Apollo came home late and alone. He was a bit surprised at both of those things; as a rule he didn't stay out partying till the wee hours, and he'd really thought he might get Sheba to come back with him. It was a thought he'd never have let have house room before this mission, but then she'd never kissed him before this mission either. She'd certainly seemed...
But apparently not.
Though she'd started it.
Serina had made the first moves, too. He'd been surprised at that, but on reflection he'd decided that a widow might miss a man, might be used to the whole thing. Certainly widows weren't expected to act like damosels.
Of course, Cain's daughter was hardly a damosel.
During decon Starbuck had said, just a little too casually, "So, everything's good with Sheba?"
Apollo had had yahrens to get used to the way Starbuck could read him, so why hadn't he? He'd known he was blushing when he answered, "Of course. Why do you ask?"
"She looked a bit upset when she came past me just before we left, that's all. Guess she didn't have much faith in us, huh?"
"Yeah, that's it. What about Cassiopeia?"
Starbuck's grin lit up the decon chamber. "Cass knows I always come back."
"That's good. That she knows that, I mean." And he knew he was keeping the doubt out of his voice but he wasn't sure he was projecting as much enthusiasm as he could. With luck Starbuck would put it down to exhaustion. It was just... he thought he liked Cassiopeia, Athena did and so for a wonder did Sheba, but he just didn't think she was really the right one for Starbuck.
"Sheba will learn, don't worry."
"I'm not. We're fine."
And then the doors had opened, and they'd been swallowed by welcome-backs and post-mission briefings and the party. But Sheba had been very hard to find. He'd even gone up to the Celestial Dome in case she'd gone there to wait for him. He hadn't told Starbuck that was why he was there, of course. He hadn't lied to him, though; once he'd gotten up there and not found Sheba he'd gotten distracted by thoughts about that signal, whether it was a Cylon trap or not. He'd let Starbuck drag him back to the party, and they had gotten a medal, well two medals, but he hadn't been able to find Sheba.
Cassiopeia had certainly been there, though, practically glued to Starbuck's arm. Apollo had half thought she was planning on hanging on even while Adama gave them their medals. But no Sheba. He'd circulated, looking for her, but she wasn't there. He'd buttonholed Boomer and asked if she'd come through the action okay; he knew she was alive or someone would have mentioned it, but she might have been shaken up or... something, though his mind couldn't quite conceive of what might shake up Sheba--Cain's daughter, veteran of six yahrens and of Molecay, Pegasan... Boomer had said she'd been more than just concerned for Apollo's safety; he'd also said he'd seen her at the celebration, and she and Apollo must just be missing each other.
And then Apollo had realized that Sheba was probably embarrassed over how forward she'd been. It was true he'd been glad she'd kissed him, but still... He bet her father wouldn't have been happy to see her throw herself at someone like that. She was probably going to be a bit distant for a few days, just to make sure he didn't make the assumption that he had in fact been making. Faintly annoyed with himself, he'd said his goodbyes and come home.
And when he opened the door he smelled her perfume, very faint in the front room. He was startled; this was a bit beyond forward. He wasn't surprised she knew his keycode, he hadn't tried to hide it from her. He was surprised she'd come here.
Glad, of course. But surprised.
He tossed his jacket on the couch and looked into Boxey's room: empty. Athena had taken him home from the party; he'd thought she was coming here but apparently she'd thought he'd be later than she wanted to stay up. Just as well.
He opened the door to his own sleeping room. "Sheba?"
She wasn't there. Thank the gods nobody else was, either, to see him blush like an idiot. If Boxey had taken one of his notions, if he'd insisted on sleeping in his father's bed to make sure Apollo spoke to him tonight, if Athena had been in there with him, if they'd heard him call Sheba's name like that... Well, it was a good thing they hadn't. Athena might, might, have been manageable but Boxey... He shuddered in relief at his narrow escape and flung himself down on his bed.
But he was sure that was her scent.
And then he saw the letter on the table by the bed. His name on the outside in the strong, angular handwriting he recognized from her dailies and sectonlies. Settling against the wall, he opened it.
I mean that, you know. You are dear. I looked it up after I wrote it, putting this off a bit I suppose. It has a lot of meanings and you fit them all. The first one is 'beloved or loved' and for an example they gave this, 'a dear friend', which is you. I told you that lately, you had included me in your tight little circle of friends, and that I appreciated it. You have, and I do, but wonderful as your friendship is and as much as it means to me that you've reached out and looked past my father and been my friend... I told you how I felt. You told me you'd begun to see that people sometimes who snap at each other all the time are avoiding their real feelings. I don't avoid my feelings, Apollo. Maybe I should, but I wasn't raised to. Sometimes I don't recognize them, but I don't avoid them... You do, you know that? So while you were gone, I started thinking.
That did not sound good.
Anyway, there are other definitions. There's 'used in the salutation of a letter as an expression of affection or respect or as a conventional greeting'--a conventional greeting, an expression of affection and respect. Dear Apollo... I greet you and I hold you in affection and respect both, perhaps in more than that. But unless I never relax my grasp you won't stay there, will you? And then there's 'precious in one's regard; cherished'--and now you're blushing even though there's nobody to see you and nobody but you to read these words. It's kind of cute, you know? You're so earnest, which, in case you didn't know, is yet another meaning for "dear". 'Earnest and heartfelt' as in 'my dearest wish'--which was you, is you, and which I'm not going to get. Don't stop reading and call me, Apollo! There. Finish this first, dear, dear Apollo.
He stared at the words for a several centons. He wanted to call her, but then she'd ask him if he'd read it all and if he said he had she'd catch him. But he couldn't understand what the problem was.
Finally he sighed and started reading again.
I should probably just say it, but I do love you, you know. You don't have a corner on loneliness, and you came along just when I needed something, someone. So kind and thoughtful and, yes, attractive. It's the timing as much as anything, I think. But you can't make someone love you, you know. You can make yourself love someone, or at least convince yourself you do, but... you didn't make me love you. You were just there, wanting to love and be loved, and I fell into the trap. Right down there in the pit with you. But I'm getting out before we get hurt, and I hope I'm leaving you a rope to climb out with yourself.
And what made her think anyone was going to get hurt? Sagan. He was serious, after all, and she'd just said she loved him... He shook his head. Women.
Here's another meaning: 'expensive; high; excessive: a dear price to pay for one's independence'--you know, their examples are a little spooky? If you loved me, if you really did love me, my independence wouldn't be such a much to me right now. But you didn't like Serina piloting even shuttles, or so Athena tells me, and you're old-fashioned a bit, aren't you? So upper-class Caprican... you can't help it, and you do try, but if you loved me you wouldn't have to try so hard, because you'd love me, not the wife I might turn into if I applied myself. Because you're 'difficult to get', which is an obsolete definition, old-fashioned, like you. So very like you. At least for me.
So she'd had to kiss him first. So he was old-fashioned. He wasn't that old-fashioned, not that there was anything wrong with being old-fashioned. Or... He sighed again. He was not still mourning for Serina. He'd thought he'd made that clear to Sheba. Guess not, he thought. He'd have to try again.
And now you have no idea what I'm talking about. Or maybe you think you do. You're remembering what I said about Serina, and you're thinking I'm thinking you're on the rebound. Well, that's not quite it. I remember what you said, so you don't have to say it again: Serina has nothing to do with it, you said. And I believe you. I think you'd rather think she did, but I believe you spoke truer than even you knew at that moment. But nonetheless, dear Apollo, we aren't meant to be together and I'm not going to hold you to anything you said.
I meant what I said! was his first reaction, followed by not that I said all that much. Followed by an embarrassed laugh and running his hands through his hair, glad they weren't having this conversation live. This way he could marshall his arguments. He nodded decisively and picked up the letter again.
And now you're saying you meant it.
And you do, of course. Because you're still another obsolete meaning of "dear". You're 'worthy; honorable'--to a fault, I think.
"How can you be honorable 'to a fault'?" he demanded of the empty room. "Honor is not a fault!"
How can you be honorable to a fault? I could hear you saying it as I wrote it. Well, it's a fault when it makes you and all those around you unhappy, Apollo. It's a fault when it's meaningless, the empty relics of a code made for days long, long past. And it's a fault when it leads you into lying, to yourself as well as to others.
I said while you were gone I started thinking. Do you know what made me start? Of course you don't, how could you? I left you in that Raider and I walked past Cassie and Starbuck. He was his usual insouciant self and she was halfway between anger and tears... her usual self when contemplating him, by the way.
Really? He blinked. Well, not tonight, Sheba. You're wrong there. Too.
I used to hate her so badly; now I feel sorry for her. Now we've got something else in common besides my father.
But anyway, I saw him and thought of you. I didn't pay much attention to it because I was thinking of you anyway, walking down the hall trying not to cry in public.
Then after you left, before we scrambled, I had a talk with Cassie, and she said something about how the first thing Starbuck said when she asked him why it was always him, how the first words out of his mouth were "Apollo's going!" And where you go, there he goes, she said, though not necessarily the other way around because sometimes he goes so you won't. And I remembered how often I'd seen that myself in just a few short sectares.
Apollo paused, feeling a smile tugging at his lips despite everything. He could hear Starbuck saying that, and he could savor Cassiopeia's reaction to it. Everybody needs a Starbuck in their life, he'd always thought so. Everybody needs someone who'll back him up all the time, who'll always be there. But if Sheba thought there was more to it than that, well, she was wrong. She had Bojay, and that didn't stop her from falling in love with him--she'd said it, not him!--or Bojay from, from... from spending his free time elsewhere. It wasn't like Apollo gave a good damn what Bojay did. But he and Starbuck were friends. That was all there was to it, thank you very much.
The indignation died as he thought that. Yes, Lords: thank you very much for a Starbuck in my life... But he and Sheba really needed to talk. Unless that wasn't what she meant. He returned to the letter.
I didn't want to think about it too much, but I couldn't help it.
And then it happened again. At the party. I saw Starbuck and I thought of you.
And that time I wondered why.
And then I knew why.
Dear Apollo. Starbuck belongs to you in a way I never could. And you belong to him. Which is why you're honorable to a fault. Not because you belong together, but because you won't admit it.
Serina doesn't have anything to do with it, you said.
So who does?
I know. Do you?
The letter fluttered to the bed between his feet. She was wrong. That was all there was to that. She was wrong... Wasn't she? Wasn't she?
No. She was wrong. He picked up the letter again.
Dear, dear Apollo. I won't go out with you any more. Those of us who won't have to be second to some dead lost love are a tiny, tiny number, and I was willing to be second to Serina. But I won't be second to someone who's around day in and day out. I wouldn't be happy and neither would you, really. More importantly, I'd probably end up killing someone.
So this is goodbye, Apollo. Well, not "goodbye", but this is us being over. I hope you understand. Deep in your soul I know you'll be happy, though you may feel obliged to be unhappy for a while. (Notice I said "be unhappy" not "act unhappy": I'm not accusing you of being a hypocrite, Apollo. That's one thing you're not.) But only for a while. What I truly hope is that even if you must, you'll do what will make you happy afterwards, and not what you have convinced yourself you ought to be happy with.
So don't call me. In your heart you know I'm right.
Goodbye, dear Apollo. Be happy.
Happy? Be happy? He laughed mirthlessly. How in Hades did she expect him to be happy now?
Now that she'd made him face what he'd always managed to keep out of sight.
How could he be happy watching Starbuck with Cassiopeia? "I could have been happy with you," he said to the letter. "I could have made you happy." But not now.
He wouldn't call her. He wouldn't call anyone. Ever. Be happy. Right.
And then the door chimed. Gods, Athena and Boxey. And he was a rotten excuse for a father but there was no way he could face his sister's keen eye now. In the morning, when he'd had time to assimilate this. When he'd learned to hide it in the place you put the messy emotions. Later... He would just pretend he wasn't home and--
And the door opened. Damn herÃ¢â‚¬"
That was not Athena's voice.
"Apollo? Sheba said you needed me? What's wrong?" Starbuck came into the room without hesitation. "Apollo?"
And with no time at all to prepare, he had nothing to say. He just stared at Starbuck and wished he were dead.
"Apollo, what the hades?" Starbuck's gaze snagged on the paper on the bed between Apollo's knees. "What's this? Did that bitch break up with you?" He grabbed the letter.
Apollo couldn't move. He wanted to stop him from reading it, but Starbuck had settled on the bed next to him, and the warmth of his leg against Apollo's was robbing him of the strength to even speak, let alone snatch away the letter. He sat there, waiting for the rest of his world to end.
"Is she right?" Starbuck finally said.
Say no, you idiot! Apollo's mind screamed at him. Say no! But he still couldn't move. He couldn't even look at Starbuck.
"Is--she--right?" Starbuck demanded.
Apollo managed to swallow. He stared at his hands and waited for Starbuck to leave.
Starbuck moved, off the bed. And then his hands slammed into the wall next to Apollo's ears, startling him into an abrupt head-raising that left him staring into blue eyes blazing not three microns from his own. Starbuck's booted calves were against Apollo's knees and through leather and fabric he could feel the heat igniting the gaze burning into his soul. "Is. She. Right." It was no longer exactly a question.
"Yes." He thought he'd said it out loud.
"I can't hear you."
"Yes." That was audible.
Starbuck drew in a breath. There was a change in his eyes, but Apollo wasn't sure what it meant. It was a look he'd never seen before. And then he spoke, his voice suddenly soft. "Am I first?"
That... that didn't sound like he was angry. "What?" Apollo asked, in case he was hallucinating.
"Am I first, Apollo? Am I really first?"
And because he didn't have anything left to lose, he opened his mouth and listened to what his heart wanted to say. "I think you're the only one, Starbuck. You are."
And then once again someone was kissing him first, but this time it was Starbuck, and it was so completely, totally right that there was no room for surprise. Apollo opened his mouth and raised his hands to pull the other man closer. Starbuck made a soft wordless sound and came, burying his right hand in Apollo's hair.
Starbuck was a good kisser. Starbuck was a very good kisser. Everybody said so. Apollo found himself agreeing, and gratefully. But it wasn't enough, just tongues and lips. Not nearly enough. He tugged at the blond's jacket and Starbuck let go long enough for him to pull it off. Then Apollo shifted his grip slightly and turned, overbearing Starbuck and finishing up on top of him. He could feel Starbuck's hands on his back, moving down to his hips, pulling him closer. He ground his pelvis against Starbuck's, and the jolt that went through his body made him gasp into the throat under his hungry mouth. "Oh, gods, Starbuck," he said, and then felt himself start to laugh. He couldn't stop, and in a centon he was collapsed against Starbuck, giggling.
"I have no idea what I'm doing."
"Do you?" And he wasn't jealous; in fact, he rather hoped the answer was yes so they could get going.
"No," Starbuck said. "But, see: that's the difference between us."
"I don't care."
Apollo chuckled and kissed him again. "I daresay we can figure it out. Or find reference materials."
"RTFM?" Starbuck said and snickered. "For once, I wouldn't mind."
"Am I really first?"
"You are." Apollo lowered his head and kissed him. "First." Kiss. "Last." Kiss. "And everything in between."
"I love you."
"I know. I finally know. I love you."
Starbuck sighed. "Dear Apollo," he said softly. "My own dear Apollo."