Wide Waving Wings

Soon shall thy arm, unconquer'd steam! afar

Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;

Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear

The flying chariot through the field of air.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)
The Botanic Garden. Part i. Canto i. Line 289

English physiologist & poet, grandfather of Charles R. Darwin.

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"You don't see many of those," said Starbuck, awed.

The welcome ceremony had been very long and very, very tedious. After what felt like several centars of listening to the Erasi speaking in their slow, sonorous, melodic voices about cultural exchange and friendship and trade, Starbuck was desperate enough to clutch at the first distraction that offered and take his gaze off the pretty people who were bowing and talking to the four Council members sent to represent the fleet. The four Council members were not pretty people, of course, and so far only the contrast had amused Starbuck enough to keep him from glazing over right in front of them all and causing a diplomatic incident.

Apollo had to be as bored as he was; his attention wasn't one hundred percent on the ceremony either. "No," he said, fascinated, staring up into the sky. "Not outside the history books."

"They didn't look quite like that in my history book," murmured Starbuck, delighted. He shot a sideways glance at Apollo, who was most definitely one of the pretty people. "Can I take one home?"

The airship puttered gently overhead. It looked like a fat metal fumerillo that had been enamelled a deep, rich burgundy and striped with thin silver lines. Despite the silver pipes and chimneys snaking around the main body of the airship to vent above its broad, curved back, it was a surprisingly beautiful and majestic sight, with one chimney chuffing out fat, round little clouds of steam and smoke against the clear, greenish sky.

"Do you have any idea what in Hades is holding it up?" Starbuck wondered. "D'you think it's really steam or is that for show?"

Apollo shook his head. "I wish I knew."

As the airship passed over them, Starbuck caught sight of rows of faces lining the wide glass windows of the gondola slung beneath it. There were dozens of Erasi on the airship, all staring down at the Galactican shuttle.

"Looks like we're the main attraction around here," said Apollo. He grinned and held up a hand before Starbuck could speak. "I know, Starbuck, I know. You're always the main attraction."

"They have seen aliens before, haven't they?" Starbuck reflected that all it ever took to be an alien was a different point of view. "Because I'm just wondering how they ever met them. They can't possibly take one of those things up into space."

"They have a communications system that's capable of interstellar comms, and obviously they have some sort of radar or sensors that clocked the fleet when we came into the system. But you saw for yourself that they don't have any sort of sensor array out in orbit and there was no sign of any ships as we came in." Apollo chewed thoughtfully on his bottom lip. "I don't know how they do it," he conceded. "I suppose they have some sort of space capability, but I can't work out what it is. I listened in to the negotiations that set up this meeting. They're not fazed by us turning up on their doorstep. They definitely weren't frightened by the mere thought of meeting aliens and they seem to genuinely want us here. They must have met other species before."

"But we don't know who?"

"No. We don't know anything about the Erasi, much less anyone else that may be around. Core Command is scanning the systems ahead to see if we can pick up any hint of who else might be in the neighbourhood. And it's part of my brief to try and find out more from our hosts."

"Hmmphf," said Starbuck. "Knowing our luck, their best friends'll be the Cylons." He shuddered. "Or the Velharee."

Apollo's mouth twitched, the bastard. "Tweet tweet," he said.

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At least the Erasi were true-human.

In the last yahren, the refugee fleet had come across a dozen new species as it had fled across the star systems, only a couple of them true humans. The rest were humanoid with the recognisable pattern that was the familiar human type – broadly human shape, bipedal, hands with opposable thumbs – overlaid with the frighteningly unfamiliar, with all the differences that pointed clearly to something that wasn't a common ancestor after all, but something that was more fishy or lizard-like or avian. Starbuck had spent an unproductive centar with a dictionary one day, trying to work out if the humanoid aliens they met were anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, before giving it up as a bad job and going to the OC to soothe his headache with an ambrosa and a few centars of Apollo's company.

Apollo hadn't known which either, but cared even less. So far as he was concerned, he said, he was far more worried about their intentions than their ancestry. Apollo was distressingly prosaic sometimes.

His philological quandary to one side, Starbuck enjoyed first encounters. They broke the routine and gave everyone the chance to see and meet new and different kinds of people, sample new food and drink, and sometimes sample new opportunities for, you know, cultural exchange. At least, that's what he called it whenever Apollo caught Starbuck exchanging, and it was just like Apollo to raise an eyebrow and look superior and remote. Apollo had no right to look betrayed; it wasn't like Starbuck had said anything then, had he? And then even when he had said something, it still wasn't like it was Starbuck's fault. The Velharee were definitely not his fault.

Starbuck got tired of being the one to blame sometimes, especially when he wasn't sure what it was he was supposed to feel guilty about.

The recent encounter with the Velharee had seen them added to the aliens-non-grata list that presumably the Council kept somewhere; and if the Council was its usual negligent self in this regard, Starbuck made up for it. He added the Velharee to his private list of humanoid species that he would prefer never to meet again, with an emphatic and vengeful hand. They'd come across the Velharee only a few sectars earlier, crossing over a corner of Velharee space and making contact (i) out of politeness (ii) to trade for foodstuffs to augment the agri-ships and (iii) to ensure the Velharee got a very clear and unambiguous message about of Colonial readiness to deal with any and every threat to the fleet. Especially (iii), Apollo had said in the squadron briefings, grim and bleak as he faced up to yet another potential problem.

The bird-like Velharee hadn't appeared to be much of a threat at first. They seemed to be all fluttering, light, pretty bodies, soft bright feathers that did duty for hair, fluty voices and a language that sounded like a series of whistles and trills. They were keen to trade. They didn't appear to be aggressive. They appeared to be friendly. In fact, they were very friendly. And predominantly female.

What wasn't to like?

The Velharee, it turned out, really didn't have a lot of males. While Starbuck could appreciate that they were, naturally, on the look-out for more, he took exception to being kidnapped to (as an unsympathetic Apollo had put it) 'ruffle a few feathers and fertilise a few eggs'. Starbuck had particularly resented the way Apollo had picked a feather out Starbuck's hair as he said it, and handed it to him with a smirk that was positively evil. But Apollo's mouth was tight with something he wouldn't acknowledge, and there were little lines of tension at the corners of his eyes.

Starbuck had told himself that Apollo's lip was curling out of sheer envy. He'd barely got out the nests intact and his equanimity had been a little too overset to cope with Apollo's jealousy. They had squabbled in what even Starbuck could admit was a very childish way. Apollo had been unusually cross and snarky. Starbuck supposed he could understand it, given the offer he'd finally made only a few sectons prior, but he was hurt at the lack of faith. The edgy chill lasted until the cooks had served omelettes in the Commissary a couple of days later. For reasons that Starbuck would rather not explore (since it had unfortunate overtones of cannibalism and infanticide that left him feeling uncomfortably guilty) cheese omelettes had somehow broken the tension between them.

"You don't have parental feelings towards the cheese as well, do you?" Apollo had enquired when Starbuck had stammered out his reluctance to eat his lunch, and the resultant choke of laughter had made all right in Starbuck's world again.

Apollo seemed to be over his rampant ornithophobia. Apollo wasn't snarky any longer. Apollo wasn't being cold and distant and closing Starbuck out. Apollo had forgiven Starbuck for having feathers in his hair. Apollo still wasn't showing any signs of capitulating, but having him back as his best friend was better than not having Apollo there at all.

All in all, Starbuck was happy again.

The omelettes had tasted pretty good, too.

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So, much as he generally looked forward to first contacts, Starbuck had become understandably wary of aliens that were insectoid or reptilian, having lively memories of the Ovions on Carillon and knowing that the Cylons were originally lizards, and most definitely disliked birds these days. He hadn't liked the pig-like Borays much, either, come to think on it. But it wasn't just the humanoid aliens that turned out to be a bother. One true-human but militaristic society that should have made a Colonial Warrior feel right at home (if you just, say, compared job descriptions), had scared the living Lords out of all of them and they had almost ended up in yet another war. Still, despite escaping that one by the skin of his teeth, Starbuck mostly went into such encounters with mind open and curiosity lively and unchecked, and with more than half-an-eye on the main chance. A true triumph of hope over bitter experience, obviously.

Starbuck was relieved to find that the Erasi weren't trying to imitate some denizen of the animal kingdom designed to give him the heebie-jeebies, These aliens were a recognisably human-type. The only problem was that they were a very perfect human type. Every single one of the Erasi who came to greet them was at least two metres tall with hair, skin and eyes in shades of golden brown, from true gold to the shade of new honey. They were all, without exception, incredibly, irritatingly and infuriatingly pretty to look at.

And if that wasn't enough, they were rather snappy dressers. Starbuck hadn't seen so much richly-dyed silk and lush velvet outside of a theatrical costumiers; and he'd swear that the head man greeting them was wearing cloth-of-gold. Granted the clothes were a little odd—nice if you liked waistcoats and topboots, Starbuck thought, but too ostentatious for his taste, and all too few men had the calves to carry off breeches like that. And it wasn't as though he was sexist or anything, but the ladies' enormous bell-like skirts were a little too concealing.

Still, he looked down at his (drab) uniform and sighed for how ordinary and shabby it seemed in comparison. And he thought, sadly, that once he could have counted on being the prettiest man in the room but here... well, this planet was beginning to depress him.

Starbuck realised that he was fast becoming as wary of pretty aliens as he was of humanoid ones. He was not a man who would normally feel at a disadvantage when it came to good looks, but the Erasi made him feel too short, too pale, too skinny, too unfit, too colourless, too plain, too unsparkling, too mundane, too ordinary... Starbuck decided that the Erasi were going to have to come up with one hell of a cultural exchange to make the dents to his ego even half-way bearable.

"Why did I have to come?" he asked.

Apollo shrugged. "We needed someone to carry the bags."

Councillor Solon, the appointed leader of the Council delegation finished his own long oration in which he'd talked cultural exchange and friendship and trade right back at the Erasi welcoming committee, motioned Apollo and Starbuck forward and introduced them. Starbuck felt not unlike the hired help being nodded to as an afterthought. From the tight expression around Apollo's eyes and the way his mouth had thinned right down, Apollo was feeling similarly put out.

Starbuck, bowing and smiling alongside Apollo, thought that the whole thing was more than faintly ridiculous. Diplomacy was quite possibly not his thing. He would have been far more comfortable slapping their hosts on the back, offering them a fumerillo and opening up an intense discussion on where on Eras you could find the sharpest card games or the best action with the hottest girls. The clothes might not be that hot, Starbuck reflected, but as a man who was very familiar with ladies' undergarments, he'd bet his pension on the ladies being well corseted; and for a moment he did glaze over as images of whalebone and lace were almost too much for his peace of mind.

Apollo sighed and dug him painfully in the ribs.

Starbuck came alert gracefully and effortlessly, and bowed to the military officer whom the Erasi head man had waved forward; like Apollo and Starbuck, he'd stayed at the back and watched the aliens carefully for signs of aggression and threat. Now he joined them, making a little military island in this sea of diplomacy. His uniform was all scarlet silk and gold braid, and so obviously ceremonial that Starbuck didn't believe the man could ever have fought anything more strenuous than a head cold. They saluted each other politely and talked for a few centons, stealing interested glances at each other's weapons. The Erasi officer—an Adjutant, whatever that was—was carrying a sword and the biggest pistol Starbuck had ever seen in his life; it was a bulbous, elaborate-looking thing that looked almost organic. Starbuck couldn't for the life of him work out why it had a syringe of blue liquid sticking out of the back. His fingers itched to examine it, but since he preferred not to get his knowledge by being on the business end of the pistol, he found the patience to await a more likely opportunity.

From his expression, Apollo was equally as fascinated, and Starbuck felt a pang of envy as Adjutant Pietr showed his interest right back. Starbuck felt a little out of it. He was unaccountably relieved when the pleasantries, such as they were, were finally over and they were invited by their hosts to accompany them to the nearby city.

Starbuck locked the shuttle doors with the remote, setting the anti-intruder forcefield. The shuttle's surface quickened with faint silver light, sparkling around its outline under the pale sun. The Erasi delegation took a loud and collective intake of breath; Starbuck hoped it was admiration for the pretty effect, wondering if, given their rapt expressions, he should have brought a supply of pretty beads for trading purposes; he'd thought them a little more sophisticated than that. Then he saw the brief flare of annoyance in the officer's eyes and knew it was really chagrin at not being able to get aboard and snoop while the Galactican delegation was being (hopefully) wined and dined sumptuously in the city

"I'll leave a contingent of men to guard your ship," Adjutant Pietr said to Apollo. "No-one will get anywhere close to it."

Apollo smiled at the unsubtle remark, the bland smile that he said he'd learned to help keep himself sane through the military or political gatherings his father had dragged him to as soon as he was old enough to start impressing the Commander's important friends. "That's very wise. Until we understand each other's technology a little better, it could all be potentially rather dangerous. The forcefield and your guards will keep us all safe."

The officer's answering smile looked a tad insincere. "Of course," he said and, back very stiff, offered another salute and stalked away to where his similarly ornate men stood waiting.

"I think he's fallen out of love. He was definitely a little smitten with you before you got all smart-assed." Starbuck shrugged into his backpack and managed to roll his eyes at Apollo without their hosts or the Council members seeing him. Apollo just looked thoughtful, turning his gaze back onto the officer. Smiling fixedly, Starbuck followed the Councillors and their hosts to where their transport waited.

At least, he thought it was their transport.

The vehicles parked in convoy over to one side of the landing field were unlike anything Starbuck had ever seen before. They were of the same recognisable, but slightly twisted type of technology as the airship; as if something familiar was being seen through a prism, warped and offset by the hard crystal edges but still a shape that Starbuck could put a name to. The vehicles didn't look anything like a landram, but they were still vehicles. Spherical metal carriages in the same burgundy and silver livery as the airship, they were slung at a great height inside a metal suspension system that had an unfortunate resemblance to a crawlon's black legs and which curved around each carriage like a cage. The carriages had two wheels at the back and a single huge wheel, almost as tall as Starbuck, at the front.

They reminded Starbuck of the round orange squashes grown in such profusion in southern Caprica. Even in his orphanage they'd joined in the traditional fun, making lanterns by hollowing out the squashes before cutting patterns into the thick rind to show the light from candles fixed inside. They'd all looked forward to it for sectons, carrying the lanterns in the processions every Autumn Festival and the better-than-usual supper that followed. He wondered if that was something Apollo had done when he was a kid, too, although it was quite possible that a servant had done the hard work of hollowing and cutting and all Apollo had had to do was the processioning and feasting.

The Erasi separated them into two groups. Starbuck, feeling just a little apprehensive, followed Apollo and Councillor Mercier up a fragile-looking metal ladder into the second carriage. The interior was all shining brass, a dark, polished wood and rich, crimson velvet; the backs of the seats deeply studded and comfortable. In interior decoration terms, it knocked the Commander's shuttle into a cocked hat; like comparing a utilitarian workshop inches deep in Viper grease with a palace.

"Nice," he said, quietly.

Apollo just nodded and chose a seat. Starbuck dropped into the seat next to him, beside a window. He looked around in vain for some sort of mechanism – there were no driving terminals, or wheels, or dials or anything that suggested that this strange vehicle had some system for propelling it along. There was no driver inside that he could see, either.

"We are going to the terminal building to take a transport to the city," said one of their hosts, settling into a seat opposite Starbuck's. She had a bewildering and bewitching prettiness that Starbuck found entrancing. For her part, she looked him up and down and smiled. "The Praesidium is waiting to welcome you properly."

"I'm really looking forward to it," said Starbuck, smiling right back, despite a momentary pang of horror at the thought of more speeches and what the Erasi might consider proper. If what he'd just endured hadn't been a sufficient welcome, he wasn't sure he'd survive anything more.

Adjutant Pietr came up the little ladder and, with an apologetic smile for keeping them waiting, took the seat on the other side of Apollo. There was the slightest, almost subliminal, humming noise and the carriage rolled off smoothly. No-one inside seemed to have anything to do with it.

The pretty woman opposite him leaned forward, giving him a different problem to focus on. "I am Siana, Lieutenant Starbuck, and I am assigned to you to ensure your comfort."

"That's nice," he said, focusing on her to take his mind off disconcerting transportation..

Beside him, Apollo sighed a put-upon sigh.

"You seem a little concerned about the carriage, Lieutenant. Do you not have something similar on your world?"

Starbuck didn't tell her his world was ash and dust. "We have something similar, but… but different. Ours aren't nearly so fancy inside, they need drivers and I know what makes 'em go."

"As a people, we have an eye for beauty. Everything we make is both beautiful and useful. At least, we think them beautiful. The carriage is upholstered and decorated for our comfort and our pleasure, Lieutenant—"

"Just Starbuck, please. Too many 'Lieutenants' and I start to feel like I'm standing in Colonel Tigh's office waiting to be reamed out for something." He smiled at her perplexity. "I'm sorry. Please go on."

She smiled back. "The driver is on the outside of the carriage. His driving station is just behind me here." She tapped the curved wall behind her head. "If I wished to speak to him I can use this speaking tube to give him directions, for example. I'm afraid that I don't personally understand the propulsion system for the carriages as I'm not a scientist or an engineer, although I'm sure that I can find someone to explain it to you when we reach the city. We can learn about it together."

Starbuck laughed, thoroughly diverted.

Apollo sighed his put-upon sigh again.

Starbuck smirked at him and concentrated all his considerable charms on Siana. It kept his mind off the conundrum that was the vehicle's power source, but he wasn't surprised to find that it didn't do much to counter his discomfort over the way that Apollo and the Adjutant were talking together, and the way that Pietr leaned over Apollo's shoulder. It didn't help that the Adjutant dropped his voice to a low, confidential tone that meant that Starbuck couldn't quite make out what was being said. Apollo laughed a couple of times and looked both animated and pleased. Starbuck was forced to charm Siana even harder.

It was a short trip. Within five centons Starbuck gallantly handed Siana down the little flight of steps that had been folded underneath the carriage while it ran, and followed her down himself. He glanced up at the driver, sitting in a little seat attached to the back of the carriage, but he couldn't see anything that looked like a control system or anything to steer the carriage. He was as ignorant of how it all worked as he had been when he got on board.

Siana tucked one hand through his arm and settled the enormous, floor-length skirts of her richly brocaded dress, smoothing down its folds with her free hand. The Lords alone knew what was holding it out at such an enormous circumference, but Starbuck could see that he'd been right about the underpinnings: she was well corseted underneath it all. Nothing else could make her bodice quite so rigid and quite so uplifting. He felt very uplifted at the thought and turned to make sure that Apollo realised it.

Apollo gave him A Look. He smiled back blandly and concentrated on being diplomatic, while Apollo joined the Adjutant and strolled along to one side of them. The two seemed to be getting on rather well, Starbuck noted. He dragged his attention back to Siana, apologising handsomely for his momentary inattention.

The terminal was a glass-sided geosidic dome, with two tethered airships floating above it and a third on the ground. Starbuck's spirits rose as they were ushered into the gondola of the grounded airship and this time when he and Apollo exchanged glances, Apollo looked just as thrilled as Starbuck felt.

"This isn't very much like your craft," said Siana.

"Not at all," agreed Starbuck. He sat back in his velvet seat and positively beamed with anticipation. Any pilot worth his or her salt would be delighted by the chance to ride in an airship like this. He gave her his very best smile. "Any chance of joining the pilot and seeing how this beauty flies?"

Siana smiled back, and it was a promise. "I think we might see what we can do," she said. She leaned forward and put her hand on his knee. "I'd like you to see how every kind of beauty flies."

Apollo sighed.

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"They're not exactly subtle," said Apollo, smoothing down the sleeve that had spent some considerable time under Adjutant Pietr's over-friendly hand.

"Because because they know that you're the pilots of the shuttle and because you're military, I expect," Solon said. "They seem to assume the military mind is suspicious of subtlety."

"And because I'm the one carrying the shuttle remote," nodded Starbuck. "I suppose they think it will be much easier to get it from me in the aftermath of a cultural exchange."

Solon shot him a look that betrayed his puzzlement, and Starbuck merely smiled and shrugged.

"You're right that they're making the assumption that Starbuck and I don't need as sophisticated an approach," Apollo agreed. "Which is interesting."

"They'll be testing your allegiances," warned Councillor Poen, unnecessarily.

Starbuck glanced at him, hoping his derision didn't show. "Of course they will, sir. That's how negotiations go. You get the understated and clever approaches from the diplomats and we get hit on by the military."

Councillor Mercier's eyebrow almost disappeared into her hairline. "You think that young lady who was hanging on your arm was military?"

"I can't swear she was in uniform," conceded Starbuck. "But, yes, Ma'am, she is. She's armed under all that lace and satin, and I'm pretty sure she and Pietr are working together to keep me and Captain Apollo occupied."

"The diplomats are team-tagging the rest of us, have you noticed?" Councillor Creed glanced up from his datapad. "I think they're taking longer to get a feel for which of them would be best to latch onto each of us, to get the best effect. What will they want to trade for, do you think?"

Starbuck looked out through the wide windows to the city skyline beyond. They had been given a suite of rooms in the President's official residence and had retired there after the 'proper' welcome ceremony to prepare for the official dinner that was to follow. Out there was a city of stone, chimneys putting out grey smoke from wood fires like the one that burned away in the fireplace at the other end of the room. Yet the streets they'd travelled through had been thronged with the strange little spherical carriages that ran on technology that he still couldn't fathom, and the skies were filled with airships.

"It's a funny mix of a culture," he said.

"Some of their technology is almost stone age," said Mercier, with a disproving glance at the wood fire.

Starbuck grinned. Maybe the Erasi just liked the romance of real flames.

"So, possibly some power generation, fuels and energy conservation technology," speculated Poen.

"Which may lead on to more information on chemical and industrial processes that we might help them with." Like Creed and Poen, Solon was busily making lists on his datapad; Mercier seemed to rely upon her capacious memory. "Any sign that they've split the atom?"

"Nothing that our sensors picked up when we came into orbit," said Apollo. "But if their main industries were still using pre-atomic power sources, we'd have picked on the large-scale pollution from organic fuels. There wasn't any."

"I still haven't worked out how they make those carriages run," said Starbuck. "They aren't using any fuel source we've encountered before. It would bear more investigation and may be incredibly useful to us if they've got something entirely new that is non-polluting."

"We maybe should bring Doctor Wilker on these little outing," said Apollo.

Solon nodded. "Yes. And perhaps a medical expert. We've no way of knowing what they might find useful that field," he said.

"Given the species differences, that one's always fraught with more difficulty than benefit," said Apollo. "They're more likely to ask about the propulsion systems on the shuttle, and sensor and isometrics technology. And, of course, weapons."

"Of course," said Starbuck, amused.

"Which we won't give them," said Solon, easily.

Starbuck knew that. He wondered what Adjutant Pietr would take for his gun, and, feeling sick at heart, if Apollo would pay the price. He caught Apollo's clear-eyed gaze and relaxed. No. Apollo wouldn't pay that price. The Adjutant could be as unsubtle as he liked, but he'd just have to pine and be smitten. Starbuck was pretty sure that Apollo wasn't smitten right back.

He knew how hard it was to get Apollo smitten. He also knew how to pine.

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"That's one helluva view," said Starbuck, carrying two glasses out on the wide balcony.

Apollo turned until his back was to the extensive city skyline, leaning against the balcony wall. He took the offered glass with a smile. "It's one helluva city."

"I didn't just mean the city," demurred Starbuck. He raised his glass in a salute. "To getting through dinner unscathed."

"And without fertilising anyone's eggs." Apollo touched Starbuck's glass with his own, and took a sip of the warm golden wine. His eyes widened. "Wow,"

"Good stuff," Starbuck kicked at the base of the balcony wall. "You're not letting that one go," he noted. "The Velharee, I mean. You were madder than a hornet afterwards, too."

"I was probably comparing what you do against what you say," said Apollo, rather icily.

"Unfair. I was drugged."

Apollo sipped again at his wine. "Every time?"

Starbuck sighed and cocked his head, listening to the low murmur of the Councillor's voices in the sitting room behind him. "What 'every time'? Since we first talked about this, I've not been seeing anyone else and I didn't exactly beg the Velharee to steal my DNA."

"Okay," said Apollo, after a centon, because not even he could argue with that. It was true.

"Look, I know you're scared that I can't be faithful—"

"You've said yourself that you find it hard but it's not like I didn't notice that already, Starbuck. You double dated Cassie and my sister for sectars and in the end you walked away from both of them. You hurt both of them. You know, I think I deserve better than that."

"You'll get better than that. I could be faithful, for you. I could be very faithful. I will be."

"Neither one of them speaks to you now. Athena virtually spits laser torpedoes if I so much as mention your name. I don't want to lose my best friend because…" Apollo blew out a noisy sigh. "Maybe we're just better off as we are. Staying friends."

Starbuck noted the 'maybe', and the tight feeling in his chest eased a bit. Apollo was still thinking about it then. He hadn't made an irrevocable decision, not yet. "I want more. I know it took me a long time to work out why nothing else had ever worked out for me, but I did in the end." Starbuck took a deep breath, and knew that his voice trembled. "Sometimes, you know, it takes time to realise where true love is."

It was dusk and in the fading daylight, Apollo was lit with a golden light from the lantern hanging above the door to the sitting room. He looked fucking beautiful as the lantern's flames flickered, the light softening the often too-hard line of mouth and jaw. "True love? Is that what you think this is, Starbuck?"

"I think so, yes."

"You've never said so, before."

"I never was, before. I started getting a clue at the Destruction, when I was so relieved to find you when you got back from Caprica, I threw up most of the night." He smiled at Apollo's startled grin. "Yeah, I know. Most people are all rainbows and sparkles when they're in love."

"Sparkle at me and I'll kill you."

Starbuck didn't laugh, although he almost wanted to. Almost. "I won't. You're more important to me than that. I can't do sparkly for you. It's deeper than that."

"The way you did sparkly for Siana, you mean? I don't want that."

"You're more than that," repeated Starbuck, doggedly.

"And if I say no, when I make up my mind?"

Starbuck put his empty glass down carefully onto the top of the balcony wall, and stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets so Apollo wouldn't see them shake. "It's true that not everybody finds… sometimes you just don't meet the right one, or they're already taken when you do. People muddle along, nonetheless. You can't make someone love you back. I don't know much about love, but I know that much."

After a long pause, Apollo said, very quietly. "Does that mean you're giving up?"

"Hell, no. At the very least, I hope we can muddle along together."

He'd had his first clue when he'd stood on the still-burning deck of the Galactica and watched Apollo get out of his Viper at the end of the battle that destroyed their world, and his relief had been so profound that it felt like someone had their hand twisted in his guts. Starbuck seldom cried, but his eyes had stung mightily; from the smoke, he expected. Now he watched for another clue, looking for it in Apollo's expression in the brightening lamplight, seeing with delight how the flickering flame put a line of gold along one sharp cheekbone.

Apollo smiled. "I'm sure we will. Muddle along, I mean."

"Together?"

"Well, I'll give it some thought." Apollo glanced past him to where Solon stood at the door of the sitting room, beckoning them in. "Time to go to dinner."

Starbuck turned, and for a micron they stood shoulder to shoulder. Apollo was warm and substantial against him. " I bet Adjutant Pietr offers to show you his gun over dessert. Will you let him?"

"Will you let the romantic Siana show you how beauty flies?"

Starbuck looked up as a lit-up airship ghosted quietly overhead, and turned to face Apollo again. "Already seen it. Every time you launch."

"Well," said Apollo. "Tell you what. You keep that in mind, Starbuck."

"I do; all the time. Do you think they'll let me fly one of those?"

"Maybe. Maybe if this turns out to be a good mission and we get the trade we want, they'll let you drive one home," said Apollo. "Drive quickly, drive safely and I'll give you a very substantial tip when we get there."

"Huh," said Starbuck, grinning, and feeling the hope surge. "I look forward to it."

Councillor Solon had gone back into the sitting room. There was no-one to see but Starbuck and the rows of Erasi doubtless watching from the airship above their heads when Apollo leaned in and his lips brushed Starbuck's.

It was a little close-mouthed kiss. That's all. Apollo didn't even put his hands on him, just touched his mouth to Starbuck's.

That's all.

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5852 wordsNovember 2008