Boomer was as close to being late for the debriefing as he had ever been to anything in his life. (Anything that didn't involve Starbuck, at any rate.) He'd been right: he hadn't gotten any sleep at all. But the frequency booster was finished, and he'd even had a half centare to get it installed in the Celestial Dome. On reflection, he probably shouldn't have done that; he'd barely had time to get to the barracks for a turbowash and a clean uniform.
He'd been cutting it close on purpose, not wanting to chance getting there early enough to have to make conversation with Apollo, or anyone, but he slid into his chair in the briefing room with about ten microns to spare. It earned him a congratulatory grin from Starbuck, but nobody else looked particularly impressed by his timing.
He glanced around the table. Actually, he probably wasn't the worst looking one there. Sheba looked as tired as he, and not quite so fresh; of course, she had an excuse, having been on duty last night. But Apollo and Starbuck looked tired, too, and Starbuck had that slight glaze in his eyes that said he was not drunk but had drink taken as Barton was wont to say. Dietra, though, was her usual cool self, and Omega his usual imperturbable one, while Bojay looked... He looked smackable, actually, Boomer thought; he reminded him of that Triad coach back at the Academy who'd used to say it wasn't sex that tired a player out, it was staying up all night looking for sex. What redeemed him was the worry that crossed those pale brown eyes when he let them drift to Sheba, that and the way they softened just a bit when they looked at Omega.
You romantic, you, Boomer thought as he carefully avoided looking at her again himself and did his best not to look at Apollo, which was made easier by the fact that he was on the same side of the table as the captain, with Starbuck between them. The one time their eyes did lock, what he saw was a very clear why the frack did you give Bojay a squadron? Or at least a very clear what the hell were you thinking?, and since Bojay was in the middle of a clear, concise report on Red's actions, it was a fair assumption what had annoyed him.
The meeting went smoothly all the way around, though. There wasn't a lot of new ground to go over, after all, except for what Starbuck and Apollo could tell them about the interior of the base star. Starbuck did most of the talking, Apollo putting in the occasional sentence to bring his wingmate back to the main point. "You can get as off-topic as you like in your written report, Starbuck."
"Off-topic?" Starbuck was, or at least sounded, cut to the quick. "You never know when these little details could come in handy."
"Never again, we hope," Tigh put in.
"Well, sir..." Starbuck shrugged.
"You're right, Starbuck," Adama said. "But save it for your written report. Is there anything else I should know before I attend the Council meeting, Colonel?"
"Only," said Tigh, "that I expect to see each of you this evening. 1900. Main Hall. And, gentlemen? Dress uniforms."
That effectively broke up the meeting. Sheba and Dietra and Bojay left together, as did Tigh and Adama with Omega following them out. Boomer's escape was cut off by a mild, "Boomer, hold on a moment," from Apollo, which was followed by a, "Don't you have someplace to be, Starbuck?"
"I think I'll go write my report."
"Good idea." He watched Starbuck leave and then turned to Boomer. "Why did you give Bojay a squadron?"
"Somebody needed to lead Red, and Sheba said he was up to it. Said he'd led before."
"Off the Pegasus." Apollo said that like the other battlestar was a garbage scow.
"I would assume. Look, I believed her, and he did a good job, and it's not like you never made him section, yourself."
"Section," Apollo said dismissively. "That's three people. A squadron's"
"Twenty more, I know. I thought he could handle it, and he did, and anyway it's over now, right? And if you had somebody else in mind you should have told me." A yawn interrupted that. "Apollo, look. It was a judgement call and I made it and I'm sorry you don't agree with me."
"It's not that, Boomer," Apollo said quickly. "I'm not critcizing your decision, I'm just... okay, maybe I was. But I didn't mean to criticize your judgement. And it does look like he did a good job."
"He did." He yawned again. "Look, I'm too tired to argue about it right now. I was up late working on a gamma frequency booster for the Celestial Dome receivers."
"Really?" Apollo was distracted for a moment.
"Really. You know Wilker's lab was hit."
"I know. The recording was lost?"
"Everything was lost. So maybe next time you can get a better recording and we won't need as much enhancement to figure out what it is."
He shook his head. "Don't mention it. It's a nice little problem." He shook his head, fighting off another yawn.
"Boomer," Apollo said, "you look like several metrics of bad road. How late were you up?"
"Too late," he admitted, and then prevaricated a little. "You know how it is, time gets away from you when you're busy."
"You look like you're lucky Red's off today. You should get some sleep."
Boomer yawned again. "I think you're right." He paused. "Look, Apollothat was a good job yesterday."
"Yeah... I'm glad you made it back."
That might have been just a bit too forceful: Apollo looked a little surprised but it modulated into slightly embarrassed pleasure. "Thanks," he said. "I'm glad you did, too."
"Yeah..." After an awkward pause, Boomer said, "I'm going to bed. See you tonight, I guess."
"Yes... Thanks again. For the booster. Where is it?"
Boomer grinned. "I installed it already."
One good thing about the conversation, he thought as he headed for the barracks, he was way behind Sheba. He wouldn't run into her at the barracks, anyway: she and Dietra had tiny little rooms over in junior command staff territory. He thought the rooms might be smaller than the cubbyholes the male squadron leaders had, but then again, they had their own service rooms and fooders, private turbowashes, and a distinct lack of seventy-plus men just outside the door. He'd have swapped.
Or would have if he hadn't been so damned generous and handed his room over to Greenbean and Barton until they got their own. As that dragged out he sometimes regretted the impulse. But he was so tired now that he wouldn't have cared if he'd been in bunks again instead of at least his own bed.
He slept straight through until his alarm went off. When he got to the Main Hall, the first thing he did was head for the buffet. He couldn't remember when he'd eaten last... before the battle? Likely. No wonder he was starving. Fortified again, he picked up a glass of nectar and looked around, trying to remember the last time they'd had a party like this.
He spotted Sheba standing alone and watching the dancers. Half the servicewomen had taken Tigh's use of the word 'gentlemen' as an excuse not to be in uniform, but Sheba wasn't one of them. He'd seen her in civvies only a few times, and never in something fancy; he guessed she didn't own a formal dress. She could, he supposed, have borrowed something from Athena, or somebody, but he somehow wasn't surprised she hadn't. Defining herself as a Warrior first was a Sheba-ish thing to do. He'd heard Apollo compliment her abilities but, remembering how the man had felt about Serina he wondered. Had that been because Serina hadn't been a Warrior when they met, so that it seemed... oh, a rejection of his values? Or had it been because she wasn't good enough, was too vulnerable? Starbuck thought Serina had reminded Apollo of Zac that way; he was probably right, he usually was about the captain. Boomer didn't know.
He hadn't liked Serina much. He hadn't thought she'd be good for Apollo, and he'd known she wasn't good for Starbuck. He'd been sorry when she died, sorry for the boy and sorrier when it became apparent how cut-up about it Apollo was. But he'd never wished her alive half, one-third, as much as he did now.
He looked around the room, but he didn't see Apollo. He felt his forehead wrinkling as he looked again, more closely. Still no Apollo. And no Starbuck, either. Cassie was here, talking with Athena, so Starbuck wasn't with her. His eyes lingered on the two of them a moment: there was no denying it, Athena was a beautiful woman, and Cassie didn't hurt your eyes either. Neither was in uniform, and he approved of Tigh's intention (if it had been his intention). Cassie was wearing that off-the-shoulder cream-colored dress with all the ruffles that she wore so often (Boomer supposed she didn't have a lot of clothes, either), but Athena was wearing something he hadn't seen before, icy-blue with a sort of severely classical line and a scarf or whatever you called it around her long throat and trailing behind her, and that dusky brown mane looking even darker against the paleness of dress and shoulders. Someone was going to be one lucky man, he thought; Starbuck already was, at least in some ways.
He looked back at Sheba and caught her looking at him. This morning he'd been trying to avoid her, but now he'd had eight centares of sleep and felt adequate to the task, so he skirted the dancers and fetched up beside her. "Hi," he said. "Want a drink?" He gestured at the glasses of nectar on the linen-draped table along the wall.
"No," she said. "Thanks."
"Where's Apollo?" he asked, hoping it sounded casual.
She shrugged. "I don't know," she answered him after a pause. "I haven't seen him since this morning, and we didn't talk then. I suppose he'll be here." The end of that tailed up into an almost question; she apparently heard it and added, "I mean, this is at least partly in his honor, isn't it?"
Boomer nodded automatically, saying without much thought involved, "I think so. Him and Starbuck. His and Starbuck's, I mean."
"Starbuck and he," she said, but it didn't sound as much like a correction as it did a contemplation.
Boomer looked at her, and saw her smile, suddenly and with great fondness. Swallowing, he braced himself and turned to follow her gaze. To his surprise, he found himself looking at Bojay and Omega, the pilot apparently trying to talk the other man into something. The pale stones and all that silver flashed off the flag lieutenant like stars in a summer sky, and the fall of his dark cape actually looked unplanned and natural. He looked like he wore it every day. Adama could carry the dress uniform off like that,too; Apollo couldn't. Remembering his wedding, Boomer thought the blue suited Apollo better than the brown he preferred, but in neither of them did he look comfortable. Standing still he was... picturesque; moving he was uncomfortable and stiff. Until now, Boomer had thought Starbuck looked at home in the archaic fashion; he remembered complaining to him at the academy: "Most of us manage to learn how handle these things, at least I hope we do, but youSagan, Bucko, you look like you were born in yours!"
Starbuck had preened himself in the dress greys of the academythe russet and gold of Starfighter dress suited him even betterand said, "Maybe I was. Anyway, I like it!" And he'd taken off the cape with a swirl that left it lying in perfect drapes across his arm.
But Starbuck looked dramatic in his, like he was in costume. Omega really looked born to it: on him the ensemble just looked like what he was wearing. On Bojay, Boomer was glad to see, it looked like a faintly uncomfortable but dashing piece of fancy dress. He wondered briefly if the on-board stores had carried enough dress uniforms to fit out all the new pilots who'd come aboard after Cimtar, not to mention after Gamoray; surely the pectorals weren't easily made in the fleet. Then he thought, uncomfortably, that they'd had enough people die in the past yahren or so with no bodies recovered to bury and no next of kin... the quartermasters had to do something with their belongings. He shook off that thought by wondering why people still said "bury", under the circumstances, and then forgot that as Bojay won his point and, taking Omega's glass and putting it down with his, led the tall man onto the floor.
As a Libran Boomer had always thought of himself as fairly open-minded, but he didn't think he'd ever seen two men dancing before, not in a mixed crowd at any rate. They were good at itnot surprising for the flag lieutenant, he supposedand perfectly decorous, and perfectly in love, and Boomer felt his throat tighten looking at them.
"Boj loves to dance," Sheba said softly. "I'm glad to see him doing it again, he hasn't in, oh, so long..." She sighed and then startled him by asking, "Would you like to dance, Boomer?"
That is not a good idea, he warned himself, trying to think of how to answer.
Before he could, she said, with a little smile that was self-directed, "Don't worry; you can lead."
Thought went out the window. "I'd follow you," he said. "I might not be very good at first, but I'd follow you."
Her smile grew larger and happier. "Thank you. I'll remember that. But you can lead; I'll follow you, too."
And so, knowing it was a bad idea, he took her hand and joined the dance.
And after only a single circuit of the floor he couldn't remember why it had seemed like a bad idea. The last time he'd held herthe only time he'd held her outside of his dreamsit had been all fire and passion, heat and hunger. This time it was different. Oh, there was hunger, yes, and desire, but mostly it was warmth and... love. It was a slow dance, a gentle one, and her eyes had closed and her head had come to rest on his shoulder as he guided them around, among the other couples, some together for the rest of their lives and some just as long as the music lasted.
He didn't know how he could ever let go of her. He didn't know why he ever should.
As the music led them slowly down a road he'd forgotten why he'd thought he shouldn't get on, the events of yesterday played again in his mind.
"Did you see that?"
"Couldn't miss it. Half the galaxy lit up," said Jolly, and his usual penchant for exaggeration had seemed only reporting this time.
"But which ship?" It was Sheba who asked the question. And it was Sheba who'd said, "They're not following," when the recall signal had come and they'd peeled off for home.
"I think they've had it," Boomer had said, but Cylon defeat was now the last thing on his mind. He said, hopefully, "Anyone pick up Apollo and Starbuck on their attack scanner?"
The silence had been like a stone on his chest. Finally Sheba had broken it to ask, "Boomer... you think"
He hadn't been able to let her put it into words. Giles could come up with that crazy Libran stuff about saying the opposite of what you want, getting the opposite of what you say: Leonids knew better. From your lips to the gods' ears... "Hey," he'd said, hoping he didn't sound like he was whistling past a graveyard, "they're probably already back, sipping a cool one in the officer's club."
But he'd known when he was saying it that there hadn't been enough time for Starbuck and Apollo to have executed the mission and beaten them back, no way the Galactica could have won so quickly if they hadn't executed the mission, and, with a one-centon delay on the solenite, all too probably no way they'd gotten clear. And he'd known, too, that someone would have told them if they had...
He'd taken advantage of temporary rank to leave Bojay and Dietra in charge in the landing bays and he and Sheba had gone straight to the bridge. By the time they got there the red lights were off and most of the fires were out, but neither of them had paid any attention to that. They'd headed straight for the commander, who'd told them, "Nothing... not a sign of them. We've had a number of Cylon fighters making suicide runs at us, but none transmitting the identification signal."
Cassie had been there, looked harassed, but it was Sheba who had asked the question they'd all been thinking. "What if they never got off the base star? What if"
She sounded scared. Boomer almost said something, but before he could, Omega, sounding entirely too calm (but then, Bojay was safe on board)(and that's not fair, Boomer, he always sounds like that), interrupted. "Commander, another Cylon fighter approaching."
When he'd seen the Raider waggling its wings, he'd been too stunned to say anything at once. Fortunately, he'd managed to get it out between Adama's order to fire and the execution of that order. "No! Don't fire! It's them!"
"How can you know?" Adama had asked.
"He's waggling!" Thank God for you, Starbuck. Thank all the gods for you. He'd gripped the display and stared at it, at Starbuck and Apollo coming home, and all he'd been able to think was, why didn't it work?
As soon as he'd heard Omega directing the Raider to Landing Bay Beta he and Sheba and Cassie had been off for the turbolift. They'd ridden to the bay in a silence he'd barely noticed at the time, preoccupied as he was with that thought: why didn't it work? It should have worked. It worked when I tested it, why didn't it work?
In publicdozens of pilots, more mechs, a handful of medicsthe reunion had been muted. Well, Sheba and Apollo's had been; Cassie had hugged a grinning Starbuck and been hugged back, but then she'd said, "I have to go, I shouldn't have been away this long anyhow," and run off to join Dr Paye's team as they got ready to transport two injured mechs. Boomer had taken advantage of Starbuck's bereft condition to grab his arm and say, "Why didn't it work?"
"Good to see you, too, Boom-Boom, and I thought it did. Big explosion, base star goes bye-bye, wasn't that the plan?"
"Yeah, good job and I'm glad as hell you're back, but the transmitter, Starbuck. Why didn't it work?"
"Oh, that." Starbuck had grinned and gestured at Apollo, who'd come over to slap Boomer's shoulder. "Captain Clumsy here dropped it down the core. It was probably working all right till then, but if it survived hitting the deck I doubt the explosions did it any good. But hey, we didn't need it anyway."
"Thanks to your memory," Apollo had said. "I got to tell you, I was not at all sure that was going to work."
And then the commander had shown up and Apollo and Starbuck had gone to talk to him, and then Dietra and then other pilots had swarmed around, and Boomer had been able to disappear. He'd gone back to the Wing, where he'd found that the colonel had set the debrief for the morning, 0900very considerate of him, Boomer had thought. He'd called the bays to pass the word to Dietra and Bojay, telling the latter that yes, that meant he didn't want to see them either, and then he'd gone to the barracks. He might have stuck around the office, figuring to be alone, except that he heard Sheba's voice talking to the duty NCO and realized she planned on pulling Silver Spar's nominal duty herself.
And he hadn't wanted to find out why, so he'd ducked out before she saw him... And then in the barracks he'd heard that Wilker's lab had been hit, and Wilker himself injured. There goes Apollo's recording. He'd remembered Apollo, all day, going on about it. From his point of view, it hadn't been much to get excited about even if it wasn't a harmonic from the solar system where the Cylons had been sitting, like a giant crawlon, just waiting for them to follow the lure. But Apollo had been convincedno, convinced was much too strong a word. Apollo had hoped, still hoped, that it was a primary signal, a transmission faded by age and distance, from some unknown people.
No. Boomer knew what Apollo was hoping. The line of transmission was close enough to identical with the course the fleet had been holding since the Light Ship. The course to Earth. Apollo was hoping this signal was from Earth.
Of course, as he'd told Apollo, to be so weak it had to have been travelling a long time. A hundred yahrens, Starbuck had guessed. Or ten thousand, Boomer had countered. There's no way to tell how long that signal's been travelling through space. What good would it do them to find out Earth was, at light speed, even just a hundred yahrens away?
Well... Okay. A hundred lightyahrens, depending on the systems that lay between here and there, that might actually be doable. Even two or three hundred could be doable, though with the fleet it would take a long time, a very long time. Apollo would be a grandfather by then, best case. If it was further than that, his grandchildren would be grandparents. And if it was really intergalatic, literally inter-galatic, then they had no hope.
But since there wasn't any way to tell how far away it was... Assuming it hadn't been a harmonic, and assuming that even if it was a primary frequency it hadn't been rebroadcast by the Cylons, and given their presence right there Boomer found either of those alternatives extremely unlikely, and assuming they'd ever find it again...
He had sighed. They never would with the equipment up there in the Dome, not unless they crossed it again. And without Wilker's lab equipment, even if they found it they couldn't do anything with it, not as weak as it was.
So he'd changed into civvies instead of just crawling into his bunk, and he'd gone over to the Star looking for a guy he knew who could find someone to sell him parts to build an amplifier. And he'd stayed up all night building it.
But that had been last night. This was tonight. And he'd had a good nine centares' sleep, and he was standing here in a dress uniform, looking at Sheba, no, holding her, and quite suddenly everything that had happened yesterday looked very different to him. Things that he hadn't thought about now loomed large and inescapable, and for the first time in his life...
The music stopped. He stopped with it, but for a long centon Sheba didn't open or eyes or move her head, just standing there leaning against him. When she did move, it was to lean back and look up at him, not so very much shorter than him, only a tilt of her head to bring her mouth to his... He blinked at the remembered kiss and heard himself say, "I love you, Sheba."
"What did you say?" It wasn't indignant, or incredulous, it was a real question.
"I love you."
She was quiet, looking at him.
"I can't..." he swallowed. "I can't not say this, Sheba. I love you. Apollo doesn't. Or not as much as I do, anyway. You'll always be second with him. He's not even here, Sheba. He's not even here. Where is he?" He didn't wait for an answer. "I'm his friend, maybe I shouldn't be saying this to you, but I can't not. You'll always be second with him. You'll always be first with me."
She didn't say anything, just kept standing there looking at him. He could tell she was thinking, but he couldn't tell what. He didn't know what to do; he couldn't think of anything else to say. This wasn't anything like anything he'd ever done, or dreamed of doing, in his entire life. He looked at her and wondered what his next move should be. If he were a vid hero he would sweep her into a crushing embrace, kissing her with a fierce passion that would turn her bones into water... He didn't see himself doing that any time in the next, oh, century. The problem was, he couldn't see himself doing anything. It was, he realized, her move.
She didn't say anything for a long moment, and when she did, her voice was abstracted. "First..." She shook her head, sharply, and said, "Do you want to kiss me, Boomer?"
"More than anything." Then, as he realized, "Oh."
Her lips were soft on his. Her hands slid up his chest, pushed his cape off his shoulders; one of them was warm on the side of his neck. Her mouth opened, inviting him in, and he felt her hair in his fingers, heard the metallic rustle of their pectorals coming together, felt the smooth suede of her cloak under his other hand... Maybe her bones weren't turning to water but he wasn't so sure about his.
"Yes," she breathed against his throat. "That's what I wanted to feel."
He wasn't sure what she meant, but it sounded encouraging. "I love you, Sheba," he said again, resting his cheek on her honey-colored hair. "I love you."
She tilted her head and looked into his eyes. After a moment she smiled and he felt himself smiling back, wide and happy. "Would you like to get a drink after this is over? Or," he tried to remember what schedules they were on and found it harder than it should be, "maybe dinner tomorrow before you go on duty?"
She laughed softly, but not at him, he realized. "Oh, Boomer," she said. "I love you."
And then he saw, over her head, Apollo making his way towards them along the edge of the floor. She must have caught the change in his expression because she turned. "Oh, dear."
It was so inadequate he had to laugh. "I'll talk to him," he said, but she caught his arm.
"No. I will."
"Dear Boomer." She looked at him. "I can fight my own battles. And anyway, I think you're right. He doesn't love me. This won't be a battle, just a covering action. He'll probably even be glad when he thinks about it."
"To lose you?"
Her smile was a bit wistful. "I don't think he ever wanted me, Boomer." The smile grew more certain. "Not like you do. I'll talk to him."
"I won't be far away," he promised, and watched her walk towards Apollo. Of all the times for you to choose to show up, he thought, why now? And then, because he was an honest man, he added, But I'm glad it wasn't ten centons earlier.
Apollo had gone up to the Dome as soon as he could get away from the Wing. Because of the celebration that evening, he'd arranged for Boxey to spend the night with his friend Ran, and the boy, who had at breakfast seemed his usually blithe and bouncy self, had gone there right after eating. Apollo wasn't looking forward to payback in two Seventhdays, but he supposed it was all part of being a parent. Besides, Boxey loved spending time with Ran.
Sometimes he wondered what they could find to get up to for two days. "You know, stuff," Boxey's usual answer, was not particularly helpful. When he'd been Boxey's age, he'd had friends (despite the rumors), but he had never particularly wanted to spend several days with any of them. He'd never understood how Zac and Athena could apparently not run out of activities over the course of a winter's break, let alone the whole of a summer, how they didn't get bored with each other, drive each other mad. Well, madder. He'd asked Zac once, and his brother had looked at him like he was more than usually out of touch. "Bored? With Fee?" Apollo had lived in a certain degree of fear for a secton or so that Zac would tell her "Pol thinks you're boring!", but if he had, she'd decided to rise above it.
But the promise of a weekend with Ran kept Boxey on good behavior for a couple of days at a time, so Apollo was in favor of it. And much as he loved his son, the knowledge that his quarters would be empty when he got home was sometimes very soothing, especially since Boxey was just one level down.
And today it had meant he could come right up here and look at the scanner to see if they'd intercepted that signal again. With the amplifier Boomer had made (even if he did think it was a harmonic), if the originators again transmitted (had transmitted again however long ago) something from along their course they'd pick it up. Even though he knew, intellectually, it could take sectons before the ship that had sent that signal on its outbound journey, or one like it, again happened to be in the right spot, nonetheless he'd hoped they'd pick it up right away. But by the time Starbuck came to gently remind him that he had other places to be, he hadn't seen or heard so much as a whisper. Not that that had stopped him from staying up there for two and a half centares, looking and listening...
But Starbuck was right. Sitting up here looking at the scanner wasn't going to find Earth any sooner. It was just a way to hide from the bad decisions he'd made lately.
With one last look behind him at the now-darkened Dome, Apollo started down the ladder, but he should have kept his eyes on where he was putting his feet. His toe touched the rung, and then slipped off, and he was reaching up for the hatch instead of holding on. He felt himself start to fall; it was a long way down and he might hit Starbuck—a strong arm caught him and shoved him back onto the ladder before the thought could fully form.
Starbuck cut him off before he could think of how to say it. "You're the only guy I know who would fall out of the hand of God."
And it was just like Starbuck to remember that corny and embarrassingly revealing sentiment, and make fun of it, and wait till no one else was around before he did, and do it to defuse a potentially awkward situation. Apollo smiled at the top of his friend's head as they made their way down the ladder. "They really going to give us a medal?" he asked, keeping the moment light the way Starbuck wanted it.
"Did I say us? I think they're just decorating me."
He laughed and then the noise got loud enough they had to put on the hearing protectors. He climbed on down in the muffled silence and wondered what Sheba was going to say when he saw her tonight. She hadn't said much yesterday before going on duty and she hadn't said much this morning, but after what had happened in the Raider...
"Do you ever think about getting Sealed?"
"Now and then."
"Now and then... Or then and then, Apollo, now's not really the moment, is it?"
He shook his head. It never was the moment, that was the problem. Or it always was. Depended on what it was the moment for.
There had been a moment yesterday when he'd thought they were both going to die. Starbuck was hightailing it towards the Raider bay, and Apollo was following him, because how could he not, but he'd been aware there was no way for them to approach the Galactica without being taken for a Cylon. The odds were very good they'd be cut down by a Viper before they got very far, anyway. But as Starbuck climbed into the first Raider they came to, Apollo followed him, his imagination running far ahead: one of the other two planets was habitable, and Starbuck was planning on heading there to wait out the battle, but of course they'd have no way to contact the battlestar afterwards, and they'd have to hope that someone would come looking even though there'd be no reason to... they'd have to hope... And then, as usual, his fantasies collided with reality.
"Let's get out of sight and out of range. As soon as things quiet down," Starbuck said, "we can go home."
"We don't have the transmitter," Apollo pointed out.
"We don't need that electronic felgercarb." Starbuck looked back at him. "Oh, come on, Apollo: you ever known Boomer to forget something important?"
"What are you talking about?"
"We'll just waggle our wings..."
And Boomer had remembered, and so here they were, back home. And what had been the most worrisome about that particular fantasy was its choosing to rear its head while he was working... if you could call running for his life working, but it certainly hadn't been off-duty.
He knew why, of course. Starbuck had been vague but not dismissive of his talk with Cassiopeia. And as for his own talk with Sheba, well, they hadn't set a date but they'd certainly taken a long step closer to that. He'd avoided her yesterday, and this morning she'd disappeared while he was talking to Boomer, but they'd have to talk again soon. Knowing women, tonight would be a perfect time.
And he had no one to blame but himself. Oh, she'd kissed him, but he'd led her to believe he wanted to. Else why would she have? After all, and he glanced reflexively between his feet at the tawny head beneath him, sex was supposed to be part of a lifetime commitment, not an evening's entertainment.
Of course, that was a minefield that just got harder to negotiate the longer he knew Starbuck. He'd been able to start out thinking that it was simply a matter of class differences in mores (even back then he'd avoided the word "morals"), but the final blow to that had been dealt when Starbuck started dating Athena. Apollo had been able to pretend for a while, but it had become fairly clear that his sister was sleeping with Starbuck (as who wouldn't, given the opportunity? he admitted in the dark of the night), and, well, he knew Starbuck slept with Cassiopeia and he was sure Athena had slept with Boomer, and, well...
But he and Sheba weren't. Yet. He sighed to himself. Maybe if they were he wouldn't be spending so much time wondering about... things.
They reached the bottom of the ladder and Apollo pulled off his ear protectors. "What's that?" he asked as Starbuck pulled an overnight bag out of the locker he'd tossed his own gear into.
"May I remind you Tigh said 'dress uniform'?" He held out a fresh tunic. "Go ahead and change."
"You're not," Apollo protested even as he watched Starbuck untuck his tunic.
Starbuck pulled the broad dress belt out of the bag. "You think I'm wearing it up there? Centuries of dust and engine grime?"
"It's not dirty up there. What am I supposed to do with my jacket? And my blaster?"
Starbuck brought out a carefully folded cape, shook it out and laid it over the low bench. "Put them in the bag and leave 'em here. Or if you're paranoid about it, take it with you and send some private with it to the NCOD. You are not," he looked up after straightening his pectoral, "getting within a hundred and forty-four metrons of your quarters."
"Why not?" Apollo asked, feigning indignation but taking off his jacket.
"Because, if you do you'll suddenly decide you have to take a turbowash. And then you might as well eat something. And check on Boxey..." Starbuck shook his head, crossing his arms and staring Apollo down. "Just dress."
"What about my cape and pectoral? Oh," he added as he reached to put his blaster in the bag and found the items in question lying there.
"I do have your keycode."
"I should change that."
Starbuck snickered. "You'd tell me inside a secton, you know you would."
"I suppose." Apollo put on his pectoral and, inevitably, Starbuck stepped forward and adjusted it. "Thanks."
"No problem. Come on."
"There will be food there?" Apollo asked as they set off.
"Of course there will."
"Starbuck?" he said as they waited for a turbolift.
"Did you know Athena was flit?" That hadn't been what he'd intended to say, but at the last micron he'd changed it. Will you be my best man if I get married again? sounded like he might not, and when sounded like he'd set a date and if Starbuck asked and he said he didn't know, Starbuck would probably decide to help him, and the truth was, he liked things the way they were. And Athena's confession (that probably wasn't the right word but he wasn't sure what was) had been on his mind, so...
"What? No." Starbuck blinked. "Was?"
"No... I didn't. Believe me, I didn't."
The door opened and they got inside. "She told me, a couple of sectons ago."
"Huh." Starbuck was quiet a moment, and then said, "Well, that explains Boom-Boom. Explains a lot, really. Good thing the regs got changed; I don't see your sister being content with hiding it."
"Like Omega, you mean?" That still startled Apollo.
"Him I guessed. I mean," Starbuck elaborated, "nobody? For all those yahrens? Like Boj."
"Oh, Sagan, you knew, too? Am I the only one who didn't?"
"I doubt it. I knew Boj before he left the Galactica, you know. Before you got here, or Boomer. We were pretty close, and, well, I figured it out. I doubt you ever had the opportunity."
Opportunity. Apollo stared at Starbuck. What exactly do you mean, 'had the opportunity'? He steadied himself. Observation. That's what he means. Or maybe Bojay made a pass at him, that would be reasonable enough. That's all. He doesn't mean... he couldn't mean...
"But I don't see Athena content to keep a lover tucked away at your all's place on Naiacap," Starbuck was continuing obliviously.
"Well, Caprica City is a bit close to public, isn't it? I mean, you might as well take out an announcement in the Times' Herald as live in Caprica City, if you're the daughter of Commander Adama anyway." The door opened and Apollo could hear the music already. "I think they started without us. I told you we were late."
"Think they had the presentation already?"
Starbuck laughed. "Come on, you're a hero of the Colonies. This is not a new experience for you."
"No," Apollo said. "I know exactly how much I'm going to hate it." But he followed Starbuck into the Main Hall.
Inside, he fielded greetings and congratulations and looked around.
"Settle down," Starbuck said. "Let's get a drink. You know Tigh won't even show up till 2050."
As they made their way to the buffet, Apollo became aware that something on the other side of the room was drawing a lot of attention. Half out of curiosity and half because he was the Strike Captain, he made his way toward the edge of the dance floor, hoping it wasn't going to be something he was going to have do something about.
Maybe that step hadn't been as large as he'd been thinking, he thought detachedly as he watched Boomer and Sheba standing, close together, very close together. Holding each other, in fact. No. Not very large at all. Or not in the right direction, he thought, still detachedly, as Boomer bent his head to hers. Or... maybe in the right direction after all.
Behind him he heard Starbuck murmur, "Oh, Boom-Boom." He sounded sad, or betrayed. In that moment it struck Apollo as very ironic, if not downright hilarious, Starbuck's sounding that way, because he himself didn't feel either way. He felt... confused. Too relieved and a little wistful more than sad, and envious. Not jealous, he knew what that felt like and it didn't feel like this. Envious. He did feel envious...
"I'll get Boomer," Starbuck said.
"No, Starbuck, no" Apollo grabbed his arm. As those blue eyes turned to him, widened with surprise and concern, Apollo realized that this would have happened a long time ago if it hadn't been for Starbuck, always pushing him back to Sheba when he was drifting away or maybe just letting her drift. Whichever, as far back as the night of the fire, Starbuck had been there, prodding and nudging and generally managing his life, making sure he never left Sheba alone too long, 'call her, take her to dinner, aplogize...'
Well, Starbuck couldn't fix it this time, and Apollo really didn't want him to. He didn't know how to explain that to Starbuck, but then he realized he wouldn't have to, not just yet.
"Starbuck, I can talk to them without you guarding my back. And you don't have time to worry about me, anyway."
"What do you mean?" Starbuck asked warily.
"That looks like your trouble headed this way," Apollo gestured with his chin.
Starbuck turned to see Cassiopeia striding in their direction. "Oh, man," he said.
"Come on," Apollo said, feeling strangely exhilarated. "Stand firm. You're a proven hero of the Colonies, three Gold Clusters"
"Four," Starbuck corrected him automatically.
"Four. Surely a mere civilian medtech can't get the best of you."
"Ha, ha," Starbuck said mirthlessly.
Cassiopeia stopped in front of them.
"Hi, Cass. You look lovely. Not to mention like there's something on your mind."
"There is," she said. "Come with me, please, Starbuck. There's something I have to tell you."
"See you later," Apollo said, abandoning him to his fate. He started walking around the floor towards Sheba and Boomer, and realized that Sheba was walking towards him. He looked past her and saw Boomer, and the expression on his friend's face told him all he needed to know.
No... it was his reaction to that expression that told him. Because he was, he realized, glad. And relieved. And thankful, especially thankful that he hadn't married her as quickly as he'd once wanted to, that she hadn't responded like Serina had, that they weren't tied together by anything more irrevocable than... He missed a step as he realized they weren't tied together at all. One kiss, and one "we've been avoiding our real feelings." Everything else, everything else, was inside his mind.
She'd said to him yesterday, she was glad he'd taken her into his circle of friends, and that's what he'd done. He liked her well enough. But even while he was answering her he'd known that he was lying, telling her what she wanted to hear. He was good at that, telling people what they wanted to hear. Only lately had it begun to occur to him he was also good at making what they wanted to hear what he wanted to say... "People who snap at each other are hiding their real feelings..." But he'd known then that while it was true, it was also a lie. It didn't mean what she thought it did.
His real feeling for her was your basic indifference. Your basic 'Sheba? She's all right.' He sighed. He did like Sheba, he was glad she was his friend, but... that was as far as it went.
And Boomer was one of his best friends ever.
And he was so happy for the two of them, and for himself, he could have shouted in joy if there hadn't been a crowd present, many of whom, he realized, were watching him rather avidly. So when he and Sheba met he smiled at her and bent to kiss her cheek, evidently the last thing she expected. She didn't move, just stared at him. "Congratulations," he said.
"Apollo?" And then she thought she understood. "We should go outside and talk."
"No need," he said. "I mean it. I really do."
A look of confusion crossed her pretty face. "Yesterday"
"Yesterday," he said, aware of the terrible irony as he once again said what someone wanted to hear. At least this time it was true. "Yesterday I think we both knew that it wasn't right. Wasn't real. Wasn't even enough to be 'it', really. Didn't we?"
She paused, biting her lower lip in a way he now thought was kind of cute. "Yes," she said finally. "We did. I didn't want to, but you're right."
He smiled at her. "I didn't want to, either, but it's a good thing, isn't it?"
"I tried to love you," she said, her brown eyes soft with sadness, but without regret. "I did, Apollo, I really did. But"
"I know, Sheba," he said. "I think you tried harder than I did. No, I know it. You're not right about Serina, but you are right about the rest of it. And I'm sorry. But it doesn't look like you and Boomer have to try. So I wish you both all the best." He raised his voice, looking over her shoulder. "Boomer, come here. Stop skulking."
Boomer did, looking shamefaced. "Apollo"
Apollo shook his head decisively. "No apologies, Boomer. You'd better not be sorry you've got her."
Boomer looked at her involuntarily, smiling. "I'm not," he said definitely. Then he looked back at Apollo and sobered. "I'm sorry if you're hurt, though. That's..." he shook his head.
"I know, Boomer," Apollo said, and put his hand on the dark man's shoulder, squeezing it just for a moment. "I know. But look, the fact is that if she was in love with me she wouldn't have fallen for you. But she did. And anyway," he looked at Sheba, "we never had any promises between us. Just possibilities. You two," he looked back at Boomer, "are a sure thing."
Boomer put his hand on Apollo's forearm. "You sure you're okay with this?"
"Boomer, I'm sure. Sheba and I just never clicked. We wouldn't have lasted long if there hadn't been you." Or else we'd have gotten married and been miserable. "You two are much better suited, and I'm glad for you."
Boomer smiled in relief. "Thanks, Apollo. The one thing I didn't like about this was cutting you out."
Apollo shrugged. "The better man won. And I was so much not the right one," he smiled ruefully at Sheba, "I wasn't ever in the running. I'm okay with it." You have no idea how okay.
Sheba rose on her toes and returned his kiss. "I hope you find the right person, Apollo. You really are a wonderful man, and you deserve to be happy."
"Thanks." He made a little shooing motion. "You two kids run along and enjoy yourselves."
Chuckling, they did, holding hands like the schoolkids he'd acted like they were. He watched them go and ignored the ripples of conversation running through the crowd. He wouldn't have given them a show if he'd been angry or jealous, but the truth was, the only thing he'd said that wasn't true had been that they wouldn't have lasted long, and that was only a lie if Sheba had gone along with it. Which, he figured, she almost certainly wouldn't have. No, the truth was, he was glad. He was even gladder that he'd have an excuse to just stay home for a while.
And considering that he was glad, and relieved, and lucky, and free... why did he feel so alone?
Starbuck followed Cass into one of the small rooms and watched as she locked the door. She was either going to yell at him or jump him, and he thought he knew which. "Whatever I did," he said lightly, "can I apologize for it? Was I supposed to look you up last night? I thought you'd be tired."
"You weren't," she said. "Though I tried to find you, to tell you this then. I couldn't; you weren't in the barracks and nobody seemed to know where you were."
"I was at the O Club," he said, revising his guess. This was going to be bad news.
"Were you? They said you weren't when I called." That was not an accusation.
Oh, man... This is not going to be good at all. "I guess I told them I didn't want to be interrupted. I didn't think you'd be calling."
"I know. But something happened and I have to tell you."
"Remember what I said about that once?" If she'd had it off with Paye or somebody, he just didn't want to know.
She paused. "Yes," she said after a moment. "I do. But this isn't something I can not tell you; it's not something you don't have to know." She looked down at her hands; his gaze following hers saw that she'd clasped them together; her fingertips were wrinkling the skin and her knuckles were white.
She's dumping me, he thought suddenly. And she's worried about me, how I'm going to take it. He reached out and untangled her fingers and held one of her hands gently in his. "Relax, Cass; just tell me what it is."
"Athena thought I should wait to talk to you until later, after this" her gesture encompassed the whole of the Main Hall "was over. I thought, I think, I shouldn't. I've never lied to you yet, and if I let you spend the whole evening thinking ...
"You're probably right," he said quietly. "I like to know where I stand."
"And there isn't any good way to tell you this. It's going to hurt you no matter when you hear it. I hope it's not going to hurt you a lot, but I know it is going to at least some. And I'm sorry for that, I really am, Starbuck. I'm so very fond of you and I don't want to hurt you."
"Don't worry about that," he said. "I'm a big boy and I don't get hurt that easily. If you have to tell me whatever it is, just tell me." He wasn't sure why he was trying to make it easier on her, except that she looked unhappy, and he'd always had the urge to stop Cass from looking like she wanted to cry. And that was without going into what a sucker he was for actual tears.
She looked at him for a moment. "I'm in love. With Athena."
Which explained why she'd been giving Cass advice on how to break the news, he thought. "And she's in love with you?" Good thing Apollo had mentioned it.
"Yes. She told me yesterday, she didn't know how I felt but she didn't want us to die without her having said it..."
"Lucky," he said.
"Starbuck, I'm sorry. But, I love her. I have for the longest time"
"We're more alike than you think," he remembered her saying once. "And," he shook his head. "At last I understand that steam purge! I knew it wasn't me."
She smiled at him. "I'm sure you're right." The smile faded. "Starbuck, I'm sorry," she said again.
"Not really you're not," he said. "And you shouldn't be."
"But I am," she said. "Not about me and Athena, of course not. I'm so happy about that I can't see clearly. Except you. I can see you, and I hate leaving you alone. Where are you going to go now?"
"I'll find somewhere," he said. "Cass, sweetheart, I got along fine for nearly thirty yahrens before I met you."
"I did. Besides, there's nothing you can do about it. 'We're good the way we are, since everything else is the way it is.' That's what we always said to each other, Cass. And everything isn't the way it was, not now. So we're not good the way we are. I'd have left you if the chance had come up, and you know it. So don't feel guilty about your chance. Grab it and don't let go."
She smiled at him. "You're such a darling," she said. "I wish I thought you meant it. Oh, not about me not feeling guilty; I know you mean that. I mean about being okay."
He hesitated. "Well, you're right, of course. I'm lying. Except since you know I am... But I will be okay, and it's not your fault. If you didn't go with her, if you stayed with me, I'd know it soon enough, how you felt, and then we'd both be unhappy. No point in that. It's been fun" he broke off. "No, it's been better than that. But it wasn't meant to last. Don't worry about me."
"I will, though," she said. "We both will."
"That's because you're a darling," he said. "Athena's one lucky woman, and I hope she knows it. Are you going to move in?"
"Probably," she said. "We have to tell her father, I insisted you be the first to know, and I'm a bit nervous about that."
Starbuck had wondered about that himself. Lords knew Adama liked Cassie at his side during his dinners, but he wasn't sure if the commander would think her worthy of his daughter instead of his son's slightly disreputable, decidedly lower-class friend... But Adama could fool you. He had a way of dismissing the surface and going for the depths, the commander, look at how he'd taken Starbuck in in the first place. Going with his instinct about the man, not the Sire, he said now, "Don't be. Adama likes you, a lot, and who doesn't want a doctor in the family?"
She hugged him. He rested his cheek on her shining hair and swallowed the lump in his throat. He was going to miss her, and badly...
"Starbuck..." She pulled away and looked up at him, her lapis eyes luminous with compassion. "You can use my quarters tonight if you want."
A reluctant smile tugged at his lips. "I just might," he said. "Thanks, Cass. Be happy."
"I am," she said. "I just wish you were."
He shrugged, already putting on his chosen attitude. "Some things happen, Cass. Some things don't. I'll be okay."
She paused at the door, and then visibly reconsidered what she'd been going to say. He was glad; they were still friends, but the rules were different now. They might even end up lying to each other some day. "Coming?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Go on. I'll be right behind you."
"Thanks, Starbuck. And if you ever want someone to talk to..."
He nodded and watched the door shut behind her. All those sectares ago, he'd been right. It did hurt to get out of the way and let her go. He didn't have a choice, but that didn't mean it didn't still hurt...
He'd turned away from the door, staring at the wall; now he looked back and saw Athena, straight and pale in a dress the color of her eyes, distant stars, shadows on snow, and the heart of a flame... Cassie could make her let loose that passion she kept on that tight Adaman leash. He heard himself laugh once.
"What?" she demanded, distracted by it.
"I wouldn't say this to Cass for the worlds," he said, "but you two? I'd pay good money to see it."
For a micron she hung between insult and amusement, and then she laughed out loud. "I'll bet you would. But keep your cubits in your pocket, flyboy."
"You mean you won't charge?" he asked in quasi-hopefulness.
"You," she said, shaking her head, and then she plummeted to serious. "Thank you for not fighting with her."
"I wouldn't have won," he admitted. "What would have been the point?"
"No," she agreed. "You wouldn't have." And if he hadn't known it before it was clear now: any wavering he might have been able to induce in Cass would have been wiped out by Athena, who'd have gone straight over his bleeding body to get what she wanted. "But you could have made her sad, and you didn't."
"And what would have been the point in that? I like her too much."
"I know. But you don't love her. And I do."
"I know. She's happy. Keep her that way, Theni."
"I'll do my damnedest," she promised. "I just wish there was something I could do for you."
"There isn't," he said quickly.
"Sheba's just dumped him," she said. "His own fault, but still, you'll never have a better moment. Why don't you tell him?"
"Again?" He shook his head. "We're good the way we are, Theni."
She cocked her head. "Is 'good' good enough?"
"It's better than 'bad'. Leave it alone, Theni. I'll be fine."
She looked at him for a long moment, and then sighed. "I suppose so. I told him once you must like it or you'd change it. It's not my style, but then, you and I are not very much alike, are we?"
"No, we're not."
"So I probably shouldn't chivvy you out, make you stop hiding?"
"No. I'll be fine, Theni, really. Just give me a couple of centons."
"I hope so. I really do. I like you. Besides," she added, "the colonel's here. I think you and Apollo are going to be called front and center any centon now."
"Great... I'll be there."
"I'll go distract my brother, then, shall I?" She smiled briefly. "My news ought to do it."
She hesitated a moment longer, and then smiled and left. And he was glad Cass was in such good hands, but it still hurt. He let it for another centon, and then pushed it aside for later. He had to think what to say to Apollo, who was going to be hurt if Sheba had really dumped him. He'd been in love...
Not to mention Boomer.
He blew out a sigh. And the commander, and everybody in the squadron... Well, best start by not being late for your own celebration. He took a deep breath and opened the door.
|Prolog||Chap 1||Chap 2||Chap 3||Chap 4||Chap 5.1|
|Chap 5.2||Chap 6.1||Chap 6.2||Chap 7.1||Chap 7.2||Epilog|
|Autumn Afternoon | Ilya's Wedding | Something... | Last Corner | Morgans|
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