1738 [Swift Polite Conversation iii. 213] Well, Miss, you'll have a sad Husband,
you have such good Luck at Cards

It all started the day that the Council of The Twelve announced certain changes to the Regulations.

It wasn't a bad day.  It wasn't an out-of-the ordinary day.  It was the sort of day that Lieutenant Starbuck was getting used to and getting to like; the sort of day where he and his life were jogging along together quite happily, thank you very much.  Then the Council had to go and spoil it.

There had been no sign of the Cylons for sectars, and life had settled into a quiet routine.  There were duty centons spent with Apollo on patrol or on slightly less exciting admin work in the Duty Office (indeed, Starbuck couldn't think of anything less exciting—his was a mind too frivolous for filing); he trained the cadets, usually double-handing the training sessions with Apollo (and moderating the captain's innate caution by showing the youngsters how to achieve satisfactory levels of derring-do); he spent centars in Triad training with Apollo to make sure that they stayed where they belonged (at the top of their game, Fleet Champions); and he spent his off-duty hours in the Officer's Club, drinking with Apollo and setting the world to rights (although he had to be pretty drunk to discuss politics.  Or religion.  Or economics.  And he definitely avoided philosophy).

He spent the odd centar flirting with Cassie when he wanted sex and flirting with Athena when he wanted to remind himself of the exhilaration of being alive by courting the most dreadful danger (Athena being a vengeful woman and Apollo being notoriously short-tempered), and flirting with just about anyone else because he felt like it, when he felt like it. 

All in all, if you put aside the issue of the remnants of the human race being homeless wanderers fleeing the Cylon tyranny, life was pretty okay.  Indeed, life had been meandering along in this aimless, but enjoyable, way for several sectars when the Council threw their spanner into Starbuck's works.

They rescinded the fraternisation regulations.

The bastards.

Normally, Starbuck being what he was – nonchalant, insubordinate, a scallywag, a devil-may-care adventurer, a derring-doer – he would welcome anything that removed a restriction from his life.  And normally, he'd particularly welcome the removal of archaic and discriminatory restrictions.  Indeed, he did welcome the change to begin with.  It was only later that he realised the potential this had to thoroughly disrupt his life.

He knew exactly why the Council had taken this step, and it had nothing to do with making Starbuck's life easier or less harried or less liable to being hauled up in front of Colonel Tigh for breaking regulations.  But it did have everything to do with Commander Adama's matrimonial ambitions.

Not for himself, of course.  Like everyone else on the ship, Starbuck would have borne with equanimity that news that the Commander intended to remarry someone who was currently under his command, but Adama had no such plans for himself.  Commander Adama was hardly the matchmaker from heaven, but his ambitions for his son and the daughter of one of his oldest friends were so transparent that Starbuck could have read a data pad through them.  Adama wanted wedding bells, and the pesky regulations that would forbid any sort of relationship between Apollo and a pilot under Apollo's command were seriously getting in the way.  As Starbuck knew, Apollo used the regulations as the barricade to hide behind to avoid getting entangled with anyone in general and Lieutenant Sheba in particular.  Apollo's father hadn’t so much as stormed the barricades as waved them out of existence with the stroke of a pen on a Council Order.

The news had been greeted by the warriors with delight, and more than one couple of more than one sort of sexual orientation had popped up out of the woodwork as a result.  Over the last few sectons, Starbuck had been to more Sealings or Fidelity ceremonies than he'd been to in the last two yahrens.   Those warriors who were at last able to be open about their love-lives probably went to bed each night heaping prayers and blessings on the Council's collective head. 

Although at first indifferent, Starbuck had gradually become less than delighted with the change.  After a few sectons, he grew so uneasy that he was constantly reminded of that moment, just after the Destruction, when Apollo had got up from his seat at Adama's dinner table and gone to stand beside Serina and put his hands on her shoulders.  When Apollo had smiled that wide, wide smile of pure joy and happiness, Starbuck had felt the jolt as if someone had kicked him in the gut.  He'd known what Apollo was going to say before he'd said it.

And then Apollo had said it, just what Starbuck expected : "Serina and I thought—subject to Boxey's approval, of course—that we might like to get Sealed."

Starbuck had rubbed at his chest as he listened, wondering if he'd suddenly developed indigestion.  He'd thought that the feast that Serina and Athena had prepared had looked suspect: neither girl was an ace cook, and now he had the heartburn to prove it.  The discomfort had lasted for days, until he'd forgotten it in the flurry of activity following their visit to Kobol and Serina's untimely death.

Well, now his indigestion was back.

And not because of Sheba.

Starbuck prided himself on what the psychologists—and boy, weren't they a pain in the astrum, always wanting to talk about your feelings and missions and people dying and such—well, he prided himself on having what the psychologists called 'emotional intelligence'.  Starbuck noticed other people.  He noticed how they felt and he could often work out why, analysing the factors and conditions that made them react.  He noticed who they were interested in and how and why, and who they hated and how and why.  It added a certain zest to the gossip mill, at all events.

It was a lot of psychobabble felgercarb, really, but it did mean that he had a good understanding of how he and other people ticked.  It made him a better and more empathetic human being.

"No, it doesn't," said Apollo once, when apprised of this particular theory.  "It makes you a manipulative bastard, Starbuck, because you know what buttons to press and you have never, ever, hesitated to press them."

"That's a bit ungenerous," protested Starbuck.  If sometimes all that emotional knowledge worked to his advantage, how mean was it in Apollo (who suffered a lot from petty jealousy and a feeling of inadequacy, Starbuck thought) to describe that as manipulation?  "It's just that I'm in touch with my inner self—"

"Just as well," said Apollo, with such scorn that Starbuck felt perfectly justified in jeering about Apollo's lack of intelligence, emotional or otherwise.  "No one else wants to touch it."

Which, of course, was exactly where Apollo was wrong.  Starbuck was a sympathetic, empathetic sort of man and if that meant he was able to assess other people's feelings then it didn’t stop those people wanting to touch him.  Quite the reverse, in fact.  And they liked him to touch them back.  People fell over themselves to be the one Starbuck touched.

Indeed, he said (and if he sounded complacent, who could blame him?), sometimes they formed queues.

With all that noticing and emotional intelligence at his disposal, Starbuck was sure of one thing, and he'd always been sure of it: Commander Adama was doomed to bitter disappointment.  Regulations or not, Apollo had absolutely no intention of marrying Sheba.

Starbuck thought that Sheba knew it, too.  With the protection of the regulations gone, Apollo fell back on the last line of defence: he remained totally oblivious to every hint, wile and insinuation that anyone made about matrimony.  It wasn't quite as if he were struck blind, deaf and dumb by the mere mention of a Sealing, or an engagement or, (and Starbuck shuddered) at the dreaded word relationship that people threw around so casually, but he may as well have been. 

It was beautifully done.  And for once, Apollo managed it with skill and grace and with such wonderful innocence that even Adama couldn't really call him on it without overtly telling his son to marry Sheba, and even Adama wouldn't do that.  He and Apollo were both cut from the same mould when it came to stubbornness and the first hint that Adama were trying to run Apollo's private, as opposed to military life, and Apollo's heels would dig in so fast that they'd leave skid marks. 

So Starbuck hadn't, at first, thought that the Regulations change would make any difference.  Since he knew that there was no way in Hades that Apollo would be whisked out of Starbuck's life and into idyllic matrimony with Sheba, he'd watched complacently as Sheba was at first baffled, then disappointed, then tossed her head with annoyance and then finally accepted Bojay's attentions.  She certainly had more chance of matrimony there.  Bojay was besotted; Apollo wasn't even interested.

So Starbuck had, at first, not bothered about the regulations change except to attend those Sealings and Fidelity ceremonies and continue to avoid the hints thrown his own way.  Baffled was as good a look on Athena and Cassiopeia, if it came to it, as it was on Sheba and the Commander.  He and Apollo had continued to work through their duty day, train cadets, play Triad and spend most evenings in each other's company in the Officer's Club, just as if nothing at all had changed.

Until, of course, it did change.

The first inkling that the removal of the Frat Regs was going to cause Starbuck an unexpected problem came on Apollo's birthday, a couple of sectars after the Council edict.

For all that he was the captain and therefore Management, and Adama's son and therefore deeply genetically suspect, Apollo was a popular Strike Leader.  Yeah, he had a bit of a bad temper and was known to be all too inventive when it came to punishment duty—Starbuck wasn't the only one who said that you could tell that he'd had a religious childhood, given that Apollo's punishments always seemed to involve a lot of cleanliness intended to bring his defaulting troopers back to godliness—but everyone, every last trooper from pilot to gunnery sergeant, knew that Apollo cared for them, looked after them, sweated blood for them.  Apollo took his responsibilities seriously.  He could be relied upon to go above and beyond to protect his troops from everything ranging from the Top Brass up on the command deck to Cylon fighters.  He agonised over every one of their losses, and every pilot in the squadrons knew that if they went down and there was any chance at all that they’d survived, Apollo wouldn’t go on without them.  Sure, pilots had been killed—too many of them, for all they accepted it as a risk in the job—but not one had ever been taken, and remained, a prisoner.  They all knew that if you were alive, the captain would come for you.

They trusted him.

So there usually wasn't a problem about celebrating Apollo's natal day.  As usual, the warriors were on their best behaviour all day to make sure he had a hassle-free time, they took the initiative on sorting out problems that otherwise they'd bother him with on the basis that he was the one paid to solve them, and they happily dug into their pockets to buy the man a drink.  Apollo's birthday evening in the Officer's Club was often raucous, but it was always good-natured.

It wasn't unexpected that people bought Apollo a drink.  It was unexpected that they stood there beside him, holding out the glass and blushing sweetly and just not going away.

Apollo, smiling the smile of the gently and genteelly inebriated, took the glass offered to him by Ensign Stobart and expressed his polite gratitude for the Ensign's generosity.  One of the latest graduates of the emergency pilot training programme the Galactica had put in place post-Destruction, Stobart had been one of the more talented cadets: he was intelligent, skilful and, Starbuck noticed with disapproval, tall, young, blond and blue-eyed.  And very good looking.

Stobart blushed some more as he stammered and grinned and generally insisted on talking to Apollo as Apollo drank the drink Stobart had brought.  And Apollo, being politely brought up and, presumably, thinking it wasn't really on to cut the boy dead when Stobart had just bought him a drink, nodded and laughed and looked interested.  Starbuck, at first only half listening, stood around waiting for Stobart to have his five centons of Apollo's attention and then go back to his little cadet friends. 

Except Stobart didn't.  He was apparently a history buff, just like Apollo, and after stammering out birthday wishes, he then stammered out a question about something called the Third Millennium Migration.  For a centon or two, Starbuck's mind wandered, only brought back with a snap when he realised that Apollo hadn't squished Stobart's sucking-up efforts flat, but that the two of them were deep in debating the merits of two different theories about said Migration.  Stobart, it seemed, was a devotee of the Karcher hypothesis, but was willing to learn and listen humbly while Apollo explained why that was just so wrong on about twenty different levels.  The cadet hung on Apollo's every word. 

Starbuck watched indulgently for a couple of more centons.  He liked to see Apollo enjoying himself and it was almost never happened that anyone could be made to stand still long enough to talk about history with him.  But Starbuck grew a little uncomfortable as Apollo and Stobart wandered off in a world of their own—"I know Karcher interpreted the data from the dig on Renculus Prime as proof that the Gemeni forebears were established there, but I think you'll find he fundamentally misread the significance of those pot sherds from the east grave mounds," said Apollo, as unintelligible as if he were speaking in tongues—leaving Starbuck, standing on the outside, wondering what in Hades was going on.

Fifteen centons later, after Starbuck had virtually had to clip Apollo around the ears to get his attention back, Stobart sloped off, looking smug and excited.  There was a flush around the boy's ears and a swagger to his step that had Starbuck staring at his retreating back with disbelief and not a little irritation at the Ensign's inability to catch a social clue and get the heck out where he wasn't wanted.

"Well," said Apollo.  "He seems to be a nice kid."

Starbuck turned the stare onto Apollo.  Well, that was unexpected.  Apollo had to be way more drunk than Starbuck thought.  Way more.  Starbuck grinned and laughed as Apollo got increasingly owlish and, as usual when he'd had a drop too many, started talking with a little stammer.  There was no doubt but Starbuck would be holding the captain's head over the flush later on and for some reason the prospect didn't appal him.

He was having such a good time that he forgot all about Ensign Stobart's strange, and encroaching, behaviour.  For the time being, anyway.

The Commissary was always buzzing.  If Starbuck ever forgot just how many people lived and worked on the Galactica, a visit to the Commissary for lunch or dinner would be enough to remind him.

So, sometimes, it was understandable that he lost sight of Apollo in there.  He didn’t do it often.  Just now and again.

Starbuck had made it to their usual table with his sandwich and fruit and two cups of java (one being Apollo's), and had dropped into his usual seat and made the usual greeting to Boomer, Jolly and the others who were his usual dining companions.  Distracted by one of Jolly's long, convoluted stories ("You heard this one, Bucko?  A Kobolian priest, a Colonial Warrior and the Cylon Imperious Leader all walked into a bar—") it was a centon or two before he realised that Apollo wasn't there.  Starbuck took a bite out of his sandwich, tuned out Jolly (he'd heard it, anyway) and looked across the seething mass of people.

A crowd of techs walked past from the left, obscuring Starbuck's view, but he could have sworn he just saw Apollo, standing in one of the aisles between tables, a tray in his hands, talking to someone.  Starbuck leaned to one side to get a better view, cursing softly as a bulky engineer in coveralls got briefly in the way.  He waved the girl out of the way brusquely, ignoring her coy come-hither look.

And there Apollo was, just where Starbuck had thought he'd left him, and he was indeed deep in conversation with someone.  Someone unexpected.


He was talking to Apollo, leaning in, hand resting lightly on Apollo's arm.  On Apollo's arm!  And all Apollo did was grin in response, then nod.

Starbuck narrowed his eyes.

Stobart said something, his mouth widening into a bright smile and his stupid blue eyes shining.  Apollo laughed.  He visibly laughed.  He looked happy.

Starbuck turned his back to them.  He put down the sandwich, half-uneaten, a feeling of sudden queasiness turning the sandwich to ashes in his mouth.  He let Jolly's voice wash over him, not listening to the long, convoluted story.  He looked up only when he felt Apollo's presence behind him.

"Your java's getting cold," snapped Starbuck, seriously annoyed now.  "Where did you disappear to?"

"I'm right here."  Apollo gave Starbuck an odd look and took his usual seat.  Stobart was nowhere to be seen.

Starbuck sniffed and handed over the caff.  Apollo grinned and said thanks, Jolly restarted his story because Apollo had missed the beginning—and he so didn't deserve that sort of consideration, because he wouldn't have missed the beginning if he hadn't been over there flirting with Ensigns ten yahrens his junior—and Starbuck concentrated on his sandwich, thinking that would make the queasy feeling go away.

It didn't.

At least Triad seemed to be the one area where Starbuck didn't fall over Ensign Stobart at every turn.  The Ensign didn't play.  Starbuck made due note of this piece of information and promptly scheduled so much Triad practice that even Apollo started to notice. 

"We've got a championship game coming up soon," said Starbuck, defensive when Apollo started to ask him what was going on.  "I want to win.  Don't you?"

Which was mean of him, really, but he knew just how competitive Apollo was.  Of course Apollo wanted to win.  Apollo wasn't a violent man, despite being a Warrior, but put him on a Triad court and point him at a couple of opponents who were between him and scoring vital match points, and Apollo treated Triad as if it were all-out war.  He never cheated, not ever—that religious upbringing, again—but he acted like a Beserker sometimes and had been known to regard the odd broken bone (in an opponent) as a necessary tactic to win.  Apollo just didn't do losing, so he just shrugged, grinned, and let Starbuck have his way with all the extra practices.  He didn't grumble once.

Starbuck had a happy couple of sectons making sure that Apollo was focused on the important things in life, and restricting access by encroaching ensigns.  He and Apollo spent virtually every spare moment together, either practising or with Boxey—Starbuck was gracious enough to schedule in enough time for Apollo to see his son every day, at least, and he was selfless enough to be careful to oversee that time as well, to ensure that Apollo was undisturbed.  When they weren't in the practice court, they spent a lot of time with the child.  Starbuck quite enjoyed it, Apollo smiled a lot, and since Boxey adored his Uncle Starbuck and blossomed under all the attention, we can safely say that Boxey was happy too.  Starbuck even did some reading and surprised Apollo one evening with a desire to be told something about Karcher and Migration, and Apollo's shy pleasure was absolutely worth Starbuck having to pretend to be intellectual.

Then came the match with Cortes and Pugh, two security men with delusions about being competent Triad players.  All the extra practice paid off with a vengeance.  Apollo, looking very trim and muscular in the minimal Triad gaming uniform, was all over the court, leaping and twisting in the air to score and score and score again.  He was almost as agile and brilliant as Starbuck himself, and that was saying something.  They were awesome.  Just awesome.

"You were awesome, Captain," said Ensign Stobart, joining the coterie of admiring warriors and supporters in the changing rooms afterwards.  He was very close to Apollo, and given that the Triad uniform didn't leave a lot to the imagination, he was copping an eyeful.  He put a hand out and touched Apollo's arm.  "I thought it was brilliant, sir!"

Apollo was still trying to get his breathing back to normal following a game climax that had him and Starbuck all over the court as if winged, before Starbuck set up the final shot that Apollo had taken at the highest score hole, the Trinity, the brilliant shot that ended the game.  He was sheened with sweat, every muscle gleaming and with the still-heaving chest accentuating the toned flesh, he looked undeniably attractive to shallow people like Stobart who quite obviously had their foolish young heads turned by good looks and a certain facility for contacts sports.

"I think I'll have to take up the game," said Stobart.  He dropped his gaze and then looked up artfully through long lashes.  "Did you ever think about doing some coaching, sir?"

The brazen attack left Starbuck almost gasping aloud.  It was bad enough seeing the little twerp in the Officer's Club or the Commissary, but Ensign Stobart was suddenly more prevalent and more annoying than a plague of Corellian bed lice.  Starbuck stopped ignoring what his emotional-intelligence-ometer had been telling him for sectons.

Starbuck was used to seeing people act the way Stobart did.  He was used to them finding excuses for quiet, confidential conversations, he was used to the flirty glances and the brushing of arms against his; he was used to the way that Stobart would do that upward look through the eyelashes and catch his bottom lip between his teeth to make himself look adorable.  Starbuck had had those things aimed at him all his adult life, the way that people who wanted him said Looky!  Look at me!  Aren't I pretty?  Aren't I fine?  You know you want me!  Here I am! 

But Ensign Stobart was not haunting them in the Officer's Club, or the Commissary, or the Triad Court or on the troopdecks because he wanted Starbuck to notice him and give him the opportunity to get into that queue that Starbuck had mentioned to an incredulous Apollo.  Oh no.  The Ensign had a far more malevolent and disgraceful object in view, and one that totally upset Starbuck's emotional equilibrium.

Actually, it was so unexpected that it threw Starbuck into a complete tailspin.  He was flummoxed.  His ghast had never been so flabbered.

Ensign Stobart didn't want Starbuck.  He wanted something that belonged to Starbuck.

He wanted Apollo.

Well he bloody wasn't going to get him!  Starbuck would be thrice damned before he'd let the little upstart have him, thrice damned every day and six times on Tenth Day.

Beyond Apollo and Stobart, he saw Boomer clutch at Jolly and send an almost frightened look in Starbuck's direction.  Jolly looked pained, as if someone had forgotten to laugh at one of his jokes; and Giles and Greenbean shared one glance and melted away to safety.  Cowards.

Starbuck swept forward, not bothering to even deign to see Stobart.  "We've got to pick up Boxey in ten centons," he said, pushing between Apollo and Stobart and ever-so-accidentally sweeping Stobart's hand off Apollo's arm and standing hard on Stobart's foot.  The ensign let out a muted yelp, but took a couple of steps backwards.  He limped, Starbuck was pleased to see.  "C'mon.  You don't want to be late."

He gave Stobart one up and down look that would have withered tempered steel and hustled Apollo into the showers before anyone could even realise that he'd acted—except Stobart, of course.  Stobart had realised that Starbuck had acted, if the screwed up expression of agony on his face was anything to go by.  Starbuck hoped he'd broken the bastard's toe.

Apollo allowed himself to be hustled.  He was shaking slightly as Starbuck got them through the door into the shower room and his face was red.  And not just from the exertion of the game, either.  He was almost helpless with laughter.

"Thank you," he said.

"That little berk has a crush on you the size of this fleet," said Starbuck, crossly.  "You're encouraging him!"

"I'm not really," said Apollo, shoulders still shaking with laughter.  He got out of the sweaty dirty Triad gear and Starbuck just did not look.  He really didn't; his gaze just sort of slid over towards Apollo because Apollo was speaking and it would be rude to break eye contact in the circumstances.  "It's rather flattering."

"Flattering!  He's barely out of the cradle!  You're far too old for him."  And with this withering, insulting reminder to Apollo about his (relatively advanced) age, Starbuck slammed into the next-door shower and turned the water on full.  He took his shower cold to cool himself down and not at all because it made him look hard and manly.  Actually, it allowed him to deal with being hard and manly in a brisk and no-nonsense fashion.  He came fast, silently and viciously, imagining himself killing Ensign Stobart in a variety of slow and painful ways.

When they were getting dressed he continued the conversation as if there had been no interruption.  Apollo had stopped laughing, although he still looked amused, and at least he wasn't as red-faced as he had been.

"What brought it on, do you think?" asked Starbuck, getting into his flight jacket.

"Oh, it's been there for sectars," said Apollo, indifferently.  "I guess that the Regs being repealed means he thinks he can be a bit more obvious about it."

Starbuck thought back to the beginning of the cadet training programme and the first time that Stobart would have come into contact with Apollo, but try as he might he couldn't remember any instance then or since of the cadet showing any sign of the huge crush that Stobart now wore like a banner.  "He's very young," he said, again, but not with any more toleration for the Ensign's abominable insolence than he'd had before.  "You're being very patient with him, Apollo.  Does he remind you of Zac?"

"Zac?"  Apollo paused.  He pulled a comb through his still-damp hair, looking thoughtful.  "No.  Not Zac.  Actually, he reminds me of you."

"Me?" said Starbuck, totally taken-aback.

"Not you as you are now, obviously," said Apollo, returning Starbuck's insult with interest.  "You as you were when you were as young as he is.  He's very, very like you, Starbuck.  Is that the reason you don't like him?  Because he's a younger you?"

Starbuck spluttered, outraged, and Apollo laughed.  He dropped a hand on Starbuck's shoulder and smiled at him.  "C'mon," he said.  "We need to go get Boxey, remember?"

"Yes, well, and don't think you're getting away with that!"

Starbuck followed him out into the changing rooms.  They were almost empty now, with only a few people standing about aimlessly waiting on Cortes and Pugh mostly.  Boomer and Jolly were still there, waiting to join Apollo and Starbuck in the Rec Room before with Boxey for while before going for a celebratory drink.  Stobart was gone. 

He'd probably limped off somewhere to find an icepack for that toe, thought Starbuck, and he brisked up considerably at the thought.

"So," said Boomer, "what did you do to offend our Great Leader?"

Starbuck shrugged and spread the Pyramid cards in his hand, rapidly evaluating and sorting them, working out which ones he should discard, which to keep.  "I breathe," he said.  He tossed two cards face down onto the discard pile and took up two new ones.   "Sometimes that's enough to do it."

"It's just that I noticed that you seem to be doing a lot of picket duty, the last couple of days," said Boomer, enjoying what he thought was Starbuck's fall from grace.  "You know.  The grunt work."

Starbuck looked at him over a spread of cards that should, providing the Lady Luck was with him that night, help him relieve Boomer of his secton's pay and teach the unsympathetic bastard a lesson.  "Boomer," he said, cultivating patience.  "Who's been training all the cadets?"

"You," conceded Boomer.  "And the rest of us.  Some, I might add, more competently than others."

"They adore me," said Starbuck, grandly.

"With one exception."

"That one doesn't count.  The rest adore me."

That may be true," said Boomer.  "And you're a good teacher.  But you don't teach them prudence and caution, and you're a terrible role model.  They all want to be like you.  It falls to the rest of us to teach them that there is only one Starbuck and that they, like us, have to follow the old adage about old pilots and bold pilots."

"I know.  I'm just that good."  Starbuck discarded another card and his pick-up was the one he was waiting for.  The Lady was at his table that night, that was for certain: she'd just made sure he could create an entire Queen's pyramid.  The way that Boomer was scowling and wrinkling his nose, he didn't have anything better than a couple of building stones and, if he were very lucky, a noble's tomb.  "So, we’ve established that I've spent a lot of time recently training the cadets, right?"


"And what does Apollo have the newly-minted, so new they're still shiny, recently-graduated cadets do for the first few sectons?  That's right, Sire Observant.  He has them do picket duty until they get over the breathless excitement of being in a real Viper and they're less of a danger to themselves and a liability to us.  I've been out there coaching, Boomer.  That's what I've been doing."

And if that coaching had included some less than complimentary comments to one recently-graduated ensign about their flying abilities and general all-round competence, was it Starbuck's fault that he had very high standards?  He pushed a moderate amount of cubits into the pot, just enough to signal that he was still in contention, but not enough to scare Boomer off.  If he'd judged this right, Boomer would conclude that Starbuck's hand wasn't so great and be tempted into putting up most of his pay.

"Uh-huh," said Boomer, again.  "But what did you do to piss off Apollo so he sent you out to do some coaching?"

Persistence was one of Boomer's most salient personality flaws, but he took the bait and raised Starbuck's wager by a considerable margin.  Starbuck had to hide his smile as he watched Boomer add the pretty, glittery cubits to the pot.

"I took Athena to the Rising Star a few nights ago," he said. 

Boomer's mouth formed a perfect O.

Starbuck shrugged and thought about what a mess things were.  He pushed enough of his own bright, pretty coins to the heap and met Boomer's rash wager.  "Call," he said, and watched as Boomer's pitiful hand fell before the Queen's pyramid that Starbuck spread before him.  He swept up the pot to the musical accompaniment of Boomer's outraged grousing, and thought about the only old adage that he'd ever taken any notice of.

He was, sadly, very lucky at cards.  The corollary to that depressed him slightly.

Now it has to be admitted that Starbuck lied to Boomer right there.  He wasn't just economical with the truth, or telling little porkie pies, or fibbing lightly, or glossing over inconvenient truths with little evasions.  He out and out lied.  And with real Starbuckian flair, he did it by telling the truth.

It was perfectly true that Apollo had been known to get very pissed off about Starbuck's occasional dalliances with Athena—he deplored his sister's susceptibility where Starbuck was concerned almost as much as he deplored Starbuck's tendency to take advantage of it—and it was also perfectly true that Starbuck had taken Athena to the Rising Star the previous secton.  What wasn't true was that the two things were connected, not this time.  Apollo hadn't banished Starbuck in a fit of bad temper over Athena because he still didn't know that she and Starbuck had dallied together—although briefly and without the usual physicalities—and Starbuck had no intention of letting him find out.  Apollo hadn't banished him at all.  It was a voluntary exile.

Starbuck had needed some thinking time.  It wasn't that he couldn't think when with Apollo, it was just that there were too many distractions around.  He needed some time to himself to think about him, Apollo and what Starbuck's emotional intelligence was telling him.

The trouble was that he'd not come to any worthwhile conclusions.  He was still trying to get his head around the fact that Ensign Stobart reminded Apollo of Starbuck, and wondering what in hell it all meant.

Sighing, he re-dealt the cards and looked at the spread.  An awful hand.  Terrible hand.

"I don't know," said Boomer, "why you and Apollo just don't make the announcement and be done with it."

"What announcement?" asked Starbuck, with that old queasy feeling back with a vengeance.  There was no way he could win this hand.  No way.

"About you and Apollo."

Starbuck looked up from his cards and stared.  Boomer stared right back.  After a centon, he started frowning.

"For Sagan's sake, Bucko, the pair of you have been dating for sectons now, and every time you see Ensign Stobart you virtually foam at the mouth with jealousy over the poor kid's crush."

"Dating?" faltered Starbuck, and felt the heat rise in his face.  Dating?  Dear Lords, had they been dating?  Starbuck was the emotionally intelligent one here.  Surely he would have noticed?

Boomer's eyes narrowed.  "Are you telling me that there isn't a you and Apollo?"

Starbuck continued staring.  "You know," he said, at last.  "I don't know."

Boomer tutted at him.  "What sort of hand do you have this time, Starbuck?"

"Dreadful," admitted Starbuck, feeling dazed.  He was finding it hard to breathe.

Boomer sighed, tossed his cards aside without another glance and divided up the pot.  "Here, take your money back," he said.  "Go find Apollo before Ensign Stobart does."

"He's in a meeting up top; Stobart can't get at him," said Starbuck, and started to grin.

"Right.  You just said that you didn't know if there was a you and Apollo.  Well, don't you think it's time you found out?"

Starbuck looked up.  Lady Luck was standing behind Boomer, her pretty face downcast as she examined the spread of Boomer's winning cards in her hand.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.  He grinned her and, equally metaphorically, offered a salute.  With any luck at all—and Starbuck had loads of it, dollops of it—he wouldn't need her again.  Not outside of a card game, anyhow.

"You know," he said.  "I think I do."

The Lady looked up at him, and smiled.

Starbuck waited for Apollo outside the Council Chamber.  When Apollo emerged and greeted him without one iota of surprise at seeing him there, Starbuck conceded that maybe Boomer had a point.

"Boomer thinks we're dating," he said without preamble.

"Does he?" said Apollo.  He stole a sidelong glance at Starbuck, and Starbuck grinned at the half-expected faint flush on those high cheekbones.

Starbuck nodded.  "I can see why," he said.  He ushered Apollo into the turbolift.

[State destination] intoned the lift computer.

"Deck seventeen," said Starbuck, and the doors whooshed closed.  He turned back to Apollo.  "After all, we spend most of our time together."

"Yes," admitted Apollo.  "We do."

"Well?  Are we dating?"

Apollo licked his lips, his mouth in a harsh line that betrayed his discomfort.  "I don't know, Starbuck.  What do you think?"

"I think you should hold on to that hand rail," said Starbuck.  "Computer, security override seven-delta-obsidian.  Halt lift."

"Hey!" protested Apollo.  He hadn't been quick enough to grab the hand rail, and the sudden lurching stop of the lift sent him cannoning into Starbuck.  Starbuck being the sort of ne'er-do-well opportunist that he was, grabbed hold and stayed grabbed.  Interestingly, Apollo made no effort to pull free.

"I think that you should have told me earlier," said Starbuck, rather severely.

Apollo wouldn't quite meet his gaze.  "You're the one in touch with your inner self," he pointed out.  "Didn't you know?"

"Well," said Starbuck.  "I wasn't sure."  He added, earnestly: "We should make sure."

"We should," agreed Apollo. 

Starbuck only hesitated for a split-micron.  He put his hand on Apollo's shoulder and leaned in, brushing his lips against Apollo's.  Apollo's lips parted and Starbuck needed no other invitation.  His tongue snaked in and then Apollo tasted of the terrible java that the Council served to those unfortunates summoned to their meetings, of that un-named spicy meat they'd all had for lunch, and underneath it all, the faint mint of tooth cleanser.  He tasted damned fine, Starbuck thought, liking the way that Apollo had got one hand up behind Starbuck's neck and was cupping the back of his head, fingers moving in Starbuck's hair, pulling him in closer.  He liked the way that Apollo nibbled on his lower lip, too, before diving in for another kiss.

"Okay," said Starbuck, more than a little breathless.  "I'm sure."

"Good," said Apollo.  "I wouldn't like you to have any doubts.  So, what next?"

"How about we go somewhere nice and quiet, and you can get in touch with the inner me?"

Apollo sighed.  "And you pick up intelligent women like my sister with lines like that?"

"Not any more," said Starbuck.  "Not any more.  Never again, in fact."

It was several days before Starbuck saw Ensign Stobart again.  He had already decided to treat the presumptuous young upstart with cool and self-possessed dignity—after all, Starbuck was magnanimous in victory.  Stobart was a worm in the dust and Starbuck was, and always would be, a very happy man who was dating the captain with all the pleasures and privileges that brought with it.  And oh boy, were there pleasures!

Stobart came into the Officer's Club one evening, looking yearningly towards the table where Apollo and Starbuck and their friends sat, the little coterie of people of which Stobart would never, ever be a part.  Apollo didn't seem to notice him at first, but Starbuck saw him.  Starbuck pressed a little closer against Apollo and smiled at the Ensign, relishing the moment when Stobart's expression softened into a mute distress.

Apollo looked up then and saw the forlorn-looking young Ensign.  To Starbuck's chagrin, he smiled and waved, catching the young man's attention.

"Sir?" said Stobart.

"I just wanted to say thank you." Apollo glanced at Starbuck and grinned. 

Starbuck's jaw dropped.  "Apollo...?"

Apollo ignored him and nodded again at the Ensign.  "Thank you very much, Ensign.  It worked a treat."

6,600  words

May 2009