Starbuck woke up. The alarm hadn't gone off yet; he was still on Blue Squadron time. As part of Colonel Tigh's staff, he'd be on different centares... it would be hard to get used to after so long. But he was nothing if not adaptable. Landed on his feet every time.
Beside him, Omega was still asleep. Starbuck propped himself on one elbow and watched him for a few centons. This was the seventh morning he'd woken up next to Omega.... no, fifth, because he had spent that one night back in the barracks. Still, five in a row. Some kind of record.
Yep, he'd definitely landed on his feet. He could certainly think of a lot of people Apollo might have caught him in bed with who wouldn't have offered to let him move in. Hell, most of them wouldn't have let him come back, considering the way Apollo had been carrying on. Let alone say "You should stay."
It was just too bad they didn't really love each other. This could have been paradise, instead of ... whatever it was. An interlude? A passing flingno, not that. A deeper than usual friendship?
Omega made a small sound in his sleep; Starbuck reached out and stroked his shoulder, gentling him to a better dream. He trailed his fingertips along the straight, old scar the bridge officer carried from the destruction of the Hesperian Dream in what turned out to be the penultimate battle between the Colonies as a genuine political entity and the Cylons. He had broken his shoulder blade, but Starbuck knew he'd stayed on his feet, running the bridge, been on the last escape shuttle off the dying frigate. He'd heard the whole story from Athena, who'd gotten it from Rigel, who'd been on the Hesper too. Omega had never spoken of it, not even when drunk, though once when he'd been completely, totally smashed, he had told Starbuck about the death of the Sanguine Expectation, his first ship... He had met Clementia on the old Sang, thought he'd lost her in the battle, found her again in the life center on the Atlantia, which had picked up the Sang's survivors, and been sealed to her within the secton. An almost excessively romantic story, including her resigning her commission when she became pregnant, and settling down on Caprica to raise handsome dark-haired children in a small (Starbuck had always wondered just what that word had meant to Omega) house on his family's property on the island of Natacapra.
And, of course, ending in the death of every single person on the island. Which pretty much did in the romance aspect of it.
Starbuck sighed to himself. What was this? How about two desperately lonely people who'd lucked into finding each other?
He could still remember vividly the first time he'd seen Omega. Not the flag-lieutenant, ICOB, no; who knew when that had been? But the man... it had been the night that Apollo had announced he was getting sealed to Serina. And Starbuck had drunk the toasts, said the words, avoided Serina insofar as that was possible (she'd helped, she hated him as much as he hated her, which wasn't anything like as much as he hated Sheba, but there was just that extra Shebaness factored in there...), and then high-tailed it to the Rising Star's lower decks at the first opportunity. He'd planned on getting pretty drunk and picked up by somebody lean and dark and hanging on the edge of rough. Angry sex, that's what he'd been looking for.
What he'd found was somebody in worse trouble than him.
It had only taken one look from across the bar, one meeting those dark eyes, like the Abyss, and Starbuck had found himself sitting next to the flag-lieutenant, buying him a drink and coming to the realization that this man more than half intended not to survive the night. That had shaken Starbuck, shaken him very badly. No matter what life had thrown at himand it had thrown a bargeloadhe'd never wanted to die. Not seriously. There had been moments when he hadn't much cared whether he lived or not, but not even in those last yahrens before he'd escaped into the military had he wanted to die. Kill, yes; die, no.
His first reaction had, surprising him, been to want to take care of the man. The burden of grief he was carrying had obviously broken him, at least for the moment, and Starbuck had found himself feeling compassion rather than disdain. Impulsively, he'd bought another bottle and a room, and listened to him talk about his dead daughterthe full catalog of Omega's losses had come only over time. They had both gotten fairly drunk, and when they'd had sex it hadn't been angry or destructive, it had been desperate...
And out of that Starbuck and Omega had become friends. They were so dissimilar it wasn't funny, but maybe that had helped. Neither of them had anything left outside the confines of this scarred old warship. Starbuck never had had anything, and the only people he'd lost that he cared about were Zac and Adama's kind and loving wife, Ila. Omega, on the other hand, had lost more people than Starbuck had ever had, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, nieces, nephews... wife, children; and he'd been bred to money and power. But here on the Galactica they met as equals: warriors, lieutenants, lonely men, neither of them putting much stock in the Kobolian Way, or the emphasis on bloodlines and family, except for the ties of love, whatever the source of that disillusionment.
The nature of their companionship had pretty much meant they didn't hang out with others, at least not as a pair. And certainly not as a couple; when they hit the Rising Star together they had, at least at the beginning of their friendship, ended up with a couple of women. They might go two or three sectons without seeing each other at first, though before many sectares were passed they were spending a regular night every secton together, not necessarily ending up in bed with each otherboth of them liked women as well. In fact, Starbuck suspected Omega liked women more than men but less than him; it was his wife's being dead that had put that spin onto his sex life to begin with, but then both of them had learned to take pleasure where it offered itself. The need to conform grew less with every sectare, and the satisfaction of being with someone they cared for grew greater. By that fateful nightwhich sounds like a very bad novel, Starbuck reflected, probably the only kind my life could be made into, thoughit had been almost a yahren since either of them had gone to bed with another man.
Even though that had started, for Omega anyway, as a way to get through what Starbuck called "Those Days"days like last secton's birthday of his son, or his daughter's the night they'd met, or the twins', or his wife's, or any of the dozen or so days that his family had celebrated with such joy... Starbuck helped Omega make it past those memories, and Omega helped Starbuck make it through his own bad times.
Like Apollo's marriagebecause Omega was the only one who knew Starbuck's deepest, most unrealizable dreamor the way he'd yearned to help Apollo through his grieving, or when Shebabecause Adama knew her familyhad slipped without effort into the place Starbuck had hungered for for yahrens. Or when his hopes of making a good second best with Cassie had fallen throughbeen turned into free hydrogen in space, more likehe wasn't even good enough for a socialator... Omega had held him, made love to himfierce and, later, gentleand had even, as Starbuck had discovered later, called in sick for two shifts to stay with him.
There were plenty of times Starbuck wished he could just let go and fall in love. But he didn't seem to be able to shake Apollo.
He smiled unhappily to himself. He'd maybe succeeded this time. Sure as Cylons, Apollo had shaken him. So maybe this wasn't capital-L Love. It was shaping up to be as close as he was going to get. And it was definitely, most definitely, capital-G Good... Don't be so damned greedy, Starbuck, he chastised himself. Don't change your strategies now. Take what you can get and be grateful to the universe for its really not so small favors.
He leaned over and kissed Omega's shoulder, gently. The dark-haired man murmured something but didn't move. Starbuck smiled, this time with deep affection, and slipped out of the bed, grabbing the robe on the chair. If he stayed he'd either fall asleep again, and he hated when the alarm jolted him out of that lovely second sleep, or he'd wake Omega, and the man probably needed his sleep after last night.
He stretched and thought about what Omega had said. He was probably right about Apollo. With a father like Adama, admitting any feelings beyond simple friendshipas if what he and Apollo had had ever been simplefor another man was not in the cards. Starbuck didn't even think you could stack the deck for it. And if he did have such feelings, buried deep beneath all that Kobolian doctrine and familial duty, well, that would explain the violence of Apollo's reaction. After all, most of that felgarcarb he'd been going on about was demonstrably that: after a seven-sectare patrol Starbuck had twenty sectares before he could fly again, unless there was an all-out alert, in which case Omega, as first officer in command of the bridge and flag-adjutant to the commander, would be notified before the barracks...
Poor Apollo... Starbuck shook his head as he wandered out into and looked around the sparsely furnished front room. Omega had insisted he put his things out; there'd certainly been plenty of room for them since Omega had almost nothing of his own here, it had been at the shipyards waiting for the frigate he'd been assigned to to finish refitting. Not that Starbuck had much, himself. Two of those picture stones he'd gotten on a trip he, Apollo, and Boomer had taken their last yahren at the academy, apparent landscapes painted by the gods themselves. A photo of the three of them just before graduation. Another of him, looking younger than he could remember being, with Siress Ila. He touched that one now, wondering if she'd thank him for driving her son into Sheba's arms, or not.
Definitely poor Apollo, he thought. Sealed with Sheba was an overreaction by any standards, but leave it to 'Pol to do it that way. That wasn't a fate Starbuck would wish on his worst enemy, and whatever Apollo acted like, whatever he said, whatever he stood by and watched happen, he wasn't that. Not by light-yahrens, not by parsecs, not by galactic radii. Even if he'd beaten Starbuck himself... Sometimes, he supposed, it was easier to be alone. Harder, some ways; easier in others though. Life balances like that. At least it's supposed to.
The door chimed. Starbuck answered it before it woke Omega. He looked out, then down. "Boxey?" he said in surprise.
"Can I talk to you?" the boy said.
Starbuck hesitated a centon. His options weren't good: stand in the hallway, which really wasn't a good idea even if he had been dressed; let Boxey in, for which Apollo would probably kill him; or send the child away, which he couldn't do. He hadn't cared for Serina, but Boxey couldn't be blamed for his mother, and he was about to get saddled with Sheba, which was an abominable thing to do to a child, now that he thought about it. "Sure, Boxey," he said, stepping back. "But be quiet."
Boxey dropped his instructional stuff on the table and sat on the couch. "Hey," he said, "that's my dad!" He knelt on the arm of the couch to take down the picture.
Starbuck came back from shutting the door to the sleeping room and sat in a chair, smiling. "Yes, it is. I think he has a copy of that."
"He put away the pictures with you in them, Uncle Star," Boxey stopped. "I mean... I don't know what to call you now. Lieutenant?"
"Just Starbuck," he answered, feeling a twinge of pain.
"You're not mad at my dad, then?"
"No, Boxey," Starbuck said seriously. "I'm not mad at him."
"He's mad at you. He and Aunt 'Theni had a big fight over you."
Starbuck felt pleased over that; even though it was probably for Omega's sake rather than his, nonetheless Athena was on their side. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "Your dad probably needs his family with him right now."
"Grandfather is," said Boxey. "And he's going to seal with Sheba. Aunt 'Theni doesn't like her either."
Starbuck was dying to know who the 'either' referred to but he didn't ask. He couldn't let Boxey get dragged any deeper into this mess than he already was. "Well, since your aunt doesn't live with you, that doesn't matter. It's what your dad wants."
"I guess... Starbuck, are you ever going to come visit us again?"
"Boxey, that's up to your dad. I'm not mad at him and I'm certainly not mad at you, but he and I are having a... a disagreement, and until it's cleared up, then no, I'm not."
"But I want to see you!"
"You'll see me," he said, unable to resist. "You're seeing me now, though your dad wouldn't be happy you came over here. You'll see me around."
"At Aunt 'Theni's?" the boy asked.
"If she invites me."
Boxey smiled. "She will," he said confidently. Starbuck noticed he didn't ask about the gatherings at Adama's. "Did you and Dad fight about Sheba?"
Starbuck snickered; he couldn't help it. "No," he said quickly. "We did not. I didn't know they were going to be sealed, and, anyway, we never even talked about Sheba."
"I wish he wasn't going to. She's kind of mean."
Oh, gods, thought Starbuck. What do I say to that? He didn't have to decide.
"Starbuck?" Omega said from behind him, and then, "Oh. I didn't know you had company. Boxey, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir," Boxey said. "Congratulations on your promotion, sir."
"Thank you," Omega said gravely. "Starbuck, I have an early meeting with the colonel. I thought we might go to the OC for breakfast?"
"Sure," Starbuck nodded. "Boxey has to go to instruction; he won't be here long."
"Fine. I'll use the turbowash first, then. Have a good day, Boxey."
"Thank you." Boxey watched Omega go back into the sleeping roomStarbuck hadn't had the nerve to turn around and see howifhe was dressed. The boy then turned to Starbuck with a confiding expression on his face. "Aunt 'Theni thinks he's very nice. And very handsome. I guess he is, huh?"
"Yes, he is," said Starbuck, wondering several things at once. "Is that who introduced you?"
"Yes," Boxey said. "I went to the bridge with her once, and he came to her quarters once when I was there. It was on ship's business but I think she wished it wasn't. I didn't know you were friends with him."
"Well, I am," Starbuck said simply. "And now I think you should go to instruction, and I need to get ready to go on duty."
"Okay, Starbuck." Boxey put the picture back and looked around. "Doesn't Captain Omega have any pictures?"
"No," Starbuck said. "They were all lost in the war."
"That's too bad." Boxey climbed down off the couch. "We don't have any pictures of my other daddy, either."
"Lots of people lost their pictures," Starbuck said, standing up. Lucky if that was all they lost, he thought, but he said only, "Pictures aren't as important as memories."
"I won't tell my dad I came here," Boxey said.
"You shouldn't lie to your dad."
"I don't think it's really lying if you just don't tell," said Boxey. "You can't say everything that's true, after all. It would take forever. 'Bye, Starbuck."
Starbuck leaned against the door. Things are never simple, he thought. Why can't things just be simple for once? That's all I ask. Just for once...
Whoever was ringing her doorsignal was leaning on it. Sagan, but Athena hated that. She hopped on one half-booted foot to answer, holding her other boot in her hand to whack whoever it was with if she felt it was deserved. She did not need this when she was running late. And she was not happy when the door hissed open to reveal her brother.
"What do you want?" she said, turning her back on him to sit down and finish pulling on her boots. "You look like several hells, by the way."
"Congratulations," she interrupted him. "I imagine your party is why you look so bad."
"'Theni," he started again. "Can you please take Boxey tonight? I can't send him to Father two nights in a row"
"It might do him good to have you stay home with him and talk about the upcoming changes in his life," she said, stomping her right foot down into her boot.
"I know, but Sheba has this party planned..."
She looked up at him, tossing her hair out of her eyes. He actually did look like five or six hells, not just the several he'd resembled over the last secton. His green eyes were bloodshot, his face haggard, and his hair unkempt. He might actually be sick. She found herself hoping he was, and ashamed of hoping it. She might be mad at him, but he was still her brother. And being sealed with Sheba, even if it was his own idea, was punishment enough for any man. She sighed and, still holding her left boot, said, "You can't start out letting her run you ragged, 'Pol, or you'll never get a chance to breathe."
"It's just one party," he said, leaning tiredly against the wall. "After all, you don't get sealed every day."
Some of us may never, she thought, but she didn't say so. She didn't want to get into that discussion with him again, it was bad enough when their father trotted some young man past her. She bent over to pull on her boot, letting her hair drop between her face and his pleading eyes. She liked Boxey well enough, but he wasn't her son, nor the son of her dead and presumably beloved spouse. Maybe men thought differently, though she knew some who agreed with her: if her lover had died leaving an orphaned child behind, she'd have found it very hard to keep pushing him off on others. (And Apollo couldn't possibly be as big an idiot as he'd have to be to think that Sheba wanted to be motherly to his first wife's son by another man... Sagan, he'd have to be incapable of coherent thought to think that.) Plus, while she had no intention of sealing with any of their father's candidates, she also had no intention of dwindling into poor Aunt Athena, the one with no life. And, perhaps most importantly, she had absolutely every intention of making sure Sheba understood that Athena wasn't her free child-care.
And anyway, Boxey did need his father around at least some of the time.
"Please, 'Theni," Apollo said.
And she did have a life, even if it wasn't as glamorous as some people's. "I can't, 'Pol," she said. "I'm having some friends over for dinner, and, well, Boxey would be... out of place."
"You could put him in the other room, he'll go to sleep... unless" he broke off in confusion.
"Oh, don't get all doctrinal on me," she said, standing up. "I said dinner, and dinner is what I meant. It's who it is you'll object to... Starbuck and Omega."
"Oh," he said. "Does Father know?"
She didn't care if he was sick; in fact, she rather hoped he puked all over Sheba tonight. "I don't know. I'm not in the habit of running my guest lists past him for approval."
He held up his hands in surrender. "'Theni, please. It's just, if he doesn't, Boxey can still come here. Please? He's been asking about Starbuck for the last few days. You know Starbuck can get him to behave."
Athena felt her jaw drop. "Who are you, and what have you done with my brother? No, on second thought, don't answer that. You're a hell of a lot easier to get along with than him. Okay, 'Pol, or whoever you are, I will take Boxey tonight. For his sake. But get it through your thick head right now: I am not making a habit of this."
He straightened wearily. "Thanks, 'Theni. I mean it. I really appreciate it."
She snorted at him. "You'd better. And, 'Pol? Put some drops in your eyes before you go on duty; you honestly look like you've been out drinking all night."
"I wish I had been," he answered, but so softly she didn't think he'd meant her to hear it. "Can you pick him up?"
"Apollo," she reproved him. "That would mean Boxey won't see you in two whole days."
"He's really better off not seeing me today, 'Theni," he said. "I can't deal with his questions. I really can't. I have no idea what I might say, and that's just..."
"It's not good," he said. "Please, can you pick him up?"
"Yes. But I'll be honest, if he asks me what I think."
"Okay. That's fine."
"Apollo, are you all right? You really look bad."
"I have no idea, 'Theni," he said, giving her a level look from those tired green eyes. "I really have no idea. I'll let you know when I get it figured out." He turned to open the door, paused, and added, "If I do." Then he was gone, leaving her standing in the room, feeling confused. And, frack!, late for duty.
Which meant it was halfway through the morning before she could grab a word with Omega. "Yes, Lieutenant?" he asked.
"Do you have a centon?"
He glanced reflexively around the bridge, and then gave her his attention. "Of course, Athena."
"I was hoping you and Starbuck would come to my quarters for dinner this evening."
He smiled; it actually got into his eyes. "We don't have any other plans. Of course, he's with the colonel, so I'm not sure, but I think I can say we'll be there."
"There is one thing you should know," she said, having decided that it was better to explain things to Boxey than jeopardize her friendship or, possibly, their careers. "Boxey will be spending the night with me. That's"
"Your brother's son, yes, I remember him. Is this wise? Will his father object?"
"He said he wasn't going to," she said. "Now his fatherI mean, my fatherI don't know what he might say. He was pretty... firm on the subject the other evening. But Boxey is Apollo's son... and I have no idea how often, if ever, he'll get to see Starbuck once Apollo gets sealed, and I really am not inviting you for Boxey," she realized what it sounded like. "If you can't make it tonight, the invitation stands for any night this secton."
"Starbuck, I think, will appreciate the chance to talk to the boy," Omega said. "Losing children is hard, and when it's unnecessary, then it's cruel to everyone. The child included. We'll be there tonight."
She smiled at him. "That's great. I'll see you then."
He smiled back but he was already turning to look around the bridge. She went back to her console.
Starbuck looked around his cubbyholehe'd decided that was what it was, not a little office. Made it seem cozier, less intimidating, if it wasn't an office. He was already bored. He'd wondered, when Apollo gave him this job, what was on his old captain's devious mind. And devious was the word for it: he played it straight, but that was his choice. He could match Starbuck twist for turn if he had to. It could have been that this was just the first thing Apollo could come up with, because obviously he had to get rid of Starbuck. That was the only way for him to play this particular hand: get rid of the deviant and placate the squadron. Starbuck didn't expect anything else; his whole life had taught him not to.
But Tigh, with much the same hand, played it so differently that it still took Starbuck's breath to think about it. The cynic in him said that Omega's birth and breeding, Sire Lares and Siress Vesta and others going back several generations, had something to do with it; but the realist pointed out that they were all dead and that Omega had nothing to wield influentially and the warrior who'd served under Tigh knew he meant the message he'd sent: screw all your doctrines, the only Book I care about is the Book of Regs. Just what he'd have done if someone on First Watch had taken a swing at Omega, Starbuck wasn't sure, but he'd have bet his next yahren's pay at any odds offered that it wouldn't have been transfer Omega. The fact that the only violence anybody on the bridge crew had offered anyone had been that one guy who had shouldered Starbuck into the wall in the turbolift two days ago and said, "Hurt him and you're dead," had been... well, was it incidental, irrelevant, or derived? Starbuck honestly didn't know.
Any more than he could figure out if Apollo had thought this out this far. He just didn't know. It was, however, entirely possible that Apollo, while not wanting to see Starbuck in the life center, wouldn't mind seeing him snap from the sheer boredom of it all. And after, what was it, gods, not even two whole days yet, that was shaping up to be a real possibility. He'd already done the maintenance checks on the shuttle. Twice. He couldn't play cards on duty. Well, of course he could but that wasn't the smartest idea he'd ever had, not right here where Adama could look in on him at any moment. And he just wasn't a recreational reader, never had been. Reading wasn't something with a lot of good associations. He might have to learn though. Or he could read manuals. Yeah, that was the ticket.
He leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. Then he had an idea, and it actually worked. If he pushed the chair back and balanced on the back legs, with his boots on the desk, he could see Omega's duty position. If he'd been stuck up here when he was dating Athena, he'd have been watching her, and he'd usually managed to watch Apollo anyway... so now he'd watch Omega. It wasn't exactly a strain on the eyes, after all. And it was a step in the right direction.
It was a tribute to Starbuck's reflexes that he didn't fall over. He'd actually managed to lose himself in the patterns of Omega's job, appreciating what the uniform did for his coloring, watching the elegance of his gestures and the way he moved between the rows of consoles, always where he needed to be... He hadn't heard the door open, or Tigh come in. "Sir," he said, scrambling to his feet.
Tigh was watching him with an unreadable expression. "I'm needed on the Alcestis. Is my shuttle ready?"
"Yes, sir," Starbuck said. "We can leave, well, as soon as we get there."
"I'll be down in ten centons, Starbuck. Be ready."
"Yes, sir." It would break the up the day nicely, if nothing else. As he left the cubby, he saw out of the corner of his eye that Tigh was checking on what he'd been watching. He grinned. It's a nice view; wonder if you appreciate it? Then he trotted to the turbolift. He intended to be ready to take off as soon as Tigh stepped into the shuttle.
He was going to be the best damned pilot Colonel Tigh had ever had.
He smiled at everybody he passed on his way to the shuttle bay, was pleasantly surprised that several of them smiled back, logged out the Galactica Onethe Best Girl he'd discovered the mechs called her, grabbed the checklist, double-checked where the Alcestis was, wondered briefly why Tigh was 'needed' on an agroship, and was ready to go with five centons to spare. He sat in the open doorway, legs dangling, and waited.
For about one centon, before he saw the one man he didn't want to see (and yet always wanted to see): Apollo. Frack, he thought while he tried to decide if he should move or not, what is he doing here? Apollo spotted him, changed directions and headed for the shuttle. Starbuck decided to stay where he was; not only was he supposed to be there, not only was he so not letting himself be chased anymore, but he knew that in a very real way, all this mess was his own damned fault. Not because he'd spent the night with Omega, frack that idea, but because he'd hidden from Apollo that morning. If he'd had the grace, or the guts, to face him at the time, then all of Apollo's anger would have been directed at him. Where it belonged.
So he wasn't hiding again. A secton late and a couple dozen cubits short, as usual, but there it was.
Apollo stopped about five feet away. Funny. Once Starbuck had to pull in his arms, his feet, his very self, to keep Apollo from getting close enough to touch, to hurt. Now he stopped well out of arm's reach. And that hurt worst of all. Funny. And now that he was standing there, he didn't seem to know what to say.
Starbuck didn't know how to help him. And he looked like he needed help, like he'd been dragged through six hells and left alone in the seventh. Like he hadn't slept, hadn't eaten, had been drinking... not Apollo. He never had more than one and a half glasses. Got sarky and superior with those who did. This man looked like he'd never been superior in his life. Oh, 'Pol, what's going on inside that head of yours? Starbuck thought sorrowfully. You look like you just lost your best friend... oh. Yeah. That would have been me, wouldn't it? But the flash of anger lasted barely five microns. Oh, 'Pol. Don't you have anyone to help you out of that pit you're in? 'Theni? Boom-Boom? Even Sheba... Because one thing Apollo had made crystal clear to him two days ago was that he didn't want Starbuck in any part of his life any more, not even the squadron which he'd left to him when he kicked him out of the rest of it... Briefly Starbuck regretted going against his wishes by talking to Boxey that morning, but that thought brought back the anger he needed to make it through this conversation with his dignity intact. If not his heart. If not his soul.
"Captain?" he said, in his very best dumb-insolent voice.
Apollo flinched slightly, but he found his own voice. "You're going out?"
"Yeah," Starbuck drawled. "Me and the Best Girl here are ferrying the colonel." He paused the precise one and a half microns and added, "Sir."
Apollo blinked, cast around for something else to say. "You look ... well," he settled on.
Starbuck didn't know whether to laugh or cry. So he said, "Oh, yes. When I had my colors done they mentioned purple and yellow were very good for me."
Apollo's eyes skidded toward the spectacular bruise on his face and then away again.
Starbuck waited. Where the frack is Tigh? Usually he's right on top of you when you least want him.
"Did you know he was getting promoted?" Apollo looked like he wished he hadn't said that.
Fair enough. Starbuck wished he hadn't said it, too. "Of course, Captain. That's what this is about. His rank. Spasiba za kompliment," he added coldly in Libran, hitting the final T a little harder than needed. 'Thanks for the compliment' meaning 'you and I both know you just insulted me, but there's not a thing protocol will let me do about it now that dueling's illegal.' Lovely language, Libran...
Apollo looked away, and then back at him. "I didn't..." he stopped and swallowed, looked around the bay, at his own boots, over Starbuck's head into the Galactica One. Starbuck gave him no help at all. Finally, he said, very softly, "Starbuck... are you... are you happy? At all?"
Oh, damn you, Starbuck felt his anger slip away despite his best efforts to hold on to it. And how do I answer that? With the truth? How can I be happy when you hate me? How can I be happy when you're so clearly miserable? You don't want the truth from me, and you never really did. My fault, since you didn't know what the truth was... But you actually seem to care whether I am or not, in some bizarre fashion it's important to you. He was glad Apollo wasn't looking at him because he was pretty sure his pyramid-face had slipped. And then he sawthank Whatever Powers That BeTigh coming into the bay, breaking stride as he recognized the man standing next to his shuttle. Starbuck reached over his head for a handhold and rose to his feet, thankful the height of the shuttle entrance hid his face from Apollo. "Of course, Captain. How could I not be? And you? Happy, are you? I understand you're due congratulations."
"Yes, thanks," Apollo said automatically.
Tigh wasn't getting any closer. His 'need' to be on the Alcestis clearly wasn't strong enough to make him break into this tête-à-tête. Which was too bad because Starbuck most sincerely wanted to be interrupted. So he did it himself. "I wish you both very happy, all the best, you know. And now, if you'll excuse me, captain, my colonel's here and I have to take him somewhere."
"Oh, yes, right." Apollo hesitated another moment, and then turned and walked away.
Starbuck collapsed in the pilot's seat. Well, that went well. He closed his eyes and waited for Tigh to come aboard.
Oh. He was on board. "Next stop, the Alcestis, sir," Starbuck said, straightening up.
"Sir, can we just... go?"
"Of course. Take us out, Lieutenant."
Starbuck called for clearance, heard the comforting sound of Omega's voice telling him he had it (even though it was that calmnot controlled, no hint of anything needing to be controlledbridge voice, he said "Starbuck" not "Galactica-One" and Starbuck found it comforting), and headed the shuttle out in a tight arc. Tigh wouldn't be able to complain about the length of the flight, anyway. Starbuck was well aware of the spec differences between a command shuttle and a Viper, but he saw no reason not to push the shuttle as hard as she'd go. If they just wanted someone to fly in straight lines, they'd picked the wrong guy.
He slid into the Alcestis's landing bay and set the Best Girl down on the pad as lightly as a lover on a bed. "Here you go, sir," he said to the colonel, who was looking at him with a raised eyebrow. He put on his best modest smile, the one that said, I know I'm good but I won't mention it.
Tigh smiled suddenly. "Thank you, Starbuck. I'm early, but that's okay. I'm going to be at least a centare. I don't care what you do, just be back here then."
"Thank you, sir," Starbuck said, resolved to behave himself so he could get the same leeway the next time Tigh went somewhere interesting, like, say, the Rising Star. The Alcestis was an agroship; how hard could it be, after all?
He went for a walk to stretch his legs. Hydroponics bored him to tears, but at least it didn't bring up any bad memories, like the livestock ship did. He'd never summered over on a hydroponics farm as free labor... A... what did you call 'em, anyway? Field? Vat? A roomful of crimson caught his eye. He looked around, but didn't see any Keep Out signs, so he pushed the door open and went inside. Smallish, deeply red and even more deeply scented flowers as far as the eye could seeread: wall to wall. Starbuck couldn't remember when he'd last seen an actual flower, not counting a hit-and-run planetside encounter. He breathed in the fragrance, closing his eyes. One thing about Umbrathere had been plenty of flowers, and anybody could enjoy them, even orphans without a dodeci-cubit to buy with. Had he seen...? Yes, a small bench next to a table. He crossed the room and sat there, leaning back and closing his eyes again.
He wanted to lose himself in the scent, but his mind insisted on working. He wondered why they were growing flowers... who they were for, as if he couldn't guess, people like Uri, Belloby, that ilk. He wondered if they'd ever get somewhere where they, meaning everybody else, could have flowers. There... that's more like it. If you have to think, get personal. He wondered what it would be like to make love in a field of these red whatevers; would they smell stronger as you crushed their petals under your lover's body, would they cling to sweaty bodies and what would they taste like if you licked them off... deep crimson against brown hair...
"Ummm... excuse me?"
The soprano was so unlike his fantasy that Starbuck jumped a good foot on hearing it. A technician was standing in front of him, her hands raised in an I'm-sorry gesture, her blond hair coming loose from its knot and her blue eyes wide.
He got to his feet. "I'm sorry," he said, smiling and turning on the charm. "Am I not supposed to be in here?"
"Oh, no, no, that's okay, this isn't a clean room. I just didn't expect... are you a Warrior? What... I mean, why..." she blushed, flustered.
"I'm just a shuttle pilot," he said disarmingly. "Nothing's going on. My colonel's here, but don't ask me why. I'm just a worker apid; nobody tells me anything." He smiled, quirking an eyebrow at her out of habit.
She smiled back. "Oh, I doubt you're a worker apid," she said and blushed.
Starbuck made a note to look up worker apids once he got back to the Galactica. He wondered how much of that centare he still had left, and then jerked himself up short. He was not going to start anything. Damn it, he was living with someone. And he was the new poster boy for flit couples... suddenly he laughed. Sagan, he thought, Omega is the actual recruiting ad... how's that going down these days?
The tech looked at him in puzzlement.
"Sorry, love," he said, "just thought of something very funny about my partner..." See, Starbuck, you got the word out and it didn't kill you.
"Oh," she said, disappointedly.
"I didn't know we actually had room to grow flowers," he said, making conversation. "They're very pretty, though."
She giggled. That helped; helped a lot. Gigglers got on his nerves pretty quickly. "We're not growing flowers, Lieutenant," she said. "We're growing coda."
"Coda?" He raised his eyebrows. He hadn't realized the painkiller wasn't synthetic. "This is what coda comes from?"
She nodded. "From the seed pods, actually, but you don't get seed pods without flowers."
"No, I suppose you don't." He looked around the room with a new appreciation of it. "Amazing that something so innocently beautiful is so deadly at the same time."
"Ummm," she said, looking at him. "And useful."
This was an interesting new sensation. He should leave. Yes, that would be the wisest course. "I should get back to my shuttle," he said. "My colonel hates waiting."
"I suppose so," she said. Then she turned and, pulling a pair of clippers out of her jumpsuit pocket, cut two flowers off near the watery surface. "Here," she said, "a souvenir of the Alcestis for your partner."
He took the flowers, lifted them to his face and drank in the scent, so sweet from that close. "This is all right?"
"Well," she admitted, "we wouldn't want everyone to get some, but a couple here or there is okay. Take them, Lieutenantthat's a Viper pilot's uniform. My brother and I, we owe our lives to Viper pilots."
"Well, thank you," he said, tucking the flowers into his jacket pocket. "I appreciate it, and so will my partner."
"I hope so," she said. She smiled again. "My name's Ielita, by the way, if anybody should ask where you got them, Lieutenant Starbuck."
Halfway to the door, he stopped and looked around at her.
"It is Starbuck, isn't it?" she said. "I thought I recognized you, from IFB?"
"Yes, it is," he smiled at her and went on his way, whistling. Because he couldn't help it.
Back on the shuttle, he rooted around under one of the seats until he found a small plastic bag, which he took out and filled with water to hold the flowers. Then he put his feet up on the console and waited for Tigh.
The colonel showed up in twenty centons. He raised an eyebrow at the flowers; Starbuck said, without prompting, "Handed to me by a tech, sir, just for the uniform. Did not even ask for them."
"This much virtue is a little hard to swallow, Starbuck," Tigh said.
Starbuck smiled. "Perhaps domestic life agrees with me, sir."
"It must... at that, I'd rather you reformed than my flag-captain got corrupted."
Starbuck managed not to laugh out loud at that. The slight overtone the statement carried of his reformation being not entirely desirable helped; it was startling, coming from Tigh. He notified the Alcestis that they were leaving, and said, "Next stop, Galactica."
"Actually," Tigh said, and Starbuck paused to reconsider his exit vector, "let's take the long way home, Starbuck."
Starbuck raised an eyebrow. Had he perhaps cut one too many corners on the way over?
"I'd like to look at the whole fleet, I think."
"The whole fleet, sir?"
"I'm in no particular hurry to get back, lieutenant. Are you?"
"As long as I get back by shift change, sir," Starbuck said. "The scenic tour, coming up."
About three-quarters of the way to the end of the line of ships, Tigh said, abruptly, "Just tuck in somewhere, Starbuck, and coast."
"Sir?" There were people he could think of that he'd have feared for his dubious virtue from in these circumstances, but Tigh wasn't one of them.
"I'd like to talk, uninterrupted," Tigh said, leaning back in the co-pilot's chair where he'd been observing the ships they were passing.
"Yes, sir," Starbuck said; he'd have rather fought off an advance. He tucked in next to the Colonial Movers and put the shuttle on autopilot. Then he put on his very best eagerly attentive but slightly deficient face and waited.
"There are several things I'd like to discuss, Starbuck. Off the record."
"Completely, sir? Permission-to-speak-frankly and all that?"
"Starbuck, inside this shuttle you always have my permission to speak frankly. When it's the two of us."
Starbuck leaned back and put one booted foot on the console. "Go ahead, sir."
"The first thing is not really any of my business, and if you want to say so, go ahead. Omega already did."
Starbuck grinned. He'd just bet he had. Anybody who'd say, "With all due respect, sir, I can't imagine what gives you that idea" to the colonel wouldn't have any problems saying "I believe that's none of your business, sir."
"I value my adjutant. One of the things that I've always secretly thanked the Lords of Kobol for was the precise timing of the Destruction. Two days later and he'd have been on the Halcyon Dream, set to serve six sectares until her captain retired and then she'd have been his."
Starbuck blinked. He hadn't known that. That Omega was, for all practical purposes, no longer a member of the Galactica's crew when the Cylons attacked, yes, but not that he'd been in line for a frigate command.
"The Commander sent all the senior staff who'd lost immediate family to counselling."
Starbuck remembered both Apollo and Athena complaining about that; Apollo had even told him he should be glad no one would ever line him up for that particular torture.
"He went to one session, and they told us he was handling it too well to take up valuable time needed by others. I thought so," Tigh obviously caught something on Starbuck's face. "I met his wife once, at an Academy function. I never saw two people so much in love... Are you planning on breaking his heart?"
Starbuck hadn't been expecting that precisely, but he'd been expecting something, so he knew his face betrayed nothing. He shrugged. "You asked him that?"
Starbuck contemplated the toe of his boot. What the hell. "Actually, I suppose that might even be your business," he said. "Planning on it? No. Absolutely not."
"Well, I can't ask for more... Now, about Apollo."
Starbuck stiffened internally, and then realized Tigh only meant, about the way Apollo was acting, not about Apollo and the way Starbuck felt about him. He put on an interested but skeptical expression.
"You shouldn't be here."
"You're not a shuttle pilot, Starbuck. You're a Viper pilot. You're the Viper pilot. That's why you're still a lieutenant after some of the stunts you've pulled. Having you here playing chauffeur is damn near blasphemy. I signed off on it because, quite frankly," and he gestured at Starbuck's bruised face, "it seemed like the wisest course, considering how badly Apollo was mishandling the situation."
"Apollo's doing the best he knows how," Starbuck said involuntarily.
"Sagan help us if that's the truth," Tigh replied uncompromisingly. "He let that situation get very bad very fast, and you're safer out of the squadron at the moment. I wouldn't trust half of them to watch your back at the moment, and I rather doubt you would."
True enough. In fact, Starbuck wouldn't have trusted that many. But he didn't want to listen to Tigh attack Apollo. "He wouldn't put up with that."
"No. But a court-martial after your death wouldn't be much comfort to you, or Omega, or a lot of us. I'm going to give him some time to get this sorted, but I'm not letting him think this is a reassignment rather than a detail. I wanted to let you know that, too. I know where you belong, Starbuck, and it's not in a command shuttle."
"Well, thank you, sir."
"Don't get too cocky with it," Tigh said with a rather grim smile. "You're one of the ones who were lucky we were at war when you grew up. Otherwise you'd probably be in jail."
"Could be," said Starbuck. "But I'd've had to be caught, first."
Tigh laughed. "My point, and I did have one, was: try not to get too bored over the next few sectares, Starbuck. I'd like you to still be around to go back to Vipers."
"Oh, me, too, sir," Starbuck said with a great deal of sincerity.
Tigh shook his head. "Take me back to the Galactica, Lieutenant."
Starbuck sat up in his chair. "Finish up the tour, sir? Or the short way?"
"Sagan help melet's try the short way."
Back in his cubby, Starbuck stretched out in his chair and located Omega, who was at the moment wandering aimlessly around the bridgeexcept, knowing him, it was almost certainly not aimless. But it was nice to watch, so Starbuck did.
He thought about the day. On the plus side, he'd told a total stranger he had a partner, he had flowers, and he'd told Tigh he had no intention of breaking Omega's heart. On the minus side, he hadn't said his partner was a man, he hadn't thought about the flowers himself, and he hadn't told Tigh Omega's heart wasn't his to break... still, he thought he had a plus score for his new resolution. And a journey of a thousand metrics begins with a single step... or so he'd always heard.
He pulled out a fumarillo and smiled to himself. He'd been a good boy. He deserved a reward. Tonight he'd see if he could get one.
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