Note: Quote in part seven is from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, the twentieth chapter. The song Cassie remembers in part five is from "Royal Wedding", by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane.
Note: I didn't invent that twisted Colonial legal system... but "Murder on the Rising Star" makes it pretty clear the jeopardy described in this story is real.
The boy was cold. He was hungry. He was scared.
But worst, he was alone.
The trees were huge, twisted shapes against the sky, and their thorns made it hard for him to find a place to hide. But he had to hide—Run. Hide.—so he pushed himself between the spikes, adding the smell of his own blood to the iron, burning odor that would bring him to the edge of panic for the rest of his life. The pain was nothing anymore, nor was the hunger, he was used to them both. As long as he could run, and hide, he would be all right.
But not safe. Never safe ever again.
And always alone.
He crouched among the thorny vines against the bole of a tree, biting back his whimpers and shivering with the cold night wind and his fear. There should have been a warm, comforting, delicately strong someone there, to wrap him in her arms and whisper words that made him feel safe, wanted, and protected. Or a careless, laughing, insouciant someone, who caught him when he stumbled and made everything nothing to be afraid of. But neither of them was there...
Only the night wrapped him in protection. Only the wind whispered to him. Nothing caught him when he stumbled, unless he fell into a thorn bush, and there was nothing he wasn't afraid of.
Terror swept out of the skies, loud and destructive. Screams filled his ears. Flames spread everywhere. Run! Run! Into the Forest! The town, the farms, the houses were burning. Silver-winged death chased running people, firing on them... the smell, the dreadful smell of burning flesh and blood. Run. Hide.
He ran. He hid. He hid well, for days, an alternation of light and dark across the sky he could barely see from his hiding place. Screams in his ears faded to the silence of the forest, returning in his dreams. The thunderous downpours that drenched him to the bone, filled him with fevers yet gave him to drink and put out the fires that made him run. Again. Deeper into the thorny woods. Further from the terrors.
Reaching in his dreams for hands, for arms, for comfort. Waking to the cold, wet, thorny embrace of the trees. Fleeing in his dreams from fear and death. Waking to silence and safety.
And when the soldiers found him, a sleek speckled dagget alerting them to the shivering silent life crouched among the thorns, he allowed them to pick him up and take him back, and he stared with huge blue eyes at the remains of Umbra and the burial grounds and the utter desolation of the city only echoed that of his heart. He looked solemnly at the soldiers when they smiled at him, and they slowly realized that he had forgotten how to talk. Forgotten his name. Forgotten himself.
They said he was lucky.
He had to believe them.
They gave him a new name. They gave him to people who kept him warm and dry and clothed and fed. He learned to talk again. To smile and please and find places to tuck himself away and arms to hold him and voices to whisper to him in the darkness.
But he was still alone.
twenty-five yahrens later
The woman stood in the doorway and looked across the bar room at the pilots sitting around and playing pyramid. Her eyes were fixed on the tall dark one who didn't look like he was enjoying himself, but when the chestnut-haired woman Warrior on her way into the casino paused, looking at her and inquiring if she could be of any help, it was Lieutenant Starbuck the civilian asked for. The Warrior smiled with a touch of relief, said, "I'll tell him you're out here," and went into the room.
"Hi, Sheba," Apollo said as she slid into the seat on his left. "Glad you could make it."
"Hi," she said, and turned to the blond sitting on Apollo's right, a nice stack of cubits in front of him and a frown on his handsome face as he looked at his cards. She had glanced at his hand when she'd crossed behind him: a perfect third-level pyramid, in green. From his face, you wouldn't know only two possible hands could beat him. She smiled and said, "You're saved, Starbuck; there's someone needing to see you out there."
He looked at her and back at his cards. "Oh..." he collapsed his hand and looked around the table. "I should leave—"
"Hey, not before the hand's over," one of the other players protested.
"Oh. Yeah." Starbuck was reluctant... all the way up until he dropped his hand on the table and raked in the cubits. "Thanks, Sheba," he smiled at her.
"But there really is a woman out there," she said.
"Wait a centon," Apollo said. "Cards and a woman?"
"I just live right," Starbuck grinned, pocketing the cubits and favoring the whole table impartially with his blinding smile. Standing, he said, "See you in the morning, Apollo, Sheba, Boomer."
"You'd better be there on time, buddy," said Apollo.
Starbuck just grinned and left. Out in the lobby he looked around, but didn't see anybody he recognized. A couple of women were standing around, but they didn't appear to be looking for him, though he contemplated convincing the tall brunette that she was but didn't know it yet. Then he heard a soft voice.
"Are you Lieutenant Starbuck?"
He turned around. The woman was medium height and looked so tired he was surprised she was still on her feet. She was just vaguely familiar to him, though only her face, not her voice or her figure... Certainly not her clothes, which were worn and yet once had probably been alluring. She looked like a hooker on hard times. He was wary, but then something in her eyes softened him. "Yes," he said.
"You don't know me," she said, "but I'd like to talk with you. Please."
"Sure," he said. "Look, you should sit down. Come on inside, we'll get a booth—"
She was shaking her head. "No. No, I can't leave Zephyr."
He looked around. "Who?"
She gestured at the bench in the corner. A smallish parcel lay there... a baby, he realized. A baby in the lobby of the Gold Lounge. Now I've seen everything, he thought.
"Okay," he said. "Let's sit down over there... I'm sorry, what's your name?"
"Aline," she said.
Frack, that sounds familiar. He figured she'd tell him what she wanted soon enough. He slipped his hand under her elbow as they walked across the lobby. She sat down beside the baby; it cooed and stuck its little hand out at him. "Hi, sweetheart," he said, sticking his finger into its—her, he thought—grip. "Hi. Look at you."
"She likes you." Aline sounded surprised.
"I'm used to babies," he said. "Haven't been around one in a while, but... what is she, six, seven sectares?"
"Six," she said. "Would you like to... never mind."
"Hold her?" he said eagerly. People didn't generally offer him a chance to hold a baby. He slid his hands under Zephyr and raised her gently, resting her against his shoulder. "Hi, darling," he said. "Hi."
She smiled at him and patted his cheek. Her hair was reddish and curling and her eyes were big and brown. She was the cutest thing he'd seen in yahrens.
After a couple of centons he recollected himself and looked at Aline, who was leaning back against the wall with a tired smile on her face. "I'm sorry," he said. "What did you want to talk to me about?"
"Actually, it's about Zephyr," she said. "I hate to ask you this, but her father always spoke so highly of you. He practically worshipped you." She paused, breathing unevenly.
Starbuck played with Zephyr's fingers and tried to remember who had ever shown him a picture of this woman or mentioned someone named Aline...
"I don't have anybody else to ask," she said, embarrassment staining her face a dull red. "I can't work, I missed a lot of time with the baby and now I'm sick and... please, Zac always spoke so kindly of you. Please, if you could lend me just a little, I'll pay you back as soon as I can get back to work..."
Zac? Starbuck stared at her. He remembered now, Zac talking about a woman he'd met in Caprica City on furlon. His last furlon, as it turned out... It hadn't been hard to figure out she was a hooker, that Zac had spent all his money on her, that she'd taken him for everything she could... okay, maybe I was too hard on her. At least he'd never said anything like that to Zac before he died. Before he died... "Did Zac know about Zephyr?"
"No," she said. "He didn't... he was too young for this. It was my mistake, my decision. I didn't want to trouble him... when I found out he was dead, I thought maybe his parents would want to know. He, Zac's father, didn't." She shrugged. "I guess I'm not what he had in mind for him. And he has another son, I know that. Zac mentioned him."
"You're not asking him for money?"
"He wouldn't give me any," she said. "Zac said things about him... he loved him, but he... he might take her away from me but he wouldn't help me."
Starbuck wasn't one hundred percent sure that was true, but it most likely was. Apollo could be awfully rigid at times, and he'd be sure Aline was trying to blackmail them or something. Adama would be worse... he'd hate finding out one of his sons had left a bastard behind, by a hooker. Zephyr pulled his hair, not hard, just experimenting with it, and he smiled at her. Bastard. What a name for a little sweetheart like you. He looked up at Aline. "I'd do anything for Zac's kid," he said honestly. Especially since I'm why Zac's dead. "And you're in luck. I was in luck earlier today. I'm fairly flush at the moment... are you all right?" He reached out to steady her. His hand to her shoulder was half on her neck, she was so slender, and he was scared by the fever. "No, you're not. Come with me."
"I can't—" she broke off, finding it hard to breathe.
"You are," he said, rising to his feet and pulling her with him. "We're going to the Galactica."
"I can't go there."
"Yes, you can," he said. "Medical treatment's for anybody who needs it." He shifted Zephyr and got his other arm around Aline. "Don't argue; just come with me."
One of the Galactica shuttles was taking on passengers. Starbuck used his uniform to push past the others and make sure they got seats. Aline got quieter as they approached the battlestar, and when they docked, she made it no more than a few steps out into the bay before she simply collapsed. He only managed to stop her fall, since he was carrying the baby. But he hollered for help, and a tech corporal took Zephyr from him so he could pick Aline up and carry her to the Life Center. She seemed to weigh almost nothing, and she was burning with fever.
He paced the waiting room, holding Zephyr, worrying. "How long was your mama sick, hmmm?" he asked her. "Too long." He laid the back of his hand on her cheek, remembering how the matrons had checked for fevers at the orphanage. She seemed fine to him, but what did he know? "What am I going to do with you, huh, Zeffie?" he said. "Can't let you go to the Orphan Ship... no. No..." He smiled at her.
"Lieutenant Starbuck?" Dr. Salik looked out into the room. Starbuck crossed over to him.
"How is she?"
"Is that her baby?" Dr. Salik asked abruptly.
"Yes," Starbuck said.
"We need to do a screening on it," the doctor said, gesturing at his technician. The young woman—Tara, Starbuck thought her name was—took Zephyr from him.
"What's wrong with Aline?" Starbuck asked.
"Klarfelt syndrome," he said. "Triggered by exhaustion and malnutrition, but caused by exposure to solium, probably from the ship she was on during the evacuation. With any luck the baby won't have been exposed, it looks too young to have been born until after most of the leaks had been detected and shielded..."
"But that's fatal," Starbuck protested.
"Yes. I'm sorry. All we can do for the woman is medicate her pain. She's very far gone. She won't last the night, I'm afraid." He looked over his shoulder. "I'll call about the child; someone will come to pick it up."
"Her," said Starbuck. "But you don't have to call anybody. I'll be responsible."
"Lieutenant, the child is about to be an orphan—"
"No," Starbuck said without even thinking. "She's not. She's mine."
Dr. Salik raised an eyebrow, but simply shrugged and said, "I'll go check on the tests."
Starbuck nodded. "Can I see Aline?"
"Of course. She'll wake soon. But she may not be terribly lucid."
"She shouldn't be alone," Starbuck said. Sometimes Salik was just too cold for his taste.
"Of course," the doctor said, blinking a couple of times. "I'm sorry, I'm just not used to... well. Go in, stay with her. I'll let you know what we find out about the child."
Starbuck went into the small room where Aline lay, a blanket over her. He pulled up a chair and sat down, taking her little hand in his. "I wish you'd come looking for me sooner, Aline," he said. "Don't worry about Zeffie. Don't worry at all. I'll look after her. I promise."
She didn't respond, except that he thought her fingers might have tightened in his. He sat there the rest of the night, holding her hand and brushing the lank black hair off her face, stroking her cheek with his fingertips. Every now and then he'd tell her again, gently, "I'm here, Aline. You're not alone. And Zeffie's safe."
The only time he left was when Dr. Salik appeared in the doorway, beckoning. He untangled his fingers from hers, leaning over to whisper, "I'll be right back," and got up, a little surprised at how stiff he was.
"Lieutenant," the doctor said. "Good news and, well, I'm not sure."
"She's not sick?" That was the important thing. "Zeffie's all right?"
"She's not sick," he reassured him. "Well, a little run down, perhaps, nothing some good food and rest won't take care of, but—"
"But?" Amazing how quickly she'd grabbed his heart, which was now in his throat.
"But, well..." Salik looked a bit uncomfortable. "The child isn't yours, lieutenant."
Is that all? Then Starbuck realized what that would mean. "How can you be so sure?"
"A simple blood typing ruled it out, lieutenant. You're a 0—" and he'd been glad of it, universal donor, he'd given blood to Apollo and Boomer both. Frack, Zac must be a 1, like Apollo and Athena.... Dr. Salik was continuing, "She's a 3; ergo, you can't be her parent."
Starbuck swore softly; Salik blinked in startlement. Of course, he thinks she's conning me... but I can't let them take Zeffie. "Dr. Salik," he said carefully, "her medical records are confidential, aren't they?"
"Well, blood type isn't usually considered confidential..."
"But she's not a Warrior. There's no need for just anybody to know her blood type."
"No," he agreed. "You knew this already?"
"This is confidential, right? Doctor-patient?"
"Yes. If you want it that way."
"I do. Zeffie's mine, that's what I want people to know. I'm not asking you to lie; just don't tell anyone. I can't let that kid end up on the Orphan Ship."
"You're letting yourself in for a lot of trouble, lieutenant."
"Yeah, I know."
"If that's the way you want it."
"Then, it's all right with me. I'll not tell. Anyone," he added, with a meaningful look towards the techs' area, where Starbuck realized Cassie would be coming in to work on the early morning shift. Soon. Frack, he realized something else. His own duty shift started in a few centares. He couldn't leave Aline. He looked at his wristchrono again.
"I'll call your duty section," Dr. Salik said, "medical excuse you. You'll have a lot to do today if you're taking the child home."
Frack. "Like finding quarters."
Salik raised an eyebrow. "Have you any records at all?"
Starbuck opened his mouth and then closed it. He was definitely going to have to think. Plan. Figure something out.
"I've an affidavit form you can sign in lieu of birth records," Dr. Salik said. "It's common enough for nothing to have been salvaged. It'll cover you for quarters, child care, so on."
"Thank you, Doctor," Starbuck said. "I mean it."
"Thank me again when she's a teenager," Salik said. "She's with Tara for the moment; she's been fed and I expect she's sleeping." He turned and went back to his office.
Starbuck went back to Aline, taking her hand in his again and leaning over her to say, "It's all settled, Aline. Zeffie's going home with me. She'll be taken care of. Don't worry."
He was startled when she opened her eyes and looked at him. She spoke, her voice such a thready whisper he had to lean even more closely to hear her. "You shouldn't... she's not your problem..."
"She's not a problem," he said forcefully. "I want to take care of her, Aline. I loved Zac like a brother. I'll take care of his child. For him. For you, for not messing up his life. For Zeffie herself, because no kid should grow up an orphan."
"I didn't mean... for you to do this... I didn't—"
"I know, Aline. I want to. Don't worry about anything. I'm here and you're not alone, and Zeffie's safe." He tightened his hand on hers as she closed her eyes.
It was another centare before she stopped breathing. Starbuck was a little surprised to find tears on his face.
Cassie came into work in a good mood after a good night's sleep. She and Starbuck were getting their relationship back into some sort of order after Cain had blazed back into her life like some comet, fiery and irresistible and gone again. Cassie had really hated hurting the lieutenant, but the commander owned her heart and had for yahrens, and after all, Starbuck was... well, Starbuck. Volatile and, well, not really attached. Starbuck had told her to make her own decision and follow her heart and do what she wanted... so she had. And then Cain had left her—again—and she'd discovered that Starbuck's heart had been engaged enough that she'd really hurt him. It wasn't easy, getting his trust back.
Sometimes, she wasn't so sure he was worth all the trouble. Sure, he was sweet. And handsome. And very good in bed. And he made her laugh. But he was also profligate and reckless and apt to forget about her when his friends or the cards called... Cassie was used to being the first thing on her man's mind. Of course, her man was generally paying for it... or had been. Which was one of Starbuck's first attractions for her, that he hadn't treated her like a socialator. But most people had forgotten that by now, or at least learned how to act like it. New days, new ways...
But she wasn't used to having to work so hard, and sometimes Starbuck seemed more like quicksilver than a precious metal. So it was nice to spend an evening alone sometimes, not working so hard at getting back something she wasn't sure she'd ever had or that she'd know what to do with if she had it... Recharging her batteries, so to speak. Getting ready to charge back into battle.
So she was humming to herself as she came into the Life Center. Tara was sitting at the blood testing console, running some figures, and a baby was on the second operator's chair, fast asleep. "What a cute baby," Cassie said, hoping nobody was going to expect her to pick it up and be maternal. "Whose is it?"
"That lieutenant in Two," Tara said, not looking away from the console. "It's so sad, isn't it? Her mother dying and all."
"Does she have a father?" Cassie asked because she thought she ought.
"Oh, the lieutenant's her father. He's in with the mother."
Cassie wondered who it was. She picked up some files and walked past Two to get a peek. And froze in the doorway. The dark blond head bent over the woman's body... It can't be. But she knew it was. She backed away quickly before he could feel her eyes on him and glared at Tara. She'd done that on purpose, Cassie knew she had. Well, there was no way she was giving that snip the satisfaction of knowing she'd been gotten to. Instead, she went looking for Dr. Salik.
"What's wrong with the woman in Two?" she asked casually.
"Klarfelt," he said, "end-stage. Solium poisoning during the Evacuation, doubtless. I don't expect her to last more than another centare."
"And that's her baby?"
Salik looked up at her and said, with deliberation, "Yes. Lieutenant Starbuck's the father, it would appear. He's assuming custody."
"I see," she said. She went to a terminal and began entering data. When Salik left the office some twenty centons later, Cassie immediately pulled up the woman's records and ran a cross-check against the personnel data banks for the Fleet...
While Starbuck was signing forms for the Life Center and arranging Aline's burial, Apollo was noticing that his wingman wasn't where he was supposed to be. He called the BOQ, but nobody had seen him all night. "Damn him," he said resignedly to Boomer. "Did I or did I not tell him he'd better be on time this morning?"
"You did," Boomer said philosophically. "You always do. He usually is."
"Captain?" the duty sergeant said. "Dr. Salik called from the Life Center about Lieutenant Starbuck. He said he was putting him off duty for two days—"
"What the hell happened to him?" Apollo's irritation evaporated, replaced by concern with a touch of anger. "Why does he always find trouble wherever he goes?" he added.
"Dr. Salik said, 'family emergency', sir."
"Family emergency?" Apollo repeated blankly. "Starbuck hasn't got any family. How can he have a family emergency?"
Boomer shook his head. "Got me. Unless that guy, Chameleon?"
"I'm going to the Life Center," Apollo said. He paused, giving Boomer a long-suffering look. "Don't you think he'd come with a better excuse than that?"
"Hey, maybe he got Sealed last night," Boomer grinned.
For some reason, that did not strike Apollo as the slightest bit humorous.
'Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.' That was one of those phrases that came into Starbuck's mind as if he'd heard them long ago. They weren't quite common use, but it wasn't as if he'd made them up, either. He liked to think of them as the things "my dad used to say"... In this case, he hoped you could add, 'or one is a medical professional.' If Dr. Salik told anyone, he'd lose Zeffie. He might lose her anyway. He probably wasn't anybody's idea of a suitable father. He just hoped that nobody was willing to get too terribly exercised over the fate of a cheap hooker's kid. He might even look like an improvement.
Starbuck sat in the waiting room and watched Zeffie sleep in the chair next to him, remembering Zac. He'd been eager and he'd been young and then, just like that, he'd been dead. On Starbuck's patrol. That he'd begged for it didn't really relieve Starbuck of his share of the responsibility. The Armistice hadn't been signed yet; technically, no matter what Apollo had said before leaving, they had still been at war. Zac hadn't been ready. Too green. No hours in a Viper outside of training. Too excited. Too much to prove.
Starbuck could still remember that conversation in the locker room before Apollo had come in. Zac all but begging, those big brown eyes, just like Zeffie's... He still thinks of me as his little brother. Zac wanting so much to grow up, to stop being Adama's youngest, Apollo's kid brother, the baby of the family, even though he was half a head taller than Apollo and young enough to get still taller. His pilot's jacket still stiff with new, his rank pins too shiny, his whole self so young... his whole future ahead of him and it a good one, a peaceful one, a never-having-to-learn-to-kill-or-to-lose-the-people-he-loved future and all he wanted was this one last shot at what his father and brother had spent their whole lives at, to prove...
Starbuck sighed, remembering his own question: It's just a routine patrol. Why is it so important to you? And Zac's impassioned answer: 'Cause it is. I'm a Warrior. I earned that. I want to prove that to him.
Starbuck reached out and pushed a strand of Zephyr's hair back behind her ear. You did, kid, he thought. It's not your fault that he's closed his eyes. Won't see it; won't accept it. That you're still his baby brother...
Zac had wanted it so badly he'd beaten down Starbuck's reluctance. He'd let himself convince himself that his uncertainties were innate, unfounded... He'd never forget Zac saying, It's a peace envoy! What possible trouble could there be? And his answer, Yes, well, that's not the point... and Zac's anguished cry of Starbuck, you promised! Promised... and Zac still trusted his word, his promises, and so he'd gone to his death. Gone joyfully—his whoop at Apollo's accepting the substitution still rang in Starbuck's dreams. Apollo remembered more his own answer to Starbuck's last try to pay attention to his little voices, his offer Listen, maybe I oughta go along... turned down by an Apollo finally and too briefly proud of his little brother: No, he's gonna be just fine.
Just fine... Except that he was too new at the job. That was it. It wasn't because he was an innocent or a child still. Younger than he had gone to war. Starbuck had been younger... But it was his first time out. And he shouldn't have been there. It shouldn't have been him.
He still thinks of me as his little brother.
And he always will, now. His perfect innocent laid on the altar for the survival of the people, and this time no one provided a rammet in the thicket. This time the innocent died.
After first having the lack of consideration for the legend being created around his name to fall, and hard, for a cheap hooker and father a bastard daughter on her. Not a good way to burnish the luster on the story. Not the way his father and brother wanted to remember him. Not the way they would remember him, probably. He wondered exactly what Aline had meant by saying 'Zac's father didn't want to know.' Refused to talk to her? To believe what she said? Accused her of trying to blackmail them? It didn't really matter. Zephyr wasn't how they remembered Zac. And Zac had told Aline, over that one pre-deployment ten-day furlon all the graduates got, enough about Starbuck that it was him she'd come looking for when she needed help.
"Starbuck, you promised!"... I promised, Zac. I did. I promised her, and I'm promising you: I may have failed you then, Zac. I won't fail your daughter.
"Lieutenant?" The billeting clerk looked up from her terminal.
He got up and crossed over to her. "Yes?"
"Well, we can't get you into two rooms for a couple of sectares. Would you prefer to wait, or move twice?"
He smiled slightly. "It's not like I've got much to move," he said. "And I really don't think the BOQ pilots' barracks is the right place for a little girl for a couple of sectares. We'll take the one-room."
She smiled at him. "Well, while she doesn't look old enough to appreciate the BOQ, I don't think she's old enough to notice anything, either. But it's up to you. Sign here, please."
"Thank you," he said, signing here. And here. And here.
"There you go, lieutenant. Initial keycode is 1111. Change it first thing." She handed him two data cards. "Take this one to the QM if you need more furniture. I'd hang onto it till you get into your permanent quarters, if I were you. And this one is your rations card, for the food stores. You get four O Club meals a secton, any others will show up on your tab. And I've put you in the system for child care during your duty shifts."
"Thanks, Corporal," he said, pocketing the cards. Then he went back to the chairs and picked up Zephyr. She didn't wake up, just snuggled against his shoulder. "I think I'll take you to child care before I start running around," he said softly.
There, of course, he had to sign another four forms. It was a definite reality check, putting unknown down so often. "Lieutenant," the primary caregiver said, checking the form, "we need an alternate contact."
"Can I get back to you on that?"
"Well, yes, I suppose," she said. "What about her mother?"
"She died this morning," he said.
"I am so sorry," she said, putting her hand on his arm. "There's no hurry, then. Just, as soon as you find someone, tell us. We'll use your commanding officer at the moment."
Great. Apollo... "I'll have a name for you today," he said. "Tomorrow at the latest."
"It's all right, Lieutenant... Starbuck?" she read off the forms. "Don't worry. We'll take very good care of little Zephyr." She smiled at him.
"I'm sure you will," he said. Then he dropped to his heels to say goodbye to Zephyr, who gurgled at him and didn't want to let go of his finger. "I'll be back, sweetheart," he promised her.
He found his new temporary quarters: sleeping room, front room, service room... more space than he'd ever had to himself. Sharing with a baby didn't count; she'd hardly take up any room and owned even less than he did... frack, he realized. He needed to buy clothes for Zeffie. Probably toys. Food. He should have asked the caregivers what he needed. He wondered if Aline had anything... well, of course she did. Wherever she'd been living. He should check with the personnel data base and go there, pick up whatever she'd left.
Assuming any of it was worth picking up. Or was still there.
After checking the records—and discovering, to his not very great surprise, that several other people had already checked up on Aline—he caught the first shuttle making the round that included the freighter she'd been living on, the Caprican Feriya. It was marginally better than the Gemini, but that wasn't saying much. He was glad of the laser belted to his leg as he made his way along the crowded lower compartments... living on the Galactica one tended to forget what conditions were like in much of the Fleet. Aline's compartment was tiny. No one bothered to question his right to go into it, though he did get a couple of offers from her neighbors, seeing as how she wasn't home. And no one questioned his packing up a small bag with three sets of baby clothes and a couple of feeding bottles. There wasn't anything else there worth taking; he didn't know if she'd never had anything or if somebody had already been there before him.
He didn't suppose it really mattered.
"No," he said to the deck supervisor. "No, she won't be back. You can reassign the compartment."
"She always had a thing for the military—no offense," he added quickly.
Starbuck decided not to start anything... after all, he had a dependent now. And the root meaning of the word was clearer to him than it had ever been before. It scared him just a little: Zephyr had only him to depend on.
He decided to stop by the O Club and grab one of those meals the billeting clerk had talked about. Experimenting with cooking his own meals could wait until tonight. Then he figured to go by the barracks and clear his stuff out and then go back to the child care facility and find someone to give him a shopping list... He leaned back against the seat and waited for the shuttle to make its way back around to the Galactica, making up a tentative list in his head.
At the O Club he ordered a sandwich and sat a table for two. He was halfway through when he heard his name. Cassie... she'd glared at him this morning but disappeared into the back of the Life Center before he could say anything. Just as well, he'd thought, since at the time he hadn't had a clear idea of what he was going to say. He figured Zephyr was going to break them up; Cassie didn't strike him as ready to be anybody's step-mother except Sheba's...
He looked up at her. "Cassie—"
"Don't speak to me," she said. "How dare you?"
"If I'm not to speak, how am I supposed to answer?" he asked, reasonably enough he thought.
"This is not a joke, Starbuck," she said. "There's nothing amusing in this situation."
"No," he agreed. "Death is rarely amusing."
"I can't believe you," Cassie said. "It was bad enough you were dating Athena and me at the same time, but this! Starbuck, that woman had a baby! Your baby, and you didn't think it was worth mentioning!"
"Cass, I didn't—"
"Oh, that's right," she said, her voice carrying. "You didn't know. Because she was a twenty-cubit whore. I don't want to see you again." She turned on her heel and walked out.
Damn. He'd known in the Life Center that she was mad, but not that mad.
"Buy you a drink, flyboy?"
He turned, startled. Athena stood by his chair. "Ah, yes," he said.
She sat down and, after signaling the waiter, put her hand on his arm. "Starbuck, sorry about Cassie. But I happen to think you're doing the right thing. I'm even willing to baby-sit... sometimes."
He smiled at her gratefully. "Thanks, 'Theni."
"Don't thank me," she said. "We're friends, aren't we? I know what it must mean to you, not having known about her. Knowing how close she came to being raised an orphan... I mean it. I'll help."
"I'm going to need it," he admitted. "In fact—'Theni, can I put you down as alternate contact? If I get killed or something? I don't have anybody else..."
"Of course you can," Athena said. "You'd better not need me, though. I'll figure out some way to make you pay."
She didn't ask why her and not Apollo, which made him sure he was making the right choice. But he just nodded and said, "I have every intention of making sure you never get a call. Believe me."
"Starbuck, how could you be so... so..." Apollo seemed stuck for words.
"Irresponsible?" Starbuck offered helpfully.
"Hey, that's who I am, remember?"
"That's no excuse. Even you should have known better."
Starbuck looked at him. Although this conversation was intensely depressing, Apollo's reaction had convinced him he'd been right not to tell them that Zephyr was really Zac's. None of them would have wanted to know it, especially Adama. Or maybe especially Apollo, who was turning his little brother into the perfect sacrificial lambet. And none of them would have wanted her, except just possibly Athena, and though Apollo or Adama would probably have taken her in, the atmosphere wouldn't have been good for her.
"I just don't understand you, Starbuck. You were seeing Athena then. How could you go on a furlon and just..."
"Hey." That stung, even though it wasn't true. It was Apollo's tone that did it. "Athena and I were never exclusive. She knew that. You knew that."
"Starbuck, she was a cheap whore, not another girlfriend."
"You're awfully judgmental, you know? Some day that's going to come back and bite you."
"I practice what I preach, Starbuck. I don't sleep around and I certainly don't patronize whores."
"I don't make a practice of it, but it's no big deal. It's legal."
"A lot of stuff is legal, Starbuck; that doesn't make it right. Besides—"
"I don't understand how it can be so meaningless. How you can not care."
"I can care."
"But you don't. You never have. You never will."
Starbuck figured later he'd just snapped under the strain. "You want to know why I sleep around, Apollo? Is that it? It's because I'm in love, damnit, and I'll never, ever get the one I want."
"You? In love? Since when?"
"Oh, a dozen yahrens, anyway."
Apollo stared at him. "Come on, Starbuck. What's going on here?"
Starbuck wished he hadn't started but since he had, hell. In for one cubit, in for a dozen. "I love you. I have for quite a while. I know you don't—"
"My gods, are you serious?" Apollo stared at him. "You are. Starbuck, this is seriously wrong. I don't want to hear it."
"Well, it's not like I wanted to say it—"
"I wish you hadn't."
"If you'd stayed out of my personal life, maybe I wouldn't have."
"When your personal life interferes with the performance of your duty, lieutenant—"
"It hasn't yet, captain. And it won't. And I'd think you'd appreciate me taking care of my responsibilities."
Apollo stared at him. "We'll hope it doesn't. Now that's all, lieutenant. Dismissed."
Over an ale in his quarters that evening Starbuck recounted the conversation to Boomer, finishing with, "So now he's thoroughly pissed off at me. Which is why he barked at all of us all afternoon, I expect."
"You probably could have chosen a better time to tell him," Boomer observed.
"Nah," Starbuck shook his head. He might not be sure why he had chosen that time, but he was sure of one thing, at least. "There is no good time to tell Apollo something he doesn't want to hear. You can try picking a time when he's not listening, or can ignore you, but otherwise... well, when he's already mad at you is as good a time as any."
"There's some truth to that," Boomer acknowledged.
"Listen to Starbuck; he knows about Apollo being pissed off at him."
Boomer had to laugh. Then he said, "I still think—"
"I know. You thought in another four, five yahrens he'd have mellowed or gotten lonely or something. The trouble with you is you're an incurable romantic, Boom-Boom."
"I guess so... When do you think he'll get over it?"
"Optimist," Starbuck said. "Who knows? Right at this centon I don't much care. But I know I will, so I hope it's soon."
"I know... look, it's done. I never had any hopes anyway. As long as he talks to me again, I'll be happy."
"Oh, he'll talk to you," Boomer predicted. "You may wish he wouldn't, of course."
"I used to do that a lot, anyway."
Boomer laughed again. "You know, Bucko, I think he'll settle down about it pretty soon. You two will never be quite the same again, I suppose, but he'll cool off and realize you never jumped his bones before now—"
"Thought about it," Starbuck confessed.
"Yeah, well, don't mention that," Boomer grinned. "So he'll settle down, rewrite the conversation a little, and you two will be okay again. Just give him some time."
"Don't have much choice, do I?"
"Not if you want to stay friends with him. Don't push him. It'll work out."
"I hope so—did you hear that?"
"I think Zeffie's awake. Hang on, I'll be right back."
But the other man went with him, in case she was awake and needed some attention from her Uncle Boomer.
She was still sleeping, making little noises and kicking a bit, the blanket mostly off and her little cloth felix—that Jenny had shoved into his hand with a gruff, "made this for the little bit, sir; it's not much but it won't matter if she teethes on it or something"—clutched in one hand. Starbuck said softly to Boomer, "I think she's just dreaming. If babies dream. Do they?"
"How should I know? Why wouldn't they?"
"Well, they can't think. I mean, they can't talk yet, or anything. So how would they?"
"Images, maybe... I thought you were around babies a lot growing up. How come you're asking me?"
"Just because they made us watch them didn't mean they told us anything about them," Starbuck said, tucking the blanket around her shoulders and smoothing her hair. "Anyway, if it's a dream, she's enjoying it."
"I think I'm going to go and do a little dreaming of my own, buddy," Boomer said. "See you tomorrow."
"Night, Boomer. Thanks."
"Don't mention it. What are friends for, anyway?"
To Starbuck's surprise, Boomer wasn't the only one who liked to come over and amuse Zephyr. In fact, lots of Blue Squadron and a good number of pilots from the others were obviously completely taken by his baby girl. She was the only pilot's child around, for one thing, not counting Boxey. And though they liked him well enough, had been kind to him when he'd spent time in the barracks when Apollo had been missing, there was an extra something to the way they responded to Zephyr. Maybe it was because she was really his, maybe because she was a baby, maybe because she was a girl... maybe even because most of them could identify with the whole scenario of a woman showing up out of the past. Whatever, Starbuck discovered that he never had a problem on the occasions he needed someone to stay with her at short notice. He didn't take advantage of that willingness, but when emergencies came up he never had to worry. If nothing else, Jenny and the other mechs watched her.
He found himself staying home nearly all the time. But a couple or three times a secton half a dozen or so people would come over and just hang out in his quarters, someone having stopped by the O Club to get something for them to drink while they sat around and played cards or triktrak or just talked. Even when there were only three or four and they played yermolash or contract, whoever was sitting out the hand generally was making a fool of himself with Zeffie instead of annoying his partner by hanging over the table and criticizing the play. And though Jolly spoke for them all when he claimed you just couldn't get a good game of pyramid going without Starbuck, Zeffie spent most of those evenings in various laps, playing with cubits or chips or somebody's wristchrono. Sheba had protested that they were corrupting her, and Jolly had said, "Like she's not genetically programmed to gamble as it is? And it's not like we're letting her drink."
Of course, they always handed her over to him if she needed changing, though she would probably be terminally embarrassed by the number of her father's friends who could tell her how cute she'd been in her bath... Still, he had never expected to have so much interested help. And gods knew, he needed it.
It took Apollo three sectares to come over the first time, and then only because Sheba and Boomer dragged him. But after that only slightly awkward evening, both of them glad to see the other but not sure how to say so, he came a couple or three times a sectare. Usually with Sheba, who was still nice to Starbuck and still made him feel creepy for no reason he could put his finger on. No good reason, anyway. It bothered him to feel like that and he had always tried to be nice back. It occurred to him once that they probably came across as good friends; after all they never even disagreed... but it was a sham and he thought she knew it as well as he did.
As for Apollo and him, well, they were still friends, really, though the old inseparable days were gone. It was good though, when they got back on easy terms again; Starbuck had missed him. And, apparently, been missed as well, though Apollo was noticeably more careful about topics of conversation.
Athena and Starbuck, on the other hand, were better friends now than they had ever been. If you ignored the fact that they'd slept together on and off for three yahrens (or if you knew about the more peculiar practices of some of the really ancient Kobolian aristocrats), she was like the sister he didn't know if he had and he was like the brother she wished she did instead, sometimes, of the one she did have. Sometimes.
"Well, I just don't understand why you aren't more annoyed with him," said Apollo.
"Why should I be annoyed with him?" she asked curiously. She really wanted to know why her brother was.
"'Theni, he was seeing you at the time, remember?"
"And you were so happy about it, I remember that, too."
"That's beside the point. He was seeing you."
"It's not like we were Sealed," she pointed out. "Or talking about getting Sealed. Or thinking about talking about it. Or thinking about thinking about—"
"I get the idea," he said.
"And you don't like it. You'd rather I said he broke my heart?"
She looked at him in some amusement. He was always doing that to himself. "I know you wouldn't, Apollo," she said. "I never loved Starbuck. Not really... and just as well. But he never told me I was the only one."
"So you're telling me you were never jealous?"
"Of Zeffie's mom? How could I be?"
"What about Cassie?"
"Okay, you've got me. Though I wasn't jealous of her, I was just pissed off at him. For a couple of days. Then it became a game, really: how much trouble will he go to?"
"Not very kind to Cassie, was it?"
"She wasn't very kind to him, either. Because he did stop playing around, Apollo. He was being faithful to her. You know he was. You even told me you hoped it would be 'the making of him'. And then she just left him flat."
"Well..." that was true, and he'd been angry on Starbuck's behalf. When Starbuck had offered to stay with Cain on the Pegasus, he'd known it was because he'd meant it, the some of us don't have any families.... That had hurt, he'd thought Starbuck knew they thought of him as family, him, Adama, Boxey... even Sheba.
Athena continued. "And I know you're going to say that was later. And you're right, maybe it wasn't very kind to Cassie. But I didn't know her then. But none of this has anything to do with Zeffie's mother."
"Cassie is sure mad at him." His tone suggested Cassie was showing some sense.
"Well, she doesn't have any right to be," Athena said uncompromisingly. "He didn't even know she was alive the last time he was on Caprica."
"It's an indication of character," Apollo insisted.
"Starbuck doesn't have any character, not the way you're meaning it," she said. "He never has, and it's part of his charm, and you know it. If it's going to annoy Cassie so much, it's a good thing she broke it off."
"Why did you go out with him if you thought that?"
"Because he's got plenty of character, really."
"He doesn't have character," Apollo started.
"I know, I know: 'Character, you're supposed to have it, not be it.' But even Father knows you can trust Starbuck with your life. When he makes a promise, he keeps it. When it counts, you can depend on him. You know that. You always have. I can understand why Cassie's upset. I don't understand why you are."
"If you don't understand it," he said finally, "I can't explain it."
Because you don't understand it, either, do you? she thought, looking at him. You can be such an enigma sometimes.
"If you understand it," Sheba's voice said, and she slid into the booth next to Apollo, "I wish you'd explain it to me, Athena."
"Hi," Athena said as Apollo kissed Sheba on the cheek. So that's what this dinner invitation is about, she thought. Well, I could see it coming the past half yahren or more. You played him perfectly. She smiled at the Viper pilots across from her. You make a handsome couple, anyway. "Explain what?"
"Why Cassie is so angry," she said. "Anybody can see Starbuck's making that child a perfectly good father."
That was such a typically Sheba statement, Athena reflected. On the surface it was so nice and yet... somewhere underneath were several buried insults you couldn't quite call her on. She shrugged. "Because she's a socialator. Was a socialator."
"I'm sorry?" Sheba said.
"Well, you remember how angry she was that the woman was 'a twenty-cubit whore'?" Athena still winced internally at the memory of Cassie delivering that line like a slap in the face. If nothing else, it pretty much guaranteed that Zeffie was going to hear it...
"Yes," Sheba said.
"There you are. Look," she elaborated when both her brother and Sheba looked puzzled. "Cassie was a socialator. That's pretty much the same thing as whore, right?"
"Well," Apollo said reluctantly, "of course."
"Just not cheap," Sheba said bitterly. "Somehow socially acceptable. A man can preen himself on taking one to an expensive restaurant."
Oops. Forgot your father was one of her customers. "Yes, well, I'm sure that socialators themselves spend a lot of time convincing themselves that there's considerably more difference than the price-tag. So Cassie has to really despise people like Zephyr's mother to keep up her own self-respect."
"That makes sense," Apollo said.
"And even when she finishes training and is a physician," Athena finished, "there will still be people who think of her, maybe even call her, 'that ex-socialator'."
"Not where Boomer can hear it," Sheba smiled.
"He finally asked her out?" Apollo sounded, to his sister's ears at least, as if he were uncertain if that was a good thing or not.
"I saw them on the Star last night," Sheba said. "Maybe he can make her calm down a bit about Starbuck. After all, he's still friends with him."
And again, there was stuff lurking under the surface of that. I'm glad I'm not going to be living with you, Athena thought as she said, "There's no reason he wouldn't be."
"No, of course not."
"Actually," said Apollo, "I don't want to spend the whole evening talking about Boomer. Or Starbuck either. Sheba and I have some news, 'Theni."
She sat back and prepared to be suitably surprised and delighted.