Starbuck woke up and opened his eyes. Everything seemed bright and fuzzy, but he didn't hurt. That was nice. In fact it was reassuring: he must not have gone to perdition after all. All the hells were supposed to hurt. Hah, he thought, shows what you knew... He couldn't remember her name, the Orphanage worker who'd repeatedly assured him he was destined for the second or third hell at least and without fail. Didn't matter. She'd been wrong. He was apparently in the Land of Light. Too much light, if you could say that. He blinked against it and things started to come into focus.
The Land of Light looked a lot like a Life Center.
That seemed wrong.
He blinked again. No doubt that Zeff would end up in the Land of Light, and probably have enough clout to drag him along, but she wasn't supposed to be dead.
"Daddy?" That sounded happy. A little worried, maybe, but happy.
Maybe... maybe he wasn't dead. He swallowed and said, "Zeff?"
He couldn't hear the word, but she squealed with delight right in his ear and he knew for a fact he was alive. "Dr. Salik! Dr. Cassie! Somebody! He's awake!" She leaned over into his field of vision and said, "Daddy?" Her hair was a mess and she'd been sleeping in her uniform, and not long enough from the bruised look to her eyes, but she looked well. And alive. "Daddy," she said, touching his face as gently as if she thought he'd break, and echoed his thoughts. "You're awake. You're finally awake."
Now he recognized the source of the fuzzy well-being: he didn't hurt because he had enough coda pumped into him to knock out an equinus. Which meant Bojay had probably had lots of fun—"Are you all right?" he asked, and this time he managed to say it out loud.
"I'm fine," she said, blinking away tears from the big brown eyes he'd thought never to see again. "What about you? How do you feel?"
"Oh, fine," he said. "I expect I shouldn't—"
"Hah," said Salik, leaning over. That ironical glint was in his eye, and that alone made Starbuck feel better. He couldn't be dying; Salik wouldn't have been that happy. "You certainly should feel fine, with all the coda we've been running into you over the past seven days. I tend to forget how well you react to it; maybe we should cut the dosage down."
"You know," Starbuck said, discovering that somehow he'd gotten hold of Zeffie's hand and tightening his grip on it, "I think that's probably not a good idea. For one thing, I'm thinking it's probably only the coda which is stopping me from making a grab for you and asking what's wrong with my eyes."
"Nothing's wrong with your eyes, plural," said Salik. "Your left eye is perfectly fine, though probably a bit drug-hazed I'll concede. Your right eye, that's a different story. At the moment, it's bandaged, which is why it's not open—"
"He kicked me," Starbuck remembered.
"Yes, he did," Salik said. "You remember that? Remember why?"
"I was rude," Starbuck said. "Wanted to get his attention." He swallowed. "I guess it worked."
"Uhmh," said Salik. "It would seem so... you're not going to lose it, Starbuck. It'll even work at least pretty well. You might have some difficulty with quickly changing focal points, possibly a tiny blind spot or two you will quickly stop noticing. After all, we all have blind spots already, where the optic nerve actually connects to the eye, and nobody notices them. Wonderful things, brains..."
"But?" Salik repeated.
"Come on, doctor, I've heard that tone before. It'll work pretty well, but—?"
"But maybe not well enough for you to risk your life in combat on it."
"Okay," Starbuck said after a moment. "I can live with that."
Salik raised an eyebrow at him.
Starbuck grinned. "I never expected to wake up. Now you tell me the price is just not flying combat any more? Zeff's alive, I'm alive, Bojay's not, I hope?"
"He's dead," Zeff said, a savage satisfaction in her voice. "He's very dead."
"Then I can live with the price. I'm not that selfish." He closed his eye for a micron, then opened it again. "Everything else still works?"
Salik laughed. "Yes, Starbuck. Everything else still works. Except maybe a slight problem with your left hand, and a weather knee."
"Weather knee?" Starbuck laughed. That hurt a little bit. Note to self: don't laugh just yet. "That's not exactly a problem out here. What about my hand? It seems to be working." He tightened his grip on Zeff's again.
"You had some damage to the tendons," Salik said. "I think we pretty much fixed it, but let me check. Here, girl, go around and hold the other one."
She did, and Salik ran him through those "push hard, don't let me move your hand, bend your fingers, try to straighten them" exercises. "A little weakness," was his verdict, "but nothing exercise won't cure."
Starbuck proved him right by running the fingers of it through Zeffie's hair, snagging on a few tangles. "You're a mess," he observed. "In my day cadets didn't walk around looking this unkempt."
"Sorry, sir," she said. "I've been a little distracted."
"Well, I'll let you off this time—did you say seven days?" he demanded suddenly of Salik.
It was Zeffie who answered. "You were sedated for five and then you wouldn't wake up for two more, Dad. We were starting to get really worried. Aunt 'Theni said you were just lazy, and Uncle Apollo said you always did sleep too much—"
"Lies," he said, brushing the back of his hand against her cheek. "And they're supposed to be my friends."
"We were all getting worried," she said again. "But it's okay now, isn't it?" She looked up at Salik.
Who nodded. "He'll be fine. I told you that already. In fact, you can get out of my Life Center in a couple of days, though you're not going back on duty for at least a sectare."
"A sectare?" Starbuck protested. "I'll miss graduat—" Another memory suddenly surfaced. He felt his hand clench on Zeff's. "Oh, gods," he said softly. "That rodent killed Clarsarc. Didn't he?"
Zeffie nodded. Her eyes teared up. "He did. You missed the funeral, Dad. I'm sorry. I know he would have wanted you there."
"Would he?" Starbuck asked somberly, remembering Bojay's insane ravings about needing an innocent to somehow complement Starbuck's death.
"Yes," she said firmly. "He didn't blame us. Either of us. He blamed Bojay. Only him. He really did, Dad. He told me and he meant it. You know him..." she swallowed as she heard the verb tense.
"Yes," he echoed her. "I did. I wish I had been there."
"He knows that," she said. "Wherever he is. And he's glad you didn't come to meet him."
"We all are," Salik broke into that with the ease of a man used to emotional displays that he didn't want to continue. "But, do you remember what I said to you, Cadet? You're not my patient at the moment, but if you don't take care of yourself, you will be. So, now that he's awake and you've satisfied yourself that there have not, unfortunately, been any lasting mental changes—"
"Hey," Starbuck protested, pro forma.
"—you will now take yourself to the cadet barracks, where you will eat and shower and get at least eight centares of sleep. After which you may come back here."
"Yes, sir," she said. She bent down and kissed Starbuck on his cheek. "Good night, Dad. See you tomorrow."
"Listen to him," Starbuck said. "I want you looking rested tomorrow."
"Yes, Dad," she rolled her eyes at him exaggeratedly.
"Now," said Salik, after she'd gone. "How are you feeling? Up to another visitor? Because Sub-Colonel Apollo has been driving me insane. And he looks worse than her."
"Apollo?" Starbuck's heart lifted. "I feel fine."
"Well, don't worry. I'll run him out before you can get tired."
"Tired, doc?" Starbuck said. "I've been asleep for seven days. How tired can I get?"
"Your body's been working very hard, Starbuck," said Salik. "You'll find out how tired you can get. Believe me. Plenty."
He left. Starbuck contemplated the ceiling for a few centons, and then he heard the familiar voice. "Starbuck?"
"Hey, Apollo," he said breezily. "I guess you were right. Bojay did hate me."
Apollo leaned over the pod, his green eyes filled with unshed tears. He reached down for Starbuck's hand and held it in his. "You had us really worried, Bucko," he said softly.
"Didn't mean to," he said, feeling the strength in Apollo's hand. "He just jumped us—"
"Don't," Apollo said. "Zeff and Musa already told us everything."
"Musa? Huh," Starbuck said. "You know, he'd slipped my mind."
"Well, Zeff wasn't very complimentary about him."
"I'll bet. What happened?" Starbuck asked. "Did she get a call out?"
"A call? Salik didn't tell you?"
"She got a call off, all right. After she fried Bojay."
"Zeff? Zeff killed Bojay?" Pride warred with worry.
"Absolutely," said Apollo. "You've got one tough daughter there, Bucko. She's going to make a helluva Warrior. Just like her old man."
Starbuck looked into Apollo's eyes. "You know?"
Apollo blinked, then said, "She does look like him. But I meant you. You're the one who raised her—and maybe sometime we'll talk about it, but I think you were right, for what it's worth—"
"It's worth a lot," Starbuck said, squeezing Apollo's hand.
Apollo nodded. "And so does my father, for that matter. He came to that conclusion before I did, in fact. So let's not waste time talking about it now. 'Cause it doesn't matter."
"Okay," Starbuck was willing to let it go.
"What does matter is that you're going to be okay." He raised Starbuck's hand and rested his cheek against the back of it. "No joke, Bucko. I was scared to death when I got down there."
What he could remember of the assault was not something he'd have wanted anybody to see. He'd already been wishing like hell Zeff hadn't; now he had to add Apollo. "Well, it's okay now, 'Pol," he said. "Salik tells me I'm gonna be just fine. As long as the Council doesn't consider me a corrupting influence, I can keep on teaching. You don't need perfect eyes for that."
Apollo closed his own eyes for a minute. He was struggling with something, Starbuck could tell. But before he could decide whether to say it or not, Salik came in. "All right, Apollo. Time's up. Say goodnight. You can come back tomorrow afternoon."
"Of course." Apollo straightened up immediately; he must have been scared, Starbuck reflected, to give up so easily. "You rest, Starbuck. If you want to go to graduation—"
"You'll do what I tell you," Salik said with satisfaction. "Say goodnight, Apollo."
"Goodnight, Apollo," they said in unison, and laughed as Salik made shooing motions. "I'll see you tomorrow, Starbuck," Apollo added and left.
And Starbuck discovered just how tired he was.
When Salik was ready to let Starbuck out, Zeff was there to take him home.
"Zeffie," he said, "I'm capable of walking home. That's why they're letting me out of here."
"I know," she said. "I'm not letting you out of my sight, anyway. You'll just have to put up with me for a while."
"Aren't you supposed to be in the barracks?" he asked, out of form more than reluctance to have her around.
"The colonel said I could have a pass as long as I got to my classes. It's less than a sectare, after all," she said serenely. Evidently she could read him well enough to know how he really felt. "I know you're all right, I just... worry."
"Well, then," he said. "Carry my kit bag."
"Idiot," she responded, picking it up from the tableside.
"Don't talk to your superior officer that way," he said, grinning back at her.
"Yes, sir, sorry, sir," she said, pushing the door open for him. "After you, sir."
Salik looked up as they went past. "Don't forget that appointment in the morning, Captain Starbuck," he said.
"I won't," he said, though he would have if he'd thought he could get away with it. Counselors were not his favorite people.
"I thought I'd cook tonight," Zeff said as he joined her.
"I could get used to that."
"Oh, gods, I hate it when you do that."
"What?" he was puzzled.
"I don't know whether to say 'don't', or 'that's the plan'..."
"Say 'em both," he advised. "Spread confusion wherever you go."
"Nice life plan, Dad. But at least you practice what you preach."
"Now," said Tigh, looking around the senior staff meeting, "Dr. Salik has submitted his final report on Captain Starbuck's physical condition. In his opinion, although he's released him, there's enough of a vision problem to make Starbuck a risk in combat."
"How much of a risk?" Adama asked.
"Well, sir, it's complicated."
"It always is, with Starbuck," Adama said amusedly. "How so this time?"
"He's actually well within standards. The problem is, he used to have phenomenal hand-eye coordination. You know that: he gets 97% in the simulators on a bad day, with a hangover. Now he's down to around 80 or 82, which is certainly good, but not when he has thirty years of learning that he's nearly perfect. He'll get himself or someone else killed, not because he's not good enough, because he won't be able to adjust to being 'good enough'."
"Only Starbuck...," said Adama. The others nodded. "So, you feel he should be pulled from combat duty, Colonel?"
"I do. With some reluctance, but I do."
Apollo had expected that. He knew Starbuck did, too. At least Starbuck seemed resigned to it, if he could stay on at the academy—no meaningless desk-jobs for him, and he wasn't ready to cross-train into ops, he'd said. Not at his age... But Salik saw no reason he couldn't do that. So he asked, "What about staying on as flight instructor? I'm assuming you see no reason at all he can't stay on in the classroom."
"Frankly," said Tigh, "this is a case of 'it's an ill wind that blows nobody good'. I've been wondering for the last half yahren if Starbuck could be convinced to become commandant of the academy."
"Starbuck? Commandant?" Apollo said involuntarily.
"Nobody's suggesting he teach engineering," Tigh said with a slight smile. "The commandant doesn't teach much, anyway, though I expect he'll insist on senior-level tactics as well as flight. And he ought to, as far as that goes; he's good at it. But I'm too busy to pay attention to the day-to-day stuff at the academy and I'm damned if I want my OPSO doing it, either."
Omega smiled. Obviously, he too didn't want himself to be stuck with it.
"Somebody should be appointed commandant. Starbuck would have been my choice as it was; now, if he's not cleared for combat, it seems perfect."
"I agree," said Adama. "We'll put it to the Council."
"Some of them may—" Tigh began.
"Some may," Adama nodded. "But now is much too soon for any of them to want to admit it. And once it's done, it's done. They can complain all they want, after the fact." He glanced at Apollo and Omega. "I presume that you two agree?"
"Oh, yes, sir," said Omega.
"Then we offer him the position. Subordinate to me," said Tigh, "and a half step laterally down from the sub-colonel ranks."
"I concur," said Adama.
"Then," said Tigh, "as soon as he's cleared for duty by the psych branch, he'll take over. He can preside at this year's commencement, in fact."
Apollo grinned to himself. That should make Starbuck happy, and it was no less than he deserved. He shouldn't have any trouble with the psychiatrist.
Starbuck and the counselor sat on opposite sides of the desk and stared at each other. "I don't think I understand what the problem is," he said.
"The problem is, Captain, that you're giving me text-book answers."
Starbuck looked at her with what he knew was his best earnest expression. "Doesn't that mean I'm normal?"
"What it means, in my opinion, is that you've got access to a text book." She gave him a level look. After a moment, she said, "Captain, I've not only got the high cards, I'm the dealer. You have to play the game my way if you're going to play."
He appreciated her effort at the metaphor, so he didn't point out the flaws in it. He just attacked the premise. "What if I don't want to play?"
"Then you can leave the table," she said. "But you won't put on that uniform again." She sighed. "Captain, I don't like threats. They sound foolish in the daylight, or what passes for it. But the fact is, you aren't going back on duty until I'm satisfied. And if you don't cooperate in the process, I can't be satisfied."
Starbuck leaned back in the chair, using body language as effectively as she did. "The fact is," he echoed her, "that I just don't have a very high opinion of the whole counselling process."
"Because you choose very carefully who you show yourself to," she said rather than asked.
"And no offense, counselor, but I didn't choose you."
"Part of the whole process is precisely that. I'm not uninterested, but I'm uninvolved. Disinterested. When I let you go, you never have to talk with me again. I'm someone safe you can tell things to."
He let that lie between them for a centon, then said, "Well, part of my problem with the process is that I don't see the point in telling things to anyone. No offense, but I've had counselors chat with me before. They didn't solve my problems then. And I don't need my emotions validated. And, no offense—"
"That works once," she observed.
"Saying 'no offense' and then being offensive," she said calmly. "It works once."
"Okay," he conceded, "offense intended: my already not very high opinion of the process doesn't get any better when a raving lunatic like Bojay can get so far round the bend he's not even visible, and nobody notices."
It was her turn to be quiet, which she was for a few centons. Then she said, "I saw in your records that you had a brief period of post-traumatic counselling as a child. They note you were disassociated and suffering from probable post-traumatic stress and amnesia. They note you should have had follow-up therapy but what with one thing and another, including your apparently autonomous return to functionality, it didn't happen. I expect it wasn't a pleasant experience. But it's not analogous to this."
He just raised an eyebrow and waited.
"I don't want to solve your problems; I want to make sure you know what they are and that you're dealing with them. I don't want to validate your emotions—for one thing, that would be presumptuous of me—but I do want to know what they are and if they're likely to cause problems for you or others down the road. Captain," she paused and then changed whatever she'd been going to say. "If Bojay had been sitting in that chair, I have every confidence I'd have diagnosed him as, as you say, a raving lunatic. But he never was. And it's not fair for you to fault us for not catching something we never looked at, or to imply that because we didn't see problems in a person we never spoke to that we can't see problems in you if they're there. Nor is it fair for you to say that we shouldn't talk to someone who's undergone events which we know can cause trouble because we didn't talk to someone who developed trouble on his own." She sighed. "Captain, I don't know if you need any help or not. What I do know is that it's my job to find out. And that if you don't let me find out—and I freely admit, you can sit there and lie so well I'll never know—than I can't square it with my conscience to let you go back to duty."
They regarded each other in silence for some centons. Finally he said, "Fair enough. Is this the worst thing that ever happened to me? Not by a long shot. Do I hate it? You bet. Do I wish my eyes were good enough to stay in combat? Yes, I do; but I like teaching, and I'll like my new job, and Zeff's a lot happier, which is good. And speaking of her, do I wish my daughter hadn't been involved? Oh, yeah. Do I hate Bojay's guts? There's no word strong enough. Did listening to his ravings undermine my faith? Hard to undermine what wasn't there. Do I feel guilty about Clarsarc? Yes, but I know intellectually that it wasn't my fault, and I'll get over it without doing anything drastic. After all, I've gotten over deaths that were my fault, thank you very much, and I'm still here. Did getting raped affect my sense of masculinity or something? Not that I've made a point of broadcasting this, but he's not the first guy I ever took up the astrum and I've always felt pretty masculine. He is the first guy who wanted to kill me afterwards, or anyway the first one who tried, but people have been trying to kill me my whole life—literally—and I've gotten used to it. Did I miss anything?"
She had lifted an eyebrow halfway through. Now she said, "Sarcasm, distancing, anger, and inappropriate humor: sounds like you're normal, Captain. Or at least it sounds like you're still you. Are you in a relationship now?"
"No," he said. "Not for a few sectares before... And I really doubt I'll take up with anyone who reminds me of Bojay."
"You would need heavy-duty counselling if you were inclined to do that," she agreed. "You might have problems, though I tend to doubt it, given the circumstances. If you do—"
"Get counselling. Right," he said, doubting that he sounded sincere.
It didn't faze her. "One more question: what makes you the angriest?"
He didn't hesitate. "That Zeff had to kill him."
"Ah. Why? That she was there, or that she killed, or that you didn't protect her?"
"All of them," he said after a moment's thought. "The last—I'm her father. I'm supposed to keep her safe, and if I had, she wouldn't have been there and she wouldn't have had to kill. Even a piece of scum like that."
"You raised a strong woman," she observed.
"And I'm damned proud of her," he answered. "She did good. And did it well. That doesn't mean I'm glad it came to that."
She looked at him again, and nodded. "Okay, Captain. I'm not saying you're fine and dandy—that would be pretty abnormal. But you're okay. You're probably going to find a lot of anger surfacing over the next few sectares. My suggestion on how to deal with that—"
He braced himself for some felgarcarb about meditation or talking things out.
"—hit the target range with a nice computer-generated target of Bojay. Atavistic, perhaps, but cathartic. Which is what you're going to need. And you know where my door is if you want to come and be blunt to someone who won't hit you."
"Captain, I could put you in therapy for the next ten yahrens and barely scratch the surface. You know that as well as I do. But there's no point. You're a fully integrated and functioning person, who's come to your own terms with your problems. That's pretty much the goal of counselling. We don't get rid of problems, not real-world problems at any rate. We can't travel in time and undo the things that have happened. We only teach people how to control their reactions to them, instead of being controlled by them. You already do that." She shrugged. "And you don't want therapy which means it wouldn't work anyway. Go on. Get back to your life and keep on enjoying it as much as possible."
He quirked an eyebrow at her. "You going to give me a certificate that says I'm sane?"
She laughed. "And have my credentials revoked? No. But I will sign off on you as fit for duty."
He stood up, grinning. "That'll be enough in some quarters to make them wonder about you."
"Fit as you ever were, then," she said, and stood up, offering him her hand. "Take care, Captain. Don't lose my office number."
Starbuck put the dessert tray on the table and sat down rather quickly. "Damn," he said, mildly, massaging his knee.
"Are you okay?" Apollo said worriedly, and Athena echoed,
"Did you hurt yourself?"
He looked up at them, all three—though Omega hadn't spoken—looking back at him with concerned eyes. "I'm fine," he said.
"Yeah, that sounded like you're fine, Starbuck," Apollo reproved him. "Don't shade the truth. What's wrong?"
He should have known better than to let all three of them into his quarters at once, especially at the end of the day when everything that could hurt did. He sighed. "I'm fine," he repeated. "My knee hurts, but Salik says it will until it doesn't. There's nothing wrong with it, I just have to keep using it. He's such a helpful man," he added.
Apollo peered at him closely, then apparently decided he was telling the truth. "That's doctors for you," he said.
"He's better than Cassie," Starbuck admitted.
"Oh? She has a different opinion?" asked Athena.
"No. She just expresses herself differently..." He realized he'd have to tell them so he did without being asked. "She just says, 'Oh, don't be such a baby, Starbuck.'"
"And you're supposed to be my friends," he complained.
"Don't worry," Zeff said, bringing in the dessert plates and glasses. "I don't let him do too much. But he's right; he has to exercise it or it will stiffen up on him. A gimpy Commandant is such a cliché, too; we can't let it happen."
"She gets on me, all right," Starbuck said. "She's more mother gally than you ever were, 'Pol."
"Gods forbid," said Athena, clearly remembering some past incidents of her own.
"Some people," Apollo said, on his dignity, "need to be chased after."
"Oh?" Zeff sat down and looked at him expectantly. "Tell, Uncle Apollo."
"Don't you dare," Athena and Starbuck said almost in unison, Athena adding, "Don't forget who grew up with you!"
"Some other time, Zeff," he mock-whispered.
"Surely you're not afraid of a mere Captain and Commandant, Sub-Colonel?" Zeff pretended disappointment.
"Mere Commandant?" asked Omega. "You need to work on your image, Starbuck. I was at CMA during the infamous 'Yahren of Three Commandants' and not one of them could have been described as 'mere'."
That successfully redirected the conversation, though Starbuck wasn't sure who Omega had just rescued. But later, he overheard Athena and Zeff in the service room, they having refused to allow the men in there to help—"Starbuck, you need to stay off that knee, and you two are more trouble than you're worth".
"Zeff," Athena asked seriously, "how's your father doing, really?"
"He's fine, really," Zeff answered. Starbuck couldn't see Athena's expression, but Zeff sighed and said, "Really. His eye hardly bothers him at all anymore, and his knee just hurts at the end of the day. We put heat on it and it's fine in the mornings."
"What about... Does he have nightmares?"
"Not so much," Zeff said. "I just do what I've always done: wake him up. We're fine, Aunt Athena. Really: we're seriously fine."
"You two," Athena gave it up.
And Starbuck smiled to himself. Exactly... us two, we're seriously fine.
Starbuck opened the door. Apollo stood there, looking the tiniest bit wary, like he had bad news to break. Or maybe had gotten bad news. "Come in," Starbuck said. "What's up?"
"I have something to tell you," Apollo said, portentously.
Starbuck shut the door, narrowing his eyes at Apollo's back as the other man went on into the front room. Apollo seemed to have been drinking. Not much, but by himself, any was unusual for Apollo. Starbuck was the one who'd kept a bottle in his locker. In the old days. "What's that?" he asked, keeping his tone casual.
"Sit down." Apollo pointed at the couch.
Apollo stood in front of him, blinking as he put his thoughts together. Starbuck recognized this mood, if not the cause of it. Apollo had come to some huge decision but he wasn't at all sure how anybody else was going to react. He waited; Apollo intended to tell him and that meant he would. As soon as he decided how to start, which was where Apollo and he parted company. Apollo never knew how to lead in to what he'd planned to say; Starbuck always knew how to introduce a topic but just went on reactions from there.
"You keep almost dying," Apollo said abruptly.
"I don't mean to," Starbuck said, defensively in spite of how ridiculous it was.
"But you do. And it scares me. I can't take it happening again. All I could think, over and over, was: don't take him away. Don't make me lose him. I can't live without him..."
"Apollo," Starbuck said, swallowing hard. "I'm here. I'm not going anywhere—"
"No, let me finish. Please... Starbuck, I love you. I..." he took a deep breath and sat on the couch, an arm's reach away. "I want to make love to you. With you. Love me."
"Apollo..." Starbuck was shaken by the offer. He wanted nothing so much as to take him up on it, now, before he could change his mind. Before he thought about it one more centon. Before he remembered Sheba, Adama, Djan... But Starbuck could see one thing so clearly that everything else was pale: Apollo was scared stiff of what he was offering. And though Starbuck knew he could pleasure the other man, make him cry out with need and desire, he also knew that Apollo wasn't ready, would probably never be ready, to return the favor, so to speak. And that would never do. While Starbuck could look forward to the prospect of another eighty or even hundred yahrens of Apollo in his arms, filling him, fulfilling him, and know that he'd be satisfied in all ways with Apollo's hands... it wouldn't be enough because Apollo wouldn't be able to believe it was enough. And it would never be more.
Starbuck took a deep breath, bringing himself back under control. Love for the man next to him, waiting with pleading, apprehensive green eyes fixed unblinkingly on him, filled him and made it easy to say what had to be said. "No."
"No," he said, again, as gently as he could. "Apollo, you don't want to, so I don't—"
"I do," Apollo insisted. He slid closer, put his hand on Starbuck's thigh just above his knee. "I do."
"Here you do," Starbuck nodded, touching the dark temple lightly, then moving his hand to Apollo's chest. "And here. But here—" he laid the back of his hand on Apollo's stomach, feeling the dark-haired man flinch, just for a moment. It was sufficient to convince them both. Starbuck smiled at him, gently. "Here, you don't. Look at you, Apollo. Feel yourself: man, every nerve in your body is singing with tension. You're having to fight so hard just to stay still... I love you, Apollo. I always have. I don't want you like this..." He laughed, suddenly; Apollo stared at him in bewilderment. "Remember you once told me you loved me, but not 'like that'? I love you, but not like this."
"Starbuck," Apollo swallowed. "I do love you—"
"But you don't want me," Starbuck said. "It's all right, Apollo. It's always been all right. Don't you understand that? All—all—right."
"I'm so sorry, Starbuck."
"Don't be." He regarded his friend, the best friend he could ever have possibly had in any lifetime. "Don't be. Come here." He opened his arms. Apollo hesitated a moment, then leaned against his shoulder. Starbuck held him, tenderly, asking nothing but the right to comfort. "Shh," he whispered, resting his cheek on Apollo's hair, "it's all right. Be easy, love. Nothing's going to happen. We're safe. We're here. It's all right."
Apollo's rigid muscles relaxed, so slowly. He sighed deeply and his fingers crept up to take hold of Starbuck's shirt. "I do love you," he said.
"I know. I have always known," Starbuck answered. "You here is enough, and enough is as good as a feast. Just let me listen to your breathing and feel your heartbeat. Just be here."
"Now," Starbuck cut him off. He wanted no promises Apollo might not be able to keep, nothing hanging over them. "Now is all the time there is. It's always now. And so we're always together. It's enough."
"It is. It's more than enough. Shhh. Don't talk any more. Just be."
Apollo sighed again and was quiet. Soon his breathing evened out and his fingers slipped to Starbuck's lap. Starbuck sat there, holding him as he slept.
Starbuck checked himself out in the mirror. After a moment's scrutiny, he raised his left hand and slid his fingers very carefully through his hair, altering its fall by a couple of millimetrics. Perfect. The faint scar on his right cheek added an air of mystery, he decided. Dashingness.
"You look good enough to eat, Dad. Can I get in here for a centon?" Zeff had never actually moved back into the cadet barracks, and nobody had even called her on it in the sectare since the 'incident', as it was now being called, on Clarsarc's World.
Starbuck certainly didn't mind having her back. If she wanted her own quarters in the future, he'd let go of her, of course, but as far as he was concerned she could live with him as long as she wanted. He liked having someone else around, always had, and he loved having her there. "Sure," he said, stepping out of her way and looking her over. "You're not wearing the right rank insignia," he observed after a moment.
"They're just going to take them off and give me ensign's pins," she said defensively. "What difference does it make?"
He paused before answering, remembering talking with Apollo a couple of nights earlier, sitting up with grogs and watching Triad on IFB. "Zeff seems pretty upset about that cadet who was killed," Apollo had said. "Were they, well... you know. An item?"
He'd grinned involuntarily at Apollo's word choice, then answered quietly. "No. She liked him very much and they hung out together, studied together, but they weren't in love, thank the gods. Going through that with a friend has been hard enough; losing a lover that way..."
"Losing someone you love is always hard, no matter how," Apollo had said somberly. Starbuck had put his arm around him for the rest of the match...
Now he looked at Zeffie and said, seriously, "It matters because you're not a cadet-captain. You're the cadet-colonel. That's who you are."
She dropped her eyes. He put his fingers under her chin and raised it, though she was the same height as he and their eyes were level. When she finally looked at him he said, "One of the hardest things you'll ever have to learn about being a Warrior—something we can't teach you—is that people die. Oh," he read the protest in her look, "I know you know that. Here." He tapped her head, remembering briefly doing the same thing with Apollo a secton earlier. "But you have to learn it here," he touched her breastbone. "Inside. Down in your bones. And you have to understand what it means. Because the Service doesn't always, even often, give you the time you need to mourn your dead and make your peace with their loss. The Service is a demanding, needy thing, sweetheart, and one of its needs is that you keep going. The mission has to be accomplished. Somebody has to move up and take over. A Squadron Leader dies and the XO takes his place. A regimental commander is taken out, and the battalion major moves up. It's what happens. It's what has to happen. Because the chain of command must always, always remain unbroken. The man is missed, but the position is filled." He ran his fingers through her hair and then undid one of the captain's pins. "You'll do him more honor doing your duty, Zeff."
She nodded and, taking the pin from his hand, went back into her sleeping room. When she emerged, she was wearing the colonel's pins.
"That's my girl," he said—it was his ultimate accolade and had been since she, at ten, had told Athena (who'd told him) that nothing made her feel prouder of herself. "Let's go get you graduated, then."
"Yes, sir, commandant, sir," she said and, contrary to all regulations, put her arm around his waist. He gave in to the flagrant breach of protocol and walked to the turbolift with his arm around her shoulders.
In the lift he leaned against the wall and looked at her. "In case I haven't said it yet, I'm so proud of you I can't see straight."
She smiled radiantly at him. "You have—but thanks anyway." She ducked her head, her red hair covering her blushing face briefly. "I can't hear it enough. And, in case I haven't said it recently—thanks for, well, being you."
"It's been my pleasure," he said gravely and sincerely, and then, because he was him, added, "and everyone else's too."
She laughed. "I do love you so much, Dad. I mean it: thanks for, for, well, for keeping me around."
"Hey," he reproved her. "If ever virtue was its own reward, Zeff... I don't know what I'd have done, or where I'd be, without you."
She hugged him, letting go only when the door opened. "Come on," she said. "I know they can't start without us but we shouldn't keep them waiting."
"They'll never have anything better to do," he grinned.
"Come on, you two," said Apollo impatiently; he was waiting outside the Hall entrance. "Bucko, I can't believe you're making her as unpunctual as you."
"House of Starbuck time, sir," she laughed, ducking in the door. "The Fleet should run on it."
Apollo watched her disappear into the Hall. When he turned his eyes were unreadable. "House of Starbuck?"
"Has a nice ring to it," Starbuck said, half tentatively. He figured that someday soon, once Apollo's emotions had settled, the whole Zac thing was going to need discussing, even though Apollo said he understood. But not today, he hoped.
Apollo looked at him and his eyes warmed, quite suddenly, and he smiled. "That it does," he agreed. "That it certainly does."
Starbuck said goodbye to Adama and went back into the front room, where he settled on the couch and swung his legs up to rest his booted feet on the low kava table. He looked around the room, very pleased and still mildly surprised at how many people were here. The party on the Rising Star had been pretty much what he'd expected (and enough to bankrupt a new flight officer so of course he'd had to kick in half the cost); it was the number of people who'd come back with them he found surprising. Nearly all of Zeff's squadron, including her squadron leader, Giles, who was in a corner of the room talking to Sheba; all of the other squadron leaders, excepting only Dietra whose Gold was on duty; a handful of other pilots, including Jolly, Greenbean, and Djan, who was talking to a curvaceous blonde civilian he'd brought in the first place, whose name Starbuck wasn't sure he'd ever heard but expected to become familiar with pretty soon by the look on Djan's face; Keili and Scotti, Rounder, Gillian, Marco...
And there were non-pilots, too, like Cassie, who was giving Boomer an 'it's-time-we-went' look which he was managing to ignore. Tigh, sipping his second drink of the evening and watching from his usual one-step-removed. Salik, jovial and almost proprietary and startling whoops of laughter out of Brie. Jenny, definitely proprietary. And of course Athena and Omega, sitting respectively in and on the arm of Starbuck's favorite chair, their dark heads bent together as she told him something that, judging by the way his eyes kept cutting over to his host, was probably damaging to Starbuck's dignity... assuming he still had any in 'Theni's husband's eyes, not that safe an assumption. And Adama, of course, though he'd pled old age and left. Old age... hah. Starbuck hoped he had half the commander's stamina at a hundred and forty.
And, of course, on the couch next to him, looking (Starbuck knew without seeing it) disapprovingly at his feet up on the table, Apollo. That familiar presence at his side... more than half his life now. If he made it to that hundred and forty, it would be for more than six sevenths of his life. He smiled and dug his shoulders into the cushions. For a kid with no background, he'd landed on his feet pretty nicely. Friends. Family... he looked around the room but couldn't see the guest of honor.
"What are you thinking, Bucko?" Apollo asked.
"How lucky I am," he answered, then, "and where's my daughter and who's she with?"
Apollo grinned. "Boys are easier on the heart."
Starbuck looked at him. "My heart can take it, 'Pol."
Apollo returned his gaze, seriously, then reached out and pulled him into a quick hug. "Love you," he said softly and then let go.
"I know," Starbuck said, straightening a rank pin on Apollo's shirt. He looked up to catch those green eyes fixed on his scarred wrist. He smiled. "You worry too much."
"And you never grew up," Apollo managed.
Starbuck grinned. "It's part of my charm."
"Vanity, thy name is Starbuck."
"Maybe, but it's not bragging if it's true."
Apollo laughed, the shadows leaving his eyes. "Oh, yes, it is. It's just not exaggerating."
"Whatever." Starbuck, feeling good, leaned back against the couch and looked around the room again.
Zephyr appeared out of nowhere and perched on the back of the couch next to his shoulder. "You look mighty pleased with yourself, Dad," she observed. "What are you thinking about?"
He looked up at her, her dark red hair tumbling around her face and across her shoulders, her new flight officer's pins shining almost as brightly as her eyes. "Truthfully?" he said. "The first time I ever saw you."
"Yeah?" She smiled in delight.
"Yeah," he answered. "Almost twenty-two yahrens ago now. Over on the Star, and you were no longer than my arm, elbow to fingers, and your hair was all wispy. I picked you up and you smiled at me and I said, 'hi, darling' and you said 'goo', or maybe it was 'ga', and laughed and grabbed my finger. And my heart. And you haven't let go yet."
She looked down at him with that familiar mixture of love and laughter in her big brown eyes and he felt the same rush of emotions he'd felt that day so long ago. "Now why," she asked with patented Starbuck levity-on-top-of-truth, "why would I ever want to do that?"
He reached an arm up and hugged her. "You know, Flight Officer, you're the best damned thing that ever happened to me."
"Ditto," she said, hugging him back, hard. "In purple." She rested her head on his. "I love you, Dad."
"Back at you, Zeffie," he said as she caught his hand in hers and held it as tight as she'd held his finger back then. He looked up and met her gaze. "I love you, daughter."
And they sat for a centon, alone in the crowded room.
But not alone. Never alone. Together.