It was Parents Sectonend at the Academy. Not a time he looked forward to, since it meant a forcible reminder that he was the only one there without at least one parent. He had hoped to talk the Commandant into giving him a three-day pass so he could avoid it. Perfectly reasonable argument, he’d thought; why should he stay when he had no parents to show off for? But the Commandant had had other ideas.
“Starbuck, just the cadet I wanted to see,” the head of the Academy had said when the blond had come into his office.
“Yes. As you know, Parents Sectonend is coming up next secton, and I need someone to help...”
“Yes sir, that’s what I’ve come to ask you about,” the young man interrupted.
“Good, I’m glad to see you volunteering your services! Not many young men would do that. I’ve known so many who thought they could get out of it by asking for a pass for the weekend.”
Covering his internal sigh with a smile, he answered, “Not me, sir. How can I help?”
“I need someone to help show the parents around the campus, someone who knows the place well and gets along well with people. Sounds tailor-made for you, Cadet.”
He kept the smile on his face with an effort. “Show the parents around...” he repeated.
“Yes, in small groups so they don’t go wandering off into places they’re not supposed to go. You’ll be a kind of goodwill ambassador for the Academy.”
“Thank you, sir.” He managed to keep the dismay from his voice. It sounded like a nightmare to him, just what he was trying to avoid.
“Make sure your dress uniform is clean, Cadet. Can’t have our goodwill ambassador looking less than his best.” The Commandant smiled as he recognized the young man’s expression. He had a good idea of what the young man had come in to ask.
“Dress uniform?” Starbuck felt slightly faint.
“Of course, of course. The other cadets will be wearing theirs most of the weekend, as well.”
“Yes sir. Glad to be able to help out, sir.”
The sectonend ranked not only as one of the longest, but one of the *worst* in Starbuck’s young life. He had been on his feet the entire time, with a fake smile plastered on his face. His roommate Apollo had teased him mercilessly about the job he had to do.
But the sectonend was almost over, Lords be praised, leaving only the traditional dance. That was where Starbuck was supposed to be, instead of sitting on a concrete bench blowing smoke rings. He drew in another lungful of the biting smoke and held it in for a few microns.
“So this is where you’re hiding,” Apollo said, coming around the corner.
“Go away, Apollo. I’m just smoking a fumarello. I’ll be back in there in a centon.”
“The hostesses are looking for you,” he said.
Starbuck shuddered. “Whose mother do they want me to dance with now?”
“Whose mother? What are you talking about, Starbuck?”
“You know as well as I do that the cadets have to wait to be introduced as acceptable dance partners, right? Well, all night long I’ve been introduced to the *mothers*, not the sisters.”
“I’ll introduce you to my sister,” Apollo said, seeing his friend’s unhappiness.
Starbuck shook his head. “'Pol, it doesn’t work that way and you know it. I’m high risk; I have no family and I do have a reputation where young ladies are concerned. And if I were to dance with her without being introduced by one of the hostesses, they’d have me out of here so fast! It was nice of you to offer though.”
“I’m sorry, Starbuck.” Apollo’s distress was genuine.
“It’s okay, 'Pol. This whole thing is almost over, thank the Lords. I’ll be back in as soon as I finish my fumarello,” he said, taking another deep drag and holding the smoke in.
The other cadet made a face. “Is that a doctored one?”
“I needed it, after this sectonend!” Starbuck said defensively. “It’s just enough to relax me a little so I can go back in there and smile as I dance with Jolly’s mother.”
Apollo held out his hand. The blond relinquished his fumarello reluctantly. The other cadet took a drag himself and then handed it back. Starbuck put it immediately back in his mouth for another pull. It was still warm from Apollo’s lips.
“I’ll tell them I couldn’t find you,” Apollo said, turning to go back inside.
“Thanks, 'Pol, I really appreciate it.”
“And I’ll hint that Athena might like to dance with the handsome young man who showed her around yesterday.”
Starbuck laughed. “Won’t work, buddy. Besides, it’s not your sister I want to dance with,” he whispered to Apollo’s retreating back.