"Okay, Uncle Starbuck, you can open your eyes!"
Starbuck did. On the table in front of him was a cake with three candles. "Three?" he said with a grin. "I may not know exactly how old I am but I'm a bit older than that."
"One for every decade," Athena said, smiling at him. "Trust me, Starbuck, in another eight yahrens you'll be glad of it."
"Oh, you're both so old I can't stand it," said Apollo.
"Children," Adama said. "No squabbling."
"Now," Boxey said, impatient with his elders' disregard for protocol. "Close your eyes and make a wish."
"Okay," Starbuck said. Apollo had been throwing him a birthday party every yahren since the academy, but wishes hadn't come into it. Cakes, either, for that matter. Nightclubs had been the usual treat... last yahren, hard on the heels of the Destruction, it had been just a quick 'Happy Birthday, Buckomany happy returns of the day' and a bottle of ambrosa and box of fumarillos. Apollo's remembering had been more than enough. "Make a wish, huh? Let's see"
"No!" Boxey cried. "You can't say!"
Starbuck opened his eyes again. "Why not?" It wasn't like he'd been going to wish for anything too risqué for a child's ears.
"If you tell your wish," Boxey explained, "it won't come true."
"Okay," Starbuck said, and reconsidered what he was going to wish for. Not that he believed in birthday wishes; after all, how many billions of people had to have wished for the war to be over in the past millennium? But, on the other hand... hades, what could it hurt?
Boxey was still giving instructions. "Close your eyes, make a wishand don't tell it!and then take a deep breath and blow out the candles. All of them in one breath and your wish will come true." He looked at the cake. "You ought to be able to get just three candles, Uncle Starbuck."
"I hope so," Apollo was grinning at him.
"Without the deep breath," Starbuck grinned back. He closed his eyes, made a wishand all hell broke loose.
Which was not what he'd wished for.
Over the klaxon they could hear a voice calling the Commander to the bridge. Starbuck was out the door first, pelting down the hallway to the turbolift. When he got there, Athena was on his heels but Apollo wasn't in sight. "Go on," she said. "I'll grab the next one, he has to make sure Boxey's okay."
He nodded and punched for the launch bay level.
"Many happy returns, Starbuck!" she called as the door shut.
"Many returns, anyway, I hope," he said out loud to the air.
And then he forgot all about it.
Three short centaresa long eternitylater he slapped at his controls one last futile time and looked out at the spinning stars, thanking his unknown parents for a constitution that didn't get motion sick. "Fracking Cylons," he muttered. "How much is enough for you guys? It's not enough to win? You have to annihilate us? You have to keep chasing us for fracking ever? Give up already, can't you?"
Nobody answered him, which wasn't surprising. As far as he could seewhich was just about to infinitythere wasn't anybody around to answer him. Just a couple of twisted and broken Cylon raiders and a lot of stars. An awful lot of stars, far away and uncaring. At least it was a nice view, he thought. There were a lot of things he could have died looking at that wouldn't have been as pretty.
Of course, there were a lot of things he'd much rather have as his last view. The Thorn Forest at twilight, for instance. A beautiful woman. Or two or three. A felix curled up asleep on a stone wall in the sunlight.
He sighed. So much for bloody birthday wishes, he thought. He didn't even know for sure if Apollo was still alive. Let alone... well, let it alone, Starbuck. You've got about thirty centons' oxygen left. Don't waste 'em on what-might-have-beens.
But he couldn't get it out of his mind. Even when he'd been captured by the Cylons he hadn't been just sitting around waiting to die. There'd always been something to do, something to occupy his mind... plus, of course, back then he'd been mad at Apollo. Well, no, not mad at him exactly. Over him, more like.
Which is different from how you normally feel how? his mind inquired sardonically.
"Very much," he answered himself. Talking might use up the oxygen faster, but it wasn't like there was any real reason to conserve it. He couldn't even pick up static. Nobody was finding him. Oh, they were looking, he didn't doubt that, but talk about your needles in haystacks... So he might as well talk to himself. There wasn't anybody else out here who could be bothered to chat with Starbuck. "Very much," he repeated. "I'm mad about him most of the time. Not over him. After all, he was getting married."
Yep. So your little wish was pretty much delusional on your part, wasn't it?
"Wishes are delusional," Starbuck answered, not getting upset with himself. After all, it was no more than he'd known as long as he could remember. Sure, other kids got their wishes, parents showed up to reclaim them or new parents took them away. Starbuck's wishes never came true unless he made them small enough he could do them himself.
And at this point his mind decided to join the other side for once. You didn't do Apollo, it pointed out. He just came along all by himself and took you in. You didn't even remember wishing for a friend and there he was.
"Huh," Starbuck said, eloquently. But it was certainly true. By the time he'd met Apollo he'd been all out of... of whatever it took to make people really like you. He'd been very very good at short-term relationships. He still was. But Apollo had roped him into a relationship unlike anything he'd ever known before. It had lasted half his life already, and come with additions, like a little brother, and a girl who started as a sister, turned into a lover, and finished as someone who might be as firm a friend as Apollo. And a father figure, a bit on the stern side but fond of him. And a surrogate mother, who'd wrapped him inside her heart from almost the first moment she'd seen him. And finally, a little boy who he could be an uncle to... People to miss on the Anniversary of the Destruction, and people who'd give him a birthday party... Long-term people.
He wondered how badly they'd miss him.
He closed his eyes against the spinning starfield and reconstructed the party. Since it wasn't real, he went right ahead and stuck in Zac and Ila, too. In the fantasy, he closed his eyes and wished and opened them to blow out the candles in one mighty breath. Everyone clapped and cheered, and Ila put her arms around him. "Welcome to the family, Starbuck," she said. "Starbuck. Starbuck."
It finally registered on him: that voice was not only not Ila's, it wasn't in his head. "Starbuck?" He couldn't recognize it, there was so much static overlying it, but he could certainly hear it.
"Galactica?" he ventured.
"Starbuck!" That sounded like...
"Yeah, buddy, it's me. Where are you? How are you?"
"I don't know," he said, opening his eyes and scanning the surrounding area. "I'm fine, just sitting in a useless piece of steel and tylium, about out of air, that's all. I don't see you."
"Keep the channel open," Apollo said. "We'll try to home in on you. Hang in there."
"Look, if you don't find me," Starbuck said, "it won't be your fault. I'm not standing still; inertia is definitely working here. I'm spinning like a top, and moving... so don't blame yourself."
"Shut up, Bucko," Apollo said firmly. "You're not dying today. It's your birthday. You can't die on your birthday."
"I don't think that's a natural law," Starbuck pointed out.
"You have to get your wish."
"I don't think so. I've got about," he checked, "fifteen centons' of air left. Look, Apollo... that wish."
"What about it?"
"I don't need it to come true."
"Well, that's nice, Starbuck, but don't you dare give up on it. Or me. You hear?"
"You..." Starbuck smiled. He felt a great clarity stealing over him. This must be what it's like to die. Huh. Not that bad. "You are the wish, 'Pol."
"What?" Apollo sounded startled.
"I know. I told it; it won't come true. Wasn't going to anyway, was it? Listen, 'Pol, don't be too sad, hear? I loved my life at the end of it, but this isn't so bad..." For some reason, despite still having air to breathe, he was slipping away. He could feel it. He struggled to stay awake; there was something he needed to say.
He managed to say it. "I love you, 'Pol."
He closed his eyes. And opened them to see Apollo leaning over him and the ceiling of the Life Center over the dark head. He blinked.
"'I'm fine,' he says," Apollo said. Starbuck realized Apollo was holding his hand. That seemed odd, but he so didn't mind he wasn't going to point it out. "Fine? Bucko, since when does a great, bleeding hole in your shoulder qualify as 'fine'?"
"Bleeding?" he said, startled. He turned his head to see bandages swathing his left shoulder. "That looks like it should hurt," he said. "It wasn't."
"Shock, probably," said Dr. Salik. He didn't seem to notice that Apollo still had a firm grasp on Starbuck's hand. "But you'll be fine. And I guarantee that once the coda injection wears off, it will hurt. I'll send you home with some pills."
"Home?" Starbuck said. The BOQ barracks weren't what he'd have thought of as home. And the last time he'd been hurt, Salik had agreed that an injured pilot healed better in the at least mostly quiet Life Center.
"With me," Apollo said, in his brooking-no-opposition tone.
Probably it was the coda, but Starbuck didn't feel like offering any.
"No duty for a secton," Salik said, "and bed rest for the next three days." And then he smiled. Which was odd enough that Starbuck just blinked in response.
"I understand, doctor. Come on, Bucko," Apollo said. "Let's get you dressed enough to go home."
"Apollo," Starbuck objected, watching him turn down the covers on his bed. "If I sleep here, where are you going to sleep?"
"In case you didn't notice it, this is a double bed," Apollo pointed out, smiling. "Now, get in."
Starbuck hesitated. This was too close to his wish. Gods, he did not want to come half awake and do something that would alienate Apollo. "I can sleep on the couch," he said.
Apollo looked at him, his eyes very serious though there was a smile on his lips. "Starbuck," he said, "not only would Salik kill me, but I am not sharing a couch with you when there's a perfectly good bed right here."
"Sharing" This conversation had suddenly ceased to make sense.
"You can't get out of it," Apollo said. "Half the Galactica ops staff and fourteen pilots heard you. I'm holding you to it. So you'd better have meant it." He stopped smiling and stepped closer, asking, "You did mean it, didn't you, Starbuck? Please?"
Well, there was only way to answer that. So Starbuck did.
"But," Starbuck said, much later, lying half asleep with Apollo resting on his good shoulder and the blanket tucked around them both, "don't they say, if you tell your wish it won't come true? I told mine."
Apollo chuckled. Sated as he was, tired as he was, Starbuck still felt a frisson of desire at the intimate sound of laughter against his throat. "You didn't get a chance to blow out the candles, remember?"
Starbuck threaded his fingers through Apollo's hair. For some reason, learning all these rituals seemed important. He supposed he was thinking, vaguely, of Boxey... "So," he pursued it, "it's that specific. It's not 'make a wish on your birthday but don't tell it' it's 'make a wish in the three centons before you blow out the candles'?"
Apollo lifted his head. In the dimness his eyes were very dark, like a refuge. Starbuck wanted to crawl into them and never come out. "This is important to you," Apollo discovered. He raised himself on his elbow and caught Starbuck's right hand in his left one.
"Well," Starbuck said, starting to evade. Then he stopped. He didn't think he could throw away the habits of a lifetime, particularly his lifetime, just like that, and he'd probably evade and shade and just plain not tell the truth a lot in the future but right now, at this moment, nothing else would do. "Yes. It's foolish, I suppose, but..." he swallowed. He'd never been so open, so vulnerable before. Never deliberately done anything that made him so scared.
"But what, love?" Apollo asked, bringing their joined hands up and resting his cheek on the back of Starbuck's.
"But..." he took a deep breath and, for the second time in two days, said exactly what was in his heart. "I couldn't bear it if you left me, even if I did something to deserve it, which I probably will. I couldn't bear losing you."
Apollo's eyes grew even darker. "Starbuck," he said, softly, "I'm never leaving you. I promise you right now, before God if nobody else, and I'll promise you later in front of whoever you want: I'm not leaving. You couldn't drive me away with a stick. You couldn't do anything that would make me stop loving youand," he let go of Starbuck's hand to lay his fingers on Starbuck's mouth before he could speak, "let me remind you I've known you for around half of your misspent life and seen firsthand exactly what you can and probably will, I know, do... it doesn't matter. I love you, not some idealized version of you you've constructed to con me into giving you what you need for the moment."
Starbuck figured he was blushing. He was glad the room was so dark, and he was glad that Apollo's hand was stopping him from having to come up with an answer for that.
"I'm in this for the long haul, Starbuck, till Death us do part, all of that, no matter what you say or do. I'm planning on being here when you come home, whether that's right after your shift ends or straggling in in the small hours. I may get pissed off and we may fight, but I'm not leaving. I intend to give you what you need all day, every day. And do you know why?"
Starbuck shook his head. He was finding breathing a bit hard, and couldn't have said anything to save his life, so fortunately a non-verbal answer seemed enough.
"Because I. Love. You." Apollo moved his hand to make room for his mouth. Starbuck had never been kissed so thoroughly before in his life. When Apollo finally pulled away, Starbuck would have whimpered if he'd had any breath left to do it with. "Now," Apollo said, a smile on those lips and in those eyes, "as for the wish thing..."
"Yes?" Starbuck managed to say.
"Well, I figure it like this. They had what, a one in three eighty-four chance of being right? Oh, plus seven intercalary days a yahren and another five every dozen yahrensand it'd be like you to have a birthday that only came every twelve yahrens. Which would make you not quite three, by the way. At any rate, I'm guessing yesterday wasn't your birthday. And so the whole wish thing doesn't matter."
Starbuck felt a bit let down. Stupid maybe... "No birthday wishes?" he asked wistfully.
Apollo smiled down at him. "Who said it was your birthday wish that came true, Bucko? Did I ever tell mine?"
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