck's relatively quiet."

Apollo gave him a sour look. "I was Strike Captain on this Battlestar for five yahrens, Doctor. I know the patrol schedule. I wrote it."

Wilker was oblivious to sarcasm. "Of course, of course. Ah, Ford. Are we ready?"

The ground-crew chief nodded. "Whenever you are." He took a step past Wilker and held out his hand. "Hello, Apollo."

Ford had been the captain's ground crew chief for over five yahrens, ever since Apollo had joined the Galactica from An-Nath Starbase, the youngest Strike Captain in the Fleet. They'd always got on well and Apollo was pleased that Ford apparently hadn't had any qualms when asked to crew for Apollo on the new experimental Viper. Apollo had got out of the habit of people treating him normally. After the remarks in the OC the night before, he was taken aback at Ford's friendly gesture, but shook hands warmly.

"Thanks, Ford. It's good to see you." Apollo looked round for Col, the other ground crewman, but he was hovering nervously some distance away. "I see not everyone's as easy about my return."

"Some people are still a bit nervous, Apollo," said Ford. "Idiots," he added.

"Tell ‘em I only eat babies and drink human blood at the full moon," suggested Apollo with a wry little grin. He was developing a whole new line in self deprecation, he noticed. "That should reassure them."

"Not a lot," was Ford's opinion. "It's always a full moon in some star system or other."

Apollo was too depressed about Starbuck to do more than manage a faint grin. "True. Lucky I'm not hungry right now then. What have they got for me?"

"We've been keeping it under wraps," Ford nodded towards the Viper, shrouded under its tarpaulin. "Col! Get that tarp off."

The Viper looked pretty much as normal, but for one thing. Looking at it, no-one would see any different design features, wouldn't know that this one would be flown through the Mask. Nothing of that showed. But this Viper wasn't the usual silvery-white with the coloured squadron markings. This Viper was painted a deep, midnight black.

"The Black Viper," announced Wilker proudly.

Apollo stared for a second, then rounded on the doctor in a towering fury. "I don't believe you did this! You painted it black ?"

Wilker looked slightly hurt. "I thought it would be appropriate. I think it looks quite good."

Apollo took a very deep breath, fighting for calm. His fingers itched to get around Wilker's throat. He was really beginning to hate this man.

"I'm not objecting on aesthetic grounds, Doctor," he said acidly. "I don't give a shit about how pretty you think it looks. Do you remember how many pilots the Galactica lost to the Black Ships? Do you think that they've forgotten that I piloted one of them when the Enemy had me Masked? For God's sake, don't you think I have a bad enough time with them without this?"

"Oh" said Wilker, jolted out of his self congratulatory cocoon by the venom. "I never thought - "

"Patently obvious," said Apollo furiously.

Ford listened with a slight grin on his face. "We can repaint it silver, Apollo," he said. "But there'll be no flight today if we do."

"I don't want to delay," fretted Wilker.

"Tough," said Apollo bluntly. "I am not flying that ship and I don't care if the Council does have me put down as a result."

Wilker danced from one foot to the other with indecision. "Can I leave the markings black?" he pleaded.

"I don't give a damn about the fucking markings, just repaint that bloody Viper!"

Wilker looked sadly at the Viper, then brightened. "Oh well, if we leave the markings black, I can still call it the Black Viper," he said.

"There is," said Ford, apparently to the Viper, "no understanding the Lords' reasoning for deciding who should survive the Great Destruction, who should be destroyed. They spared a few that humanity could have well done without."

"Me or him?" demanded Apollo, but Ford grinned at him. He didn't think Ford meant him.

"Repainting that Viper will take all day," mourned Wilker.

Apollo glared at the doctor. "Good! And I'm taking the rest of the day off while the paint dries! No more bloody experiments today, d'you hear?"

He stormed off towards the turbolifts, scattering deck and crew hands out of his way like chaff. They scrambled to one side, some reluctant to get too close, still scared and unsure of him; some knowing the storm signs of old and prudently getting out of the line of fire.

"Hey, Apollo!"

He stopped near the lifts and turned. "What?"

Ford grinned openly. "There's no mistaking but that you're our captain, all right," he said. "Some things never change."

"No," said Apollo.

"And I wouldn't have it any other way. Welcome back, Apollo. You've been missed."

"It's still got black markings," said Apollo balefully twenty four centars later, as he prepared to climb into the repainted Viper.

"You said you didn't care about the markings," said Wilker. He clutched the case with the Mask to him.

Apollo looked at Ford who shrugged, grinning.

"Actually, Apollo, you said you didn't give a damn about the fucking markings."

"And whose side are you on?" Apollo settled himself into the cockpit and let Ford strap him in.

"Truth and honour," Ford said with an entirely spurious virtue. "All set."

Wilker climbed up onto the platform, the Mask in his hand. "Ready?"

Apollo nodded, and closed his eyes, waiting for the familiar cold stab of greeting from the Mask. There was the usual moment of blind silence, but he was aware of the curving claws on mouth and throat, arching over his eyes, touching him almost tenderly, protectively. He and the Mask were united again. When he opened his eyes again, the flightdeck was touched with that blue edged light, beautiful. He looked around, enjoying the sharpness of vision the Mask gave him, giving himself a centon to adjust to its cold, passionless intimacy.

He saw the look on Ford's face and smiled wryly.

"Does it hurt?" asked the ground chief.

"No, not like this. It only hurts when Wilker connects us to human technology. We aren't made for that."

Ford jumped slightly at the inhuman, echoing monotone. "We?" he asked curiously.

Apollo shrugged. "If you ask most of the people in this Fleet, Ford, they'll tell you I'm as much a technological construction as the Mask is."

Ford snorted. "You're as human as I am."

"I'm going to connect the Mask now. Ready?" As ever, Wilker wasn't interested in philosophical discussions on the nature of humanity. "You'd better watch this, Ford, just in case you ever have to get him out of there in a hurry." The scientist carefully pressed the end of the fibre optic cable into the intricately patterned surface of the Mask between the claws. "It fits into this like a plug into a socket," Wilker explained "You'll be able to pull it away using normal force. It doesn't take much effort. Got it?"

Ford nodded. "I've got it. You okay, Apollo?"

"Now it hurts," said Apollo, and took one or two deep, steadying breaths. "It's okay. I'll get used to it."

"Right." Wilker was sublimely indifferent to Apollo's discomfort. It was debatable that he even noticed it. "I'm off up to the bridge. I'll give you the launch command when I get up there."

Ford watched him go. "Dickhead," he said trenchantly. Then to Apollo. "I'm sealing the canopy now, Apollo. Good luck."

"Thanks." Apollo was hiding it well, but he was nervous. Flying a viper for real had subtle differences to flying a simulator. He raised his right hand and stroked the Mask. He'd have to rely on the Mask to get through this.

Wilker's voice sounded directly in the Mask. "Black Viper, ready to launch?"

Apollo, aware that the entire Council was clustered around monitors in the Council chamber and that the Bridge crew, including his father, were all listening in avidly, took a moment before he spoke. He expected the harsh inhuman voice to have an impact. He didn't want to waste it.

"Ready to launch."

"All I saw was him going past me doing so many loops I was dizzy just watching him," said Sheba. "The Viper was put through some amazing manoeuvres."

"As fast as the Black Ships?" another pilot asked curiously.

Sheba shook her head. "No. I don't think so. But almost as hard to get a lock on, I should think. He was throwing that Viper all over the sky."

"And he could pull the gees?" asked Drake. "They haven't been putting him back into that slime again, have they?"

Sheba just shrugged. How was she to know?

"I guess we'll be able to tell from the smell," said Drake grinning. "If you can tell it from the normal rotting Zombie stuff."

Sheba pulled a face slightly. It was difficult to separate herself from her old Pegasus colleagues, but she did sometimes wish that Drake would give it a rest. Most of the other pilots ignored Apollo in the OC now, but Drake just couldn't let it alone. He was almost obsessed. It was awkward. She'd been very fond of Apollo once, until he'd made it clear that he wasn't interested. Her cheeks glowed at the very thought. How he dared! She must have looked so stupid, chasing after a man who had barely noticed her. And, after all, maybe Drake was just saying what they all thought.

"I heard Cassie talking to Starbuck about it," Jack offered. "Salik thinks the artificial heart helps him cope with the g-forces. More efficient than a real one."

"But still not a real one," Drake reminded them.

"They're all wondering what it feels like, you wearing the Mask while you fly," said Starbuck.

They were at their usual table in the OC, in what they both called Pariah Corner. Starbuck wasn't exactly a pariah himself. Although most of the other pilots had told him repeatedly he was a fool for sticking with Apollo, none of them were ostracising him. If Apollo was still tied up in the lab with Wilker after a test flight, Starbuck would be in his usual seat with Blue Squadron. He'd wander over to join Apollo when the captain did eventually get to the OC.

Their relationship was friendly on the surface, full of uneasy tension underneath while the quarrel, if it could be called that, remained unresolved. If Apollo had realised that he'd been wrong about Starbuck he never said so. He never referred to it at all. Starbuck thought that most of the unease came from sexual tension: he lusted after Apollo as much as before, and was pretty sure that Apollo felt the same way about him. Until they got that sorted out, they were in a kind of limbo. But neither made a move to resolve it. Apollo had enough to worry about, with his non-relations with the OC as difficult as his non-relations with Starbuck.

The first few days after Apollo had come back to the OC had been very tense. The place had gone quiet every time he'd entered it. There had been open derisory comments, mainly from Drake but apparently condoned by Bojay who did nothing to stop it and listened to in embarrassed silence by the rest of the pilots. Most of them would have been happy enough just to pretend Apollo wasn't there: Sheba wasn't the only one who thought Drake was going too far. Many of them had a reluctant admiration for Apollo's persistent refusal to be bullied, and not a few felt guilty about the treatment that was meted out. But no-one but Starbuck did anything about it.

Apollo had almost given up after that first night, but Starbuck wouldn't let him. Starbuck had virtually bullied him into coming back, ignoring his own heartbreak over their break-up. So every night, Apollo had sat in Pariah Corner, either talking to Starbuck if the lieutenant was there, or on those rare occasions when Starbuck was on late patrol, quietly reading. In either circumstance, he met Drake's taunts with ostensible indifference.

It hadn't been easy. More than once Starbuck had gone back with him to his quarters after the OC closed - just for the company, he said - and had ended up holding Apollo's head over the turboflush while Apollo dealt with the stress in his own inimitable way. Starbuck suspected that Apollo didn't sleep too well, either. Once, late, Starbuck had stormed into the next compartment and almost spread Jack all over the bulkheads for the noise he was making, music pounding through the walls. It was deliberate, the way Jack had turned the speakers. Jack never did it again, not least because Starbuck trashed the sound system that night and he avoided Starbuck like the plague.

But, on the whole, people were getting used to Apollo being there. They were adjusting – finally. The last couple of sectons no-one had even seemed to notice he was there and even Drake had mostly left him alone.

He said so, now.

Apollo shrugged. "Except now the training flights have got me crossing the patrol areas," he said. "I think our period of grace may be over."

"Well, so far they're just being curious. A few of them have asked me what it's like."

"What did you tell them?

"What can I tell them? I've never worn it, so I don't really know."

Apollo grinned. "Probably better they don't realise that it makes some things better than human. Their fragile little egos probably couldn't handle that."

"And you never say much about it, even to me," Starbuck went on, ignoring this. Apollo was getting too much into the habit of thinking of the differences rather than what made him human. Understandable, but unhelpful, and definitely not to be encouraged.

"What's to say, Starbuck? I don't want to give anyone more ammunition than I can help. I've really regretted buzzing those patrols and letting them see just how manoeuvrable the Black Viper is. Big mistake. I could have stayed well out of their way. Now they all know I can fly a hell of a lot better than them."

"You always could," sniffed Starbuck. "Me and you were always the best."

"Yeah, well these days I could fly you into the ground, hotshot."

"As if!" said Starbuck, affronted.

"No trace?" Adama leaned on the railing of the raised command dais in the centre of the Bridge.

"Nothing," said Tigh, grimly, from where he was standing over the telemetry and sensor desks, making the duty officers nervous.

"Who is it?"

"Blue five and six: lieutenants Giles and Riley. They thought they picked up something, well behind the Fleet. Whatever they were chasing after, they've got themselves completely out of scanner and communications range."

Adama sighed in frustration. He hated losing patrols. They had all too few pilots, too few to lose like this.

"Not out of range of all our scanners," Tigh added quietly. He glanced meaningfully at the special console where Wilker and his assistant were sitting, muttering incomprehensibly over the data stream Apollo was transmitting back to them from the Black Viper.

"He could do it, if anyone can," agreed Adama.

Tigh grinned. "It wouldn't hurt his standing with the pilots either," he pointed out.

"He's been out there for centars," said Adama, a shade doubtful. He knew that the physical toll of the Mask was considerable.

"It's the only chance those pilots have," said Tigh.

Adama nodded. "And Apollo wouldn't hesitate for a micron. Do it, Colonel."

"Yes sir!" Tigh turned to the BV console. "Doctor Wilker, please contact Captain Apollo for us. We have a little job for him."

Giles almost fell out of his Viper, dropped to his knees and kissed the flightdeck floor. There was a burst of laughter from the pilots, who'd been waiting anxiously on the flightdeck for news of the missing patrol.

"Lords, I never thought I'd see this place again," he said when the first greetings were over.

"You almost didn't," said Starbuck. "Our captain here seemed to give you up for lost." He smiled and lit a fumarillo, ignoring the scowl that Bojay threw at him.

Giles looked uncomfortable. "But Apollo came after us."

"He did." Starbuck was watching the bay doors. "When did he ever give up on one of his pilots?"

There was a short, uncomfortable silence.

"His voice sounded very odd. Distorted." Riley had joined them. Her Viper had come in a centon or two after Giles's.

"The Mask distorts the voice, for some reason. Maybe to make the Masked pilots sound scary." Starbuck shrugged.

"Shut up, Starbuck," ordered Bojay. "The experiments are classified."

Starbuck blew a smoke ring and watched admiringly as it floated to the roof. "Then they should tell Captain Apollo not to talk when he's hooked up to the Mask, even when he's rescuing your pilots, sir."

Bojay's scowl deepened and he stamped off, not willing to take Starbuck on in public. Starbuck smiled beatifically.

"The old Starbuck charm," he said. "Someone please hand me an officer and I'll run rings around 'em."

"How did he do it, Starbuck?" asked Boomer. "They were so far out of scanner range."

Starbuck stared at them as he blew a series of perfect smoke rings. "Apollo has told me a bit," he said.

"I want to understand, Bucko. That's all."

"Better late than never, you mean? Trite."

"But true," said Boomer. "I'm serious."

Starbuck shrugged. "Okay. All the Mask is, is an enhancer. If he was standing here and there was a fly on the wall on the other side of the deck, Apollo would be able to tell you what colour its eyes were and what sex it was. When he's using the scanner, it's forty, fifty, a hundred times more powerful. The Mask sort of magnifies everything and processes all the data it's feeding him. Pretty neat, I think."

"Different, anyway," Boomer acknowledged with a wry grin.

"Useful," Starbuck pointed out. "Ask Giles and Riley."

"You mean it gives him better than human vision?"

"Amongst other things, yes."

"Even with that, I wouldn't have thought he'd want to be hooked up," someone said from the crowd.

Starbuck stared. "Are you crazy? He doesn't want to be hooked up to that thing. He hates it. Gods, are you lot dim! Of course he hates what's going on - it's cost him everything he had. Most of you don't even think he's human. But he doesn't have much choice, now does he? It was that or the lethal injection. And let's face it, without it, Giles and Riley would be dead meat." He looked at Giles. "I make it that it's the third time he's saved your hide, Giles. I don't suppose, though, that you'll be anymore grateful this time round."

"Of course I'm grateful," Giles mumbled, red-faced.

"Yeah. I'm sure Apollo would agree. He's noticed how loyalty and friendship and gratitude are key characteristics in the OC." Starbuck made the criticism general, but Giles reddened even further. "Ah, here he is. Excuse me, boys and girls." His tone became even more acidic. "The zombie has landed."

They watched him head towards the Black Viper.

Boomer sighed. "Starbuck's right. We've not exactly given Apollo a chance, have we?"

"Come on, Boomer. He isn't human any more," someone said.

"I'm not so sure that being human is all that much to be proud of, if it means we treat him like we have," said Boomer. "Apollo never betrayed us. He couldn't help what the Enemy did to him and we've treated him like it was his fault. No-one deserves to be abandoned like that. And let's not forget how the Enemy got him. Those kids would have died if he hadn't protected them."

"True," Jolly agreed. "I lost sight of that."

"We all did," said Greenbean. "Except for Starbuck."

"I feel like shit," said Giles.

"Imagine how he feels." Boomer turned to watch as Wilker, who'd been leaning into the Black Viper's cockpit to disconnect the Mask came back down the ladder carrying the Mask in its case, and Apollo climbed slowly out. He frowned.

"Yeah," said Jolly, uncomfortably. "So what are we going to do about it?"

It was several centars before Wilker reluctantly agreed that Apollo could be released from the monitors. He had spent the time excitedly measuring and evaluating every reading they'd taken through the Mask, using the datastream to try and measure the enhanced abilities the Mask had given Apollo, calculating the likely parameters. At the medical desk, Salik was just as keenly analysing the medical data.

On landing the Black Viper after giving it what had turned to be its most rigorous test to date, Apollo had barely managed to get out of the cockpit, almost falling down the ladder. Ford had leapt forward to help, holding Apollo when his knees buckled once he was safely on the deck. He couldn't stand without Ford's support, almost blinded by the crashing headache that the unnatural linkage had given him. Wilker and Salik had both been jostling Starbuck for the privilege of meeting him. They'd won, and had hustled him off to the lab before he'd had time to do much more than register the anxious expression on Starbuck's face.

Once at the lab he'd been glad to lie quietly and let the two doctors get on with it, closing his eyes against the glare of the lights. For a while he even slept, so used to the tests and monitors that they couldn't keep him awake. That at least helped the headache although it was centars before it faded to the usual dull ache that he'd learned to live with.

They woke him when Adama and Tigh appeared for the mission debrief. Apollo went over events in a tired, listless voice: a different set of questions from Wilker's and Salik's, a different set of priorities. Adama said very little, watching Apollo with a remote expression on his face. Tigh took the debriefing, but it was Adama who at the end said simply, "Well done, Captain." Surprised, Apollo stared at him until his father reddened and turned away. He tuned the rest of Tigh's sermon out, only nodding when the colonel added his commendation to Adama's. It wasn't worth listening to. It was all meaningless.

Adama stopped on the way out of the Life Centre and looked back. Apollo seemed to be dozing again, lying relaxed on the medical couch.

"He looked so surprised," he said to Tigh.


"When I told him how well he'd done."

Tigh shrugged, and said, dryly, "Well, I suppose he thought we wouldn't bother. It's not as if we'd say it to a machine."

Adama nodded. Apollo may have taken it for some sort of faint affirmation that they finally believed in his humanity. He beckoned Salik and Wilker over. "Has he reacted this severely before? He's exhausted."

Salik shrugged. "Well, we all know that wearing the Mask brings on persistent headaches, and we've noticed that the longer he's linked to the Viper, the worse the physical reaction is afterwards. But it's not serious, Commander. It's uncomfortable but it's not causing permanent damage. I'm monitoring him very closely."

Adama looked at Apollo again and nodded, only minimally reassured. "Very well. Thank you, doctor."

"I don't think," said Tigh, as the Life Centre door closed, "that I'd believe us either when we treat him like that." He glanced at Adama. "No wonder he sometimes regrets being alive. I would, too."

"He doesn't!"

"Don't fool yourself, Adama. He's a lab rat. What sort of life is that?"

Once Adama and Tigh had gone, Wilker and Salik started again. More tests, most irritatingly tedious. Some were downright painful, and he endured those with closed eyes and gritted teeth. More questions. More prodding. More electrodes strapped to his body to measure the minute changes to his nervous system. More feeling like an experimental animal that the researchers had convinced themselves had neither sense nor feeling.

But at last they said he could go. He got out of the lab as fast as he could, before they changed their minds and called him back, but slowed down a little once he'd put a few of Galactica's long corridors between him and two men he was increasingly thinking of as his tormentors. He glanced at his chronometer. Too late to eat, really, and he wasn't hungry anyway. But he could do with a drink and some company. He could do with finding Starbuck. Luckily that wouldn't be too hard.

The OC went quiet as he came in. Apollo sighed to himself and resolutely ignored it, heading to the bar as if he were the only person in the room, apparently oblivious to the looks and whispered comments. He'd thought they'd got over this. God alone knew what had started them off this time.

"Just a beer, Callan," he said to the bar steward, aware that there was still the watchful silence. He was tensing despite himself, feeling suddenly very threatened.

There was someone behind him.

Forcing himself to be calm, he turned slowly. Giles was there, looking apprehensive. "Can I get that for you, Skipper?" he asked, using the old affectionate nickname they'd always used for their Strike Captain. The one neither Boomer or Bojay had earned yet.

They were all watching, all listening. Some new ploy to humiliate him, taunt him? Apollo couldn't think what it would be, but he didn't trust them now. Not at all.

Giles looked unnerved by Apollo's lack of reaction. "I owe you one, Apollo. The least I'd like to do is buy you a drink."

Apollo looked him up and down, then picked up his beer. "No thanks, Lieutenant. There's no need."

"I'd like to," Giles persisted. "Please join us, Apollo."

Apollo glanced at the table. His old seat between Starbuck and Boomer was empty, waiting. Without a word, he walked away to Pariah Corner. He didn't know what the hell was going on, but he was not going to be humiliated in public.

No more than he already had been, anyway.

The OC was still quiet, watchful. Drake laughed. Apollo sat down, looked once around the room to see the eyes turn away as usual. Only Starbuck and Drake returned his gaze, Drake smiling sardonically, Starbuck frowning at him. Apollo pulled the inevitable book out of his pocket and started to read. Pretended to read.

It was a few centons before Starbuck slid into the seat beside him and twitched the book out his hands.

"I was reading that!"

"Bollocks. You haven't turned a page for about five centons."

"What do you want then?" Apollo asked ungraciously. His dull headache was flaring up again. Stress, he supposed, and he wasn't inclined to be friendly, even with Starbuck, forgetting the reason he'd gone to the OC in the first place was to find the lieutenant.

Starbuck sniffed. "Just tracing back this odd smell of burning martyr." Another sniff. "Yeah - comes from here all right."

Apollo grinned reluctantly. "Very funny. I've no intention of being martyred, thank you."

"No? Seems like you're doing a great job of piling up the wood for the pyre and carelessly tossing matches about. Give them a chance, Apollo. Giles meant it, and he was speaking for all of them."

"I don't know what they're up to. I don't – I'm not playing whatever little game it is, Starbuck. Things are bad enough without that."

"Pa-ra-noia! Stop being so suspicious. You saved Giles' life today – "

"Yeah, well it wasn't the first time."

"As I've been reminding them. Still, it stopped them, made them think, made them remember who you are. They really want you to join them."

"They're shits," said Apollo coldly, unforgiving.

"At the moment they're remorseful shits. Use that." Starbuck took a pull on his beer. "They know it, too. They want to kiss and make up."

"Because I got those two idiots back? Always there's a price tag attached, is that it? And so tonight they're feeling remorseful. Big deal. How long will that last? I've no faith in them remembering it tomorrow, Starbuck, and then it's back into Pariah Corner for me. No thanks. I've lived without them all these sectons, I'll continue to live without them."

"Sure, I can see that, but think about it. They were your friends, once – "


" – and if they accept you, most of the OC will follow suit. Gradually, everyone else on the Galactica will. This could be your best chance getting something back."

"Not from them. I don't need acceptance. I'm not going to go begging for it."

"Look, Apollo, I don't blame you for being mad and resentful. I'd be bloody resentful myself. I know what you're thinking. Why should you prove yourself to them? You're the one whose friends all turned against him - why should you welcome them back now they've had the incredible goodness to acknowledge your existence? Well, of course you don't have to. Not if you want to spend the rest of your life in this corner, that is. But if you want life to return to some sort of normality, it's time to swallow your pride and give a little."

"What normality? It'll never be the same. I don't trust them"

"I know. But give them a chance to show you they're sorry. Pass this one up, Apollo, and there may never be another."

Apollo sighed and stared into his beer, thinking about it. A bottle of ambrosa was put in front of him. The entire OC went quiet. When Apollo looked up, almost every eye was on him. His breathing quickened, the adrenaline rushing him. He felt threatened.

"Since you won't come to us, we thought we'd come to you," said Boomer nervously, getting into the seat on the other side of Apollo.

Apollo stared stonily at the table top. Starbuck put a hand on his arm.

"Hey, the view's not so bad from here," Jolly said, as nervous as Boomer.

"I'm still sitting in a draught," sighed Boomer.

"I figured maybe ambrosa'd be more acceptable than a beer," said Giles.

"He always was cheap, Skipper." Greenbean was his usual cheerful self, the only one apparently at his ease. "You'll notice it's not the best ambrosa."

Apollo still said nothing, wouldn't look at them.

"Still better than a beer," said Boomer, unscrewing the lid. He started pouring the ambrosa, sniffed at it. "But only just. Giles, you really are a cheap bastard."

"Hey, on my pay be thankful that I'm not giving you bottles of the stuff Starbuck's been distilling down in engineering," protested Giles, hurt. "The stuff he's been making out of spent tylium."

"Oh, the Zombie Special Brew," said Drake loudly. "Gives a whole new meaning to internal lubrication. As drunk by all the latest-model cyborgs."

Apollo's shoulders tensed, the way they always did when Drake started on him. He looked at his old friends, waiting for them to get embarrassed and look resolutely away from the butt of Drake's jibes, refuse to take sides to protect someone who'd once been one of their own, the way they'd done for sectons now. He didn't know what they were doing at his table anyway. He really didn't.

Boomer finished pouring the drinks. "Don't give up the day job, Drake. You're a piss-poor comedian."

"What does that mean?" demanded Drake.

"It means you're boring the hell out of us and you aren't funny," Jolly told him pleasantly. He looked at the others. "Why does he persist in it, do you think?"

"Inferiority," Starbuck joined in. "They were always jealous of Apollo."

"Jealous of a zombie?" jeered Drake.

"Jealous of someone who could always fly you out of the sky. Not only are you a piss-poor comedian, Drake, you're a piss-poor pilot. And a piss-poor human being"

"That's enough," said Apollo quietly to Starbuck. "There's no point in you getting into a fight. I'm used to it."

"Well, we don't think you need to be used to it," said Giles. "Although we're bloody sorry that you are."

"Didn't bother you before," shot back Apollo, nettled.

"No, but it bothers us now," said Boomer. "I've had enough of it."

"Lords, Captain, but it looks like you've found some friends," said Drake, and being Drake went cut straight to the chase to instil his poison. "Still, don't bank on them being there tomorrow. They're not exactly loyal, are they?"

Apollo looked the circle of men he'd once been close to. They all looked embarrassed, guilty. He looked away again, at Starbuck.

The lieutenant grinned at him and sniffed. "Need a match, Apollo?"

Apollo shook his head. "Can I get past?"

Starbuck gave him a doubtful look, but pushed his chair back to let Apollo past. Apollo walked across to the Silver Spar table and, ignoring Drake and everyone else, spoke quietly to Bojay.

"So far, Captain, I've been very careful not to interfere with the way you're carrying out your responsibilities, but either you rein in the more loud-mouthed elements of the OC or I'll put them on report myself and you can answer to Colonel Tigh for your inability to maintain basic discipline. Your play."

Bojay choked, but Apollo had already turned away. He got past Starbuck again and back into his seat. He picked up the glass of ambrosa that Boomer had poured him and which had been sitting untouched on the table in front of him.

"Thank you, Giles," he said, speaking to them for the first time.

Starbuck sighed, beamed, and clinked his glass against Apollo's. "Cheers, Apollo," he said.

Giles grinned back at Apollo. "Thank you, Apollo. For coming to get us"

Apollo, now he'd decided to accept their advances, allowed the tension to drain away. He'd had a brief struggle with his pride, but he decided it had to be worth it. Starbuck was right about that.

He shrugged. "Hell, I had to test the Black Viper somehow," he said. "I might have guessed you'd be the one to oblige me. You can get lost crossing from one side of the OC to the other and I don't think you could get to the bathroom without a navigational computer the size of a small planet."

Giles laughed, mostly in embarrassed relief. "The one thing you could never drum out of me," he said. "I forget how many times you had me in navigational training."

"Not enough by the look of it, given today's performance," Boomer grinned. He put a tentative hand on Apollo's arm. "What'd you say to get Bojay so upset? He's turning purple over there."

"Something that's been long overdue." Apollo didn't want to undermine even Bojay in front of everyone. He didn't like his replacement, but Bojay was in command of the pilots and he had to support the man, publicly at least. "He'll get over it."

"Don't worry," Greenbean said dryly. "Drake's comforting him."

"Winding him up, I reckon," said Jolly. "Yup. Here he comes."

Bojay was scarlet with mortification by the time he reached them. Glancing at the Silver Spar table, Apollo noted Drake's sly grin and had no doubt but that Jolly's diagnosis was accurate.

"Captain Apollo," said Bojay, formally, not bothering to drop his voice. "I believe that you still owe me a de-briefing report on today's incident. I don't appreciate my pilots delaying even those routine tasks and failure to provide a report is a disciplinary matter, as you know."

For a micron everyone stared at this naked power play, eyes going from Bojay to Apollo. Apollo stared himself for a micron, almost flummoxed by this incredible speech. He started to laugh, genuinely amused for the first time in sectars. Bojay's scarlet deepened to an unhealthy mulberry.

"Well, you're funnier than Drake, anyway," said Apollo, and Blue Squadron all grinned.

Bojay tried for outraged dignity. "I'd remind you that I'm the Strike Captain here."

Apollo smiled. "True. But where did you get the mistaken impression that put me under your command? The Council restored me to rank and honours, remember. I've got five yahrens seniority on you, even though we did graduate from the Academy in the same yahren. Such a shame it took you so long to catch me up. But the fact remains that I still outrank you, Captain."

"In more ways than one!" said Starbuck.

"And I've already given my report to my commanding officer - who is not, I'm glad to say, you." Apollo enjoyed Bojay's discomfiture, no longer concerned with saving face. Bojay was asking for this, and Apollo had had enough. "And you know it, Bojay. If you have any problems about it, I suggest you talk to Colonel Tigh."

Bojay hesitated, glanced back at Drake for inspiration.

Apollo's smile grew broader, understanding very well. He too looked across at Drake, and smiled. "And as for Lieutenant Drake, if there's one more incident of insubordination to a senior officer, I'll make sure he's assigned to drive the shit-shuttle to the Agri-ship for the next sectar." Apollo leaned forward, and put a real edge to his voice. "This is just a suggestion, Captain, but take it as it's meant. After all, I've five yahrens more experience of running a Battlestar's squadrons than you have. It's good to be friends with your officers and pilots, and good that they feel confident enough to be able to offer you advice. Just be careful whose advice you take."

"Yeah," said Starbuck the irrepressible. "I'm his best friend and I've absolutely bags of confidence, but did you ever see him take mine?"

"I just did," Apollo pointed out.

"And look where that got you." Starbuck sniffed at the glass of ambrosa he was holding. "Drinking Giles's god-awful ambrosa."

Bojay stood uncomfortably. Apollo and the rest of Blue Squadron ignored him totally.

Apollo pulled a face. "You're right." He took his first sip of the ambrosa, and then grinned at Giles. "Mmn. Embalming fluid."

Boomer said, looking apprehensive, "Well, according to Drake, you're the expert."

Apollo merely laughed, and toasted Bojay. Boomer relaxed, sitting back in his chair, grinning at Apollo.

"Just like old times," said Starbuck, on his other side, and it was, if you squinted and didn't look too hard.

Boomer put a hand on Apollo's arm. "I'm sorry," he said, quietly.

Apollo nodded.

"And I know this is a bit late, but welcome back." Boomer's grip tightened. "Welcome home."

"Starbuck!" Apollo darted around the flight technicians who'd just brought his Viper out of the hanger and chased into the turbolift behind the lieutenant, ignoring Wilker's protests about delaying the flight.

"Hi. How's it going?" Starbuck dug the inevitable fumarillo out of his pocket. Jenny, his ground crew chief, had banned him from smoking them in the cockpit, fed up with having to clean up after him. He hadn't complained too much - it meant he savoured the first one all the more after a patrol's worth of abstinence.

"Fine," said Apollo as the doors closed.

[[State level]]

"Hold here," said Apollo, then to Starbuck. "I just wanted a quick word, just to say thanks."


"For what you did, making me listen to them. Thanks for that."

"Told you they'd come round eventually," said Starbuck cheerfully. He said nothing about the sectons and sectars of patient subtle persuasion he'd employed to get the pilots to see it really was Apollo.

Apollo knew that anyway. "Not without your help. I hope it lasts."

"It will," said Starbuck confidently. "They know they've been shits, Apollo."

"Thanks to you." Apollo raised his hand and laid it against Starbuck's cheek for a moment. "I owe you," he said in a thick tone, and turned away abruptly. "Computer, open doors."

He stepped back out onto the flightdeck. "See you later," he said and was gone, Starbuck staring after him.

[[State level]]

Starbuck smiled as the doors closed again, and stuck the fumarillo into his mouth at what could only be described as a jaunty angle. A very jaunty angle.

[[State level]]

"Level four," he said at last, and the smile broadened. Only a matter of time, he knew that. Time, and maybe a bit of the old Starbuck luck, and he'd get Apollo back for himself. Just give him time. He'd come round eventually.

Deciding, on reflection, that it was never too early to see how lucky he was, Starbuck was waiting on the flightdeck when Apollo brought the Black Viper back in after a relatively short flight. Salik had been more concerned than he'd told Adama about the effect on Apollo of flying the Black Viper through the Mask, and had decreed light flying duties for a few days. So for the first time in a couple of sectons Apollo was able to get out of the Viper on his own, and even looked quite cheerful as he walked across the decking. Starbuck deduced that the headache had to be bearable.

"No card games tonight?" said Apollo by way of greeting.

"I've not had time. I've been out hunting." Starbuck flourished a gaily wrapped parcel at him.

"Boxey?" Apollo's smile faded.

"The one and only. I'd almost forgotten it was the kid's birthday. It was only when I got to my quarters that I found the reminder from Athena. Lords, that girl's frighteningly efficient."

"And you almost married her," teased Apollo.

"Fate worse than death for both of us. She'd have murdered me within the secton and I'd probably have just lain back and let her. You got him a present?"

Apollo nodded. "I figured Wilker owed me a few, so I got him to make me something."

"Shit! Not another droid?" said Starbuck anxiously. The last time that Wilker had been prevailed upon to make Boxey a present, Apollo had given the world Muffit 2. That was something the world found hard to forgive.

"No way!" Apollo shuddered. "No, Wilker made him this little hand held game gizmo. Little electronic screen, buttons, sound effects and Boxey can zap Cylons all day." He grinned wickedly. "The noise should drive the commander crazy!"

"Sounds fun. Did you have a go?"

"These things have to be tested properly," said Apollo austerely. He grinned. "Actually, I was crap at it. Boxey'll be able to beat the world with it in a day."

"Well, go get it and we'll deliver our presents to the birthday boy."

"I left it with the commander this morning. I told him he didn't have to tell Boxey it was from me."


"Well, there was no guarantee he'd want anything from me. Things are better, but – " Apollo shrugged.

"I think he did," said Starbuck, who could see the turbo lift doors that Apollo had his back to. "I think you're gaining, Apollo. All IFB's been carrying all day is various accounts of the miraculous rescue yesterday. Most of the kids at school will be envying him again, I'd guess. That right, Boxey?"

Apollo spun round. Adama and Boxey were standing behind him, both looking uncertain and curiously eager.

"Happy birthday, kid," said Starbuck when no-one seemed inclined to break the silence. He handed Boxey the present. "Say thank you, Uncle Starbuck."

"Thank you, Uncle Starbuck." Boxey looked shyly at his father.

"What is it?" Adama asked.

"Beginner's Guide to Pyramid," said Starbuck.

That got Apollo's attention. "You're teaching Boxey to play Pyramid?"

"I taught you, didn't I?"

"Yeah, but I wasn't only nine."

"Late starter, is all." Starbuck grinned down at Boxey. "Don't be like your Dad, Boxey. His morals kept getting in the way of more creative playing strategies."

"You mean cheating," said Apollo.

"That's a hard word."

"It's an honest one," snapped Apollo, then shrugged, looking rueful. "Sort of."

Boxey handed the package to his grandfather. "Thank you for the present, Dad," he said, still shy.

Apollo stiffened. "Don't call me that," he said sharply.

"Apollo." Starbuck's tone was gentle.

Apollo looked at Boxey's downcast face. "Not unless you mean it, Boxey." He turned to go. "Not until you mean it."

"Apollo!" Adama called after him, but he headed determinedly towards the Black Viper and Ford. Adama sighed. "Oh Lords. I hoped he'd listen to Boxey."

"Is he mad with me?" Boxey asked, forlornly.

"No," said Starbuck, ruffling the kid's hair comfortingly. "He's not mad with you, Boxey. But you and your Grandpa hurt him a lot, when you wouldn't believe it was really him, and he's scared, that's all. You can't drop people when you choose and then expect to pick them up if nothing's happened. You'll have to prove to him that you really want him back."

"I was going to ask him to come and have tea with me. Aunt Athena's making it."

"Mushies?" asked Starbuck, hopefully. He loved the sticky sweets as much as Boxey did, although he was less prone to make himself sick on them.

Boxey nodded. "Dad's favourite ones. Choco flavour."

Starbuck grinned. He hadn't noticed that Apollo liked mushies of any flavour, but choco ones were definitely top of Boxey's list. His too.

"Sounds good."

"But he doesn't want to come."

"I think he does really. Like I said, he's scared. You need to convince him you want him. So go and ask him. There's only one thing you can do, Boxey. Keep on telling him how much you want him back until he believes you."

"But he doesn't want to be my Dad. You heard him say I wasn't to call him that any more."

"He said not to call him that until you meant it. Do you mean it?"

Boxey nodded.

"Well, go tell him. He'll always be your Dad, Boxey. Go tell him that you want him to be." Starbuck made flipping gestures with this hands, shooing Boxey towards Apollo.

"Off you go," said Adama encouragingly.

They watched as Boxey trotted obediently across the deck. When he reached Apollo, Boxey started talking to him earnestly, tugging on one of Apollo's hands. Apollo looked down at him gravely.

"You too," said Starbuck pointedly.

Adama smiled at him. "Thank you, Starbuck." he said and followed his grandson at more dignified pace.

Starbuck watched, satisfied, when he saw Apollo nod and grin at something Boxey told him. Adama turned to Starbuck and nodded, grateful.

Starbuck grinned. "Lords" he said at last. "First the OC, now the family… when I die, they'll be writing ‘Peacemaker' on my tombstone." He sighed suddenly. "And now the big one. Now me and him. Still, on your current form, you can't lose, Bucko."

"There's no doubt but that the signal's there," said Adama. "It's intermittent, but Captain Apollo picked up a clear readout this morning."

"It's so far back out of range even I thought it was an echo at first," said Apollo.

"Clear enough to identify?" asked Bojay.

Apollo nodded. "Oh yes. I tracked it for an centar."

"Without telling us what you were up to," said Tigh, sour.

"That's why we have these little command strategy meetings, Colonel," said Apollo.

Tigh snorted.

"Apollo," said Adama reprovingly.

Apollo looked faintly and spuriously apologetic. "It could be what Giles and Riley picked up six sectons ago. If it is, it's been following us, but Lord only knows why it's closing in on us now."

"And that's what it's doing?" queried Tigh.

"Fast. It was accelerating to maximum light speed when I came back. It's still about a parsec behind us. I reckon they'll hit us within twelve centars."

"Damn!" muttered the colonel. "I'd hoped we'd lost them for good."

"But why would they hit us now?" Bojay pushed angrily at the printouts on the desk. "If they've been tracking us, why not wait for reinforcements?"

"Who knows?" Apollo shrugged. "Maybe they got told that reinforcements can't get here."

"At least we have some warning," said Adama. "Apollo, you and Bojay work out some sort of game plan. I want you out there with the Black Viper. It's possibly the best weapon we have." He glanced at Bojay, then added firmly. "You'll have overall command, Apollo."

"Yes sir," said Apollo, tone neutral.

Bojay's sideways glance at Apollo glittered with dislike. His echo was more reluctant.

"Then that will be all, gentlemen. Report back here in six centars, please for an update."

The two captains rose.

"Are you sure?" Bojay asked abruptly as they left.

Apollo was casually confident. "Oh yes, I'm sure. It's the Cylons, all right."

Starbuck sighed and shifted his weight on the chair in the Life Centre waiting room, trying to find a spot that didn't punish his backside. Cassie had once told him, only half-joking, that the chairs were deliberately uncomfortable to give anxious friends and relatives something else to think about. Starbuck was more of the opinion that Salik was the kind of doctor who wished he'd been a proctologic specialist, and had deliberately designed the chairs to ensure a constant supply of patients with rectal problems to deal with. The man was definitely perverted.

He'd been there for centars. In fact, if anyone looked, they'd probably be able to tell how long he'd been sitting there from the degree of flattening of his rear end. He whiled away the time working out the ramifications and possible uses for this new dating system to take his mind off both his personal discomfort and his anxiety, in between the inevitable warrior's pastime of thinking back over the battle they'd just come through.

Whatever the Cylon baseship had expected to find, it wasn't the Black Viper. The squadrons had been cruising quietly in between the hindmost ships in the fleet waiting for the waves of Cylon raiders. Apollo was ranging out far behind the Fleet, watching for the attack. He'd been able to give them plenty of warning, and the battle had been very short and satisfying. Their losses had been minimal: the Cylons had lost a good seventy percent of their raiders before taking off back the way they'd come. The hunters hadn't expected the ambush Apollo had planned for them.

Apollo had patrolled the rear of the Fleet for centars after the raiders had run for it, reluctantly obeying his father's orders not to go after the baseship. In the end, Adama had called him back in. He'd landed the Black Viper deftly enough, but this time he'd not been able to get out of the cockpit. He'd been lifted out by Ford and Col, rushed straight to Life Centre. He'd been there ever since.

Starbuck looked up quickly as the door to one of the treatment rooms opened, then got up - rather slower and more painfully than he would have liked - to meet Apollo.

"All right?" he asked, hiding his anxiety. Apollo looked dreadful.

Apollo, pale and shaky, tried to grin at him. "Fine. Just a headache, and I need sleep in the worst possible way, but I'll be fine."

"Shouldn't they be keeping you here?"

"I won't stay. God knows what they'd do to me.." Apollo stopped abruptly, glanced quickly at the room behind him. "Let's get out of here. I'm tired of being prodded, and scanned, and hooked up to machines and pumped full of drugs I know nothing about."

"You sure?" said Starbuck doubtfully. "I think you ought to stay…Apollo!"

Apollo was already on his way out, and Starbuck had to run to catch him up.

"But you need a doctor -"

"I don't trust him." The look Apollo gave Starbuck was tinged with fear. "He doesn't care too much what happens to me in those damned experiments So far as he's concerned I'm already dead, so what can it matter?"

There was no answer to that. Starbuck sighed and gave in. Apollo wasn't entirely steady on his feet and more than once on the way to the turbolifts, Starbuck put out a hand to stop him falling when he stumbled.

"No, I don't want to go back there," said Apollo, weak but determined, when Starbuck again begged him to go back. "Please, Starbuck. I only want to sleep"

Cursing him - and not silently - Starbuck got him into the turbolift and propped him up in the corner. He stopped the turbolift not on Apollo's floor, but on his own.

"Your quarters?" said Apollo as Starbuck bundled him out of the lift.

"Don't be more of an idiot than you can help, Apollo. Of course I can't leave you on your own." Starbuck opened his door and shooed Apollo in. "No strings - I just want to make sure you're okay, and I can't do that with you two levels away."

Apollo didn't argue. He sat down on the edge of the bed, too exhausted to get undressed, and Starbuck dropped to his knees to tug at Apollo's boots. Apollo tried to grin down at him. "Nice having a personal servant."

"Don't get too used to it," Starbuck warned "You couldn't afford to pay my wages."

"I could - if I only paid you what you're worth," said Apollo, dropping one hand onto Starbuck's shoulder.

Starbuck grinned up at him, pulled off the second boot and got up to help him out of his uniform. Starbuck had to try very hard to be detached about getting Apollo down to his skin, when what he wanted to do was start the licking and kissing that he knew drove Apollo wild. He barely registered the scars and the heart implant any more. The time was long past when they came between him and Apollo. They didn't matter any more. Now all he was conscious of was a desire he had to fight back. No strings, he thought firmly. It was for Apollo to make the first move.

He got Apollo into the narrow bed and sat down beside him.

"What's going on, Apollo? Why's the Mask having this effect now?" He hesitated, wondering whether he should mention the one thing Apollo himself never talked about, then took the risk: "You wore it for nearly three sectars when the Enemy had you. I know you don't remember anything about it, so we can't be sure, but it wouldn't make sense if the Mask had the same effect on you then - they were looking for sharp pilots, not exhausted wrecks. So what's different now?"

Apollo's eyes were enormous in the too-thin face. "The Mask doesn't like being linked to human technology, Starbuck. It's okay on its own. I don't mind it - "


"It's – it's beautiful. Everything's beautiful, so precise and... and it's right, Starbuck. It's -" He stopped, shook his head. "You can't imagine."

Damn right he couldn't. He settle for a non-committal grunt, surprised by Apollo's... what? Affection for the thing? Something like that.

"But the problem is that they're trying to match up two different technologies. It's not working. There's definitely a difference, Starbuck. I'm still me under the Mask this time, still aware, I mean. It's weird, like being part of the machine. They're turning me into a machine, Starbuck. They keep hooking me up and recording the results, like watching a rat in a lab. They don't care that it hurts like hell all the time I'm hooked up to the Viper, that the physical effects are getting worse. They don't care about what this is all doing to me. I hate it. Gods, it's not as though it hasn't already cost me everything I had - " He broke off.

"Not everything," said Starbuck comfortingly, taking his hand. "I'm still here"

Apollo managed a wan smile. "Oh well. There never was any getting rid of you"

"Not a chance," Starbuck agreed cheerfully. "So, what are we going to do about it? About stopping these experiments?"

"What can I do?" said Apollo wearily. "It was the condition for letting me come back. The Council wants concrete proof of my loyalty. According to the Commander I have to earn their trust - by being a good, compliant little lab-rat."

"He said that?"

"Well, he's like Salik. He thinks of me as an animated cadaver who just happens to look like his dead son."

"I thought things were better," said Starbuck carefully. "You've had family get-togethers over the last few sectons, seen Boxey more - "

"Starbuck, I go there and talk to Boxey about school and things, and as soon as he goes to bed, I leave. Oh, he's trying, and so's Thenie - and things are better with Boxey, getting really good. But -" Apollo's face twisted slightly. "Take my advice, Starbuck. Don't ever come back from the dead."

"We had this conversation once before. I'm glad you did, Apollo. Losing you broke me in pieces."

Apollo said nothing, but made no protest when Starbuck pulled him into his arms and held him close and comfortingly. He got an arm around Starbuck's neck, and buried his face into Starbuck's shoulder, crying quietly for a few centons, until fatigue overtook him completely and he drifted into sleep. Starbuck sat and rocked him gently back and forth for a long time, kissing his hair, reluctant to let him go and just loving the feel of him in his arms, but eventually, reluctantly, he laid Apollo down on the bed and pulled the quilt up around him. He sat for several centons on the edge of the bed, fingers gently stroking Apollo's cheek, watching him sleeping, listening to the steady breathing.

Starbuck glanced at his chronometer. Early evening - usually he'd head off for a game or drinks in the OC but there was no way he could leave Apollo. Anyway, he could do with an early night himself. No strings, he told himself firmly. Absolutely no strings. Just an early night and blameless sleep, just being there if Apollo needed him. All the same, he was grinning as he headed for the bathroom.

By the time he'd shed his own clothes and got into bed, Apollo was deeply asleep, curled onto his right side. Starbuck ordered the computer to reduce the lighting to twenty percent - just dim enough to be romantic, he thought wryly - and slid in behind him, fitting his body to Apollo's, snuggling in close and getting an arm around Apollo's chest to hold him. He closed his eyes and, lips brushing Apollo's bare shoulder, tried to settle into sleep, trying not to be conscious of the warmth of the body he was holding, the way that Apollo's buttocks fitted so neatly into the curve of his groin.

Five fraught centons.

"Shit!" Starbuck hissed and turned onto his back, trying by sheer will power to force his aching erection to dissipate.

Starbuck lifted the quilt slightly and glared down at his errant member. It stayed rebelliously upright.

"There's no point," Starbuck told his erection crossly. "He's so far asleep he's almost comatose, and he doesn't want you anyway. Go away!"

He pulled the covers around his shoulders and closed his eyes again. The fire in his groin burned away merrily. Starbuck screwed his eyes tight shut, thought hard about other things. Things calculated to put him off the thought of sex. Trouble was, there wasn't much that put Starbuck off sex, particularly sex with Apollo.

More fraught centons.

"Oh for frack's sake!" Starbuck cursed softly. He lifted the quilt again, glowering at his perky and cheerful-looking anatomy. "Have you no shame? Look at the state he's in! Think about what he's been through!"

The fires merely burned brighter.

With a groan of frustration, Starbuck took things in hand. For several centons he pumped away energetically. Nothing would wake Apollo, he knew. Discretion was hardly a necessity: relief certainly was. His hand, slicked with pre-cum, rubbed frantically up and down as he fantasised about it being Apollo's hand that was jacking him off, Apollo's lips parting to take Starbuck into his warm mouth, Apollo's fingers in him, getting him hot and ready. That was all it took. He groaned, back arching as the hot jism spurted into his waiting hands.

"Oh Lords," he gasped, falling back on his pillow. He lay there panting for a micron, trying to get his breathing under control, then looked guiltily at the dark head on the pillow beside him.

"Sorry Apollo," he said contritely, and slid out of bed to clean up.

Apollo slept on, unknowing.

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