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Farewell Performance

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A shadow fell over Vila's solitary table, a tall feminine shadow with a fall of platinum hair.

He barely looked up. "Go away." One-handed, he groped for the bottle the 'tender had left and topped off his glass. "I'm off tonight. You aren't due to bully me again until the morning."

"Maybe I'm ahead of schedule." Soolin pulled a chair around so it faced backwards to the table and straddled it. "What are you drinking?"

It was after two in the morning, local time, and the tavern stood nearly empty, with old Misha himself the only 'tender left on duty, polishing methodically on a spotted glass, waiting for the nightcrawlers to come in and fence their stolen goods. The only other late customers left him alone, a solitary drinker with his half-empty bottle of oblivion. Just the way he wanted it, too. "What do you care?" He knew his tone was surly and didn't care about that, either.

"Hostile tonight, aren't we?" The reply was without rancor, but without much friendliness or fellow feeling, either, just the cool impersonality that characterized Soolin these past weeks.

"You don't know the half of it," Vila muttered, half under his breath. He hated it here. He wanted to go home, wherever home might be in this ripped-up travesty of a galaxy. He wanted Blake, he wanted Cally...heaven help him, he even wanted Avon. He wanted a familiar face that wouldn't push him around more than once a day or twice, who would treat him like a person rather than a thieving automation.

He should never've have left Avon on Gauda Prime. Who knew what trouble the man would get into without him? Probably try to throw the wrong kind of fellow out of an airlock, for a start, the type who'd cut up nasty about the business, not like good old Vila Restal.

Soolin snagged the bottle from across the table, interrupting his reverie. "What is it?" she repeated, but not as if she really expected an answer. Without waiting for him to speak, she splashed a portion into an empty tumbler. She drank and waited for a moment, as if taste were a delayed reaction, then finally grimaced. "Roseta?"

"It's cheap." Vila drank down half his own portion without bothering to make a face. No point, was there? He'd be drinking more--much more--tonight and he didn't want to wear out his grimace too early. "You don't pay me enough for the good stuff, at least not in quantity."

"We don't make enough for anything good--in quantity." Soolin filled her glass again. "I hate this life." She drank and didn't bother with a grimace this time, herself.

She hated it? She wasn't the one who got bullied, the one who got told, "Vila do that, Vila do this, Vila open the lock and hurry this time." He glanced up from his drink, about to tell her so, in detail, when he caught sight of her face and really looked at it for the first time in weeks.

She looked as bad as a really beautiful woman could look, which wasn't all that shabby, except she didn't seem at all like Soolin.

Her hair lay lank and unstyled on her shoulders and he remembered--in sudden, aching detail--how she used to fuss with it back on Xenon Base and how strange he'd found it that a gunslinger should spend hours on styling her hair.

Now that he looked closely, he noticed how rumbled her tunic was and that it was in fact the same tunic she'd worn yesterday and very probably the day before.

"What's the matter?" It would be a disaster, of course. What else ever happened to the likes of them except disaster?

Soolin rubbed at her eyes with the back of one hand. "The Manker Cartel wants us for a bit of industrial espionage." She rubbed harder, as though she had a cinder in her eye. "It's a simple in and out job, filching plans from a rival's R&D facility."

"Shouldn't be a problem," Vila said cautiously. "Of course, I'd have to see the setup."

Soolin didn't answer immediately. Instead, she finished the roseta in her glass and poured herself another. Her voice, when she spoke, sounded slightly drugged. "No, no's a perfectly simple job."


She ignored him. Which wasn't exactly unusual, after all. But it was if her mind was a thousand spacials away, wandering in a whole 'nother time. "The Manker Cartel was in charge of establishing mining operations on Gauda Prime once," she said distantly. And drank off half the glass.

Mining on GP? Vila made the connection within the space of a breath. The cartel was responsible for the deaths of Soolin's parents. Oh, hell. "Soolin, we don't have to--"

She cut across his words. "Oh, yes we do. You haven't seen our credit balance." Suddenly, she buried her face in her hands, so that all he could see was a fall of pale hair. "God, Vila, I'm tired." Her voice, ordinarily smooth and controlled, suddenly cracked. "I'm so tired."

It was the first flaw in her iron facade that he'd seen since GP, when she'd first taken on the role of a female Kerr Avon. Tentatively, Vila laid a feather-light hand on her shoulder.

"No, it's all right." She raised her head and dragged her forearm over her wet eyes. "I didn't mean to make a scene. It's seems like the struggle never ends. And for what? Just to survive? Nothing better than that?" Shakily, she raised the glass of roseta to her lips.

"Won't do any good, Soolin," Vila said quietly. When survival seemed little enough cause to struggle for, mere alcohol wouldn't do the trick.

She swung her head around, startled.

"I should know. I've been trying it for weeks now, myself." Gently, he detached the glass from her shaking fingers and put it back on the table. "Forget it. It doesn't work all that well and it tastes awful besides."

Reluctantly, she surrendered the liquor. "What does work then? Vila, I'm becoming a bit desperate."

He looked full into her face. The china blue eyes were faded and red, with deep purplish shadows bruising the hollows underneath. "I only know what works for me." A touch of whimsy colored his voice.

She took the drink he still held and set it on the table beside hers. "Then tell me what works for you, Vila. Please tell me." There was, for the first time in an eon, something gentle about her face, something tender.

He didn't have to tell her about his cure for melancholy. It was in her eyes...she already knew. And approved.


He didn't trust invitations issued in the heat of despair, and beautiful woman--particularly women as beautiful as Soolin--tended to worry him, with memories of jealous husbands banging his head against the dome walls. But took the good things in this galaxy as you could. And helped your friends, even if they didn't acknowledge that status in your life.

That was the Philosophy of Life according to Vila Restal, anyway.

"Your quarters or mine?" he asked whimsically.

Soolin managed a smile. "They're both equally sordid."

Vila thought for a moment. "I put on clean sheets yesterday."

"Your place," she said promptly.

"Thought you might say that."

Quarters at Misha's Tavern and Hostelry could only be described as spartan, or as Soolin unkindly said, sordid. Certainly, the decor had none of the modernist panache Dorian had lent to the caverns at Xenon Base. Vila had done his best, sprinkling the room with little decorative knickknacks, mostly items lifted from the bar's more affluent--or successful--patrons, but the effect was still, well...sterile.

And speaking of sterile... Vila unobtrusively snatched up a small box of contraceptive patches and applied one to his inner arm. Putting Soolin in a family way, he thought, would be a decidedly bad idea. He tried to be careful of the proprieties around lady gunfighters.

"I like a man who thinks of the essentials." Soolin sat gingerly on the edge of his narrow bed, looking a bit nervous. In fact, looking like she was thinking of changing her mind and bolting for the door and was simply talking to keep herself distracted from doing just that.

"I like a woman who likes a man who--" He moved across the room as he spoke and crouched beside her in an unthreatening manner.

"Stop." Soolin put a finger to his lips, laughing a bit shakily. "We could be at this all night."

"I hope so." He leaned forward and touched his lips to hers. Her lips were firm and cool and tasted rather unfortunately of roseta. But then they both did, so there was no helping that. Carefully (he didn't want to scare her off, did he now?) he probed at the seam of her closed lips with his tongue, persisting until she opened her mouth slowly, like a flower coming into bloom.

The blue, blue eyes closed as if in contemplation. "Ah," she breathed into his mouth. Despite the roseta, the taste of her was delicious.

He leaned closer, threatening to topple over, but hardly noticing, exploring her mouth, gently stroking her palate, her inner lips, then her own tongue with his. She was like a pale, still Sleeping Beauty who he was bringing slowly and carefully to life.

So used to her quiet receptivity did he become, that he almost jumped when she suddenly came to life, thrusting her tongue into his mouth, as if initiating a duel. He couldn't quite stifle a groan and his masculine interest quickly jumped into an acute state of attention. His own tongue instantly assumed a role in the mock battle, and they went back and forth between their mouths for a long, delicious time.

At last, she broke the kiss and sat back to look at him, a little glazed. "I didn't expect us to ever get to this point."

"Too low-brow for your tastes, am I?" The idea didn't offend him. He was used to it.

She shrugged depreciatingly. "Perhaps."

"And you rather fancied Avon."

"I always enjoyed a touch of danger," she admitted. "But perhaps I overestimated its lure. I find myself looking for less explosive pastimes these days." She sat quietly for a moment, looking at him as if he were a altogether different person from the thief she'd bullied just yesterday. "You know, you're very good at this."

He reached out to stroke his fingertips over the curve of her cheekbone. "I aim to please. Let me please you, Soolin."

He touched her lips again with his and she opened her mouth with a small, inarticulate sound that brought his erection to an even higher level of attention. And just from a kiss. Well, it was bound to happen, he thought philosophically. They'd all been celibate too long, the denizens of Xenon Base, and see how cross it had made them and how prone to walk into all manner of traps and disasters. Take Avon. If someone--anyone--had pinned the man to a mattress, they'd been saved all kinds of grief in the long run and the short run both.

Look at the himself and Soolin right now, just as an example. They'd be lucky if they didn't both come before they could even get their clothes off...and all from excess celibacy.

Fine for Soolin, she could always do it again and again after that, being a woman and all. But he wasn't as young as he once'd been and couldn't guarantee repeating the experience immediately. Maybe if he thought about something else, tricky locks he'd known or getting airlocked or being ordered about by Tarrant...

Trouble was, he wanted to keep his full and undivided attention on the hand.

Soolin's firm, ample breast was the most immediate matter at hand. Deftly, he found his way into her tunic and freed the desired object from its lingeried captivity. The nipple was already erect, inviting his closer scrutiny. He ran a fingertip over it and she, nearly jumped.

Too much celibacy, he thought sadly. He pinched the hardened tip between finger and thumb and she jerked several millimeters. Which was rather an encouraging effect and proved she was paying strict attention to the proceedings. So he did it again.

"Vila," she gasped into his mouth, which again proved she had her mind in the proper channels. He'd really hate it if she moaned "Kerr" or even "Dorian," though, of course, force of habit might produce the latter.

Opening the other side of her tunic, he found himself with both hands full of Soolin, not at all an unpleasant situation to be in. He kept his fingers very busy.

She inched her hips toward the edge of the mattress, splaying her legs so he could move between them. Very nice. Reluctantly, he let go of one handful of breast, so that he could run his fingers up the inside of her fabric-covered leg. Even with the cloth separating flesh from flesh, it felt good to him, and evidently to her, too, since her legs came further apart, which he interpreted as a positive signal.

She freed her lips for a moment. "Clothes," she whispered hoarsely.

"Too many of them," Vila agreed, "and in all the wrong places."

He helped Soolin off with her tunic. It was the least a gentleman could do, after all. And if he wasn't really a gentleman, he could pretend to be, couldn't he, just this once or twice? He was pleased to find she wore the kind of delicate and expensive lingerie he'd enjoyed taking off women of the Alpha class, back on Earth. That kind of lingerie belonged on a woman who put as much trouble into her hair as Soolin did.

Or, as the case might be, belonged off a woman like Soolin. He stripped the bits of lace and satin away appreciatively. Nothing about a woman's clothes became her so well as the doffing of them, he always said. Or at least that's what he always thought. Saying things like that aloud could get a man in trouble. Much better to just demonstrate.

Leaning forward, he got himself a mouthful of Soolin, which was quite tasty and yielding. She smelled of a light wildflower cologne mixed with an undertone of the fluid she used to clean her guns. Innocence and danger in the same package.

Her fingers curled tightly into the loose material of his tunic. "Oh, Vila." She got the name right again. Amazing. She should really be rewarded. He nipped lightly at the erect tip of her breast and she promptly moaned. That was the ticket. He flicked his tongue expertly over the nipple a few times, rendering it even more erect, then settled down for some serious nibbling.

Soolin's fingers clutched even tighter on his shoulders. "Clothes, Vila," she said vaguely.

Clothes? Oh, yes...he'd only done half a job there. Sloppy ...without sufficient practice, a man got very sloppy. Reluctantly, he removed his attention--and his mouth--from Soolin's breast.

While he'd been otherwise occupied, Soolin had somehow managed to free herself of her boots, which lay abandoned at odd angles on the floor. Now she struggled with the fastening on her pants, her fingers slightly clumsy.

"Allow me." Women's clothing held no secrets for him. Drunk, sober or glazed with pure lust he could dispense with any style or category within two seconds flat. Within the allotted time, Soolin's pants had joined her boots on the floor.

Oh, very nice. Soolin's briefs matched the tiny camisole he'd already removed, a confection of blonde lace and artistically placed scraps of satin that impeded the view of pale, curling hair hardly at all. "Very nice," he murmured and slid his hand over the crotch of the briefs to find the bit of satin damp and clinging. "Oh, yes, very nice," he repeated hoarsely, "but let's take it off."

Obediently, she lifted her hips and let him slide the panties down her long--and very nice, he noticed--legs. The briefs joined the rest of her paraphernalia on the floor. He started to slide his hands back up those legs, back to that nice, warm, damp place he knew was waiting just for him.

"Clothes, Vila." He looked up from his occupation, startled. "Your clothes."

She helped him struggle out of his tunic, which was nice of her--turn about and all that. But he wasn't sure that her assistance with his trousers' fastening wasn't more of hinderance than assistance. Those slender fingers hovering over the essential element of his sexual anatomy was decidedly distracting.

"Soolin, I don't think..." But just the same, he was struggling to kick off his boots without breaking her concentration.

"I do think," she said softly, and fumbled open the fastening. She reached into his briefs to take him into her cool, soft hand and the shock of flesh against flesh had him close to coming on the spot. Somehow, he managed to strip off trousers and underwear and kick them across the floor, trying to distance his mind from the feeling of her hand moving firmly and rhythmically on his swollen flesh. An unsuccessful effort at best.

But at least now they were both naked. It was a step in the right direction. A part of his mind noted distantly that he should've urged Soolin to seduce Avon back on Xenon Base...the man wouldn't have had the strength to try and airlock his friends, after a dose of female gunfighter.

And further back, Blake would've been a perfect target for Soolin's abilities. Without the energy to worry about Star One, Blake would've been a much more pleasant companion.

"Vila." Her voice was a whisper of warmth in his ear. "Let's go to bed."

Vila forgot Blake and assigned Avon to the perdition where he belonged. Letting gravity do his work, he allowed himself to fall forward onto the bed, which had an extra cushion made up of soft, warm Soolin. "Let go of that," he directed.

"Why?" She squeezed the appendage in question. "Were you going to do something in particular with it?" She bit his ear, as if for good measure. He didn't think he could be any more aroused, but between her hand and her sharp little teeth, he certainly seemed to have gotten an extra bit of a jolt.

"I had a trick or two in mind, yes," he managed.

She giggled, a surprisingly soothing sound to Vila's ears. It'd been too long since he'd heard a certifiable girlish giggle. "Tricks like hide the sausage?"

Vila choked. "Now you sound like a Delta."

She inched down and bit his neck, in a completely delicate and unvampiric manner of which he approved. "Must be the company I keep. I find myself suddenly fascinated with Delta...customs." As if reluctantly, she loosened her hold on his essential part.

That was better. Well, not precisely better, perhaps, but conducive to not ending the proceedings in an abrupt and embarrassing manner. Ladies first, after all. He might not have been bred a gentleman, but he had learned the principles of etiquette from some exceedingly helpful Alpha women, most of them wives of muckitymucks with less enlightened views on female precedence.

He eased his hand between their bodies, sliding it downward in order to find the essential part of her anatomy. Oh, nice. Very nice. She was very warm and very slippery and every move of his fingers produced a forward rotation of her hips as if to encourage his industry.

Soolin moaned, a sound caught somewhere between pleasure and pleasurably aching pain, interlaced with a hint of surprise that he really hadn't expected. "Really...that's not...oh... necessary, Vila."

"Not necessary, but quite nice." Vila's estimation of the late Dorian Whomever-He-Was, never that high, sunk another few levels. All those centuries to hone his skills and he still practiced the old "in-out, hope it was good for you, too, but I don't particularly care" school of sex. Stupid man. Vila sighed happily as he found the precise spot on Soolin's body designed to produce a transcendental experience for them both.

Soolin made another interestingly strangled sound deep in her throat, this moan definitely tinged with surprise.

"Inconsiderate lout," Vila muttered, then added hastily, "Not you." The soft flesh under his hand was sweet and wet and swollen with desire and he paid it the proper homage. A delicate touch came in handy with locks, true enough, but his skills had more intimate uses, as well.

Her hips heaved convulsively under his touch. "I always knew you were good with your hands," she whispered, echoing his train of thought. "But this is..." She seemed to be searching for a word.

"Pleasant? Ecstatic? Enjoyable for women of all ages?" He didn't pause in the work of his fingers as he spoke. Contrary to Avon's oft-expressed opinion, he could talk and perform simple tasks at the same time.

"All of the above." He voice caught and she clutched at his bare shoulders. Fortunately, Soolin kept her fingernails sensibly short, though he really didn't mind a few scratches in the line of duty.

"I'll take that as a compliment." He also took it as an inspiration. Positive reinforcement always did work the best, didn't it now? Though he could never convince some people he used to know of that simple fact.

To do Soolin justice, she provided plenty of positive feedback. While she couldn't be inexperienced, judging from the play of her clever fingers a few minutes back, that didn't mean she was accustomed to being treated to the finer things in life. From her reactions, she seemed to be a mere babe in the woods in several important areas.

Time to rectify that relative ignorance. After all, a woman could never have too much education, he'd heard it said. And while he might indeed be a fifth grade ignorant in some areas, in others he'd done his bit toward an really advanced degree.

He stroked one finger over her clitoris with a steadily intensifying rhythm. Her fingers clutched harder and her hips thrust up to improve the angle, her kiss-reddened lips half open as if she were desperate for air. "Yes. Oh, yes...Vila. It's" The china blue eyes opened and closed again, as if in confusion.

Vila felt a degree of dislocation, himself. She felt so good under his fingers, under his body. And her incoherent moans, not to mention her intuitive movements, were provoking a degree of interest that he feared he could not long ignore.

Still, he could probably manage a few more minutes. The most importune member of his body part brigade protested vociferously at the delay, but was told quite definitely to shut up. Just for a minute. Just for a few...more ...minutes...

A smooth, long limb snaked around one of his legs, then slid up to circle a hip, gluing him to the exact spot where his clamoring senses most wanted to him be. Or at least very near to it. "Vila," Soolin whispered sweetly in his ear, "Do you happen to remember where I put my gun?"

He cleared his throat and tried to assume his meekest mien. "I don't suppose you're trying to tell me something?" It was hard--very hard indeed--to tell his body to wait, when Soolin obviously had no interest in delay.

"Yes, Vila. That's precisely what I'm trying to do." Her voice became a low growl. Her leg squeezed his hip suggestively. "In, Delta scum."

"Well, since you asked so prettily." Vila positioned himself at her entrance and eased himself forward so just a bit, just the tip of his erection entered her. He heard himself utter a small, plaintive moan...this was a rather difficult maneuver, demanding a reserve of willpower that he might or might not actually possess at this point.

Nor did his partner seem to particularly applaud his efforts.

Soolin seized his hips in her slender and oh-so-silken hands. "I said in." With a jerk, she pulled him down and forward, levering him with her legs and hands so that he was seated to the hilt.

"Mmmmm." She felt incredibly good, surrounding his essential part with her warm, wet, mobile sheath of lovely female flesh. As he tried to get some sort of control over his senses, the velvet warmth spasmed around his penis, squeezing him in a much more sensuous clasp than even the knowing silken hands could manage. This was heavenly. More than heavenly. He slipped his arms under her, hands clutching at the smooth, femininely muscled back. "Mmmmm."

After a moment immersed in the pure physical sensation that was Soolin, Vila pulled himself back in one excruciatingly slow, smooth movement that ended with only the tip of him still inside her.

Soolin gave voice to a heartfelt moan of disapproval at his near- withdrawal and pushed her hips upward as if to follow him.

"Slowly," he chided. Some people felt they had to hurry, but as fun as an occasional quickie could be, he'd learned to appreciate the uses of a sort of slow, burning torture that built and built toward a much more satisfactory conclusion than the old in-out could ever do.

"Slowly," he repeated, and sank back into her with the same lack of haste and hurry, immersing himself into her damp warmth centimeter by leisurely centimeter, relishing the way her inner muscles embraced him, squeezing his penis in a rippling, rhythmic welcome. She had some very talented musculature, did Soolin.

"Slow is one thing." Her voice was hoarse, just this side of utter, lovely insanity. "Killing me with kindness is quite another. Did you take lessons in torment from Federation interrogators?"

Actually, he had once been rather chummy with a Central Security interrogator of the female persuasion, and she'd gotten him out of a tight spot, too, in return for favors given. But he felt it best not to recite the anecdote at this particular juncture in the proceedings.

"It'll be worth it in the end, Soolin, just you wait and see." He tried to tell his essential anatomy the same story, but it seemed even less inclined to listen to him than his entranced companion. That part of him wanted to thrust and plunge frantically into her tight warmth until passion reached its all-too-satisfactory conclusion. Which was a fine idea indeed, but not just yet. Just wait, he told himself soothingly, and in just a little bit more time, not too long at all, we'll be there. I promise. Really.

With difficulty, he kept to the pace, enjoying, almost too much for his fragile will power, Soolin's complimentary movements below him, touch and retreat of hip against hip, breast against chest, those wonderful matching parts of male and female advancing and retreating.

"Mmmmm." He quickened just a bit, just a trifle, and her arms tightened around him, hands sliding over the angles of his back. Her long, slender legs curled more firmly around his hips, ankles crossed to ride his buttocks.

"Mmmm, yes," she murmured into his ear, and thrust forward so that the exquisite friction was harder, faster, more intense. Vila groaned. He had very little intestinal fortitude remaining to him and that little was being swiftly leeched away in the sensation invoked by Soolin's talented writhing. The only thing to do was to be dead certain he'd be taking her on this voyage with him.

If he could. He hoped he could.

Shifting his hips slightly, so his pelvis would rub against her most sensitive anatomy with every stroke, he managed at the same time to wedge one hand between them so he could tease at one nipple. As he did, he noted the rosy beginning of a flush rising over the pale skin of her breasts. Oh, good sign. Oh, very good sign. And not an instant too soon.

"Soolin," he whispered in her elegant ear. "Now would be a very good time." What now would be a good time for, he left to her imagination.

The blue eyes opened and the hint of a smile curved her lips. "Vila, I..." Then her eyes widened further still, as if she were caught by surprise. She gasped, "Vila, oh God, Vila..." and her legs and arms tightened around him convulsively. Another part of her convulsed, too, clutching him with a series of delightful contractions.

"Oh, very good, Soolin."

At last, he let himself go, thrusting fast and hard and deep into that wonderful tight sheath of womanly flesh, which hugged his erection in such an intimate and friendly manner. And when he finally came, the sensation was so intense as to be practically painful. Well, not quite painful, when you came right down to it, just infinitely glorious.

He collapsed on top of her, utterly drained, utterly at peace, his breathing gradually slowing to something like normal. Come to think of it, there might be one advantage to prolonged celibacy, just one benefit out of all those dreadful drawbacks he'd thought of previously.

It felt so good once one was finally free of the damnable affliction.


"Thank you, Vila," Soolin managed, some minutes later.

He rolled over lazily, lost in the lassitude of after-coital bliss, and buried his face in her smooth, scented shoulder. "Think nothing of it," he mumbled happily. "It was no hardship at all."

"Funny." Her fingers played in his dampened hair. "There are times when I almost like you. I think this is one of them."

"Ummm." Vila tilted his head so he could see her face, enjoying the slight, lingering curve to her lips, the way the lines the last weeks had etched around her eyes were relaxed into smoothness. He'd never been in love, not even really with Kerril...they'd been together for too short a time for chemistry to ripen into understanding. But he'd always appreciated the therapeutic aspects of sex, the mysterious way it could--if only for a short time--infuse two people with the illusion of non-loneliness.

Too bad the effect always faded with time. Too little time for his taste.

Soolin lay quiet, but he could see the shadows begin to gather around her features once more, a natural accompaniment to less-than-pleasant thoughts. Bad habit, thinking. He tried to avoid it whenever he could, and ignore it when he couldn't. But now Soolin was all prepared to tell him exactly what she thought and how she had come to her unpleasant conclusions and why she thought it was all so terrible and getting worse all the time. He knew that look...why the upper grades couldn't leave bad enough alone would always be a mystery to him.

"Vila." Yes, here it came and just when he was feeling so relaxed, too. But her fingers still played in his hair and felt rather nice, even as she was about to spoil the whole mood. "We had something."

"Whatca talking about?" He fell naturally into the lowest-of-the-low accent, as he always did when he wanted to avoid an issue or weasel out of something or just plain change the subject to something more pleasant. Actually, he knew immediately what she was talking about, though why and where the instant understanding came from he didn't know. Didn't want to know.

"We had something," she repeated softly. "We had something good and we let it die."

On Xenon Base, she meant. On Xenon Base and Scorpio, when they were all five of them together. "I don't remember having that much fun," he protested feebly.

She angled her head around to look at him. "Don't you?"

"I remember Dayna insulting me and you insulting me and Tarrant bullying me and Avon being just plain..." He let it go, because there was really no use to it. Yes, he did remember having fun. He remembered with a sudden, horrible vividness, as if of a holo of a time passed and done and never, never to come again.

Most of the time, of course, they'd just tried to survive, so those were the memories he'd always dredged up first, as a matter of course. Like the memory of Dorian and his horrible cellar, of the life draining out of him like the ebbing of the tide above Virn, of Tarrant yelling at him as Xenon was being slowly poisoned by his girlfriend's father and, worst of all possible memories, of Avon stalking him through the tiny shuttle over Malodaar and his own bitter, disillusioned tears.

But other little memories intersected those tableaus of pain and fear, like the brief flashes of scenery illuminated during a lightening storm, in bursts that hurt the eye and cut at the heart.

Like sitting in the crew room with a bottle of Dorian's wine...not drunk, no, or even trying particularly to get there, but with his hand companionably about his glass, watching Tarrant go tinker, tinker, tinker with his navigation equipment scattered around him. And then turning his head to see Dayna and Soolin, brown and blonde heads together in the corner, ostensibly cleaning their guns, but more obviously gossiping like the young girls they still were, darting short, sly glances at the dark head bent over a circuit board or a technical manual.

No prize for guessing their topic of conversation. Pity that females always seemed to go for the mysterious type.

And that was a mystery, wasn't it, why Avon made up one of their cozy little group? He rarely spoke, except for an occasional caustic comment, directing them with democratic equality first at Vila, then at Tarrant, then turnabout all over again. But caustic or silent, he stayed with them, a surprisingly steadying presence.

Huh, that was funny, wasn't it? It made really very little sense.

They professed to disdain one another, but there they all sat together in the crew room, more nights than not, when there was Dorian's whole sprawling base for them to pursue their solitary paths in, if they chose. And that choice spoke louder than words, caustic or kind, that fact that even Avon the loner mostly preferred his companions to a night shut in his room with Orac.

"Maybe it was," he whispered, more himself than to her. "Fun. Sometimes. Once in awhile. When we weren't getting shot to bits, that is."

"We shouldn't have left, Vila. We should never have left them." Her voice sounded soft and sad and very nostalgic.

Vila remained silent. Well, they'd had reasons to leave, hadn't they? Good reasons, solid reasons. But somehow those reasons looked better in retrospect than in present tense. Funny about that. Except that Vila didn't feel much like laughing at the cosmic joke.

"Perhaps we could find them again," he offered tentatively.

For an instant, hope flickered in the blue gaze, then her face clouded over again. "With the whole galaxy to search through? Doesn't make sense, Vila."

He parted his lips over a protest, but something in her stubborn expression stopped him mid-word. Soolin feared a reunion with the crew as much as she desired it, he realized suddenly. While those days on Xenon Base remained a distant nostalgia, she didn't have to take a final step toward commitment. And after her parents' death, it was doubtful that commitment had played much part in the gunfighter's life.

When she'd joined them on Xenon, she'd simply sold her skills. If she made a similar choice now, it would mean much more, a step that Soolin wasn't yet ready to take. However much she might wish to do just that.

"Doesn't matter, Vila. It's in the past now." Her gaze became hesitant, almost awkward. "Vila, do you want me to leave now?"

Go back to her room, she meant. As if she were only an object to be used for a moment, then set aside. For an instant her face softened once more into vulnerability, and he glimpsed the girl she once had been, pretty and sweet-natured and perhaps a little shy, with bright ribbons in the pale cascade of hair. He felt a rare surge of protectiveness, not an emotion he often allowed himself--this nasty universe being a harsh place and him having a hard enough time protecting just himself, thank you very much.

But he could protect her for the night, against the enemy of her own thoughts, against the memory of her own mistakes.

"No," he said simply. "Please stay." He inched up on the thin mattress so they could snuggle together more conveniently. She turned her face into his bare shoulder with a sigh, as if to hide her unexpected moment of weakness, and he lay quietly, holding her close, enjoying the recently-rare pleasure of skin touching skin, of soft hair under his stroking fingers, of womanly fragrance surrounding him.

Without looking up from his shoulder, she brushed her hand over the line of his cheekbone, as lightly as a feather. "Goodnight, Vila Restal."

"G'night." He ruffled the hair beneath his fingers.

Within a few minutes, she was deeply and--it seemed to Vila's eyes--dreamlessly asleep, a blessing in these days when most of their dreams had turned to nightmares. But Vila lay wakeful, staring at the pitted ceiling, prey to unpleasant and disturbing ruminations all his own. He wished Soolin hadn't started it, this look backward to memories, both the good and the ugly. It left him uncomfortable, full of regrets for perhaps ill-considered decisions. Oh, admit it, Restal, one very ill-considered decision.

He shouldn't have left Avon on Gauda Prime.

It was as simple as that, really. As simple as a broken crystal goblet, lying on a stone floor, and just as about as unfixable. For if even Soolin, the most independent of the whole lot of them, felt guilty about splitting off from the group, how much less should Avon's friend have jumped ship and run for the hinterlands?

Not that he'd do Avon--or himself, come to that--much good floating about in a vacuum. But the truth was that a tight spot like Malodaar was unlikely to come up more than a couple of times a millennium, even for an unlucky bunch like theirs. He could be mad at Avon, and he was, he could be hurt at Avon's actions, he could try to torment Avon into expressing the guilt that any kind of decent person would feel in their situation.

But he shouldn't have left Avon, not after seeing the look on his face when he'd killed Blake, not after seeing the hell the man had descended into as his crew and his life fell around him on the tracking room floor.

Vila's last glance at Avon had not been a happy one. But in that shocking moment, it was too obvious how much Avon did care, and not only for Blake...though Vila doubted Avon would admit such caring even under even the most excruciating torture.

In the next lifetime he'd be careful to choose a boon companion of a more demonstrative nature...and one without an affinity for airlocks or dramatic shootouts with former colleagues.

But, harking back to this particular plane of existence, could the broken trust between him and Avon be repaired? It would be a job of work to put Malodaar out of his mind and he, for one, doubted he'd ever entirely succeed in stuffing that particular dark genie back into its original bottle...or even if he should abandon the caution he'd learned in that terrible hour.

Nonetheless, he wanted to put the pieces back together. No, wanted wasn't the word. He longed to repair their small shattered--what had Dorian called it?--yes, their gestalt with an almost palpable intensity. In all his life, Liberator and then Scorpio had been the only places he'd truly felt any sense of belonging, that feeling of being home. In the end, Avon, Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin were the only people left to him, the only people who mattered in the whole rotten galaxy.

Well, that was it then, wasn't it? The decision had been made, between the space of one breath and the next. He'd find Avon and make Avon put the pieces of them back together again. It was the least the man could do, from where Vila sat.

But how to find him? The universe was a pretty large haystack and Avon, though certainly conspicuous in his fashion, a relatively small needle. If Avon was free and had any sense at all (of course that was debatable), he'd have left Gauda Prime in a flash.

Hm. So, perhaps he wouldn't look for Avon, after all. Perhaps he should just let Avon look for him.

And Avon would look for him eventually. Face it, the man was compulsive ...he'd looked for Blake these two years, surely he'd look for Vila as well, especially since, in his heart of hearts--always supposing Avon owned such an organ--the man knew he owed Vila for those minutes of soul-wrenching agony over the skies of Malodaar.

Of course, Vila thought with a painful stab of blackest humor, he'd have to practice his greeting. "No, I didn't betray you, Avon, and I'm standing very still right here, see?" might be a good start.

But where to hide in plain sight, that was the question. Where would Avon look, but the Federation not? Vila brightened. Of course...Avon would expect him to run to type and nothing was more to type for Vila Restal than a hive of debauchery and drunkenness. Avon would look at those first.

Freedom City? It was an attractive idea. But without Orac, he might find it difficult to cage enough credits and Kranter would most certainly remember his face and most probably be less than welcoming. Space City was the better choice, he decided. The Terra Nostra goon Blake had negotiated with had died--quite unpleasantly, Vila had heard--and besides, he hadn't visited the Terra Nostra with the others, but had pursued his own, only vaguely remembered, activities. He only hoped he'd had a good time, to make up for hell's own hangover.

Drawing a deep, steadying breath, he stared at the door, then back at the woman sleeping beside him. Plans were all well and good, but execution of plans was what got the thing done.

No more dithering. Vila slipped out of bed as silently as a shadow, transferring Soolin's head gently from his shoulder to the pillow. She sighed and shifted restlessly, but didn't wake.

But that wasn't so surprising, was it now? Soolin might have the reflexes of a trained gunfighter, but he had the stealthiness of a very experienced thief.

Quietly, Vila moved around the room from cupboard to closet, transferring his few possessions into a battered carryall.

The fair thing to do, the sensible thing to do and--considering what had just passed between them--the gentlemanly thing to do would be to wake Soolin and let her in on his plans. Give her a chance to throw her lot in with his, if she chose, and give them both an opportunity to continue the pleasant activities of the night all the way to Space City, and beyond.

Trouble was, it'd also give Soolin a chance to try and change his mind.

Not that he expected Soolin to try feminine wiles or tears or even sex to change his way of thinking. No, she'd use cold, clean logic against his soft and fuzzy emotions, and he had no doubt who'd win that encounter. He'd pursued too many useless arguments with Avon to harbor any illusions on that score.

No, Soolin might well regret splitting off from the others, but that beautiful hard head of hers would make mincemeat of his reunion schemes before he could get them properly out of his mouth. Until she committed herself to the others of her own free will, all the persuasion in the universe would be so much wasted breath. She hadn't learned yet to let her heart occasionally win out over the supposedly wiser promptings of her head.

Certain people he could name never had learned that simple trick, and it got them involved in all sorts of calamities.

Vila dressed himself as quickly as he could in the rumpled tunic and trousers, then glanced around the room to see if he'd left anything vital, like a stray bottle of alcohol, say. He spied the package of contraceptive patches on the bedside table, and after a short internal debate, pocketed them. After all, Soolin's next lover could buy his own, couldn't he now?

He hoped she'd find a good one, the kind of fellow who could help fill those empty spaces she hid inside her, who'd teach her about the difference between hearts and heads and how to put those two organs together and come up with something better than the sum of both parts.

It was a knack Vila had yet to master himself, but maybe she'd have better luck when she found that mythical someone.

He glanced at his watch. If he remembered correctly, that tramp freighter pilot he'd shared a drink with yesterday evening intended to take off for Lindor at 0500 hours. From there it'd be a simple enough matter to get transport to Space City, always supposing he could lift enough ready cash from a few unsuspecting travelers with conveniently accessible pockets.

Pausing at the door, he looked back at the peaceful, curvaceous figure sprawled so prettily on the narrow bed. Life seemed unpleasantly full of partings recently, but with a touch of that luck he'd wished Soolin, maybe he and Avon could devise a get together before the Federation made such gatherings moot for all of them. He hoped so. Hope was he had left, these days, and he feared it'd be a cold partner in a lonely Space City bed. But he had to try.

"G'night, Soolin," he whispered.

Slipping out the door as silently as a phantom, Vila melted into the dark passageway beyond.