part one - in progress - parts 1-12 completed


Love is pure gold,
And Time a thief.
—Ogden Nash, "Speak Low"

The O Club wasn't crowded; nonetheless Starbuck stopped at the table occupied by Bojay and a bottle. "Hey, Bojay."

He looked up. Clearly Starbuck was the last person he'd expected to see. Possibly the last person he wanted to see. He didn't say anything.

Starbuck had never needed encouragement. He sat down in the other chair. "You know, a person with your body mass who drinks a whole bottle of that stuff will be physically unable to react to an alert." That was conversational, slightly informative, not at all censorious.

Bojay's hazel eyes flickered, but he didn't answer.

Starbuck had never needed interlocutors, either. He continued, in the same tone, "Whereas, that same person after only half a bottle will be, though impaired, still capable of responding and even, depending on normal competency levels, actually effective."

Bojay had gone back to staring at the amber liquid in his glass and pretending he was alone at the table.

"Of course," Starbuck added, now musingly, "you'd think you could decide to only drink a half. But the problem with that—and I speak from personal experience—is that once you've done that, you don't care enough to stop. So you don't."

Bojay finally answered him. "Are you trying to cadge half a bottle?"

"Boj," Starbuck said, reproachfully. "Cadge is such an ugly word. Here I am, trying to save you from the inevitable consequences of your actions, and you insult me."

Having spoken, the brown-haired pilot could clearly see no reason to continue to ignore the blond. "Not badly enough, apparently."

"No, you don't seem to be really trying, do you?"

"I could say, you always were cheap."

"If it's money you're worried about, I'm sure I could find some cubits. Somewhere."

"Aaaa," Bojay flipped his hand in an I-don't-care gesture.

"Mainly," Starbuck leaned in and said conspiratorially, "I think you should know the captain hates to see his pilots drinking alone."

"I don't have another glass," Bojay drained his and refilled it.

"Not a problem," Starbuck said cheerfully, producing one. Bojay stared at it long enough to raise the question of whether he was actually working on his second bottle, and then sighed and poured. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it. I mean that."

Starbuck leaned back in his chair and took a reflective drink. "Anything in particular on your mind?"

"I don't want to talk."

"Now, there's a change."

"Shut up, Starbuck." That was more perfunctory than anything else.

Starbuck ignored it cheerfully. "You used to talk a lot."

"You still do."

"That's true," Starbuck admitted. "I find talking reduces the occurrence of those long, introspective silences which tend to make me all broody."

Bojay ignored that. He took another drink, and then looked up at Starbuck through his lashes. "Just how much competence is required to run, anyhow?"

Starbuck shrugged, refusing the offered offense. "You'd be surprised how hard fighting a rearguard action for scared civilians with no jump capability can be..."

"Mmph," said Bojay; it was hard to tell whether that was agreement or not.

"But," Starbuck added cheerfully, "you'll learn." He poured himself another drink. "Unless we've outrun the Cylons, of course, and the rest of the universe wants to be our friend."

"Figure," Bojay said, finishing his own glass, "the odds."

"I have, actually." Starbuck watched as Bojay poured what was probably his fifth. "It's a very depressing calculation, though, so I won't trouble you with it. You didn't use to drink like this."

"A lot of things have changed, Bucko," Bojay said. He emptied his glass. "A hell of a lot."

"That's very true," Starbuck agreed, and fell silent himself.

The Galactica shuttle moved smoothly through space between the battlestar and the cruise liner Rising Star. A dozen or so pilots from the two squadrons just finishing up their six on were heading out for a night of gambling, drinking, and—for some—general debauchery, secure in the knowledge that they had two days, eight centares before they had to report for duty.

Starbuck looked at Bojay's profile against the stars. Just as he'd recognized the other man's voice after four yahrens, he knew the shape of him in the dark, knew the way he sat and stood and moved. But he didn't know the way he thought anymore. Didn't know the silence, the drinking, the anger...

Starbuck had missed Bojay when he'd transferred from the First to the Fifth Fleet, and he'd missed the hell out of him when he'd thought him dead at Molecay, but he hadn't known exactly how much he'd missed him until he came back from the dead with Cain. It scared him, the depth of feeling. It wasn't like he'd moped around after the transfer; he'd found other people—he'd gotten very good at that in his life—but he hadn't hung on to any of them. He'd gotten good at goodbye, too, from both sides... and his heart didn't skip a beat when someone out of his past suddenly showed up. Even Apollo, whom he could so easily have loved if the other man hadn't been more interested in wife and family, even he didn't make Starbuck do more than wonder, sometimes and - at least nowadays - mildly, what might have been if Apollo had been familyless, obligationless, if Serina hadn't come along, and then Sheba.

But the news of Molecay, reaching the Galactica so unexpectedly, had flattened him, hitting him like a body blow or a knife in the guts. He'd done such a good job of convincing himself that he didn't mind that Bojay was gone (that he'd asked to go), that he could get along, that people got transferred constantly, that when he got the news—"Holy frack, Starbuck, did you hear? The whole frackin' Fifth Fleet's gone. Some place called Molecay... every one of them!"—he had blanked. He had no idea how he'd responded to Greenbean's news—not anomalously, since no one had ever remarked on it—but he hadn't been thinking about the two battlestars, or the cruisers, frigates, carriers and destroyers, or the tankers and tenders. He hadn't even been thinking about the two strike wings, or the gods-how-many-was-it carrier-based squadrons of combat pilots, Vipers, Cobras, Pythons. He'd been thinking about one man, been suddenly confronting the fact that the universe was now Bojay-less. The pain had been so completely unforeseen (he'd asked to go!) he hadn't been able to deal with it. So he hadn't. He'd just stuffed it away somewhere and pretended like it wasn't real.

And then he'd heard the voice again in his helmet receivers, and it had been like someone had reached inside him and ripped out a set of stitches holding his heart together. Suddenly he'd learned something about himself he'd never realized before, never consciously faced before: the reason nobody's loss could ever quite reach him; the reason he missed Zac but didn't weep for him; the reason he'd shrugged and accepted it when Athena had said she wouldn't marry him because she didn't want anybody getting close and then lost; the reason his relationship with Apollo never would have gone anywhere—was because he totally agreed with her, had never let anybody get inside his own defenses again. Because he'd learned how much it hurt to lose a friend. To lose a loved one...

Somewhere back in his youth, reading scrounged books and stuffing his head full of disjointed bits of knowledge, he'd run across some philosopher who said that three friends in a lifetime was hardly possible. Starbuck had intended to prove him wrong, but he'd discovered instead how true it was... that there should really be a different word for the people like Boomer and Apollo and Bojay, the ones who don't care where you're from or how much money you have or how good-looking or funny you are but who crawl inside your heart and make a home there. The ones who nearly kill you when they die.

It wasn't just that it was hard to find more than three people who loved you like that. It was that it wouldn't be possible to survive losing four of them. Might not be possible to survive losing three. So he'd never let Zac get beyond tag-along status. Never let Giles or Jolly move into the spot Bojay had vacated when he'd been transferred. Never let Aurora or Athena or Cassie have his heart. Never even, for that matter, let Apollo have one cubic millimetron more than he already had—and Serina had proved him right in that decision.

But then Bojay was back. He was alive and here and the gods were kind. Yeah, right. Starbuck had always known better than that. Which ancient poetess had written, We know this much, Death is an evil; we have the gods' word for it; they too would die if death were a good thing... And death was the least of the felgarcarb the gods threw at people. Starbuck never trusted gods bearing gifts. And this only bore him out.

Because the Bojay who was there, the one who'd confronted Boomer and Apollo on the Pegasus hangar deck, the one who had gone along with Cain's illegal destruction of the Cylon tankers in the first place, the one who'd come into the Galactica crew unconscious, he wasn't the same Bojay Starbuck had missed so much he'd never, ever let anyone fill that spot inside him. Maybe, if Bojay hadn't been injured, and had gone off to die in a blaze of insubordinate glory with Cain, Starbuck could have achieved that semi-mythical thing called 'closure'. But Bojay hadn't. He was there, every day, bitter and sarcastic and distant, and Starbuck didn't know how to deal with that, either.

But this time he didn't have the choice of pretending it wasn't real. Bojay was all too real.

He had to do something. He wasn't sure what, but something.

So tonight he just stayed on the shuttle and let the rest of them go off to have fun, and he went back to the Galactica, to sit on his bunk and play solitaire pyramid and think.

"I'm serious," Starbuck said. "You have to break them up, you should know that. It's a really, really bad idea to let them stick together in some sort of malcontented clique. You need to scatter them around. Integrate them."

"My father thinks they'll feel more comfortable if they're among themselves. That's why we've recreated Silver Spar—" Apollo broke off as Starbuck shook his head. "You disagree, I take it?"

"Well, sort of. I mean, sure they'll feel more comfortable. But is that such a good thing? They need to adapt to way we do things here, not live in a little bubble of Cain-worship and superiority. In my opinion," he added, "as a Viper jock who actually interacts with them on a daily basis."

"You have a point," Apollo conceded. "But that's part of the problem, after all. Nobody wants to fly with them."

Starbuck snorted. "Since when does 'nobody wants to do it' translate into 'well, I guess we just won't?' I seem to remember doing a lot of felgarcarb nobody particularly wanted to, especially me."

"Yes," Apollo said, "but still. This way all our malcontents are in the same place, and we aren't annoying everyone else."

"We aren't? You mean you think what happened today proves nobody's annoyed? Come on, Apollo. Giles is a feisty little bantam but he doesn't generally swing on his fellow pilots while he's on duty."

Apollo looked pensive at that. "I know. The rest of Blue insists that Giles was provoked, but..."

"That's what I mean. They're too comfortable. They're not assimilating."

"Are you volunteering?" Apollo asked sarcastically.

"Sure," Starbuck said. "I'll set the pace."

Apollo blinked, clearly startled. Starbuck knew why: he'd been Apollo's wingman since the Strike Captain had come to the Galactica. When Apollo wasn't out, he flew with Boomer, and the three of them made a pretty tight and well-functioning team in any configuration. More, they'd been friends since the Academy, though only stationed together on the Galactica. In fact, Starbuck was in some ways like Apollo's brother, in some ways closer. And since the Destruction the blond had been assiduous in making sure no one new was pushed on him, by anyone, and Apollo had noticed that, you could bet. Tried to get past it, in fact—witness Cadet Cree—making Starbuck resort to some fairly underhanded tactics to get rid of some of them as soon as possible. For him to volunteer... Apollo looked pensive for a moment, clearly trying to remember if Starbuck had been making eyes at any of the Pegasus pilots. "Really?" he asked after a centon.

"Sure. Give me Bojay. We used to get along all right." That understatement nearly killed him, but he knew it had come out breezily enough. And Apollo hadn't been here, and he didn't listen to gossip. Not that there was anyone left to talk but Jolly and Greenbean...

Apollo blinked again. "Bojay?" he asked, sounding surprised. Well, from his perspective Bojay was one of the worst of the lot. "You're not contemplating solving this problem by attrition, are you?" he asked semi-seriously.

"Nope. Like I said, we used to get along." Starbuck smiled sweetly while playing his capstone. "And he can keep up with me. Most of 'em can't."

That was true. While it certainly wasn't fair to say that pilots who got shot up and injured were inferior, and Apollo didn't entirely share the notion that good pilots had the right stuff, whatever you wanted to call it, and never got hurt, it was a fact that most of the Pegasus pilots they'd ended up with were slightly on the mediocre side. Sheba and Bojay were the only ones Apollo would have had in Blue (and perhaps coincidentally Bojay the only one who hadn't been injured flying combat), and the only ones who had a prayer of flying as Starbuck's equal. And Apollo knew Starbuck didn't suffer from false modesty. Nonetheless, Apollo asked for clarification. "You want me to take Bojay into Blue Squadron and make him your wingman?"

"Yeah," Starbuck answered. "That's the idea. You could have a sort of general 'change partners' or something. Mix 'em up with the rest of us. You don't want him in Blue, I'll go to Green or someplace; just put us together and not in Silver Spar."

"You are serious." A flash of emotion sparked in those green eyes.

Frack. That wouldn't do. Starbuck repeated his ostensible motive, burying the ulterior one too deep for Apollo, who still now and again wanted to pick up where they'd left off—where Starbuck had left it, at any rate. And that was just not happening no matter what came about with this venture. "I told you. Look, Apollo, if I can get through to him, it'll break the back of the whole thing. I mean, look, you know nobody takes Sheba that seriously about it, because she's, well, her." That was about all it was safe to say about that to Apollo. Except, "And Cain's daughter, so everybody takes her with a grain of salt. But Boj—" he let Apollo see a bit of it, hoping he would take it for the whole thing. "He used to be one of us. I want to get him back."

Apollo was quiet for a few centons, thinking about it. Starbuck didn't push; he knew when not to. Finally the captain sighed. "Okay, I'll give it a shot. I don't know if this is going to be worth it, but I'm not losing you out of Blue Squadron if I can help it. And this way I can keep an eye on things. But I'm bouncing him if he doesn't shape up."

"Great," Starbuck said. "You won't be sorry. Trust me."

"I hate when you say that, Starbuck. I always am."

One thing you definitely had to give Apollo: when he did a thing, he did it thoroughly. Five days later Silver Spar Squadron, coming off break, was dissolved. Or rather, remade, eleven of its twelve pilots scattered among the other squadrons and replaced with the pilots displaced by the move. Only Sheba, the squadron leader, stayed in place—though Silver Spar had been moved off the same shift as Blue, whether to separate Sheba from Bojay or Apollo, Starbuck didn't know. He suspected she was annoyed but he was making it a point to avoid her, so he didn't know for sure.

It was sure enough annoying the Silver Spar pilots, or most of them. And the pilots in the other squadrons who'd lost their wingman and were getting saddled with a Pegasan. And the ones who'd been dumped into the new Silver Spar... a rippling discontent. Not to mention Green, who replaced Silver Spar as Blue's tandem and lost a break doing it. Starbuck thought it would settle out pretty soon, but in his opinion it wasn't any worse than things had been already. And in ones or twos, the old Pegasans would get absorbed, willingly or not, or they'd go away. And basically, he didn't care which. They could get along without them, if it came to that.

There was only one he cared about. Even if that one would never say the words aloud again. Even if Starbuck had conned Apollo into disrupting the whole Wing for a lost cause. Even if...

"Hey, Bucko."

He looked away from the bulletin board. "Hi, Brie," he smiled.

"What did you do to piss off Apollo?"

"Me? How about Turk?"

"Oh, Turk," she said dismissingly. "He doesn't give a poop where he is or who he's flying with. You, though... I mean, Bojay. That's rough."

"Starbuck likes Bojay," Jolly said, coming up behind the petite blonde. "At least, you sure used to."

"Bojay's all right," Starbuck said; it was getting to be his litany. "We used to get along just fine."

Jolly snorted. "You used to be joined at the hip, if you'll pardon the expression."

Starbuck grinned. "It's not me you need to worry about."

Jolly groaned.

"What?" demanded Brie.

"Nothing much," Starbuck said.

"Bojay just tried to take my head off for a remark similar to that one once," Jolly elaborated.

Brie giggled. Neither of the men felt like explaining to her just how close to the truth that was. "He's sort of stuck on Sheba, isn't he?"

"Ah, Hades, he was a ladies' man back then," said Jolly. "It was a joke... Him and Starbuck were the terror of the Inner System worlds. Fathers used to lock up their daughters when they heard the Galactica was coming."

Brie giggled again. "Honestly. Men are impossible."

"Yep," Jolly nodded. "That's why we need a good woman to keep us straight."

"You do that," she said, eyeing him and giggling again, but, Starbuck thought, encouragingly.

Jolly apparently thought so too. "Would you like to continue this discussion over dinner?" he ventured.



"Well... why not?" she smiled and they went off together, leaving Starbuck with his memories.


Semtek. That's where it started. Sure, you could probably go back to CMA, where he'd learned to be as much of a gentleman as he could stand, where he'd become an officer, and met Apollo and Boomer. Or even further, back to Umbra and the Cylon attack that had taken his past and set him on the course to his future, lonely and angry and needing to hit back and never be hurt again. Or not quite that far, to the Umbran induction station, where a bored captain with one eye had run it over a sixteen-yahren-old's test scores and said, "Boy, did you take these yourself? These hand-eye coordination and reflex tests?" and, getting a "yes" had arranged for more tests and then sent Starbuck to a six-sectare prep course before the gates of heaven had been thrown open and he'd been ushered into the Academy...

You could start pretty much anywhere in there. But Semtek was the key.

Within a yahren, Semtek would be a teaching battle, on the curriculum at all the academies and staff colleges. At the moment, though, only two sectares later, it was an open wound, and its veterans flinched from discussing it. In particular, the pilots. Especially with blue-suiters... After all if they'd done their job right, Semtek wouldn't have been such a disaster. Semtek might not have happened at all, or might have gone right.

Newly-promoted Lieutenant Starbuck, decorated veteran of Semtek, waited in the colonel's front office. He'd never been on a battlestar before; it was so big you could almost forget you were on a ship at all. You had to take transport to get from the ready room to the launch bays, as though its four squadrons were an afterthought. It was so big it was an 'it'. It could have held ten carriers and never noticed, carriers of the Falca or Aquila classes, like those who had died at Semtek.

Starbuck pondered that for a minute. Cruisers and frigates and destroyers were always 'she'. When they were lost, they died. Same with carriers. Freighters were 'she', but they were lost, or destroyed. A hulk like this... it was an it, no doubt. But what would you say if you lost one? They never had, so there wasn't a precedent. But he'd opt for 'destroyed'. This thing was too big to be real, almost, almost a metric and a half in length and how many hundreds of crew? They could die, but it couldn't...

Not like the Falca and the Carny had died.

The little carriers from the Raptor classes didn't have big guns like cruisers, or a lot of guns like frigates, or even speed like destroyers. They weren't supposed to engage the enemy in one-on-ones. Their job was to stand back and deliver the massed death of their squadrons, in support of the big girls. But at Semtek it had all gone horribly wrong, and three carriers, alone, had fought two Cylon base stars that, quite frankly, weren't supposed to be there. For many Semtek vets, the real lesson was: Fleet Intelligence sucks rocks.

Two Falca class—two Viper squadrons, two Python bomber squadrons, three Cobra ground-support squadrons, and one mixed squadron of reconnaissance, communications, and SIGINT (ELINT, COMINT, jamming) platforms—and one Aquila, slightly larger, with one extra Viper and Python squadron. The Falca Sanguinaria, called just Falca as if she were the only, or the oldest—though it was because no one could say the name Sang without meaning the Sanguine Expectation, whose name was written in letters of fire on the collective soul of the Fleet after Phaedros—and her sister the Falca Carnassia, and the Aquila Dies... The Acky-D had survived, but the other two had not. The Carny had gone to her death right there, shattered into blazing fragments of burning fuel and hot metal and oxygen and then dispersed on the solar winds of the Semtek system. She and the Falca had, in despair, thrown even their Cobras and Pythons into the battle, and in fact it was Pythons who took out the second base star. Some two dozen of the Carny's orphans had made it to haven on the other two ships, where there was more than enough room for them. Not quite that many of the Falca's pilots had survived the battle, and perhaps as many from the Acky-D as both of the smaller ships' together. And then the Falca had limped back to the Caprican shipyards and there they'd put her down.

And scattered her and the Carny's orphans around the Fleet after two sectares' furlon, as though that would make it right.

So when Colonel Tigh had said to him, "Well, Lieutenant, you come so highly recommended I'm surprised they let you go," all Starbuck had been able to say was,

"They decommissioned my carrier. Sir."

Tigh had looked up sharply at the micron pause before the 'sir', but by then he'd seen the word "Semtek" and he let it go. "Commander Adama would like to speak with you, and then we'll get you to the Strike Wing."

So Starbuck had waited to speak to the commander, whom he already knew, having been at the academy with the commander's elder son, Apollo, having in fact been good friends with Apollo and in and out of the commander's house on breaks and furlons. He had, as it happened, just come from two sectares at the commander's summer house on the resort island of Naiacap, where the commander's wife had dragged him. Not that he hadn't enjoyed himself once he was there. Adama had made it clear, without ever coming right out and saying it, that Starbuck's friendship with his family wouldn't get him any preferential treatment here; Starbuck hadn't expected it, seeing how demanding the man was of his own son. And now he was waiting for someone to escort him to the Wing.

The lieutenant who showed up was about twenty-six, maybe a couple of yahrens older than Starbuck. Tall and rangy, with short nondescript brown hair and light brown eyes, that proved to be hazel and could startle you by turning blue or green when he got out of uniform. "Hi," he said, holding out his hand with an engaging smile. "My name's Bojay. I think you're gonna be my wingman, unless Cap figures you don't deserve a fate like that."

And maybe that's where it started. Right there. With that handshake.

The Strike Captain was a slim, dark-eyed Inner-Worlder named Hafez. His diction was as elegant as his vocabulary, and both marked him as someone who'd never spoken Standard as a child. He'd read Starbuck's records, too, and nothing in them had made him feel Starbuck didn't deserve Bojay. In fact, he'd said that perhaps Starbuck was the best thing that could have happened to the other pilot, and added, with a smile, that as a newly-made pair, they were going to be spending "every centon of your off-duty time together for the next two sectares, gentlemen. By the time that is done, you may like each other, or you may not, but you will know each other."

The Galactica spent two more days at home and then put out, opening a jump lane to the front, near the Sarabahandra system. By the time they got there, Starbuck had spent twenty hours in the simulators, first by himself and then with Bojay. It wasn't a hardship: Starbuck was used to being the best pilot wherever he was, but Bojay was going to push him for that title. Might even snatch it from him on occasion, if he flew a real Viper as well as he flew a virtual one.

And at Sarabahandra Starbuck found out he did. Every fifth time out, Starbuck led (one of Hafez's notions), and he learned that he couldn't shake Bojay. There was an exhilaration to the discovery, to learning that no matter what he did, his wingman was going to be right there where he should be... it was like flying with the training wheels off. It was a worry gone, a freedom to fly like he'd never really known before. It was pure go for the Cylons and Bojay will be there.

It was, surprisingly, just as good following. The part of his mind that made the decisions when he led now watched Bojay, but the sharpness was knowing that if he slipped, even for a micron, he could be left behind. He'd never known that feeling before, never had to follow with every nerve alive. He'd come close to it at CMA, flying with Apollo, but only close. Especially since there wasn't the edge of real combat, ever, as a cadet.

And he'd never killed so many Cylons, before either.

The Sarabahandran campaign lasted five sectons. By its end, Starbuck and Bojay were virtually telepathic in (to use the old, old expression) the air; the Wing was calling them the Angels of Death. And they believed it. How could they not? They were living on adrenaline and the knife-edge of sudden death, but they knew themselves to be immortal. Others died, but they, they had the right stuff. They were dealers in death, and too canny to use their own product. Too young, too young-male, and too alive to believe otherwise, they knew they were invincible.

Off-duty, they were, of course, always together, spending every waking minute within arm's reach, unless they were actually in their Vipers. The first secton they'd exhausted the usual pleasantries. They'd talked about their homes, Caprican State Orphanage Umbra-Ten and a town named Bethgelert on Cambra, the smaller of Pisco's two southern continents—and when you'd said that, you'd said more than Starbuck had known to start with. The second secton was the crucial one; luckily for them, by then they were days into the campaign, and any annoyances that had come up had been taken out on the Cylons. By the end of the first sectare the order was an excuse to be together.

And then the campaign was over, won, and the battlegroup stood down for a few days to recupe. And the Wing got liberty.

And the legend got a new page.

Hafez sighed and looked at them. "Fallen angels," he said, directing the words to a point between their heads.

Neither of them spoke; it didn't seem wise. They stood at attention, shoulders a millimetron apart, and waited. They didn't have to look slantwise at each other; they knew.

"Something more than a sectare, gentlemen," Hafez said contemplatively, his accent turning it into sectaray, "and you have made yourselves a name in the First Fleet. Several names, in fact. Do you know how long the colonel was on the comm this morning with the mayor of Kaliahari?"

Starbuck let Bojay field that; he hadn't known Hafez long enough to tell if it was rhetorical or not.

"With the mayor, sir?" Bojay asked. "I have no idea. I don't even know why the mayor would be calling him."

Hafez sighed again. Starbuck definitely had the feeling those sighs were loaded with semantic content. Other men might swear; Hafez just sighed. "They were his daughters, Lieutenant Bojay."

"Sir, if I might say something?"

"Oh, please do, Lieutenant; I am agog with anticipation."

Anything less 'agog' would have been hard to imagine, Starbuck thought, waiting to hear what Bojay was going to say.

"Sir, in the briefing we were told, quite specifically, that married Saraba women always wore those bracelets. She wasn't wearing it."

"Yes. A point in your favor, and one which the colonel successfully argued. You are not being charged with wife-stealing. But what about the other one?"

"She was married, too?" Starbuck said incredulously. They had some weird marriages here if that was the case...

"No, Lieutenant, she was underage."

That hung in the air for a centon before Bojay found his voice. "Sir, they were twins! How can a married woman be underaged?"

"It's an intriguing culture," Hafez acknowledged. "But you didn't know she was married, did you? No, don't answer that, Lieutenant; it was, I have decided, rhetorical. At any rate, the colonel managed to convince the mayor that any actions he might take would not redound to his benefit, he having signally failed to control his daughter. Nor are you the only members of the battlegroup to have enjoyed your liberty in ways the Sarabi did not anticipate."

Starbuck just barely didn't look at Bojay. Djumbela and Dariyasa had anticipated pretty closely, he'd have to say.

"You are, however, the only ones who enjoyed yourselves with high-ranking women, in a stolen shuttle, in a memorial garden generally off-limits to off-worlders and never used for... enjoyment. You have something to say, Lieutenant?"

"She said that was hers, the shuttle, and she said that was her family's garden."

"A rather elaborate private garden, was it not?"

Starbuck decided it was time for him to speak up. "Sir, neither of us is exactly sire-class. But the commander's place on Fathwar Capra is bigger."

Hafez sighed again. "Gentlemen, you have Diabolus's own luck. Your liberty was so... embarrassing that no one wishes to discuss it any further. With, of course, the possible exception of the colonel, who seems to feel that the two of you would benefit from being restricted to the Galactica for the rest of the stand-down, and from standing extra Officer of the Day in the meantime."

"Yes, sir," they acknowledged.

"And I, of course, will have to redo the schedules... though I suppose your fellows will be pleased with you." He sighed again. "Remove yourselves from my sight, gentlemen."

That had been the beginning and the pattern had been set. Starbuck and Bojay, Bucko and Boj to most of the Wing, kept their rank because they did excellently well what a Viper pilot was supposed to do: kill Cylons. Off duty they exorcised the demons of combat with drink and gambling and, when the chance presented itself, carousing.

"It's not like we go looking for trouble," Bojay said once, and Starbuck chimed in with,

"Trouble just seems to know where we are."

"You could try to leave when you see it walk in the door," Jolly said, but he said it with the air of a man who knew he was asking the impossible. Jolly was in their squadron, a burly mustached man who'd been at CMA with Starbuck, though they hadn't been in the same class. Jolly had been a yahren ahead, with Apollo; he was still a Flight Officer but he didn't grudge Starbuck the experience that had led to the quick promotion. The three of them were part of a pyramid game in the ready room, plastic chips covering them in case one of the senior officers walked in. "I mean, frack, Bucko, by now you have to know what it looks like."

"Leave?" Starbuck demanded around the fumarillo he had clenched in his teeth. "Where's the fun in that? Cards?"

"Where's the fun in being yelled at by Hafez? No cards, I'll play these."

"Hafez isn't a bad sort," said Bojay. "Two."

"Yeah, but Tigh!" Farlon, another Blue pilot, shivered theatrically. "One."

"Amen. Two," agreed Farlon's wingmate, Onyx.

"What can Tigh do? Take away my birthday?" Starbuck asked. "I don't even know when it is. Ten." Bojay tossed in his hand but the other three matched the bet. Starbuck grinned. "Read 'em and weep, gentlemen: a perfect pyramid in green."

The others threw down their hands. "Frack, Bucko," said Jolly. "It's not fair. Cards or love, isn't that it? How come you get both?"

"Just live right, I guess," said Starbuck, earning groans from Jolly and guffaws from Farlon and Onyx. Bojay just grinned and shook his head. "Your deal." He raked in the chips, leaving his ante out, and contemplated that old saying. Did Jolly think he was lucky in love? Lucky in lust, sure enough, but love? Starbuck didn't think he'd ever even been in love.

"Come on, ante up," said Jolly, shuffling.

And then the alarm sounded. Starbuck pocketed his chips automatically and then Bojay's, and headed for the launch transport, Bojay two trusting steps ahead. Blue launched smoothly—the amount of practice they'd gotten over the past ten sectares, they certainly ought to—and headed for the target, at the furthest reach of the sensors. It was an empty stretch of space, at least by the time they got there, empty at least of Cylons if not of drifting asteroids at the midrange of their sensors, too far for the Galactica to pick up yet.

"Frack," said Farlon. "I hate this damned game."

They all did. Somehow the Cylons had figured out how to ghost the sensors on the lead recon ships, and they were getting scrambled two and three times a day. Each squadron. They had to respond, because if they didn't, then the Cylons were there. It was as if they'd found out how to detect the scramble and run. Whatever, it was getting old, fast.

"Gentlemen," Hafez said on channel two, the short range tactical channel not even the Galactica could pick up at this distance, "I have decided I no longer wish to play."

Starbuck felt the hair on the back of his neck go up. Hafez was using his silkiest voice. Involuntarily he glanced to his left, where Bojay's Viper held position just ahead of him. "Da iawn," his wingmate murmured almost inaudibly, Cambran for 'good'. "At last." And he was right.

"Lieutenants Bojay and Starbuck, as you've rehearsed it in the sims, please. Blue, come along home."

The pair headed for the asteroid field, and the rest of the squadron heeled over and headed for the battlestar. They had been practicing the maneuver for a couple of days now, and they were confident. Nonetheless, it was going to be odd being totally out of comms with home base. On the other hand, if it didn't work, it wasn't their idea...

Bojay dropped towards the nearest asteroid and slid into its shadow, close enough almost to touch, pacing its drift at no thrust. Starbuck slid in next to him. If this worked as Hafez and Tigh thought it would, the Cylons would show back in a few centares. The Vipers from the Galactica were going to be drifting themselves, back at the battlestar, cutting their response time in half at least, and Red Squadron was going to launch to provide telemetry as expected. And Starbuck and Bojay were to follow when the Cylons tried to run.

So far, so good. The tricky part was going to be matching course and speed with the asteroid without getting far enough away to be spotted, or close enough to brush up against it. The field was new, astronomically speaking brand new, the result of a planetoid's being shattered only ten yahrens ago during a battle. The pieces hadn't settled yet into stable orbits around the distant sun; in fact, some of them escaped occasionally. Flying wing to the asteroid was going to challenge them. Especially as the centares dragged on.

"Hey, Buck," Bojay said on channel two, powered down to almost nothing to reach across the two metrons between them—closer than they were supposed to be, but the chunk of rock was smaller. They'd shrugged and moved in. "Do you really not know when your birthday is?"

Starbuck shrugged again, even though Bojay couldn't see him from his lead position without turning around, which he better not do. He might fly into the asteroid. Starbuck himself was keeping his eyes on the other Viper. Tigh would have kitlets if he knew they were carrying on a conversation instead of focusing on flying, but they'd done it in the sims. It relaxed them the proper amount, kept them from being so tense they jobbed the controls and hit things. And the topic didn't bother him, not with Bojay. It was like talking to himself. "No. I mean yes. I mean, I don't know."

Bojay whistled. "You told Trey," he started.

Starbuck shrugged again. "Apollo picked it for me, back at CMA," he said. "He thought it was awful, too."

"You didn't? Don't?"

"My birthday's the least of what I don't remember," he said.

Bojay was quiet for a centon. "Sorry, Buck," he said finally.

He was always doing that, saying he was sorry for things that weren't even remotely his fault. Starbuck had finally figured out he was expressing sympathy, not remorse. It was a bit odd, but it was nice. Warm. "Thanks, Bo," he said.

"Hiking a bit starboard," Bojay said, suiting action to word. Starbuck drifted out with him and the fragment. "Apollo, huh? The commander's son?"

"That's him."

"You two are pretty close, aren't you?"

"We used to be," Starbuck said. "We were three yahrens together at CMA, but we haven't seen each other since then except in passing. One furlon at the same time two... no, three yahrens ago. And of course we ran into each other at Semtek."

"He was there?" Bojay sounded startled.

"He's on the Acky-D," said Starbuck. "Has been for several yahrens now."

"Huh." He was quiet a centon. "Not a word from the commander the whole time."

Starbuck shrugged again. "They don't let their family get in the way of the job much, the Adamans. Apollo complained some about it, but he'll be the same way, I bet."

"He's good, though," Bojay said.

"He's good," Starbuck affirmed. "Almost as good as us."

"Well, damn," Bojay said, dragging it out into two syllables, his way of jokingly expressing admiration. "Too bad he's on a carrier, not a safe old behemoth like the Galactica."

Starbuck snorted. "Safe? You call what we're doing 'safe'? You Piscons live in a different reality, Bo."

Bojay laughed. "Up and port," he said, and they were quiet for a while, just flying.

Starbuck kept his eye on Bojay but looked past him as well, at the sun and the stars. This was different than the sims—well, it always was, wasn't it?—it was more fun. It wasn't exactly like flying, it was more like just riding the wind, like that sport Apollo had introduced him to at school. No power, just inertia, drifting and nudging every now and then, and with enough danger of hitting something to spice it up. Part of him hoped the Cylons took a long time to show.

None of him hoped they didn't. Killing Cylons was the purpose of his life, after all.

He remembered getting drunk enough to say so to Bojay one night in the O Club back when Hafez's order was still yoking them together. They'd been discussing their previous wingmen—Bojay's had transferred to the Atlantia to take a squadron command, and Starbuck's... Semtek had taken him. "I didn't even see him go," Starbuck said quietly, staring into his ambrosa. "It was such... such high holy chaos, to use one of his pet phrases. I ended up shepherding a couple of Pythons, but I don't know what happened to them, either, afterward." He sighed, mostly to himself.

Bojay sighed too, and stretched one of his legs out under the table until his booted foot bumped companionably against Starbuck's. "Twice orphaned," he said softly. "I'm so sorry..."

Starbuck hadn't known what to do with sympathy then. He hadn't moved his foot, but he'd mustered a grin and said, "I land on my feet. This isn't a bad place to be for killing Cylons."

"You like doing that, don't you?"

If it hadn't been such a pure request for information, Starbuck might have said something else. As it was, he said the truth. "It's all there is, really."

Bojay hadn't said anything; what was there to say, after all? But he'd been there, and Starbuck had known it. Had known then, too, that Bojay had gotten inside, where so far only Apollo and Boomer had gotten. It might have been scary if they hadn't been so good.

But he had the feeling Bojay was gonna be around.

So now they drifted in companionable silence, every now and then one of them saying something, but the silence amid the stars enough. The silence and the waiting. Because someplace out there was a base star and maybe a whole battle group. And today it was going down. Or up.

Starbuck pondered that for a minute. "Hey, Bo," he said, using the private nickname. "How come—Holy frack!"

"I see 'em," Bojay said. "Let 'em pass."

"I was at the mission briefing," Starbuck said, watching as over two hundred Cylon Raiders poured past them. There had to be a basestar out here, somewhere beyond their sensor range, waiting like a crawlon.

"Yeah, but were you paying attention?" Bojay's voice had that pre-combat edge to it. He was only half-way paying attention now, himself.

Starbuck laughed softly, his gaze on the Raiders that had halted in a neat formation. His hand was tight on the throttle, his thumb resting on turbo, ready to go.

"Any... micron... now," Bojay's near whisper echoed his own thought.

And then the formation seemed to collapse onto itself as the Raiders turned and headed away. They had to have some way to detect scramble on the battlestar. Slower than Vipers, they had to be running before the Vipers started in order to get out of range again. With luck, this time they hadn't picked up the actual start of the chase, just the delayed scramble telemetry from the second squadron. But even if the rest of Blue didn't get here in time, the tincans couldn't outrun a Starhound Viper with a cadet flying, let alone one of the Angels of Death. And the other one would fall back and wait, if need be, to relay the signal.

Damn, as Bo would say: it's gonna work!

"Six, five, four," Bojay was counting down on channel two. Starbuck punched turbo on "one" and they screamed out from behind their rock, Bojay on channel one with course heading to Hafez in case they were close enough.

It took a couple of centons for the Cylons to realize they were being followed. When they did, six of them dropped off and came around to engage.

Bojay swore, one of his obscure Piscon, Cambran, words. "Take care of 'em, Buck," he said and rolled under to continue the chase.

Expecting the order—it was per the protocol Hafez and Tigh had laid down—Starbuck was already moving to engage. First priority was to keep all six with him, which could best be done by shooting at both leaders. If the tin cans could think, the war would have been over nine hundred and fifty yahrens ago. All six banked towards him, ignoring Bojay, and one of them exploded nicely as he banked and dove to avoid their predictable opening shots. That left five, and two were having to adjust to losing their leader, so he could ignore them for a centon and go after the others.

He'd had plenty of time to be thankful for programmed Cylon thinking in the four yahrens he'd been on active duty. No way would he have wanted to go up against six Colonial warriors, but six Cylons were predictable enough to beat, if you were fast enough. And he was. A kid at a vid-game arcade would have scorned the tactics required; he heard himself laugh as he spun his Viper between the two groups and cut hard port, firing as he came around. One of the Raiders exploded. As they turned to fire at him, he waited a few microns until they were at just the right distance and fired again. The leftmost of the first group exploded and took out the rightmost of the other, leaving him with two wingers. As they fired on him, he evaded, but he'd had to wait just long enough that one of them connected, slicing neatly across one wing (which didn't matter in vacuum) and its liquid mercury fuel tank (which did). Though not if they weren't out for days... But engines and lasers were untouched, so he wasn't worried.

Just annoyed with himself. Bojay wasn't going to let him hear the end of that.

And then he heard Hafez's beautiful voice in his ear. "Lieutenant Starbuck, do you require assistance?"

"No, sir," he said, "I'll catch up."

"Excellent." And Blue Squadron went past at full speed.

Starbuck didn't intend to be there by the time Red arrived. Only two left; piece of cake. Walk in the park. Other metaphors for not a problem. He came around and took out one of the Raiders while still moving. The other one broke off and ran. "No," Starbuck said quietly, quoting one of his favorite fictional characters. "There is no escape."

He followed the fleeing Cylon and locked on, savoring the moment as burning fuel met oxygen and the whole thing burned for a glorious moment. He liked it when he had the leisure to watch one die.

Then he turned and followed Blue to the rest of the battle.

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