Section Six

 

Apollo came up slowly out of a deep, dreamless sleep. He was lying on his side, a weight across his chest, something heavy hooked over his hip and thigh. But he was warm and comfortable, and for a few centons he lay in a pleasant doze before realising that the weight was Starbuck's arm over him and Starbuck's leg over his, and the warmth was Starbuck snuggling in as close as possible.

For a moment he lay still, just enjoying the feeling, then he turned slowly to face Starbuck, trying not to disturb him. The lighting was dim, but there was enough for him to study the face on the pillow beside him, the shock of blond hair that his fingers itched to comb through; the eyes, closed now, but which would be intense, vivid blue when Starbuck was awake; the mouth he wanted to kiss. Starbuck need never know, he rationalised. If he was careful not to wake him.

Very softly, lovingly, he kissed each of the closed eyes, then Starbuck's mouth. With a little sigh, he drew back, mentally kicking himself for being so distrustful. If he hadn't been so paranoid, they'd still be together. The kisses could have been passionate, not so soft they wouldn't wake him.

"Don't stop," said Starbuck, and opened his eyes.

For a micron Apollo drowned in the blue gaze.

"Please," said Starbuck.

Apollo couldn't help it. This time Starbuck's lips parted to allow his tongue in, and Apollo almost gasped aloud as he tasted Starbuck again. There was nothing soft and passionless about this kiss. Starbuck got his hands into Apollo's hair to pull him even closer and rolled over so that Apollo was lying on top of him, Starbuck's legs coiled around his.

When they came up for air, Apollo looked down into Starbuck's eyes, a question in his.

"Oh yes," said Starbuck enthusiastically. "That, I've missed." He trailed one hand down Apollo's chest, lightly smoothing over the scars, and wrapped his fingers around Apollo's hard cock. "And this. Gods, how I've missed this."

"I'm sorry," Apollo began, but Starbuck put his other hand over Apollo's mouth.

"Don't talk, Apollo. Talking's for dessert." He was pumping Apollo's cock hard as he spoke. "I want you coming inside me. I want to feel you fuck me. Please, Apollo."

They kissed again, hard and hungry.

"You'll have to do all the work, then. I'm still pretty bushed." Apollo allowed Starbuck to roll him onto his back and straddle him.

"I always do anyway," said Starbuck cheerfully, happily, and got down to the business of licking and kissing. "Lie back and enjoy, pretty boy"

A little more passionate kissing, to remind them both of what they'd been missing, and he started licking Apollo from throat to groin, spending a lot of time sucking and nibbling on nipples on the way. That always had Apollo gasping and wriggling. His tongue swept liberally and gently along the scars, even the implant until moaned and exclaimed.

"Oh good," said Starbuck. "I do like it when you writhe. You do it so prettily. You're awake now, then."

"Uuh," said Apollo.

"Well, I assume you are since you - ooh! - you seem to have remembered what your hands are for! Right there, Apollo! Shit!"

Apollo concentrated on giving Starbuck's perky erection a great deal of attention. He liked Starbuck's cock and he rather regretted Starbuck taking it out of his reach, but as Starbuck promised to do some serious licking when he got south of Apollo's navel, Apollo had to concede that, athletic as he was, Starbuck couldn't bend his body into quite the right shape to accommodate them both. Apollo murmured and complained for a micron, but lost everything when Starbuck took him into his mouth.

"Oh God, yes," he managed, then in an agonised moan: "Starbuck!"

Starbuck didn't answer – he had his mouth full, after all – focusing on long sweeping strokes with his tongue, starting in the curling black hairs at the base of Apollo's rigid cock, sweeping up the shaft to the tip. After a dozen of these Apollo was almost sobbing for breath, and Starbuck licked at the pre-cum seeping out of the flared head.

"Nice." He raised his head long enough to smile up into Apollo's eyes. "Salty. You always did taste nice."

"Uuuuhh," was about all Apollo managed in terms of coherence as Starbuck's head ducked down again and resumed his ministrations. Apollo couldn't take too much of this, and had to reach down to get his fingers into the tousled blond hair and tug Starbuck's head up.

"Ow! Have you ever thought about just calling my name rather than tear my hair out?"

"Can't last long," said Apollo apologetically.

"Okay." Starbuck was back straddling Apollo now. "Okay, I can go with you saving your breath for the important messages."

He leaned forward to kiss Apollo's eager mouth, and reached with one hand for the tube of lube from the shelf beside the bed. Still kissing Apollo frantically, he reached behind him and thickly anointed Apollo's cock with lube, then carefully, because he hadn't been stretched, he positioned himself over Apollo and sank slowly down.

"Uuuuhh," said Apollo again.

"Ssh - this takes concentration. I don't have time for conversation."

Starbuck raised himself slightly on his knees and sank down again, taking more of Apollo inside him on each thrust. Up again, another downwards thrust and this time Starbuck was beyond coherence himself. One more thrust, and he had all of Apollo inside. For a micron he stayed still, squatting down over Apollo, his back arching in sheer physical pleasure, then he started again. Rising up, sinking down, rising up...

Apollo managed to get half upright to reach Starbuck's cock and pump it vigorously, matching Starbuck's rhythm. Starbuck groaned and moved faster. He shifted position slightly so that Apollo had to be pounding on his prostate on each stroke. Shit but he was hot, and tight, and he could move that pretty little backside, tensing and relaxing the muscles enveloping Apollo's cock.

A few centons was all Apollo could take. Almost whimpering, he gave way to the unbearably wonderful sensation of having his cock enclosed and stimulated by Starbuck's hot, wet tightness, and he pushed upwards hard to meet Starbuck on the way down, his cock spasming as he shot his load high up into Starbuck's body. A centon later and Starbuck was shooting all over Apollo's chest and abdomen, gasping as he came.

"A-pol-o!" he moaned softly.

"Uuuuhh." Apollo fell back on his favourite expression, too far gone to manage actual speech.

For a centon Starbuck, still impaled, sat still astride Apollo, head hanging and gasping for breath, then slowly, reluctantly he eased himself free to lie down. He massaged his jism into Apollo's chest.

"Good for the skin," he said. He kissed Apollo lovingly. "That was wonderful. It doesn't come better than that, Apollo."

"It does when I'm not so exhausted," said Apollo apologetically.

"Just longer, not necessarily better," said Starbuck, and shivering, pulled the quilt up over them. Apollo snuggled in close. "So, does this mean we're an item again?"

"Do you want to be?" Apollo was very serious, doubtful.

"What kind of boy do you take me for?" Starbuck demanded. "Do you think I'm a boy of easy virtue, or something? A sex toy you can just drop after a one night stand?" He grinned as Apollo started to laugh. "That's better. We've just had amazing sex, Apollo. You're supposed to be morally uplifted by the experience, not look the picture of misery."

"I don't deserve that you should even speak to me, Starbuck. I'm sorry for saying what I did after the Council meeting, about not trusting you. I didn't really mean it. I was a touch paranoid, I guess."

"A touch? That's a bit of an understatement. But it doesn't matter, Apollo. I know how hard it's been for you." Starbuck's fingers traced the line of Apollo's cheek and jaw. "So, are you going to answer my question? Are we an item again?"

Apollo grinned and nodded. "I want to be with you." he admitted "There's never been anyone else for me but you, I think, not really. Yeah, if you still want me, we're an item. I'd like us to be."

"Me too, Apollo. Me too." Starbuck sighed contentedly. "I know you don't like me saying it, that you aren't ready to hear it yet, but you know how I feel about you. You've just made a sex toy very, very happy." He snuggled in closer. The beds in the singles quarters made that a necessity. "Do you want to make me even happier?"

"Anything," said Apollo, smiling at him mistily, marvelling at Starbuck's capacity for forgiveness. No recriminations, no complaints, no sulking: just loving understanding. So few people ever saw this Starbuck, the real Starbuck.

"Pull rank and demand quarters with a decent sized bed. You're entitled to command level quarters and I really, really want to spend the rest of my life having energetic and vigorous sex with you. Trying it in this bed, I'll strain something."






When the red alert sounded, everyone on the troop decks knew about it. Alarms shrilled on the flightdecks, in the OC, in every room, every corridor: every pilot was trained to be on his or her feet and running for a Viper as soon as the alarm went off. Within a few microns, the pilots who sat out their watch already in their Vipers in the dark launch tubes were speeding out into space to join the pickets as the first line of defence. Behind them, the pilots in the Ready Room were racing for the second line of Vipers in the tubes, launching within a centon. And behind them, the majority of the pilots were scrambling into uniforms and running for the turbo lifts to get them down to the flightdecks to support the first two waves of defending fighters.

Several warriors stepped hurriedly out of the way when the turbo lift doors stopped and two more pilots tumbled in.

"You're wearing my jacket," Apollo hissed, hopping on one foot as he pulled a combat boot onto the other. "Hi Boomer. The Cylons again?"

"I guess," said Boomer, eyeing them both with interest. He put out a hand to hold Apollo steady while the captain tugged on the boot. Six sectons before and he could barely bring himself to touch Apollo. "There's still a baseship out there somewhere. They should have let us go after it."

"They never listen," said Apollo sadly.

"How do you know it's yours?" demanded Starbuck. "We're both the same size."

"Are you fit to fly, Apollo?" Jolly asked dubiously. He, like many others, had been on the flightdeck to meet Apollo when he'd landed after the last run in with the Cylons. They'd all seen how helpless the captain had been.

"Do the captains bars on the shoulder give you a clue?" said Apollo snippily to Starbuck, then turned to Jolly. "I'm fine, thanks. I've slept for centars. No headache."

"Oh," said Starbuck and meekly held out the jacket.

Apollo handed him his, and they both shrugged into the right ones. Apollo met Boomer's amused look and the questioning glances from the other pilots with dignity.

"I think I'm wearing your boots too," said Starbuck mournfully.

Apollo grinned. "Look on the bright side. At least you've got them on the right feet. There's a first."






"Where the hell is he?" demanded Boomer

"Got him on scanner - he's heading out behind the fleet. I bet he's after that baseship." Starbuck swung his Viper round. "Coming? They're just about finished here."

The battle had been sharp and short. The Cylon Raiders were no match for the Colonial Vipers, certainly no match for the Black Viper Apollo was flying, and the last few raiders were being hunted down and destroyed.

"I suppose so." Boomer was unenthusiastic. "What do you think he's up to?"

"Knowing Apollo, I'd guess that he's going to try and take the baseship out," said Starbuck, and kicked in the turbos. "And I bet he isn't asking this time."

"On his own?" Boomer brought his Viper up alongside.

"He's not likely to want to sacrifice one of us, now is he?" Starbuck asked.

"No," Boomer agreed. He switched to the main comline as an irate Core Command demanded to know what they were doing. "Following Strike Captain Apollo, Core Command, on a recon and destroy mission. Switching to radio silence." He switched back to the private line to Starbuck before the despatch officer on the bridge could order them back. "Bojay'll go ballistic. That should get us a few days in the brig when we get back. If we get back."

"The Lord only knows what he thinks he can do," Starbuck grumbled. "It's not like at Carillon where we could force the baseship down into the atmosphere until she was caught and couldn't escape the explosion when the planet blew. Unless he's keeping a supernova in his back pocket, I don't know how he thinks he can pull it off this time."

"Well, I'd say you're in the best position to tell us what Apollo keeps in his back pocket," said Boomer slyly.

"Boomer!"

"Starbuck, I wasn't the only one to see you two charge into the turbo lift when the alert sounded, still trying to get dressed. I may be slow, old buddy, but I can guess what you'd been doing. Chasing after supernovas, maybe?"

Starbuck laughed. "Yeah - he's pretty hot."

Boomer paused, then said carefully, because he'd despaired before that Starbuck wouldn't survive Apollo's death: "Is it a good idea, Bucko? We don't know how long that thing in his chest will keep him alive."

"Which makes him exactly the same as the rest of us," said Starbuck sharply. "We none of us know how long we've got left. What time I have, I want with Apollo."

Boomer sighed. "Sure," he said. "But - "

"I know. I know what you're thinking," said Starbuck, angry. Perhaps because he'd once thought it himself. "But he's still Apollo, Boomer. Underneath, he's still Apollo."

"I didn't say he wasn't," Boomer said peaceably. "Look, everyone's okay about him now, but you know there'll always be something…some little distance between him and everyone. He's the only person I've ever known who's been dead, Starbuck, and that's changed him, and it does make a difference."

"Not to me. And he hasn't changed that much." Starbuck jabbed a thumb on the com button, opting for a wider frequency and cutting off the private com with Boomer. "Apollo, wait for us!"

Boomer sighed again and gave it up, listening instead to Starbuck's attempts to get through to Apollo.

After a centon, Apollo responded, voice harsh and distorted by the Mask. "And what do you two want?"

"You aren't leaving me behind for a second time, Apollo," said Starbuck. "Hold up. We're about three centons behind you."

"I'm going after the baseship," Apollo warned.

"Of course you are, old friend," Boomer said. "And we're going to help; Starbuck says so."

Apollo laughed, a chilling sound through the voice distorter. "And you let him persuade you?"

"I kidnapped him," said Starbuck with aplomb.

Boomer sighed. "It was either the one-way mission or bankroll his next system. I made the sensible choice. Just hold up and wait for us."

Two centons later and they had caught up with the Black Viper. Apollo had it idling gently, waiting for them.

"Apollo, just what are you planning on doing?" Starbuck asked as soon as the three ships rendezvoused. "I can't even read it on my scanner."

"I've got it on mine," said Apollo, not bothering to explain. They knew how much the Mask enhanced data. "If you're coming, it's this way." He took poll position, Starbuck on his right, Boomer on the left.

"Three Vipers against one baseship?" Boomer said with a slight sigh.

"The key is to get in close enough so I can calculate where her raider passage is and we go in for an engine exhaust port"

"Raider passage?" Starbuck queried

"She'll be like the Galactica, Starbuck. She won't have complete overlap on her surface guns, to allow a narrow passage for her raiders to get through to the flightdecks. It's just a case of attracting her attention so she fires on us, then doing the math. Easy."

"Nothing could be simpler," Starbuck agreed airily. He was lousy at maths. "Getting her attention shouldn't be hard."

"It's escaping her in one piece that'll be the real trick," Boomer said. "I hope Core Command has an up to date copy of my will."






"Still nothing," Tigh said.

"No," said Adama.

"Wilker says that Apollo's taken the BV beyond scanner range. There's no way of tracking him now. Starbuck and Boomer have gone with him. We just have to sit and wait."

"Yes," said Adama.






"I've lost contact with the Galactica," said Starbuck. "Off the scanner."

"Not off mine," said Apollo. "We're almost on the baseship."

"There she is, Apollo," said Boomer. "Dead ahead. Visual contact…..now" A pause. "Geez, big bastard, isn't she? At least we got all her raiders."

"What do we do?" demanded Starbuck. "She'll soon realise it's just the three of us and try to get clear."

"We won't let her," said Apollo. "We have to get her, no matter what. We can't afford to let her follow the fleet and call up reinforcements. They could do us a hell of a lot of damage. I'll do everything it takes to stop her - even if I have to ram her."

"Please let's leave that one as a last resort," Starbuck begged "I'd rather we all try and get home. Okay, what do we do?"

"See if we can get her mad enough to start firing on us," Apollo suggested. "Attack formation, and in we go."

"In we go's all right," muttered Starbuck following Apollo in as close as he could. "It's getting back out again that bothers me…Wow!" he jerked his Viper sharply right as laser fire lanced towards them. It missed him by inches. "I think we've got their attention, all right."

Apollo watched the tracer lines coming towards them, while the Mask processed the data. It was like having an enormous computer at his command, calculating trajectories in his head; the Mask using his brain, his blood and tissue as the data processor.

"Apollo?" said Starbuck in an apprehensive tone. "They're getting really mad."

"Got it. Top hemisphere, between the bay doors and that port laser cannon. There's the corridor. Cover me, you two. Draw their fire."

"Apollo!" Boomer protested, but Apollo's Viper rolled away and was gone at full throttle. "Draw their fire? How the hell does he expect us not to draw their fire?"

"What do we do?" asked Starbuck. "He'll be hit."

But Apollo was in the safe corridor that the ship's own raiders used, and was heading into the narrow waist between the two hemispherical domes. He was already behind their laser cannon. With no raiders to challenge him, he had the ship at his mercy.

"You take right, I'll go left. Try not to get killed," Boomer ordered quickly.

"Notice how Apollo forgot to say that?" Starbuck laughed nervously and obeyed. He was constantly rolling his ship to avoid laser blasts.

"I'm going to take out its main navigational thrusters," Apollo announced over the comlink, "and then have a go at its engine ports. Once I hit those, run like hell. Nothing will stop it blowing."

"Don't be too long, Apollo. It's getting really hot out here." Boomer almost stood his Viper on its nose and tossed it over to avoid a laser line.

Apollo was cruising over the surface of the vast ship. "There we are. He put two laser bolts into the baseship's navigational thrusters. He was moving so fast that he had no time to escape the explosion, and his Viper came out of the fireball scorched and smoking.

The baseship shuddered as its thrusters went off line, heeled over suddenly. Apollo had to do a very nifty bit of flying to avoid a collision, and in an ordinary Viper, without the Mask he'd never have done it. With the enhanced visual acuity the Mask gave him, he already picked out an engine exhaust port and he sent repeated laser bolts into it.

"That did it!" he shouted. "That did it! Let's get out of here!"

"Is he following us?" Starbuck demanded as he kicked in the turbos and hurled his Viper back the way they'd come.

Boomer squinted back over his shoulder. "Can't tell. Moving to rear scanners."

His voice stopped short at the massive explosion behind them. Even in the silence of space, there was a subliminal noise, and a massive, if short-lived fireball.

"Bloody hell!" Starbuck gasped.

"I think he got the baseship," said Boomer and he punched in the rear scanner.

"Any sign of Apollo? All I'm getting is static"

"Nothing yet.. wait. Yes! Here he comes!"

"Oh thank God," said Starbuck as the battered and scorched Black Viper pulled up alongside them. "Apollo, are you all right?"

"Fine, but Ford's going to give me hell for the mess I've got this Viper in. He hates painting." Apollo sighed. "Let's go home."

"I seem to remember saying this a long time ago," Starbuck commented. "But it's still not much of a home. It's still a piece of metal in the middle of nowhere."

"It'll do," said Boomer. "At least it's our piece of metal."






"The computers have re-established communication with Captain Apollo," Wilker announced from the special console they'd established on the bridge. "I'm downloading the datastream now."

"Pipe it up here," ordered Adama. He glanced at Omega. "Put it on main audio and visual, Captain.

"Yes sir." Omega spoke quietly to Rigel and for several centons the bridge crew watched in silence what the Mask had recorded. When the basestar blew, they burst into cheers and whoops of delight.

"Good God!" Tigh sounded awed.

"He's turning out to be quite a weapon," Wilker said with all the pride of possession.

"He's a human being, Doctor Wilker, not a machine." The icy tone had everyone ducking to avoid the commander's eye. Adama seldom spoke with such cold authority and everyone got out of the way when he did. Wilker blinked, taken aback. "You would be wise to remember that. Colonel Tigh - transmit the recordings to IFB, and tell them they've full permission to broadcast it to the Fleet on their next news transmission. It's time we reminded everyone just what they owe Captain Apollo."

He caught his daughter's eye. Athena smiled at him.






"I guess there'll be one hell of a party to celebrate this one," said Starbuck as the Galactica came into view at last. "We've a real chance of getting away clear."

"Booze, music, girls.. sounds good." Boomer sighed happily. "Meet you in the OC when we get back?"

"I might have a date," said Starbuck coyly. "What do you think, Apollo?"

There was a short silence. Apollo's voice dragged. "What?"

"Apollo! Are you all right?"

Another long painful pause.

"I think…. I think I've been hooked up too long," said Apollo at last, and the effort it took him to say that and remain coherent was painfully obvious.

For a centon Starbuck was frozen, wondering what that really meant. Then he remembered the condition Apollo had been in when he'd collected him from Life Centre only centars earlier. Thoroughly frightened, he opened a private channel to Boomer.

"I'm calling in an emergency," he said

"He may be okay - that Mask is so powerful…" said Boomer said hesitantly. "Apollo? Apollo can you hear me?"

No answer.

"He's maybe out of it," said Starbuck, and switched the line to call the Galactica. If he was wrong and was being overcautious, he'd take whatever was coming to him from an irate lover, but he was increasingly worried about Apollo. "Core command, this is Lieutenant Starbuck. I'm declaring an emergency. We need medical and fire crews on stand by"






"What sort of emergency?" Omega demanded over the com.

"Apollo's losing it. I don't know if he'll be able to land."

Adama looked up sharply. "Wilker?" he demanded.

Wilker shrugged. "He's been wearing the Mask for a while now, Commander, and under extremely stressful conditions. We've established that those factors increase the physical reaction."

"You mean he's in trouble?"

Wilker nodded, and shrugged again..

Omega glanced at Adama. "Emergency crews activated, Starbuck," he said

"Starbuck, this is Adama, " the commander cut in hastily. "How bad is it?

"You saw him earlier, sir, after the first fire fight. He couldn't even get out of his Viper on his own. You're just not giving him any space between experiments to recover."

"Do you think he can hold it together to land himself?"

"I don't think we should try it, sir."

"Medical surveillance indicates that Apollo's in severe physical distress, Commander," Tigh said quietly. "He's barely conscious."

"We can't risk losing him," Wilker cut in. "He's too valuable."

Adama nodded. "Indeed. And not because of your experiments, Doctor. Rescue shuttle, Omega."

"Done, sir. Captain Apollo, this is Core Command. Close down your Viper. We're sending out the rescue shuttle. Please confirm."

Silence.

"He hasn't complied, sir," Omega said softly after a centon, still watching the monitors.

"Put it on audio," said Adama.

"Nothing," said Omega. "He still isn't complying."






Starbuck looked out of the clear tylinium cockpit. He could see Apollo's Viper coasting along beside his, about a hundred metres away. Boomer's Viper was just visible beyond Apollo's Even as he looked, Apollo's Viper drifted dangerously close to his.

"Apollo?" Starbuck automatically took evasive action.

"Apollo!"

There was no reply.

"You have got to get him to disconnect and close down the systems," Omega warned over the comlink..

"Can't you close it down from there?" Boomer demanded.

It was standard procedure for Core Command to close down the Vipers of severely wounded pilots. The little fighter would then drift on impulse power until the rescue shuttle could reach it and bring it into a bay with grapplers.

"We don't seem to be able to over-ride the Mask," said Omega. "If Apollo's unconscious, the Viper could head off in any direction and get beyond help. If he drifts off course we'll be in trouble, and – well, he's all over the place. We need to get him to comply, now."

Starbuck fought down growing panic, and put a threatening note into his voice. "Apollo, if you don't answer me right now, I swear I'll tell your Dad about the time we almost got thrown out of school when we got caught smoking dope. That will really get you into the shit with him. Apollo! Do you hear me? Apollo! C'mon, Apollo. I mean it. I'll spill every last one of your dirty little secrets if you don't bloody wake up and answer me!"

"Snitch," said Apollo at last, the distorted voice heavy with pain.

Starbuck closed his eyes in relief for a micron. "Thought that might get your attention. Listen to me, Apollo. They're sending out the rescue shuttle. Close down all the systems on your Viper. Disconnect the Mask, Apollo. Please disconnect."

Nothing.

"Apollo!"

"Apollo!"

"I heard you," said Apollo at last. "Disconnect..." his voice trailed off

Starbuck breathed a sigh of relief. For a centon he'd thought Apollo had gone.

"Just do it, Apollo," Boomer said, calm as you like.

"Can't get it clear," said Apollo. "Can't."

"Shit!" Starbuck muttered. "Now what? Apollo, can you still handle the data? Apollo?"

Adama cut into the comlink. "He's not disconnecting, Starbuck."

"Can't," said Apollo, slowly.

"Then there's not enough time for the rescue shuttle. You'll have to try and land, Apollo. Can you hear me? Listen to Starbuck and Boomer. They'll guide you in."

Starbuck keyed hurriedly into a private channel. "He's in no state for that! He'll crash."

"We have no choice. He's hearing you, Starbuck, when he's not hearing anyone else. Talk him in."

"Boomer, Starbuck - we've belayed the rescue shuttle," said Omega. "We're going to bring Apollo in on the Alpha bay."

"Bloody hell!" said Boomer. "All right."

"Oh god, oh God - " Starbuck muttered, then took a deep breath. "Apollo? Are you still with us? It's Starbuck."

Another short silence.

"Apollo!"

"Here."

"Oh thank God - Apollo, you're going to have to try for a normal landing. Me and Starbuck will talk you through it."

"Apollo, can you get in on your own?"

"Try," said Apollo in that same dragging voice.

"We'll talk you in," Boomer said again, now sounding as calm as if they did this daily. "We're on final approach for Alpha bay, Apollo. Throttle back twenty per cent."

"Twenty per cent, Apollo," encouraged Starbuck, watching the scanners avidly. Apollo's viper slowed. "Good. You have the nose a little high, Apollo. Drop her about ten degrees."

Silence. No reaction.

"Apollo! Drop her nose ten degrees." Starbuck rapped out the order in a tone Adama himself might envy.

He watched Apollo's Viper get into broadly the right trajectory.

"Good, Apollo. That's much better."

"Course change for final approach," Omega cut in. "Seventeen degrees starboard. Throttle back another twenty per cent"

"Did you get that, Apollo?" Starbuck waited for Apollo's confirmation before making the course corrections himself. Nothing. "Apollo!"

"Aw'right. S'venteen," said Apollo, slurring the words. His Viper moved starboard.

"Correct course confirmed," Omega said. "Reduce speed, Captain."

"Speed?" Apollo sounded bewildered.

"Cut back another twenty per cent, Apollo."

"Oh."

"We'll get you in, Apollo. Try and concentrate. You're doing good, real good."

"Put the landing gear down, Apollo," ordered Boomer.

"Yes," said Apollo slowly.

"You're doing fine." Starbuck saw with relief that the gear was down.

"Hold that course and speed, Apollo." It was Tigh's voice. He was calm and reassuring. "We're ready here. We're bringing you in first and we'll close you down at the outer marker. Ten microns."

"Stay with us, Apollo," pleaded Starbuck. "Stay with us"

He hardly dared to watch as Apollo's Viper slid into the bay. It was too high. Far too high. He'd miss the catcher line and –

"Drop five degrees!" he screamed to Apollo. "Drop five degrees!"

Then both he and Boomer were disregarding standing instructions and following Apollo into the bay. Starbuck never knew if Apollo had heard and obeyed him, or whether Core Command had reset the catchers, but he saw the second catcher line grab at the landing gear on the Black Viper and bring it to an abrupt, slewing, untidy stop. Microns later his own Viper was caught and he popped the canopy, tearing frantically at his safety harness. He didn't wait for his flight crew but scrambled out of the fighter and raced across the decking to where Apollo's Viper had come to a halt, undoing and tossing aside his helmet as he ran. Apollo's ground crew were already there, climbing up the fighter and throwing back the canopy.

"Don't try to move, Apollo," he heard Ford say as he skidded to a halt beside the Viper. "We'll get you out."

Apollo didn't respond, and Starbuck couldn't tell if he was still conscious. Ford reached into the cockpit and carefully pulled away the connexion. He undid the harness and nodded to Col, who'd come up the other side of the ship. They gently took Apollo under the arms and lifted him out of the cockpit. Apollo moaned softly, both hands clutching at the Mask.

"Apollo"? Starbuck demanded, barely breathing.

Ford turned his head to look at Starbuck. "We'll lower him down to you and Boomer, okay?"

"Okay" Starbuck reached up as Boomer arrived beside him. Between them they took the limp body that Ford handed down to them.

"Where's Wilker and those bloody medics?" Starbuck yelled as he sank down onto the deck with Apollo in his arms. "Take it easy, Apollo. Everything will be all right."

Boomer knelt beside them, other pilots and deck-crew running towards them to see what was going on. "Can we get that thing off?" he asked. He touched the Mask gingerly, snatching his hand away in disgust.

"I don't know how," said Starbuck in despair, still holding Apollo. "We might do more harm than good."

"You were there when they took it off the first time."

"Yeah, and like I was in any state to take technical notes," snapped Starbuck. He turned his attention back to Apollo: "Easy, Apollo. Everything'll be fine. Just lie still…"

Ford dropped down from the Black Viper. "Wilder and Salik are on their way."

"They should bloody well be here," Starbuck shot back. "Can you get it off?"

Ford shook his head, looking down at Apollo and chewing his bottom lip anxiously. "Don't know how. I don't want to make things worse."

Apollo moaned softly and reached for Starbuck, clinging to him for comfort, his face pressed hard against Starbuck's chest. Starbuck felt a momentary revulsion at the feel of the Mask against him, then tightened his hold protectively.

"It's all right, I'm here," he said gently. "Just hold on."

There was a ring of pilots and technicians round them now, watching in silence. Starbuck looked up at them grimly, angry at them treating this like a side-show, but before he could say anything Wilker pushed his way through and knelt down beside them. He deftly pressed the release catches and lifted away the Mask, handing it carefully to his assistant.

Apollo screamed just once as the Mask was pulled away and went straight into convulsions, limbs shaking uncontrollably. His heels drummed on the metal decking.

"Shit!" Starbuck tried to hold him still, voice rising in panic. "Apollo! Apollo, it's all right. Everything's going to be all right…Please, Apollo, stop it. Please - you're scaring me! Where the hell is Salik?"

"Hold him still." Salik elbowed Wilker out of the way, a hypodermic in his hand.

Starbuck struggled to hold Apollo as Boomer caught at one wildly flailing arm, held it as Salik pressed the hypo against the inside of Apollo's wrist.

"What the fuck are they doing to him?" Greenbean demanded, anger and concern in his voice.

"He's never reacted that badly before," Wilker said, almost defensive. He looked round at the circle of watchful, unfriendly faces, and sounded almost as if he was taking Apollo's reaction as a personal affront.

Adama stood silent and grim behind Starbuck, watching him fight Apollo to a standstill. As the sedative took hold and Apollo collapsed, Starbuck turned to look at him.

"What are you doing to him?" he demanded. He threw a scornful glance at Wilker and Salik. "Look at them! They don't have the faintest idea of what they're doing and they don't care, they don't care that what they do leaves him like this. Why are you doing this?"

He shook his head and cradled Apollo protectively, hiding his face in Apollo's hair. "It's all right, Apollo. I'm here. I'm here." He started shaking himself now that Apollo was still.

"Time to stop," said Adama, quietly, from behind him.

"God forgive you for ever starting," said Starbuck.






Starbuck slumped, half dozing, in the chair beside Apollo's bed in Life Centre. He'd sat there for over twenty centars now, watching Apollo while he slept, refusing to leave even when Cassie assured him that Apollo would be fine. It wasn't that he didn't trust Cassie, the way he distrusted Salik now, it was just that Apollo hadn't stirred out his exhausted sleep even when the sedative Salik had given him should have worn off. That worried Starbuck and it worried Adama. He'd been there too, sitting silently beside his son throughout the night, blaming himself for listening to Salik's comforting, meaningless reassurances.

He and Starbuck hadn't said much to each other. Starbuck stuck to the position he'd taken on the flightdeck, holding Adama as responsible as Salik and Wilker for Apollo's condition, and Adama seemed to have no answer to that silent, potent accusation. When he left to return to the Bridge, he broke a silence that had lasted centars when he promised that he'd tell Bojay that Starbuck was off the duty roster until further notice. Starbuck nodded his thanks, but barely had enough attention to spare from watching Apollo to register that Adama had gone.

Still linked to half a dozen monitors, Apollo slept on, curled up on his side. Starbuck thought about lying beside him the previous night, after the first fire fight with the Cylons, fitting together like two spoons; thought about their lovemaking afterwards. Sex with Apollo had always been amazing. Even just thinking about it and he had a hard job staying in his chair, longing to lie down and hold Apollo close, but the hospital bed was even narrower than his bunk. There just wasn't room. The best he could do was position his chair so that he would be the first thing Apollo saw when he woke, and he kept hold of Apollo's right hand, the thin fingers limp in his. Now, at last, Apollo was moving, straightening the long legs under the covers. His fingers suddenly tightened on Starbuck's and his eyes opened. Starbuck leaned forward and, with his free hand, ran gentle fingers down Apollo's cheek.

"Hello," he said lovingly into the dreamy green-eyed gaze. "Nice to have you back."

The sleep-clouded eyes widened and Apollo smiled. "Hi," he said, pressing his cheek against Starbuck's hand.

Starbuck glanced round quickly, then, seeing no-one in view, snatched a kiss.

"Mmmn … nice," said Apollo sleepily.

"Solace," Starbuck explained, watching Apollo carefully. "I've had a long and lonely vigil waiting for you to wake up. You owe me a kiss. Actually, you owe me a hell of a lot more than that, but I'll make do with a kiss. For now."

"Don't worry," said Apollo. "I'm still here."

"That's precisely what I'm complaining about," Starbuck told him. "I don't want you to be still here. I want you at home in my bed where you belong, doing things to solace me."

Apollo grinned and sat up carefully, trying to avoid disturbing the monitor lines. He winced.

"Headache?" said Starbuck, fussing over settling pillows behind him and doing the nursing, cool-hand-fevered-brow bit with some panache, even if he did say so himself. He did say so, and Apollo agreed with him meekly, and also confessed to the headache.

"It's not too bad. How long have I been out?" he asked

Nearly a day." And despite the light tone he'd managed so far, Starbuck had to suppose that his anxiety was obvious, because Apollo frowned and put a hand on Starbuck's. He twisted his hand to thread his fingers through Apollo's.

"I'm fine," said Apollo.

"Sure you are," Starbuck started, then broke off when Salik came through the door.

"The monitors indicated that you were awake," the doctor said, observing Apollo closely. "How do you feel?"

"Fine," said Apollo, but this time he was remote, defensive, eyes wary.

"Headache? Vision problems?"

"I've a bit of a headache," Apollo admitted. "Vision's okay"

Salik nodded, checking the scanner he was holding in his hand. "You'll be fine," he said. "You reacted badly this time. We'll need to do some tests to find out why."

Apollo pulled a face. "Not today."

"No," Salik agreed, disconnecting Apollo from the monitors. "There's a meeting of the Council Research Committee in a half an centar to discuss progress. Do you want to be there?"

"I can get up?"

Salik smiled thinly. "I don't see why not. I'll get Cassie to bring you something to eat."

"Thanks," said Apollo briefly.

Salik nodded and left, ignoring Starbuck's scowling presence.

"I don't like what that man's doing to you, Apollo," said Starbuck angrily, barely waiting until Salik had got out of the door. "What kind of doctor connives at experiments that leave his patient out cold for over twenty centars?"

"The kind of doctor who doesn't think I'm human any more," said Apollo wearily. "So, obviously, I don't count."

Starbuck grimaced. Salik was hardly alone in his prejudices. Apollo might be the toast of the Fleet following the IFB broadcasts, but Starbuck still feared it would take the destruction of more than one baseship to get people to forget the Mask and remember the human underneath.

Apollo sighed and swung his legs off the bed. "I need a shower. Where's my uniform?"

"I'll get it," Starbuck put out a hand to help Apollo to his feet. "Okay?"

"I'm fine," Apollo grinned at him. "Pity you can't join me" he added, nodding towards the bathroom door.

Starbuck grinned back. "Just wait until you get out of here. I'll smother you in soap, rub up a bit of foam and bubbles here and there, give you the odd massage."

"I've had one of your massages before. It was very odd."

"Don't interrupt." Starbuck was severe. "I'm fantasising here about where exactly I intend to rub up that foam and bubbles -"

"Here and there, you said."

"Hush. So, foam and bubbles and then I'll dry you off, very, very carefully, with soft, fluffy towels, take you to bed and lick you and kiss you and pound that pretty little arse of yours into mush."

"Be gentle with me," Apollo begged, and Starbuck grinned. The thin hospital gown did nothing to hide his raging erection. "I'm not a well boy."

Starbuck didn't care who saw him this time. He pulled Apollo into a fierce hug.

"Then I'll take you to bed and just hold you while you sleep, instead," he said in Apollo's ear. "That'll be enough for me. I like looking after you, Apollo, and I definitely like looking at you. I love you." He felt Apollo stiffen, so Starbuck pulled back, and smiled at him. "I know," he said understandingly. "I know."

Apollo shook his head, looking distressed.

"Don't worry about it. Go and get cleaned up - I'll be back in ten centons." He gave Apollo a little, intimate squeeze that had the captain gasping, and, with a very evil grin on his face, headed for the door.

"I'll still be here," said Apollo. "'Till I subside, I won't be able to fit this under the shower."

"Boasting again," Starbuck jeered, and went to collect a clean uniform.

When he got back, Cassie was struggling through the door to Apollo's room with a tray of food. Apollo had to be in the shower – Starbuck wondered if he was doing his own foaming and bubbling to take care of the little problem Starbuck had left him with and got rather flustered at the pictures that left in his head. Cassie eyed him tolerantly, so knowingly that Starbuck blushed and had to busy himself with taking the tray from her and generally projecting the image of the sort of perfect gentleman who wouldn't dream about imagining his lover jerking off in the shower. He thought he succeeded. By the time Apollo walked in on them, naked, they were sitting together on the bed, nibbling at Apollo's breakfast and chatting amiably about anything other than showers, bubble and foam.

Apollo stopped dead, going pink, evidently not expecting to see Cassie. She gave him an openly appraising look.

"Nice," she said. "Now I see what I lost out to." She smiled when Apollo got quickly into the shorts handed to him by a grinning Starbuck.

Apollo, though, was intent on getting into his pressure suit and uniform, so that she couldn't see the scars, or the heart implant. The grin he gave her was tight and strained. Rather more sober, she went over to him, reaching up to kiss his cheek.

"It doesn't matter, Apollo. Not to the people who love you," she said gently, getting full marks from Starbuck for both perception and dealing with it with her own peculiar grace. "Come and eat your breakfast."

"It does to some," he said moodily.

"Only because you won't let them say they're sorry. They care too. Your father was here all night," she said. "Eat your breakfast, Apollo."

Apollo shook his hair to fall half over his face and sat down on the bed. Cassie joined him.

"I brought enough for three," she said. "And I brought you tea, instead of java. Although how you can drink that stuff is beyond me."

"Why did you do that, Apollo?" Starbuck demanded abruptly.

"Do what?"

"Cover the implant with your hair. It's still there. It'll always be there. Why be ashamed of it? You didn't ask for it, but we'd have been in the shit with that baseship without it, we'd have lost two days ago without it, Giles and Riley would be dead without it. It's part of you now. You can't hide it."

Apollo looked at him fixedly, the cup of tea half raised.

" 'Scuse me, Cassie," Starbuck reached over and stole the thin black band that held back her hair. Before Apollo could move, Starbuck had gathered Apollo's hair back into a thick pony-tail, catching it with the band. The implant was fully visible now.

"Hey!" protested Cassie and Apollo simultaneously.

Then Cassie said, half thoughtfully, half admiringly, "That really suits you, Apollo."

Apollo, giving Starbuck a dark look, put down his tea and allowed himself to be dragged over to the bathroom. Starbuck pushed him towards the mirror, stood behind him with both hands on Apollo's shoulders.

"Half the problem, Apollo, is that you've tried too hard to pretend that it's not there, to hide it. That hasn't fooled anyone." Starbuck talked into the suddenly cold silence, as Apollo stared at his reflection. "There's no point in pretending that it didn't happen, and that people should just think that you went away for a while then came back, unchanged. You have changed, Apollo. You can't hide it. So flaunt it. Make people accept you for what you are, on your own terms. Stop being ashamed of what you are."

"I don't know what I am, Starbuck."

"You're a cyborg, Apollo," said Starbuck brutally. "You're alive only because of implanted alien technology - "

"Starbuck!" Cassie gasped.

"It's different, but they're all learning to live with it. They'd get on with living with it a lot better if you'd stop acting like it's something shameful. You're not a machine, Apollo. You're not dead. You're just you. Make the bastards acknowledge that." He turned Apollo around and cupped his face with both hands. "No excuses. No evasion. You've got nothing to prove. You've already made the ultimate sacrifice for the Fleet. They owe you, not the other way round."

Apollo looked at him steadily, then Starbuck leaned his forehead against Apollo's for a moment, and released him. He longed to kiss him, but hesitated to do that in front of Cassie, understanding and supportive as she was. Starbuck felt quite sick, wondering what had possessed him, fearful that Apollo would be mad with him.

Apollo turned his head to look at himself again, face grave. Starbuck and Cassie looked at each other and waited. Then Apollo turned to face them.

"It looks okay," he conceded. "Can I borrow the band, Cassie?"

She nodded. "I'll buy you dozens," she promised extravagantly.

"I'll just get my hair cut."

"Don't you dare!" Cassie shook her head vehemently. "You look wonderful with your hair like that. Keep it that way. It's very sexy."

"Maybe," said Apollo, non-committal. Then to a still apprehensive Starbuck. "You've a big mouth, Lieutenant"

"Maybe," said Starbuck softly, mocking. He relaxed when Apollo grinned at him. It was all right. "I'll need it later to take care of that huge object you didn't think you'd get into the turboshower."







The meeting had gone on for a while now. Wilker, armed with his usual impenetrable data and graphs had tried to explain to the commander and the rest of the Research Committee, just what they'd achieved since they'd started work. The way he told it, Apollo getting the baseship was purely down to his electronics. In the corner where he was sitting quietly, Apollo listened, half smiling.

"But can you explain Captain Apollo's extreme physical reaction yesterday?" asked Adama. Apart from one keen glance at his son, taking in Apollo's startling new image, he'd not looked at anything except the datapad on the desk in front of him.

"Well, we think that it was because there was so little time between the two firefights, and both were stressful situations," said Salik. "We've already established that linking the Mask to the Viper imposes some physical toll on the captain, and that increases with stress levels and the duration of use. We'll need to do a lot more tests to establish the safety parameters."

"No," said Apollo flatly, speaking for the first time since his distant acknowledgement of the Councillors' congratulations at the start of the meeting.

There was a surprised silence. Adama looked thoughtfully at his son, then back to his datapad.

"I'm sorry, Captain?" said Salik

"I doubt that, but it's irrelevant. There'll be no more tests linking me to the Viper. The Mask wasn't made for that. Make do with the data you've already got."

"You're withdrawing consent for the experiments?" demanded Joel, astonished.

"What consent? I agreed to the experiments when I had no choice in the matter. I think yesterday bought me some choices." Apollo was cool.

"You can't do that!" Wilker spluttered, aghast.

"I've done it." Apollo leaned back in his chair, relaxed.

"But all this work. we're learning so much…"

"You aren't learning anything at all," said Apollo. "You don't know how the Mask works, and you're guessing all the time at the likely effects on me and ignoring the fact that they're increasing in severity. I really don't intend to spend ten centons after every flight convulsing on the deck floor for your entertainment. It stops now."

He listened unmoved to Wilker and Salik's protests, to the councillors, sparking into fire only when one of the councillors demanded that he remember his duty to the Fleet, his duty to co-operate, his duty to make any sacrifice to protect his people.

"Duty?" he said savagely. "I have always done my duty towards this Fleet, Councillor Piers. Hell, I've even died for the Fleet. What have you done to match that? How dare anyone lecture me on duty!" He calmed himself and said, more quietly, "I had no control over whatever happened to me when I was Masked by the Enemy. I can control this. Despite Dr Wilker considering me as nothing more than a machine, and Dr Salik not giving me the medical consideration he'd offer a cadaver, I still have rights, as well as responsibilities. I've shouldered the responsibilities all my life - now it's time to claim a few of the rights. You owe me, Councillor, because without me you'd have that baseship tailing us until reinforcements arrive. There'll be no more experiments linking us to a Viper."

Adama gave him another thoughtful look. Us?

"We need to do this work!" protested Salik. He'd spluttered with outrage at Apollo's implied accusation of malpractice, but Adama thought that Apollo had the truth of it. The previous day on the flight-deck – it was clear that neither Salik nor Wilker had expected Apollo's reaction to be so severe. They hadn't known and they hadn't cared. "We're learning so much about the human brain and how it works - "

"I thought you didn't think I was human any more," said Apollo silkily.

Salik turned a dull red.

"The weapons potential - " Wilker started in.

"What, you mean you think I'm some sort of prototype and there'll be more like me? I don't think so. You've got me, and only me for this. How many volunteers do you think you'll get for one of these?" Apollo gestured to the implant. "How many people do you think you'll get to share my pariah-hood? Or will you emulate the Enemy in everything and scour the battlefields for dead to Mask? No. There's no real potential to develop this beyond me, Wilker. This research is going nowhere and I won't be treated like a lump of experimental meat any more."

Joel turned to Adama in appeal. "Commander?"

Adama looked up at last. "I don't think there's anymore to be said. I support my son absolutely. This research is unethical, as morally repugnant as anything the Enemy did. I'm not prepared to countenance that any longer." He looked at Apollo, seeing the surprise at the unexpected acknowledgement. "I'm sorry that I allowed this nonsense to go on as long as it has, Apollo. In the beginning, it seemed a good way of getting you back onto active duty, of re-establishing you. Forgive me for forgetting, as everyone else did, that your record and actions all your career should have meant that you had no need for re-establishment. Getting the basestar yesterday was a very impressive act, but it was the latest in a career of impressive acts. Our blindness in not accepting that - and you - is shameful. But our real shame lies in treating you worse than the Enemy did."

"But we've such an opportunity to learn!" wailed Wilker, almost wringing his hands in anguish.

"Then I suggest we send you back into Enemy territory, Wilker, and you can experience the Mask direct." Adama lost patience. "This discussion is ended. The research is ended."

"Perhaps," said Joel.

Adama gave him a cold look. "I think, Councillor, that I have succeeded in speaking to most of the Council this morning. A majority accept that we can go no further with this. Thank you, Lady Hilary, gentlemen. The meeting is concluded. Captain Apollo, please remain behind so that we can discuss your future role."

But it was several centons before the protesting scientists and Councillors finally accepted that Adama wasn't to be moved, and left his office. Wilker could still be heard bewailing the missed opportunity even after the door had closed behind them.

"Thank you," said Apollo after a centon or two.

Adama nodded. "You're welcome, Apollo."

"You're sure the rest of the Council will accept it?"

"After yesterday, I hope we've a good majority. There'll be a fight over it - Joel won't give up easily. But we've regained our position, Apollo, and I think I can handle them."

"Think?"

"Wilker's right about one thing. The strategic advantages of the Mask are enormous. There are some voices on the Council, not just those three, who will argue that we mustn't give it up. I think I can counter that." He hoped that he was right. He thought that he was right.

Apollo nodded. "I can see their point of view, Commander. And I'm not immune to the demands of duty, despite what Piers thinks." He gave his father a sour little smile. "There must be something to genetics, after all. But the Mask wasn't made to be linked to human technology. It fights, every time."

"That was a major selling point," agreed Adama. "I was able to convince most of them that we risked damaging the Mask if the tests continued."

"And me," Apollo reminded him dryly. "But you can offer them something, if it will help the negotiations. I'll reconsider if Wilker ever cracks the Black Ship technology. The Mask was made for that."

"We'll see," said Adama, inwardly grateful that Wilker had thought he'd need yahrens of work to even scratch the surface on the Black Ship.

"And I'd like to keep the Mask myself."

"Why? I thought you hated it."

Apollo shook his head. "It's part of me, now. It wasn't the Mask I hated. Just the use Wilker was putting it to. But the Mask itself… no, that's mine. I want to keep it."

Adama looked at him, thoughtful. Sectars ago Apollo had seen the Mask for the first time. Is that mine? Well, it seemed the answer was yes. Apollo did think the Mask was his. He wondered again just how far the Enemy technology had changed his son.

"To use?" he asked now.

"Not in the Viper." Apollo hesitated. "It's hard to explain. I actually feel uncomfortable with the thought of Wilker having it, working on it. He doesn't understand it."

"And you do?"

Apollo smiled. "Oh yes," he said simply. "It's mine."

"We'll see," said Adama again, very thoughtful indeed, even alarmed. "Well, I'm glad the tests are over. I was getting very uncomfortable about them, but it wasn't until yesterday that I realised what it was doing to you. Are you really all right?"

"Fine. Just a headache, as usual. It'll pass."

Adama nodded. "Good." He gestured to Apollo's hair. "New style?"

"I am what I am," said Apollo. "No point in hiding it."

"And what are you?"

Apollo smiled. "Alive."

Adama smiled back. "Yes," he said, at last accepting without reservation that this was indeed his son. "And you have no idea how glad I am about that."

"No," said Apollo dryly. "No idea at all."

Adama had nothing he could say. Nothing.

Apollo let that rankle for a centon, then went on in a more conciliatory tone. "And my job? Now I'm no longer a lab-rat, what do you have for me to do?"

"Bojay was promoted in good faith - " Adama saw Apollo's mutinous expression and said hastily, "All right, I know as well as you do that Bojay was promoted to annoy you and me, by passing over Boomer. But from Bojay's point of view, he was promoted in good faith and he hasn't done so badly. I've been thinking. It was always a heavy job, even before we increased our numbers so drastically to fight off the Enemy. We can split the current squadrons into two flights, Alpha and Beta, each with its own Strike Captain."

"So you're offering me half my old job?"

"Not exactly. I was going to suggest we promote Boomer to fill the other Strike Captain post."

Apollo choked slightly. From somewhere he found the grace to say that Boomer deserved it. "From everything I heard, he did a bloody good job against the Enemy. He should have got the job permanently." Apollo took a deep breath. "And me? Where do I fit in?"

"They'll both be under your command, Captain."

"My command?"

"As senior Strike Captain. I suppose we'd better find a new rank and title for you, to differentiate between you and the two Strike Captains. Pick it for yourself. Squadron Commander, Senior Captain…whatever you like." Adama smiled at him. "I'm sorry, Apollo. I didn't mean to tease you. This way, you get all the best bits of your old job back, but with two very competent deputies taking the more routine load, and I'll find you plenty to do getting some command and bridge experience supporting Tigh. What do you say?"

"Do you think they'll accept it? The Council, I mean."

"Anton's very much in favour, and you would be astonished at the amount of influence he has. Astonished." Adama considered for a centon. "I believe, actually, that if you boiled it down, Anton actually runs this fleet, not me or the Council. Yes, this they'll accept. It's been on the cards for sectons."

Apollo considered it. "All right," he agreed. "Sounds good."

"Good. I'm glad to have you back. I'll leave it to you to tell Boomer the good news, but first…"

Apollo shook his head. "I don't think so. You're a member of the Council that shafted him: I think it's up to you to make amends. It would be better coming from you."

Adama felt his face burn. Apollo had certainly become more forthright over the past few sectars, if nothing else. But he was also right. "Very well. I'll get Tigh to send them both up to see me - I'd better explain to Bojay too." Adama paused, then said, uncomfortable, "First, though we need to talk. Is it still so bad?"

"What?"

"I thought people were beginning to accept you. I'd hoped that you'd got over the worst reactions to your return and what happened to you."

"It's better. It'll never be the same, but it's okay. The warriors are mostly fine about it now. Barely any jokes in the OC about getting me human blood or machine oil to drink, or bleeding embalming fluid if I'm cut. But I've only got back what I have because of Starbuck. He never gave up on me, stayed by me even when I didn't deserve it. But I suppose I do resent having to win acceptance at all. I've always known I'm me. I just wish everyone else could have seen beyond the implant."

"And I didn't help." It wasn't a question.

"No." Apollo's tone was even, controlled. "They reasoned that if my own family didn't accept me, why should they?"

"I'm sorry. I'm heart sorry. But you know why I was so wary. I was too scared to really believe it. Losing you had been horrendous and Boxey was so distraught… I wanted to believe it was you but Salik was so doubtful that anything of you could have survived, and all the scans showed residual Enemy characteristics. I suppose I didn't want to risk having to later face up to admitting that all I had was your body back with some artificial alien intelligence living in it. And I had to protect Boxey from that risk too."

"And I paid the price," said Apollo. "It was a salutary lesson. Don't ever come back."

"I really am very sorry, Apollo"

"I know. So am I. But there's nothing I can do about it. I can't make my family care about me."

Adama flinched at the bitterness in Apollo's tone. "I care very much - we all do." He saw the impatient, disbelieving expression and went on quickly. "But I know we have to prove it to you. Look, Apollo, I know how much we've hurt you and we don't deserve your forgiveness. All I ask is that you try to forgive us. To forgive me. Please."

Apollo stared at him, shrugged.

"Please."

Apollo got up to go. Adama understood at once the magnitude of the task he had before him, the depth of the pain he'd inflicted, when Apollo turned on him his own words of sectars before in that first painful interview after the Council had reluctantly allowed Apollo to live.

"You have to earn it," said Apollo.






By the time Apollo reached the OC, the party was in full swing. It was a couple of centars since he'd left his father, and news of Boomer's promotion had obviously broken. Everyone who wasn't actually on duty was drinking and dancing hard. He saw Starbuck dancing madly with Cassie, in the middle of the crowd. They grinned at each other and Starbuck beckoned him on.

Then Boomer saw him. "Apollo!" he yelled above the music and heads turned.

Apollo glanced around the room. Blue Squadron, all grouped around a delighted-looking Boomer, grinned and waved, and their enthusiasm was picked up by most - but not all - of the pilots in the room. Drake gave him a very sour look. The news was definitely out, then. Apollo found the contemplation of Drake's chagrin a bonus he hadn't anticipated, giving a bit of added zest to the situation. A vindictive man could make Drake's life hell. Apollo gave Drake a very sunny smile and watched in satisfaction as the man gloomed over and turned away.

He got a few slaps on the back and congratulations on the way, equally divided between enthusiasm for him getting the baseship and, he guessed, a cautious welcome for his new role back in command. It amused him. A couple of sectars before they wouldn't even speak to him. Now they seemed resigned to being under his command again, accepting him again. Maybe he still wasn't as popular as he used to be, but they were coming round. Maybe that would come in time.

Strange creatures, humans.

"Like it!" Boomer waved a hand at Apollo's hair.

"Gods, Apollo," Jolly said, pushing a beer into his hand. "We saw the footage. Amazing, you getting that baseship on your own."

"Hey, we were there too," protested Boomer, throwing an arm around Apollo's shoulders and hugging him.

Apollo concentrated on what was important. "Well done, Captain," he said quietly. "You deserve this."

Boomer grinned at him. "Yeah, I think so." He spoke without boasting, the simple truth. "The commander told me and Bojay you're thinking up your own new rank. What're you going to be?"

"Myself," said Apollo with a grin. He caught Bojay's eye, noted the disconsolate expression: Bojay didn't look quite as gloomy as Drake, but it came close. Apollo smiled and raised his glass in salute, getting an unenthusiastic nod in return. His smile broadened. It was turning out to be a good day. A very good day.

Boomer nodded. "Maybe we could have a party competition, when everyone's loosened up a bit. Name-that-commander type of thing."

Apollo shuddered. "The state you lot are in, I dread to think what you'll come up with. I think I'll opt for an old rank we haven't used for centuries."

"Which is?"

"Strike Leader."

Boomer sniggered into his beer. "The 'Leader' bit will really piss off Drake and Bojay. It'll choke them to have to call you that."

"Oh, I do hope so."

"Why'd we stop using it?" Jolly asked curiously. "I've never come across it before."

"It was a recognised rank, about Major equivalent, until about six hundred yahrens ago when the low-level conflict we'd been having with the Cylons escalated. I suppose people thought it was too close to the Cylon ‘Imperious Leader' to be comfortable."

Boomer's grin died away. "And that's aimed at all of us?" he asked quietly.

Apollo looked him in the eyes. "Maybe, Boomer, if you want to take it that way. And maybe the historian in me just likes resurrecting old titles."

Jolly was looking puzzled. "Sounds okay to me," he said, missing the undercurrent.

"Me too," Apollo agreed and smiled.

Boomer just looked troubled.

Giles lurched across just then and pushed a second beer into Apollo's hand. "Brilliant, skipper, brilliant," he said blearily. "We have got to celebrate you getting those tinheads."

"Not tonight. Tonight's Boomer's night. Besides, I still feel lousy, so forgive me, Boom-boom, if I don't stay too long."

"Are you all right?"

"I'll be okay."

"You're better off out of that so-called research."

"I know it. I've stopped it."

"Good." Boomer put a hand on his arm. "It's going to take some time, isn't it?" he asked quietly. Giles and Jolly had disappeared towards the bar for refills.

"For what?"

"For you to forgive me."

"I don't know. I'm feeling pretty sore about it, because I thought you were a good friend. It disappointed me that you weren't as good a friend as I believed, that's all." Apollo looked away, towards Starbuck. He and Cassie were still dancing energetically. "No-one was, except him. I only had Starbuck. Luckily, he's all I want."

Boomer nodded. "I deserve that, I suppose. I'm sorry, Apollo."

"So am I." Apollo looked at him steadily. "Because it'll take a lot to get me trust you again, Boom-boom, and that's sad, don't you think? Still, tonight's your celebration - don't spoil it."

"I don't feel much like celebrating." Boomer looked morosely into his glass. "I wish there was some way of convincing you that I mean it."

"I'm sure you do," said Apollo, then in a more conciliatory tone: "I'm not mad at you, Boomer. I'm not really mad at anyone anymore - except Drake of course, and that's a matter of principle. I'm not even mad with my family anymore. And I do realise how hard it was for everyone to accept me and this." His right hand touched the implant. "I just wish you'd given a centon's thought to how it felt to be on this side of it. Just give it some time, okay?"

Boomer sighed and nodded.

"Stop sweating it, Boomer." Apollo looked serious for a centon. "Adopt my new philosophy - accept things and move on. It'll never be the same. Nothing for me will ever be the same"

"But maybe just as good?" Boomer said tentatively. "The way it is for you and Starbuck?"

"Maybe, if we work on it," said Apollo with a shrug.

"I'd like the chance."

Apollo grinned and put a hand on Boomer's shoulder. "You have it, Boomer. But not tonight. I really need to get some sleep right now."

"Thanks." Boomer grinned back and added slyly: "Starbuck looks sleepy too."

Apollo laughed. "Then I'd better see he gets his rest. You do deserve this, Boom-boom. Enjoy rubbing Bojay's nose in it."

"I will."

"Good. Go and get suitably drunk. That's an order."

He grinned and turned away, making his way through the crowd of dancers to where Starbuck, apparently feeling none the worse for a night spent sleepless in the Life Centre, was still going strong. Cassie, already bushed, had come to a halt, laughing as Starbuck gyrated around her.

"Why aren't you dancing?" Starbuck demanded over the music. It was louder in this corner, right in front of the speakers.

"Me? The man completely without rhythm?"

"Oh, I wouldn't say that." The leer Starbuck directed at him was unbelievably obscene and even Cassie blushed. "In the right circumstances, you've got rhythm in spades."

"Damn - first line of defence gone. Okay. Then I object to looking as if I'm in the middle of convulsions. Why're you waving your arms about like that?"

"Helps keep me balanced. Where've you been?"

"Here and there." Apollo nodded towards a table. "I want to talk to you. Can I steal him, Cassie?"

"You did that sectars ago," Cassie said dryly, and danced away, breath regained.

"Where have you been?" Starbuck asked as they settled down at the table.

"Sorting something out. I had a think about what you said. "

"I say a lot of things, very little of it memorable."

"For you, this was sensible. First, I hope - no, I'm pretty sure I've managed to stop the experiments."

Starbuck nodded. "So I guessed when I heard the news about the new command arrangements - although I didn't hear the news from you, I notice."

"Sorry. I did look for you, but I thought you'd gone to get some sleep and I didn't want to wake you."

"I was here, starting the celebrations. You're forgiven - sir. So no more Mask?"

"Maybe," said Apollo thoughtfully. "Maybe. I just know I don't want to be hooked up to a Viper. I'm still interested in seeing what the Mask will do for me though."

Starbuck sighed. "Let's just give it a break, Apollo." he pleaded. "I don't like you wearing it."

Apollo grinned at him. "Sure, Starbuck," he said compliantly. "I only meant I was interested, that's all."

Starbuck looked unconvinced at this ready acquiescence, but let it pass. For the moment. "Okay. So what's second?"

"Second is that I went to talk to the Quartermaster. I reminded her that I was entitled to command level quarters and that I wanted them right now. She squawked a bit - but sorted me something out. Same level as the Commander's. I've spent the last couple of centars cleaning them up and moving my stuff in."

"Handy for Boxey," said Starbuck with a grin.

Apollo shrugged. "Maybe. I didn't do it for Boxey. Okay, things are getting better there and he might want to come back to live with me, but that wasn't the reason I demanded the quarters. I did it because you asked me to." Apollo looked into the vivid blue eyes. "I think, Starbuck, that I'd like to spend the rest of my life having energetic and vigorous sex with you, too. You asked me to get a bigger bed: do you want to come and help me christen it?"

Starbuck stared for a micron and grinned. "The rest of your life, huh? Does that mean you're going to make an honest man out of me at last?"

Apollo laughed. "Could anyone? I'm only human, Starbuck. Miracles are for the divine."

"You could do it. I've been waiting for this for a long time, Apollo. Sectars. Ever since that first night in the Dome, when we realised there was only each other." Starbuck was unusually serious. "Is it still that, Apollo? Still only each other?"

"Yes," said Apollo. "Always."

Starbuck smiled. "So, am I moving in?"

"That's up to you. If - when people found out about us, you could come in for a lot of grief."

"Sure to," said Starbuck cheerfully. "It's bad enough you being a cyborg - not good. A cyborg with what some people would describe as deviant sexual habits - very not good. A cyborg with what some people would describe as deviant sexual habits openly living with his male wingmate - very, very not good. IFB'll have a field day"

Apollo nodded. "I know. We'd have had to face up to some hostility, I guess, even without me getting myself killed and resurrected. As it is, you might have a rough time. I owe you, Starbuck, and I don't deserve you. It's not much of a thank you if I ask you to join me in the public pillory. If you want to keep it quiet, that's all right by me. It'll be better than you getting snide comments about screwing a zombie."

"Sod the comments. I'm not ashamed of loving you," said Starbuck. "Do you want me, Apollo?"

"More than anything," Apollo admitted. "But this is your call."

"Then we'll go christen the bed and move my things in tomorrow." Starbuck's lazy beautiful grin turned to a sudden frown. "Did you just say that you spent two centars cleaning these new quarters up?"

"Yes." Apollo grinned, knowing what was coming.

Starbuck shook his head. "I'm not one for housework, Apollo. It'll ruin my nice soft hands, and then you'll complain about the friction burns from rough handling. I'm staying a slob. Sorry."

Apollo sighed. "Surprise me. But some ground rules we have to have, Starbuck."

"Such as?"

Apollo ticked the conditions off on his fingers. "No dirty dishes left in the sink overnight. No expecting me to make you breakfast in bed every morning. No shrieking when I remind you it's your turn to clean the turboflush. And no leaving dirty laundry on the bedroom floor for more than two days."

"Sheesh, you're no fun," complained Starbuck, that big beautiful grin back in place. "By this time next secton you'll have your hair in curlers as you nag me about leaving the flush seat up. And where else do you keep your shorts but on the bedroom floor?"

"A few little ground rules, Starbuck. Surely I'm worth it?"

Starbuck rolled his eyes. "Okay - if you promise that we can skip breakfast most mornings and have very hot sex instead, you got yourself a deal."

"Done," said Apollo, and grinned.

"Then let's go. I think I'd like to start giving the rumour-mongers reasonable grounds for assuming that you and me are screwing each other senseless. Oh, and Apollo: next time someone asks what you are, I've got a new term for you. Nicer than zombie."

"Zombie may be technically accurate," Apollo pointed out with the wry detachment he'd developed since his return.

"Yeah - but it's not exactly a term of endearment, is it? Cassie told me about this - some old Gemonese dialect word meaning 'one who comes again'. Revenant. Much nicer."

Apollo grinned. "Starbuck, I believe that you owe me a shower as well as christening the bed. Let's go home. I want to show you just how often I can come, again and again...and again."






Apollo concentrated on a pair of hands.

Nice, well-shaped hands, holding a bar of soap. Expensive soap, a deep cream-coloured bar, smelling of musk. The lather was thick and white, rich with bubbles, foam thickening with each pass of the hands working on it. He watched as the bar was turned over and over in the nimble fingers, as the lather thickened. He licked suddenly dry lips but didn't lift his fascinated gaze from those moving hands. His breath was coming shorter, anticipation getting the adrenaline flowing.

"Now then," said Starbuck huskily. "Just where did I promise to work up some foam and bubbles?"

"I think you left it open," said Apollo, licking his lips again. "Here and there, I think you said. "

"Sounds like me. I don't like to commit myself too early."

Starbuck took a step across the tiny shower cubicle in Apollo's - their - new quarters, parked the bar of soap on the rack, and reached for Apollo with both foamy hands. One hand curved round the hard cock, the second slid down the small of Apollo's back into the crack between his buttocks. Working his hands in gentle circular movements he wormed a finger into Apollo's anus. He smiled when Apollo gasped.

"Am I going to get your naughty parts nice and clean and sparkling," he crooned softly.

Apollo laughed as he leaned forward to grasp Starbuck's cock and kiss his lover passionately. For several centons the little cubicle was full of soft moans and writhing as Starbuck and Apollo got each other into a state that no amount of foam could, in all decency, cover adequately. All either of them were aware of were kisses that inflamed, hands that stimulated and excited bodies that were already at fever pitch. After an endless impassioned time, Starbuck reluctantly pulled his mouth away from Apollo's.

"I'm running out of lather. Pass me the soap, Apollo."

Apollo smiled at him, revelling in the feeling of Starbuck's hand on his cock, on the fingers that were gently swirling and scissoring inside his stretching anus, gently stimulating his prostate. He rubbed his hard cock up against Starbuck's, knowing this sent the lieutenant into a state of incoherence. He reached for the soap and for a micron, stood with it in his hand, then negligently tossed it over his shoulder.

Starbuck's eyes widened in anticipation. "Oops," he said, writhing up against Apollo's groin. "Clumsy!"

"Well, bugger me," said Apollo lightly. "I've dropped the soap."

"Looks like it," Starbuck agreed, keeping up the stimulation. He planted a kiss or two on Apollo's throat.

"I think I'd better turn around, bend over and pick it up. What do you think?"

Starbuck swallowed hard. "Sounds good to me," he said, the silly grin on his face getting broader.

"And then you will, won't you? Bugger me, I mean."

"Oh my, yes." Starbuck nodded enthusiastically. "Comprehensively. The temptation would be just too great."

"Oh good." Apollo kissed Starbuck, running his tongue around Starbuck's lips then biting the lower one gently. "I know how easily you give into temptation."

"I can handle temptation. I can! Stop laughing, Apollo, and bend over...I'll show you how well I can handle temptation -"


Edited August 2005


Continued in Masquerade

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