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By Frankie Lyndon
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Even though it was what he'd spent the last several hours waiting for, the return of consciousness, when it came, took him by surprise. One moment he was considering -- and discarding -- what was probably the one hundredth mental rehearsal of the words he had to say; the next, he was the object of intense scrutiny by a pair of surprisingly alert brown eyes.

He found himself wondering how the other man could see him. The only illumination in the med unit came from a dim light at the head of the diagnostic couch and it only slightly brightened the deep gray shadows beyond the bed. When he'd taken over the vigil a few hours before, he'd purposely pulled the bedside chair several feet back, out of the golden glow. Somehow, he'd felt safer in the shadows.

Now it appeared that sense of safety had been pure illusion. Not only was the man in the bed able to see him; the fleeting expressions that crossed his, for once, unshuttered features, suggested he understood the rationale that had driven the younger man into the protection of the shadows.

Never one to waste time, Avon broke the tableau of silence. "Where's Vila? Get him for me." The voice, rusty with disuse and extremely weak, belied the fierce energy and sharp intelligence of the eyes. And brought home to Tarrant, once again, how near a thing it had been. By rights, this man should be dead; and the young pilot would have bet a squadron of pursuit ships that he hadn't the strength to raise himself from his prone position. Yet here he was, snapping brown eyes refusing pity, demanding information, and issuing orders as if his life-threatening injuries were a mere inconvenience. Answering the question and ignoring the order, Tarrant rose to his feet and moved into the circle of light. "He'd been here over two full shifts; he was exhausted. He left about four hours ago to get some sleep." Feeling a sudden, irrational need to defend the thief's loyalty, the pilot continued, "He wouldn't have left, even then, but Cally and Orac assured us that you were recovering well and that you'd sleep for hours."

His response was met with silence, a silence that stretched on well past the point of comfort. To the point where suppressing the urge to fidget became a Herculean task; a task made more difficult by Avon's assessing, probing stare.

Just as Tarrant was about to begin babbling something, anything,to break the oppressive stillness, Avon spoke. His voice, while still frighteningly weak, had taken on a sneering quality that the young pilot was all too familiar with. "So you took over as baby sitter, eagerly watching for signs of returning life. What a strain for you, Tarrant, having to hope for the recovery of a man you've often wished dead ... or at least out of your way." One of Avon's classic, sarcastic smiles broke over the man's wan features as he concluded, "A guilty conscience can be an incredibly powerful motivation."

One thing Avon had always been able to do better than anyone else on the Liberator, hell, to be honest, better than anyone else in his entire life, was to get Tarrant to react without thinking. The tech always seemed to know just what goading words or sneering tones would best put the younger man on the defensive. So practised was his technique, that Tarrant found himself on the outside of the med unit door before he was even aware of having moved. Replaying the last few seconds, the pilot realized that his first impulse had been to physically wipe that supercilious sneer from Avon's face. But the fairness and honor that were as innately integral to him as blue eyes and curly hair, would not allow such behavior. Instead, he'd pivoted on his heel and strode from the room, his thoughts and feelings a miasma of anger and churning bitterness.

But as rapidly as the blinding fury had surged, it receded, leaving a realization that caused a wry smile to cross the handsome features and lighten the stormy blue eyes. Obviously, Avon had no more desire to confront what had happened on Mardis than he did. The tech was uncomfortable with what his impetuous gesture said about his feelings for his crew. Perhaps he even felt threatened by the prospect of "true confessions" and other emotional protestations. As anyone who knew Avon was aware, his usual reaction when faced with what he perceived as a threatening situation was to attack. And, the pilot concluded with self-mocking humor, it had, as usual, worked beautifully. After all, here he was, on the wrong side of the door while Avon relished his successful avoidance of the issue.

Drawing a deep breath and gathering his resolve, Tarrant turned and re-entered the dimly-lit room. Pausing a moment to allow his eyes to adjust from the brightly illuminated corridor, Tarrant assessed the figure on the diagnostic couch. Believing the skirmish over and the battle won, Avon had relaxed his guard slightly. In spite of the almost miraculous abilities of the Liberator's med unit, it was obvious the older man was in a good deal of pain. In that moment, he looked older than his years and frighteningly frail. Striding purposely, Tarrant crossed the short distance between the door and the bed, positioning himself within touching distance of the room's only other occupant. Upon hearing the click of the pilot's boot heels on the hard deck, a change came over Avon's features. As if watching a conjuror perform, the pilot was a mute witness to the other man's transformation from seriously injured invalid to dominant, in-charge Alpha. Inwardly shaking his head at the energy and sheer determination the suppression of his physical condition must be costing the tech, Tarrant stood silently, unconsciously assuming parade rest, and waited for Avon to speak.

At last, eyes that could not quite hide their wary surprise at the pilot's return, moved to meet Tarrant's accusing stare.

"What do you want?" Avon rasped, sounding, despite his best efforts, more weak and tired than he had only minutes before.

This time, Tarrant allowed the silence to stretch to the point of discomfort before answering. After all, he too was an Alpha and one-upmanship was a familiar game. "It's not going to be that easy, Avon," the pilot said at last. "There are things between us that must be acknowledged and dealt with, regardless how little that appeals to either of us. You're very good at manipulating situations, but I'm now aware of your machinations; they'll not work on me again. Turning, the younger man grabbed the chair and pulled it close to the bed, unconsciously assuming the position Vila had held for so many hours. "You won't find it so easy to chase me out this time," he concluded.

The look that flashed across Avon's face was poisonous. He was not a man who enjoyed being thwarted, particularly when he was physically unable to stalk away -- one of his favorite ploys in uncomfortable situations.

"The only way you are going to be rid of me," Tarrant added, having correctly interpreted Avon's expression, "is to let me say my piece."

"Well," the tech drawled, "as you appear to have a captive audience, there's not much I can do to prevent it." Annoyance and something that resembled fear crossed the older man's face, and he snarled, "Just get over with, Tarrant, then get the hell out."

Sighing with the realization that Avon would continue to do his best to make a difficult situation impossible, Tarrant began with a blunt statement. "You saved my life on Mardis ... "

"We all make mistakes," the tech cut in with a growl that Vila would have recognized from the "Blake days".

Refusing to be sidetracked, Tarrant continued. "And it was almost at the expense of your own life."

"You can't, for one moment, believe that was my intention!" The tone was angry and... embarrassed? "I simply miscalculated the speed of the spear. If I'd suspected I would end up here, in this condition, we'd all be attending your funeral right now."

There was a repetition of the long, uncomfortable silence. Calmly, Tarrant leaned back in the bedside chair, long legs crossed at the knee, and arms folded across his chest. The look he turned on the computer expert was one the older man had not seen before from the pilot. It made him feel, for all the worlds, like an insect under a microscan. "As recently as a day ago, I'd have believed that without question. I've never credited you with any of the finer feelings: compassion, loyalty, honor. I'd have argued with anyone that your main driving force, your only ultimate goal, was self-preservation. You've always made it plain that you would not hesitate to do anything necessary, sacrifice anyone necessary, to preserve your life and increase your fortune. And I believed that, wholeheartedly and without question. I thought I had the whole thing -- you, this crew, everything -- all worked out. Then you go and pull that stunt on Mardis. I hope you derive a particular perverse satisfaction in knowing you've completely undermined that certainty."

The young man returned to his feet and resumed pacing, as his emotional and intellectual agitation increased. Long legs made short work of the limited space offered by the med unit. Striding back and forth, hands clasped tightly behind his back, the pilot continued, "I don't know, perhaps the uncertainty is a good thing. A surprisingly insightful individual recently pointed out that making up your mind without all the information can be rather ... shall we say, limiting. Ah, laugh if you will, but I don't like having to see myself as narrow-minded."

Throughout this monologue, Avon had not spoken, had not attempted to speak. In fact, a shuttered, inscrutable expression had come over his aquiline features and his eyes had narrowed to icy slits.

Amazed at the extent of his nerve, and surprised that the tech had not yet eviscerated him -- weakened condition not withstanding -- Tarrant paused at the foot of the bed, hands twisting together, no longer able to feign unconcern. Gathering his nerve and meeting the assessing brown gaze, Tarrant hurried to complete his statements.

"We may never agree on what makes a good leader, or even on how this ship should be run. Hell, I know we'll never agree on our definitions of honor, loyalty, or esprit de corps, but what you did down there demonstrated that -- loathe though you may be to admit it -- those words are more than just words to you. As much as I hate the idea, right now you are the Liberator's de facto captain, and I am a member of your crew. On Mardis, you did what any good captain would do: whatever was necessary to protect and preserve your crew. In my book, that constitutes loyalty." Drawing a deep breath, grateful that the worst was over, Tarrant concluded, "I know you'll deny everything I've just said but ... well ... Thank you, Avon. Thank you for my life."

The young pilot wasn't sure what he expected next, but it wasn't Avon's weary sigh and slow headshake. "Tarrant, I am tired. Tired beyond words, and I hurt. I don't have the strength or energy to argue and dissemble. Listen carefully, because you will never hear this again." The faint voice and light sheen of perspiration that misted Avon's brow reminded the pilot of the older man's recent brush with death. With a sick jolt, Tarrant wondered if he hadn't pushed too hard, too soon. If he were responsible for a relapse ...

But Avon was continuing, and Tarrant was forced to move closer to the couch to hear the rapidly fading voice. "I don't give my trust ... period. And life has taught me that the safest, the only way to exist is alone. But over the last few months, I have found myself developing a reluctant ... respect for this crew and their abilities. I don't give praise, but I'm sure each of you realize that you are very good at what you do." A faint smile crossed the tired features as Avon thought of a certain thief. "Some of you are more willing than others to share that knowledge with anyone who will listen. But my point is that each of you, being exceptional in your particular specialty, are valuable to this ship and the success of its missions. I stand a far better chance of staying alive and, eventually, of gaining the wealth that I seek with you than I do without you. It is for that reason, and no other, that I attempted to prevent your death on Mardis."

By the time Avon had concluded his explanation, Tarrant was again reclining, arms and legs crossed, in the chair, obviously at ease. Slowly, the blinding white smile that he was so well known for broke over his features, causing his blue eyes to sparkle. "As explanations for saving my life go, that was one of the worst I've ever heard. And it certainly doesn't explain why you would save that life at the risk of your own." Watching Avon's brown eyes turn stormy with anger, the pilot laughed and climbed to his feet. "You're an educated Alpha; I'm sure you're up on your ancient literature. Does the quote, 'He protests too much, methinks' ring any bells?"

Seeing a golden opportunity to win an argument with the irascible tech _and_ have the last word, the pilot strode to the door. "I'll send Cally in, shall I," he shot over his shoulder, "you'll probably find her company less stressful than mine. After all, there's only so much 'honesty' a person can handle at one time."

Uncomfortable with the flippancy of his last remark, Tarrant paused half in and half out of the room. The glow of light from the corridor outlined the pilot's tall figure and his shadow extended into the room and loomed across the bed. "You know," he added softly, "I can't force you to do anything you don't choose to, but I'd think about what's been said here today." Had Avon been able to see the faint smile on the pilot's lips, he might have described it as sad, and surprisingly mature. "We're stuck here together; we need each other to survive. And Avon, you're only alone if you choose to be."

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