Apollo lay in the Life Center, too strong to die and too miserable to live. Or at least to wake up and participate in living. Athena and Adama couldn't reach him, and they were afraid to bring Boxey in, even if Salik would have permitted it. Boomer and Sheba came, and so did his other friends, but no one could penetrate his defenses. He wasn't in a coma, he wasn't unconscious. He was just not coming back.
He wanted to die. He knew that he shouldn't, so he knew that he wouldn't. But for the moment, he wanted to forget all the shoulds, oughts, and musts that ruled his life. For the moment, he wanted to wallow in a want.
Even though it was too damned late.
Even though all the wants had dried up and blown away in a single burst of Cylon Raider fire... How long ago now? He wasn't sure. Where he was hiding time didn't matter very much. Nothing did. Everything was grey and shapeless. Dull. Dead...
He knew there was someone in the room with him again. He could feel their eyes on him. Oh, sure, that was a myth, but he could. Or maybe he could just hear them, breathing, clothes rustling, little sounds as they shifted in the chair... somebody was there and staring at him. Wanting him to come back. Take up his duties. Obey all the shoulds. He would, he knew, sometime. His duties. His son. His important life... He'd get back to it. Later. Not now.
And he'd never enjoy it. Never again.
Not while Starbuck was dead. Turned into free hydrogen in space. Blazing into eternity like a nova. Gone, just like that, while Apollo, helpless in a crippled Viper, watched. Apollo, crippled lost lambet, encircled by Cylon lupines, rescued by Starbuck... who died doing it. How could he enjoy life now? How could he justify living when Starbuck was dead?
When he'd heard the battle-joy in Starbuck's voice, the pure relief at being able to save him... When he knew that Starbuck thought it was only right and good that he die to keep Apollo alive.
When he knew that Starbuck had loved him... tags and snips of Word floated through his mind. No greater love... the greatest of these is Love... passing the love of women... Every day for a dozen yahrens Starbuck had told him, wordless but unmistakable. And every day for a dozen yahrens Apollo had said, "I think it's nice..."
Starbuck was dead, again, and he hadn't learned from the first time. Starbuck had died never hearing the truth.
He felt tears come to his eyes, closed though they were.
And then his visitor said, "Hey. Are those tears? Does that mean you're awake? Want I should call the doctor?"
No. It wasn't possible. He'd seen Starbuck's Viper shatter into a million pieces, each as bright as a dying star. He'd felt fragments strike his own Viper and prayed they'd destroy its hull integrity, though they hadn't been anything like big enough. He'd heard the sound over the open link... And if he needed confirmation (which he hadn't, he'd known it in his bones), they'd told him when they grappled his Viper into the bay, when they'd pulled him out, and when they'd treated him in the Life Center. Starbuck was dead.
He wasn't sitting here, talking to him.
"Apollo?" That sounded worried. "You okay, buddy?"
The voice, warm and golden as sunlight, warmed the dark cold place inside Apollo, setting the ice to melting. He opened his eyes and met Starbuck's, blazingly blue and full of love and concern and not a half metron away. "Starbuck?"
"Who else? You okay?" A hand half-offered to brush his hair out of his face but didn't.
"You're dead." Apollo had meant that to be a question but it came out a statement.
"Dead?" Starbuck said. "News to me, buddy."
"You are, though," Apollo said, wondering why he was insisting on it. "We lost you..."
"Ah, for Sagan's sake. Lose comms for a centare and they're cleaning out your locker. Apollo, do I look dead?"
He didn't. He looked vibrant and gold, the way he always did. The braid on his uniform was no brighter than his soul, and all of him was warm and alive. "But... you died. You did."
"News flash, Apollo. I don't feel dead. I feel tired, and hungry, and I could use a drink, and I could really go for a smoke if Salik weren't so frackin' Sagittan about his little rules and regulations. But none of those is exactly dead."
Apollo couldn't help it. He reached out his hand and touched Starbuck's face. He wasn't sure what he expected; for his hand to go right through, probably, though there was also in the back of his mind the old song she took him by the hand... she felt he was as cold as the clay. In any case, Starbuck was neither figment of his mind nor ghost, but warm and solid and real. There. And leaning into Apollo's hand as though he were the one who'd been so greatly, if (thank the gods) so temporarily, bereaved.
"Starbuck, you're..." He stopped because his voice was suddenly not working.
"Not dead? I told you," Starbuck said gently.
"Why didn't anyone else?"
"I don't know? Maybe because you were just lying there pretending to sleep all the" Starbuck broke off this time, but only because Apollo had lunged forward to wrap him in a hug that cut off his breath. "Hey," Starbuck said after a minute. "I told you once, it's against regs to hug a junior officer." He wasn't trying to get away, though.
"Unless I really mean it," Apollo said. "That's right, isn't it?"
"Because I do mean it, Starbuck," he said. "I meant it then but I was a coward, but I can't take it anymore, losing you without having you."
"Apollo?" That was wondering.
"I can't live without you, Starbuck. Not live. I know, I've tried it and it doesn't work. I can't do it. I need you." He'd run out of words, but that was okay because he knew what to do instead of talk. He let go of Starbuck just enough and kissed him.
And, oh gods, it took the blond only about a micron to kiss back. And sure, even Athena had said Starbuck was a good, no, a great, kisser, but this was more. Apollo knew he'd never felt such passion and such love in a kiss before in his life.
He had to breathe, eventually, and he pulled away, drawing Starbuck's head to his throat and feeling the solid, real, presence warm against his lightly clad body.
"Oh, god, Apollo, maybe I am dead," Starbuck said. "It sure feels like heaven..." Then he heaved a big sigh, his hands stilling their stroking. "Or maybe hell."
"What do you mean?" Apollo asked a little apprehensively.
"You're in the Life Center," said Starbuck. "That's entirely the wrong bed for heaven."
"It'll do," said Apollo with sudden decision.
"I'm not sick. I'm not hurt. I'm just... just here. Lock that door and be here with me."
"Yes, sir, Captain, sir," Starbuck said, turning the lock. Then he came back, his eyes blazing with open desire.
It made Apollo shiver just to look at him. He tried to cover it by saying, "Awfully obedient all of a sudden, aren't you? Who are you, and what have you done with the real Starbuck?"
"It all depends on what I'm being told to do," Starbuck said, pausing beside the bed. "And by who... Pol, you're sure about this?"
"Never been surer of anything in my whole life," he said, "and you know me"
"Sometimes wrong," Starbuck said, pulling one knee underneath himself as he sat and leaned over, "but never uncertain..."
Whatever response Apollo might have made to that was lost in Starbuck's mouth. He buried his hands in the thick tawny hair, surprised at how soft it was, and gave himself over to the moment and to Starbuck. And got surprised when the blond man straddled him and began kissing every inch of his body. Under the onslaught of tongue and lips and, just occasionally, tiny exciting nips of teeth, he couldn't do anything but hang on. He couldn't even remember how Starbuck's uniform came off (his Life Center gown lasted about three centons, if that), but the feel of the other's man bare skin under his hands and against his body was more intoxicating than his father's forty-yahren-old ambrosa. And when Starbuck crouched over him and took him in his mouth, Apollo thought, And he thinks he's in heaven?
Then Starbuck pulled away for a centon, sitting back on his heels. Apollo moaned, and then managed to say, "Starbuck... don't stop." His back arched almost involuntarily as he sought the source of his pleasure.
Starbuck's hand landed on his hip, pinning him. "Patience, Pol."
"Now?" Apollo demanded.
Starbuck laughed and leaned over again, licking Apollo's straining length. Apollo moaned and lifted his hips, and then he felt one of Starbuck's fingers, warm and wet, sliding inside him. He'd never felt anything like it before; he shivered. And then the finger touched something inside him and he arched off the bed in a paroxysm of pleasure that found outlet in a cry. If he'd been inside Starbuck's mouth still, he'd have come from the touch.
"You like?" Starbuck said, moving his finger and licking Apollo's cock again.
"Oh, gods.... Oh, Starbuck." That was all he could get out.
It seemed to be enough. Starbuck laughed softly (laughter in bed, another first) and took Apollo into his mouth again. The two pleasures lanced through his body like being struck by lightning, flashing across every nerve he had. When he came, one hand clenched in Starbuck's hair and the other in the sheets, he finally understood the ancient poets who had called sex the little death...
Or, to be accurate, he understood it when he finally came back to consciousness. Starbuck was leaning against his shoulder, kissing his throat. Vaguely surprised that he hadn't pulled out a handful of hair, he buried his hand in that tawny mass again and pulled Starbuck up to kiss him properly. The blond was nothing loath, and seemed content to do nothing but that for the foreseeable future; but, pleasant as it was, Apollo could feel him ready against his thigh.
His imagination had never really pictured what he might do with Starbuck if he ever got the nerve to do it, and if he'd known it would be half, a third, this good... He put his hands on Starbuck's shoulders to roll him over and try to pleasure him, and then the head of Starbuck's cock nudged his ass, sending little shivers straight to his brain, and he hesitated a centon. A finger was one thing... He looked into Starbuck's eyes, hazy with desire, and knew the other man would never hurt him. "Take me," he breathed. "Take me, Starbuck."
"Take me," he repeated. "I'm sure. I want you."
"Gods," Starbuck whispered and then kissed him. "Wait a minute..." he sat up, one hand stroking Apollo and the other rummaging in the drawer of the bedside table. "It's a life center," he said, "there has to be... ah." He came back to kiss Apollo again, tongue delving deep and hands gentle. "Roll over," he said.
"It'll be easier on you; we've got time for other positions."
Apollo rolled over and felt Starbuck's mouth kissing his back and moving slowly downward. The finger reentered him, and then another, and he found a centon to wonder at Starbuck's patience before he lost his again. As the fingers moved inside him, stimulating and preparing him, he raised his hips and heard an actual whimper leave his throat. "Now," he said, "please..."
And Starbuck entered him, first gently and then, finally, abandoning his caution to drive in and possess him. Apollo yielded his entire being, all the shoulds, oughts, and musts disappearing into one imperative desire. When Starbuck wrapped an arm around him, pulling him up and back against him as he came, his cry muffled against Apollo's shoulder, Apollo knew he'd never let the other man out of his life again. Ever.
And eventually he'd be able to tell him that, he thought muzzily as they lay tangled together on the bed. When his brain was working again...
"Pol?" The word tickled his shoulder.
"What made you so sure I was dead? It wasn't just being told it, was it?"
"Everybody told me, Starbuck," he tightened his arm around his lover.
"Pol," Starbuck wriggled a tiny bit, not trying to get loose, just settling. Then he rubbed his hand soothingly on Apollo's stomach. "Haven't you learned? I'll always come back to you. Just because someone says I'm gone..."
"I saw it," Apollo said. "I saw your Viper explode." He shivered, remembering... it had seemed so vividly real. Had he passed out, hallucinated his worst fear? Or had he mistaken someone's Viper for Starbuck's? That was most likely, now that he thought about it. After all, Starbuck wasn't the only one not to come back from the engagement. Except he did come back, he reminded himself. He's here, just as real. More.
"Not me," Starbuck confirmed it. "When, anyhow?"
"While I was waiting to be picked up."
"I was still there," Starbuck protested mildly. "The whole damned time. Watching over you."
"You do that so well," Apollo sighed. "Never stop, Starbuck. Please?"
"I don't remember you."
"I was there. Comms were out, I guess, but I was there. Who shot those Cylons off the shuttle they sent out to grapple you back in if it wasn't me?"
"I don't know," he admitted, suddenly tired of the subject. He didn't care at the moment who he'd seen blow up. He could sort that out later. All he cared about was right here in his arms. "Starbuck?"
"What happens now?"
"What do you want to happen?" Starbuck asked.
Oh, no. Not this time. "I asked you first. What do you want, Starbuck?"
The blond sighed against Apollo's chest. "You," he said softly. "Forever."
"I think that can be arranged," Apollo said, tightening his hold and feeling genuine sleep creep over him.
When Apollo woke up, he was alone again. Not unexpectedly. Salik wasn't really a tyrant, but there was no way he'd have let Starbuck sleep over. Stretching, Apollo felt a little soreness, a few aches that might be bruises later... alive. Loved. Desired. He smiled and got out of bed, finding his uniform and putting it on.
By the time he got out of the room, his new state had been noticed. Someone had called his father, who embraced him warmly. "Thank God," he said softly. "You're back with us."
"I'm sorry you were worried," Apollo said, stricken momentarily by the signs of stress he could see in his father's face. Then, remembering, he asked, "Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Tell you what, son?" Adama hadn't let go.
"About Starbuck," he said.
There was a long silence, and Adama's answer, when it came, was heavy. "We did, Apollo."
"You did? I must not have heard you."
Adama held him at arms' length, looking at him oddly. "You heard us, Apollo. You said you already knew. You said you'd seen it happen."
Apollo blinked at him. "But he's alive, Father."
"No, he's not, son."
"He is," Apollo insisted. "He was here."
"No one's been here since the commander left this evening," said Salik. "You've had no visitors tonight. And most assuredly, Starbuck hasn't been here."
"But he was," Apollo repeated. Wasn't he?
"Apollo, it's been six days. There's no way... we would know." Adama's voice was kind but final. "You had a dream, son. That's all."
Apollo resisted the urge to pull off his jacket, open his tunic, and show the marks, to demand Salik examine him. He could have bruised himself, could have done it all himself, in some fever of need. He should have known Starbuck wasn't there. Should have trusted his eyes, his memory, instead of his wants. His needs. Love, forgiveness, guilt... the mind could play hellacious tricks on you.
"I'm so sorry, Apollo," Adama said, and now he sounded fearful.
Of course, Apollo realized. He'd spent six days hiding in his pain, and now his father was afraid he'd go back. Well, there wasn't any point to it; it hadn't done anything but make him crazy. "It's not your fault," he said softly. "I guess I just needed to say goodbye. I'm all right, Father."
"Thank God," Adama said, and hugged him again.
Apollo hugged him back, startled and guilty at how badly he had upset his father. Giving in to the wants always did this, always made somebody else suffer. He'd always known it and always refused to do it.
Except... somehow with Starbuck, not giving in had made them both suffer. Not giving in had pleased everyone but them. Had Starbuck really understood that, really accepted it, really signed on for it a dozen yahrens ago? Apollo hoped his... dream, for lack of a better wordhis haunting? his vision? his psychotic episode?had meant yes.
He'd have to live as though it had, at any rate. He had too much to do to do otherwise.
Finally Salik was content, and Adama walked home with him. Boxey, it turned out, was with Athena. Apollo knew he should go and get his son, but he wasn't sure he could face the boy now. He was too tired for the enthusiasm, and he knew Boxey would want to hear why Starbuck was dead; Adama said he hadn't asked any questions, and that meant he was saving them for his father. Apollo just didn't think he could face that tonight. He also didn't think he could say that, so he was surprised and grateful when Adama stopped him at the junction that led off to his sister's.
"Apollo," he said, "I think you should let Boxey and Athena sleep. You won't be on duty tomorrow; you can get Boxey and deal with him then. If he gets too excited tonight, he'll make himself ill."
Apollo looked into his father's brown eyes and recognized that they knew the truth. He smiled with gratitude. "Thank you, father," he said. "I'll do that, since you think it's best."
"Then I'll say goodnight here," Adama said. "ApolloI'm so very sorry."
"I know. Thank you." Apollo hugged him again and hurried off before he cried in front of his father.
He keyed himself into his quarters and stopped dead. The scent of fumarello drifted through the darkness, the slightly acrid smoke tickling his nostrils. He swallowed hard. "Starbuck?" he whispered.
"Hey, Pol," the familiar voice came from the direction of the couch. "Wasn't sure where else to go. Or how."
"Dead? Yeah, apparently. Sorry 'bout that; should have known you wouldn't have your facts mixed up."
Apollo walked blindly to the couch and sat down. As his eyes adjusted he could see Starbuck, still in uniform, sitting there. He couldn't think of anything to say.
"I went to the BOQ," Starbuck said conversationally, looking at the glowing tip of his fumarello. "I'm not sure how I got there. I'm not sure how I got here, either, for that matter. Just went. My locker's cleaned out. Nobody noticed me. Well, saw me. Boomer got the chills, Jolly too, and Giles said somebody was walking on his grave... funny that, really. And people kept saying they couldn't believe I was dead. And the more they said it, the more I did..."
Apollo reached out in the darkness and touched him. He was still there, and still warm. Still... "You're here, though," he said finally. "You're really here. Even down to those damned fumarellos."
"Sorry," Starbuck said. "They were in my jacket. Not that I'm sure where that came from," and Apollo remembered he hadn't had it on earlier. "I needed a smoke. I didn't think anyone would notice."
"It's all right. I mean, you're here."
"Am I?" He looked at Apollo, and even in the dark he looked lost.
Apollo reached for him, not caring if he was haunted, or psychic, or insane. Starbuck felt warm and real in his arms. When they kissed, he felt alive and loving. What else mattered? Apollo didn't even flinch when the jacket just wasn't there any more and pulled Starbuck even closer. "You feel here to me."
"Apollo, I don't understand this."
Apollo laughed once, gently, into Starbuck's neck. "I'm no theologian, Starbuck, but even my father once said you were more willful than God."
Starbuck laughed then, nuzzling Apollo's neck. "So, you want me to stick around? If I can, I mean?"
"Sagan, yes," Apollo said. "Never leave. Haunt me for the rest of my days."
"I'll give it my best shot," Starbuck said.
When they broke apart again so Apollo could breathe (he wondered momentarily about the possibilities that raised), Starbuck said, "Know what I think, Pol?"
"Maybe I'm crazy," he said, nuzzling Starbuck's now bare shoulder, "but I'm still not a mind reader."
"I thinkpay attention here," he caught Apollo's chin and raised it until their eyes met. "I think I'm in heaven."
Apollo's breath caught. "Oh, my love," he said.
"I knew it," Starbuck nodded. "I am."
"...oh, God, if I've earned heaven when I die, let me have England firstlet me have England instead"
Hilary Shenstone, Tryst by Elswyth Thane
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