The problem, Vila thought as he wedged himself head-first into a morgue drawer, with having criminals for friends was that you could never really trust them.
Vila had learned that lesson repeatedly over the course of his career, most recently a few years back when an old partner had shown up and promptly tried to sell Vila to a crime lord. Avon had been there – in fact, he’d actually saved Vila’s from the ex-friend in question, though supposedly for his own reasons, and not in a way you could say thank you for.
Vila had thought, at the time, that Avon was too calculating to need to learn from someone else’s mistakes – he’d have worked it all out before. In fact, Vila had thought it highly unlikely that Avon had ever even had any friends. But he knew Avon a lot better now.
“You’re not going to fit in here as well,” he said, looking back at Avon’s face, framed by the opening at the end of the drawer. “I barely fit in here.”
“Make room,” Avon told him through gritted teeth. The light at the end of the drawer dimmed as he climbed up onto the gurney and began to crawl into the drawer. His hand came down painfully on Vila’s shin, and then more dangerously on his hip - very close to where it would really hurt.
“Can’t you find another one?”
“All the other ones have corpses in them,” Avon said. “Believe it or not, I find being trapped in an enclosed space with you - slightly more appealing.”
Avon’s head had reached the end of the drawer now, bringing him level with Vila. The immediate danger over, Vila cracked a smile inches from Avon’s nose. “Only slightly?”
Avon made a face and turned over to face the wall. “Keep talking and there’ll be little to choose between them. Or between you and a corpse.”
He reached back with one of his feet and pulled the door closed, plunging them into darkness.
“Well, this is nice,” Vila said after a moment. His nose tickled, and he tried to bat away whatever it was before realising that his arms were constricted by the drawer. “I mean, not many friends would put a man up for the night after ten years, let alone a man and his accomplice. And OK, so there’s only one bed, and it’s not exactly a bed, and he didn’t exactly offer-”
“Vila,” Avon said.
“Do you hear talking coming from the other drawers?”
Vila stiffened. He closed his eyes, even though it wasn’t necessary since the drawer was already completely dark, and listened. He couldn’t hear anything.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “Do you?”
“No, I don’t either,” Avon said. “So if Gahl comes looking for us, he will be able to pinpoint which drawer has us in it fairly quickly, won’t he? Unless you stop talking.”
“Right,” Vila said. “Sorry.” He lay in the dark for a moment, his nose still tickling and Avon’s elbow wedged uncomfortably into his chest.
“So am I,” Avon said. It was almost quiet enough that it was possible Vila had imagined it, but under the circumstances he thought he probably hadn’t.
The real problem with having criminals for friends was that, because they were your friends, you did trust them, even though you knew you shouldn’t. What Vila now knew about Avon was that he wasn’t nearly as infallible as he liked to think he was.
Perhaps, Vila thought, it was because Avon was so bad at making friends that he’d been taken in by both Tynus and Gahl. He didn’t have much experience learning who was a real mate and who was a scumbag who’d sell you out to the Federation for much less than half of what you were worth without blinking. He’d assured them all that Gahl was the real deal – someone who’d supported him before, who he’d relied on before. A fully qualified doctor, Gahl would be a valuable addition to the crew, as well as being someone Avon could stand to exchange a few sentences with, which was more that he could say for the rest of them. Blake hadn’t been keen, despite acknowledging that a doctor could be useful aboard the Liberator. He’d only given in after Avon had pointed out that Blake’s double standards had let Blake go to Exbar to rescue his cousin only the week before.
Blake’s cousin had been the real deal, though, and a pretty one at that. Presumably the last time Avon had relied on Gahl, Avon hadn’t been worth over a million credits. Vila had overheard the good doctor on the comm to one of Servalan’s captains, when he’d gone to check that Gahl had finished packing his things. He’d backed out of the room silently and passed this onto Avon, who to his credit hadn’t wasted time refusing to believe his friend would do such a thing. He also hadn’t bothered to waste time confronting Gahl with his treachery, which Vila had been pleased to hear as well. They could just get out of there.
Unfortunately while the Liberator had been able to pick up their frantic signal, she wouldn’t be in teleport range for another ten minutes or so. Which was why Avon and Vila were now hiding in a morgue drawer and waiting.
Harsh breathing seemed to echo around the small metal box, which smelled like death and felt like a coffin. Vila tried to breathe more deeply and more quietly, at which point he realised it wasn’t him making the sharp, pained noises. It was Avon.
He leant forward a bit so he could talk close to Avon’s ear. “You’re not claustrophobic, are you?”
“No,” Avon said tightly. The sound of his breathing changed, as though he too was making a conscious effort to change it, the way Vila had a few moments earlier, but his back was still pressed against Vila’s chest and so Vila could still feel him shaking. That meant either Avon was lying, or he was struggling to breathe for a different reason. Perhaps that reason was because a man he’d thought was his friend had just tried to sentence him to death for money, and, as Vila now knew, Avon was only human.
If it had been almost anyone else, Vila would have hugged them and told them it was all right. You made mistakes, you loved the wrong people, and sometimes even the right people screwed you over, although at least they tried not to. That was life. As long as you got away, you could make more mistakes later.
He moved his uppermost arm up and across slightly so it was resting on Avon’s hip and then down around Avon’s chest. Avon twisted and tried to jerk away, and Vila pulled back instantly.
“What are you doing?” Avon hissed.
“Sorry. It’s just my arm was going to sleep,” Vila lied. “There’s no space in here.”
Avon sighed. “I suppose I should consider myself lucky the rest of you is still awake.”
“Fat chance of sleeping in here,” Vila said. “They didn’t even bother to put in a pillow.”
“I doubt anyone has ever complained,” Avon said dryly.
“And you know, you’re a lousy bed partner,” Vila said, thinking to keep it light and silly. If Avon was irritated with him, then he wouldn’t be focused on his ex-friend’s betrayal. “Are you always this awkward and unyielding, or is it just because we’re stuck in a drawer and people are trying to kill us?”
“You’ll have to ask Gahl,” Avon said flatly. “He was the last person I regularly shared a bed with.”
In the dark, behind Avon’s head, where Avon definitely could not see, Vila grimaced and considered knocking his head repeatedly against the edge of the drawer until he knocked some sense into it. Incredible how you could put your foot in your mouth even when there was absolutely no room to bend. Gahl and Avon had been lovers. Had Avon and Tynus been lovers too?
A small, nasty part of his brain pointed out that he had recently put his arm around Avon, who was now a confirmed bisexual. Maybe Avon would think that he... that he, Vila, was trying to make a move-
Don’t be ridiculous, the rest of Vila’s brain retorted. Who makes a move in a drawer surrounded by dead people? And besides – now he knew what he’d been looking at, he realised how Avon had been looking at Blake from day one.
The best thing to do was to continue to talk to Avon like a person, and hope Avon didn’t brain him for it.
“No thanks,” he said in response to Avon’s earlier suggestion that he speak to Gahl. “He seems like a bit of a scumball to me. Choose your friends more carefully next time, Avon.”
“As you once observed, Vila – I don’t have any friends,” Avon said.
“Course you do,” Vila said. “What about me? What about Cally? And Blake-”
“Blake?” Avon said, with a short bark of a laugh. “Scraping the barrel a little early there, Vila.”
“And the good thing is,” Vila said as he rolled his eyes, “that all of us have at least a high a bounty on our heads as you do. So you know we won’t betray you. Even though we are all criminals.” He thought about saying that he didn’t think any of them were that sort of criminal, either, but it seemed unnecessary. Either Avon knew it or he didn’t, but Vila thought he probably did.
“Avon,” Blake’s voice said through the bracelets on both of their wrists. “Vila. Stand by to teleport.”
“That’s good to know,” Avon said with enough of an edge of irony to it that it didn’t sound as much like gratitude as it probably was. Vila gave Avon a quick hug and then released him before the teleport could pick them up, so that Avon didn’t have time to object and nobody on the Liberator would know any of this had ever happened.