By Josephine Darcy

When the call came in, he was standing on the bridge beside Apollo. A typical location for him, he mused -- not the bridge, but beside Apollo. When he thought of all the places in his life he hadn't belonged, he could only marvel that he'd found this spot, orbiting nearer than anyone else around the ever-bright star of their Strike Captain.

The thought struck him as funny and he stifled a chuckle, earning a curious glance from his friend. He just shook his head, guessing Apollo wouldn't find the description amusing. Forced into the spotlight time and time again, Apollo hated the notoriety. Still he bore it better than any man Starbuck knew, better even than their illustrious Commander, Starbuck thought. There was just something about Apollo -- but then Starbuck suspected he was probably biased.

Both men however, Commander and Captain, were showing the strain of their office today. Both were tired, both worried, both bearing too much weight on their shoulders. Which was one of the reasons why Starbuck stayed so close to Apollo's side -- worried that no one would be there to catch the man when he finally collapsed. Apollo had dismissed him earlier, urging him to get some rest. After all he wasn't really needed on the bridge to convey the routine reports the Commander and Colonel Tigh were demanding; the Strike Captain was certainly capable of reporting the current state of the squadrons all on his own. But Starbuck followed anyway and no one thought twice about his presence.

As to the state of the squadrons -- Starbuck stood back and watched as Apollo spoke softly to his father, noting critically the worry in both men's faces. The state of the squadrons was only slightly better than the state of the fleet -- which wasn't saying much. Half the pilots were down with the same virus that was running rampant through the fleet, medical personnel were stretched to their thinnest, medicine stores were nearly depleted. That alone would have been enough to put that look of exhaustion and worry in both Apollo's and Adama's eyes. But the virus had merely been a side story to the major worry -- lack of fuel. None of the planets or planetoids the fleet had passed in sectons had possessed the element that fueled their fleet. Their fuel reserves were at an end, and without more the fleet would soon be dead in space. Already they'd had to power down all non-essential systems. The agro ships were in dire condition, heat production reduced -- which meant their food supplies would soon be dwindling. They needed a new supply of fuel, and they needed it now. Thankfully the virus at least was winding down -- Starbuck and Apollo were both immune having suffered a milder form of the virus as children. Many of the other warriors, however, had not been so lucky.

But today other news loomed on the horizon, one met with both hope and trepidation. Rumors had abounded all day of a new system picked up on sensor -- a system with several planets, any number of which might have the much needed fuel deposits. They changed course to investigate, but as they grew closer to the system they started picking up indications that not only was this system inhabited, but quite heavily populated. Starbuck himself recalled the sense of alarm that had washed over him at the realization -- just as likely the population was Cylon. But to date no Cylon transmissions had been detected, and all indications suggested that the Cylon Empire had not yet reached this place. If they never saw another tin-head again it would be too soon.

Still centares away from the system, they had no choice but to wait with patience and hope for the best. The only good news they'd had so far was that preliminary indications were that Tylium deposits could be found at least in some small quantity on one of the system's moons. There would be fuel enough for the fleet.

"Sir," Tigh's voice drew their attention to the com-station, and Starbuck watched in some amusement as both father and son looked up in unison, identical expressions on their faces. "We're starting to pick up planetary transmissions. One of them might be a greeting."

"Might be?" Adama asked.

Colonel Tigh approached the command platform, motioning to the com-officer to patch a transmission through to the commander's panel. "It's being beamed toward us. But our computers don't recognize the language. It isn't in any of our databanks."

"Let's hear it," Adama ordered, and the rest of the bridge crew automatically quieted down in curiosity to hear this first transmission.

The voice that emerged from the speakers might have been that of any young man on the Galactica, save for the fact that the language was completely indecipherable. There was a musical quality to the language, a softness to the vowels, but interspersed amongst the words were a few odd clicks as if the man were clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "Cotorm' da kanv't decoum." The phrase was repeated over and over again.

"Have you cross referenced it against the historical archive?" Adama asked, addressing the com-officer directly

"Yes, sir, but I'm not getting any matches."

Tigh frowned. "We could try transmitting our own greeting in several languages. They might be able to make a match if we can't."

Adama nodded. "Assuming it's a greeting and not a warning."

"It's a greeting." Apollo's voice surprised everyone -- not that he'd spoken but rather that he sounded so certain in his conviction.

Adama frowned. "I certainly hope -- "

"I recognize it," Apollo explained, cutting off what ever it was his father was going to say.

Starbuck felt a chill go down his spine as he stared across at his wingmate. There was faraway look in Apollo's green eyes, and he seemed suddenly very distant. It was a sensation he didn't like and he fought the sudden urge to step forward and grab his friend, pulling him back from wherever it was he'd gone.

"What do you mean you recognize it?" Adama demanded. "Where have you heard it before?"

At that Apollo frowned, seeming as if he was giving his father's question serious thought. A look of confusion filled his face. "I. . .I don't remember. But the words. . ." He shook his head as if to clear it. Strangely enough he looked even more baffled afterwards. "The words are just there. They're familiar."

A look of wonder crossed Adama's face and his eyes lit up suddenly. "The ship of lights?" he asked. Starbuck recognized that tone of reverence.

Always before, Apollo was the first to deny any lingering connection with the ship of lights, almost adamant in his need to suppress even the slightest rumor that he was somehow touched or blessed or chosen for some higher purpose because of his experiences with those strange beings. But this time he said nothing, simply continued to stare forward at the view screen and the expanse of stars filling the horizon.

Adama turned instead to Starbuck. "What about you?" he demanded. "Do you recognize the words?" For of course Starbuck and Sheba had both had their own experiences on that ship, and they had been gifted like Apollo with the coordinates the entire fleet now followed. But that's where it ended with them. Neither Starbuck nor Sheba had been brought back from the dead, and Starbuck would have laid good odds that Sheba would no more recognize those words than he did.

"No, sir," he shook his head. "It's complete gibberish to me."

Frowning, Adama looked back at his son. A deeply religious man, Adama was, more likely than not, willing to see miracles and divine intervention in unexplainable occurrences, but even he had to have a hard time seeing it coming in the form of his own son. "Can you communicate with them, do you think?" he asked Apollo.

The Captain shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. The words are familiar -- but. . .I don't know."

"Try," Adama suggested, and he nodded to Tigh. "Open a frequency."

Tigh hit a switch on the command panel and the greeting sounded again. "Cotorm' da kanv't decoum."

Apollo frowned, his gaze turned inward. "Kanv't umatha 'do moroum," he said with some hesitancy, the words sounding less musical coming from Apollo's mouth.

The repeated hail stopped, and the bridge crew waited in silence for a response.

"Moroum?" the voice asked, and they could all hear the confusion in it. "Con kanv't moroum sif thar' ka da?"

"Moroum sif," Apollo repeated. He shook his head, as if looking for something he just couldn't find. "Bref'vtha?"

"Apollo?" Adama asked anxiously.

Apollo just shrugged. "I think he understands me. I don't think I'm pronouncing the words right."

"Do what you can," Adama urged. "Keep him talking."

Apollo nodded and moved toward the com-station to begin the dialogue.

Starbuck lingered on the bridge a while longer before finally deciding that someone would need to take care of Apollo's other obligations. He made a brief detour by the Captain's office, checking on his schedule before heading out to check on Boxey. The boy, used to the various warriors and family members who filled in during Apollo's absence, was delighted to spend some time with Starbuck. Eventually he dropped the boy off at Athena's quarters, filling her in on the situation on the bridge. She'd been struck down with virus and was only now recovering. Temporarily free of bridge duty she was glad for Boxey's company.

Nearly four centares later Starbuck headed back to the bridge, bringing with him what meager rations he could find as he guessed no one had thought to feed Apollo. He arrived just in time to see Apollo heading into his father's office followed closely by Tigh. Rushing to catch up to them, he slipped in through the door before it closed. Despite his lack of invitation, no one said anything. Apollo, seated now at the conference table, smiled gratefully at Starbuck as he set the rations and kava down before him. Starbuck could tell by the tension in his face that the Captain was exhausted, both mentally and physically.

"Well?" Adama asked, looking eager despite his own exhaustion.

Apollo sighed. "It's not easy," he explained. "I don't know the language -- it's just that some of their basic root words seem to be in my head -- as if it's something I learned a long time ago. Speaking with Dolmash I learned some more vocabulary -- but it's slow going."

"Dolmash?" Tigh prompted.

"The first man I spoke to was a com-officer. Dolmash is a linguist and an anthropologist -- he was sent for when they realized my difficulty with the language."

"Who are they?"

"They call themselves the 'Corvalan," Apollo added a strange click to the beginning of the word and the other three men made no attempt to repeat it. "Their system is a republic ruled over by a Emperor. They currently populate two of the system's planets and nine moons. It's a large civilization -- billions I would guess."

"Billions?" Adama's eyes widened in amazement. Starbuck felt a strange fluttering in his stomach -- billions, like they had once had before the Cylons. "And the Cylons?"

Apollo shook his head. "Never heard of them. They've had troubles from time to time with other alien races, but they seem to have very strong defensive capabilities. According to Dolmash they are slightly xenophobic, but still curious enough about the galaxy to welcome the occasional visitor."

"Slightly xenophobic?" Tigh demanded. "What does that mean?"

"We can visit," Starbuck guessed. "We just can't stay."

Apollo nodded his agreement. "They have very strict cultural beliefs and they don't want them changed or influenced by outside civilizations. If we visit them, we visit under their terms."

"What about the possibility of trade?" Adama asked. "The closer we get the more Tylium we've detected. They have vast quantities of it on several of their moons."

"Trade isn't out of the question," Apollo explained. "Dolmash said they can be quite generous in the right situation, but have some very rigid protocols dealing with trade with alien races. If I understand the story correctly, Dolmash said they had a bad experience yahrens ago with another alien visitor. Apparently he brought a plant from his home world that the Corvalan loved -- it grew some sort of fruit that a popular confection is made out of. He traded it to the Corvalan in exchange for weaponry that he claimed would be used to liberate his people from an alien invader. Turns out he was an outcast warlord -- he took the Corvalan's weapons, returned to his home world, and conquered it, killing millions in the process. The Corvalans were so horrified that they developed very strict laws governing any further trade with outsiders."

"Then they won't willingly give us the Tylium?" Adama asked.

"I didn't say that," Apollo shook his head. "I just said we have to play by their rules. That will require sending someone down there to negotiate directly with their Emperor. Until he believes we are trustworthy, he won't give us anything."

"Then they are willing to negotiate?" Tigh asked. "They'll receive our delegation. . ."

"No," Apollo shook his head. "They won't accept a full delegation. Besides, none of the council members could speak the language. I'll have to go."

"Not alone," Adama said in alarm. Starbuck immediately echoed that sentiment. There was no way in Hades he'd let Apollo go off by himself to an alien world.

To all their surprise, Apollo flushed slightly at that. "No," he agreed. "I actually can't go alone."

Surprised by his son's agreement, Adama raised his eyebrows. "What do you mean -- can't?"

"I mentioned the strict cultural beliefs," Apollo explained. "Any contact with them will have be conducted within the confines of their culture not ours. Dolmash insisted that the Emperor would not even agree to speak with me unless I followed some basic protocols. One of which is mandatory bonded status."

"Bonded status?" Starbuck exclaimed. "But you're not sealed!"

Apollo shrugged somewhat sheepishly. "He thinks I am. All adults are required by law to have a Dol'vetj or Lifemate. Without one you are not legally considered a citizen -- you can't conduct business, you can't appear in formal society, you can't consort with other members of your peer group, you can't vote, spend money or travel. There are only a few exemptions -- if your Dol'vetj dies for instance, you are allowed exactly three sectares to grieve, then three more in which to find a new Dol'vetj. And the end of the six sectares you must be resealed or you can't remain in polite society."

"That seems a bit extreme!" Tigh exclaimed. "What if you can't find anyone to seal with?"

"There are no exceptions," Apollo explained. "Love has little to do with it. Dolmash himself explained that his Dol'vetj -- his 2rd Dol'vetj at that -- is only fourteen yahrens old."

"Fourteen!" Adama looked scandalized, staring at his son in shock. "How can they possibly seal their children at such a young age?"

"In his case there was little choice in the matter. All Corvalans are sealed at age sixteen, but the girl in question is the daughter of one of Dolmash's dearest friends. The girl's father died unexpectedly and she inherited a rather large business from him. But being unsealed she could not legally perform her duties. Out of respect for her father Dolmash sealed with her -- his previous Dol'vetj had died four sectares earlier and he was in need of a new partner himself or he'd be forced to withdraw from society."

"You said Dolmash believed you were sealed?" Adama prompted.

Apollo nodded. "I mentioned Boxey fairly early on in the conversation -- it seemed to have put Dolmash instantly at ease. He explained later that due to the nature and length of our conversation it would have been illegal if I had been unsealed. I didn't bother telling him the truth."

"Then you'll have to take someone down with you to pose as your Lifemate," Adama nodded his understanding. "But I'm not sending you down there without another warrior to give you back up. You can take Sheba. . ."

"Sheba's down with the virus," Starbuck interrupted. "In fact half of the squadrons are down with the virus. The only female warrior even on her feet at the moment is Athena, and she's certainly in no shape to go anywhere." Not to mention, Starbuck added silently to himself, that Athena's skills as a warrior were questionable at best -- he'd seen her latest scores on the target range.

"What about one of the bridge crew then?" Adama suggested.

"They're not warriors," Starbuck protested. "They'd be no help in a fight. He'll just have to wait until someone is strong enough to go with him."

But Tigh shook his head. "We can't afford to wait. We need fuel and we need it quickly."

"And as it is the negotiations may take a while," Apollo nodded. "The sooner I begin, the sooner we'll get results."

"But you said they wouldn't accept you without a Dol'vetj," Adama pointed out. "If we have no female warriors. . ."

"Actually I could take a male warrior just easily," Apollo assured him. "They obviously don't have any age taboos concerning Lifepartners -- they also don't have any gender taboos. According to Dolmash the Emperor is partnered with another male himself. They wouldn't think twice about it. From what I understand they treat the matter more like a business arrangement than a love match."

Starbuck grinned at the very notion, laughing softly. "Well then, Apollo, it looks like I just became your Dol'vetj."

Adama looked highly amused himself. "So it would seem," he agreed with nod. "Good, I'd feel safer knowing Starbuck is with you."

Surprised by the comment and deeply flattered, Starbuck could only stare in surprise at his Commander. Apollo stood up. "Then I'll make the arrangements. We should go quickly. The sooner we get down there, the sooner we get back."

"Be careful, son," Adama warned. "We need that fuel, but not at the expense of your life."

Apollo frowned at that and stared thoughtfully at his father. "If I don't bring back that fuel," he said quietly. "It will be at the expense of all our lives." The implication behind his words chilled Starbuck to the bone, and he nearly protested as Apollo turned and left the office. Adama caught Starbuck's arm before he could follow.

"Starbuck," the Commander said quietly, his voice as serious as Apollo's had just been. "Keep an eye on him."

"Don't worry, sir," Starbuck assured him. "I'll bring him home." Apollo wasn't dying on his watch -- not if all the galaxy stood against them.

Four centares later, Starbuck piloted a fully fueled shuttle down to the planet while Apollo sat beside him in the co-pilot's seat studying a cultural database Dolmash had sent him. They'd both been warned by the techs when they'd left the hanger that the fuel supplies were nearing critical. If anything happened to them on the planet, if they needed Vipers to rescue them, the most the fleet could possibly spare were two. To that end Boomer, still weak from the virus, and Jolly, barely awake himself, had both promised to stand by for any call for help. Both Starbuck and Apollo were determined that would never be necessary.

Starbuck endured his wingmate's silence for about a centare before curiosity finally got the best of him. "What has you so fascinated, Apollo?" he demanded, glancing briefly at the portable screen his partner was reading. He didn't recognize the strange characters on the screen.

"Not fascinated, just trying to ensure I don't mess this up," Apollo corrected.

"Then you can read all that?" Starbuck knew he lacked the education Apollo had received growing up, but he was no slouch. He'd graduated in the top of his class back at the Academy. But he knew he'd never have any hope of deciphering the felgarcarb on that datascreen.

"Yes. . .no. . . sort of. . ." Apollo sighed. "Some of the characters are familiar, some. . ..frack!" He shook his head in disgust.

Startled, Starbuck spared his wingmate a long look. Apollo so rarely cursed. Just wasn't in his upbringing. "What is it?"

For a moment he didn't think Apollo would answer. Then the man just sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I don't know why I know this stuff, Starbuck," he explained, the doubt in his voice touching something deep inside Starbuck. There weren't many people in the fleet that Apollo would let his guard down around; he counted himself honored that Apollo allowed him to see him vulnerable. "Some of it's just there in my head, and I don't know why. Even so, I can barely make this out. And if we get down there and offend the Corvalan, the fleet is doomed."

"We're not going to offend the Corvalan," Starbuck assured him, though he felt no such certainty himself. He just felt confident that somehow Apollo would pull this off. He always had managed in the past. "Why don't you tell me what you've figured out so far."

Apollo sighed and glanced briefly at the data screen. "Well, I already told you that all adult Corvalan have a Dol'vetj. According to this each pair is made up of a Torfath and an Urval."

"Male and female?" Starbuck guessed and then remembered that Apollo had already explained that gender wasn't important to their bonding status. "Dominant and submissive?" he took another guess.

Apollo was staring hard at the screen. "No," he said thoughtfully. "I don't think so. I think it has to do with rank. Regardless of gender or age, the highest ranked member of the Dol'vetj is the Urval. The Torfath always walks on the Urval's left."

Starbuck thought about that a moment. "So that makes me the Torfath -- walk on your left side, got it. Seems easy enough. What next?"

"Generally business is always discussed between Urvals -- and there seems to be about ten pages of protocol here if it becomes necessary to stray from that pattern."

"Well, since I don't speak the languages, I don't think that's going to be a problem. You'll be doing all the negotiating. So you can probably skip all those pages."

"Not really," Apollo sighed. "Because of the language barrier it will be necessary for Dolmash to sit in on all my negotiations with their leaders -- and despite the age difference Dolmash is the Torfath in his relationship. The girl he's sealed to holds a higher rank that he does."

"Do what the other Urvals do then," Starbuck suggested. "I'm sure Dolmash will help you out if you make any mistakes. They can't expect your etiquette to be perfect."

"I suppose not," Apollo nodded. "But the basics have to be there -- Dolmash was insistent on that. We have to follow their most basic customs or this negotiation is off."

"Any idea why they place such importance on bonded status?" A few of the colonies had stronger views than others, but none that he knew of made bonded status mandatory. He found the idea strange.

"Religious reasons," Apollo explained. "Though I haven't begun to decipher their religions -- but they have a very strong belief in the duality of the universe."

"So being unbonded would offend them on both a cultural and religious basis." Starbuck shook his head, understanding now why the normally painfully honest Captain had decided to lie about his status.

"As the Torfath you'll be expected to associate with the other Torfaths -- I suspect they'll give the grand tour of the place while I'm in negotiations."

Starbuck grinned at that. "Sounds fun! Though I don't think I'm going to have much luck making friends when I don't speak the language."

For some reason that comment caused Apollo to turn toward him sharply, a warning look in his eyes. "Starbuck, whatever you do, don't flirt!"

"Flirt!" Starbuck laughed at that. "Me? I never flirt!"

"Starbuck!" Apollo's sounded seriously worried, and Starbuck found it hilarious that of all the things his Captain could be worried about that was it.

"Ladies just like me, Pol," he teased. "Can I help it if I'm irresistible? You worried that I'll tarnish your good reputation -- a flirtatious Lifepartner?"

"Starbuck, adultery is punishable by death on Corvalan."

That effectively stifled his hilarity and Starbuck shot his friend a look of alarm. "What? Are you kidding me? They'd actually put a person to death for cheating on their Lifepartner?" He himself found the very idea dishonorable, and he knew if he ever made the decision to actually bond with someone he'd be faithful -- but death seemed a bit extreme even to him.

"No, Starbuck," Apollo shook his head, but Starbuck's relief was shortly lived. "They put the two adulterers to death as well as both their Lifepartners."

Starbuck stared at his friend in shock. "What?" He couldn't believe what Apollo had just told him. "But their Lifepartners would be innocent of any wrong!"

"Doesn't matter," Apollo replied. "That's their law. Needless to say, adultery is practically unheard of. We don't know what they would consider as acceptable flirtation, and any punishment you incur, I will suffer as well."

"Apollo!" Starbuck glared at his friend. "You can trust me! You know I would never do anything to endanger you or the mission."

"I know," Apollo nodded, and Starbuck allowed himself to be mollified by the gentle smile on his friend's face. "I'm just suggesting that you . . .turn down that . . .irresistible charm of yours."

Pleased that Apollo had resorted to teasing him to ease the tension, Starbuck laughed. "Well, I'll do my best," he promised.

It took them nearly four centares to reach the main planet even at full speed. Starbuck had tried to convince Apollo to catch a few centares sleep, but Apollo had refused, insisting he continue studying the language and cultural database. Starbuck just sighed, despairing of ever getting his friend to take proper care of himself. He looked tired, and the constant worry in his eyes didn't belong in someone so young. But then perhaps being planet bound would be good for him -- fresh air and sunshine. They all needed a long dose of that.

Upon reaching the planet, they were put through some maneuvers to get their shuttle fitted properly in a decontamination hanger, and then the two of them were forced to sit inside an isolation chamber while extensive scans were taken of them to ensure they were carrying nothing that might infect the population. Eventually however they were released and Apollo and Starbuck stepped out onto the Corvalan home world for the first time.

They were greeted immediately by a group of natives all standing in pairs, Dolmash and his Lifemate Breeanth first to introduce themselves. The Corvalans were nearly human looking -- a bit taller than an average human, larger boned -- stronger Starbuck suspected. But the most noticeable difference about them was their coloring -- amongst the colonist they had only a few different skin shadings. The Corvalans had hundreds -- every color of the rainbow as far as Starbuck could determine -- all of them distinct with mottled patterns that marked even their hair. Truth was they reminded him of birds, colorfully plumed, and he couldn't help wondering if those intricate patterns that decorated their skin and hair had special cultural significance -- did it identify certain clans or tribes, determine their station in life -- or was it all merely pretty to look at?

Though he didn't speak the language, he could tell by their reactions that the Corvalans were startled by their appearance, but found their one-toned skin and hair quite exotic. They seemed to discuss it at great length and eventually Starbuck saw a tell-tale blush in Apollo's face -- someone had obviously just complimented his looks -- something his friend had never been comfortable with. Starbuck did note that despite the obvious compliment he could detect nothing even remotely flirtatious or sexual in the way the Corvalans were discussing them -- apparently such comments were acceptable behavior.

Eventually Apollo turned toward Starbuck and introduced him to the others. He caught as many names as he could, trying to commit them to memory, but so many of them had the strange clicking sound mixed in with them that he doubted he'd be able to repeat them back. He simply smiled instead and tried to be as friendly as possible under the circumstances. Whatever he did it satisfied the Corvalans and they motioned them to follow them toward a enormous building that Starbuck suspected was the Emperor's palace.

He fell immediately in step beside his Captain, careful to always remain on Apollo's left side as he'd been instructed. He quickly noted however that one more detail had been overlooked -- the Corvalans were all holding hands. He immediately reached over and caught hold of Apollo's left hand. He felt his friend stiffen slightly, but made no move to throw off his grasp. Instead he simply shot Starbuck a brief glance and a barely imperceptible nod indicating that he too had noticed the custom.

Starbuck tried not to smile -- Apollo had always been uncomfortable with any sort of public display of affection, a trait not uncommon among all Capricans. In all the yahrens Starbuck had known him, he could only recall a handful of times where even his own father had touched Apollo in public. And now to be expected to hold hands in public -- to hold hands with his wingmate in public! Starbuck suspected this diplomatic mission was going to try Apollo's patience to its very end. He squeezed his friend's hand encouragingly, trying not to laugh, and was rewarded with yet another faint blush to the Captain's cheeks. This story alone would earn Starbuck free ambrosa back on the fleet for sectons!

They were taken into a beautiful, elaborate hall that reminded Starbuck of the museums he'd visited with Apollo's family back on Caprica -- all filled with priceless artwork, gold and glitter. There they were greeted again by nearly a hundred pairs of Corvalans -- so many colors and patterns present that Starbuck honestly didn't know where to look. Eventually they were introduced to the Emperor and his Dol'vetj -- both men younger than Starbuck had expected, maybe only ten yahrens older than Apollo and himself. He also learned why their own coloring had caused such a stir -- both Emperor Va'shtle and his Dol'vetj Marshent had nearly uniform coloring. The Emperor's patterns were all varying shades of green, while Marshent's were all pale blue -- not as uniform or as solid as their own pale skin, but certainly more uniform than the rest of the Corvalans. Apparently such coloring was a mark of high beauty in their culture.

They spoke at length to Apollo, perhaps going through some elaborate greeting ritual that their customs demanded. Eventually Dolmash and Breeanth escorted them from the room and led them upstairs to some rather opulent guest quarters. During the walk upward Apollo gripped Starbuck's hand harder than he had before. Starbuck could tell by the coldness of his friend's skin that he was severely stressed. He had to admire Apollo -- no hint of his concern showed in his face. Dolmash spoke further to Apollo, seeming well pleased by the way things had gone. Then he and Breeanth excused themselves and left the two of them alone in the guest quarters.

Apollo let out his breath in heavy sigh of relief, releasing Starbuck's hand as he dropped exhaustedly into one of the plush chairs provided to them.

"What's wrong?" Starbuck asked immediately.

"They speak so fast," Apollo despaired. "I only caught one out of every fifth word the Emperor was saying! How am I going to negotiate with these people when I can't understand them?"

"You did fine, Pol," Starbuck assured him. "They looked pleased by our presence. I didn't see one frown out of any of them."

"Maybe they don't frown in public," Apollo grumbled. "For all I know we may have insulted their gods and started a riot."

Starbuck laughed at the thought. "I doubt that. Dolmash is outspoken enough -- he would have said something to you."

Apollo shrugged, though seemed to concede the point. "He did say the Emperor looked favorably upon us -- whatever that's supposed to mean. We've been invited to a T'skoskt tonight."

"A what?" Starbuck, in the process of looking over the rooms they'd been given, paused to glance back at his friend. Apollo had pulled the handheld datascreen from out of the inner pocket of his flight jacket and was busy searching it.

"I think it's a formal dinner party," Apollo explained; he frowned suddenly. "Lords! There's over forty pages worth of customs listed here relating to a T'skoskt! They hate me!"

Starbuck laughed, remembering all the times he'd said the same thing to Apollo. Whenever he'd been invited to a formal occasion by Adama or Siress Ila, he'd always made a fuss and went on the assumption that he was being punished for his misspent youth. Formal etiquette, formal attire -- he'd always felt so horribly out of place. If it hadn't been for Apollo he doubted very much he would have survived those events without making a total fool of himself.

"They gave us nice rooms," Starbuck pointed out, noting that their packs had been brought from the decontamination unit and placed against one wall. "They can't hate you too much."

Indeed the rooms were nice -- a separate sitting area, and an enormous washroom which held the largest bath and turbowash Starbuck had ever seen. And the bedroom boasted an enormous curtained bed on a raised dais and a balcony that looked out over a lush garden. "We'll have to share a bed though -- I guess maybe they do hate you."

That made Apollo smile and he shot his friend a rueful look. "Let me guess, you kick?"

But Starbuck just shook his head. "I steal the blankets. You'll freeze tonight."

"Just so long as you don't kick," Apollo grinned. "I had to share a bed a time or two with Zac when we were kids. He kicked. Hard." A sad wistful smile touched his lips and he shook his head. Starbuck knew he was thinking of his long lost brother and he felt a familiar ache in his heart -- he should have been on patrol that day. He's the one who should have been dead, not Zac, and his punishment for allowing that boy to take his place was that look of pain he saw now in Apollo's green eyes. That look wounded him more than any Cylon attack ever had. He took a step toward him, intent on offering comfort, but Apollo closed himself off as he always did and turned his attention back to the datascreen in his hand.

Starbuck cursed softly under his breath and turned away -– Apollo would be the first to offer comfort or sympathy at a sign of grief from someone else. But he would see it as a sign of weakness to display such grief himself. He wouldn't talk about it -- not about Zac, not about his mother, and not about Serina.

Starbuck took the time to call the Galactica on his com-unit, reporting their status to Colonel Tigh, and promising to keep them informed of their progress. He tried to get Apollo to rest, but forgoing that, talked him instead into taking a long bath -- a luxury no one on the Galactica had enjoyed in a long time. The Captain looked more relaxed when he emerged from the turbowash and Starbuck took his turn, feeling positively sinful as he soaked in the tub. When he finished he changed into his formal uniform guessing that such attire would be expected at their dinner party tonight.

The sun was nearly setting by the time he emerged, and he saw that Apollo too had changed into his formal uniform. He paused momentarily to admire his friend. Apollo, unlike him, had always looked relaxed in the more formal uniform -- he wore it well, like any of the young nobility of Caprica would be expected to. But the look of baffled worry in his eyes suggested to Starbuck that this was one dinner party where Apollo would not breeze through on instinct alone.

"Problems?" Starbuck asked as he straightened his own cape.

"These customs!" Apollo shook his head. "As near as I can figure you'll be expected to sit at my left again -- and we'll be expected to share a plate."

"Share a plate -- same fork?"

Apollo thought about that for a moment and then shrugged. "It doesn't say. But as the Torfath you have the right to determine what actually goes on the plate."

Starbuck smiled in amusement at that. "A Torfath who was mad at his Urval could have some fun with that."

Several emotions flashed through Apollo's green eyes.

Starbuck just sighed and shook his head. "Don't worry, Apollo. I'm not going to poison you. You worry too much."

"You'd worry too if you were reading this. I can't decipher half this stuff. As the Urval I'm supposed to drink something called Mookta every time the highest ranking Torfath in the room drinks."

"The highest ranking Torfath would be the Emperor's partner, right?" Starbuck reasoned.

"I hope so," Apollo frowned.

"So does that mean you can only drink when he drinks, or just that you have to drink when he drinks in addition to anything else you might want to drink?"

"I. . ." Apollo stared hard at the datascreen in his hand. "I don't know. . ..frack, I didn't even think of that!"

"Apollo, calm down! Just watch the other Urvals in the room and do what they do. When they drink, you drink. What else?"

Apollo sighed. "I'm not sure. I think several pages here refer to the order in which certain foods are supposed to be eaten, but since I haven't a clue what these foods are anyway, there's no way I can figure it out. We'll just have to hope it's obvious from the way they serve us. We're also supposed to participate in something called the Thean'd -- which I think is a way of giving thanks for the meal -- but I'm not certain if we're thanking our host, or their gods."

"Well, what is this Thean'd," Starbuck prompted. "What does it entail?"

"Spitting. . ." Apollo shook his head and glared at the screen. "Or kissing."

Starbuck began laughing in mirth. "There's a big difference between the two, Apollo!" he grinned. "Which is it?"

"I don't know!" Apollo looked completely at a loss. "I don't know what these words are."

"Would you quit worrying so much!" Starbuck exclaimed. "We'll just do what everyone else does. I do it all the time."

Apollo looked up at that. "Spit?"

Rolling his eyes in exasperation, Starbuck just shook his head. "Do what everyone else does. All those formal dinners I went to with your family -- you don't honestly think that a no-name orphan had a clue which fork to use, or which glass to drink from, do you? I just watched you and Athena and did whatever you did. I'm a master at it. Had you all fooled. Remember that night your father invited us to play Quints with Sire Theseus and Sire Andros?"

Apollo frowned. "Yes, if I remember correctly, you weren't very good at Quints. Kept losing to Sire Andros."

"Apollo, I wasn't very good because I didn't know how to play. I'd never even seen a Quints set prior to that -- but it was obviously something your peers thought highly of and I didn't want to embarrass you or your father with my ignorance."

"You can't bluff your way through Quints!" Apollo insisted.

"Correction -- you can't bluff your way through Quints and expect to win. But you can bluff your way through Quints. If you're desperate enough, you can bluff your way through just about anything."

Apollo leaned back in his chair and stared at him for a long moment. Starbuck smiled, wondering what was going through his friend's mind. He rather expected some comment about his unsavory habits, or his dubious upbringing. What he got was quite the opposite and it touched a deep, secret place inside him that waited for these moments and horded them like treasures. "You never embarrassed any of us, Starbuck. You never could have. You were always welcome amongst us."

It was Starbuck's turned to blush -- not in embarrassment, but in pleasure, and he lowered his gaze to hide his pleased smile. "See, told you I had you all fooled," he teased softly, lightening the mood as much as he could.

Apollo just smiled and shook his head. "So you really think you can figure out how we can bluff our way through this tonight?"

"Yes," Starbuck insisted. "We'll be fine. And if we have spit or kiss or belch or stand on our heads to praise their gods, we'll figure it out. How hard can it be? It's a dinner party! They're supposed to be fun."

He saw the moment the fear reentered Apollo's eyes. "But if we mess this one up, Starbuck, the whole fleet suffers."

"Then we won't mess it up!" Starbuck promised him. "Trust me. Come on, Pol, when you and I work together when have we ever screwed up?"

Apollo was spared from answering by the sharp knock at their door. Both men stood. "Show time," Starbuck told him. "Trust me."

Apollo just nodded and went to answer the door.

Trust me, he'd said. As Starbuck, dutifully on Apollo's left, followed Dolmash and Breeanth to the dining hall, he could only hope that he could keep his word to his wingmate. He didn't feel half as confident as he'd let on, but better for him to worry than Apollo. Apollo had too many other things on his mind as it was -- he could see the strain of all this in wingmate's eyes, and in the way he held himself so stiffly. The pressure he was under had to be unbearable.

Starbuck could feel the pressure as well, but he didn't also have to contend with learning a new language on top of it. No one here expected him to speak a word of Corvalan. Truthfully, it proved a blessing -- while Apollo was forced to concentrate on the words the Corvalans were speaking, Starbuck was able to focus on the Corvalans themselves. Body language sometimes said more than words did -- he could observe his surroundings in ways that Apollo could not, distracted as he was by the language.

The dining hall was set for a large feast, a long low table already laden down with food and drink. And a large crowd of Corvalans, dressed in finery that if anything was even more colorful than they were, had already gathered to celebrate. Apollo and Starbuck were led to a place about midway down the long table, and were directed to be seated on the thick cushions provided. Both men, feeling somewhat awkward at the odd seating arrangements -- there wasn't a chair in sight -- took their place with as much grace as they could manage. Their action seemed to be a signal for the others around them to also be seated.

A few moments later the Emperor and his Lifemate entered the hall and moved to their own seats at the end of the long table. Far from rising at the entrance of the Emperor, all the Corvalans instead leaned forward in a low bow, nearly resting their foreheads on the table. Starbuck and Apollo quickly followed suit.

Starbuck took a moment to study the plate arrangement before them, keeping an eye on those around him so that he'd know when he was supposed to load it up. Two forks he noted -- he almost laughed at that, he'd been worried that he might be expected to actually feed Apollo. He doubted he'd ever hear the end of that. Two goblets as well, and he wondered which of the heavy decanters of drink on the table contained the fabled Mookta.

He didn't have long to wait to find out -- servants emerged from the corridors, moving swiftly around the table to fill all the goblets with a thick clear liquid. When all the goblet were filled, the servants took up positions along the walls, decanters still in hand. Starbuck suspected they were responsible for keeping the Mookta flowing through the night.

The meal began with a toast from the Emperor's Dol'vetj. Following the others, both Apollo and Starbuck raised their goblets as they saw everyone else do. They listened dutifully to Marshent's words, and then drank when everyone else did. The clear liquid burned all the way down, and Starbuck had to fight not to cough. Not ambrosa -- stronger than anything he'd tasted before -- but most definitely alcoholic in nature. He shot a worried glance at Apollo. If the drink affected him so strongly, he could only imagine what it would do to his wingmate -- Apollo rarely drank. He had the occasional bottle of grog in the officer's club, and the rare glass of ambrosa at special events -- but beyond that, little else. He'd been raised in a family that frowned at excesses.

A faint flush touched Apollo's cheeks, and he saw the Captain swallowing almost painfully, closing his eyes momentarily to fight back the sting that must burn them. But he composed himself quickly, and with a grace Starbuck couldn't help but admire.

"Small sips," he whispered to his friend, wondering how the man would be able to manage to drink that all night. He could only hope Marshent wasn't fond of the stuff.

Apollo just nodded in agreement, shooting a cautious look toward the end of the table. From the looks of the smile on Marshent's face, he found the Mookta quite enjoyable. The faint look of resignation that crossed Apollo's face made Starbuck smile and he set aside his own glass of Mookta in favor of water. Someone had to stay sober -- he wouldn't leave Apollo defenseless.

Other servants entered then carrying an assortment of foods on large golden trays. One knelt down beside Apollo and Starbuck, offering the tray for Starbuck's approval. With the possible exception of some fruit, Starbuck was unable to identify any of the foods on the tray -- save to say that they were all pale yellow in color. He wondered if that would be the order of the night -- color-coded food selections? This, he suspected, would simply be the first in a long line of courses.

Remembering that it was his decision as to what went on the plate before the two of them, he picked the most harmless looking of dishes, hoping they'd meet with Apollo's approval. Guessing they'd have plenty to eat throughout the night, he chose fairly small helpings, and then smiled at the servant to indicate he was finished. The servant, a young purple-haired boy, just grinned and nodded and moved off.

Starbuck glanced around the room. The others had begun eating already, with obvious enjoyment. There were mounds of assorted breads and nuts on the table before him. Noticing that most people had taken some of those as well, Starbuck took a few bread rolls and a handful of nuts to add to the plate. He shot a glance at Apollo. "So far so good," he informed him, then noticed that all the Urvals at the table had once again reached for the Mookta. He nudged Apollo and the Captain quickly followed suit, glancing once again at the end of the table where Marshent was drinking from his glass.

Starbuck tried a few of the items on the plate, relieved when the flavors proved quite pleasant. "You'd better eat plenty, Pol," Starbuck urged. "Try the bread as well -- it'll help keep you sober."

"I hope he slows down," Apollo murmured back. "I'm not a good drinker." An unnecessary statement, and both of them knew it -- Starbuck could only surmise that his friend was nervous. He watched in silence as Apollo exchanged some words with the couple across from them, speaking the strange language as best as he was able. It was odd watching him talk, speaking words there was no way he should know. Starbuck couldn't help wondering what else had happened to him in that Ship of Lights -- what other knowledge had those beings put into his friend's head.

Twice more Marshent drank from his glass and Starbuck noted that Apollo wasn't the only one careful to take small sips of the Mookta. Several words were exchanged with those sitting closest to them -- an older male and female on their right, Dolmash and Breeanth on their left, two women across from them. Apollo laughed at whatever they said and turned to Starbuck. "They said that I needn't worry about the Mookta -- unlike something else called Vrenta it won't cause a severe hangover come morning."

"All the drink you want and no hangover -- how lucky can you get?" Starbuck replied, grinning to those around them. They didn't understand his words of course, but made the assumption that he was saying something funny. They all smiled and continued laughing amongst themselves.

It wasn't until the first course was nearly finished that Starbuck and Apollo finally figured out what the Thean'd was -- not spitting. Apollo had gotten that interpretation quite wrong. As the servants began clearing away the first course and bringing out the second course, the two of them watched in shock as the Corvalans gave thanks for their meal by kissing their Dol'vetjs. They seem to do it quite naturally -- the older couples with more decorum, the younger couples with great enthusiasm.

Starbuck recovered far more quickly than his wingmate -- poor Apollo who'd lived all his life with the belief that such displays were not done in public. Starbuck noted only that the Emperor and his Dol'vetj had paused momentarily in their moment of thanks to glance in their direction. It was all the impetus Starbuck needed. He didn't think, simply reached out and caught hold of Apollo's chin, turning his face toward him.

He noticed that his friend's face had gone surprisingly blank, cheeks pale, green eyes almost glazed over in disbelief as it finally dawned on him just 'who' exactly he'd be expected to kiss. Then Starbuck's mouth was on his, kissing him gently, doing his damned best to make it look realistic enough without taking any liberties that Apollo might not be able to forgive him for later. A simple thing, not quick, but not lingering either -- just his mouth pressed softly against the cool smoothness of Apollo's lips, and a soft caress of his fingers against Apollo's cheek as a distraction of authenticity to anyone who might be watching them.

In a thousand yahrens he never would have guessed that he'd find himself one day on an alien world kissing his best friend in a room full of strangers. Nor would he have ever guessed the speed with which his heart would be pounding -- had it pounded so fiercely for Cassiopeia? At the moment, he couldn't remember. Fear, he suspected -- fear of the unknown, of being found out in their lie, of failing the fleet, of failing Apollo when he'd promised to get him through this night. Or perhaps just fear of the disgust he dreaded seeing in Apollo's eyes.

He ended the kiss and forced himself to look -- forced himself to look into those green eyes. They were no longer glazed over, nor did he see the disgust he'd so feared -- rather Apollo looked stunned, his eyes flashing emotions Starbuck couldn't hope to read. He looked far too expressive, far too vulnerable. "Pol," Starbuck whispered in warning.

Apollo recovered immediately, lowering his lashes and hiding his eyes as he bowed his head with a gesture that could so easily be taken for shyness. Starbuck risked a glance at the Emperor and saw that the man was smiling at the two of them, seeming pleased by their actions.

"Star?" Apollo's voice was so soft, but filled with a wary question. Starbuck knew immediately what he was asking.

"It's all right," he assured him. "They bought it. The Emperor is smiling."

Starbuck felt Apollo's sigh of relief; his breath was warm against his skin. Then Marshent began drinking the Mookta again and the second course -- reddish in coloring -- was served.

He wouldn't think about it, he decided as the second course was eaten -- wouldn't think about the fact that he'd kissed his best friend. Maybe a yahren or so from now when this was all just a memory, the two of them could crack some jokes about this and then it would be nothing more than a footnote in their long history together. But after several more rounds of the Mookta, and the ending of the second course, Starbuck realized that this wasn't a one shot deal. The Thean'd apparent continued throughout the duration of the meal. The Corvalans began giving thanks again, and Starbuck steeled himself for round two.

Apollo turned toward him more willingly this time -- no longer caught completely off guard. But he could tell by the look in the Captain's eyes that the man was about as close to panic as he ever came. Knowing he had to ease the tension somehow, let Apollo know that it was going to be all right, Starbuck searched for some words of reassurance. He thought of all the things he could say, the joking comments he could make about how he'd passed up a perfect opportunity with Sheba here. He dismissed them all and settled instead on something he knew would snap some perspective back into his wingmate's head.

"Could be worse," he reminded him. "You could have brought Athena." Then he kissed him again, more firmly this time, for he found that Apollo's lips felt surprisingly pleasant against his own -- yet another fact that he resolved not to think about for a long time to come.

Apollo was in full blush this time when they parted, and Starbuck just grinned and winked at him. The helpless laugh that escaped Apollo's lips assured Starbuck that he'd said exactly the right thing. Kissing your best friend, even if he was male, was infinitely preferable to kissing your sister.

The Mookta continued flowing -- Marshent proving to be quite fond of the stuff -- and the courses kept coming. Starbuck watched the proceedings as he was unable to participate in the conversations; he concluded that perhaps there was some wisdom to the Mookta drinking. The Emperor was able to remain as sober as he choose, but was afforded the opportunity of watching the highest-ranking people in his court get drunk. By the end of the night Starbuck suspected there wouldn't be many opinions kept secret among the courtiers; they became more and more outspoken as the night progressed.

Consequently the Thean'd changed and shifted as the night progressed, lasting longer and breaking from the confinements of those brief moments between courses. And as it expanded, private matters between couples were no longer quite so private. A gold and green couple a few seats down from Apollo and Starbuck were obviously having some personal difficulties, hardly even looking at each other as they kissed one another with barely controlled contempt. A few of the younger couples became so enthusiastic in their thanks that it bordered on obscene and Starbuck wondered what would happen if they lost total control -- just how far would the Corvalan customs allow two people to go in public?

Breeanth and Dolmash's relationship proved to be quite telling as well -- they were obviously quite fond of each other, but it became evident that Breeanth was too young for there to be any true chemistry between the two of them. Breeanth, the Urval in their relationship, quickly became drunk and spent most of the night giggling. Dolmash endured it all with sort of pained expression on his face as he tried to keep his young Dol'vetj from falling face forward into her plate.

And as for Apollo -- he drank as little Mookta as he could get away with, but eventually the drink overcame even his stoic control. Still Starbuck had little fear that the man would do anything outrageous -- drink lowered one's inhibitions, but Apollo's reserve wasn't really an inhibition; it was simply his nature. He relaxed somewhat, smiled more easily, and laughed more freely. And after the third or fourth kiss, he seemed to lose his fear of the Thean'd. He relaxed completely into the fifth kiss, and volunteered the next one with an enthusiasm that caught Starbuck completely off guard.

Starbuck's heart was racing when he kissed Apollo the seventh time, and when he felt his friend's lips part beneath his he found he couldn't resist the invitation. Apollo's lips tasted far sweeter than he'd ever dreamed and Starbuck slipped his tongue in deeper to taste the heat inside. The thrill that shot through him when Apollo returned his deep caress went straight to his heart, and the soft moan that escaped Apollo went straight to his groin. Starbuck gasped at the sensation and instead of ending the kiss as he should have, found himself pulling Apollo closer to him to deepen it further. And when, he wondered, had his hand ended up in Apollo's dark hair, the other resting against the curve of Apollo's throat, stroking the soft skin he found there, noting almost absently the fast pulse beating beneath heated flesh.

When at last they did part, Apollo just sighed and leaned against Starbuck, as if he found it too much work to bother sitting up again on his own. Starbuck, one arm now around his Captain, holding him propped up against his shoulder, studied the man's face. His eyes were unfocused, courtesy of the Mookta, and his skin was flushed, his lips red and swollen from Starbuck's kisses. Starbuck couldn't recall ever seeing his friend in such a state, and discovered that he found the sight remarkably beautiful.

He'd always thought Apollo quite handsome -- he would have had to be blind not to notice the admiring looks he always drew. But the beauty of the man -- his compassion, his fierce bravery, his loyalty and friendship -- that had always been an abstract concept that touched Starbuck's heart and soul. He would have never allowed the thought to move into a sexual realm and risk the possibility of destroying their friendship. It had never mattered -- Starbuck generally preferred women, his misspent youth notwithstanding -- so such a risk had never existed. Until now.

He stared down at his friend with a sense of pained melancholy, noting absently that he was still stroking Apollo's dark hair. Apollo sighed and leaned into his caress -- the lowering of his inhibitions simply seeming to awaken a craving for the physical affection he'd been denied most of his life. Starbuck could only hope that the Mookta would mercifully make the night's events hazy and difficult to remember. Otherwise he feared he'd lose his friend over this. He'd promised Apollo he'd look out for him, guard his back; instead he'd taken advantage of him when he'd been forced to become drunk. But Starbuck had never been good at resisting temptation, and this temptation was sweeter than any he'd yet faced.

Marshent drank again and Starbuck helped Apollo steady his goblet as he took his own sip. Apollo giggled slightly as he set the cup down, and then seemed to forget the order of things as he reached out and pulled Starbuck's head down toward him, kissing him almost aggressively. Starbuck just groaned softly and returned the kiss, sucking Apollo's tongue into his mouth and devouring him thoroughly. And when he was done and Apollo was quite breathless, Starbuck gently kissed his forehead in apology, wondering what price he would pay for these liberties.

He took a moment to glance around the room, noting that most of the Urvals and some few of the Torfaths were too drunk for there to be much more hope of intelligent conversation this night. His eyes fell on the female couple across from him and he noticed with some shock that the Urval had her hand inside the open bodice of her Torfath's dress. He sensed rather than saw that Apollo too had noticed the intimate caresses, and drunk or not he felt his friend stiffen in his arms.

The two women looked up, meeting both their gazes, and they smiled at the attention they'd drawn. Under other circumstances Starbuck knew he'd find this situation eminently pleasant -- not every day he got to watch two beautiful females love one another. But he found himself quickly distracted by the man in his arms; to his utter surprise Apollo had looked away from the women and buried his face against Starbuck's neck. The heat of his breath against his skin nearly made Starbuck melt at the sensation.

And then another sensation -- one that made him groan as the heat pooled in his groin -- warm lips moving against his skin, a soft tongue tasting, licking, the gentle scrape of teeth. Starbuck's arms tightened around Apollo -- Lords! Apollo was kissing his neck, and he didn't want the sensation to stop.

"Starbuck," the heat from Apollo's breath against his ear sent shivers down Starbuck's spine -- and then briefly he felt the gentle bite of teeth against his earlobe. "Starbuck, I feel funny." Apollo's words were slightly slurred and that more than anything woke Starbuck up. He stilled, waiting for more. "I'm floating. . ." Apollo murmured. "I feel. . .hot. . .light. .." He sighed against Starbuck's ear and let his head momentarily lie on his shoulder before he grew restless again and reached up to stroke Starbuck's face and hair, as if desperate for the tactile sensation.

Starbuck shot a quick look around the room, suspecting suddenly that the Mookta had something more than just alcoholic properties. Even the green and gold couple who obviously disliked one another had grown more amorous throughout the evening. "Frack," he whispered under his breath. An aphrodisiac. Bad enough that he'd taken advantage of a drunken Apollo -- this was truly unforgivable!

"Apollo," he whispered urgently, trying to get his friend's attention. Apollo focused a blurred gaze on him. "I think the Mookta is an aph . ." he stuttered over his words as Apollo unexpectedly reached up and traced his lips with his fingers. It took Starbuck a moment to re-form his thoughts, unable to focus on much else besides the touch of his friend's caress. "I think that the Mookta is an aphrodisiac," he explained.

Apollo gave him a silly smile. "Is that why your mouth tastes so sweet?" His words struck Starbuck hard, more because of how badly they were slurred rather than the sharp spike of pleasure the thought behind them gave him -- Apollo was drunk, drunker than he'd ever seen him, and under the influence of an alien drug.

"Probably," he agreed with a regretful sigh.

Apollo giggled then, and nuzzled Starbuck's neck once more. "Really glad I didn't bring 'thena," he murmured.

The heat of Apollo's breath against his skin sent shivers through Starbuck's body, and he closed his eyes in unwilling pleasure. "Maybe, but tomorrow you're going to be kicking yourself that you didn't bring Sheba." Starbuck just hoped that come tomorrow the Captain wouldn't also be kicking him.

"No," Apollo replied, one hand playing with the longer locks of gold hair at the nape of Starbuck's neck. "Don't trust Sheba. Trust you."

"Oh, Sagan," Starbuck whispered, praying that Apollo would still trust him after the Mookta wore off. And then the dessert was being served and Apollo wrapped his arms around Starbuck, pulling him closer, mouth seeking out his, and Starbuck gave into temptation again, taking what he expected might be the last kiss his friend would ever give him willingly.

As luck would have it Marshent, while fond of the Mookta, couldn't hold it any better than anyone else. He and the Emperor left before the dessert was half finished, and that signaled everyone else to make their way out of there. Dolmash, holding up a barely conscious Breeanth, called a guard over to help lead Starbuck back to the quarters provided the two of them. He said something to Starbuck, but Starbuck just shook his head in apology indicating that he didn't understand. And Apollo unfortunately was too drunk to translate anything further. Dolmash finally just smiled and nodded his head, indicating that Starbuck should just take Apollo to the room.

Gratefully to be leaving at last, Starbuck walked Apollo through the palace corridors, following the Corvalan guard. Apollo, held up mostly by the arm he had draped over Starbuck's shoulder, sang softly to himself as he staggered alongside of him, seeming quite removed from their surroundings. To Starbuck's surprise his Captain had a remarkably good singing voice -- a talent Apollo had hidden from him all these yahrens. He recognized the tune as something that had been popular on Caprica several yahrens ago -- rather sad to think that the singer that had made it famous was long dead with so many other millions back on the world they had lost.

The guard opened the door for Starbuck, nodding to him in farewell once Starbuck entered. Starbuck shut and locked the door behind them, then caught Apollo before he slid down the wall to the floor. "Come on, Apollo," Starbuck urged, moving his friend toward the bed. "Let's get you to bed before you pass out."

"Where'd everyone go?" Apollo asked him in confusion as Starbuck sat him down on the edge of the bed and began removing his boots.

"Party's over," Starbuck explained, trying to ignore the fact that Apollo was playing with his hair, his fingers occasionally stroking the top of Starbuck's left ear.

"Did we have fun?" Apollo almost sounded disappointed at the turn of events.

Boots off, Starbuck began undoing Apollo's holster next. "Let's just say we broke a lot of regulations," Starbuck informed him, thinking of there was probably a rule somewhere forbidding lieutenants from getting their Strike Captains doped up on alien drugs and taking advantage of them.

"Your kind of fun," Apollo laughed at that.

Startled, Starbuck glanced up at his friend, noting the flushed cheeks and the still kiss-swollen lips. He wondered if he should be more concerned about the unfocused look in Apollo's eyes. Impulsively he reached out and placed two fingers against Apollo's throat, taking note of his pulse -- it felt steady, slow but steady enough. Apollo giggled as if his touch tickled him and caught hold of Starbuck's hand. To his surprise the Captain raised his hand to his lips and kissed his palm, then he held Starbuck's palm against his cheek and sighed into the caress, eyes closing.

"Apollo?" Starbuck gently shook the man, trying to get his attention. "Apollo?"

Only slowly did Apollo's eyes open, and then reluctantly. They were still unfocused and Starbuck wondered if he was even really aware of where he was or what he was doing any more. "Do you feel all right?"

"Hot," Apollo murmured. "I feel hot." Starbuck raised his free hand to Apollo's forehead. He was warm, but not unusually so, so he doubted he was running a fever. "Let's get that uniform off you," he decided, trying not to think of the other implications behind such a statement. To his relief, Apollo didn't seem to really care one way or another -- aphrodisiac or not, Apollo was a bit on the innocent side as far as Starbuck could tell.

Quickly he began stripping his friend, pulling off the dress uniform as swiftly and efficiently as possible. Apollo made no protest -- didn't really seem to notice. Starbuck noticed, however; he couldn't really help noticing the hard muscle moving beneath pale, firm skin. He'd seen it before of course, seen all of that skin before. Lords knew their Triad uniforms left little to the imagination, but after yahrens of communal living, showering together, going through decontamination together, regular medical checkups, he'd seen Apollo unclothed countless times. For that matter he could even remember a time or two when the urge to touch all that beautiful skin had caught him by surprise, only to be dampened down and ignored immediately. Now the urge to touch hit him with such intensity he had to fight to keep his hands from roaming.

When he had at last gotten Apollo stripped down to nothing more than his pants, he pushed him back onto the bed and pulled back the covers, sliding him under them. Apollo was asleep before the blankets had finished settling.

Exhausted, Starbuck dropped into an armchair and stared in silence at his sleeping friend. He could still taste Apollo, still feel his touch, his kiss, could smell his scent on his skin -- and the sensations were dearer to him than anything he'd ever known -- a fact difficult for him to handle. It wasn't so much that Apollo was male; truth was, as a young man growing up in an orphanage, he'd never really been an innocent, and he'd experimented with various pleasures before going to the Academy and deciding to walk the straight and narrow like a certain young, green-eyed noble that he'd admired from day one.

No, the thing that had him so turned around inside was his concern for Apollo -- the fear that this might somehow come between them. Surely not, he prayed silently, hoping that some deity out there would listen to him. Surely it wasn't possible for one drunken night to come between so many yahrens of friendship? He could stand pretty much anything, endure nearly any horror or pain, but losing Apollo was not an option. That was the one thing he couldn't think about, and he imagined that come tomorrow he'd do anything, say anything that was necessary to ensure that this did not break them apart.

He stripped out of his own uniform eventually, putting his laser pistol beneath one of the pillows on the bed before lying down next to Apollo as quietly as he could. He tried not to awaken Apollo, moved slowly so he didn't disturb the Captain -- was pretty certain he had succeeded until he felt the man stir and move toward him. He froze. Apollo's arm snaked around his waist, his head coming to rest near his shoulder. And then. . . nothing. Just the quite breathing of a man deeply asleep. Apollo had simply gravitated toward his heat.

Almost against his volition he placed his arm around his friend, found his hand once again tangling itself in Apollo's dark hair -- who would imagine that Apollo's hair would have been softer than Cassiopeia's? Or that the heat from Apollo's body would feel so much like the warmth of a hearth and home Starbuck had never possessed?

He couldn't help wondering how many others Apollo had slept beside over the yahrens. Serina obviously, though their marriage had been remarkably short-lived. And to his knowledge they had not slept together prior to the ceremony. Apollo had had the occasional girlfriend at the Academy, and while Starbuck was fairly certain he'd had sex with them -- despite the fact that Apollo was very reticent about sharing such stories -- Starbuck doubted very much that he'd actually spent the entire night with any of them. As for Sheba -- he was almost positive that their relationship hadn't gone even as far as sex, let alone staying over an entire night and facing Boxey the following morning.

So it seemed he'd just been inducted into a rather exclusive group -- people who have slept beside Apollo. Zac, who kicked, Serina, who could claim only a few nights at most. And now Starbuck.

He woke with a start the following morning. The light of the morning sun coming in through the open balcony door was such an aberration to a man ship-bound for so long that the very first touch of sunlight brought him shockingly awake. He stiffened, the events of the night returning immediately. His hand had instinctively closed over the comforting shape of his laser pistol beneath his pillow, and he carefully catalogued his surroundings before letting up his hold on the gun. He didn't need to look to know that he was alone in the bed. The absence of Apollo's warmth was confirmation enough.

Warily he turned his head, wondering what the day would hold in store for him. He spotted Apollo almost immediately, seated in a chair by the balcony door. Apollo was watching the sunrise through the open doorways, the transparent white curtains blowing in a light, flower-scented breeze. The captain looked lost in thought, his eyes gleaming in the red and gold hues of the early daylight, his pale skin glowing almost bronze as the rays of the suns touched him. He was still wearing only the uniform pants Starbuck had left him in the night before, suggesting to the lieutenant that he hadn't been awake that long, but his attention seemed completely captivated by the sunrise.

Under other circumstances, Starbuck supposed he'd be equally captivated by the sunrise -- it had been so long since any of them had seen such a sight. So long since any of them had a chance to enjoy fresh air, blue skies, and avian song instead of the ever-present hum of the ship's engines. But Starbuck found himself far more fascinated by the sight of Apollo, bathed in sunlight, the lean, muscled lines of his body captivating him in a way that he would never have acknowledged before yesterday.

He was afraid to speak, afraid to break the silence. Would Apollo remember, or would the Mookta have granted him blessed forgetfulness? He'd been on the receiving end of Apollo's wrath before, but never for something like this, something so personal. Few things could rouse Apollo to anger -- save endangering the lives of oneself or one's shipmates. For Apollo, all things came back to duty -- his duty to the fleet, to his family, to his squadron, his responsibility to keep those who served under him safe from harm. He had from time to time criticized Starbuck's lifestyle, voiced disapproval over the way he drank or gambled or dated more than one woman at a time, but that had always been more of a game between them. A natural bantering that both of them took some perverse comfort in -- never had there been any true heat in the criticism.

But now -- this was different. Apollo was personally involved in this. Could he bear the criticism turned so inward, words that wouldn't be a game or simple banter, but angry rejection of Starbuck himself?

And then Apollo spoke and Starbuck realized that once again he'd underestimated the sacrifices this man was willing to make for the sake of his duty.

"I'm sorry," Apollo said softly, not turning, just somehow knowing that Starbuck was awake and watching him.

Starbuck blinked. That had been the last thing he'd been expecting. An apology. "Excuse me?"

"I've been sitting here trying to figure out how to apologize to you," Apollo replied, gaze still on the sunrise. "And how to thank you."

Completely baffled, Starbuck raised himself up on one elbow to get a better view of his Captain. "Thank me? Why. . .why would you think you'd have to apologize?"

"It's my fault you had to come down here," Apollo explained. "When I asked you to accompany me, I didn't realize what it would entail, what you would have to do."

Dear Gods! Apollo was worried about his sensibilities rather than his own? Starbuck sat upright. "Of course you didn't know! No one knew. How could you? How could you expect yourself to know? This isn't your fault! This isn't anyone's fault. We're both here for the fleet! You know that!"

"I always seem to be volunteering you for one crazy stunt after another," Apollo shook his head. "And I'm sorry."

"I'm your wingmate!" Starbuck protested. "I belong at your side. Don't apologize!"

"I wanted to thank you as well," Apollo said then, looking almost bemused by Starbuck's protest. Starbuck found that even more baffling than the apology -- he certainly had done nothing to deserve thanks, allowing his Captain to get drunk and then taking advantage of him. "You made a joke last night that I should have brought Sheba with me," Apollo reminded him.

Starbuck found himself paling slightly -- well that certainly answered his question about what precisely the Captain remembered about last night. If he remembered a simple comment said in passing, he probably had perfect recollection of what had happened.

"Look, Apollo. . ." Starbuck began, figuring he'd better start his own apology quickly. But Apollo cut him off.

"I couldn't have gotten through last night with Sheba," Apollo told him, silencing him once again with amazement. Apollo glanced at him then, and Starbuck saw something in his eyes that worried him -- Apollo was frightened.

"You know how I was raised, Starbuck," Apollo said quietly. "Certain aspects of this culture. . . .well, you know they're outside my scope of experience. I didn't know how to handle that. . .last night. . .I didn't know how to handle any of that. . .but you did. And you made them believe it. And I couldn't have done that with Sheba. . .because I don't trust her the way I trust you. I don't trust her to catch me when I fall. And right now I'm free falling." He sighed then, shaking his head. "And I'm not just talking about the. . .the kissing. I'm talking about all of it. These things that have been put inside my head. . ."

Starbuck found himself completely at a loss for words, not remembering a time when he'd ever seen his friend look so vulnerable, so lost. He wanted desperately to go to him, to touch him, hold him, but he didn't think that would be permitted.

"I find myself speaking words," Apollo continued, and this time Starbuck could hear the fear in his voice. "And I don't know where they're coming from. Where the language is coming from? Or what I'd do if it went away."

Oh, Sagan! Starbuck had never even considered the possibility -- that this knowledge that had come to Apollo could just as easily disappear. He couldn't imagine what that fear must be doing to a man who took the responsibility for everyone's lives upon his shoulders. "Apollo," he whispered, trying to find words to comfort him, to assure him that something like that wouldn't happen, or that even if it did, they'd figure out something else, somehow.

Apollo shut his eyes tightly, but not before Starbuck saw a flash of such guilt and fear within them that it made Starbuck ached for him. "Things are worse than you know," he confessed. "Worse than my father and I have let on. A handful of the ships are already out of fuel; they're being towed by other ships. And the food stores are already nearly depleted. We haven't had the reserve energy to keep up with the demands of the Agroship. If these people don't help us, Starbuck, if I fail, thousands will die."

Starbuck was out of bed and across the room before being conscious of the desire to move. He found himself kneeling down before his friend, gripping his hand tightly in his own. "Apollo, listen to me," he said with all the honest determination he possessed. "We won't fail. We never fail! We'll both do whatever we have to do to get through this together. This isn't the first time you've been free falling, Apollo."

He knew Apollo would remember the time he'd lost connection with the hull of the Galactica during a space walk and had drifted away untethered. As he'd hoped, the memory brought a faint smile to Apollo's lips. "You caught me then, too, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Starbuck nodded with a grin of his own, letting a touch of his cockiness show through. "And trust me, if I have a choice between drifting helplessly in space with you with a diminishing oxygen supply, or exchanging a few kisses with you at a sumptuous feast, let me just go on record as saying I'll take the kissing. Hands down!"

His words did the trick, and Apollo laughed, the tension easing in his features. "That's what I like about you, Starbuck. You have your priorities all in order."

"Hey, that purple food they gave us last night was actually really good!" Starbuck defended.

"I was kind of partial to the blue stuff myself," Apollo joked.

Still grinning, Starbuck searched his friends face. "I take it the Mookta had no side effects?"

Apollo shook his head. "No hangover. Packs a punch while you're drinking it, but I feel fine now."

"Good," Starbuck nodded, and sat back on his heels, releasing Apollo's hand somewhat reluctantly. "So what's on the agenda today?"

"I'm meeting with the Emperor this morning. You'll be spending the day with Breeanth and some of her friends. I think they're going to show you the sights."

Not really looking forward to spending the day with a group of people he had no hope of communicating with, Starbuck wished he could remain at Apollo's side, for moral support if nothing more. "What are you authorized to trade?"

"Anything," Apollo shrugged. "Anything at all. I suspect we have superior offensive weaponry, but they seem more interested in defensive technologies, and we're no match for them there. Beyond that I'm afraid our technologies are probably fairly equal. I'm hoping maybe we have some medical advancements they might be interested in, or energy conversion technologies they might like. Or star charts. I don't know yet what they need."

"Anyone say anything?" Starbuck asked. "Give you any hints?"

But Apollo shook his head. "I'm flying blind here. I just have to hope we have something they want. Otherwise this is going to be a very short, pointless visit."

The morning meal was much less formal than the dinner the night before. They ate in a much smaller room with only a handful of people in attendance, and there were far fewer rules governing behavior at this event. No Mookta -- they were both relieved by that. They still shared a plate between them, but there was no formal Thean'd, and for the most part people kept their hands to themselves.

With only the Emperor and Marshent and few of their nobles in attendance, Apollo was able to converse more freely with them. Both Breeanth and Dolmash were present as well, Dolmash acting as translator when Apollo got lost within the language. As Starbuck had suspected, both of them had made a favorable impression the night before. More than once Starbuck caught Apollo blushing fiercely at some comment directed at the two of them, and finally Starbuck just had to ask.

"What do they keep saying about us?" His tone of voice was such that despite not knowing his words, the others at the table seem to understand what he was asking Apollo. There were some chuckles as they waited to see Starbuck's reaction.

Apollo, still blushing, appeared to be having trouble coming up with the proper words. "They um. . they seem pleased by how. . .close. . .close you and I are."

How close. . .Starbuck was pretty certain based on the blushes and the smiles being sent his way that 'close' was not the word the Corvalans had used. And whatever word they had used, it had obviously caused Apollo a great deal of embarrassment -- he suspected that someone had teased him about his enthusiasm last night under the influence of the Mookta.

Figuring some gesture was in order -- something he knew Apollo was incapable of doing himself -- Starbuck just grinned at their audience, slipped one arm over Apollo's shoulder, and said, "Tell them I'm just insatiable and keep you so exhausted you never have time to notice my faults."

If anything Apollo's blush became brighter and he turned to look at Starbuck in shock. His reaction set the Corvalans to chuckling, and despite his embarrassment Apollo understood that Starbuck actually expected him to translate the comment. Still blushing he reluctantly repeated back the words to the Corvalans in their own language. The words turned the chuckles in to full-blown laughter, and even the Emperor and Marshent were roaring with mirth. Neither Apollo nor Starbuck needed to know the language to realize that they'd just gone up in the court's approval. To Starbuck's surprise, Apollo caught hold of his hand and squeezed it gently in silent thanks. Starbuck squeezed back.

The meal ended and the group began breaking up to go their separate ways for the day. Starbuck, keeping a close eye on the habits of the others, noticed immediately that while there had been little physical contact during the meal, every couple kissed before parting. While Breeanth and a few others drew aside to wait for Starbuck, he caught hold of Apollo and pulled him to his side. Apollo, he could see, had noticed the custom as well, but without the Mookta, his reserve and nervousness had resurfaced.

"Relax, Pol," Starbuck whispered as he pulled the man against him and kissed him gently but firmly. He kept the kiss light, barely enough time to catalogue the heat of Apollo's body against his before he released him with a smile. "Have a nice day," he told his Captain, wishing he knew how to read the almost bemused expression in his friend's eyes. Then he turned to join Breeanth, leaving Apollo to the negotiations.

Breeanth and her friends spent the day showing Starbuck the sights nearest the palace. They wandered through elaborate gardens and parks, walked through the halls of museums, and listened to music outside a building Starbuck guessed was a temple of some sort. Throughout the day he had a chance to observe the other Corvalans, and despite the language barrier figured out some of their customs all on his own.

The Torfaths and Urvals went their separate ways throughout the day when performing whatever jobs or duties they had, but most people spent their leisure time with their Lifepartners. He figured out that it was not mandatory to hold hands when walking in public, but it did seem the most favorable custom as he suspected it indicated a certain fondness between pairs. Custom also seemed to dictate that Lifepartners kiss both when meeting and when parting. And while Starbuck knew there was little chance he'd ever be shown the less reputable sides of their society, what he did see revealed a remarkably peaceful culture that was more focused on family life than anything else.

As far as he could discern, their complete observance of bonding had to do with an elaborate story of romance between their two principle gods. Throughout the day he saw countless statues and paintings devoted to the subject, and while he couldn't understand the story Breeanth was trying to explain to him, he gathered it was one of great passion. The statues and paintings had varied in theme, but many of them were so erotic even Starbuck found himself almost shocked. Of the twelve colonies, Caprica certainly had not been the most prudish or repressive of cultures, falling somewhere in the middle of that norm -- but many of these statues, while they would have certainly been accepted as Art by Caprican standards, would not have been put on public display where even children might view them. The Corvalans, however, had no such reserve, and Starbuck couldn't help wondering if there wasn't perhaps a form of the Thean'd that went beyond what they had seen last night. He suspected that there probably was, and wondered how in Hades he and Apollo would get through it if forced to participate.

It was early evening by the time he was taken back into the palace proper where he was reunited with Apollo. The Captain was walking with Dolmash, deep in conversation. He looked exhausted. Judging by the way he was squinting at the evening sunlight coming in through the tall windows lining the long hallway, Starbuck suspected Apollo was also suffering from a headache.

As Breeanth went forward to greet Dolmash, Starbuck reached Apollo's side and slid his arms around the startled man. "Custom," he murmured softly to him, by way of explanation for his behavior, then he kissed him again as he had that morning.

To Apollo's credit he only stiffened briefly, then made a conscious effort to relax into the kiss, his exhaustion perhaps playing a part there as his body almost melted against Starbuck's for a brief moment. It was all Starbuck could do not to deepen the kiss as he had last night, wanting again to explore the heat of Apollo's mouth. When he drew back this time, he noticed an almost wary expression on Apollo's face, but before he could ask about it, Dolmash spoke a long string of words. Apollo nodded at the man, answering him quickly. It was plain to Starbuck that his fluency with the language had improved as he barely stumbled over the strange clicks within the words.

Apollo reached for Starbuck's hand as Dolmash and Breeanth led them back to their room. A few more brief words, then Apollo and Starbuck were once again alone in their suite.

"You okay?" Starbuck asked immediately as Apollo dropped bonelessly down into one of the chairs.

In reply, Apollo just nodded, raising one hand to his head to rub tiredly at his temple. Starbuck grabbed up his pack and rummaged through it -- standard supplies in all military kits was a mild painkiller. He found one of the small tablets and moved into the turbowash to get Apollo a glass of water. Returning, he handed the glass and the pill to his friend. "Take this," he urged.

Apollo didn't even question it, just took the pill and swallowed it before draining the glass completely. "Thank you," he sighed. "I feel like my head is going to explode."

"How'd it go today?"

"Slowly," Apollo replied. "Mostly they just wanted to hear our story. Where we're from, why we're here, the Destruction, the Cylons, our search."

"They ever heard of the Cylons before?"

Apollo shook his head, then winced at the pain that caused. "No," he answered instead. "They claim they've never made it out this far. We'll continue the talks tomorrow. What about you? What did you do?"

Starbuck grinned at that. "I spent the day looking at pornographic statues."

That caught Apollo's complete attention, as he'd intended. The look on his friend's face was priceless. "What?"

Starbuck laughed. "Their artwork is a bit explicit in nature," he explained. "Funny thing is, I think the majority of it was actually religious. Reminded me of some of the stuff you could see on Gemoni."

Apollo's eyes widened at that, catching the reference immediately. Save for a few religious sects, the Gemoni colony had always been the most liberal of the twelve colonies, accepting of behavior that most of the other eleven would have found shocking.

"What about earlier?" Apollo asked then. "The 'custom' you were referring to."

The kiss, he meant. Starbuck just shrugged, secretly amused that Apollo had difficulty even saying the word. "From what I've seen the Corvalans are very into kissing. It was expected."

Apollo raised one dark eyebrow. "They do seem to be a demonstrative race, don't they? Remind me of avians with their mating displays."

Starbuck laughed at that; he'd thought the same thing when he'd first seen their colorful appearance. "Are we free for the rest of the evening? You look like you could use the rest."

But Apollo shook his head at that. "No, we're having dinner again with the Emperor. Though Dolmash has assured me I won't be expected to drink Mookta again. This is to be a more informal affair."

"No Thean'd?" Starbuck asked, pointedly ignoring the fact that he found the thought disappointing.

"I don't know," Apollo said quietly as he lowered his gaze. Starbuck heard the apology in his tone of voice. He wanted to reach out and shake the man, but regulations generally advised against doing such things to a superior officer.

"Hey," he said instead. "Maybe they'll have some more of the purple stuff tonight."

Apollo smiled, obliviously seeing through Starbuck's attempt to cheer him up. "One can only hope," he agreed.

They had time enough to bathe again and change into fresh uniforms before Dolmash and Breeanth returned to take them to dinner. The meal was served in the same hall as it had been the night before, though this time there was perhaps only a third the number of people in attendance. Many of the long tables had been removed, and they sat instead at one far end of the hall while the rest of the chamber was left empty. Instead, musicians entered to take up the extra space, and as Starbuck and Apollo sat down beside Breeanth and Dolmash again, they were treated to soft melodious tunes of an alien world.

They shared a plate again, though Starbuck found he was growing use to that arrangement. And while it was not required that Apollo drink when Marshent drank, there was plenty of Mookta present if he so desired. Both men stuck this time with water. The more intimate setting gave the others at the table a greater opportunity to talk amongst themselves, and Apollo was quickly engaged in conversation with those around him. He did his best to translate for Starbuck, though Starbuck could see that the double duty was exhausting the man.

The food was served with less formality, platters laden down with various dishes being placed on the table before them instead of served one course at a time as it had before. But there was plenty of variety and when one dish was empty, servants quickly replaced it with something new.

As Starbuck had figured, there was no formal Thean'd this night, but he quickly realized that that fact would not exempt the two of them from public displays of affection. The Corvalans reverted, instead, to openly affectionate display of marital bliss. Throughout the meal they touched and kissed often with a sense of quiet fondness and in some cases outright passion. The Emperor and his partner were obviously deeply in love with one another, and spent much of the evening whispering amongst themselves and caressing one another with a tenderness that nearly made Starbuck blush.

Dolmash and Breeanth kept their display more subdued, Dolmash restricting himself to kissing Breeanth's hand or face rather than more deeply on the lips. Nonetheless their actions led Starbuck to believe that refraining entirely from such actions would not be acceptable. But he was momentarily torn about how he should go about it -- should he maintain the friendly distance Dolmash and Breeanth did, or act more as he had last night? Based on the comments they'd received, he rather suspected that any reserve on their part would seem out of place -- they had unfortunately established themselves as a 'close' couple, as Apollo had translated it.

He put it off as long he felt it was possible, giving Apollo a few quiet moments at the beginning of the dinner to get used to the idea that once again they would need to perform for their audience. It would be different tonight, Starbuck realized. Apollo would not have the aid of alcohol to relax him. When the kissing started amongst the others, he saw his friend lower his gaze, a slight catch in his breath the only other outward sign of his unease.

"Starbuck," he said softly. "I think we . . ."

Starbuck raised his hand and gently touched Apollo's head, stroking his fingers through the dark locks of hair in a quiet caress; he realized with some surprise that he had been wanting to do that for a while now, touch the man, attempt to calm and comfort him.

"I know," he murmured, moving marginally closer to him. "Don't worry. We'll manage as we did before." He applied the lightest of pressure to Apollo's head and turned the man toward him, lightly brushing their lips together in the softest of kisses. He could feel the tension radiating off the man, feel the heat of embarrassment that was coloring his skin, but Apollo made no move to stop him as he kissed him again just as lightly.

He drew back then, giving Apollo a chance to regain his composure as Starbuck calmly turned his attention back to their plate. But inside, his own heart was pounding, though not from the embarrassment he knew was plaguing his friend. He could grow drunk on Apollo's kisses, and he wondered how he was going to get through this night without letting that little surprising fact make itself known to Apollo. Would Apollo be nearly so forgiving if he realized that Starbuck was actually enjoying this situation?

They ate, they talked, and from time to time they kissed. As the evening progressed, Starbuck found himself moving more fully into Apollo's space so that it was easy for him to slip an arm around his friend's body and simply leave it there. Apollo, to his credit, relaxed with time, and while he didn't initiate their contact, he didn't turn away from it either. For the most part they kept the kissing light, little more than the caress of lips against one another, lingering longer with time for show, but still staying within some unspoken realm of acceptability.

But as the night wore on, Starbuck found himself growing bolder, wanting more, desiring more as each touch teased him with whispers of what he could not have. He had never been the sort of man to deny himself -- had little experience with the reserved discipline Apollo had been raised with -- to want and not to take what was placed before him became harder and harder with each touch.

'He doesn't want this,' he told himself repeatedly. 'He's doing this for the fleet, this is not real.' But that little voice of reason became quieter and quieter. It was silenced entirely when he felt the warm heat of Apollo's breath against his lips moments before he kissed him again, suggesting tantalizingly that Apollo's mouth might be open slightly. Starbuck could not resist, and used his tongue this time to trace the shape of those lips beneath his own.

The sharp intake of Apollo's breath alerted him to the fact that he'd startled his friend, but Starbuck simply used that distraction to gently coax those lips further apart, urging Apollo to allow him briefly inside the dark heat of his mouth. He tasted of exotic spices and it was all Starbuck could do not to press his advantage and ravage his mouth.

When he drew back this time, so much more reluctantly, he saw a look of bewildered surprise in Apollo's green eyes. He gave a wan smile of apology and a subtle nod to the others around them, hoping Apollo would surmise that Starbuck thought this was necessary. Truthfully, it probably was. Save for Breeanth and Dolmash most of the other couples at the table were kissing quite passionately.

To his surprise, Apollo just nodded, as if accepting on faith alone that Starbuck understood this situation better than he did. For a short while, Starbuck sat there and stewed in a rising guilt, thinking that once again he was taking advantage of his friend. But how could he not, he reasoned. The situation demanded it -- literally. And was it really so bad, a few kisses between friends, never mind the fact that Apollo's interest lay elsewhere, or for that matter that his interests were also supposed to be otherwise occupied? But Cassiopeia had never made him feel like this. He was grateful now that there wasn't anything overtly serious between him and Cassie.

He couldn't help thinking about Athena, however. He recalled something he'd long buried -- a thought that had flashed fleetingly through his mind one night as he'd kissed Athena, that she reminded him of Apollo. He recalled quite clearly now that far from being repulsed by the idea, it had simply turned him on more -- something he'd instantly dismissed and would have adamantly denied.

He couldn't deny it now. And he couldn't help wondering what this would do to him when they finally returned to the Galactica. Just last night, when he'd thought perhaps they'd escape this mission with nothing more than one initial kiss at that dinner, he had envisioned simply dismissing this entirely from his mind and not thinking of it again until he and Apollo were far enough away from the event to be able to laugh about it. A foolish thought, he realized now. He wasn't going to forget this, wasn't going to be able to dismiss it -- and being denied anything more, he was fairly certain he wasn't going to ever be able to laugh about it.

He felt his hunger rising again. When he touched Apollo lightly on the back a short while later, the Captain turned toward him without question, accepting his next kiss easily enough. This time however Apollo's mouth parted willingly beneath his, and Starbuck didn't even try to resist the invitation. He deepened the kiss immediately, darting his tongue forward to explore his friend's mouth, tasting again the spices of their meal and something uniquely Apollo. The tentative touch of Apollo's tongue against his own sent a sharp burning heat through his entire body. He almost drew back then, almost broke their connection thinking that the effort to participate was probably costing Apollo dearly -- even if he could imagine that Apollo was enjoying this, enjoying him, the fact that it was happening in public in full view of a dozen people would be enough to ruin the moment for Apollo.

But while his mind urged retreat, his body had other ideas entirely, and far from withdrawing, grew more aggressive as he sucked Apollo's tongue into his mouth and gave the man the most intimate of kisses he knew how. He heard a sound from his friend -- a moan, a gasp -- he couldn't be sure, only certain that if he hadn't before he'd just succeeded in shocking the hell out of his Captain.

He realized of course that Apollo could stop this any time he wished -- gods knew they were certainly a physical match for one another. But the fact that he didn't was because of the very audience that so bothered Apollo -- he wouldn't risk blowing their cover; and Starbuck understood then that he really did have the Captain completely at his mercy. Quite probably Apollo would allow nearly any liberty -- certainly none of the Corvalans would even blink if he were to turn this foreplay into something more serious. Marshent, for example, currently had his hand in the Emperor's lap and the couple seated next them didn't seem to even notice. Starbuck suspected that not only would Apollo allow it, come tomorrow Apollo would probably be the one apologizing for it. And he wanted to touch -- gods, he wanted to touch! For no other reason than to find out if Apollo could respond to his caress.

The need to breathe finally broke them apart, and despite the shame Starbuck felt at even entertaining the thought of taking advantage of his friend, he found he couldn't look away from Apollo, captivated by the look in the man's eyes. He looked vulnerable, and somewhat lost, confusion warring with a certain breathlessness that Starbuck desperately wanted to interpret as passion. But he found to his surprise that he didn't want anyone else to see that vulnerability in his friend's face, didn't want the Corvalans to see what this was doing to him, and he raised his hand quickly to gently stroke Apollo's face, trying to calm and sooth him with his own assurance. To his surprise, despite the lack of alcohol, Apollo turned in toward that caress as he had last night, eyes closing as he seemed to become lost in the moment.

That act struck Starbuck deep in his racing heart -- dear gods, the man was hungry for contact! For some simple human affection. Starbuck found himself suddenly hating Sheba with a fierceness that shocked him -- that she could be allowed to give Apollo this when he could not; or perhaps worse yet that she could be allowed to do it, and apparently had not since it still seemed so lacking in the man's life that he would accept even a touch he did not want in its absence.

He would have spoken then, blurted out something foolish and heart-felt, but he was saved from such folly by Dolmash who chose that moment to ask Apollo a question. Startled out of the moment, Apollo quickly turned away from Starbuck and answered Dolmash in a long string of words Starbuck didn't understand.

Starbuck sat back and took a quick drink from his glass, using the movement to covertly glance around the room. Their little interlude seemed to have gone unnoticed, or at least unremarked he was relieved to see, and he found to his surprise that he was quite shaken by what had just happened. He'd nearly told Apollo. . .what. …that he wanted him, desired him, loved him? Sagan! That certainly would have gone over well! Something had changed, something subtle -- not with Apollo, but with himself. It was as if he'd stepped across some invisible line and he wasn't certain how to get back.

He had to get back, he realized. He had to go back to where he'd been yesterday, living in denial that any such feelings were possible, that such feelings had probably existed buried inside him for ages. Certainly he had to go back to thinking of this as nothing more than a mission -- an assignment to play a part, get the trade agreement, and then return home to the Galactica and go about living their lives in the same manner they always had. Though he and Cassiopeia were only seeing each other casually now, he'd have to find someway of tumbling her into bed as quickly as possible when they returned to the ship, some way of purging himself of the fire burning inside him. That would be the most acceptable solution -- or barring that, a less acceptable possibility was to take a trip over to one of the Gemoni ships and find a young man to give him a toss. Because he certainly couldn't go on thinking what he was thinking now.

"Starbuck?" Apollo's voice drew him back to the present and he looked quickly at his friend in concern. "Dolmash wanted to know how long we've been together."

"Fourteen yahrens," Starbuck responded automatically, and saw immediately that he'd said something wrong by the look of wary surprise that flashed through Apollo's eyes.

"I told him two," he said quietly, a question in his tone as if asking if Starbuck knew something he didn't. Starbuck understood immediately what he'd meant -- how long they'd been together, how long they'd been 'sealed'. Fourteen yahrens ago they had both been sixteen-yahrens-old and meeting at the Academy for the first time -- fourteen yahrens ago, Starbuck's entire life had changed when he'd looked across a crowded room and saw the handsome, brooding form of the eldest son of one of Caprica's most noble families.

"Sorry," he apologized immediately, shooting both Apollo and Dolmash a reassuring smile. He was grateful that Dolmash did not understand their language. "My mind was somewhere else. Two was a good answer, Pol. I was thinking of something else."

A look of relief replaced the wariness in Apollo's face immediately, and he smiled in return. He said something more to Dolmash, causing the man to laugh, and Starbuck noticed that Breeanth was staring at them rather intently. He smiled at her, wondering what had so caught her attention. She just grinned impishly and reached over to take Dolmash's hand, and Starbuck discovered then that some time in the last few moments he'd taken hold of Apollo's hand without realizing it and was now gently caressing the back of the man's fingers. If Apollo had noticed he didn't indicate and made no move to stop him. Nor did he make any move to stop him when five centons later Starbuck leaned closer and nuzzled the side of his neck, kissing a soft spot just below his ear that had been tantalizing Starbuck all night. Truth be told, Apollo tilted his head slightly to the side to give him better access, though this close to a major pulse point, Starbuck could feel that the man was not nearly so calm as he seemed; his heart was pounding. But lords, Apollo tasted good!

It wasn't until Starbuck impulsively took Apollo's earlobe between his lips and gently bit it that Apollo finally flinched away. Alarmed, Starbuck looked up, but found to his surprise that Apollo was not mad. Far from it -- his face was flushed and he seemed to be fighting to stifle a laugh, a gleam of mirth flashing in those green eyes. "Sorry," he apologized quickly to Starbuck. "That tickled."

Starbuck thought his heart would melt right there on the spot. He'd imaged many things over the last day with Apollo -- hunger, passion, need, desire, but he had not expected to see this -- playfulness. Not from Apollo. Not from his reserved friend. "You're ticklish?" he asked in delighted surprise.

Embarrassed for a completely different reason, Apollo shrugged sheepishly. "Lots of people are ticklish," he insisted defensively.

Starbuck couldn't resist teasing him. "The things I learn about you. Wait until the guys back in Blue hear about this."

That stopped Apollo cold and he turned to Starbuck in earnest alarm. "Starbuck," he pleaded, and Starbuck knew his fear wasn't about the Squadron finding out he was ticklish, but rather about anyone finding out any of this.

He silenced Apollo immediately with a quick, heated kiss. "Quit worrying," he assured him. "You know I wouldn't breath a word of this. You know that." And of course Apollo did know that -- after all that was why Starbuck was here beside him and Sheba was not. Because Apollo trusted Starbuck, knew that Starbuck would never tell anyone on the Galactica what they had to do for the sake of this mission, knew Starbuck would protect Apollo's reputation more fiercely than he protected his own.

As if in thanks, Apollo's mouth opened beneath Starbuck's next kiss, and he let him inside, moving willingly into the kiss when Starbuck's hunger demanded he take whatever he could. He thought fleetingly that if Apollo needed any proof that Starbuck was enjoying this, he simply had to glance at his lap for evidence of the fact that he found this no great hardship. Funny thing was, Starbuck knew just as certainly that Apollo would not. Embarrassed, flustered and as baffled as the man was, forced into an intimacy his breeding told him was wrong, there were still certain behaviors Apollo would not do -- he wouldn't want to know what effect this was having on Starbuck's body, or barring that, even if he did want to know, he would see it as an invasion of privacy.

Starbuck had to laugh at himself. It was one thing to fall in love with a man and a commanding officer; but to fall in love with a gentleman and noble. . .only he could be so foolish. His friends always said that he was the proverbial fool who rushed in where even the gods feared to tread.

They survived the meal without international incident, and it was with some reluctance that Starbuck left the table when the meal was officially over. Without the constraints of culture, Starbuck had no excuse to continue kissing Apollo -- though his body suggested that perhaps that was for the best. He was wound up tighter than a spring as it was; any more of this enforced foreplay and Starbuck wasn't certain he could be held responsible for his actions. As it was, the thought of sleeping beside Apollo tonight was making him ache in places he was trying very hard to ignore.

But he noticed as they walked back to their room just how very tired his friend was looking, and concern quickly replaced his frustration. "You feeling all right?" he asked as they entered the room after bidding goodnight to Dolmash and Breeanth. "You're not coming down with anything, are you?" He resisted the urge to touch Apollo's forehead as he had last night -- Apollo was not drunk this time, and now that they were alone, would probably not be as willing to allow such a touch. It felt strange to suddenly have to hold himself back after having just spent two hours doing quite the opposite.

"No, I'm fine," Apollo assured him. "Just tired."

"Why don't you go to sleep then," Starbuck urged. "I'll make the report to the ship." They'd promised the Commander they would check in every night to assure him they were well.

"You sure?" Apollo asked, the fact that he was willing to even entertain such a notion a testament to just how tired he really was.

"Go to bed, Apollo," Starbuck insisted. "I'll take care of it."

Apollo did not argue and while Starbuck retrieved their com-unit and sent a request for Commander Adama's private channel, he watched out of the corner of his eye as Apollo undressed for bed. The man might be unaccustomed to public displays of affection, but he didn't possess any body-shyness. Few people who served aboard a battlestar did; communal living cured you of that early in the Academy. Apollo thought nothing of stripping down to his undergarment and climbing into bed, seeming mindless of the fact that Starbuck was covertly watching him this time with more than a little interest. Starbuck found himself squirming uncomfortably in his seat as his body heated up once again at the sight of all that lean, muscled skin. It was only the sight of Apollo removing his laser pistol from his holster and slipping it under a pillow as Starbuck had last night that brought him back to the moment -- a mission, he remind himself. They were on a mission. Nothing more.

Then the com-unit beeped and Commander Adama's familiar face appeared on the small screen. "Lieutenant," Adama greeted, looking somewhat surprise that Apollo was not the one speaking with him. "Is everything all right?"

"Fine, sir," Starbuck assured him immediately, giving him his trademark smile that, while obnoxious, generally put people instantly at ease. "Captain Apollo began the trade talks today. The Corvalans seem receptive to talking to us."

"Any progress yet?" Starbuck could hear the concern in the Commander's voice, and perhaps just a touch of impatience, but he knew it was simply concern for the state of the fleet -- something Starbuck now knew was worse than was generally known.

"Not yet, sir," Starbuck apologized, restricting himself to the formality of military speech. "They're still just in the initial stages of dialogue. But the talks will resume tomorrow."

Adama nodded. "Are you two having any difficulty adapting to the culture?"

Adapting to the culture -- Starbuck couldn't help wondering what Adama would say if he knew that basically that meant he had to make out with his son at least once a day for the sake of that cultural adaptation. "No, sir," he replied. "We're managing well enough." Too well, he suspected.

Adama nodded his head again, and then something almost imperceptible shifted in his eyes. Starbuck knew that the man he was addressing was now more a concerned father than the Commander of the Fleet. "How's Apollo?" he asked.

Starbuck spared a glance toward the curtained bed, but Apollo had already fallen silent, an unmoving shadow beneath the blankets. "Tired, sir," he answered honestly. "He's sleeping now."

There was a look on Adama's face that Starbuck couldn't quite decipher, and he felt a pang of worry gnawing at his heart. Adama glanced momentarily away from the screen as if debating whether or not to say anything more. When he finally did look up, Starbuck saw concern in his eyes. "Keep an eye on him, Starbuck," he said quietly. "He sent a text message to me earlier today, but. . .half of it was written in Corvalan."

Starbuck's eyes widened at that, understanding Adama's concern. That wasn't like Apollo -- he wasn't careless. And he wouldn't casually make a mistake like that. "He's very tired, sir," he admitted, but he nodded to the Commander. "I'll keep any eye on him."

"Thank you, Starbuck," Adama smiled grimly. "I'll speak with you tomorrow." And with that he ended the transmission.

Starbuck sat back in his chair, and stared at the blank screen for a long while. Apollo's fluency with Corvalan had increased dramatically today, and though he hadn't remarked on it at the time, there were a couple of times when he was translating for Starbuck that Apollo struggled harder for the Kobolian words than he should. But damned if he knew what that meant. They had done something to his friend on the Ship of Lights -- he'd been dead, and Starbuck could still remember the grief and utter despair that had gripped him at that realization. It had been with relief that he'd offered his life in exchange for Apollo's -- anything to make the man live again. Besides he couldn't imagine living in a world without Apollo; better to be dead himself.

But they'd given Apollo back to him, and no matter what happened he could never hate them for that fact alone. But the thought of what else they might have done to him terrified Starbuck, because he didn't know how to protect Apollo from creatures who had power over life and death. And he still couldn't imagine living in a world without his friend beside him.

He rose finally, and stripped out of his uniform. Then, placing his own pistol under a pillow within easy reach, he climbed into the bed beside the Captain. Apollo was asleep already, lying on the far side of the bed, turned completely away from him. Starbuck lay in the darkness and watched him in silence, wishing he dared touch him again, just to assure himself that he was real and solid and very much alive and in this world.

He was exhausted himself, but he found he couldn't sleep. Couldn't relax. Something hurt deep inside him, and he didn't know what to do to ease the pain. He shouldn't have touched his memories of the Ship of Lights -- they always hurt him, remembering the pain he'd felt seeing Apollo dead. Sheba had cried, so he imagined she could perhaps understand his loss, but he couldn't help thinking that they had given Apollo back to him, not to her. Certainly her life would have gone on without Apollo; his would have been utterly shattered.

Apollo moved restlessly in his sleep, and Starbuck froze, waiting. Like he had last night, the man gravitated toward Starbuck's heat, and a moment later Apollo was sliding into his arms, wrapped around him as intimately as any lover. He settled momentarily and then as if realizing that something had changed, he began to stir again, rising up toward wakefulness. Instantly Starbuck tried to still him, gently stroking his hair as he had last night.

"It's all right, Apollo," he whispered softly. "Go to sleep. You're safe. Everything is fine." To his utter surprise, it worked. Apollo settled contently back down, returning to his deep slumber as he rested against Starbuck's warmth.

Starbuck also realized that his own pain was gone. He tangled his fingers in Apollo's hair and relaxed.

There was no repeat of yesterday's apology the following morning. Rather Apollo dealt with last night's behavior simply by ignoring it completely. Starbuck took some comfort in that. If Apollo had been angry he would have said something. He might be reserved, he might be embarrassment, but he was still the commanding officer. If he honestly thought Starbuck had crossed some line, he would make that fact known. Instead he seemed content to leave their 'cultural adaptation' as Adama had called in, completely in Starbuck's hands.

As they washed and dressed the following morning, Starbuck made brief mention of his conversation the night before with Adama. He casually mentioned the letter, and watched covertly for Apollo's reaction when he informed him of the error. Apollo's eyes widened with surprise, but rather than deny it, he went immediately to the com-unit and began scrolling through the saved copy of the text he had sent. Beyond a tightening of his lips he gave no other outward reaction. Starbuck didn't know whether to be relieved or concerned by his reaction -- it was obvious that Apollo had been unaware of the mistake.

He waited patiently while the Captain corrected the message and then resent it, his sense of duty and efficiency allowing for nothing else. Starbuck couldn't help wondering what sort of explanation the Captain would have appended to the letter. Once finished, Apollo set down the com-unit and shot Starbuck an unreadable look. "Guess I was more tired than I realized," he remarked, and Starbuck knew that was the only explanation he was going to get.

"I realize I don't know the language, but perhaps I could sit with you today during the talks. For moral support if nothing else," Starbuck offered, hoping he would take him up on the offer.

Apollo shook his head. "The delegation is made up of twenty nobles -- Marshent is the only Torfath traditionally allowed on the council. They are making an exception for Dolmash, but even that goes against custom. I don't want to push my luck at this stage of the game."

It was nicely said, but it was a refusal, and a formal one from Captain to Lieutenant. Starbuck wanted to argue, but knew it would be pointless. "So I guess I spend the day looking at naughty pictures again, huh?"

Apollo smiled at that. "No, Breeanth is taking you to her family estate today. From what I understood they raise a type of equine animal. She's going to take you riding."

Starbuck groaned at that, remembering how he had felt last time he'd ridden an equine. "Oh, Sagan," he sighed. "Guess it's a good thing we get to sit on pillows at dinner time. I'm going to need them tonight."

"You'll manage," Apollo said in amusement. "And so will your posterior, I'm sure."

"We'll see," Starbuck grumbled. "But if I'm in pain, I'm drinking the Mookta tonight!"

He was pleased to see Apollo laugh at the thought.

Breakfast was much as it had been yesterday, save that when they parted company Apollo was less hesitant about the kiss and even went so far as to slip his arm around Starbuck and hold him briefly before releasing him. That touch stayed with Starbuck all day, for it felt to him it had been done out of genuine affection rather than forced intimacy. But then he supposed he was probably reading too much into it.

Breeanth, while unable to communicate properly with Starbuck, was nonetheless pleasant company. And her friends, males and females both, varied enough in age that Starbuck didn't feel out of place. The estate was beautiful, reminding Starbuck of Adama's country estate on Caprica; and he felt a pang of sorrow at the thought of that place now gone, taken over by Cylons who would have destroyed the beauty of the place. Ila had loved it there, and Starbuck could still remember that first summer break at the Academy when Apollo had brought a no-name peasant home to dine with kings and princes.

Ila and Adama both had made him welcome, and never once asked about his lack of heritage or family. Far from it, Adama had made it known that first night at dinner that he was aware of the fact that Starbuck had received a full scholarship to the Academy due to hard earned grades at the state run school he'd gone through at the Orphanage. He'd praised Starbuck for such a remarkable achievement, and while as a child Starbuck knew that his grades were the only hope he had of escaping the life he'd been born to, he'd never truly taken pride in his accomplishments until that night. Somehow it seemed that with Apollo and his family, it didn't matter where he'd come from. He supposed now he'd loved Apollo even then.

The equines were feisty yet beautiful, and in spite of himself, Starbuck enjoyed riding them well enough. He couldn't help feel however that he should be at Apollo's side helping him, and not off enjoying himself on an outing most of the people in the fleet would kill to experience. Boxey ought to be down here enjoying the fresh air and the sunshine, he thought regretfully. There were children living in the fleet that no longer remembered what that felt like -- children who'd forgotten what a breeze or a storm was. Children who were now threatened with starvation while he was enjoying real sunshine on his face.

He was tired, but thankfully not particularly sore when they made their way back to the palace. And he thanked Breeanth profusely for her hospitality -- he'd managed at least to pick up a few Corvalan words and could say 'please' and 'thank you' and 'yes' and 'no' with some aptitude. Apollo and Dolmash were again waiting for them when they returned, and it was with a sense of relief that Starbuck kissed Apollo in greeting. But he knew immediately as he took the man into his arms that something was wrong; the tension radiating off Apollo was nearly palatable.

Again they were escorted back to their rooms by Dolmash and Breeanth, though this time Apollo spent some time talking to Dolmash before entering the chamber. He appeared to be trying to get some answer from the man, but Dolmash just smiled and shook his head, and patted Apollo assuredly on the shoulder as if to insist that everything was fine. Then he bid them both goodbye and he and Breeanth disappeared down the hallway. Apollo entered the room without comment and Starbuck followed him inside, closing the door in concern as he watched the Captain shrug out of his uniform jacket and toss it almost violently across the bed.

"Apollo, what's wrong?" Starbuck asked in alarm.

In agitation Apollo began talking, pacing back and forth across the room as he spoke. So surprised was Starbuck by this behavior, that it took him a moment to realize why he couldn't understand what the man was saying. "Apollo!" he caught the man's abrupt attention. "I don't speak Corvalan," Starbuck reminded him gently, worried that his friend appeared unaware of the fact that he'd been speaking the wrong language.

For a moment Apollo just stared at him blankly, then realization flooded his green eyes. "I'm sorry, Starbuck," he sighed, raising a hand to rub tiredly at his eyes. "I wasn't thinking. I. . ." He shook his head as if to clear it.

"What's wrong?" Starbuck asked, wondering what Apollo would do if he offered to rub his head for him. "Did the negotiations go badly?"

"The negotiations didn't go at all!" Apollo exclaimed, and then muttered a few curses under his breath. At least the curses were words he recognized, and he took some heart in that.

"What do you mean?"

"We met, we talked, they asked me more questions about the fleet, about Caprica, and then they took me out to see their flower gardens."

Starbuck sank down in one of the chairs, trying to fathom out the meaning. "They cancelled the talks?"

Apollo sighed. "Not exactly. They simply felt it was necessary that they show me the palace before we discussed anything more. Said they felt I needed a break from the story telling. But I know delaying tactics when I see them. I tried to get them back on tract, but every time I brought up the fleet they'd show me another garden or a fountain or a statue. I now know more about their palace architect than I know about the ship's engineers!"

"Are they going to resume the talks tomorrow?" Starbuck asked.

"I don't know," Apollo shrugged, looking far too worried, and far too tired. "They said they would, but for all I know that means I could spend the day looking at your dirty artwork."

"Did Dolmash say anything?"

Apollo sat down in the chair across from Starbucks, but his legs were twitching with agitation and he looked far from comfortable. "He said everything was fine. That the Emperor simply needs to evaluate some things. I can't help thinking that I did something wrong. That I violated some custom or angered them in someway. Last night. . ." He looked up at Starbuck beseechingly, searching his face for answers. "Last night, was I. . .did I. . .was I too reserved? Did I do . . .something wrong? Act cold or unemotional?"

Starbuck's eyes widened in shock as he realized what it was his friend was referring to. "No!" he said immediately. "No, Apollo, you were fine. You didn't do anything wrong. Trust me on this!"

It wasn't the first time he'd heard someone refer to Apollo as being cold or unemotional -- women in the fleet had mentioned it when they'd tried and failed to attract Apollo's attentions. Even other officers had mentioned it when they'd done something wrong and had been on the receiving end of the Captain's ire. But this was the first time Starbuck had ever suspected the man had taken the criticism to heart. Truth be told, the very idea of calling the man he'd held in his arms last night 'cold' or 'unemotional' was ridiculous in the extreme.

Apollo looked away, his face pale, his lips thinned with self-effacing anger. "I'm too reserved," he stated harshly. "Too prudish. And these people aren't. And my behavior has offended them."

Starbuck shot out of his seat and crouched down before Apollo's chair. "Knock it off, Apollo," he ordered. "In case you've forgotten, you weren't alone last night. I was there too and I'm a pretty good judge of these things. You didn't do anything wrong."

"That's just it, Starbuck," Apollo said softly, bitterly. "I didn't do anything at all. You're doing all the work. I'm not helping you at all."

All the work? Starbuck shook his head in denial. "You're wrong. Couples fall into certain roles, and the Corvalans are bound to know that better than anyone. They wouldn't find it unusual. Breeanth didn't initiate any of the contact either. You're way off base on this one."

"I'm also not a fourteen-yahren-old girl," Apollo pointed out. "But I suspect they think I sure as Hades am acting like one." He winced suddenly and rubbed painfully at his temples again, squeezing his eyes shut.

"Pol?" Starbuck asked in concern, touching his knee lightly to get his attention.

"My head hurts," Apollo whispered, and he leaned back in his chair as if suddenly too tired to sit up. "Gods, my head hurts."

Starbuck rose immediately to get another painkiller and a glass of water. This time he also got a cool cloth from the turbowash. When he returned he practically forced the exhausted man to swallow the pills, and then had him lean back in the chair so that he could place the cloth gently over his eyes. Then against his better judgment, he took hold of Apollo's hand, holding it lightly in his own. To his surprise, Apollo made no move to stop him.

"Apollo, listen to me," he urged softly. "We've done everything we know to do to be accepted into this culture. I think you're reading more into this than you should. Wait until tomorrow. It may be exactly what they said. For all you know their customs demand that they take a break between negotiation days. Or maybe the Emperor merely needs to evaluate their own needs before they can decide what to trade with us. I don't think the fault lies with our behavior. They seem to genuinely like us. Trust me on this. I know people. They believe our act." Too much so perhaps. He remembered now the look Breeanth had given them the night before, and also a few untranslated comments she'd made today to her friends -- she thought the two of them were very much in love, and Starbuck suspected she found it quite romantic.

"We're running out of time," Apollo sighed, and the note of grief in his voice nearly broke Starbuck's heart. Their people were facing death. And Apollo's father and sister and son were up there waiting for their success, but it was perhaps the countless people whose names they didn't know that weighed the heaviest on Apollo's shoulders. He honestly believed he was responsible for them, genuinely believed that it would be his fault if they died. Failure was not an option.

They were summoned for dinner too soon for Starbuck's peace of mind. Apollo didn't look good, and he feared the man was still suffering from the headache. But somehow, Apollo hid it from their hosts, smiling and greeting the nobles as they joined them around the Emperor's table. The meal was much as it had been last night, though the music was different, somewhat livelier than it had been before. Starbuck tried to take that as a hopeful sign -- the music sounded positive and upbeat as if in preparation for a celebration.

To his surprise, early on in the meal Apollo poured himself a rather large glass of Mookta, and began drinking immediately. There were a few comments about this from those around them, some laughter from some of the others. Apollo replied back, laughing as well, and then shocked the hell out of Starbuck when he turned toward him and pulled him in for a heated kiss.

"Apollo," Starbuck murmured when he could speak again. "Slow down on that Mookta. I don't trust that stuff!" He'd never seen his friend deliberately set out to get drunk; that wasn't like him.

"No," Apollo stated. "I won't have a repeat of last night." He drank again.

Dear gods, the man was impossible! Starbuck realized that despite what he'd said to him, he honestly believed he'd been too reserved last night. He intended to insure that he loosened up by getting himself drunk on Mookta. "Apollo, in case you've forgotten, that stuff isn't just alcohol. It's a drug, remember?" An aphrodisiac, he wanted to remind him, but wasn't certain if Apollo would necessarily find that a drawback at this stage in the game.

"I'm sorry," Apollo replied quietly, and he did indeed look quite penitent. "You can file a report against me when get back to the Galactica." And with that, he took another drink.

"Frack!" Starbuck hissed under his breath. Apollo kissed him again, caressing his opened mouth and sucking softly on his lower lip when he went to pull away. "Okay, okay," Starbuck whispered. "I get the point. I understand. But I think you're plenty loose enough. Much looser and you're going to be propositioning the Emperor, and we both know what would happen then."

That at least caught Apollo's attention and he glanced momentarily at his glass of Mookta. He'd finished nearly half of it already. He looked uncertainly back at Starbuck, and based on the heated flush in his cheeks Starbuck guessed the Mookta was already having too much of an effect on him, overheating his skin. "You think this is okay?" he asked, and he moved closer to Starbuck, raising his hand to stroke his face and to lightly run his fingers over Starbuck's lips. Starbuck understood what he was asking.

"Yeah, Pol," he assured him. "I'm sure it's okay. It's perfect. Trust me. Please." Much more perfect, and Starbuck feared he'd explode. He wasn't sure how he could possibly find a way to resist a drugged Apollo once again. The first time had been bad enough.

"Okay," Apollo agreed, and he slowed down some, setting the Mookta momentarily aside in favor of eating something from their plate. Starbuck breathed a sigh of relief.

For Starbuck the night was both an agony and an ecstasy. Time and time again he feared he'd die if he couldn't do something to relieve the arousal burning through his body; having a drunken, willing Apollo in his arms was nearly more than he could bear. But he found the idea that Apollo was forcing himself to do this, had to get drunk first to even go through with it, difficult to bear. He didn't want the man turned on because he was doped up on some alien drug. He wanted Apollo to want him the way he did. And the thought that deep down in the sober, rational part of his mind Apollo might be disgusted by this, was killing him.

The Corvalans, though, seemed delighted by the evening; all of them in a remarkably good mood. And Apollo's behavior merely engendered smiles of encouragement, and more fond sighing from the overly romantic Breeanth.

His friend was quite drunk, and singing once again as he walked him back to their room. He was a bit more difficult to undress this time, since he was more wound up with stress than he had been that first night. He was also, Starbuck feared, feeling the effects of the aphrodisiac, a fact that became more noticeable as Starbuck undressed him. Apollo moaned at the sensation of his clothing moving over his flesh, and then at the cool night air upon his naked skin. And when Starbuck attempted to unbuckle his pants, Apollo wrapped his arms around Starbuck's neck and rubbed up against him, leaving no doubt in Starbuck's mind that Apollo was painfully aroused.

Starbuck hissed at the sensation, arguing with himself as he tried to extricate himself from Apollo's arms. Would it be so wrong, he asked himself, to give them both a little relief? Wouldn't take much, he reasoned. A few touches, a few caresses, and he suspected they'd both go off like turbo rockets. If this were ambrosa he were drunk on, and the possibility existed that Apollo might not remember what happened come morning, he probably would have done it. As it was, he was afraid they'd already crossed one line too many, and Apollo was going to have a difficult time dealing with things already.

Aroused he might be, but Apollo was also exceedingly tired, and it didn't take much effort for Starbuck to unwind his arms from around him and tip him back onto the bed. Unfortunately Apollo grabbed hold of his jacket as he fell, and Starbuck ended up falling with him, landing on top of him. He groaned in frustration, and then sighed, figuring he might as well use his position to move Apollo more comfortably onto the bed.

Leaning up, he grasped Apollo under the arms and hefted him up higher so that his head, at least, was on the pillow. Then he shoved his legs over so that he was lying more comfortably length-wise on the bed. All the while Apollo kept a tight hold on his jacket, and as he went to try and pry his fingers loose he became aware of the fact that Apollo was watching him curiously.

Starbuck paused, leaning over the man, studying his face as he tried to read his expression. At least he was no longer trying to rub up against him. "What?" he asked in exasperation, wondering what Apollo was thinking about.

"Starbuck?" Apollo smiled suddenly, a sweet smile that went straight to Starbuck's heart. "Do that thing you did last night."

The thing? Starbuck stared at him in confusion. "What thing?" What had he done last night?

"That thing," Apollo repeated, though this time his gaze was focused on Starbuck's mouth. "With your mouth." There was no mistaking the heat in Apollo's eyes, or the intent of his focus. Starbuck felt his whole body come alive as if he'd just touched a live wire. Apollo tugged him gently toward him and leaned up, lightly brushing his lips across Starbuck's mouth. "Suck on my tongue again," he whispered, and the words alone nearly made Starbuck come in his pants. Then Apollo was kissing him, mouth open and hungry, and Starbuck could really see no option other than to comply. He kissed him for all he was worth, taking everything he could, devouring his mouth greedily, desperately, groaning in pleasure as Apollo responded.

The need to breath alone made him stop, but even then he couldn't break contact with Apollo, kissing the man's face and neck, sucking on the overheated skin. Apollo moaned in contentment, turning his head to give him better access, and then, from one moment to the next, promptly fell asleep.

Starbuck felt it the moment the man went limp in his arms. It was nearly instantaneous and he drew back to stare down at him in shock.

"Frack!" he cursed, untangling himself swiftly from the man and from the bed, horrified by his own behavior. He'd known of course that Apollo was drunk -- but a man had to be pretty damned drunk to pass out like that. And Starbuck had nearly taken advantage of him -- never mind that he'd asked for it. How the hell was he going to explain this in the morning?

Still didn't take care of his most immediately problem however. Stumbling away from the bed, Starbuck stripped off his uniform as he made his way into the turbowash. But even cold water cascading down upon him did little to relieve the need inside him, and he finally had no choice but take himself in hand and stroke himself to orgasm. He came violently, gasping Apollo's name. His knees gave out and he collapsed onto the floor of the shower, letting the water wash away the signs of his desire.

He tried to think about Cassiopeia then, tried to think about all the other women he'd ever been with. But it didn't seem to matter; lovely as they all were, they paled in comparison to Apollo. Everything paled in comparison to Apollo. He'd been willing to die for the man -- how could he have ever imagined that he was not in love with him?

Eventually he pulled himself together enough to get out of the shower and dry off. Then remembering that someone still needed to contact Adama, he dressed again -- didn't look right to report to one's Commander while naked. Adama looked concerned at the lateness of the hour, and Starbuck apologized quickly. "The dinners here run a little long," he explained, deciding that it also wasn't very prudent to explain to your Commander that you were late reporting in because you'd been jacking off in the turbowash to thoughts of the Commander's son.

"Any progress?" Adama asked hopefully, and Starbuck felt bad having to tell him no.

"Apollo's meeting with them again tomorrow. Hopefully he'll have something more positive to report to you then."

"How is he doing?"

He didn't bother glancing over at the bed afraid that this time his reaction might show in his face. "This is exhausting him," he admitted. "I think it's the language -- however he knows it. It's draining him."

Adama just nodded in understanding. "Take care of him, Starbuck," he urged again. "And take care of yourself. Our prayers are with you."

When Starbuck crawled into bed that night, he noticed with regret that Apollo had not moved a muscle. Too deeply asleep, he seemed unaware of Starbuck's presence, and this night did not turn toward him and sleep in his arms. Starbuck couldn't ever recall feeling so empty.

They were both on edge the following morning as they washed and dressed for the day. Starbuck finished first and spent some time cleaning his laser pistol while Apollo dressed. He watched the Captain out of the corner of his eye, noting as he adjusted his uniform's collar in front of the mirror that he paused suddenly to touch the marks on his neck. Starbuck tensed. He had been wondering when Apollo would notice those -- he'd spotted them that morning, marks made by his mouth last night in this bed.

He waited in silence, afraid to speak, afraid to not speak. He wished Apollo would just yell at him and get it over with -- the suspense was killing him. He watched as the Captain ran his fingers lightly over the marks, a thoughtful look on his face. When he did finally speak, his words were once again the last ones Starbuck had been expecting. "I meant what I said; you can file a report against me when we return to the Galactica."

His words simply made Starbuck angry. "Frack!" he shouted. How come none of this was ever his fault! Why did Apollo always have to be the one who fell on his sword? "I am not going to file any damned report against you!"

He expected a response, angry words in return, or at the very least a discussion of some sort. He got neither. Rather Apollo just fell silent, staring at him for a long moment through the mirror. Starbuck could not imagine what he might read in his face -- he felt only fury and confusion and a healthy dose of despair.

When Apollo did move finally, it was only to pick up his jacket and shrug it on over his shoulders, pausing momentarily to adjust his gun belt. Starbuck felt like hitting something and he turned away lest he say or do something he couldn't take back.

"Starbuck?" the quiet, pensive tone in Apollo's voice drew Starbuck back immediately and he found himself caught and held by a pair of green eyes. "Starbuck, are we all right?"

The rage left Starbuck immediately, replaced instead by pain. Because of course that was all that would ever matter to Apollo -- all of this, this planet, this situation they found themselves in, this was all nothing more than a mission, something he did for the sake of duty. But their friendship -- that was something else -- something outside of duty, something Apollo valued deeply. And Starbuck should have known that he would never hold any of this against him, wouldn't blame him for any actions they were forced to take on this planet.

"You are my wingmate, and my best friend," he told the man with all the sincerity he possessed. "And nothing is ever going to change that."

The relief that flashed through Apollo's eyes was palatable, and Starbuck hated himself for letting the man ever doubt it. Apollo just smiled at him. "Come on," he said quietly. "Duty calls."

Starbuck spent the day shopping with Breeanth -- or rather they wandered about one of the capital's merchant districts and looked at all the things Starbuck remembered from back home. When the fleet had first started their journey they had actually possessed a remarkable number of luxury items, but those had grown fewer and far between over the yahrens.

A moving fleet lacked the ability to produce many of the things they'd taken for granted back home. Starbuck couldn't even recall the last time he'd last possessed a brand new pyramid deck. The only one he owned had seen better days long ago. The few cubits he still had were unusable on this world since they traded with a completely different form of currency. Breeanth however was quite generous, and bought anything that Starbuck stared too long at. He suspected that fuel or not, they'd at least have a shuttle full of gifts to take back to the Galactica.

When they returned that afternoon, he was somewhat alarmed to see Dolmash waiting for them alone. Worriedly he glanced around for Apollo but the Captain was nowhere in sight. He tried to ask Dolmash what had happened, his alarm apparent, but Dolmash just smiled at him in assurance and made a motion that he should return to his room. Frightened, Starbuck took off running toward his quarters, wondering what in hell could have happened.

He burst into the room, praying he'd find Apollo inside, not entirely certain where to start looking if he did not. He spotted him almost immediately lying on the bed, still fully clothed save for his jacket and his gun belt. He opened his eyes as Starbuck approached him, but did not sit up.

"Apollo?" Starbuck asked hesitantly, moving toward him warily. He sat on the bed beside him and touched his forehead, wondering if he were sick.

To his relief Apollo smiled at him, looking remarkably happy and pleased with himself. "I'm all right, Starbuck," he assured him. "Just tired."

"Things went well, I take it?" Starbuck asked, guessing that could be the only reason for the smile.

Apollo nodded. "We got what we wanted. Everything we wanted. All the fuel and food we need. The fleet is safe. They said they'd begin sending the first shipment today."

Sounded too good to be true, but Starbuck was loath to discourage Apollo. "Really?" he asked gently. "What did they want in return?"

Apollo just shrugged at that, looking almost bemused by the answer. "My blood."

His words sent a cold wave of shock through Starbuck. "I'm sorry? Did you just say they wanted your blood?" He couldn't quite get his mind around that answer.

"Two of their moons are currently under quarantine," Apollo explained. "Their populations have been infected by a disease that they have been unable to cure. It's killing them -- millions are dying. When we went through decontamination the other day, they scanned us and noticed an antibody in my blood they'd never seen before. That's why they delayed the talks yesterday. Their doctors were running some tests. Seems they can make a serum with this antibody that can cure their people. That's all they wanted. They took a sample today to begin the process."

Starbuck couldn't shake off the feeling of panic gripping his heart. "I'm sorry, are you saying that they are willing to give us all the food and all the fuel we need for one sample of your blood?"

"Well, no," Apollo admitted with a somewhat dismissive smile. "Not one sample. They'll need more than just one sample."

"How much more?" Starbuck demanded.

"Not enough to hurt me," Apollo assured him. "They'll take a little bit every day. It will take at least two sectons for all the supplies to be shipped up to the fleet. I'll be staying here until that's finished. Luckily a little bit of blood goes a long way, and once they get a large enough quantity and have a bit more time, they might be able to figure out a way to synthesis it."

"Wait a minute!" Starbuck couldn't believe this. "It doesn't all have to come from you, does it? What about me? Do I have this antibody -- or the rest of the fleet? There must be thousands of people who can donate blood. They don't need to bleed you dry."

"You don't have it," Apollo told him quietly.

"Then someone else! Your father, Athena, someone in the fleet!"

Apollo reached out and caught hold of Starbuck's arm, as if in effort to calm him down. "No," he said quietly. "I already checked. Our doctors have never seen it before. They're searching the medical databases, but they don't think they'll find it."

Starbuck felt sick. "Then where did it come from?" he choked out, not certain he wanted to hear the answer, because he had a feeling he already knew what it was.

"Same place the language came from," Apollo guessed.

He had to fight back hysterical laughter. "Of course," he replied. "Where the frack else could it come from?"

"It's just blood, Starbuck," Apollo replied.

"And what will it be next time?" Starbuck demanded. "You've already given them your life."

"So have you," Apollo reminded him.

"No," Starbuck shook his head vehemently. "I gave that to you, not the fleet." He didn't regret saying it, but it was more than he'd ever revealed before. They had never talked about that moment on the Ship of Lights, or the sacrifice Starbuck would have willingly made, and Starbuck wasn't quite certain how to interpret the look on Apollo's face.

But the hand that moved from his arm to his shoulder was easy enough to interpret, and the gentle squeeze that same hand gave him was more than he would have received three days ago. If nothing else this mission had given them both a way of expressing their friendship that they had not possessed before. "You've given yourself to the fleet a thousand times over, Starbuck," Apollo told him honestly. "Don't deny it. Every time you go out in your Viper, you give your life to the fleet. It's what we do. It's what we were trained to do."

Starbuck just nodded, knowing what he meant. But that wasn't what this was about; Starbuck just didn't have the words to express that. He would have gotten up then, walked away, but Apollo had not yet released his grip on his shoulder. He glanced down again at his friend and was surprised to see a fond smile on his face.

"It's what we were trained to do," Apollo repeated, and it seemed he wasn't done after all. "But what you just said, about giving your life to me. . .you weren't trained for that. No one is trained for that. And I thank you for it."

He wouldn't cry, he told himself fiercely. Wouldn't let the tears that were threatening to burn his eyes form. He fought them back with everything he had. "Worst moment of my life," he choked out. "Seeing you dead."

Apollo's hand tightened. "I've had a few of those moments myself."

Starbuck glared fiercely down at him. "Which is why I'm not going to let it happen again. Not again!"

Apollo nodded his understanding. "It's just a little blood, Starbuck. I'll be fine. They value life as much as we do. They won't hurt me."

"I won't let them," Starbuck swore.

Apollo smiled at that, looking almost pleased by the promise. He settled back against the pillows. "I am tired though," he sighed. "Will you wake me before dinner?"

Starbuck didn't even bother fighting the impulse to touch him again, and he stroked his hair back from his forehead. "I'll wake you," he promised. "Get some rest." He rose then and left the bed, pulling one of the bed curtains to darken the area so that the afternoon sunlight wouldn't disturb his friend.

He waited until he was certain Apollo was asleep, then took the com-unit into the front room to contact the Galactica. He used Adama's private channel and bit his lip pensively during the delay to patch him through.

"Where's Apollo?" Adama asked immediately.

"Resting," Starbuck told him. "Did the doctors find anyone else with the antibody?"

Adama shook his head. "No. They've never seen it before."

"What about our medical technology? Can we synthesize it for them?"

"Eventually," Adama agreed. "But it would take us as long as it will take them. And they don't have the time. Their people are dying now. And either way, we'd need a substantial amount of Apollo's blood to do it as well. Starbuck, how much blood did they take?"

Starbuck's jaw clenched. "I don't know, I wasn't there. I'll watch tomorrow. I won't let them take too much."

"How is he?"

"He says he's fine."

Adama frowned. "What do you think?" That was definitely the tone of a concerned father asking.

Starbuck swallowed past the painful lump in his throat as he searched for an answer. "I think. . .I think that he'd let them cut off both his arms and still say he was fine if he thought it would help the fleet."

The concerned father paled at that, panicking, but the Commander was quick to return. "Starbuck, Doctor Salik had an idea. The Corvalans can't use your blood, but Apollo can."

"A transfusion!" Starbuck was quick to catch on.

"Yes," Adama nodded. "You have the same blood type. If they take too much from Apollo, they can replace it with yours."

"Understood," Starbuck nodded, feeling some measure of relief at last. He did have a way of saving him after all if things went too far.

"Tell Apollo that the Corvalans are making good on their promise. They have a gravity lift on one of their worlds. They're flinging the supplies onto an orbiting platform. We brought the first shipment on board an hour ago. The fleet will be fine." Starbuck could hear the relief in the Commander's voice, knew it was the same sense of duty his son possessed that made him think first for his people before even his own son.

"How's Boxey?" he asked.

Adama smiled, his expression lightening. "Asking about the both of you. He misses you both. Sends his love."

"Tell him we'll be back as soon as we can," Starbuck smiled.

"Talk to you tomorrow, Lieutenant," Adama nodded, then added in parting, "keep an eye on him."

As Starbuck turned the com-unit off, he spared a moment to wonder how telling it was that he had not asked about Cassiopeia. He wondered if Adama had found that odd.

Apollo seemed much improved when Starbuck woke him a few hours later for dinner. Assuring Starbuck that he felt fine, he spared a few minutes to get cleaned up before they headed down to dinner. Starbuck kept a close eye on him, not quite so ready to believe Apollo's words. He looked all right -- a bit pale perhaps, though he suspected that was from exhaustion rather than any amount of blood loss. But for once Apollo was quick to smile, and Starbuck realized that if nothing else, he no longer felt the pressing worry he had the day before. They had the trade agreement they needed, now they simply had to hold the status quo and retain peaceful relations for the duration of their stay.

Starbuck perversely felt more stressed than before -- making a bad impression now on their hosts would probably not result in a loss of the trade agreement, but it might result in a certain carelessness with Apollo's life. He found it somewhat ironic that he was more willing to risk the fleet than he was his friend.

The dinner this night was a formal affair -- full court turning out in attendance to celebrate the trade agreement that would save the lives of millions of their people. So many people were present that the banquet was moved to a different room, this one larger, with the low table set in a circle around the edges of the room, leaving the opening free for musicians and dancers. Applause greeted Starbuck's and Apollo's entrance and they were seated beside the Emperor and Marshent in a place of high honor. At the start of the meal the Emperor stood and spoke some words, which the people cheered enthusiastically.

Apollo translated for Starbuck, looking relieved as he spoke. "He said that in concern for my health, Marshent will refrain from drinking Mookta tonight, thus freeing all the Urvals from having to get drunk. Instead he invited everyone to partake of what ever beverage they desire -- I believe that last part translated as an open bar."

"In concern for your health?" Starbuck repeated. "I knew that stuff was bad for you."

"I can't believe I'm hearing you criticize an alcoholic beverage," Apollo teased.

"There's a difference between Mookta and ambrosa," Starbuck pointed out. "Anything that can make you sing can't be good."

Apollo looked genuinely shocked. "I sang?" he exclaimed.

Starbuck threw him an incredulous look. "Oh, *that* would be the one thing you'd forget." Though he had to admit, he rather liked the shade of red Apollo was turning.

"I did not sing," the Captain grumbled.

"You did," Starbuck insisted. "My true love's eyes are blue as the sea," he quoted one of the lines from the song.

"I didn't sing that!" Apollo insisted. "I don't even know all the words to that song."

"You did last night," Starbuck remarked smugly, wondering what Apollo would do if he asked him if he also remembered begging Starbuck to suck his tongue.

"You know this would be a whole lot easier if you'd forget a thing or two," Apollo pointed out.

"I'll do my best," Starbuck replied. "But I can't promise you anything."

While the Mookta was not required tonight, it was a formal dinner and the Thean'd that night was required, the first round of courses coming through and the moment upon them even as they talked. To Starbuck surprise, Apollo leaned over without hesitation and kissed him lightly on the mouth. "Thank you, Starbuck," he said quietly.

Bewildered, Starbuck raised one eyebrow. "For what?"

Apollo just shook his head and smiled. "For being my wingmate. And my best friend." His words brought back their conversation that morning, and Starbuck knew what he was thanking him for -- for assuring him that this would not come between them. That no matter what, this would not change anything.

Starbuck smiled and nodded. And wished like hell that he could tell Apollo the truth -- that this changed everything for him, because he knew now that he loved him.

The evening passed slowly at first, and Starbuck made it a point to keep the contact between him and Apollo light, worried about giving away too much. But as the night progressed, it became obvious that the Corvalans were more than willing to make up for the lack of forced Mookta drinking. The majority of the people present were becoming quite drunk on various beverages, and more times than Starbuck cared to count someone called out a toast in Apollo's and Starbuck's honor. They both felt obliged to drink something then, but kept the drinking to a minimum and then only the mildest of beverages they could find, sticking again with water the rest of the time.

Half way through the feast a group of musicians and dancers began performing in the center of the room, and as they watched Starbuck realized that there was something vaguely familiar about the story the dancers were acting out. It didn't take him too long to figure it out as the dance became more erotic than he'd expected -- he'd seen these scenes before, in the paintings and the statues Breeanth had shown him that first day. When the first bits of colorful clothing began to come off the dancers, he felt Apollo stiffen beside him and guessed his friend had just figured it out too.

"Oh, good gods," Apollo whispered, and the look of wide-eyed shock on the man's face was reminiscent of that first day when he'd realized that he'd have to kiss Starbuck.

Starbuck leaned closer to him. "How many of those dirty statues did you get a chance a look at?"

"Enough," Apollo whispered back. "Starbuck, they wouldn't actually. . . ." He couldn't finish the statement.

Starbuck glanced around the room. The dancers weren't the only ones who were happily losing clothing, but then he'd had his suspicions about this aspect of Corvalan culture from day one. "They would," Starbuck nodded, indicating some of the couples around him. "And they're not the only ones. I think this is meant to be an interactive performance."

"Starbuck," Apollo hissed at him. "We're not going to have to. . . I mean. . .I can't!"

Starbuck looked up at his friend, realizing that Apollo was genuinely panicking. He caught him quickly, pulling him toward him and kissing him, then kissed the side of his face and his neck, effectively hiding the panicked look from anyone who might be watching them. "Calm down, Apollo," he murmured into his ear. "No, we're not going to have to. . .you know. . ." he couldn't quite find an euphemism that he thought Apollo would be comfortable with. "In any event, I doubt very much that Dolmash is planning on doing anything more with Breeanth that they did that first night, remember. And that old couple over there -- I don't think they're capable of doing anything too excessive."

He felt rather than saw Apollo beginning to calm. The man was gripping his jacket, breathing hard against his neck, and Starbuck had to admit he found the warmth of his breath quite nice. A part of him wanted to take back what he'd just say, wanted to tell Apollo that they did have to do this -- that he did have to let Starbuck make love to him. Despite his panic, he had a feeling that somehow Apollo would allow even that if he genuinely thought it was necessary. But as much as he might want to, he couldn't do that to his friend. If he was completely honest with himself, he wasn't too thrilled with the idea of an audience either.

His words had calmed the man down, and he stroked his hair soothingly, pausing to kiss him again lightly on the mouth. He marveled at how easily Apollo accepted his kisses now, barely any hesitation any more. He supposed it was possible to get used to just about anything.

"I don't particularly want to watch it either," Apollo confessed.

Starbuck glanced back at the dancers. They had already gone several stages past what even he felt was acceptable public behavior, though he had to admit the couple involved were remarkably lovely to look at. But even in his wild youth Apollo had refused to go to strip clubs with the other cadets. "Then don't look at them," he said quietly. "Focus on me. Forget they're there. Somehow I don't think anyone will notice." Truth be told, everyone else seem quite happily occupied.

Apollo nodded and took Starbuck's answer to heart. Rather than move away, he slid closer to him and leaned against him, allowing Starbuck to take him into his arms much as he had that first night when he'd been too drunk to sit up straight. With his head resting against Starbuck shoulder, he focused his gaze instead on their entwined hands, occupying his attention by playing with Starbuck's fingers.

They ate, they talked quietly together about the ship and the people they knew, and from time to time they paused to kiss one another as was expected. And if their kisses became longer, more heated, deeper, Apollo didn't seem to notice, or didn't seem to mind, and Starbuck was certainly not going to point that fact out to him. Mostly, however, they kept their attention off the dancers and the people around them.

Eventually a half-clad Emperor, and very debauched looking royal consort bid them good night, and Starbuck and Apollo took that as their cue to leave the feast that now more resembled an orgy. As they left they noticed Dolmash escorting the young Breeanth from the room, as well as one or two other couples who for various reasons had chosen not to participate fully in the nights activity. To their surprise the old couple did not leave, and one curious glance back at them left both Apollo and Starbuck bright red with embarrassment. Neither man could help the side-splitting laughter that erupted from them when they were finally safely back in their rooms.

"Lords, Starbuck! I could have gone my whole life without seeing that!" Apollo roared between laughs.

"Oh, my eyes!" Starbuck groaned. "I think I'm blind! Did you see that old woman? She was ri. . ."

"I saw!" Apollo cut him off. "I don't need a recap!"

They laughed until they were exhausted, when Starbuck asked, "You know, I was thinking. What do you think your father would have done if he had decided to come down here himself to conduct the negotiations?"

Apollo's eyes widened, and despite the exhaustion they both burst into laugher again. "With whom?" Apollo choked out between chuckles. "Siress Tinia?" The very idea of Commander Adama and Siress Tinia being subjected to the orgy they'd just witness was beyond imagination, but Starbuck could go one better.

"Colonel Tigh," he suggested.

"Oh, Lords!" Apollo groaned. "I think my brain just melted!"

It was nearly an hour before either of them could calm down enough to go to bed. To Starbuck's delight, shortly after settling down into the first stages of a light sleep, Apollo turned to him and once again wrapped himself around Starbuck's body. Starbuck snuggled against him and fell into a contented slumber.

Breakfast was a lighter affair the following morning, most people having consumed too much the night before to be overly interested in eating much that morning. But when it came time at the end of the meal to go their separate ways -- Apollo to go first to the doctors, and then to spend the day with the Emperor discussing the various food needs of the fleet, and Starbuck to go sight seeing with Breeanth -- Starbuck protested.

"I want to go with you," he told Apollo, determined that he would not allow them to draw Apollo's blood unless he was there at his side.

Apollo looked surprised at his insistence. "Starbuck, I don't think it's allowed. It's not their custom."

But Starbuck had already given that considerable thought, and he saw the curious looks the Emperor and the others were given him. "I want to go with him," he insisted again, speaking this time to the Emperor. He knew the man couldn't understand his words, but he suspected he'd understand the meaning behind them by the way he held tightly to Apollo's arms, refusing to let him leave.

"Starbuck, what are you doing? Don't make a fuss," Apollo begged, looking worried by the thought that they might offend their hosts.

But on this, Starbuck felt fairly certain he was correct. Acting like a protecting warrior would get him nowhere -- these people had no interest whatsoever in warriors or battles. But they would understand the concerns of a frightened lover. He threw his arms around Apollo, crushing him against him as he kissed him passionately, holding nothing back as he plundered the startled man's mouth, letting all his fear and desperation show in the act. When finally he released the stunned man he looked stubbornly at the Emperor. "I want to go with him," he repeated, and to his relief he saw that this time the Emperor was smiling.

The Emperor nodded, and spoke a few words to Apollo and the others around them. Many of the others were smiling as well, and when they stood aside to escort Apollo to the medical facilities, they left room for Starbuck to walk beside him.

Still looking somewhat stunned by the kiss, Apollo held tightly to Starbuck's hand as they walked. "How did you know?" he asked softly.

"I actually watched some of that dance last night," Starbuck confessed, and then seeing Apollo's frown rolled his eyes. "The story, not the naughty bits." Though he saw some fair bit of that as well. "They would never refuse a lover's request. It would go against their religion."

Apollo fell silent at that but seem to accept the explanation.

The medical facility wasn't too unlike the one they had on board the ship -- similar technologies of comparable sophistication. At the doctor's request, Apollo took off his jacket and sat down on one of the beds, then rolled up the sleeve of his uniform. Under the watchful eye of Starbuck, the Emperor and several of his nobles, the doctor withdrew a measured amount of blood from Apollo's arms. To Starbuck it looked like too much. "Apollo, you can't sustain that much blood loss for two sectons," Starbuck protested.

"Yes, I can, Starbuck," Apollo assured him. "I had Doctor Salik send them the measurements. I'll be tired, possibly weak by the end of the time, but it won't kill me."

"I want to see those measurements myself," Starbuck informed him.

Apollo looked up in surprise at that. "You don't believe me?"

"I just want to double check," Starbuck insisted. "Commander's orders."

"He told you to double check the measurements?" Apollo asked.

"He told me to look out for you," Starbuck corrected.

"He always tells you that," Apollo shrugged dismissively.

"I take my duty very seriously," Starbuck replied, his tone flat though he knew Apollo had expected him to make a joke.

Apollo finally just nodded in acknowledgement and Starbuck knew he would get no further argument from the man. The doctor indicated that he was finished and spoke briefly to the Emperor while Apollo adjusted his sleeve and put his jacket back on. Finally the Emperor turned to Starbuck and said something to him with a kind smile.

Apollo translated for him. "He wanted to know if you were satisfied that your. . . that I'm safe." Starbuck didn't miss the correction Apollo made in his translation.

"What word did he use?" he demanded, wanting the exact translation. He had not used Apollo's name.

This time Starbuck suspected it was due to blood loss that the color that infused Apollo's face was only vaguely pink. "Beloved," he said some what sheepishly.

Starbuck smiled and nodded to the Emperor. "Yes, thank you," he said in Corvalan, determined that day to learn a few more words of their tongue. Beloved, for example. He rather liked the idea of referring to Apollo like that.

With the blood-draw taken care of, Starbuck allowed Apollo to be led away, and he rejoined Breeanth that day for a trip to one of their royal zoos. As he promised, he checked the measurements carefully with Doctor Salik that evening, and was only partially satisfied with the results. Doctor Salik had told Apollo and the Corvalans the maximum amount of blood they could draw before injuring Apollo -- but he'd suggested a smaller dose for safety. The Corvalans were taking the maximum, something Apollo had already agreed to in contract. Apollo had no intention of breaking the contract, and against all reason Starbuck suspected that now the man felt responsible for the Corvalan lives he was saving as well as the fleet.

It would be several days before the blood loss affected the Captain, but after five days of it Apollo's paleness was apparent even to the Emperor, and he often expressed his concern and his gratitude at dinner. Apollo tired more easily, and more often than Starbuck cared to point out he forgot which language he was speaking and said many things that Starbuck never would get a translation for. But as his exhaustion increased, the demands on his time became less, and more often than not after his trip to the doctor he would return to his room to rest for the day rather than spending more time with the Emperor.

Starbuck, on the other hand, became more in demand as the nobles lost access to Apollo. Though he didn't speak their language, he did manage to pick up a word or two here and there, and many of the Corvalans seem to find it amusing to pantomime conversations at him throughout the day. They went at it with great delight, and in the first secton he was there, Starbuck suspected he managed to do more sight seeing than most Corvalans did in a lifetime.

Under the circumstances, sooner or later, it was almost inevitable that something went wrong.

Starbuck had agreed to spend the day with Breeanth and four other women from the court while Apollo rested in their rooms. This time, however, rather than take him into the city, they took him up on a long cable car that led to a restaurant high atop a mountain peak that sported an extraordinary view. There were hover cars and airlifts that took visitors to and from the restaurant as well, but the women thought the more old fashioned cable car would be more exciting. Starbuck, though not afraid of heights -- a requirement for a Viper pilot -- was none too thrilled about being suspended in a small metal box thousands of feet above the ground, with only couple of thin cables hold them up. But he kept his concerns to himself and indulged the ladies.

The meal was excellent, the view spectacular, and the trip back down the mountain a total disaster. Half way down the mountain a strong wind struck the car and set the box to swinging. The women all laughed nervously, and despite the language barrier, Starbuck tried to say a few words to calm them down. Would have worked, he supposed if at that very moment a rather large avian hadn't been blown off course by the very same breeze and slammed violently into one of the glass windows. The force of the blow shattered the window, and amid the sound of breaking glass and the screams of frightened women, Starbuck heard another sound. One of the cables holding up the box snapped under the strain and the car tilted over onto its side. The momentum threw them all against the glass windows -- all save Breeanth who was standing closest to the broken window. She struck the broken window and fell out, dropping out of sight with a scream of terror.

Horrified, Starbuck scrambled toward the open window when he realized that he could still hear Breeanth's screams. One look out revealed that miraculously the girl had somehow gotten tangled up in the snapped cable. The cord wrapped around one of her bleeding legs as she hung precariously over a thousand-foot drop below. She was sobbing and screaming and though Starbuck couldn't understand her words, knew she was begging for help.

Unfortunately the other women were screaming as well, and Starbuck feared they'd unbalance the car if they moved around too much. Lacking a common language he had to use hand motions to get them to calm down, urging them as quickly as he possibly could to move into positions he felt would best keep the car steady and minimize the chance of any of them falling out as well. Then taking a deep breath, he reached out through the broken window, caught hold of the damaged cable, and swung out of the car as carefully as he could. He was certain they would send hovercrafts for them when they realized what had happened. But he doubted very much Breeanth had that much time left. He knew it was only a matter of moments before her leg slipped free of the cable and she plunged to her death. He had no choice but to get her himself.

Carefully, hand over hand, he lowered himself down the cable toward the screaming girl. The wind up here was bitter cold and he felt his hands growing numb as he climbed. But he couldn't afford to slip. Falling would mean Breeanth's death as well as his own. It took him far too long, he thought, to make his way down the cable, but eventually he found himself at a level where he could reach Breeanth if she would just be willing to reach upward toward him.

"Breeanth!" he shouted, cursing now that he couldn't speak her language. "Grab my hand!" He waved his hand toward her, praying she understood.

Understanding or not, the girl saw him as a savior and instinctively reached out toward him in panic. On the second pass through, Starbuck caught her hand in a fierce grip, nearly slipping himself when the extra weight of the girl pulled at his one-handed grip on the cable. He could feel the cold metal biting into his skin and he wished now he'd thought to wear gloves. He pulled Breeanth up toward him, and to his relief, her leg slipped free fairly easily as the angle of her body changed. She was smart enough to know that he couldn't hold her long one-handed, and she quickly wrapped both arms and legs around his body, burying her face against his neck as she sobbed in terror.

Freed of the burden of having to hold Breeanth himself, Starbuck was able to grasp the cable more firmly. He wasn't certain, however, that he possessed the strength to climb back up to the relative safety of the car. But he also knew that he wouldn't be able to hold on indefinitely, and he had yet to see any signs of hover cars coming to their rescue.

Hand over hand he began pulling himself back up, the extra weight of the girl and the icy wind making the progress slow and painful. The other women in the car had calmed now, and were watching in wide-eyed but silent terror as he climbed. They waited until he was nearly at the broken window before two of them risked moving, and they reached out to him to help pull them both inside.

Starbuck collapsed inside the car and was only vaguely aware of a sobbing Breeanth untangling herself from around him. His hands were slick with blood, and he wondered that he hadn't slipped as he climbed. Someone touched his hair, someone patted his back, and he thought he felt someone else softly kiss his cheek. They had only to wait another five centons before the sounds of hover cars filled the air. Even then Starbuck knew the danger had not completely passed. The car was rocking dangerously in the wind and the hover cars could only come so close. The women would have to be dropped down onto them through the broken window.

He waited until he could see the first car positioned, then he motioned to one of the women to take his hands. At a signal from a man inside the craft, he took a strong grip on the woman's wrists and lowered her down through open window. She sobbed as she dropped, but went without struggling. When she was safely caught in the arms of the man below, Starbuck motioned to the next woman.

One by one he lowered them down through the window, having to wait briefly for another hover car to position itself below them for Breeanth and then finally himself. When it came his turn, lacking someone to lower him, he had no choice but to grab the swinging cable again and use that to lower himself down. By then his hands were nearly numb, and he thought for certain he would slip. Eventually, positioned as accurately as he could manage, he forced himself to release the cable and drop, praying that he'd land in the craft below.

He felt several hands reaching out to steady him as his feet hit solid metal, and he sank with relief onto the floor of the hover car as the driver closed the top hatch and then sped away, returning to the palace with those rescued. Breeanth, terrified, threw her arms around Starbuck's neck and sobbed out words he couldn't understand. Despite the blood on his hands, Starbuck just patted her back and told her she was welcome.

There was a crowd of people waiting for them back at the palace when they landed. Dolmash was there immediately to lift Breeanth out of the car and hold her sobbing form in his arms as he tried desperately to comfort her.

Starbuck, as he emerged from the car, looked up in time to see a very pale, grim-looking Apollo striding toward him through the crowd. Before Starbuck could say anything to assure him he was all right, Apollo caught him in a fierce hug, and in a display that nearly melted Starbuck's bones, kissed him thoroughly in front of several dozen strangers who cheered at the sight. Starbuck, caught up in shock and delighted bemusement, couldn't help but think that somehow this felt different -- more real, as if for one moment Apollo had forgotten himself, dropped his reserve, and had meant this as more than just an act to keep up appearances. Certainly the tremors he felt shivering through the man's body were not faked. Even when the kiss had ended, Apollo did not release him immediately, holding him tightly in an unbreakable hug. Despite the noise around him, Starbuck heard the words he spoke into his ear. "I thought I lost you."

"Not in this lifetime," Starbuck promised, though they both knew it was an empty promise. Neither of them could promise such things, being the men they were and lives they led. The realization did nothing, however, to help calm Apollo, and Starbuck felt him begin to shake more violently, his own weakened state contributing to the rise in emotion.

Apollo relied on Starbuck to ease the tension -- always had. And Starbuck couldn't let him down now, even though he imagined he would be quite content to remain in the man's arms for the rest of eternity. "You do realize that it's against regulations to hug a junior officer, don't you?"

It had been said before, or something similar to that at another time long ago. But still it was enough to make Apollo choke out a laugh and catch his breath before releasing Starbuck from his hold. Then Dolmash was there and many others, thanking Starbuck profusely for his heroics. Apollo translated the words as best he could before finally taking Starbuck's arm and leading him back inside the palace where several medical doctors were waiting to see to his hands.

He sat patiently inside the same medical facility Apollo went to every morning to have himself bled, and he winced under the treatment of the doctors as they repaired the damaged skin on his palms. "A camera caught the accident," Apollo explained to Starbuck as he stood beside him. "It was broadcasted live on their news channel. Marshent came and got me himself. We saw you climbing down that cable to rescue Breeanth. I think the Emperor is planning on giving you a medal."

"I'd rather they give you a day or two off from bleeding you instead," Starbuck replied.

Apollo sat beside him and clasped his shoulder, but said nothing more. And Starbuck knew he'd never make the suggestion. But when his hands were once again relatively whole, he was more than content to test out his newfound skin by taking hold of Apollo's hand as they walked back to their quarters. Once there, Starbuck dropped down onto the bed in exhaustion, pulling Apollo down beside him. Both of them in need of sleep, he made no pretense of waiting for Apollo to fall asleep before slipping his arms around him. Apollo said nothing either, simply relaxed his body against Starbuck's, and slept.

The Emperor did indeed give him a medal -- a wildly ornate thing encrusted with many tiny colored gems. He was asked to kneel before Emperor Va'shtle before the start of dinner, and the court cheered happily as the medal was hung around his neck. They continued cheering as he somewhat shyly returned to Apollo's side, embarrassed as he had always been by the attention. But that embarrassment quickly turned to other things as he sat down beside Apollo only to be taken into the man's arms and kissed once again, for once finding himself on the receiving end of a kiss that was far more aggressive than Apollo usually initiated.

But the applause that erupted at the end of the kiss suggested it was all part and parcel of the Corvalan customs Apollo was still sticking so strictly to -- for it also seemed to signal Dolmash and four other men to come forward and lay bouquets of colorful flowers on the table before both Starbuck and Apollo. The spoke briefly, and Starbuck turned to Apollo for the translation.

"They are the Lifemates of the other women you saved today," he explained, indicating the men he had not yet met. "They simply want to express their thanks to you -- and wish you joy and long life with. . .well, they're wishing you joy and long life." Again Starbuck caught the adjustment Apollo made in the translation. This time however he was able to translate it himself, recognizing some of the words they had used.

"Wish me joy and long life with my Tir'za," he corrected Apollo, remembering that last time Apollo had translated that word as 'beloved'.

A secton ago Apollo would have blushed at the implications, today however he paled instead. He lowered his gaze, a sure sign that he was withdrawing from the emotion of the moment, and yet at the same time he made no move to remove the arm he had draped around Starbuck's shoulder. "Well, they mean me, I suppose," he remarked quietly. "But I'm sure you can pass on the sentiment to Cassiopeia."

His words left Starbuck baffled. A secton ago he would have interpreted them as a joke, or as a pointed reminder that all of this was an illusion being forced on the two of them that they would both quite happily forget about when they returned to the ship. But now he desperately wanted to interpret those words as some sign of jealousy, some sign that Apollo wanted him to deny that he had reason to pass those words on to Cassie. But if they were jealousy, why hadn't they been said with any heat? Why hadn't he heard even the smallest trace of anger in Apollo's voice, or just the faintest taint of bitterness? But they also had not been said with the humor of a joke, or the sternness of a reminder.

So if he couldn't assign any of those interpretations to them, what was left? Simple disinterest, he wondered. Could Apollo honestly not care at all? But if he didn't care, what in Hades was that display in the courtyard that afternoon? The kiss may have been culturally necessary, but he honestly didn't think that the emotion behind it had been faked. Apollo had genuinely been afraid for Starbuck's life. And no amount of reasoning or interpretation was going to take that moment away from him.

But now, despite the arm Apollo still had around him, Starbuck felt a distance between the two of them that he had not felt all secton. And now more than ever, he didn't like it. Trouble was, he wasn't certain what to do to breech it -- he didn't know its cause, and so didn't know the words that might end it.

To his surprise he suddenly felt Apollo's fingers gently stroking his hair, lightly tangling in the gold locks before brushing almost imperceptibly against the nape of his neck. The touch sent chills down Starbuck's spine and it was all he could do not to purr with pleasure. He turned to look at Apollo, wondering what had prompted the gesture when he was so obviously trying to maintain an emotional distance. Dinner had barely started, and while more intimate gestures would be required soon enough, they were not necessary now.

Apollo however was staring lost in thought at the flowers upon the table, seeming unaware of his actions. Starbuck frowned, studying his face, trying to figure out what was going through the man's mind. His scrutiny caught Apollo's attention, and he turned toward him in question. Realization flooded his eyes immediately when he saw where his hand was and his fingers stilled. "I'm sorry," he apologized, letting his arm drop away from Starbuck's shoulder. "That was probably driving you nuts. I know how much you hate it."

Starbuck felt the absence of that arm around his shoulder with a painful intensity. "What would make you think that?" he questioned, baffled.

Apollo frowned. "You told me you did."

Starbuck recalled only a few scant times that Apollo had ever actually touched his hair like that -- all happening in this last secton. And at no point during that time could he ever recall saying anything about hating it -- how could he possible hate something that made his nerves sing. "I never said any such thing!"

"Yes, you did," Apollo insisted, looking vaguely surprised at Starbuck's protest.


Apollo shrugged. "Maybe a yahren ago," he told him. "In the Officer's Club, you were complaining one night about Cassie doing that to you at dinner the night before -- that it had been irritating the felgercarb out of you -- I believe those were your words."

He remembered the conversation, though only vaguely, and he remembered the incident in question as well. Cassiopeia had an annoying habit of playing with his hair whenever they sat down to dinner. She'd done it right from the start of their relationship. And Apollo was right -- he did hate it, or at least he always had when someone else had done it, someone other than Apollo. He found himself searching desperately for a convenient lie. "She was pulling my hair," he told him. "Yanking on it. I didn't like that."

Apollo's eyes narrowed thoughtfully as if he wasn't certain what point Starbuck was trying to make.

"I don't dislike it," Starbuck insisted. "I mean. . ." Starbuck stopped in frustration realizing that he couldn't say what he wanted to say. He could just see Apollo's reaction if he told the man that he wanted him to continue stroking his hair, that he really liked it, and would he please never stop. Apollo would probably think he'd received a head injury out on that cable car. He just sighed and shook his head. Apollo, sadly, did not put his arm back over Starbuck's shoulder.

The food tasted unusually good that night, though Starbuck had to admit that life and death struggles generally made him extraordinarily hungry. And despite their misunderstanding over the hair, Apollo was very attentive that night. While not as aggressive as he was under the influence of Mookta, he nonetheless initiated more of the kisses than he usually did, going so far as to even deepen one himself. The realization that for once it was Apollo trying to gently coax his mouth open made Starbuck moan in pleasure as he welcomed the man into him. Apollo took his time with the kiss, and Starbuck had the passing thought that maybe he had died that day and this was heaven.

But the kiss, he reasoned, wouldn't end if this was heaven, and all too soon it did. Apollo's face was once again inscrutable, his expression unreadable as he paused to study Starbuck. Starbuck felt his own color rising beneath that unusual scrutiny as he imaged his own expression was probably far from unreadable -- he knew he had that lean hungry look in his eyes.

"You all right?" Apollo asked, startling Starbuck enough that he drew back to clear his muddled brain. Apollo looked genuinely concerned.


"Are you. . ." Apollo bit back his words and looked away, lips thinning with some emotion that Starbuck hoped was not anger. "Are you. . ." he tried again and then just sighed. "Don't do that to me again."

Starbuck paled. What in Hades had he done now? Don't kiss him? Don't respond to his kisses? Had Apollo figured out that Starbuck wasn't 'acting' any more -- and what in Sagan's name was he going to do if Apollo was genuinely pissed off about this? "Apollo, I. . ."

"Half a centon after you landed safely in the hovercraft, the other cable on the car broke. The whole thing fell." His words hit Starbuck like a bucket of ice water, but at least now he understood what was wrong with his friend.

"Frack," he whispered, realizing how close he'd actually come to dying that day.

Apollo just nodded in agreement, gaze once again on the flowers lying on the table. Many of the colorful blooms in the bouquets were a type of Corvalan lily, a symbol of life and hope in their culture. In Caprican traditions, lilies were only sent to funerals.

Apollo made no attempt to stiffen or move away when Starbuck slid his arms around him. Far from it, he leaned back into the embrace and stayed there the rest of the evening.

The remaining days with the Corvalans passed slowly for Starbuck. He went every morning with Apollo to the medical facility and watched with growing anxiety as more blood was taken from his friend. Apollo was growing paler and weaker with each passing day, and he spent more time sleeping now than he did awake. Starbuck insisted on remaining at his side for the duration, something that the Corvalans seemed to understand completely.

Often he was able to coax him into sitting with him in one of the gardens to enjoy the sunshine. He even managed on those occasions to get Apollo to recline against him, held in his loose embrace while he read old Caprican stories to the exhausted man from one of the data units they'd brought with them. From their days in the Academy, Starbuck remembered the stories Apollo had liked the best, and the Captain would listen attentively. But he was usually fast asleep before the stories ended. Starbuck was content to let him rest then, falling silent eventually, and just enjoying the fresh air and the warmth of Apollo in his arms. Once, he even stole a kiss from the sleeping man, but found himself feeling more guilty for that than he had all his other transgressions, innocent though it had been.

Apollo made every attempt to fulfill his other duties, calling the Galactica every evening for progress reports on the supply transference. But far from being relieved to see him on the com-unit night after night, Adama looked more alarmed each night by his son's appearance. And more and more Apollo was struggling for the correct words -- struggling to manage the foreign language that had been embedded in his mind. From the looks of the tension around his eyes, Starbuck had surmised that the headache had become his constant companion, and the painkillers Starbuck had given him were no longer helping at all.

He watched in silence one night as Apollo tried to speak with his father about the latest progress report on the mining operation that was supplying them with their much needed fuel. The fourth time Apollo had lapsed into Corvalan, only to stop and stutter, looking ashamed that he could no longer find the correct Kobolian words, Starbuck decided to put an end to the transmission.

He caught hold of Apollo's shoulders, noting in concern that the man was shaking. "If you'll forgive me, sir," he said to the com-unit, addressing the Commander. A gentle tug pulled Apollo to his feet, and he walked the man across the room toward the bed. He didn't even have to coax the man down onto the mattress. Apollo went willingly, and closed his eyes as his head hit the pillow. "I'll be right back," Starbuck told him softly, then returned to the still active com-unit.

Adama was waiting for him, looking anxious and old, as if these last few days had aged him. "Starbuck?" he asked worriedly as Starbuck sat down in front of the device.

"Sorry about that, sir," he apologized. "I put him to bed."

"Are they taking too much?" Adama demanded immediately.

"Too much is a relative term," Starbuck said pointedly; in his opinion they had gone far beyond that point. "But Doctor Salik says no, that Apollo can handle it. I think a lot of it is the headaches."

"Headaches?" Adama frowned.

Starbuck sighed -- of course Apollo had not said anything. Shouldn't surprise him. "He didn't tell you," he stated flatly. "Of course he didn't. He's had headaches from day one. I think it's the language. I think that's why he keeps getting confused."

Adama nodded in understanding. "There's been some speculation about that," he admitted. "Doctor Salik suspects that the Corvalan language is stored in a part of Apollo's brain that isn't typically used for language. Maybe the stress of accessing it continuously is what is causing the pain. Has he taken anything for it?"

"Standard painkillers," Starbuck replied. "But they don't seem to be helping much any more."

"Four more days," Adama told him. "Then we'll have all the supplies and you can bring him home."

"The Corvalans haven't tried to delay any of the shipments?" Starbuck asked. Everything he knew about the Corvalans told him that they were an honest people, but he wasn't gong to take any chances with Apollo's life.

"No," Adama assured him. "They've been nothing but efficient. Though we actually haven't had any real contact with them -- they ship the supplies onto the space platform, and then let us transfer them to the fleet. Just as well, since we can't communicate with them as it is."

Starbuck just nodded. He'd guessed the arrangement had been something like that. "Four more days, sir," he said then. "Have a medical team standing by when we return." With Adama's agreement, he signed off.

Returning to the bed, Starbuck was surprised to notice that Apollo was not asleep. Rather he was curled onto his side and was holding his head, rubbing ineffectually at his temples. Starbuck sat down beside him and quickly began stripping his uniform off him. Apollo made no protest; it wasn't the first time Starbuck had done this for him. But once he had Apollo undressed and under the blankets, he moved up toward the head of the bed and ran the fingers of both his hands through Apollo's hair. Apollo's eyes opened in surprise at that. "Star?" he asked in confusion.

"Relax," Starbuck said quietly as he began gently to massage his head. "Let me do this for you. It will help."

Apollo opened his mouth to protest. But instead a soft sigh came out as Starbuck's fingers danced over his scalp. He gave up and closed his eyes, moaning softly as some of the lines of tension began at last to ease.

He kept up the gentle massage for nearly half a centare, until Apollo's face looked relaxed and pain free. When he finished, Apollo opened tired eyes and smiled at him in gratitude. "Thank you," he murmured, and Starbuck noticed a slight shiver working its way through the man's body.

"You cold?" he asked.

Apollo nodded. "Doc said it was to be expected. Less blood to keep me warm."

Quickly, Starbuck stood up and stripped off his own uniform, then climbed into the bed beside Apollo. "Come here," he urged, slipping his arms around the man and spooning up against him. He was relieved when Apollo made no move to stop him, moving willingly into his embrace. Starbuck pulled the blankets firmly up around both of them, trapping their body heat inside.

"You know this is against regulations." Apollo's words were so unexpected, and so welcomed that Starbuck started laughing. He hadn't heard the man make a joke in days, and he himself had been decidedly lacking in humor. He tightened his arms around his friend.

"No, it's not," he insisted. "The Academy survival manual specifically spells out this exact thing for surviving in freezing climates."

"It's summer," Apollo reminded him. "Hardly a freezing climate."

"I don't know," Starbuck replied. "Those look like snowflakes to me." He motioned toward the open balcony doors where even in the moonlight they could see tiny pale white shapes drifting on the breeze.

"Apple blossoms," Apollo corrected, sounding nearly half asleep now. "I miss Caprica," he added almost as an afterthought.

Starbuck knew exactly what he was remembering -- long twilights on their family estate when the fruit trees were first losing their spring blossoms. "So do I," he admitted softly, burying his face in Apollo's hair. "So do I."

They survived the next few days of feasts and celebrations, Apollo struggling through them with a determination that Starbuck admired more than he could ever admit. He wanted nothing more than to take Apollo home to the Galactica, get him off this planet that he feared was slowly killing him -- but he felt a sense of sadness as well at the realization that once they left here, the intimacy between them would be gone as well. But he wouldn't risk delaying their departure a moment longer simply to spend one more night making out with him over dinner. The morning the last blood sample was taken from Apollo, Starbuck insisted that they return at once to their shuttle.

The Emperor and Marshent, both of whom had grown genuinely fond of the two of them over the last days, expressed sorrow at seeing them go so quickly. But even they could see that Apollo was not doing well. They, along with Dolmash and Breeanth, and a dozens others from the court showered them with gifts in parting, but escorted them without protest back to the shuttle.

Starbuck, arm around Apollo to steady him, thanked them all as they walked, knowing enough Corvalan now to at least express a few words of gratitude for their hospitality. The last thing Emperor Va'shtle gave Starbuck before he boarded the shuttle was a data pad containing nothing more than a list of names -- forty million names to be exact -- the names of all the lives Apollo had saved by donating so much blood. Starbuck nodded his understanding and gripped the Emperor's hand in parting. Then he boarded the shuttle and took his friend away from that world.

Apollo slept in the copilot's seat the entire trip back to the Galactica, and from time to time Starbuck found himself studying his friend's features. He'd lost weight, and though he'd actually managed to tan somewhat beneath the Corvalan sun, his face looked pale and waxy, his lips nearly colorless. "Tir'za," Starbuck whispered softly as he reached out to gently stroke Apollo's cheek. His skin felt cold to the touch, and the Captain did not wake.

Omega's voice over the shuttle's com-unit was a welcome sound, directing Starbuck to dock the ship in a landing bay nearest the Life Center. He practically had to carry his exhausted friend from the ship, waiting impatiently for the decontamination scans to finish flashing over them before stepping out into the main bay itself where he saw the medical team he'd requested already waiting. Apollo, trying to walk under his own steam, lost the last of his strength as the change in cabin pressure and temperature hit both of them, the artificial gravity of the ship and the processed air almost a shock to their system after so long on the planet. Starbuck had to lift him onto the medical gurney and he followed alongside as they took him back to the Life Center.

Adama, Athena and Boxey were all waiting for them when they entered the facility, and Apollo smiled wanly up at the three of them as Doctor Salik with Cassiopeia's aid began checking his vitals. "Dad?" Boxey asked worriedly, his father's appearance obviously coming as a shock to him.

"I'm all right, Boxey," he assured him, his voice sounding weak but steady. "Just tired."

"I'm going to give you a transfusion, Apollo," the doctor told him.

"You need blood?" Starbuck asked immediately, willing to donate anything Apollo might need.

But the doctor just shook his head and smiled. "Word got around the fleet what Apollo had done. I think everyone in the fleet offered to donate blood. We have plenty of his type on hand." It took him only a few minutes to set up the equipment, feeding a line into a vein in Apollo's arm. Then he allowed Adama, Athena and Boxey to speak with the patient, while Cassiopeia drew Starbuck aside to run her own medical check on him.

Starbuck sat impatiently on one of the medical beds while Cassiopeia scanned him with her instruments. "You doing all right, Starbuck?" she asked gently.

He took a moment to glance at her, taking in the lovely face and the golden hair he'd always been so fond of. He supposed he ought to kiss her, or at the very least arrange to meet her later on in the hopes of working off the two sectons of frustration he had burning in his veins. "Fine," he said simply. "Just worried about Apollo."

Cassiopeia glanced over her shoulder at the family reunion. "Give him an centare and he'll be back to his old self. The medical scans were about what we expected. They didn't take enough blood to permanently harm him."

Starbuck nodded. "And the headaches?"

"Doctor Salik thinks that they'll go away now that he no longer needs to speak Corvalan," she replied. "He'll make a full recovery."

The relief that washed through Starbuck at that was heartening, and he smiled warmly at Cassiopeia. "Thank you."

Cassiopeia returned his smile and raised her hand to brush his hair back from his forehead. "Good to have you home, Starbuck," she told him, and if she noticed that he'd stiffened from the contact she gave no indication. He didn't like it, he realized, didn't want her touching his hair. He sighed heavily. So much for working off his frustration.

Despite the fact that the doctor gave him a clean bill of health, Starbuck lingered in the Life Center to stay with Apollo. Cassiopeia had been right -- the transfusion did wonders for Apollo, and he began looking more like his old self in no time, some color returning to his face. Under doctor's orders he was to spend the next twenty centares resting quietly in his quarters, but after that he saw no reason why he couldn't return to duty. At Adama's insistence, both he and Starbuck were given the next few days off to reacclimatize to the ship.

Athena, excusing herself to return to duty, kissed Starbuck lightly on the cheek as she went by, thanking him for bringing her brother home. Adama informed them both of a dinner party he'd planned to celebrate their return and the success of the mission before he too excused himself to head to the bridge. Starbuck offered to walk Apollo and Boxey back to their quarters. Apollo grinned as Boxey skipped toward the doorway and called to Muffit who'd been stuck outside the Center on doctor's orders. He stood up and instinctively Starbuck reached for his hand to walk with him. Apollo reached back, but as their fingers came into contact they both froze in shock, staring down at their hands as if baffled by what they had both done.

"Something wrong, gentlemen?" the doctor asked, noticing their sudden silence.

Both of them released each other's hands immediately, blinking at one another in almost stupefied silence.

"Apollo?" the doctor asked again, concerned now.

"No," Apollo stammered. "Nothing's wrong. Thank you for your help, doctor." He moved past Starbuck and headed after his son, his gait somewhat more stiff than usual. Squeezing his hands into tight fists, Starbuck followed him, cursing silently to himself, and hating the sense of loss that was flooding through him.

He walked alongside Apollo through the dimly lit corridors of the ship, listening to Boxey chatter about all the things he'd been doing these last few days. All the while Starbuck tried his hardest not to notice just how wrong it felt not to be holding Apollo's hand as he walked. He'd have to get used to it, he told himself. And he'd have to get used to the fact that when they reached Apollo's quarters and Starbuck stopped to wish the two of them a good evening before returning to his bunk to get some sleep, that he couldn't now take Apollo in his arms and kiss him goodbye. It felt wrong, it felt strange, like something left unfinished.

He stood there a moment, at a loss for words, certainly unable to express what he was feeling. He saw the inscrutable look Apollo threw him, wondered if he were thinking along the same lines and whether or not he was relieved or bothered by the return to normalcy. Then Apollo smiled gently at him, and bid him good night before entering his quarters and closing the door behind him. Alone, Starbuck walked back to the bachelors' quarters, realizing that tonight he'd have to sleep without holding Apollo in his arms.

Two nights later, Adama had the promised dinner party where he formally commended Apollo and Starbuck for their successful mission. Once again in dress uniform, Starbuck found himself seated in the Commander's dining room across the table from Apollo and Boxey. Along with Cassiopeia, Athena and Sheba, the Commander had also invited Tigh, Boomer, Omega and Bojay. The Commander said an opening prayer of blessing; they all raised their glasses of ambrosa in toast, and drank to good fortune and clear skies ahead, before digging into the feast prepared for them. But despite the familiar surroundings, and the comfort of friends and family, Starbuck found he had difficulty focusing on anything other than the deep jealousy that it was Sheba who sat beside Apollo this night.

As they ate, the others asked the two of them questions about Corvalan, full of curiosity about the people and the customs. Not really certain how much to share, Starbuck let Apollo lead the conversation, telling them all about the meetings he'd had with the Emperor.

"What about their customs?" Cassiopeia asked finally. "We're they much different from ours?"

"Yes," Athena asked eagerly. "We understood that was why they didn't want contact with anyone else -- their customs were too different from our own."

"Well," Apollo glanced briefly over at Starbuck, and Starbuck just smiled back, offering him a vague shrugged. He wasn't certain what precisely to tell them either. "They were quite different," Apollo admitted. "For one thing. . . ." he seemed to be searching for something to tell them.

"Their food was all color coded," Starbuck offered helpfully.

"Right!" Apollo nodded in agreement. "Color coded, and you had to eat it in a very specific order or risk offending their gods."

"Yellows first, purples last," Starbuck supplied.

At that Boxey made a face. "Eeww! Purple food?"

"Actually we both kind of liked the purple stuff. Especially that one fruit," Starbuck remarked.

"Yeah, that was pretty good -- the blue stuff too," Apollo nodded in agreement.

"Well, what else?" Athena prompted, seeming unsatisfied with that little bit of info. "Anything really out of the ordinary?"

"Umm," Apollo stammered. "Out of the ordinary?"

Starbuck's lips twitched in amusement. How was Apollo going to explain this? He smirked at his friend, daring him to do it. Apollo smirked right back, seeing the challenge in Starbuck's eyes, and the look caught the attention of everyone at the table.

"Well, what was it?" Cassiopeia demanded, grinning now.

"Must be something embarrassing," Athena guessed. "They're both blushing."

Starbuck could feel the heat in his face and realized that Athena was right. His smirk turned into a self-mocking smile as he shook his head at Apollo. Now they were both in for it.

"Art work," Apollo blurted out, and it was all Starbuck could do not to sigh in relief. That would do it -- explain their smirks, and their blushes.

"What?" Athena demanded.

"Art work," Starbuck explained. "Of a rather. . ." he glanced at Boxey, tailoring his remarks for young ears. "Of a rather explicit nature."

"Explicit?" Boomer asked, glancing at Boxey as well then back at Starbuck and Apollo to make certain he understood what precisely they meant.

"How explicit?" Bojay asked curiously.

Apollo raised his chin. "Very," he replied. "Very. . .graphic."

There were some chuckles at that. "And you two were looking at this . . .artwork, why?" Athena demanded.

"Didn't have much choice," Starbuck admitted. "It was everywhere. Paintings, statues. . ."

"Performance art," Apollo supplied dryly. That last comment actually caught both Tigh and Boomer off guard and they nearly spit their drinks across the table.


Starbuck wasn't quite certain who had shrieked -- possibly Sheba and Athena both.

Starbuck was laughing now, because there was certainly no way in Hades he was going to explain what else that 'performance art' had initiated. "The Corvalans did seem to enjoy their art," he offered.

"Young and old alike," Apollo added, and Starbuck could see the twitching muscle in his cheek as he fought off his grin.

"Very old," Starbuck corrected, and the choking laugh that escaped Apollo was too much for him and he busted up himself.

The rest of the adults in the room were staring at them in amused shock, all of them obviously desperately wanting to ask for details but refraining because of Boxey's presence. "Sorry I missed it," Boomer laughed, looking back and forth from Starbuck to Apollo almost enviously.

"I was under the impression that the Corvalans were a deeply religious people," Adama remarked, looking equally amused, but somewhat more perplexed than the rest of the group.

"They are," Apollo assured him. "Believe it or not, the artwork in question was all actually quite religious in nature."

At the looks of disbelief being thrown their way, Starbuck grinned. "Let's just say that the Corvalans worship their gods very. . .enthusiastically. One might almost say 'ecstatically'."

"Why do I get the impression that there's a great deal you left out of your official mission report?" Tigh asked wryly.

"Oh, I'm sure Captain Apollo didn't leave anything important out," Starbuck assured the colonel.

"Just all the interesting bits," Boomer added with a grumble. "Why don't I ever get any of the fun missions?"

"I'll tell you what Boomer," Apollo smiled. "Next time we meet up with a group of people like the Corvalans, I'll assign you and Jolly to the mission." And the look of delight on Boomer's face was too much for Starbuck, and he nearly knocked his chair over laughing at the thought. Tigh and Adama, both aware that Apollo and Starbuck had been forced to pretend to be sealed for the mission, laughed as well, leaving the rest of the group staring at them in confusion.

There were other questions, most everyone expressing interest in the planet itself and the cities. Apollo and Starbuck answered them as best they could, steering clear of the more intimate topics. Eventually the conversation turned to other things as the night wore on. Dessert was served, and afterwards Boxey asked to be excused so he could go play a computer game in the other room while the adults continued talking. Athena served the group another round of ambrosia, and they remained seated around the table discussing the plans for the future.

"Sir," Boomer said suddenly, turning toward Adama. "There's a rumor floating around about the most recent long range scans of our path up ahead. Is it true there's a giant nebula in our way?"

Adama glanced over at Tigh, both men looking startled. "Can't keep any secrets on this ship at all, can we?"

Boomer for once looked somewhat guilty. "It's all the civilians on board now," he confessed. "The rumor net is more active than it used to be -- besides most of the detailed scans came from the science ship Poseidon -- that's almost entirely run by civilians. It's a wonder the information hasn't been broadcast on IFB."

"Is it true?" Cassiopeia asked.

Adama sighed and nodded, exchanging looks with both Tigh and Omega. "Unfortunately, yes. And we won't be able to keep it a secret much longer I'm afraid. It will be visible on even our weakest scanners in about sectare. We'll reach it in two sectares at our present speed. It's enormous, one of the biggest we've ever seen."

"What's the big deal?" Bojay asked. "We've flown through nebulas before."

"Not like this one," Tigh replied. "It's super electrically charged and made up of enormous pockets of highly volatile gasses. We can't fly through this one. One electrical strike and even the Galactica wouldn't make it. We have no choice but to go around it."

"Why is that a problem?" Sheba asked. "We've gone temporarily off the course the Ship of Lights gave to us many times before. We detoured from our heading with the Corvalans. Why would this be any different? Go around the nebula and then resume our original heading for Earth."

"Which is what we will do," Adama agreed. "Unfortunately even at the Galactica's top speed, it will take us three yahrens to get around the nebula. With the speed we're forced to maintain, it will take at least eight yahrens. That sort of a delay will be demoralizing to the entire crew."

Eight yahrens! Never mind the fleet, Starbuck could see that the news was demoralizing to everyone in the room. He didn't envy Adama's task of having to make that announcement. But what choice did he have?

"There's a path through the nebula."

Starbuck's head snapped up in shock as he stared at Apollo, not believing he'd just heard those words from his mouth. Indeed, everyone in the room turned to stare at the dark-haired Captain. Starbuck recognized the look in those green eyes, a gaze turned inward toward something no one else could see. He felt his stomach knot in tension, his heart clenching painfully in his chest, and he wanted to leap out of his chair and grab the man, silencing him before he could say anything more.

"What was that, Apollo?" Adama demanded.

"There's a path," Apollo repeated. "Through the nebula. A neutral area, with inert gases and a low electrical field. It's a very narrow corridor, and winds through the nebula, but the fleet can make it through."

Tigh shook his head in bafflement. "I've seen all the preliminary scans. We haven't picked up anything like that."

Adama touched his shoulder briefly, silencing him. "Apollo, you know where this path is?" Adama asked, and Starbuck knew by the look of wonder on the man's face that he understood what was happening.

Apollo nodded, gaze still unfocused as he stared in silence at something beyond everyone else's sight. He raised his hand to his temple in a gesture that had become all too familiar to Starbuck down on Corvalan. "There will be thousands of course corrections, but I can plot it for you. It should only take us three or four sectares to get through."

"Wait a minute," Boomer protested. "How can you possibly know that?"

But Sheba too had caught on. "The Ship of Lights," she said in amazement, reaching out to place her hand on Apollo's arm in an almost possessive manner. "That's wonderful!"

"No, it's not!" Starbuck growled, because he could already see the signs of tension growing around Apollo's eyes, and knew immediately what was happening.

"Starbuck!" Cassiopeia protested. "How can you say that? If Apollo can lead us through. . ."

"It's causing him pain!" Starbuck insisted, turning his angry gaze toward the man's father. "I can see it. The headache is back."

"Starbuck," Apollo admonished softly. "It's all right. It's nothing."

"Nothing?" Starbuck glared across the table at his friend. "Two sectons on Corvalan had you in agony. But this. . .you're talking sectons plotting a course in stellar navigation, and then another three or four sectares making adjustments inside the nebula. It will be torture for you. It's not worth it!"

"It is worth it!" Apollo insisted, shocking Starbuck into silence by reaching across the table and grabbing his hand in a fierce grip. "A little bit of pain in exchange for our freedom. It's worth everything."

"Freedom?" Adama asked, looking less certain now that he understood the price being asked.

Apollo nodded, releasing Starbuck's hand after giving it a gentle but unexpected squeeze. "The fleet can go through the nebula," Apollo explained. "But the Cylons can't."

And with those words, Starbuck knew that Apollo's fate was sealed. Nothing in the world would make him or Adama turn back now.

"If they're still following us," Apollo continued, "they'll have no choice but to go around the nebula. By the time they get to the other side, we'll be three yahrens ahead of them. Our trail will be cold. They'll never find us. They won't even know where to begin looking. The war will be over."

His words had the effect Starbuck knew they would on everyone present -- they forgot about the sacrifice being asked of Apollo. All they saw was an end to the constant fear they lived with from day to day. The war with the Cylons was over. It took a moment for the truth to set in, and then Boomer was on his feet, raising his glass in salute. "To a life without Cylons!" he exclaimed. The others leaped to their feet, reaching for their own glasses to repeat the words.

Starbuck stood as well, but not in joy or excitement. He stood for Apollo, because he could see Apollo's eyes begging him to stand, to celebrate with the rest of them, and Starbuck was not capable of refusing the man anything. Even this terrible thing.

The dinner party broke up a short while later, the time growing late. As they began taking their leave of the Commander, Starbuck heard Adama asking Apollo to remain behind, and knew the man wished to speak with him more about the nebula ahead. He saw Sheba standing beside Apollo, touching his arm again and speaking softly to him, and Starbuck found the sight of her hand on his arm almost painful to bear. He didn't suppose she noticed Bojay watching from the door with a gleam of envy in his eyes that he would never speak of -- truth was he admired Apollo too much to become a rival for Sheba's affections.

Cassie was waiting nearby as well, her gaze on Starbuck as she waited for him to offer to walk her back to her quarters. He knew she would then offer to let him come inside those same quarters. But Starbuck found he couldn't play this game tonight, couldn't do this dance any more. He wasn't going to passively concede Apollo to Sheba, and he wasn't going to spend the night with Cassiopeia when his heart was elsewhere.

"Pol," he called to his friend, using the nickname publicly when in the past he'd always taken such care to use it only in private. "I'll take Boxey home for you."

Apollo looked up, and smiled gratefully at him. But there was a curious gleam in his eyes as if he too had caught the oddity of the name used. "Thank you, Star," he replied in like term, and Starbuck knew he was not mad.

Cassiopeia and Sheba were the only two people who reacted at all to their exchange, Cassie to sigh in irritation and turn to Boomer to request his escort before leaving the room without further comment. Sheba on the other hand followed Starbuck into the room where Boxey had been playing, the boy now sound asleep on a couch, his daggit sitting quietly beside him. "It's not necessary for you to take Boxey home, Starbuck," Sheba informed him. "I can do it."

Starbuck simply picked the boy up in his arms, holding him carefully so that he would not awaken. "I need to speak with Apollo, Sheba," he explained. "I'm going to wait in his quarters whether I'm the one to take Boxey home or not."

She frowned in irritation. "You really know how to ruin an evening, Starbuck," she complained. Her eyes flashed with something else as well. "And if you were really Apollo's friend you wouldn't try to discourage him from taking a more active roll in our journey. Do you realize what the knowledge those beings on the Ship of Lights gave him can do for his career? If he were a little bit more outgoing, the Council would shower him with medals. He has the potential to be the greatest leader our people have ever known, but he needs to take more credit for his accomplishments and he's not going to do that if you keep trying to talk him out of taking risks."

Starbuck glared at her, furious that she could speak such nonsense. As far as he was concerned, Apollo already was the greatest leader they'd ever known; and as far as taking risks, apparently she'd never read Apollo's service record. No one in the fleet, himself included, had ever taken more risks than Apollo. "If you think for one centon that Apollo cares one bit about his career or the Council and their medals, or what our people or history might think of him, then you don't know Apollo at all. He's turned down more medals than even your father ever received."

He saw her stiffen at that, but he didn't want to spend any more time sparring with her, especially not with Boxey in his arms. Pushing past her, he stormed from the room. She did not follow.

It didn't take him long to make his way through the quiet corridors of the Galactica to Apollo's quarters. He entered the access code and let himself in, waiting long enough for Muffit to clear the door before closing it again. Boxey stirred in his arms as Starbuck carried him into his room and laid him down on the bed. "Starbuck?" he murmured sleepily.

"Go to sleep, kiddo," Starbuck told him, carefully removing the boy's shoes and then maneuvering him under the blankets of his bed.

"Where's my dad?" the boy asked.

"Talking to your grandfather," Starbuck assured him. "He'll be back in a little while."

"Tell me a story?"

Starbuck smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed. "All right, but close your eyes." The boy nodded his agreement, and closed his eyes as Starbuck started in on one of the child's favorite stories. He only got partially through it before the quiet breathing of the boy assured him that he'd fallen back to sleep. He motioned to Muffit, who was lying beside the bed, to be quiet as he got up to leave the room. The robotic daggit's eyes powered down, but his ears remained perked and swiveling, constantly on guard despite the secured surroundings.

Starbuck paced restlessly in the main room for a while, then found himself studying the decor as he had never done before. Most of the things in the main room belonged to Boxey, some of the boy's clothes and toys scattered about, his school supplies on the table, his books on the lone shelf. There were a large number of green plants in the room that belonged to Apollo -- a fondness he'd possessed even during his Academy days when he'd often bring plants into the dorm to line the windows. There was less room here, and less sunlight as each plant required a small sun lamp to maintain its health. But Apollo obviously still enjoyed them. But beyond that there was little else of Apollo's present.

Curious he let himself into Apollo's bedroom, noting immediately how tidy it was. Those warriors that lived in the bachelors' quarters had no choice but to maintain military neatness with their bunks and their lockers. But Apollo had no such compulsion and yet had never strayed from that training. Thinking of his conversation with Sheba, Starbuck glanced around the room for the medals Apollo had accepted over the yahrens, only to discover they were not visible. He knew they had to be onboard the Galactica -- Apollo had most likely left the awards and medals he'd gotten in the Academy with his mother, and they were lost now on the ruins of Caprica. But everything he received during his service on the Galactica would be here in his room -- he knew for a fact that they were not on display in the Strike Captain's office. The only personal items anyone had ever seen on display in Apollo's office were the occasional pieces of artwork Boxey gifted him with.

But the medals were not displayed here either, and Starbuck guessed they were probably locked away in a drawer somewhere collecting dust. In actuality there was very little on display in the room. There were some framed holo-images on one wall, and a stringed instrument Starbuck had never seen before resting in one corner of the room. Starbuck remembered from time to time listening to Ila sing for the family, Zac occasionally joining in with a remarkably clear voice. But Starbuck knew now that those two weren't the only ones in the family who could sing -- he suspected now that perhaps Apollo's musical ability was a little more advanced that he'd let on. There was no dust on the instrument, indicating that it received attention fairly regularly.

There were a few more plants in the room, and a quilt on Apollo's bed that Starbuck knew Athena had made for him. A small shelf contained a few old books from Caprica, well loved if their condition was any indication, and an ancient spyglass that Adama had given Apollo when he'd been promoted to Captain.

Surprisingly there was also a pyramid deck on those shelves, and on closer inspection Starbuck realized that he recognized the design. It was a deck Starbuck had given Apollo over ten yahrens ago when he'd first conned him into playing a game for cubits -- Starbuck had cleaned him out of everything he had at the time, and given him the deck as a consolation prize. He couldn't imagine why Apollo would have kept it, especially not when it seemed he kept very few personal items as it was.

Curious, he moved toward the holo-images; there was an abundance of those he noticed, though it didn't surprise him. Apollo would prize his memories above all other things, and most people in the fleet found images from home the most precious of commodities. In fact, so many people had lost their own family images that those who had escaped the Destruction with their albums, had placed many of them in a fleet-wide databank that was shared with everyone.

Starbuck smiled as he looked at the images, please to see that he still had so many of both Zac and Ila. Most of the images were taken back home on Caprica, and Starbuck was surprised at how many of them he was in. Save for his gold hair, a stranger looking at them might not realize that Starbuck was not a member of this family.

The newest images were of Boxey, most capturing the boy at play with his daggit. But it was the center image that surprised Starbuck the most -- a framed set of two images side by side. They were nearly identical in composition, both of Apollo and Starbuck but taken yahrens apart. The first had been taken their first yahren in the Academy, the second only a few sectares before the Destruction. In both images Apollo was standing beside him with one arm around Starbuck's shoulder -- a remarkably unusual pose for the normally reserved man, and yet based on its placement on the wall Starbuck could only surmise that the images were some of Apollo's favorites.

He backed away, taking in the wall of images as a whole. Save for the silly daggit in the images with Boxey, Starbuck was the only person displayed who was not part of Apollo's immediate family. There wasn't even one image of Serina or Sheba, and Starbuck was afraid to imagine what that might mean. Afraid to read too much into it, and risk losing everything he'd already been given.

He left the room, still feeling restless and anxious, but too lost in his thoughts to pace much more. He dropped instead down onto the couch, and tilted his head back, eyes closing as he tried to turn his own gaze inward. He hadn't slept well since their return from Corvalan; his bed had felt too empty, though truthfully there was little room in the bunk for more than one man. But after only two sectons, he'd grown used to sleeping beside Apollo, curling up against his warmth, and the cold of space that permeated all ships had never before felt so harsh. Would he spend the rest of his life missing Apollo's presence beside him at night, he wondered. Or would he grow used to sleeping alone again, and forget how sweet it had been? Somehow, he doubted he'd forget. He'd never been good at forgetting the pleasant things in life.

It was nearly a centare before Apollo returned, and at the sound of the door, Starbuck sat up pensively. Apollo looked tired, and Starbuck could tell by the tension around his eyes that his headache was back with a vengeance -- Adama must have questioned him at length about the nebula.

"Thank you for taking care of Boxey, Starbuck," Apollo smiled as Starbuck stood up.

"My pleasure," Starbuck assured him, watching him closely as he moved across the room to peer briefly into Boxey's bedroom. He stared at his son for a long moment, then silently closed the door so that he would not wake him. "You all right?" Starbuck asked.

Apollo nodded. "I'm fine."

"And your headache?"

"Not too bad," he assured him. "I'll go to the Life Center tomorrow and get something stronger for it."

"I could go now and get you something, if you need it," Starbuck offered immediately.

Apollo shook his head. "I can't ask you to do that."

"You didn't ask," Starbuck took a step toward him, fighting the urge to touch him. "I offered."

Apollo looked up in surprise, green eyes wary as if trying to see the distinction between the two ideas. "It's all right. You don't need to . . ."

"Stop," Starbuck pleaded softly with him, his heart aching. "Why is it you're always thinking of what I need, or what your father needs, or what the fleet needs, and never what you need? Why can't you ask for things? Why can't you ask for help? Why must you bear everything alone?"

Apollo backed away from him in shock, looking almost hurt by his words, his face filled with such confusion. "I. . .I can't. . .I can't ask. . ."

"That's just it," Starbuck insisted. "You can ask. You can ask for anything. Do you honestly imagine that there is anything in this twice-cursed universe that I wouldn't give you if it were in my power? What is it you want that is so terrible? You have a family who loves you, who would do anything for you. A father who both loves and respects you and would tell you so if you simply told him you needed to hear it."

Starbuck knew by the way Apollo flinched as if in pain that he'd struck home with that one. "You could have any woman in the fleet you desired. Lords knows that Sheba is yours if you want her. You have the loyalty of your subordinates, warriors who'd willingly follow you anywhere you lead. Even men who would be your rivals admire you too much to speak out against you. And every man, woman and child in the fleet offered to donate blood when they thought you might need it."

Starbuck reached into an inner pocket in his flight jacket and removed the small data pad the Corvalan Emperor had given him. "I didn't have the chance to give this to you earlier," he said quietly. "Emperor Va'shtle gave it to me the day we left Corvalan. There are forty million names on that pad, forty million lives that you saved by donating your blood. The universe owes you, Apollo."

He held out the data pad and saw to his dismay that Apollo's hand was shaking as he took it. He looked lost and confused, and he shook his head in denial as he stared at the pad before dropping onto the table as if it had burned him. "No," he whispered, shaking his head as he turned away, turned his back on Starbuck. "I can't have what I want, so there's no point in asking."

And Starbuck could honestly think of only one thing that Apollo might want that he could not have, and his heart broke for his friend's pain. He caught hold of Apollo's shoulders, stepping far closer to him than he would have dared only sectons ago, preventing him from moving further away. "If you asked," Starbuck told him quietly. "I would gladly hunt down that Ship of Lights and offer them my life to have Serina returned to you."

"No!" the strangled cry that tore from Apollo was filled with pain and with bitterness. He turned toward Starbuck, stopping halfway as if to look at him would cause him pain. His face was white with shock, and his eyes were squeezed tightly shut. "You think I would wish you dead? You think I would ever wish you gone?" his voice was raw.

Starbuck tightened his grip on Apollo's shoulders. "I think," he bit out through teeth clenched with emotions, "that you will not tell me what you wish, what you desire, what you need. I think that you will lead us through this nebula, and you will lead us through the next obstacle, and the next one after that, and you will give your heart, and your soul, and your life to this fleet, and you will suffer in silence, and you will not even let me hold your hand."

Sometime during his impassioned speech, he'd raised his hand to touch his friend's face, and to his shock he saw that Apollo had turned in toward his caress as he had time and time again on Corvalan. But there were no Corvalans here, no one to perform for, and Starbuck's breath caught in his throat when he realized that there was only need, and longing, and hunger in his friend's pale, beautiful face. "Pol?" he asked in wonder, his heart racing in his chest.

"You," Apollo whispered, almost so softly Starbuck nearly missed it. "I have only ever wanted you. Since I first saw you in the Academy. Brightest light I've ever seen, but always just out of reach."

Apollo looked up then even as he stepped away from Starbuck's touch. His gaze was filled now with equal parts longing and despair. "So now you know," he said simply with a bitter finality. "And now you know why I never said anything. Because I had your friendship, and it would destroy me to lose that."

Starbuck felt the pain and confusion inside him giving way to wonder and joy as he realized that all along he and Apollo had been on the same path, just both too blind to see it. And it seemed impossible that this could be happening, that the universe had decided to give this gift to him instead of to someone more deserving, but he wasn't about to refuse it. He'd never been that selfless.

With one step he bridged the gap between them and took Apollo in his arms. Then his mouth was seeking out Apollo's and he was kissing him hungrily, desperately, feeling the shock that shuddered through his friend's body and then the desperate way his arms came up around him, pressing his body tightly into Starbuck's.

When they came up for air, Apollo caught hold of Starbuck's hair, holding his head between both his hands so that he could stare into his face. "Starbuck?" he asked, and Starbuck could see both need and hope burning in those green eyes. "You want this? You want me?"

Starbuck knew how important his answer was -- knew Apollo would never accept him if he thought for one moment Starbuck was doing this out of loyalty or simple friendship. He tightened his arms around Apollo, shifting his body against him so that there was no mistaking the affect Apollo was having on him. "In case you've failed to figure it out, you idiot," he grinned. "I love you. I always have. I wasn't acting down on Corvalan. Even I don't bluff that good. It was all I could do to keep my hands off you."

Apollo's eyes widened, his breath catching in his throat. "Oh, lords," he whispered, and then he was kissing him again with such heat and passion Starbuck thought his brain would go into meltdown, especially when he felt Apollo's hands pulling almost frantically at his uniform, trying to get it off him.

Starbuck laughed silently to himself, because of course he should have known that Apollo would approach lovemaking the same way he did everything else -- jumping in with both feet heedless of the consequences to himself. But Starbuck wasn't about to refuse the gift, sectons of frustration returning with a vengeance. And like everything else they did together Starbuck would follow where ever Apollo would lead, but as always he would ensure that his friend did not get hurt in the process.

He pushed and pulled Apollo into his bedroom, stripping them both out of their uniforms before falling in a tangle of arms and legs upon the bed. And Starbuck used his hands and his mouth and his body to drive Apollo wild, pushing him higher and higher until he was crying out for release, pushing him higher still until he spoke of love and desire and finally did not ask, but begged for what he needed. When Starbuck finally thrust deep into Apollo's body, he heard his friend whisper his name like a prayer of thanksgiving that rivaled any Thean'd.

A long time later, the two of them lay sated in each other's arms, bodies cooling as they rested, Starbuck's hands once again tangled in Apollo's hair. "I missed this," Apollo admitted, and Starbuck knew exactly what he meant.

"Me too," he whispered. "I loved holding you at night. On Corvalan, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven." Despite the fact that they were both lying naked in each other's arms, despite what they had just done to each other, Starbuck still felt Apollo's face heating with his words. He smiled in the darkness, wondering if his friend would ever overcome his reserve. Despite it, Apollo did not hold anything back from Starbuck, and so he was surprised when Apollo sat up suddenly.

"Pol?" he asked in concern.

"Starbuck, you know I don't like lying," Apollo said quietly in the darkness, not looking at him.

Worried, Starbuck sat up and slipped his arms around his friend's body, kissing his neck gently. He was relieved that Apollo made no attempt to move away. "I know," he agreed, wondering what was on his mind.

"But we lied to the Corvalans," Apollo continued. "We told them we were sealed."

"We didn't have any choice," Starbuck pointed out, ever practical.

"If we were to get sealed," Apollo said hesitantly. "Then it wouldn't really have been a lie, would it?"

Starbuck froze, not certain he'd heard clearly. Even when Apollo finally asked for something he did not do it clearly; nor apparently did he do anything by halves. Starbuck felt his heart begin to race. "Apollo? Are you asking me to seal with you?"

"Yes," Apollo nodded his head, and Starbuck was struck speechless by the simple wonder of the moment. When he did not speak at once, he heard Apollo sigh, his head bowed even as one hand closed over Starbuck's arm that was wrapped around his chest. "I'm sorry, Star," he said softly. "I shouldn't have said anything. I shouldn't have presumed . . ."

"Apollo," Starbuck stopped his words with a finger to his lips. "Look at me." He forced Apollo to turn around and was nearly struck speechless again by the look of need in the man's eyes. "Pol, you should know that whether we seal or not, I have always intended to spend my life beside you, as close as you would allow. If you want me, you have me. I can think of nothing I'd like better."

The delight that flashed through Apollo's eyes warmed him clear through. "I love you," Apollo whispered, and he kissed him, deeply and passionately, and Starbuck wondered how he had ever lived without this.

"Tir'za," Starbuck whispered softly against Apollo's lips.

He felt Apollo smile. "Beloved," Apollo translated. "One day I'll tell you what else the Corvalan's said about us. You thought their artwork was explicit. Their words were a thousand times more graphic."

Shocked, Starbuck could only moan as Apollo pushed him back down onto the bed and proceeded to show him what some of those more explicit words had inspired.

Later still, Apollo rested his head against Starbuck's shoulder, both of them utterly exhausted by now. "Starbuck," Apollo murmured. "Guess what?"

Amused and pleased by Apollo's talkative nature -- they were best friends first and foremost and Starbuck knew that would never change -- he merely tightened his arms around him and nuzzled the top of his head. "Hmm?" he asked.

"My headache's gone."

Apollo's sense of humor once again caught Starbuck off guard, and he started laughing. "I knew I'd eventually find a cure for you," he teased. "I guess this means I won't be hearing any of the 'not tonight, honey, I have a headache' excuses from you?"

"Guess not," Apollo agreed.

"Hey, Pol?" Starbuck asked.

Apollo looked up, eyes gleaming in the darkness. "Yes?"

"When we get sealed, does that mean you'll sing for me again?"

Starbuck loved the embarrassed mirth that flared in those green eyes. But truth was Apollo's laughter was music enough.