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Adventures in Babysitting

By Sheila Paulson
Page 4 of 5

"See, here is the trouble." Cally circled an area on the chart. Surgery could release the stress and give him more mobility in the hip joint. Then with some months of therapy, he should scarcely limp." She smiled at him. "Shall you be the one to tell him?"

"It was your idea."

"It's time for my rest period." She passed the charts into his hand and left without further comment. Avon glared after her, affronted at her attempts to maneuver him into benevolence, then he muttered an impatient curse and went in search of Blake.

Jenna had gone when Avon returned to the flight deck, but the others were there. Gan had been persuaded to give Ree a ride around the room on his shoulders, and the boy was laughing and urging his 'steed' on. Vila and Ree sat side by side conferring in a serious undertone, probably about himself, thought Avon sourly. Tirn had established himself at Jenna's position and was checking the readings as if he understood them. When Avon entered, charts in hand, he looked up sharply, gave Avon a coolly measuring look and turned away as if the computer tech could have no interest in him. Avon felt himself silently fuming, all the more so because he frequently practiced this technique of holding people--notably Blake--at bay.

"A word with you in private, Blake, if I might," he said, refusing to let Tirn's manner put him off. Something made him recall Tirn's furious and reluctant tears over his grandfather's death, and though he wanted no part of this entire enterprise, he realized he had become committed. Cally might have prodded him, but he might have come round to this even without her urging.

Desta barely looked up from the secrets she and Vila were sharing, and Ree glanced at Blake with the look young children wear when they realize the grown-ups mean to talk about adult subjects. But Tirn's eyes flashed with suspicion.

Blake followed him into the passage. "What is it, Avon?"

"Cally has determined that surgery could repair the damage to Tirn's leg and enable him to walk normally."

"That's wonderful. Shall we go tell him?"

"It isn't that easy, Blake. I should doubt that the children's aunt is a wealthy woman, and the surgery would be expensive."

Blake regarded him in some surprise. "And it's occurred to you that we have a room full of wealth on board this ship?"

"It's not your money, Blake. It belongs to all of us. I, for one, do not see a problem with parting with a small amount of it for this purpose."

"Grown benevolent in your old age, Avon?" Blake asked in some surprise.

"Shall we say, rather, that I choose to pay my debts. Our arrival disrupted the children's lives, though in actual fact they should have been disrupted in any case, if less violently. Should you put it to a vote, I doubt the others would refuse."

"I have no intention of refusing, Avon," Blake informed him, smiling. "I simply am enjoying the sight of you offering to give money away."

"Offering it shall be up to you, Blake."

"No, Avon, it will come best from you. I think you understand him best."

"Indeed? He despises me--and the rest of us."

"Does he?" Blake asked in considerable disbelief. "I rather think he's chosen you as a role model, my friend. He'll fight it because of his pride, but it'll still come best from you. I'd talk to him privately, were I you. He'll respond best that way."

Avon shot Blake a very suspicious look through narrowed eyes, then he said expansively, "Go on, Blake. I'm intrigued. Is this how you attempt to manage me?"

"That's a different proposition entirely." But Blake's sudden grin belied his words. Avon felt some irritation with him. He suspected he was allowing the people on this ship to get too close to him. Perhaps it was time to make a stand, to distance himself from them more conclusively. Once the children were gone, he'd make a point of it.

"I feel you would handle this best, Blake," he said coolly. "You are, after all, the great manipulator."

"Am I?" Blake asked, still amused. "I don't force you to do things against your will, Avon. I never have."

"Shall I start listing exceptions?" Damn the man. In spite of Avon's determination to hold his distance, he always found himself enjoying the arguments. Blake was a devious bastard, but fighting with him held its own exhilaration. Avon half suspected he stayed because he enjoyed the challenge.

"We'll be arriving at Rankin Major in another fifteen hours," Blake said instead of taking up Avon's remark. "Based on my experience of you and your own particular brand of stubbornness, I rather think it will take you most of that to talk Tirn round. You'd better begin as soon as possible. The younger two could use some food and a rest. Gan and I will take them off and give you some privacy."

"Take Vila as well," Avon insisted as they strolled back to the flight deck. "I doubt I've the patience to endure his prattle for the whole of the next watch."

"I heard that," Vila burst out. "Never mind. I've been telling Desta all sorts of secrets about you." He bestowed upon Avon a cheeky grin.

Desta looked up at Avon and copied it.

"Come on, Gan, we'll take the children to eat," Blake said, gathering up Ree with his eyes. The boy went to him at once, abandoning Gan without a backward look, and held out a trusting hand to Blake. Avon shook his head in mildly scornful amusement as they left.

Tirn stayed where he was, watching Avon suspiciously. "Jenna left me in charge," he said, a conscious challenge in his voice.

"Then far be it for me to interfere," Avon replied. He spread out his charts on the table and looked at them consideringly.

Eventually Tirn's curiosity got the better of him. "What's that?" he asked after a few minutes of deliberate avoidance.

Avon raised his eyes and looked at the boy head on. Blake always found ways to give him the least appealing tasks. But Avon chose not to shirk them and give Blake an excuse to find fault with him about it.

"These are the results from the tests you had in the medical unit," he explained. "The medical computers indicate your leg could be healed with appropriate surgery, treatment and therapy." Avon had never liked other people keeping secrets from him, and he saw no reason to treat Tirn any differently than he would expect to be treated himself. He generally behaved that way to people unless they appeared to be a threat to him or unless they hurt him. Generally preferring to be left alone and to avoid the prattling of fools, he wore touch-me-not armor, warning people to spare him their inanities. With Blake, there was the conscious challenge that existed between them, a battle for dominance, underlain with more understanding than he'd expected to find with the idealistic rebel. With Vila, there was their mutual sparring. Avon had not expected to enjoy dealing with a cowardly Delta grade thief, but he did. Vila was quick witted and clever, though Avon would not tell him so except through the nature of the barbs he flung at the thief. Vila was intelligent enough to realize that Avon wouldn't have bothered unless the target was worthy.

Tirn had tried to emulate Avon, but this news shocked him out of it and he stared at Avon in wide-eyed disbelief. "I don't believe you," he burst out.

Avon favored him with a cool look. "Do you think me mistaken or a liar?" he asked calmly.

"I--no, it's not that. It's just that--well, I know there are things that could have been done, but not free. Grandfather had no money and Aunt Arian's not rich either. I don't know how they do things on Raskin, but on Donnat, Alphas got most things, unless they were out of favor. We were out of favor because Grandfather was a known rebel. They did as little to help me as possible." He glowered at Avon. "I don't remember asking you to help me."

"I wasn't aware that I had volunteered," Avon replied. "I was stating a fact, as determined by the medical computers. A further fact is that in exchange for the help you have given us, we will fund the surgery."

Tirn's lip curled. "What, buy me? I won't. I don't know what you think you'll gain from it, but there's got to be something. You wouldn't help me for nothing. I don't need your help, Avon. I don't owe you anything."

"Do you imagine it will benefit me to have you in my debt?" Avon returned quickly.

"I don't know. But I don't trust you. You never do things without counting the cost."

"Don't I? Perhaps not."

"I don't want any part of it. You don't owe it to me."

"No?" Avon's eyes narrowed. "Burying your grandfather hardly discharges the debt. I prefer to have it finished. You assisted Bl--you assisted me on Donnat."

"So well that Travis found you."

"He would have done in any case, but the sooner had I been required to run carrying Blake on my back."

"You might have left him," Tirn replied, then his eyes narrowed. "No, that's what you'd have said you'd do. But I don't think you'd have run and left Blake behind."

Avon shook his head abruptly. "I have little patience with histrionics. You can't know Blake even as little as you do and believe he'd refuse to help you."

"Then why's he left it to you?" asked Tirn suspiciously.

"I neither know nor care. The offer's made. If you don't like it, if you prefer to wallow in self pity, so be it." Avon began to gather up the papers again.

"Wait."

Avon went still. He was not enjoying this. Deliberately, he didn't meet the boy's eyes. "Yes?"

"It wasn't your idea, was it?" Tirn challenged hotly as if flinging an accusation.

"No, it was Cally's. I doubt I should have thought of it."

Oddly enough, that seemed to pacify Tirn. "Yet it was you who brought it to Blake's attention."

"This is not Cally's affair," Avon replied. "She left it to me. Once it is settled and done, we can both pretend it never happened and you can overlook my uncharacteristic benevolence."

That made amusement war with irritation in the boy's eyes. "You're a bastard," he muttered, bringing out the word cautiously, still young enough to feel it a risk to cheek an adult but too stubborn to care.

Avon smiled a little. "So I believe. Benevolence is Blake's business. He leaves the practical end of it to me. I find pragmatism works best."

"What about pride?" Tirn asked suspiciously, a hint of defiance hardening the challenge. He looked as if he was afraid Avon's answer would disappoint him.

"The price might be too high," replied Avon frankly. "I don't suggest you abandon it altogether, but the world we both live in is a harsh one. Better to face it armed to the teeth. In other words, with every possible advantage."

"On two good legs, you mean?" Tirn asked bluntly. He looked down at his brace with loathing. "I think I could have taken it better," he confessed in a surly voice, "If there'd been nothing anyone could do about it. Knowing it could be fixed, that it didn't have to be this way, made it all the worse." He dropped his eyes. "Do you understand that?"

"All too well."

"Grandfather said we all had braces of one kind or another and that I'd best learn to deal with mine." He grimaced. "I know what he meant and he was right, but I thought it was easy for him to say when he could walk like everyone else."

"It may have been easy, or perhaps not. You might not know." Avon thought it rather too sentimental, but he understood it. No one went unscathed in the world; not Blake, whose memories had been erased and who had been convicted of false charges, not Cally, who had been exiled from her home, not Gan, with the limiter that controlled him fixed within his brain. With so many different 'braces,' it was a wonder the people on Liberator dealt together as well as they did. Avon, who valued his privacy and who had no intention of telling the others about Anna Grant's death at the hands of the Federation or any other secrets, saw no need to defend the boy's grandfather or to justify his words. Instead he turned his thoughts from the disgustingly sentimental trend they were taking.

"In any case," he went on practically, "There will be your aunt to convince. I doubt she will appreciate the idea of taking money from strangers." He frowned. "Though most people will never look twice at something they can get for nothing."

"I know. But maybe she'd do it for my sake." He picked up the charts and studied them with interest. "I'll talk her round, Avon. If you like, I'll tell her it was Blake's idea." Suddenly he chuckled. "It wouldn't do to damage your reputation."

Damn it. Now the boy was showing as much perception as Blake. That was all he needed. Avon decided he would be glad when they had left Raskin Major far behind.

"I neither know nor care what your aunt--or anyone else--thinks of me," he returned.

Tirn nodded carelessly, satisfied with that answer. It might be much the same as he would have given himself. Avon frowned. "I would suggest," he continued abruptly, "That you consider the course you have evidently chosen for yourself. It is not, perhaps, the most satisfying you could find. Trust is an unlikely commodity, but it is not impossible."

Tirn thought about it for a moment. "I'm not stupid, Avon. I know what you're saying. But it works for you, doesn't it?"

"Trust?" Avon asked skeptically.

"That too. But I meant the way you live."

Avon had realized that immediately. "Oh, yes," he breathed. "It works." He paused. "That doesn't mean it is the most effective way. It requires a certain...hardness, and it requires satisfaction with solitude. Not everyone can pay the price."

"I'm not sure you do, either," responded Tirn, limping back to Jenna's position and studiously avoiding Avon's eyes. "Because you have Blake. You act like you don't care about anyone, but I don't think it's true. Blake lets you get away with it--maybe the others too. But they know better."

"I should doubt that," Avon snapped.

"They know how far they can depend on you anyway," Tirn muttered. "They know you back them when the chips are down."

"Because I keep my word," Avon replied through clenched teeth. "Do not read anything into that but a reciprocal agreement. Though I do not follow Blake, I am presently on this ship. Its survival and mine are linked."

"I'd hate to have to go through life making excuses every time I wanted to be nice."

Avon smiled brightly. "Then perhaps it is a good thing that I do not, er, want to be nice."

Tirn bit back a laugh. "No, that would be too much." He didn't press it, which suited Avon. Though the welfare of others was hardly Avon's prime consideration, neither did he wish to encourage Tirn to follow in his footsteps. The path was too rugged for someone with two good feet. He doubted most people could stand the cost. Tirn had a healthy edge of cynicism, but he also had a devoted brother and sister, and if he had lost his grandfather, who sounded like a stubborn and pragmatic old bastard, he had an aunt who wouldn't hesitate to take him in and do what she could for him. He would probably put his bitterness behind him and turn out like Blake. Avon shuddered.

Tirn made a great show of studying the controls, as if to be sure they were still working properly. "Zen," he said carefully. "Are we still on course for Raskin Major?"

"Confirmed."

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