"Why do you stay?"
Vila was startled by Soolin's voice. He hadn't even known she was in the room, much less right behind him. Perhaps he'd been napping at the dining table, but he didn't remember falling asleep.
How long had it been since he'd fallen asleep outside of his own quarters with the door locked tight?
"How do you mean?" he asked, only sure she'd spoken and he hadn't dreamed it by the expectant expression on her face.
She rounded the table and sat in the chair opposite him. She didn't answer his question, but she still looked expectant.
Probably figured that he was just stalling. Which he was, but her knowing it annoyed him. "Why are you asking me that anyway? What do you care?"
"I'm not forcing you to answer."
"So, if I don't answer, you're just going to sit there?"
"Tell me why you're asking first."
"In order to have something to hang over your head, I'm sure," Soolin said with a vague smile. "Or, perhaps, because I am curious. I like to know the people I live with. Safer that way. And I thought I knew you."
"And now you don't think so?"
"I'm not answering another question. It's your turn."
Vila heaved a sigh and leaned back in his chair, trying to straighten out the crook in his back. "I don't have anywhere else to go."
"No," she said. "A real answer."
"What d'you mean?"
"I mean that the Federation is like a dog; it scratches at the fleas that bite. If you found somewhere to hide away, they'd be a hell of a lot more likely to leave you be than they are while you're at Kerr Avon's side." She folded her arms on the table and leaned forward. "I was naive enough to think loyalty might be at the heart of it, but he tried to kill you in that shuttle, didn't he?"
Vila frowned and silently wished for a glass of wine. Not because he wanted to get drunk, really. Because he wanted to hide his face behind the glass while he drank. Because that was the role he was playing now. The sad, useless drunk.
"I can sit here all day," Soolin said smoothly.
She'd brushed off the easy answer, the one the others accepted because it sounded reasonable enough if you didn't look too close. Maybe she really did want to know the truth, as unlikely as that seemed.
Vila sighed and cast his eyes down to the table. "I said I wouldn't."
He expected Soolin to laugh then, but she didn't, so he kept going.
"He had a friend, well, he had a lot of friends, and he probably has a lot more, who'd kick him off a cliff if they had half a chance. Or they just left when it got rough. Is that worse or better?" Vila swallowed thickly. "After one of them, the one he liked the most, did just what all the others do, I told him. I said I'm not like them. I don't make many promises, but I like to keep them when I do."
Soolin was silent for a moment. Then, she stood and opened up the cupboard where she kept her store of the wine. She poured them both a glass and sat back down.
"Now," she said. "Tell me the rest."
Vila blinked at her.
"You don't keep promises to someone who tries to kill you unless you've got a death wish."
With a sigh, Vila lifted his glass and took a slow drink, happy for the pause it gave him. He didn't want to answer, and he did want to at the same time. It felt a bit like betrayal. Avon would certainly think it was.
But it was just such a relief to say the words. Like putting down a heavy backpack after a long day's trek.
"I didn't make the promise to him," Vila said, barely putting a voice to the words.
Soolin narrowed her eyes at him, waiting.
"I made the promise to Avon. Avon didn't try to kill me. This isn't Avon." Vila strained a smile at her, if only to keep from crying. "You've never even met Avon. I'm just waiting for him to come back, is all. What if he came back and there was no one here who liked him all that much? He'd just go away again. He wouldn't be able to help it."
She crinkled her brow as she tried to understand Vila's meaning. "He was conditioned?"
Vila almost laughed at the idea. "No. It just got too much for him and he changed into this. But this isn't him."
"How can you be sure he'll change back?" Soolin sipped at her wine, her eyes locked on Vila. "Sometimes, people just change."
Vila shook his head. "Not him. Not this way."
"How do you know?"
"Because I know him. Because it can't be true that a person fights off all their natural impulses, their greed, their self-preservation... they don't come back every time to help people when they could go off on their own and do a hell of a lot better, and well, they don't find a way to care about people when it doesn't come naturally do them just to become lose all that and become this." Vila knew he wasn't making sense to Soolin, but he couldn't stop. "A person doesn't become a monster from caring. He can't. I don't want to live in a universe where that happens, so he can't. I know he's still in there, the way he used to be, because he has to."
Vila closed his eyes to keep his tears back. He didn't cry in front of people. He hadn't cried in years when he cried on the shuttle, hiding from Avon's saccharine sweet voice, and now he was making himself want to cry again.
He kept his eyes closed, listening to Soolin drink her wine, until the threat passed and he could open his eyes again. "Probably didn't answer your question at all, did I?"
"You do have a death wish." Soolin set her empty glass down and stood to leave. "I'm beginning to think all of us do."
"It's not the only wish I have," Vila said quietly.
On her way out, Soolin stopped next to him and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Let's hope the other one comes true first, then," she said, and she left.