And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls.
Isaiah 34 verse 13
Another day. Another once-inhabited, now uninhabited planet. Another ruined city.
It was getting to be a habit, finding the ruins of dead civilisations. There was no knowing who had swept through this part of the galaxy, destroying everything in their path. Probably not Cylons, not this far from the Empire's space. Some other metaphorical plague and pestilence, then; one that used fire and explosions to destroy what had once been a pretty little city sitting amongst gently-sloping hills.
"Another one," said Boomer. He handed the field-glasses back to Apollo. "This is depressing. Why can't we ever find live people to trade with?"
Apollo nodded. "Looks like they're long gone, both the victors and the vanquished."
Boomer's mouth twitched. "Sometimes I wonder if we'd be able to tell which is which."
Apollo thought that the city could probably tell. He didn’t think that the city of the victors would be this desolate.
The city didn't have the soaring towers and pyramids of Caprica, maybe, but from where he stood, it looked like it had been a pleasant place with wide avenues and solid, attractive buildings built from a warm golden sandstone. Even with the obvious damage and destruction, it looked very peaceful under the slanting afternoon sun.
They'd landed on one of the encircling hills, bringing their shuttle down in a big square lined with blank-windowed buildings. At the end nearest the city centre, stood a dilapidated open-sided little building. Its cupola, cracked and broken, was set on graceful pillars, covering the remains of an urn. A memorial, or something? Apollo leaned against it while he scanned the city below. The stone was surprisingly warm against his shoulder where it had baked in the sun.
The whole city was… Apollo paused, considering. Comprehensible, he decided. It was a place he could understand, a place to empathise with, a place where he could grasp the rationale behind the buildings and the layout, see the similarities with human cities, maybe even work out the socio-political forces behind it. It was human-shaped and sized, even if the people who'd lived here hadn't been or looked human.
Now it was a ruin.
"An habitation of dragons," he murmured. His upbringing in a religious family meant the Book of the Word had seeped into his very bones. Boomer shot him a quick grin and he smiled back. The Book was always good for a quotation, anyway.
The city was a ruin, but it still stood. Ruined, changed, and desolate, but still recognisably a city. There was a parable there for him, if he chose to read it.
The Book was good for parables, too, now he came to think on it.
Starbuck spoke from behind him. "Are we going down into the city?"
Well, that was why they were there, after all, to see what might be salvageable, what technology or knowledge they could scavenge. They were getting to be pretty good scavengers; Galactican carrion crows. Apollo bit back a sigh. They had a job to do and it was time to stop staring at synonyms for his own futile existence and get on with it.
"Yes. We need to split up into pairs and explore." Apollo turned from his contemplation of the dead city to a contemplation of the warriors here with him. His gaze slid away from Starbuck, the familiar pain knotted just below his breastbone. He rubbed at it absently with his free hand. The pain wasn't as sharp as usual. More of a dull ache, today. Dull ache days weren't so bad.
"We need to split up Boomer and Dietra," said Starbuck, grinning. "I couldn't face turning a corner down there and seeing what I saw in the Viper launch bay last night. Not again. Horrible, it was."
Boomer's dark skin couldn't show his blushes, of course, but he stiffened. "Starbuck, you promised you'd behave."
"Did I? That doesn't sound like something I'd do. Are you sure?"
"Very sure." And Boomer sounded like his teeth were gritting so hard they'd break. "You promised you'd leave it alone."
"Well—" started Starbuck.
"He doesn't keep promises," said Apollo, and he had to stop, take a breath to force the bitter anger from his voice before people wondered at it and looked to see what caused it. They all closed their eyes, wilfully, to how untrustworthy Starbuck was. He had himself. He added, more lightly, "You should try it, though, Starbuck. It builds character."
Starbuck just laughed, but the glance he sent Apollo suggested he'd heard the sharpness in Apollo's tone. He'd just better not start anything down here, not in front of people. Apollo would kill him if he did. Probably really kill him.
"Trouble is, I don't want my character built."
"Well, there's a surprise," muttered Apollo, and turned away. He lifted the field-glasses back to his eyes and concentrated on his examination of the city. His eyes burned and stung and he had to blink hard. Must be something in the atmosphere, irritating them.
Trouble was, most people didn't want Starbuck's character built any more than Starbuck did.. They liked him the way he was. They were all charmed. They all fell for the happy-go-lucky personality that revelled in being the life and soul of the Officer's Club. They all liked to think that they had Starbuck's attention.
They all got burned, singed around the edges.
Most of them didn't even notice, the idiots, and they were all too keen on encouraging him. The way that Greenbean did now. "Poor Starbuck. Catching Boom-Boom and Dietra must have scarred you for life."
"It was terrible. If it had been you, you'd be demanding financial compensation too."
"Shut it, Starbuck," said Dietra, tone flat. "You aren't nearly as funny as you think you are."
Apollo lowered the field-glasses and turned to her, surprised. People didn’t interrupt Starbuck when he was in full flow. Starbuck's cheeks were reddening, but Dietra turned her back on him. Apollo was impressed. He would quite like to turn his back himself.
"No?" said Starbuck, softly.
Dietra turned her head. "It's sad, really. You're like a one-tune fiddle."
"Ah," said Starbuck. "But I never played my tune with you."
Dietra laughed, a bright sound in the silence of the ruins. "Just as well. I'd snap your string if you tried." She looked him up and down. "As far as I'm concerned, Starbuck, you're tone deaf."
Starbuck gaped. Everyone gaped. Apollo, not wanting to acknowledge the little glow of satisfaction stepped in before Starbuck could recover.
"That's enough. This is a survey mission, not kindergarten. Dietra, Jolly – back to the shuttle and break out the gear. Starbuck, you and Greenie go and check out the other side of the square. Make sure we aren't missing anything significant back there if we head down into the city." He gave them a couple of microns to stare at each other, before snapping into Captain mode. "Now! That was an order."
Dietra smirked and turned away smartly, Jolly stumbling along in her wake. Starbuck gave him one glowering glance, his face red, and stamped away with Greenbean.
Beside Apollo, Boomer took a very deep breath. "You should have just let me loose on him."
"He doesn't often get slapped down like that in public," said Apollo. "I think he was in shock."
"He'll be in Life Centre when I've finished with him. Who does he think he is?"
"He's always been the same, Boomer. I don’t think it's malicious."
Boomer sighed. "No, I know. Just Starbuck. I should be used to it by now. I know he doesn't mean anything by it and normally I just let it wash all over me, you know? It's just how he is."
"Dietra was pretty good, though."
Boomer relaxed visibly and laughed. "I may have found the one woman who's immune to him. Fancy that."
"Make the most of it."
"Oh, I will. She's quite something, is Dietra. You know, if a few more people slapped him down, he'd be the better for it."
Apollo hunched one shoulder. "Maybe. But it won't happen. People like him too much the way he is and he won't change."
Boomer nodded. "No. And that's his problem, isn't it? Because the rest of us eventually want more than that, and we'll just have to leave him behind."
"Maybe that's what's worrying him."
Boomer just grinned. "Tough. Now, I'm going to find Dietra." He paused, gave Apollo a considering look. "You should do that," he said. "You should find someone."
"Trouble is, I thought I had."
Boomer put a hand on Apollo's arm and squeezed. "You should have known better. You should have known he didn't want to be found. He never has done, never will."
He absolutely should have known better.
Boomer was a wise man, if a little too fond of saying 'I told you so'. Because Apollo had known better. He knew how Starbuck operated. He'd watched Cassie get singed and burnt. He'd watched his own sister fluttering like a moth around a candle flame. He'd watched dozens of moths, melting their wings like Icarus of old legend. Why in Hades name did he think he'd do any better than they did?
Sometimes he thought he was as wilfully blind as everyone else, dazzled by Starbuck's charm. He'd known the risk. Cassie had ousted Athena, Apollo had ousted Cassie. She wanted too much, Starbuck had said up in the Dome, the night when he'd charmed and dazzled Apollo, his kisses ghosting down the side of Apollo's jaw. Cassie had wanted too much when all Starbuck ever wanted was to have fun.
All he ever wanted.
Starbuck had had so many before Apollo. Apollo had seen him with them a thousand times. Nothing ever lasted. Starbuck didn't take it seriously. Oh, it was a lot of fun and the sex was amazing, said Starbuck when he was moving on and Apollo had resented that casual kindness more than the desertion itself. It wasn't malicious, but it was careless. It stung like fury.
Greenbean and Jolly started down the path to the city, heads down over the hand-held scanners, taking point. Boomer and Dietra had paired up, of course. Which left Starbuck for Apollo.
Except not really.
He watched Starbuck come back across the square towards him. Starbuck looked sulky, like a child whose toys had been taken away. The others were already drifting down the hillside to the city streets below. Boomer appeared to be holding Dietra's hand, but Apollo deliberately didn't look too closely. He didn't want to see it.
Starbuck handed him a backpack. "I don't understand what's got into Boomer."
Apollo considered him, thinking how beautiful he was in the sunlight. He felt a sudden stirring of something. Not the anger and bitterness that had been his companions recently. Maybe it was pity. Maybe. "I know you don't. I don't think that you ever will."
Starbuck sighed. "Are you mad with me as well?"
Apollo took a centon to answer. "Disappointed, maybe. But no…, I'm mad with myself. You didn't make me any promises."
"You didn't ask me to."
"No. No, I didn't, did I?" Apollo huffed out a little laugh. "I guess I was anticipating the disappointment there and saved my breath."
No promises made or asked for. Just fun. And it had been fun, while it lasted. The sex had been amazing. It wasn't Starbuck's fault that Apollo wanted more. And there it was, all his folly: the need for something unattainable, to have Starbuck love him. Not just want him, lust after him, desire him, but love him.
It would never happen. Not with Starbuck. He knew it now, and he'd known it all along. It wasn't really Starbuck's fault.
Starbuck was frowning. "I thought you understood."
"I think I did. Do, I mean. Now." Apollo took a deep breath and looked at the tumbled mass of buildings, seeing in a ruined city the symbol of what Starbuck had done... No. That was unfair. What Apollo had allowed him to do. He'd walked into it, eyes wide open. "I suppose I thought it had to be different this time around. We've been friends for so long. I didn't think it would be like all the others."
"There was always something with you. Something I wanted." Starbuck shrugged.
"Well, you got it."
Starbuck grimaced. "You make it sound pretty cold. I don't do strings, Pol."
The name made Apollo twitch. He'd been Pol for only a few sectons. "A-pol-lo," he said. "It's only three syllables. Even you can manage that."
Starbuck grinned and shrugged some more. "A-pol-lo," he said, agreeably. "I don’t want it to change things."
Apollo stared at him. "Well, that's pretty stupid, Starbuck. Of course it's going to change things. It's not like you just borrowed my pay for one of your Pyramid systems. It was a bit more than that."
"I don't want you mad at me. Like you said, we've been friends for a long time."
Apollo told himself that love was just a state of mind. "Yeah. A long time." He let himself put a hand on Starbuck's shoulder. Briefly. "I just don't like you very much at the moment. I'll get over it."
He'd get over this. He'd got over worse.
He curled his fingers into a fist, to ease the tension, and let them relax again. He'd get over it, even if he still had moments when he was as ruinous and wrecked as the city, with Starbuck the metaphorical plague and pestilence. He found himself grinning. There was no inoculation against Starbuck, just exposure to the disease to build up your immune system.
He wondered if he'd ever get to the point where he could watch the contagion pass on to someone else and not feel the fever for himself. He thought he might.
He shouldered the pack. "Let's go. We have a ruin to explore."
"It's not likely we’ll find much," said Starbuck. "We never do."
Apollo glanced at him, at the way his discontented mouth turned down. For the first time in sectons, he didn't want to kiss it until it smiled under his lips.
"Oh I don't know," he said. "I think Boomer almost got it right. It’s not always what you find, but what you decide to keep."
There was an entire city down there to map out and explore, things to be learned. There were things to be found, and some he'd keep and some he'd leave behind. He felt a sudden kinship to the city. It might be a ruin, but it was still there. It endured.
The Book of the Word said it best, he decided. He started down the steep path, a silent Starbuck behind him, and the grin broadened into a smile. Yes. The Book had the last Word, after all.
I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.
And Apollo was all right with that. He was really all right with that.
(excluding quotation) April 2010