They had been on sub-one alert for four sectons. Longer, actually: thirty-five days. Barracks, ready room, mess hall, launch tubes. Nothing else. There was actually, Starbuck had been surprised to discover, only so much pyramid or seven-and-eleven a man could play before no one else would play with him.
Starbuck was lying on his bunk, leafing through an old magazine. Bojay was on his, above Starbuck, reading mail. He got a truly incredible amount of mail, more than any three people in the wing put together. He had a big extended family and every one of them wrote to him. Starbuck listened to him chuckling and sighed to himself. At least Apollo's mother and siblings wrote him often enough that he wasn't the name they called when some columnist guilt-tripped people into writing to "Colonial Warrior X"...
"Hey, Bucko." Bojay's head appeared over the edge of his bunk. "Let me show you this." He dropped a couple of printouts on the bed beside Starbuck, who shook his head and moved over. Bojay reached under the bunk and grabbed the supports with his hands crossed and turned over, and then he flipped gracefully over the edge. Starbuck had never gotten used to that; it looked like he should break his wrists when he did it, yet somehow he ended up safe and sound on the mattress. Or on Starbuck, if he hadn't moved over far enough, but he'd learned that lesson.
Bojay picked up the printouts and said, "Look, now; this one's from my cousin Myrrah." He handed it to Starbuck, pointing out the relevant passage.
Starbuck had just started to read when Jolly and Greenbean came in. "Sagan," Jolly said, "you two spend eight centares flying together, four more sitting around talking together, you eat together, and now you're in bed reading together? You might as well be married"
Bojay was off the bed like a pardos, quick and silent and with no warning whatsoever. Before the motion had registered with Starbuck, his wingmate was straddling Jolly's supine body, simultaneously throttling him and beating his head on the floor. Starbuck was there as quick as he could be, trying to disengage them. "Boj, come on, Boj. Let go."
Greenbean came out of his stunned paralysis and grabbed Bojay's other arm and between them they got him off Jolly and dragged him a few steps away. He heaved in their hold, eyes blazing anger and face paler than Starbuck could remember seeing it in more than a yahren. "Liar," he snarled.
Jolly was sitting up, carefully, rubbing his throat. "Sagan, it was" he coughed, "a joke."
"Of course it was, Jolly," said Starbuck. "Calm down, Boj; it was just a joke."
Bojay grew stiller in their grasp, though he was trembling with... anger? fear? Starbuck wasn't sure which; he'd never seen this reaction before. Greenbean let go gingerly and, when Bojay didn't move, went to his own wingmate. The rest of the room, stunned by the sudden explosion of violence in their midst, was only just starting to react.
"Jolly, you okay?" Greenbean said, running his hand over the back of Jolly's dark head.
"Yeah," Jolly coughed again. "I've got Sagan's own headache, but I'm okay." He looked up at Bojay and Starbuck but whatever he was going to say he didn't.
"Gentlemen," the captain's elegantly silken voice announced his felix-footed arrival, "this is hardly an edifying scene. Would one of you care to elucidate?" His sloe-eyed glance drifted across the four of them impartially.
Greenbean gave a hand up to Jolly and Starbuck quickly let go of Bojay. "Nothing, really, sir," said Jolly, secure in the knowledge that he wasn't on Hafez's list. "Just a sort of misunderstanding."
"What sort, Flight Officer?"
"Just nerves, sir. I made a bad joke and, well," Jolly shrugged.
Hafez's eyes rested for a moment on the marks on Jolly's throat, and then moved to Bojay. "You don't appreciate Flight Officer Jolly's sense of humor, Lieutenant?"
Bojay swallowed. "I'm sorry, sir. I guess I'm on edge. I overreacted."
"Yes... Everyone is a bit on edge, I believe, but I truly cannot have my pilots attacking each other."
"Attack's a bit... strong, sir," said Jolly. Bojay was lucky it had been him who'd made the crack; others in the Wing wouldn't have been so quick to accept half the blame and try to deflect the consequences. "It was just a little punch-up."
"I reacted without thinking, sir," Bojay added. "I should have known he didn't mean it."
Hafez pondered the situation for a few centons. "Lieutenant Bojay," he said at last, "perhaps you can work off some of that excess energy and learn a bit of judgement at the same time by going through the excess property and collating it with the claims sheets."
"And Flight Officer Jolly? Perhaps you could learn to weigh your word choices a bit more carefully by drafting the quarterly manning reports."
"Yes, sir." Jolly followed Bojay out the door.
"Good. Lieutenant Starbuck, Corporal Greenbean... I think we should take a walk. The rest of you, as you were."
Starbuck and Greenbean exchanged glances and followed the captain out into the hallway. "Now, tell me: was this an overreaction or a provocation?"
"It was an overreaction, sir," Starbuck said, a bit reluctantly. "Jolly didn't mean anything by it. And I'm sure he didn't have any idea how Bojay would react. None of us did."
"Jolly's not a contentious man, true, but neither is Bojay an aggressive one. What was the joke?"
There was a pause. Hafez merely waited, lifting a slim black eyebrow and giving the impression that he could stand there all night if need be. Finally Starbuck said, "He just sort of implied... well, really not even that..." He stopped and started over again. "He implied that we were maybe closer than we should be."
"Ah," Hafez nodded. "I gather that Jolly is unaware that on Pisco that can bring a five-yahren prison term?"
"Frack, really?" Starbuck said. "Sorry, sir."
"I don't think he is," said Greenbean. "I sure wasn't, sir."
Hafez nodded. "Cultural differences are the thorns in our paradise. Perhaps you will point it out to him, Corporal? And Lieutenant, perhaps you will point out to your wingmate that Virgons find it acceptable, if funny? And that regardless, the Fleet is not parochial, and that one's tribal codices do not override Fleet regulations?"
"Which are?" Starbuck asked, not entirely sure why, unless it was to remind Bojay.
"That if you were in a relationship, it would not matter unless he were in your chain of command. Or vice versa. Not," Hafez added reflectively, "that either of those is a likely prospect."
"Yes, sir," Starbuck said, agreeing to all of it.
"Excellent. No harm was done this time, so I'm going to overlook it: more than a sectare on alert does strain one. But I can't have it happen again. And if Colonel Tigh gets involved, rank will be lost. Probably the lieutenant's only, but possibly both." His midnight-colored eyes were fixed on Starbuck. "Nor, I am certain, will I be particularly happy with his commentary on a repetition. I'm taking a chance on you, Lieutenant; are you up to it?"
"It won't happen again, sir," Starbuck promised him. And he meant to see it didn't, whatever had caused it.
A secton later, the alert ended as they always did: abruptly and with no explanation, just word from the colonel that the Wing could resume their normal activities. With a rider from Hafez that surely some of them could restrain themselves, having spent so long behaving? Blue Squadron discussed that notion over drinks in the O Club that night. Jolly, who wouldn't know how to hold a grudge if you handed one to him, opened it with, "So, who d'you suppose Hafez had in mind there?"
"Well, he said something about behaving so it couldn't be the Angels," Onyx offered.
"Very funny," said Starbuck, watching Bojay out of the corner of his eye. His wingmate was sitting around the corner of the table from him, his legs under his chair, looking at his glass.
"I don't know," Jolly said. "The context was normal behavior."
"True," said Marko.
"Very, very funny," Starbuck said. Normal behavior was exactly what was worrying him. While nobody had pushed Bojay with any remarks, Bojay hadn't offered them the chance, either. He'd been out of reach since he'd come back from his punishment detail, never quite close enough for Starbuck to touch. And while Starbuck didn't want to... to touch him, no, he'd certainly got used to the casual physical contact. The constant presence. The reassuring knowledge that Bojay was always there. He felt out of whack. They felt out of whack.
Hades, Bojay hadn't even lapsed into Cambran for a single word, holding Starbuck at arm's length even like that.
He needed to fix it.
They were still okay in the air, but how long would that last, if Bojay took to avoiding him? He could use that for his opening wedge into the conversation, in fact, though he was surprised to learn he cared less about that than he did about the friendship.
Onyx and Farlon had both made remarks he hadn't really heard, but the table obviously had found them exquisitely funny. Starbuck gathered up his dignity, a bottle, and his glass, and stood up. "Gentlemen," he said in his best Hafez imitation, "I'm afraid we're cramping your style. Bojlet us seek more congenial companions."
Jolly snorted ambrosa across the table.
Bojay snickered and stood up. "Let's," he said. "It's getting dangerous around here."
Starbuck almost fainted from relief. It was the closest thing Bojay had made to a reference to the 'incident' since it had happened, though Jolly had sworn he'd apologized quite profusely in private. He led the way out, Bojay following, and headed for a little closet in one of the rejuvenation centers, where no one was likely to be at this time of night (or at least at this centare of the clock).
He stood back, making a sweeping gesture for Bojay to precede him. Inside, he didn't crowd, but sat next to the closed door with his legs outstretched. The little closet was about big enough for four to sit, two along each side, so the two of them weren't crowded. Bojay, about four centimetrons taller, was braced against the opposite wall; Starbuck's feet just rested gently against it. He put the bottle down on the floor between them and said, "So, normal behavior? Let's get ripped."
"On one bottle? It hasn't been that long." Bojay looked a bit nervous, though you'd have had to know him well to see it.
"True," Starbuck sighed. "Just as well, I guess. Though," he brightened, "nothing to say we can't get another one."
"No." Bojay said that quickly. "I mean, Hafez would be so pissed off at us."
"Oh, try again," said Starbuck.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, we need to talk. We can do it sober, or we can do it squiffy, but we're going to do it."
Bojay considered leaving. Starbuck could see it in his candid eyes. He put one of his heels on the toe of his other boot; it was a small barrier but a psychologically valid one. Bojay relaxed again. "Okay. Talk about what?"
Bojay froze absolutely still. After a long centon, he said, so cautiously it hurt Starbuck, "Us?"
"Yeah. We were just fine till Jolly made that idiot joke. Now..."
"We're still fine."
"Like Hades. Boyou haven't touched me since then. You haven't gotten close enough to touch me. I miss it."
"What are you saying?"
The panic in those hazel eyes made Starbuck review his choice of words. "Just that, well, I feel like you don't like me anymore. I mean, you always used to punch at me, clip me in the ribs or on the shoulder, mess with my hair... you know, like brothers always do each other in vids." There, that had been the right thing to say. "Now you don't."
"I'm worried about..." he paused; Starbuck waited. "Worried about what people will say about you, Buck." At least he'd used their private nickname again. "You're so damned, if you'll pardon the expression, pretty."
Starbuck blinked at him. That had blindsided him. Surely to Hades Jolly hadn't been inadvertently right?
"Look," Bojay said. "I'll tell you how it is: you get tagged as cyff and you'll never shake it. It'll be... bad."
Starbuck leaned back against the wall. "Hafez told us it's illegal on Pisco," he said.
Bojay looked down at the glass he was holding between his knees.
"Boit's not on Caprica. It's not here."
Bojay looked up at him. "If I was..."
"It wouldn't bother me," Starbuck said, realizing it was true. Bojay had never made a pass at him, nothing he'd ever done had been the tiniest bit sexual. Starbuck knew what that was like... if Bojay had wanted to cruise bars for guys while he looked for women, that would be fine. "It would be okay."
"I'm not," Bojay said.
"That's okay, too... It's no big deal, Bo."
He laughed. "Oh, gods, Buck," he shook his head. "You don't even know."
"Who went to prison, Bo?" he asked softly.
Bojay sighed. "My cousin. He died there after three yahrens, five sectares, and fifteen days."
Starbuck took a tiny chance and touched Bojay's hip gently with his knee. "I'm so damned sorry, Bo."
Bojay didn't move. "Thanks," he said softly and finished his drink.
"But it doesn't matter here," Starbuck repeated. "One way or the other. And I need you to come back. Like the colonel said: normal. Okay?"
Bojay looked up at him and smiled. "Sure, Buck. Normal." Then he laughed. "Or as normal as we can manage anyhow."
"I'll drink to that," said Starbuck, filling their glasses.
They both did. And they didn't get ripped, precisely, but they certainly needed to hang onto each other to get back to the barracks. And as Starbuck gave Bojay a leg up into his bunk (the one time the upper was a disadvantage was when you were plowed) he was so happy he was giggling. They were going to be okay.
It took a few days. But when no one in the Wing took any undue notice of them behaving as they had for almost two yahrens already, Bojay relaxed. And when he relaxed, his behavior went back to normal. And once he was back to normal so was the Wing. The opposite of a vicious cycle, Starbuck thought one evening a secton later, sitting in the O Club and waiting for Bojay to show up from sending mail.
"Hey, Bucko," Jolly paused beside his table. "Where's Boj?"
"He'll be along in a centon. Or do you think I really am a two-fisted drinker?" He grinned, indicating the glass awaiting his wingmate.
"That's great. I mean," Jolly paused, "that's what I wanted to say. I'm glad you guys are, you know, together again."
"I know, you're not 'together', but... you know what I mean. I nearly screwed you guys up good, and I'm glad I didn't."
"It wasn't your fault," Starbuck said.
"Yes, it was. I mean, sure, I wouldn't have said it if I'd known how he'd react" He broke off when Starbuck started laughing. After a moment, he laughed, too. "Well, true," he said. "If I'd known exactly how he was gonna react, I'd have said nothing at all. I meant, though, I didn't mean anything by it. It was just a joke. You know."
"I know, Jolly," Starbuck said. "So does Boj. Pull up a chair. He won't bite."
"Really?" Jolly sat down and ventured, "That's not what I heard back on Plissessy."
"Well, you have to ask nicely," said Bojay, sitting down and startling the hell out of Jolly. "And it helps if you're naked when you do." He paused, reflected, and added, "And a whole lot prettier than you, Jol."
After a startled moment, Jolly laughed out loud. In another few moments, Farlon, Onyx, and Towse joined them and Starbuck obliged them by having a deck of cards in his jacket. Things were definitely back to normal.
Because, although they mock-punched and jostled each other as much as before, sat crowded together on shuttles, drank together, went on furlons and passes together, chased and caught women together and sometimes shared them, and even once again scrunched up next to each other on Starbuck's bunk to read Bojay's sharable mail, every now and then Starbuck would glance up to catch an unfamiliar and unreadable expression in those usually candid hazel eyes. Not that it made him uncomfortable, but it was there.
And it hadn't been before.
Although he was aware that circumstances made it appear otherwise, Starbuck's favorite way of starting a duty shift was not standing at attention in Hafez's office while that elegant worthy tore him into tiny pieces. He honestly wasn't sure why it happened so often. Possibly, he occasionally admitted if only to himself, because he spent more time listening to the way Hafez said things than to the things themselves... "Gentlemen," the captain was saying now, "and I use that term only because there is an Act of Council in existence with your names on it, granting you the right to that title as long as you are officersgentlemen, remove yourselves from my sight."
They made a fairly dignified retreat as far as the hall outside the ready room. "Sagan, I feel like I should check myself out for scorch marks."
"Ah, c'mon, Buck, it wouldn't be a normal secton if the cap'n didn't chew our tails for something."
"That is so very true," Hafez's voice remarked pensively. He'd come up without Starbuck being aware of it, he'd come to depend so greatly on Bojay's watching his back. Now he jumped a good quarter-metron in the air and felt his head collide with the other pilot's. The captain was continuing, "And yet of late I have discovered in myself a hitherto unsuspected yet very strong desire for the abnormal. Lieutenant Bojay, is your nose broken?"
"I think tho, thir," Bojay replied in a stifled voice.
Starbuck spun around and stared at his wingmate's bloody face. "Oh, Sagan," he started.
"Lieutenant Starbuck, please take Lieutenant Bojay to the Life Center. And try not to damage him further on the way."
"Sorry, Bo," Starbuck said contritely as he punched for the turbolift. "I didn't mean to."
"I didn't." Starbuck felt the giggle coming but couldn't stop it completely.
"That'th right. Laugh at by pain."
"Sorry..." The lift came and they got on. Fortunately, it was empty. "But, Bo, it's just a broken nose. They'll fix it in no time."
"Jutht? If it wath your nothe," Bojay said indignantly if indistinctly, "you would be whining for a thecton!"
"But I have to protect my looks, they're my only asset."
"That'th true," Bojay agreed. He wiped blood off his chin and held his hand up in Starbuck's face. "Look at thith!"
"Tilt your head back," Starbuck suggested. He wouldn't have admitted it for the worlds, but the sight of Bojay's blood was doing funny things to his stomach. Thank the lords they were on the battlestar and thus only a few centons away from medical care.
"It'th not a nothebleed," Bojay said. "I'm inthured!"
"You'll live," Starbuck said callously, pretending the words hadn't gotten to him. Hades, it was just a broken nose. "Come on, let the doctors at you."
The medtech on duty jumped up when they came in. "My gods," she said, running over to them. "What happened to the two of you?"
"The two of uth?" Bojay was beside himself.
"There's blood in your hair, Starbuck," she said, running her hand gently over his head.
"Oh," he said sheepishly. He didn't look at his wingmate when he answered. "That'll be his. I kind of..."
"Honestly." She let go of him and glared before turning to Bojay.
"It was an accident!" he protested.
"Go wash your hair before it dries," she flung over her shoulder, shepherding Bojay away.
"It was!" he called after them, and then went into the small turboflush off the waiting room. He stripped off his jacket and tunic, and then unsealed his pressure suit and peeled it off his upper body. He was not getting it wet and then walking around damp all day.
Poor Bo, he thought while he waited for the water to get warm. Hafez shouldn't sneak up on people like that. He couldn't help snickering as he remembered Hafez's last remarkdesire for the abnormal, indeed. He ducked his head under the water and rubbed his hair between his fingers, halfway wishing he wore it short like Bojay, closing his eyes to the pink-tinged water. He deliberately turned his mind back to the captain. From anyone but Hafez, that would sound like... like... Not a comfortable train of thought, that, though he wasn't entirely sure why. He straightened and looked at his hair to make sure it was clean.
For a moment, disconcerting and disturbing, in the already steamy mirror he saw himself as someone else altogether, a stranger naked and water-dappled. Hafez's words echoed in his mind againdiscovered in myself a strong desire... He shook his head and ran his hand over the surface of the mirror to clear it. That his hand meeting its image connected him back to reality was something he ignored. He opened the door partway to get rid of the steam and then, blanking his mind, he ducked his head under the running water for as long as he could hold his breath. Emerging with a gasp, he shook his head like a dagget, sending water everywhere.
"Sagan, Buck, first you break my nose, now you're trying to drown me..."
Starbuck jumped again, though this time he didn't hit anything. He spun around to see Bojay, his nose once again straight and undamaged, standing in the open door with a large towel in his hand. They stared at each other long enough for Starbuck to get nervous. Normally in a situation like this Bojay would have thrown the towel at him, or maybe dropped it over his head and rubbed him down like the dagget he'd been imitating, with remarks to match the action. But now he was just standing there, that cervus-in-the-headlight look in his wide hazel eyes and the towel clenched in a white-knuckled fist.
"Bo?" he asked, reaching for the towel. Their fingers touched and Bojay shuddered and flinched away. "Bo, what the hell?"
"What?" he said defensively.
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Felgarcarb. You're acting weird. Again. What's gotten into you?"
"You don't want to know."
"Oh, the hell. I'm your wingmate. Dammit, I'm your best friend"
Bojay took a deep breath and said, suddenly sounding calm though his eyes were anything but, "You may not want to be either any more."
"What are you talking about, Bo? What could you have possibly done, what could you ever do that would come between us now?"
"I love you, all right? I want you... That's how it is, all right? Satisfied now?"
Starbuck was too pole-axed to respond. Bojay what? Wanted him? Loved him? Loved him, Starbuck, like that? Bojay? The message was just beginning to reach his nerves, pushing its way along neurons seemingly blocked by surprise, and he realized he wanted to talk about this, wanted to explore it.
Bojay had started to back away, panic in his eyes now. "Gods, I'm sorry, I never meant to say anything, gods"
"There you are." That was Greenbean. "Starbuck" he broke off and looked between the two of them, Starbuck wet and half-dressed and Bojay backing away. Gods only knew what he was thinking. What he said was, "Sorry, am I interrupting? Only Hafez wants you, Starbuck."
"No, you're not," Bojay said and left, just barely not bolting.
"Boj!" Starbuck took a step after him.
Greenbean grabbed his arm. "The captain wants you now," he said apologetically.
"Frack!" Starbuck began vigorously toweling his hair. It hid his face, which was good. "Where?" he asked after a minute.
"Ready room," said Greenbean. "And no, I don't know why. He came out of his office looking for you, that's all I know."
"Frack," Starbuck repeated. He dried his shoulders and pulled his pressure suit back on, and then his tunic. They were on duty, Bojay had probably gone back there himself. Whatever Hafez wanted, it probably wouldn't take long. And then he could corner Bojay and talk.
Pulling on his jacket as he walked to the turbolift, he considered that. Maybe... maybe not just talk. He wasn't sure what else, but...
Bojay wasn't in the ready room, though the rest of Blue, barring the two flying picket, were. Hafez didn't even ask about his wingmate, just said, "Lieutenant Starbuck, go put on another jacket, preferably one which has brass up to standard." When the snickers died down, he added, "You're flying the command shuttle to Galsa and the honour of the Wing"somehow he pronounced that with a U"demands it."
"I'm doing what, sir?"
"Flying the command shuttle to Galsa," Hafez repeated. "I don't wonder you're surprised. It's nothing to my own startlement when the commander asked for you by name. I can only assume the Galsan Territorial Governor is an impressionable female... Try not to impress her too strongly."
Starbuck grinned. "I'll do my best, sir."
"That's what I'm oh, so very afraid of, Lieutenant. In the next five centons, please."
"Yes, sir." Starbuck was annoyed with having to put off talking to Bojay, but it would keep. It would probably be better off duty, in fact. And getting to Galsa itself would give him something to toss at those snotty Pegasus pilots the next time they met, assuming Hafez let him and Bojay back into the skyyards' rejuvenation areas while the other battlestar was still here.
Impulsively, Starbuck opened Bojay's locker (their combinations had stopped being secrets from each other more than a yahren ago),and pulled out his wingmate's jacket, his new one without so much as a scurf on the suede, the one he had only worn once. Funny, even new like that, it somehow smelled like Bojay. Or felt like him. Or something. Starbuck found himself running his hand over it all day. All incredibly boring day, as he stood around in an antechamber and waited for Commander Adama to finish his business with the TG, who was about as old as the Commander's father and probably male underneath all those wrinkles.
When he had taken the shuttle down to the planet, both battlestars were blocking out half the sky. That night, when they came back, only one was still there. The Pegasus and its battlegroup were gone, off to join the Fifth Fleet somewhere, leaving the Galactica to dominate Galsa's skyyards. Later, he felt like he should have been able to tell, but the truth was, he couldn't. He docked the shuttle, said goodnight to the commander, and walked back to the BOQ whistling. Blue Squadron was going on break, and Adama had told him on the way back that they were authorized to take it on the planet if they wanted (take that, Pegasucks). Two days to...
The thought died as Starbuck stared at Bojay's bunk. Emptystripped. He opened the locker; it wasn't locked, and it, too, was empty.
"Hey, Starbuck," Jolly said, opening his own locker next to him.
"What happened to Bojay?"
"Didn't you know?"
Starbuck hated that question. It wasn't just that if he'd known, he wouldn't have been asking, it was that it implied that he should have known, that something was wrong with his not knowing. "No," he said through his teeth. "What?"
"He transferred. To the Pegasus."
"He what?" He could not possibly have heard that correctly.
Jolly obligingly repeated it. "He transferred, to the Pegasus. In a hurry; I think he was gone in a centare." He pulled out a casual shirt and tossed it on his bunk. "Just before they left."
Starbuck didn't stay around to hear any more; he headed for the Wing admin area, his mind a functional blank of too many swirling thoughts. Transferred?
He walked past the duty NCO and rapped on the open door to Hafez's office. "Captain?"
Hafez looked up and sighed softly. "I have been expecting you, Lieutenant," he said. "Come in; shut the door."
Starbuck did, facing the captain and finding himself unable to get a coherent sentence out. "Bojaytransferred just like thatyou let them"
Hafez sighed again. "I couldn't have stopped it. It was a request transfer."
Starbuck felt his jaw drop. "Re-request?" he got out.
"Yes. He went over my head. Colonel Tigh told me, and it was an accomplished fact by then. Are you all right, Lieutenant?" His voice was suddenly concerned.
Which meant Starbuck was giving too much away. He pulled himself together as quickly as he could. "Yes, sir," he said. "I'm just surprised. I didn't think he liked the pilots we met from the Pegasus last night." Hafez shouldn't have any problems believing that.
The captain's dark eyes were skeptical, but he said only, "I would have thought not as well."
"Will that be all, sir?"
"If you're sure you have nothing else to say?"
He was sure. There was no way he could talk to Hafez. There was no way he could talk to anyone. Not now.
Starbuck spent his break on Galsa, as far away from anyone else from the Galactica as he could get. Because the last thing he wanted right now was a heart-to-heart with Hafez (that would be worse even than Tigh, because Hafez knew him), he'd paid the landlord of the pub he'd found to shove him into a cab at the end of the last night. The driver, who was like most Galsans grateful to the Colonial Warriors, cheerfully half-carried him to the shipyards shuttle and tried to refuse the tip that Starbuck insisted on shoving into his pocket. "You take care, now, lad," he said.
Take care. Starbuck had to laugh.
Hafez was gentle with him for two days, not pairing him with anyone and letting him work in the sims alone. On the third day, though, when the Galactica finished its business at Galsa and took to the lanes to return to the front, he called him into the office. "Lieutenant," he began, "you cannot get falling-down drunk again tonight"
"Can't I?" Starbuck said involuntarily, remembering to add, "sir."
"Please allow me to finish. You cannot get falling-down drunk again tonight and show up for duty tomorrow hungover, and expect me to allow you to fly. Or to overlook it."
"I'm fine to fly, sir," Starbuck said in mild protest. "You can look at my scores the last couple of days. I can fly rings around anyone else in Blue, hungover or not."
"That is true," Hafez surprised him by acknowledging it. "You can, in fact, fly rings around most of Blue inebriated, if not passed out. But you are not up to your usual standards, and people will be misjudgingpeople in this case including you yourselfand if we go into combat, which well we might, someone will die. And while that might go a long way to justifying your current self-image, it is a price too high to pay: for you probably, for me much more certainly, and without a single doubt for whomever it would be."
Starbuck flinched. Hafez's tongue might have been a razor-edged Sagittan boot-knife; he half expected to see blood on the floor. But the words were true...
The captain was continuing. "If you want to stop flying, I can oblige you without the necessity of such extremes. Show up tomorrow in the same state as you have for the past three days, and I'll ground you. Indefinitely. Continue this pattern, and I'll put you in for transfer to a branch of service where it won't matter."
"Sir, you can't" That was involuntary. He had to stay a combat pilot. Killing Cylons was, now more than ever, all there was.
"I can, and I will," Hafez said. "I don't want to, but I won't watch someone die because I am indulging you. If you genuinely wish to kill yourself, there are ways to do so which are quicker than drinking yourself to death and which will not take someone else with you. If you don't, perhaps some quiet time to reflect" He caught Starbuck's once-again involuntary response and paused. "I can offer you no advice, Starbuck, because you have not chosen to tell me what is wrong, why Lieutenant Bojay left, or for that matter anything at all. If you want to talk, I'm here. The chaplain and the counselors are here. If you don't, you are going to have to return to something at least resembling functioning. And if you wish to fly, you are going to have get closer than that."
"Yes, sir," Starbuck said. "I'll quit drinking."
Hafez looked at him for a long moment and then sighed. "Very good, Lieutenant," he said in tones which meant he didn't think that at all. "Dismissed."
Starbuck left, feeling this time as though he were genuinely escaping. Hafez couldn't have threatened him with anything worse than time alone to think about thingsnever one of his favorite occupationsexcept talking to a counselor or chaplain about what he didn't want to think about. That and the ultimate threat: grounding. He didn't really believe in his own death, but when it happened it was going to be in combat, he knew. He didn't want to die any other way, couldn't imagine it... grounding was worse than death.
So that evening, the oblivion of ambrosa denied him (not that it helped the rest of the time) and the prospect of his own company even less appealing than usual, he plunged into a pyramid game with Jolly, Farlon, Onyx, and Towse. He gambled hard and drank moderatelysure, he told Hafez he'd stop, but the captain had only told him not to get drunk, and that wasn't the sameand laughed a lot. Everyone seemed relieved.
Hafez gave him a long brooding look out of those sloe eyes in the morning, but let him fly patrol with Jolly and Greenbean. He flew with everyone in Blue over the next two sectons and half of Red, but he was flying. And when they went into combat, Hafez took him as a second wingman and basically left him alone, which suited him down to the ground. His kills climbed.
Off duty he was congenial. The squadron never discussed those few days with him; the first couple of hedging attempts encountered a freeze-out at absolute zero. So no one said the word "Bojay", or the word "Angels". Or at least, they didn't say them where Starbuck could hear them, he wasn't self-centered enough, not quite, to think no one had been Bojay's friend but him, or that Greenbean had said nothing. But silence in his presence was good enough. And if conversations occasionally halted dead in mid-sentence when he came into the room, that was good enough, too. It meant he didn't have to think about the thing he wasn't thinking about.
It meant he didn't have to figure out what had happened. If he'd done something to scare Bojay, or if he wasn't enough to make Bojay go against what he'd been brought up believing, or what the hell had happened there. What made the Pegasucks seem a better place to be than with Starbuck...
The Ferialy campaign lasted two sectares. Galactica's losses were light, except in Viper pilots. Blue lost Onyx, Farlon, Towse, Petron, Reaper... Starbuck flew like he didn't care if he lost his life or didn't believe he could, and was unscathed, but the squadron was losing those who'd known the Angels. Only Jolly and Greenbean were left who'd been there before him, and his reputation was becoming a solo act. Everybody's buddy, nobody's friend...
And then the battlegroup was withdrawn to Canops and the replacements began arriving.
"Hey! Starbuck!" The call came across the bay where the shuttle from the Canops replacement depot had begun disembarking its passengers.
Starbuck turned, his eyes widening. That voice... he spotted the sturdy dark figure and waved, feeling a grin on his face. "Boomer!"
They met halfway and gripped each other's hands and shoulders. "My gods, you made lieutenant," Boomer said. "Who'd have believe it?"
"Well," Starbuck shrugged, relieved that the Leonid hadn't made captain already, "they did give me the Silver Cluster after Semtek. Keeping me a mere Flight Officer wasn't in the cards after that."
"Yeah, I heard about you there," said Boomer, the tone the 'congratulations' the words weren't. Same old Boom-Boom... "We had a time of it, didn't we? What a frack-up."
"Such a nice polite term for it," said Starbuck. "You're transferred here?"
"No. I'm on an excursion... of course I am."
"Great." And Starbuck meant it. The cold dark place inside him had begun opening up again. He'd known Boomer ten yahrens now, since his first and the other man's second at the academy. Neither of them were great correspondents, but the sight, the sound, the feel of the Leonid was enough to bring back the old emotions. "You'll like the captain," he said. "He's a lunatic, but I mean that in the nicest possible way. C'mon, I'll take you to his office... You didn't bring a wingman with you, did you?" he added.
"Nope," Boomer shook his close-cropped head. "Never even met any of these guys before. Why? You need one?"
"As a matter of fact, yes."
"I suppose I could do worse," Boomer said philosophically.
Starbuck laughed. And in the back of his mind something was whispering that at least Boomer, who'd been engaged to a Fleet doctor for the past seven yahrensthey were just waiting for her to fulfill her educational payback and then he was going to resign his commission, they were going to get married and move back to Leonis, and raise a whole crop of little Boomers and Saraisat least Boomer wouldn't ever cross the boundaries.
Hafez didn't need convincing. He seemed pleased to solve his Starbuck problem that easily, though every now and then his dark eyes lingered on Starbuck just long enough to make it obvious that he didn't think Starbuck's problems were solved.
And then three days after they'd arrived at Canops, one of the admins called Starbuck to the mail room. "You've got civilian mail," she said to him, "and it's postage due."
Starbuck blinked at her. He couldn't think who would be sending him civilian mail. It wasn't that he didn't know any civilians, but none of them would be prompted to write to him. To his commanding officer, maybe, but not him. Except Ila, who of course used her husband's franking privileges, as did Apollo's little brother and sister when they wrote. Somebody from the orphanage? He shook his head and asked.
"Ah," she said, "it's not a collect call. Either you pay or we send it back."
"Forty cubits... Ah, ah. It's from a long way away and it's already been travelling a couple of sectons. Want it?"
"I don't know if I've got forty cubits on me."
"We'll deduct it from your pay," she said. "Here."
An actual paper letter... and he recognized the handwriting, though what he said to Shella was "You sneak. There's no return on it; you couldn't have told me who it was from."
"Too late," she grinned. "Every cubit helps the war effort, Starbuck."
He'd left to find someplace private to read the letter.
BuckHe didn't hear from Bojay again. And although he read and reread that letter until he could recite it in his sleep, starting anywhere, he could never tell what it really meant.
You have no idea what a madhouse I have landed in. Here's a sample for you: single officers get to send one letter every other sectare. And receive one. (Married get to write every sectare!) Forget ever making a call anywhere. I swear to the Lords, if your mam was dying they wouldn't let your tad call to let her talk to you once before she went. They act like bandwidth is a non-renewable resource. If we send too many communications, the war will grind to a halt or something. Anghachgredadwyunfrackingbelievable. Yet oh so true. Plus, they censor. And I already know I don't want them looking at me funny.
And frack the idea of shore liberty, where maybe I could even make a short call home with all the money piling up now that I have nothing to spend it on and no one to lose it to (gambling is against regs, after all). We don't get furlons. We don't even get to take any time that we have coming to us if we put into a base, bar a few centares if we've been very good. There's a war on; we might be needed at any moment.
Gods, I miss Hafez, and you can tell him that.
But I'm sure you don't want to read about my miserable existence (though on the other hand it might make you feel good), but it's not like I've got anything else to say. My wingmate is a real piece of work, but a good pilot, damned good. Almost as good as you... hope yours is as good as me, but I doubt it. Watch it out there, Bucky, you hear me? So, anyway, I'll tell you how it is: don't expect letters, 'cause I can't not write the folks; my mam and grandmam would have me buried if they went half a yahren without hearing. I'll try to do this again, but I don't know... especially since I'm not sure where the First is at the moment and probably never will be (I might tell a Cylon spy, you know, and then they'd know, in case they hadn't noticed for themselves). Also you'll probably have to pay something for this. You might have to pay, period, 'cause frankly I don't know if this contractor who's promised to mail it for me won't pocket the cubits and send it on postage due... if he does, next time we see each other I'll pay you back. Half.
Sorry I didn't get to say goodbye, Buck. Things happened in a hurry, and you were off on Galsa... I couldn't have bought a half-day with my heartsblood.
Anyway, take care of yourself, remember to watch your back, and someday we'll run into each other again. See you 'round the war
Pretty soon, he stopped trying. He pushed the whole problem out of sight and plunged into the moment. Boomer wasn't his partner in crime but he didn't mind chasing women on his own. And Boomer was a pretty good pilot, better than anyone else in Blue. If that wild exhilaration was gone, well, things change. That was a given, after all.
Things change. People go away.
Some things never changed...
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