Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast
Maybe they're made out of some sort of metal. They're all golden and bronze and pale copper, and they almost shine. It's like… well, it's like they don't just get up in the morning and shower, they get up in the morning and get themselves polished.
They sort of glow.
You can tell, straight off, that the P'Nat'r aren't human. They glow and they're tall and glittering and every damn one of them is beautiful. There's no-one who's short or plain—no buck teeth, spots or frizzy hair for the P'Nat'r, no sir. No-one who can't see or hear or walk. Nothing but perfect, beautiful people.
It makes his teeth ache, all that perfection. Apollo says they're enough to give humanity a permanent inferiority complex. Well, they're sure as Hades giving Boomer some sort of complex. Damned if it'll be inferiority, though.
"You know, I'll put up with a lot for the Fleet. I'll put up with a lot because it's my duty as a warrior. I'll put up with a lot because I know we need this trade deal. But the next P'Nat'r who runs over to me to pinch me, stroke me or touch my hair, and I swear I'll bite."
Starbuck would just laugh. Apollo doesn't laugh. "They're not what I'd describe as diverse," he acknowledges.
Because along with not having anyone who doesn't reach some humanly-unreachable standard of perfection, they don't have more than one ethnicity. Now that's their fatal flaw, in Boomer's view, but there's no knowing what they think about it.
"Unless," says Apollo, "the racial differences are between gold, bronze and copper."
"That's a thought."
They're walking slowly through the great open park beside the river. It's twilight and the light is a strange shade, almost the purple of a grape with the bloom still on it. The air's scented and here and there white flowers gleam in the dusk. It's a good smell. Leo was once scented twilight, just like this.
Now Leo's dust and ashes.
There are hundreds of P'Nat'r walking near them, strolling along pathways edged with tiny white lights. Not with them, just near them. Their guide is just ahead with Starbuck, Jolly and the Council Trade Delegation, but there's a bit of space between the human group and the P'Nat'r around them.
Not that it stops them staring, of course.
It's possible that Apollo's right. The golden ones have golden glowing skin and toning gold hair and eyes a tawny yellow; the bronze and coppery ones have the same sort of all-over colouration, just different shades. That might mean they're three different ethnic groupings, but the differences between them aren't marked. The thing for sure is that they don't have anyone like Boomer or Dietra or Colonel Tigh, and much as they're interested in humans generally, they've been fascinated by that difference.
He really, really doesn't like it. He's been stared at, openly. He's seen them talk to each other, huddled in whispers, pointing at him. He's even had P'Nat'r run up to him and rub his hand or arm with their long thin fingers, as if they think he's tarnished and the colour will come off if they rub hard enough. Okay, only kids did that and their parents looked horrified and pulled them away real quick, but still. He has the right to complain.
"I feel like something in a zoo."
Colonel Tigh went back to the Galactica when he'd had enough, and Apollo, being the good captain he is, sent Dietra back to the shuttles when he saw how uncomfortable she was getting with all the attention. So far, though, Boomer's just grinned and borne it.
Not for much longer, though.
"Bite," he says again.
Apollo stops and turns. He looks serious. "Are you getting too uncomfortable with it?"
"I wouldn't mind if we all got the same level of attention. They got over you and the others pretty fast and Starbuck—well, if it wasn't for his blue eyes, the bastard would fit right in with them—"
"Yes," says Apollo, and his mouth twists a little. It's only for the most fleeting micron, but it's there.
"I don't like being treated like some sort of exotic animal, Apollo. It's demeaning."
He nods. "I know. I feel bad about it."
"Just so long as you do."
Apollo gives Boomer a small grin, but it's sympathetic. "And I know that even with what the anthropologists say about it being the natural curiosity of a truly homogenous race, it has to feel intrusive."
Jilmara, their guide today, has realised they've dropped behind and is jogging back towards them. Apollo tucks his arm through Boomer's and starts them off again, smiling reassurances to Jilmara.
"Yeah." Boomer waves his free hand around. "And the anthropologists are where, exactly?"
Apollo chuckles. "Never where you want them."
"Never down here to deal with any of that natural curiosity first hand. Bastards." He'd complain some more, but Apollo still has his arm through Boomer's and it'd be a shame if he moved it.
"All scientists are bastards," agrees Apollo, and he sounds quite cheerful about it.
It's quiet for a few centons. It's a long walk. They're still in the centre of the city, inside an enormous park, and they have to get to the middle of the park to reach the riverside and the place where the P'Nat'r hold this festival they're being taken to. They've been walking for near on half-a-centar, and Boomer still can't see the river.
Boomer's not sure why Apollo's hanging back from the main group, but he's not in any hurry to catch up. Once or twice Starbuck looks back at them and grins, but he's intent on impressing the Councillors for some reason and doesn't have time for Apollo and Boomer tonight. It's quite something watching him turn on the charm like that and watching the poor saps respond to it, turning to him to bask in his attention.
Out of nowhere, Apollo says, "He's thinking about Sealing with Cassie."
Boomer can't tell what he thinks about that. Apollo's tone doesn't tell him anything.
"He told me earlier today," says Apollo. "Didn't he mention it to you?"
Starbuck looks back at them again and grins at them, self-satisfied like a purring feline. He knows they're talking about him, because it's like all rivers running to the sea: all conversations have to be about Starbuck.
"Yeah. He mentioned it."
Boomer hadn't said very much, when Starbuck told him. He'd asked if it was really what Starbuck wanted, and it was, apparently. He'd not asked if Starbuck were blind or stupid, but Starbuck was, apparently. It was hard to offer congratulations, but he'd done it.
"I wasn't sure he'd get the chance."
So that's why Boomer and Apollo are walking at the back and pretending to talk about anthropologists. Apollo doesn't like to drop bombshells in public.
There's a little jolt of anger. For Starbuck, manipulating them again? Or for Apollo, for allowing it? "Sometimes, I think Starbuck's actually pretty damn stupid."
"I thought you liked Cassie?"
"I do. It's just—" Well. What good would it do to say it's because of what Starbuck's passing up? Boomer shrugs. "It's because sometimes I don't like Starbuck."
Apollo looks at him, startled, and he can't help but laugh. The corner of Apollo's mouth tilts up into a funny little smile. "Me neither."
"But mostly we love him."
"Yeah, the self-centred bastard," says Apollo, and shakes his head, smiling. "Mostly we do."
"Amen to that," says Boomer, and the chill of the evening air is warded off by the warmth of Apollo's arm through his.
The Festival of Lanterns, says Jilmara, is about the end of winter and the renewal of life and faith that comes with spring.
She's taken their little group to one end of a long low table holding hundreds of little lanterns. They're made of something that looks like thin tissue paper stretched on a sturdy wire frame. Some are plain, others painted with designs and the flowing P'Nat'r script. There's a little tin dish in the centre of each lantern's base and piles of small round waxy cakes set along the table's length. There are dozens of tables scattered around the river bank.
Beside each lantern is a square of red paper and a square of cream, and a long thin stick of something that might be, but probably isn't, charcoal. It doesn't get all over your fingers when you write, for a start. The Lords forbid that a P'Nat'r would get grubby. That'd seriously interfere with that perfection.
"Tonight," says Jilmara, "is a new beginning. First, we write all our fears and hates and doubts onto red paper. Then we write all our hopes and wishes onto cream paper and put that paper here, into this slit in a lantern. See? And then we use the rolled-up red paper to light the fuel in the reservoirs here, and let the lanterns float up into the sky. We release them all at same time and fill the sky with hope, while we've burned away all the things holding us back."
There's a micron or two before the Councillors rush to fill the silence with lots of diplomatic nodding and smiles and infinite variations on what-a-fascinating-festival!, until Jilmara's glowing with all the appreciation she's getting. The warriors, on the other hand, just look stoic. Boomer hopes that's all he looks, too.
"Confession in the Kobolian church is nowhere near as much fun as that," says Apollo in Boomer's ear. Boomer has to pull his mouth together very hard to stop from snorting. Apollo's as dry as a bone some days, and especially when you get him onto religion.
"Maybe you can convert."
Apollo laughs, quiet. "I just stopped going to confession."
Boomer smiles into the dimming evening. Apollo doesn't laugh anywhere near enough. Starbuck, standing a few feet away, turns and gives them a strange look. Probably doesn't like it when people enjoy themselves without his sparkling personality there to help. Maybe he'd rather be with his friends than sucking up to the great and the good, but he's chosen his bed. Let him lie in it.
He smiles at Starbuck, until he gets a smile back. He shakes his head as he turns away. What's the point of being mad with Starbuck because he's Starbuck? That's like being mad with rain because it's wet. Bucko's all right, really. Just too charming for his own good.
Boomer takes his place at the table and leans down to write on his red paper. Apollo's right beside him, so he writes in Leonid, not Colonial standard. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees that Apollo's writing in the thin, angular script of demotic Old Kobolian. Trust him! Couldn't write in a living language like the rest of them and apart from the priests, there'll be no-one else in the entire fleet who could read Old Kobolian. He likes his privacy, does Apollo.
Fears and hates and doubts. Right. Boomer can do that.
He could write that he's afraid they'll never reach Earth, and that he'll die rootless and wandering, but truth be told, as long as he's with his friends, who are all the family he has now, that doesn't matter so much. They all have to die. Where they do it isn't so big a deal. But it gives him something to write, so that goes onto the paper.
He could write that he hates the Cylons for everything they'd done, but no lighting little spills of red paper will purge him of that hate. That's one to keep for the nights when he can't sleep and Leo's dust and ashes threaten to choke him. Still, it might lift a little bit of the guilt and that will be worth it. So he writes that, too.
He could write that sometimes he doubts he'll ever be visible, when Starbuck's around. He could write that even though he loves Starbuck like a brother—and he does—sometimes he really doesn't like him much. He doesn't like the devil-may-care nonchalance that can bite like acid, all the while that it charms. And he truly doesn't like the way that people are like… what had his mother called them? Girasoles, that was it. Big yellow flowers that turned their faces to the sun and followed it across the sky. He truly hates it when everyone treats Starbuck as their sun.
"Do I need to get a psych report done on you?" asks Apollo. "You're writing an awful lot there, Boom-boom."
"Sunflowers." Boomer underlines the word and looks up to meet Apollo's gaze. Especially he hates it when it's Apollo, as helpless in Starbuck's thrall as any. Because Starbuck really is stupid to throw that away for a reformed socialator.
Apollo blinks. "Sunflowers," he repeats. "Are they a fear, a hate or a doubt?"
Boomer laughs. "All three."
It's not just that Boomer wants what Starbuck's too careless to keep, although he does. He wants Apollo to look at him, the way that he looks at Starbuck. He wants to be visible.
It'll never happen.
And that particular fear and doubt and hate can be written in the blackest charcoal of all.
He writes only one word on the cream paper before fixing it into his lantern.
There's a lot of excitement and singing. The P'Nat'r are in a happy mood, relaxed and carefree. Children are forming rings, holding hands and dancing, laughing and sweet and dizzy with excitement. That's something they have in common with humans, then. It's reassuring.
There's food and drink in abundance, and all along the river bank, great torches are burning in metal baskets, like little bonfires in the sky. The big clearing is lit up by them and even though it's fully dark now, Boomer can see the green of leaves against the sky. Odd how on every planet, some things are not quite the same, but recognisable, similar. Here the clearing is ringed with not-quite trees covered in not-quite leaves. He doesn't know what else to call them. They're pretty, anyway.
"The children will come and light your lanterns," says Jilmara. "Because they're our greatest hope."
Boomer puts a little waxy cake of fuel into the tin reservoir at the bottom of his lantern, rolls his red parchment into a tight cylinder, and waits. It's getting chilly.
"I suppose he'll want one of us to stand with him?" he says.
Apollo looks up from fixing his cream paper into place. "Starbuck? I suppose he will." He sounds tired.
"He's not just pretty damn stupid. He's catastrophically stupid."
Apollo says, with a quiet precision that pinches at Boomer: "Starbuck has always known what he wanted."
And what he didn't want, Apollo means. Well, that doesn't change Boomer's assessment of Starbuck's common sense. The man's a fool, throwing aside what Boomer would die for and not even giving it a second glance.
A bronze child appears before them, popping up out of the gathering darkness, Jilmara beside him. The young one has a taper in his hand, glowing at the end, and with Jilmara's encouragement, reaches up to touch it to the end of the rolled red parchment. When that catches, the little one shows Boomer how to light the little cake of fuel in Boomer's lantern. He's about Boxey's age; maybe a little younger and Boomer smiles to see the concentration on the child's face as he performs this little duty for a guest from another world. Boomer likes kids. Even kids who prod and stroke at him because they've never seen anyone like him before.
"Wait on the signal," Jilmara says, holding her own lantern in front of her.
Boomer pushes the remains of his fears and hates and doubts into the little cake of wax. The fuel is burning brightly, flames licking upwards. It's astonishing that the whole darn lantern doesn't go up. But none of them do. Boomer's hands warm, and he shifts his gentle grip on the lantern, careful not to bend the wire frame.
The crowd's quiet now, waiting.
"Any moment now," murmurs Jilmara, and laughs when, an instant later, a firework streaks across the sky to burst over the river in a shower of silver and scarlet and green. "Now!"
Boomer lets his hands part when she speaks. His lantern stutters for a micron, wavering from side to side, then the hot air from the wax tablet does its work and his lantern rises, ever more steadily, with dozens and dozens of other lanterns beside it. His lantern bumps gently into Apollo's and lifts up.
And then the sky is filled with lanterns, bobbing and bumping into each other, like too many little boats in a harbour bobbing on the incoming tide. There's a micron of deep silence, and Boomer lets it sink into himself.
Apollo's shoulder bumps against his. "I think that's the most beautiful thing I've seen," he says, hushed.
Boomer turns his head. He can see Apollo's profile, etched against the flaring light of the torches and a sky filled with hope. He smiles.
"Yes," he says. "I've always thought so."
Starbuck bounces up to them, of course, when the silence is broken with cheers and lots of voices raised in laughter and singing.
"So," he says, "What did you two wish for?"
"You mustn't tell," says Jilmara, before either of them could speak. "You must never tell, or it won't happen."
Boomer wouldn't have told, anyway. Somehow that isn't what Starbuck is for, to tell your hopes and wishes to. Not everything should be used for jokes and laughter. He grins at the look on Starbuck's face, the look of a kid who's had his candy twitched out of his grasp.
Apollo grins too. "What about if you know what someone else has wished for, anyway? Will it happen then?"
"Then it's your duty to try and make the wish and hope come true, Captain Apollo. More than a duty—a pleasure. It's a good thing to do. It's an honour to know such a secret."
Apollo nods. "Right. Okay. I can do duty."
He could, too. He's the most conscientious man that Boomer's ever come across. That Kobolian upbringing, probably. Marked him for life, and not always in a good way. If it hadn't made him so… so reticent, he might have fought harder and got what he wanted rather than see his sister and Cassie squabble over it.
"You two are boring," says Starbuck, laughing. He bounces away again, pulling Jilmara along with him. "Come on, there's food and singing and dancing…"
The rest of the delegation turn like sunflowers again to follow him, scrambling after him, not wanting to be left behind. Boomer feels the tug himself. Starbuck's like pure energy and most days he wants to feel some of that himself.
"How does he do that, do you think?" murmurs Apollo. He catches Boomer's gaze and smiles. "Makes himself the centre of everything that goes on, I mean."
"He always has."
"He enjoys everything so much."
Too much. Boomer watches as Starbuck leads Jilmara into a ring of children and is shown how to do the dance; watches as the P'Nat'r become little sunflowers too. At least they were the right colours for it; gold and bronze and copper, all following that Starbuckian sun's progress. Their parents stand around laughing and clapping, gold and bronze and copper eyes all fixed on Starbuck.
"Girasoles," he says. Stupid, stupid, stupid. They can't see they're being dazzled.
"Ah, your sunflowers." Apollo moves so that he blocks Boomer's line of sight to Starbuck. "Why sunflowers?"
"With Starbuck as the sun."
Apollo chuckles. What's he thinking? When did Apollo learn to speak Leonid, anyway? "Yeah, I guess that sort of works. He does like to be the centre of everyone's attention."
"I don't know how to stop revolving around him," says Boomer. "It's like moths to a candle flame."
"Does it bother you that much?"
Hell, yes. It's like being shown the wires and the illusions, and still falling for the magician's trick, every time. It's stupid, seeing yourself being dazzled and letting it happen anyway.
"It used to bother me, too," says Apollo, before Boomer can answer. "A lot when… before, I mean."
"Are you saying it doesn't bother you now?"
"Less, I think. I've found some anchors."
Boomer frowns. What in Hades did he mean by that? It didn't make that much sense.
"It twists you less, if you're anchored down. Boxey does it for me, and… and this—" Apollo gestures with an arm at the night. "All we have to do to keep the fleet going, to keep our people alive. That anchors me. Hope, I guess, that we'll get through and find Earth."
Boomer looks up into a darkling sky. The lanterns are little more than pricks of light now and many of them have gone out. Maybe the dark lanterns are drifting back to the ground now, their little lights blown out. What happens to the hopes and wishes then? Are they blown out, too? "There's something in the Book about that, isn't there? Hope and anchors."
"Something," says Apollo, and he sounds amused. Well, he's the one who could probably quote the Book from end to end in several different languages. "And there's a lot about duty, too. I was thinking about the duty Jilmara mentioned."
"Uh-huh." Boomer lets it lie. He's tired and sometimes talking with Apollo's too much like hard work, because not a lot of it's glitter on the surface, but it sure is solid underneath. It's not that he's scared of hard work, but once in a while he'd like it easy. The way Starbuck makes it easy.
"I can read most of the Colonial languages," says Apollo. "I can read Leonid."
Boomer stiffens. Oh shit. His lantern.
Apollo moves again, so that he's back beside Boomer. He's close, his shoulder pressed against Boomer's. Apollo puts his arm through Boomer's again, and warmth sits between them, seeping into Boomer, shared between them. He says nothing, and when Boomer turns to look, Apollo's staring up into the sky at the fading lights. His hand on Boomer's forearm rests there, warm and heavy.
Boomer smiles. He watches Apollo for a long time in silence, letting Apollo anchor him.