"Dad, what's wrong with Troy?"
Apollo paused to take a breath and marshal his thoughts, but his almost thirteen-yahren-old son barrelled ahead without waiting for him to speak.
"You said I could choose for myself," the boy reminded him emphatically. "You said."
"I like Troy," Jamie chimed in, unexpectedly coming to her brother's defense.
"Finish your math and mind your own business, Siress Nosey," Apollo said firmly.
"It's a good name, Dad," Boxey continued, taking advantage of his sister's support to push his point that much harder. "You said I could choose."
"Ah, now, Boxey, don't wear that one out," Starbuck coached from his seat on the sofa. "Remember what I told you, it looses power with repetition." He beamed down at the tow-headed boy sitting on the floor across the low table from him. "Now, Zac, knowing what's already been played, what's the next card most likely to be?"
"Quarter-capstone?" the child answered. "In purple or blue."
"Starbuck, stop teaching Zac to count cards! He's seven, for Sagan's sake!" Apollo snapped.
"I'll be eight next sectar," Zac said, looking earnestly up at his father. He had to twist his head up at an odd angle to see Apollo's face and it made him squint a little.
"I don't think that's helping, kiddo," Starbuck said in a stage-whisper. "We'd better put up the cards for tonight."
Apollo shot Starbuck an irritated glance, then ruffled the child's fine blond hair. "Go wash up for bed, Zackie. I'll come check on you in a couple of centons." He turned to the next child on his list. "Jamie, are you done with that math homework yet?"
The girl started, dropped the tiny doll she'd been walking across the table and wriggled in her seat. "Almost," she said with just a hint of a whine.
"Dad--" Boxey started, but Apollo held up a finger to stall him.
"How many is almost?" Apollo asked.
She heaved a put-upon sigh. "Ten more."
"You only had fifteen to start with, Jamie," Apollo said with as much patience as he could muster. "You've been at it for a centar."
"They're hard, Daddy," the girl whined.
"They'd be easier if you'd put down those dolls and pay attention to what you're doing," Apollo scolded, his patience rapidly running out.
Boxey wasn't willing to be put off any longer. "Da-ad!"
Apollo drew another breath and prepared to let the boy have it, but stopped when he felt Starbuck's hands on his shoulders.
"Easy does it, Pol," Starbuck said. He pointed at Boxey. "You take that one, I'll take the other. Breathe. Okay, Princess, let's see what we've got, here..."
Apollo gave his wingmate a grateful look as he steered his protesting eldest towards the boy's room. Starbuck winked at him.
Boxey wheeled on him as the door to his bedroom slid shut.
"What's wrong with Troy?" he asked again, mulishly.
Apollo sighed as he sat down on the small bed. This day just kept getting longer and longer. Truthfully, there was nothing wrong with the name. He liked it, himself. It was just the sort of name he would have suggested, under other circumstances. He wondered briefly if in the original Troy's time line he had, but discarded the thought as fruitless.
"What's wrong with Boxey?" he countered.
"It's a baby name!" Boxey protested.
"No, no, actually it's a Saggiteron name," Apollo said, deliberately misinterpreting his son's meaning in an attempt to lighten the conversation. "Your mother liked it. She thought it sounded exotic."
"Do you know what it means in Saggiteron? 'Little Boy.'" Boxey said this last as if it were something disgusting. "It's a nickname. Mom gave me a nickname instead of a real name."
Apollo had to admit he hadn't known that. He doubted Serina had, either, or she would have mentioned it. She had told him that she'd seen Boxey's name in a novel she'd read while she was pregnant and liked it. He and Serina had done a lot of talking in the few sectons the'd had together, he remembered with a bittersweet pang. He'd never just talked that much with anyone before or since.
He patted the bed next to him invitingly.
"How did you find out what it means?"
Boxey flopped down in the spot his father had indicated.
"There's this guy in my instructional period, Erius. His family's from Saggiteria. He asked my name and when I told him he... kind of laughed." Boxey picked at a pilled spot on the blanket. "His mom calls him and his brother 'Boxey' all the time."
"Ah," Apollo said, understanding dawning. "That's why the sudden desire for a new name."
"You know, just because some guy pokes fun at you--"
Boxey groaned. "Da-ad!"
"Alright, alright," Apollo placated quickly. He sighed. "Does it have to be Troy?"
"I like Troy," Boxey said stubbornly.
"I know, but... Son, I knew someone named Troy once."
"You didn't like him?" Boxey asked.
"It's not that. I didn't know him long enough to know whether or not I liked him... I can't tell you what happened, but it was a bad situation, son. The name has a lot of unpleasant connotations for me."
Boxey was silent for a while.
"Maybe if I use it, it'll have good ones, too," he said finally.
Apollo studied his son's hopeful face.
"You really like the name Troy, huh?" he asked.
Apollo closed his eyes and rubbed tiredly at his neck.
"Alright. Troy it is. I'll submit the paperwork tomorrow."
Boxey -- Troy -- whooped and threw his arms around Apollo in the kind of hug he hadn't received in several yahrens, at least not from his oldest child.
"Push-over," Starbuck accused cheerfully over Jamie's industriously bowed head as Apollo walked back through the main living space.
Apollo glared at him and made his way into Zac's tiny room to check on his youngest. Zac and Jamie's rooms had been created by partitioning a single bedroom into two, creating spaces that were considerably smaller than was comfortable. When Boxey -- Troy -- went off to the Academy in another three yahrens Apollo would have a fight on his hands over the extra room, he knew.
When Zac was a baby, a small crib in a corner of the main room had sufficed, but as the boy grew older and more adventurous, he'd needed his own space. Boxey had simply refused to share his room with a toddler and it just wasn't practical to ask Jamie to share a room with one of the boys, so the partition was installed. It wasn't perfect, but it got the job done.
Apollo rattled the rings of the door curtain that covered the opening in the partition wall to let Zac know he was coming and pretended not to notice whatever it was that the boy was hastily stuffing between his mattress and the wall. He'd fish it out in the morning once the kids were in school to make sure it was harmless enough, but other than that he liked to let them have their little secrets.
"You ready for sleep, little one? Did you remember to brush your teeth?"
The boy nodded and closed his eyes to say his prayers. Afterwards, Apollo sat with him for a little, talking about his day. He brushed the hair out of Zac's eyes as they talked. Jamie bumped the partition on her side of the room getting into bed.
"Daddy?" Zac asked softly.
"What is it, Zackie?"
"Siress Ivarne sent home another note today," he said, chewing his lip.
"She did? What's this one about?" As if he didn't know.
"She wants me to move into another class again. She says I'm too smart for my class."
It was an on-going battle between Apollo and the staff at the Educational Center. Zac was already in a class that was a level ahead of his age group and doing work designed for a couple of levels above that, but Apollo refused to allow him to be shoved into a class with older children. Zac had enough trouble making friends as it was without having the added problem of being several yahrens younger than his classmates.
"Don't worry about it, Zac. I'll talk to Siress Ivarne tomorrow." He paused and looked down at the small pointed face. "Do you want to move into another class?"
The boy shook his head emphatically. "I like my class. Philo's in my class."
He'd heard about Philo quite a bit over the last couple of sectons. Philo had gone out of his way to befriend Zac since the child had moved to his level. He was very complementary about Zac's mathematics ability. Apollo was very suspicious about just how much of Philo's math was being done by Zac, but kept his suspicions to himself.
"Well, don't worry about it. I'll handle the siress. The only thing I want you worrying about is whether or not you'll fit into Boxey's old Triad gear next season if you don't quit growing!" he said teasingly, tickling the child's ribs.
He stopped when Zac curled up giggling and let him catch his breath. Zac sighed and looked up at Apollo.
"Dad? Do I have to play Triad?" he asked, screwing up his face.
"Oh? What's this?" Apollo asked, surprised. "You don't want to play Triad?"
"Not really." Zac sighed again. "I'm not very good at it."
"Well, you're a little young yet, Zac. It's your first season. You're just learning how."
"I'm the littlest boy in all the teams, Daddy. And I can't run as fast as the others. They knock me down a lot and I can't get back up."
"What do you mean?" Apollo asked, frowning.
"They just keep pushing me back down again, over and over," Zac said in a small voice.
"Where's your coach when all this is going on?"
Zac sighed heavily, his expression very much like Apollo's when he felt overwhelmed.
"He just says I have to get tough and push back," he said, voice wavering. "But I try and I try and I can't. I'm too little."
And that made two parent-teacher conferences to fit into next secton.
Apollo stuck his head around the partitian.
"Hey, there, Mushie," he called softly.
Jamie put down the tiny doll that had been dancing across Muffet II's shaggy head and stretched her arms out for her bedtime hug and kiss. The mechanical dagget lowered its head to its paws with a soft whir in response to Apollo's entrance, going into standby mode.
Muffy spent his days with both of the two little ones in their after-school centars, Boxey having outgrown his companion a few yahrens back, but his nights were spent in Jamie's room. At first, Apollo had tried the dagget on a rotation schedule between Jamie and Zac's rooms, but that had ended a couple of sectars ago when Zac had tried to take the venerable old droid apart chasing down a circuit error only he had noticed. The fact that the techs assured him that there actually was a circuit error hadn't mollified Apollo.
"Are you mad at me, Daddy?" Jamie asked as Apollo plaited her long curls for the night.
Apollo had learned his lesson about Jamie's hair early on. She was a restless sleeper and trying to untangle the matted curls in the morning led to tears and tardiness reports from teachers. A few centons' preparation the night before granted him less dramatic breakfast scenes, relatively speaking.
"Mad at you? No, Mushie, I'm not mad at you. I'm sorry I snapped earlier. I'm kind of tired tonight."
"Grandfather says you shouldn't apologize to us," Jamie said critically.
"Yes, I know," Apollo said mournfully. "Sorry."
He was well aware of his father's opinion on the issue of apologies to children.
You're their father, Apollo. Even when you're wrong, you're right.
As much as he loved and respected his father, Apollo just couldn't agree with him on that one. When he was wrong, he was wrong. How could he expect the kids learn to face up to their own mistakes if he didn't teach them by example?
"Are you going to let Boxey be Troy instead?"
"Yes, Mushie, I am. We'll have to try to remember to call him Troy from now on."
"That's good. Is Dillon coming to his birthday party?" she asked with a coy look from under her eyelashes.
Apollo tucked the blanket up under her chin. She's only ten yahrens old, he reminded himself. She was far too young to interest the already burly thirteen-yahren-old boy who'd become Boxey's -- Troy's -- boon companion over the last six yahrens.
"Yes," he answered. "I've already spoken to his parents. They've given him permission to shuttle over the day before and spend the night with Boxey, but I don't want you two nosing into their business, young lady. You didn't like it when Boxey and Zac tried to crash your sleep-over last sectar."
Jamie chattered on for a bit and Apollo listened to her combination of questions and stream-of-consciousness rambling with half an ear until she yawned loudly mid-sentence.
"Okay, Mushie, I think that's enough for one night," he said with a smile. "Time to sleep."
"Why do you call me Mushie, Daddy?"
"Because you're little and sweet," Apollo gave the ritual answer and kissed her cheek.
He almost made it out the door.
He sighed and turned back.
"What is it, Jamie?"
"Do you like playing pretend with Uncle Starbuck?"
For a micron, Apollo forgot to breathe.
Starbuck wasn't in the main room when Apollo emerged from Jamie's room. The lights had been dimmed to night-light level, but there was a strip of brighter light from under Boxey's door and Apollo could hear his son's and Starbuck's voices indistinctly.
Boxey's voice was changing, he realized suddenly. Lords.
Apollo made his way into the turbowash for a quick shower. When he came out, Starbuck was lying on the bed on his side, waiting for him. Starbuck twitched the blankets aside invitingly and Apollo dropped onto the bed with a sigh.
"When will I stop feeling like I'm being mauled by my children?" he asked, throwing his arm over his eyes to block the dim light.
"You're asking me? You're better off asking your dad about that one."
"I did. He just laughed and muttered something about parental curses coming home to roost. I have no idea what he meant."
Apollo could feel Starbuck's answering grin even with his eyes closed.
"Boxey's appeased?" he asked.
"Troy is ecstatic," he answered. "You are such a push-over."
"You don't think I should have let him?" Apollo asked.
"I didn't say that," Starbuck answered smugly. "I just said you were a push-over."
"Yeah, well, don't let the squadron know," he sighed.
"I think they already know," Starbuck replied. "They're all jealous of your kids. They reckon they're getting a much better deal where you're concerned."
Apollo raised his arm enough to give Starbuck a one-eyed glare.
"Zac's being bullied in Triad practice," he said to change the subject.
"He's too little for Triad, Apollo," Starbuck said for about the thousandth time.
"I know," Apollo admitted with a sigh. "It's good exercise, though. The kids don't get enough time to run and play as it is."
"He gets plenty of exercise," Starbuck soothed.
"Boxey loves Triad."
Apollo loved Triad.
"Zac isn't Boxey," Starbuck answered. He left the unspoken bit alone.
"Maybe in a couple more yahrens," Apollo said. He'd pull Zac out of the teams tomorrow, he decided.
"Maybe," Starbuck said, but he sounded doubtful.
Apollo rolled over to face Starbuck.
"My daughter wants to know when I'm going to make an honest man out of you."
"Does she, now?" Starbuck asked, eyebrows cocked. "I'd say it's a bit late for that, Pol. You'd have had to have gotten to me when I was Zac's age."
"Apparently, it's quite the topic of conversation within my little brood," Apollo continued, ignoring the other man's comments. "The current concensus of opinion is that we just like playing make-believe that you don't stay here at night. That's why you sneak out in the morning before breakfast."
"They aren't as oblivious as you'd like to think, Apollo," he said for what Apollo reckoned was about the millionth time.
Apollo reached out and trailed a hand along Starbuck's jaw before leaning in to kiss him.
"Stay for breakfast?" he asked softly.