The Fair Young Man
Starbuck has always been thought of as a lucky man.
He's the paradigm of lucky, the epitome of a man of good fortune, the quintessential, always-falls-on-his-feet winner at life. Starbuck is the man whose hands never falter when they hold a pack of cards for Pyramid or spin the wheel at Labyrinth. Whatever he touches – flying, gambling women – always works. Well, always works in the end, and that, as Starbuck says, is the point, dammit.
His luck at Pyramid is legendary. He has been known to complain, bitterly, that there is some skill involved, you know; it isn't all luck. He has been known to lose, occasionally, too—usually, notes Apollo with the same bitterness, when Apollo's the one bankrolling him, but then losing his own money is against Starbuck's religion—but more often than not, the cards fall in his favour. He spreads out the cards in his hand and out of them leaps an entire Pyramid complete with capstone, or a Queen's tomb complex, or whatever he needs to make sure that the other players are ground into the dust in ignominious defeat.
Winning is definitely a tenet of Starbuck's religion. He likes the chinking sound that the cubits make as they transfer ownership; it's a sound as pleasing as temple bells sounding on a scented breeze at twilight. Although, to be sure, if you're poetical enough to say so in those exact terms, Starbuck's likely to stare and offer you (a) a drink or (b) an escort down to Life Centre to get your medication checked.
And Starbuck's luckiest of all when he's out there, flying against the enemy. When he slides into the cockpit of his Viper and fires the old girl up, it's like every cell in his body zings into life, that everything that he is—nerve and bone and blood and brain and sinew—all reach their pinnacle until he's flying the Viper like she's an extension of his arms and legs, an integral part of him. Starbuck is the best pilot on the Galactica, bar none. Hell, back when there was still a Fleet, Starbuck was the best pilot in the entire damn Fleet, bar none. In his steady, coaxing hands the little fighter achieves miracles, feats of flying that have become legend. The man even got out of a pinwheel attack from six Cylon raiders by throwing his Viper into a five dimensional loop and making all six kills within a couple of microns while flying upside down with both lateral engines smoking and one wing-tip hanging on by a thread. No-one else has ever survived a pinwheel attack. No-one. And damn right no-one could do it with his panache.
The cadets worship the ground he treads on. They all want to be like him when they grow up.
Starbuck's legend is all the more striking because Starbuck's beginnings weren't lucky. Life in an orphanage and struggling to get to the Academy: no that wasn't a matter of luck. That was hard work and toil to prove himself. It's left Starbuck with a quiet, but sincere, gratitude that his good fortune got him so far, and the other major tenet of his religion: Do As Little Work as You Can Get Away With.
Right at this moment, though, Starbuck's faith is being severely tested. He's feeling incredibly overworked and pressured, he feels that his luck has to be sitting in a corner somewhere laughing its head off at him, and he'd be the first to admit that this leaves him a little less.. well, less cool, than usual. The nonchalance is a little strained, a little brittle. His street cred isn't holding up as well as it might.
There's a saying about pilots, you see. It's a well known saying, and like many of its kind, is rooted in hard experience and watching too many young men and women die in the instantaneous heat and flash of white, blood-tinged light. It serves as a warning, a reminder of mortality and heat and untimely death.
And this is what it is.
There are old pilots and there are bold pilots; there are no old, bold pilots.
Simple, right? It even rhymes. It makes it easy to remember. Of course, when whoever it was first said it, they'd never come across Starbuck and the legend that Starbuck was to become. And another of course: Starbuck doesn't like to think he's old. That's definitely against his religion.
But still it can't be denied: Starbuck's the exception to the rule. Old and bold, that's Starbuck, that's the legend; and right this centon, he feels very old indeed.
"You did what?" he demands, staring at the two cadets with such a fierce expression that one of them takes an involuntary step backwards and the other blanches visibly.
"The manoeuvre's well documented, sir," says the taller cadet, whose name Starbuck just can't remember. "We went over it in class last week, when we reviewed the raid on Gamoray, and Lieutenant Boomer took us through the exact moves and the timings on the simulator—"
"Right! On the simulator. On the bloody simulator, which is where it belongs unless I'm the one who's doing it. What in hell made you think you should try it out for real in flying practice?"
"Well," says the shorter one. "We'd practiced it and practiced it, sir—"
"On the bloody simulator!"
"Yes sir. You and Captain Apollo got away with it—"
"Are you me?" asks Starbuck, feeling the little tappity-tap of a vein throbbing in his right temple.
The cadets look puzzled. "Sir?"
"Are either of you two, me? Do you look into the mirror and see this face staring back at you every morning? Are you called Starbuck?" He prods Tall Cadet in the chest with an unforgiving finger, before turning and prodding Smaller Cadet. "Are you?"
"Damn right, you're not! You are not me. Nor are you, heaven help us, Captain Apollo, who is the only other pilot who ever managed to pull off that manoeuvre. Do you know how many people you almost killed out there? People who matter, who are worth something? I don't count you two, because Sagan knows the pair of you aren't worth much more than the cost of the uniform we stupidly put on you. Do you know—"
He's interrupted by the comms officer on a ship-wide call and a very smug tone of voice: "Captain Starbuck to the bridge. Captain Starbuck called to the bridge."
Starbuck takes a very deep breath. "Do you know what that is?" he asks, after acknowledging the call. "That's the Commander, if I'm in luck today, and Colonel Tigh if I'm not. Do you know what they'll want?"
The two cadets shake their heads.
"They'll want to discuss your training flight with me. And you know what? That means I am not a happy man right now. And when I'm not happy, believe me, you two aren't going to be happy. In fact, I'm so not happy that I'm bumping you two back into basic training. We obviously didn't notice how damned stupid you are the first time around. Maybe repeating all those basic lessons will teach you something about how to at least hide your fucking stupidity. Get the hell out of here before I bust you down so low that you'll be two oozes of primordial slime…"
The cadets flee, helped on their way by a mocking grin from their instructor, who's been a silent, but appreciative, witness.
"I'd say that you're channelling Apollo just fine," says Boomer, closing the door on the two chastened cadets. "You're really taking to this management thing."
"Then maybe," says Starbuck turning the same fierce look on Boomer that he'd given the two hapless cadets, "while I'm in management mode, why don't you come up with some good reasons for why you took those… those… " –temporarily lost for a fitting epithet, Starbuck settles for a snort— "… through that manoeuvre. You should know better! I expect better, Lieutenant, and when I get back from Upstairs, I want to know why you did it and I want your undertaking that you won't do it again."
"Whoa!" says Boomer, taken aback.
"Do you know how much shit I'm going to be in with the Commander? Do you have any idea at all? Thanks, Boomer. Appreciate it." Starbuck takes a deep breath. "I think," he says, "that you'd better take the rest of the cadets back into the simulators and I really don't want to see you or them for the rest of this duty shift."
Boomer stares, mouth open, and Starbuck stamps his way out of the Duty Office and up to the Bridge. Just his bloody luck, but both the Commander and Colonel Tigh are waiting for him in the Command Office, and neither of them look pleased to see him.
"Well," says the Commander, in a disappointed tone. "Not a good start, do you think, Captain? Do you mean to go on in this slapdash way or do you think you might grasp the edges of what it means to be in command some time soon? Sometime very soon, because if you don't, I'm certain that there will be others who'll be delighted to show a little more competence than you've managed so far. They could hardly show less. Will you please explain to the Colonel and I what just happened on today's training flight?"
Colonel Tigh, the cold-hearted bastard, just smiles.
Starbuck is a popular man with the ladies. And, now and again, with the boys. So popular, that he's always believed that he knows what love is.
He's something of an expert, after all, and he isn't the only person who thinks so. Everyone on the Galactica—well, maybe not the Commander or Colonel Tigh, but most everyone else—comes to Starbuck for advice on how to attract or charm or intrigue or impress or please or fool their lover. Starbuck is the man who knows how; Starbuck is the man to emulate.
His qualifications are many. His fellow pilots keep the score with expressions of wry envy: he has the looks, the charm, the silver tongue, the opportunities, the unparalleled number of pretty girls (mostly) and pretty boys (occasionally), the sheer animal sexiness to prove that he is the man, the one and only, the incomparable Starbuck. The pilots don't keep score for those nights that Starbuck sleeps in someone else's bed: they count those rare nights when he doesn't.
He knows—because he isn't visually challenged and not only does he have a perfectly good mirror in his quarters, but he lives on a space ship with a lot of shiny, reflective metallic surfaces—that he's as every bit as good-looking as women tell him he is. He can stand in front of his mirror and he too sees a face that meets every standard for classical beauty, sees the bright blue eyes and the thick fall of wheat-gold hair; he sees what everyone else sees: the man that everyone admires and quite a lot of them want.
It's his own private, never voiced, opinion, that the blond/blue combination can be a little too clichéd and bland, but he has a great deal of empirical evidence to show that most people think it's pretty hot. Starbuck doesn't disabuse them of this wrong opinion, not when it works out in his favour most times. Starbuck isn't particularly modest. He doesn't deny that he has a beauty that attracts so many, he doesn't pooh-pooh the compliments he gets; he smiles and charms and fascinates, and trails a finger down a pretty girl's throat as he compliments and kisses and cajoles. Starbuck has assets and he most certainly knows how to use them.
So, this is what gets defined as love, in the world that Starbuck knows:
In a dimly lit compartment, Starbuck rolls onto his side or his back and looks at the way that what light there is limns the edges of a slender throat, or the curve of a breast or a rounded, soft-skinned arm. He'll lean forward, tracing the lines of light, following them down delicate skin, sketching out the soft shapes with a finger-tip, smoothing with a touch he keeps feather-light and teasing. Where his finger leads, his mouth follows, and he presses light little kisses along the line of shoulder, or throat, or breast, using his tongue on a nipple until she—whichever she it is—gives a little gasp and her hands holding his upper arms tighten, or her hand on his chest or sides press harder. And after her legs part for him and she's lifted her mouth to meet his in a kiss that deepens and deepens until he's lost himself, he'll thrust and thrust and thrust again until they're both lost.
That's a typical Starbuck night. And the next night, and the next after that. And when he moves on with a sweet smile and no hard feelings, it's the next body and the body after that.
Love is physical. Love is pleasure. Love is transitory.
For a long time, that's the only love that Starbuck knows. That's what they mean when they talk about Starbuck being the sort of lover that everyone wants, being the touchstone for love.
And for a long time, Starbuck has thought that they're right, and that he really is the luckiest man alive.
"I suppose," says Athena in a savage whisper, "that you're breaking our date tonight to go and see her."
"We don't have a date," says Starbuck, puzzled, because truly he hasn't seen Athena that way for several sectons now and hasn't any intention of resurrecting that affair. He doesn't go back to old loves; and Athena's too grasping, too needy, too intent on being his one and only.
Starbuck didn't use to do one-and-onlies and even now that he's thinking about it and actually quite liking the concept, it wouldn't be someone who measures herself in terms of possession and control. Athena, it has to be said, likes to be in control, to call the tune. She's not exactly passive.
Put bluntly, she isn't one to cross. She's been known to indicate her dissatisfaction with Starbuck's roving eye by the judicious use of the steam-purge function in the Viper launch tube. As Starbuck can testify, that has a deflating effect and steam burns in unusual places are both painful and embarrassing. Cassiopeia hadn't appreciated it either.
"I asked you if you'd be here tonight," says Athena.
"And I said yes. It's the Officer's Club, Thenie; I'm in here most nights. That's a fact, not a date."
Athena takes hold of the edges of her jacket and twists and twists it in her hands. Starbuck has to fight the impulse to put protective hands around his throat. "Are you going to see her?" she demands.
"If you mean Cassie, then no I'm not." Starbuck doesn't say that Cassie is as mad with him as Athena is, and for entirely the same reason. Cassie's another one who seeks sole possession rights. The only saving grace is that she's less dangerous to refuse than Athena is. "I'm having one beer with my friends, then I'm going to see Apollo."
"What friends?" asks Boomer, passing by and looking sour as citrus. "Power bloody mad, some people."
Athena leans forward and there's something very dark in her eyes. "You'd better not be seeing her."
Starbuck sighs. He looks from her to his erstwhile friends, none of whom look particularly friendly now (Boomer must have got his retaliation in first, that was all Starbuck could conclude) and sighs again. He decides that Athena's little threats don't deserve a response, so he gets up and leaves her sitting there with the dark look in her eyes and her hands twisting in her jacket.
He makes a firm resolution not to go anywhere near a Viper launching tube for a secton or two, just in case.
Starbuck slams into the quiet quarters, throws his jacket onto a chair with a curse, slams into the little kitchen area and slams around it, kicking cupboards. He finds a bottle of beer and wrenches off the top, slamming down onto the sofa and glowering.
"Bad day at the office, dear?" asks Apollo, barely looking up from his book.
"When are you coming back to work?"
Apollo makes a pointed gesture towards his right foot, which is propped on a chair and encased in a heavy healing capsule. "You were there when I broke it. You were there when Salik put the capsule on. You know how long. Until it heals."
"I don't like being the pretend captain," whines Starbuck. "Heal faster."
"Oh," says Apollo, and he's laughing, the unfeeling bastard. "You've only got a couple of more days at it before they try someone else. Colonel Tigh thought it was a great opportunity to test you all."
"I hate this. I hate you. And I really hate Colonel Tigh." Starbuck finishes his beer and carefully (because this is Apollo's place and the man's fanatical about tidiness) puts the bottle down beside the sofa out of harm's way. "I hated today. Really, really hated it. There were these two cadets—"
"How the hell should I know? They all look the same. They all look twelve yahrens old and gormless. These two are so gormless they were almost vacant-eyed and drooling. When we were cadets, we weren't that stupid, were we?"
"We were exceptional," says Apollo. "Of course. What did they do?"
"They tried the Bonehead Manoeuvre," explains Starbuck. "For real. On their training flight. It was only sheer dumb luck that they didn't kill themselves and every other cadet on the flight."
"Mmn," says Apollo, and he's grinning a bit. "Seems to me that when you did it for real yourself, you and I had this little discussion about how you only survived it because of sheer, dumb luck."
"And skill!" protests Starbuck. "Lots and lots of skill. There's no-one can touch me for stuff like that, not even you."
"And I yelled at them and the cadets don't love me anymore." Starbuck sighs. "I used to be their hero, Apollo."
"Being on a pedestal's uncomfortable."
"How would you know? Anyhow, then I yelled at Boomer for telling 'em about it and letting them try it on the simulator."
"Oh, is that why Boomer called me to complain about you being a megalomaniac tyrant?"
"He's a sneak as well as an idiot. So. Then I get called Upstairs so your father and Colonel Tigh could yell at me."
"That's a lot of yelling."
"Yeah, well. They do it with the ease of long practice and they're both very good at it. Your father said that I was incompetent."
"He says that to me all the time," soothes Apollo. "He means it very affectionately, really."
Starbuck rolls his eyes. "Right. After that, I went on a little walk to recover my shattered equilibrium. I ended up near that little store-room near Engineering."
"The one where you hold your illegal Pyramid school?"
"That's the one. The last thing I needed was Colonel Tigh finding half the officers down there playing strip-Pyramid. Luckily, there wasn't a game going on but Giles saw me down there."
"He'd be checking on his still, I guess," says Apollo, with all the indifference that comes from being off duty. "The next batch of liquor's about due."
"Uh-huh. I didn't ask, in case he told me and I'd have to do something about it. That's why you never ask, right? Right. Well, he worked out I was down there to shut down a game if I found one and called me a hypocrite. He told the others, too. But I'm in charge, Apollo. I can't let them get away with what I normally get away with!"
"Welcome to my world, Starbuck."
"And then there was your sister." Starbuck shudders and hesitates. "Apollo, do you think Athena's all right? You know what I mean. Is she all right?"
"She's a little intense," says Apollo, unconcerned. "And she likes getting her revenge by messing with your head a bit."
"It works. She scares me when she thinks I'm seeing Cassie again. So she hates me. Boomer hates me. Giles hates me. The cadets hate me. The Commander and Colonel Tigh despise me. Apollo, I do not like being in charge."
"No, truly, Starbuck. Welcome to my world."
For several centons Starbuck huffs and grumbles about the lack of sympathy until he runs out of steam; and for a little while more he sits and stares sleepily at nothing in particular. Apollo, still grinning, has gone back to his book, his shoulder solid and warm against Starbuck's; and it's only a broken ankle when it could so easily have been a broken neck, and Starbuck is so thankful for that, that his gut twists whenever he thinks about how close he came to losing Apollo.
The thought makes him want to be closer. He pulls one of the cushions out from behind him and after a little pushing and shoving and a "Budge up a bit and give a man more room", he manages to stretch out on the sofa. He has to put the cushion against Apollo's thigh, punching and pummelling it first to loosen up the compacted stuffing, before he has somewhere to rest his weary, unappreciated and unloved head.
Apollo reads on, uncomplaining. His left hand drifts down to smooth Starbuck's hair, fingers gently combing and carding through it. If Starbuck moves his head a little, without disturbing Apollo's hand, of course, he can tilt his head back enough for his sleepy focus to be on Apollo's profile. For a long time he watches the way the light glimmers down the side of Apollo's face, glancing off his cheekbones and casting the little hollows beneath them into shadow. The curve of Apollo's ear where the light catches it, fascinates Starbuck.
And all the time, Apollo's fingers smooth and pet and pet and smooth, until Starbuck's muscles relax and he can feel his mouth start to curve. For the first time all day, Starbuck lets out a long, quiet sigh and lets the contentment seep down into his bones.
Luck's what you make of it, after all, and love is to be found in very unexpected places.