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Amid the Thorns

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Jolly was like a kinsman to me. How many days had it been since he'd said that? Starbuck honestly couldn't remember. Too much had happened. Too much confusion, too much pain, too much loss.

Too very nearly the end of everything.

But now it was all over. Like pushing 'reset' on a game, everything zeroed out and back to status quo ante Iblis: agroships no longer brimming over with fruit, Boomer no longer the best triad player in the fleet, staid individuals like Salik no longer higher than the clouds, entire decks no longer given over to parties... And the Viper bays no longer missing more than a squadron's worth of ships, or the barracks the pilots.

Funny, thought Starbuck, looking down from the walkway onto their landing bay where their restored pilots were climbing out of strangely gleaming Vipers and into a welcoming mob. They weren't wearing white, he saw, and yet there was something different about them, something off or odd, something that said they'd been somewhere no one else had been. From this distance he actually wasn't sure of most of them. Greenbean, of course--that high-altitude fair head; Bojay, pushing his way through the crowd to report to Apollo--and what would he say if they decided to tell him, them, anyone at all, that the captain had died? But no others.

Liar.

Jolly... the big man didn't really look like himself, wasn't walking like himself... wasn't actually walking at all, but standing still, looking around. Starbuck took a step backwards, and suddenly it was as if it were status quo a long time ante. A dozen yahrens, thirteen... the first time Jolly had looked like a stranger...


It was Starbuck's eighteenth birthday, or what passed for it. It wasn't the not knowing if the day was right that bothered him, though. This was the day fathers took their sons to temples or fanes, or municipal halls, and at the end of the day said to them, "Now you are a man, my son", and Starbuck was never going to hear those words. Oh, he was a man, all right, it wasn't that. He could fight, and drive a hovercar, and he'd lost his virginity almost two yahrens ago, and he was only a few sectares away, barring a monumental screw up on his or the gods' part, from starting a fully paid course at Caprica Military Academy, after which he'd be able to kill Cylons to his heart's content, personally. He was pretty happy, really; his life was pretty good...

But although his house guardian had remembered, and his roommate, and Matron had given him the standard gift--a new wrist chrono, with his name engraved on it--by halfway through the morning classes he couldn't stand it any longer. As soon as that class let out he took off, with his brand new blue tinted id in his pocket, leaving Umbra for its parent, Eidolon City, to celebrate on his own. And celebrate he did, enjoying himself in places he couldn't have gone, legally, the day before, doing things he couldn't have done, legally. The fact was, he didn't do anything he hadn't done before, and the novelty of being legit would probably wear off soon, but he did enjoy himself, to the point that he did two things he hadn't done before: rented a room in a hostel, under his own name and with his last cubit, and didn't remember most of the evening when he woke up. Resolving never to do the latter again, he lazed over breakfast, grateful that this yahren's birthday had fallen at the end of a secton, and finally left at checkout.

Fortunately, because he really had spent his last cubit on the room, he had the return half of his hovercoach ticket. The trip out to the least important of Eidolon City's (though most notorious) agro colonies took a centare, but the day was nice, the sun shining and Kozarog hanging almost full in the eastern sky, white and blue and almost transparent. Starbuck wasn't much of a stargazer, despite his namesake, but he knew that tonight, if it stayed clear and with only the little moons Myn and Gavar out, Leonis would be easy to see. And more--the great Cis-Caprica starbase, home to the First Fleet, the First and Third Flotillas, and the Third Eskadra of the Home Guard. Starbuck wasn't much on the stars, but he knew the capital ships of Cis-Caprica by heart, even--especially--the ones who only visited their home once every two or three or five yahrens. Someday, he thought, looking up at Kozarog. Three and a half yahrens and he'd be an ensign, and in the First Fleet if he was lucky.

And in a Viper, one way or the other. He'd made up his mind, though he hadn't told the advisers who'd talked to him when he'd gone to Caprica City for the final oral exams for the scholarship: let anyone at the academy try to steer him toward another career and he was quitting. He didn't need to be an officer to kill Cylons, after all. All he needed was his own personal charged plasma delivery system. Ensign or Flight Corporal, that part didn't matter, and if Jolly could get into Vipers after enlisting, then he didn't have anything to fear.

In fact, it was when Jolly had written him to say he'd made it flight school that Starbuck had made that backup plan. It had kept him calm during the orals, and he'd heard two of the proctors saying that had impressed them as much as his grades and ability to think on his feet, though not, it appeared, as much as his hand-eye coordination. Good old Jolly, coming through again...

Starbuck leaned against the window and watched the endless fields roll past, concentrating on the dark distance that was the Thorn Forest. He wouldn't have been an agrist for the galaxy--all he wanted to plant was Cylons--but he had always felt at home in the Forest. It was the first thing he could remember, and unlike most of the other Umbra orphans, he'd always felt at home there. He'd spent centares there, whole days sometimes in the summer. He'd miss it when he left, but not nearly enough to stay even an extra day.

Besides, it wasn't the same on his own.

He turned away from the window, resting his back against it, and put his feet up on the other half of the seat, ignoring the old woman who glared at him from across the aisle. It was personal, after all: her granddaughter went to his school, a class behind him, and she usually acted as though he were a threat to all her plans for the girl. The funny thing was, Linnea wasn't his type, even if she did make eyes at him in the hallways. He didn't feel like making nice to her. To either of them, as far as that went. But no more did he feel like engaging. Avoiding her glare, he looked at his feet and wished the trip was over. He was slightly hung over and slightly depressed, and he just wanted to get back to his room and sleep.

When the coach pulled into the center of Umbra, the deliberately quaint town square with the hanging baskets of flowers that didn't quite hide the genuinely old-fashioned, even antiquated (though restored, of course), buildings--and attitudes--he let Linnea's grandmother off first and then followed her, the only two people getting off here. Not surprising, he thought as he headed through the (for Umbra) crowd of shoppers toward the edge of town and State Orphanage Umbra Ten, one of a dozen buildings converted back in 7322 after the attack and now filled with orphans drawn from all over the planet, Umbra's main crop; it was, after all, the middle of Eighthday, and there wasn't much here to draw outsiders. Any tourists they got came in the late spring, when the thorn trees blossomed, but that was over now, and Umbra was just an agro colony again, filled with locals; even those who'd come in after the attack to rebuild the place were locals now, in a way that Starbuck, who thought he'd been born here and certainly had lived here as long as he could remember, wasn't and never would be.

He looked back up at Kozarog and tracked across the cloudless sky to the spot where Cis-Caprica was hidden behind the blue. Soon, he thought, soon.

"Hey, Starbuck."

He looked up to see Antha, standing outside the café where she worked evenings and Eighthday. She smiled that smile that he was never sure if it was kindly and pitying, or deadly and sarcastic. "We thought you weren't coming back."

"What's it to you?" he tossed over his shoulder as he went past.

"Not a thing," she said. "But you have a visitor." He stopped and turned around as she continued, "I thought he'd have to miss you. Or is that 'get to miss you'?" She put her index finger to her lips, pretending to think about it.

He ignored the gesture. "A visitor?" He couldn't imagine who she meant. He didn't have anyone to be a visitor, unless it was someone from the State Educational Board, though he doubted they'd show up without warning. It was probably someone looking for cheap summer labor. They could wait.

"Yes," she said, still smiling. "An old friend. Jolly--remember him?"

That was definitely the stupidest question he'd ever been asked in his life to date, and he was willing to extend the limit onwards indefinitely. That being so he didn't bother to answer, just turned and ran up the street as fast as he could.

Remember Jolly?

He literally couldn't remember a time without Jolly. He'd emerged out of the darkness, terrified, bleeding, lost, and found himself deep in the Thorn Forest, surrounded by other children, most of them screaming, all of them running. He'd fallen. Someone had stepped on him. And then he'd been pulled to his feet and Jolly had been there.

He hadn't been called Jolly then; one of the things that bound them was their joint loss of the past. The soldiers that had swept the Forest, collecting the orphans, had named both of them, the one for his unquenchable good nature and the other after an argument that nearly resulted in his being called Blondie for the rest of his life. He hadn't cared at the time, but as he grew older he was grateful to the sergeant who'd grabbed Starbuck from the pages of his daybook; no one had expected any of the kids to stay unidentified, but then no one had yet realized the magnitude of the destruction. Jolly might have wished for a different name, but no one could deny how well it fit him.

The doctors said Jolly might be a yahren older than Starbuck, but the school put them in the same class, and they were basically inseparable. The bigger boy liked Starbuck's quick mind, and put his own imperturbable cheerfulness in between the younger one's occasional moodiness or sarcasm and their housemates' reactions. As they got older, and Starbuck turned from cute to gorgeous, Jolly, who hadn't been cute and wasn't more than passably attractive, managed not to care, managed in fact to apparently not notice. It was an attitude that endeared him to the girls as well as to Starbuck: the two of them never had trouble getting dates once that was important to them.

But the dates were never as important as each other. Jolly was popular, Starbuck could have been if he'd cared to put out the effort: most of their spare time, though, they spent just the two of them. They went to vidshows together, studied, ate, in general just hung out together, and a lot of that time was spent wandering around in the Thorn Forest. Jolly had been such an important part of Starbuck's life that he hadn't ever thought about him not being there. Neither of them were likely to be adopted, being of unknown bloodlines, They'd figured to go through school together and enlist together; they weren't brothers (though they'd hoped they were when they were little) but they could have gone in on a buddy enlistment.

And then Starbuck's grades leveled out at fives, and Jolly's at threes, and the SEB, scenting PR possibilities, came around to offer the younger boy a shot at the Military Academy. They'd had an argument, their worst and their first real fight. Jolly had insisted Starbuck try for the scholarship--'for the other kids, Bucko, if you don't want it'--and Starbuck had found himself without an answer. Not one Jolly would accept... not one he could put into words, anyway.

Jolly left school that yahren, old enough to enlist. He said he was removing temptation from Starbuck's path: this way he'd have to go to the academy. He said he'd keep in touch, and he did; it wasn't the same, but Starbuck had gotten used to it.

Jolly wasn't the first person who'd ever walked out of Starbuck's life, of course. But he was the first one who'd come back.

Starbuck vaulted over the low fence around Umbra Ten's front yard. The sound of screams of enjoyment from what sounded like all the little ones from Ten and probably Eight and Nine, too, drew him around to the back of the building.

His first thought was, Antha had lied to him. There was a Warrior throwing a ball around with the kids, but it wasn't Jolly. He was a little taller, a lot leaner, and surer, more coordinated, in his movements. And he had a mustache. But the thought had barely taken shape when the Warrior turned to catch the ball and saw him. That unmistakable smile spread across his face and that familiar voice called out, "Hey, Bucko! You boray, where have you been, anyway?" And then he was caught up in the embrace of the only person he'd let hug him in the last seven yahrens.

"Look at you," Starbuck held Jolly at arm's length for a moment, then ran his hand down the sleeve of the other's flight jacket and tugged on the cuff. "Flight Corporal Jolly--damn."

Jolly cuffed him. "You'll get one of these soon enough, and with officer's pins, too."

"What are you doing here?"

"It's your birthday, idiot."

"I know that--you came for my birthday?"

"I was gonna take you out drinking, but I think I missed my chance?"

Starbuck grinned. "Yeah... we could go tonight."

Jolly shook his head. "Sorry. Can't stay that long."

"No?"

Jolly shrugged. "Out of time. First-orbit cadets don't exactly get the best choices, and the flotilla's pulling out tomorrow. I had thirty-six centares, and believe me, that wasn't easy for someone with no rank."

"Had?"

"Well, yeah. I burned four and a half centares just getting here. And that was yesterday."

"Oh. Right."

Jolly grinned a little crookedly. "I should have known you'd be gone."

"Why didn't you message?"

"I thought about it, but it was midnight-- "

"Midnight? You're overdue! Idiot, you shouldn't have--"

"I didn't. I was thinking about it, but believe me, the colonel wouldn't be happy, and he has a way of sharing his unhappiness. Midnight CC. Fleet time is Cap City time," he reminded Starbuck.

Who reminded him right back, "Then that was six here."

"Yeah, I realized that half-way here. Too late, as usual. And before you ask why I didn't message when I got the notion to come, I didn't know for sure I could get furlon till the last micron, just about. Didn't want to let you down."

Starbuck appreciated that, though as it turned out he'd have liked the heads-up. "When did you get here?"

"Ten-fifty, actually. I did call then but you were already gone. And I didn't exactly like the idea of figuring in an Aquarian farce, running all over Umbra--"

Starbuck laughed, cutting him off. "I was in Eid, actually."

"I about guessed that when you didn't show up at all. I figured you'd have to come back sooner or later. Should have known it'd be later."

"Yeah. Story of my life, that..." Starbuck looked up at him, and for a few moments they were quiet, just looking at each other. The sounds of the little kids out on the playfield seemed to fade into silence. He'd have swapped the whole celebratory night, drinks and girls and all, if he'd known. He sighed. "And it'll take four and a half to get back?"

"Three and a half, if the transport gets here when they said. It was finding transport in the first place that was the hardest. You know."

Starbuck beat his head gently on the wall. "So we've actually got--?"

Jolly looked at his wrist chrono. "Two and a half centares." He reached out and took hold of Starbuck's shoulder. "Hey, that's plenty of time for a walk."

"A walk?" Starbuck felt a smile starting.

"A walk. Talk," Jolly was smiling back. "Whatever."

Without needing to discuss it they headed into the Thorn Forest, which lay only a few hundred metrons from the house. It was where they'd always gone when they could, unnatural as it seemed to most of their friends. To most of the people in town, for that matter: Umbrans hated the Forest and wished it was gone. It was dangerous and it used up land they could have had under crops. It wasn't even pretty enough to give a real tourism boost to the town, just a curious few in the spring. About the time they'd finally managed to come up with a way to kill the nearly indestructible trees, though, the government had ruled that the Forest, as one of the last remaining stands of ancient, pre-Kobolian Caprica left extant, had to be left alone, sheltering its peculiar animals and plants. Umbrans were disgusted, but law-abiding; still, few of them ventured very deep inside, although at the time of the Cylon attack, the Forest's cover had been welcomed. Any port in a storm, after all; Starbuck had wondered more than a time or two just how stormy his life was, that the Forest was his preferred refuge, but he'd eventually dismissed that as an unprofitable speculation. After all, what the Forest mainly gave those who went into it was privacy, and privacy was valuable in Umbra Ten.

Starbuck let Jolly lead the way, biting back the urge to remind him to be careful. The dark-haired man might look a little like a stranger, but he knew the Forest as well as Starbuck did, knew to stay away from the long spikes that further up the tree trunks formed an interlocking, fallen-leaf-filled second canopy over their heads, home to small animals that never set foot on the ground. Jolly knew all the dangers of the thorns, not just the deadly points--and deadly wasn't an exaggeration, either; if you ran into one hard enough it could pierce right through you; Starbuck remembered seeing bodies hanging on thorns all those years ago--but also the fact that if you knocked one off its trunk, which could be done easily enough from the right angle, the sap attracted stinging insects, and creeping things, and bigger creatures that fed on those, and none of them particularly liked humans. You had to watch where you put your hands in the Forest.

The Forest was dim, with spatters of light where the leaves overhead were broken. There wasn't a path, exactly, but the forest floor was filled with fallen limbs and even trunks, and the larger beasts had left trails. The arboreal animals and avians had long ago learned that humans didn't climb the trees, and they carried on their lives in disregard of most of what went on on the ground, anyway, so the little rustles, chatterings, and singings surrounded them as they went deeper inside. They didn't talk; Starbuck couldn't think of anything to say that the Forest didn't make too shallow for uttering.

Jolly fetched up where Starbuck would have if he'd been leading, next to a small pool in one of the many small clearings that the thorn trees created by choking out their smaller siblings, or was it children, as they blocked out the sun. He stayed back from the edge and the soft green moss there and instead sat on the dryer grey stuff nearer a fallen trunk, that wouldn't leave a stain.

Jolly took off his jacket and folded it up. Then he stretched out, resting his head on the dark suede. Starbuck copied the action with his sweater, and the two of them lay quietly for a few centons. Starbuck wondered if Jolly felt as nervous as he did. Jolly spoke before he could think of something to say.

"Is that a blue crown?"

"Where?" Starbuck answered.

"Over there." Jolly put his hand on Starbuck's cheek and pushed his head lightly away from him. "In that notch there."

Starbuck swallowed, trying to concentrate on something besides the fingers on his skin. "I don't see it."

"It's gone now." Jolly left his fingers on Starbuck's cheek, and then stroked it gently. One of his fingers ended up on Starbuck's lips.

Without taking his eyes off the leaves, Starbuck opened his mouth and used his tongue to pull the finger inside. "I don't see anything," he said indistinctly, and then bit gently on the finger and sucked as he did.

Jolly pulled just hard enough to turn Starbuck's head back. His dark eyes were only a few centimetrons from Starbuck's as he said, "I told you it was gone now." He raised himself on his elbow.

"Oh."

Jolly raised himself on his elbow. "We walked," he said. "Is this enough talk?"

Starbuck reached for the shoulder fastenings of the tan tunic, nodding. He stopped sucking and Jolly pulled his finger out.

The mustache felt weird, but Starbuck didn't let that stop him from kissing Jolly as deeply as he could. Nor did he let the unfamiliar hardness of Jolly's body stop him from taking from it, and giving to it, as much pleasure as he knew how.

Starbuck hadn't slept with another guy since Jolly had left--to be strictly accurate, he hadn't slept with another guy ever. He'd told himself it was because he didn't trust any of the other guys at the orphanage not to report him: Kobolians (who ran the orphanages in Umbra for the State) were notoriously strait-laced. From the fervor of Jolly's responses, he hadn't gotten much since then, either; the Fleet was probably just as bad.

After, they lay panting side by side, Starbuck on his back and Jolly prone beside him, one arm over his ribs, a warm and comfortable weight. Starbuck slept for a while; when he woke, Jolly was pressed up against him, asleep himself. He looked down the length of the other's body, feeling his own stirring again at the sight of the naked back and buttocks, and he kissed the dark head, stroking the arm over him.

Jolly moved, propping himself on his forearm and giving Starbuck a different, but just as nice, view. He kissed Starbuck's shoulder, petting his chest, and looking along his body with every evidence of approval. He slid his leg between Starbuck's, and Starbuck caught it tightly between his own. Jolly caught his breath, and ran his hand down to Starbuck's hip.

A blue crown, maybe the same one, screamed raucously at them, and then Starbuck felt something warm splatter his shoulder. "Oh, felgar," he said, and then laughed.

Jolly, giggling the way he did, grabbed a handful of the dry moss and wiped it off. "Hazards of love al fresco," he said, tossing the moss away.

"Ummm," Starbuck agreed. "Good thing it's not raining. I don't know where we'd have gone."

"You'd let a little rain stop you? You didn't use to."

Starbuck laughed. "Remember that storm the night before you left?"

"Hell, yes. I'll remember that the rest of my life. That was the worst storm ever."

"It was great, wasn't it?" Starbuck leaned back on his elbows and looked up at the ragged bits of sky visible through the trees. "We were right in the middle of it, thunder on top of the lightning--great."

"Lightning on top of us," Jolly said dryly, "and us on top of the roof."

"I always love it when you're in the middle of the storm like that: you can smell the ozone, hear the lighting bolt sizzle through the air just before the thunder, and the lightning reflects off the rain drops."

"That's because you're crazy."

"You love it, too," Starbuck said, then looked anxiously at him. "You did, didn't you?"

"Of course I did. I especially liked the getting wet part." Jolly wiggled his eyebrows. "The you getting wet part."

Starbuck collapsed on the moss, laughing. "Just tell me you didn't love that part when we were like ten."

Jolly laughed, shaking his head. "Not exactly... I used to wonder why you didn't take a girl out storm-watching, though, I admit that."

"Even if I could find one who'd go," he shook his head.

"Don't tell me you haven't been storm-watching since then!"

"I've been," he protested. "Just by myself." Jolly put his hand on Starbuck's shoulder; he shrugged under the light weight. "That was us."

The touch turned into a grip and Jolly leaned over Starbuck. This time the mustache seemed familiar and right.

Afterwards, Starbuck lay on Jolly's shoulder, tired and feeling faintly sad and wishing that time would just end right then. As if in answer to the wish (the sort of answer he was used to), Jolly, carding his fingers through Starbuck's hair, caught sight of his chrono. "Damn," he said mildly. "Out of time."

"Already?" Starbuck wished he hadn't said that. He sat up and reached for his trousers. "I mean, time flies--"

"I was," Jolly agreed. He untangled his pants from his tunic and put them on.

"Where's your ship going, anyway?" Starbuck looked around for his shirt and then at the other man, but sideways.

Jolly shrugged. "Dunno. Someplace with Cylons, I hope." He paused and added, "Can't wait to get some Raiders in my sights."

"I wish..." Starbuck let that trail off, uncertain what he'd meant to end it with; he stuck his head inside his shirt and felt around for the sleeves. "How long do you think you'll be deployed?" he asked from inside the folds of material.

"Couple or three yahrens, I think," Jolly said. "Maybe four. I dunno; depends on the war, I expect."

"You'll get furlons."

"Not back here."

There was another silence. Then Starbuck felt his shirt tugged down around his ears. "You know I can't come back from the front."

"I know." He didn't dare say anything else; he glanced at Jolly, then dropped his eyes.

"Hey, hey, hey, Bucko." Jolly's finger stroked his cheek, coming away with a tear smeared on its side. "What's this?"

He pulled his head away, staring into the dimness. "Nothing."

"Pretty tangible nothing."

He stiffened. "I'm all right."

"You're sure?"

"I'm sure." He turned around. "I just... well. I'm going to miss you."

"That much?" Jolly grinned a little. "I'm flattered as hell."

"Yeah, you should be." Starbuck pulled his sweater on.

Jolly put on his jacket and then reached out his hand to finger-comb Starbuck's hair into something like order. "I am."

Starbuck jerked his head away and grabbed his shoes. Without looking up, he pulled them on and stood up. "You're gonna be late."

"I've got plenty of time." But Jolly reached for his boots and began buckling them up. "Starbuck--I'm not gonna be gone forever."

"Yeah."

Jolly snapped the last buckle and looked up. "And you're not gonna be here forever, yourself. Next time I see you, you'll probably be an officer."

"Yeah."

"Hey, don't you even think about it." Jolly stood. "You'll be a good officer, and it's a helluva better life, believe me."

"Yeah."

It was one too many 'yeahs'; Jolly grabbed his shoulder and turned him around sharply. "I mean it, Bucko. Don't even think about it. You earned that scholarship. The government owes you. And besides, you know you can't set that bad an example. I don't want to hear anything more about it."

Starbuck stared up into the other boy's dark eyes. After a moment, his gaze faltered and he found himself staring down at the mossy ground between their feet.

"Bucko."

He looked up. Jolly looked serious, an expression that didn't suit him; it wasn't for nothing that the soldiers had given him his name. Either of us, he thought, and managed a good smile. "You're right, Jol. I won't enlist. And if we do hook up again, you'd better be ready to salute."

"You have to graduate first, Bucko." The smile that accompanied that was, or at least looked, a lot realer than his. "Don't forget that."

"I haven't," he said. "I'll be your superior yet, you just wait."

"I know it."

The tone, that half-joking, half-serious, and entirely fond tone, undid Starbuck. He lunged at Jolly and hugged him fiercely; then, just as suddenly, he let go and ran blindly along the trail. He didn't know where he was going, or even why, he just ran. He didn't know how far he'd gone when a hand on his shoulder spun him around to face Jolly.

"You caught up," he said, trying hard to sound normal.

Jolly hesitated a moment, then said, "Sure. You wouldn't believe how hard they work you in basic. Another reason you want to be an officer, Bucko."

"Yeah... Sorry." He looked around. "Sagan, we're in deep."

"You always run into the Forest." He half-laughed. "I guess we always do, don't we?"

"I guess we do, at that... You will be late if we don't get a move on."

"There's time. Don't worry." But he was nearer trotting than walking when they headed back through the woods.

Starbuck didn't want him to be late, but he figured the hovercab driver could kick it up if he had to. He caught up to Jolly and shouldered him gently off the path. "Slow down," he said. "I haven't been licked into shape by drill sergeants, you know."

"Yet," Jolly shoved him back, then draped his arm over his shoulder. "I'm sorry it was so short."

"Not your fault. I'm glad you came."

"Yeah," Jolly smiled at him. "Me, too."

"I mean it," Starbuck said; it was important Jolly understand.

"I know you do. I know you are." Jolly pulled him closer. "It's me, remember?"

"You're changed," Starbuck said teasingly, and reached out to pat Jolly's stomach.

"I expect that won't last," Jolly said ruefully. Starbuck laughed, and after a moment Jolly joined him. "I'll be buying new uniforms soon enough, I'm afraid. Flying Vipers doesn't exactly burn off the calorons."

"As long as you still fit in one."

"Oh, I'll do that," he vowed. "No fear." One more hug and then he let go. "At least, unless I get busted."

"That won't happen. Will it?"

"If I miss the ship, it will. Oh, don't worry, the flotilla's not leaving till tomorrow. Even if I'm a little late I won't get in that much trouble."

"You won't be late," Starbuck said and quickened his pace.

"I hope not," Jolly said.

They walked the rest of the way to the house in silence. Coming out of the Forest, they saw the hovercab waiting out front, with the driver leaning against it, and Faro bringing a duffle bag out of the house. Jolly looked at his chrono. "Right on time."

There was an awkward silence. Starbuck glanced up at the sky, then back at the cab, then stopped. Jolly took another of steps, realized he was alone, and turned around.

"Look, Jol, I'm... I'll say goodbye here, okay?"

Jolly looked at him and then smiled. "Sure," he said. "You take care of yourself, Bucko. Work hard, get those ensign's pins, hear me?"

"I hear you." He swallowed, fighting his voice steady again. "You take care of yourself, too, hey? I mean, I want you carrying my notepads one day."

"In your dreams," Jolly said. Starbuck flinched involuntarily and tried to cover it with a grin and a laugh. Jolly paused and then shook his head. "What is this, anyway? I thought you let people go. It's what you always said, isn't it? About the way to live? Open your hand and just let go. I thought--"

A warning horn sounded from the hovercab.

"Damn. Gotta go, Starbuck." He hugged him tightly, briefly, and then ruffled his hair. "See you around."

That's what you thought, is it? Starbuck thought, watching him run towards the hovercar. So did I. So did I. The cab rose, pivoted neatly, and arced into the sky.


So did I, he thought again, surfacing from the memory and, all things considered, halfway wishing he was still there.

He looked down at the landing bay, the newly returned pilots surrounded by the rest of the Wing, noisy with relief and welcome and the undercurrent of superstitious dread that wouldn't be laid until everyone was reassured that no one had died. Died, he thought, and shivered. Died and come back... Only one person had done that, he reminded himself firmly. And he hadn't been gone days, like these guys had. Like Boj and, and Bean, and, and....

Not halfway, he thought. Not halfway at all.

That's what you thought. That's what they all think. Why not? So did I.

He blew out a breath. And so I did.

He lifted his hand and looked at its open palm for a moment before curling the fingers in on it. Another moment, then he looked back at the celebrating crowd. Slowly he brought his hand back into his line of vision and turned it over, opening his fingers as though dropping something, almost as if throwing it. He looked at the back of his hand for a centon, then let it fall to his side.

So I did, he thought again. So I did, and so I do, and so do they.

So do they.

the end