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A LIttle Tryst Between Friends

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by Tenaya

Soolin sat hidden behind a tree near the main entrance of Xenon base. She could have re–entered the base at any time since she knew the code, but she had preferred to wait, to re–think her position now that Dorian was dead.

She didn't have much choice, really. The only way off the planet was via the SCORPIO; she was doomed to remain here along with everyone else unless Avon and his bunch could unseal the doors to the hangar. If they were successful, she had two options. She could kill them and take the ship herself, or she could join up with them. Of the two choices, she preferred the latter for the moment for she had been impressed with what she had seen of Avon. He had shown intelligence and wariness in his dealings with Dorian and she felt she had a better chance in his company than in being alone. Not that she minded being alone, but she realized that she would have a higher quality of life if she had companions, allies with similar goals of self–preservation.

She heard someone coming and shifted slightly to peer past the tree.

Avon trotted up to the entrance and ran into the base without pause. He looked very intense.

Soolin sighed and stood up. Considering that his crew and then two of the Seska had run into the base within the last half hour, she could safely guess that things were coming to a head. She checked her gun's charge and quietly followed him in, mentally preparing herself to do whatever was necessary to insure that she would not be marooned on this planet.

Cautiously she made her way to the SCORPIO's hangar. She was startled to find the door open and the ship gone, a dead Seska lying beside the entrance. Soolin cursed herself for the miscalculation and hurried to the control room; perhaps she could countermand Slave's orders and get the ship to come back for her.

Hearing voices as she approached the room, she slowed to a stop, listening intently, relief and wariness warring within her. She still had a chance.

"Xenon Base, this is SCORPIO," said Avon.

"We hear you, Avon!" Dayna's voice was joyous. "Everything's under control. Why don't you join me?" Avon's voice was relaxed, the invitation almost lazy.

So, Avon has control of SCORPIO, thought Soolin, satisfied that she had evaluated his abilities correctly.

A strange, high–pitched whine startled her from her reflections. She raced into the room and saw Tarrant, Dayna and Vila enveloped by a reddish maelstrom of energy within the teleport chamber. Two of the figures faded away but luck was with her: Vila had failed to teleport. She saw him blink confusedly. "What happened?" he muttered to himself.

"I did not guarantee 100% success," said Orac, from where he sat on the table.

Vila appeared not to have noticed her, for he walked up to the little computer, his eyes seeing only it. "Why is it always me?" he wailed, frustrated at the unfairness of life.

Soolin placed her hand on her hip. "Seems fairly obvious from where I'm standing," she said dryly.

Vila snapped his attention on her, his face a mixture of shock, alarm and fright. She could feel the vulnerability he radiated as he faced her, alone and unarmed, and she was momentarily stunned. Unwillingly, his expression took her back years ago to when her family had been massacred; it mirrored exactly the one her brother had worn just before a gunman had killed him.

It was because those killers had murdered her family and taken her captive, because of her unbelievable pain and loss, that she had decided that to survive; she had to beat these bastards at their own game. So, she had learned the fast draw and when she was ready, had killed them, each and every one, in the same manner that they had slaughtered her family. Afterwards, she had felt empty, for her revenge had not erased her hurt. The killings weren't enough, but that was all she was going to get.

She watched Vila take a small step towards her, his eyes wide and fearful, dreading what she might do to him. It gave her small satisfaction that the mere sight of her was enough to scare a fully–grown man, even though that had been her objective. Had she become the same as her family's killers, or was she just strong enough to never again be hurt by such men?

She pushed the thoughts from her mind; she would deal with these questions later. For now, survival was the business at hand, and the man in front of her was a tool to be used, possibly as a hostage if it came to that.

"What do you want?" Vila finally asked, unable to stand the suspense.

She considered him carefully, then decided to be blunt. "I want a place in your group, for now."

Dayna's disembodied voice floated from the communicator. "Vila, are you all right?" she asked worriedly.

Vila hesitated until Soolin nodded her head towards the console. He hurried over and fumbled the switch in his haste. "Yes," he answered distractedly. "Um…listen. What do you think about having an extra person around for a while, to sort of help out and so on. What do you think?" His nervousness was very apparent to anyone who knew him.

Up on the SCORPIO, Avon heaved a sigh as yet another problem surfaced just when he thought he had everything under control. He reloaded his clip gun with a sharp snap. "I think Soolin has just come out of hiding." He walked over to where he had a clearer shot of the teleport chamber, in case she came up fighting.

Tarrant's puzzled expression cleared and he leaned over the communicator. "Who are you talking about, Vila?" he teased, delighted to extend the thief's discomfort.

The teleport activated and Soolin and Vila coalesced into being. Vila stood stiffly beside her, still obviously alarmed and thinking himself in danger.

"He's talking about me," she growled.

"You want to join us, is that it?" Tarrant asked mildly. He was considering the advantages of having a beautiful blonde around.

Dayna was slightly hostile to the dangerous newcomer. "Why?" she demanded.

"Why not?" Soolin answered reasonably. "Dorian's dead," she said, walking forward.

Avon wore a frown.

"You give your allegiance easily."

Soolin stared him in the eye. "I don't give my allegiance at all. I sell my skills." She drew her weapon with frightening speed, her smile full of confidence. She knew Avon was a reasonable man, and the best way to win over such a man was to prove your worth. She had no doubts about what her worth would be to a small band of wanted criminals.

And she was right.

* * * * *

The SCORPIO touched down lightly on the landing field of Merfict III and the crew prepared themselves to leave. The planet was neutral and a bustling center of commerce, but more importantly, it was the nearest place to buy nutrients for the food processors on Xenon.

This was not the first supply run SCORPIO's new crew had made to Merfict and there was a relaxed mood to the trip as they looked forward to an outing that was not intrinsically life–threatening.

"Avon," began Vila, "you don't need me with you to buy the nutrients, do you?"

Avon stared at Vila as he finished powering down the ship, not bothering to answer the thief's question.

Vila tried again, taking a stronger tack. "I want to take the evening off," he declared. "I want to have some fun."

Avon picked up the small satchel that contained the cash needed to buy the nutrients, and inspected the contents. "All right," he agreed without looking up. "But you'll have to take someone with you."

"Eh?" Vila was thrown off–balance by the ready approval.

Avon looked up, trying to decide whom to appoint as Vila's keeper.

"I'll go," Soolin volunteered. At Avon's look of mild surprise, she explained, "I know the town. Besides, if you have either Tarrant or Dayna go, I'll still have to go to keep an eye on them."

"True. Have him back here by midnight, local time." That settled, he activated the hatch and walked out, Dayna and Tarrant falling into step behind him. Dayna paused, offering Soolin a sympathetic glance. It was plain she thought the blonde was in for a trying evening.

Soolin turned to Vila, who was rapidly switching mental gears — he did not need to be told twice. "Well?" she inquired. "What's it to be?"

He leaned forward, his face animated. "What would you say to dinner, a concert, and then drinks and some gambling?"

She was surprised at his choice; she had been expecting him to simply want to go out to a bar and get drunk. Actually, his plan fit her mood perfectly. She began to wonder what sort of companion he would make — out there in a public and social setting — realizing that she'd never seen him away from the others before.

"All right," she agreed, "but I'll decide about the gambling later; Tarrant says you always cheat at cards and I don't want to be thrown out of anywhere. Or worse."

Vila looked affronted. "Tarrant's an ass. I usually don't need to cheat at cards, especially with him."

She stood. "Let's get started. I know a restaurant you might like; they have an extensive wine list." She paused, then turned back to face him. "Who's going to bankroll this little outing? I know that you don't have any money."

Vila rubbed his hands together briskly. "Yet," he corrected. "Not yet, you mean, pretty lady."

Soolin rolled her eyes. It looked to be an interesting night, she thought.

* * * * *

Soolin stared bemusedly into her glass of wine, the deep burgundy color made richer by the low lighting of the cafe. She felt relaxed, yet refreshed. The concert Vila had chosen had been of a loud and vigorous band, with the lead singer giving an energetic performance that was both delightful and enthusiastic. The pair from the SCORPIO came as close as they ever would to forgetting their worries as they sat and enjoyed the music.

Now, they sat together in companionable silence, scanning the rest of the customers in the bar. Soolin noticed that Vila's gaze was lingering on one of the single ladies.

"I met Dorian here, you know," she said with a slight smile; she knew that would bring his attention back, though why she would want this, she didn't consider.

Vila shifted around to face her. "Really?" Curiosity and interest built until he finally ventured cautiously. "How long were you two together, if you don't mind me asking, that is?"

"Two months."

Vila was surprised. "Is that all?" He cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes in speculation. "Why were you with him?" If Soolin was willing to talk about her past, Vila was not going to let this opportunity get by.

She glanced down at her glass again. "I had just finished a job and was ready for a change." She looked up and said dryly, "The idea of being alone, on a remote base with a handsome man was appealing…at the time."

Vila grinned. "Weren't you ever…bored?"

She smiled. "Not at first. No."

He arched his eyebrows and sat up straight. "But you did get bored. Obviously you were with the wrong man," he finished with a knowing wink.

She smiled at his foolishness.

"Don't you ever give up?"

"No, never!" he declared seriously. "I'd sooner give up drink!" He looked aghast and quickly checked over both shoulders. "Who said that?" he demanded.

She shook her head with amusement.

He smiled cheerfully at her. It always pleased him to make others happy. That he could get a smile from the usually somber gunfighter, well, it made him feel closer to her, like it was the beginning of a genuine friendship. And Vila liked being friends with someone as capable as Soolin; it gave him more security. He was starting to feel that she could be depended upon, despite her aloof, cool ways. He stared at her now, once again impressed by her beauty and the dichotomy she presented. Even though she was a woman, her face still carried the round smoothness that baby fat gives to the young. Her femininity in strange partnership with the efficient killer she was. At times, he sensed a poignancy about her; that someone that young and beautiful had been forced to a hard and violent life.

Sudden sympathy made him ask, "You don't mind, do you? I mean, it always seems to raise Dayna's spirits and I thought it would do the same with you." He paused, and then leaned close. "You know what they say about flirtation, don't you?"

Curiosity got the better of her. "No, what?"

"A–ttention without in–tention."

She considered his words gravely, a little startled that Vila was asking her permission to flirt, and in such a gentle way. "No, I don't mind at all." Then she realized what he had said and took the opportunity to tease him. "You mean to say you don't have any intentions?"

Suddenly serious, he said, "Well…I would if you'd let me."

She suddenly noticed that the soft brown color of his eyes was a much deeper shade than she'd previously thought. He was still leaning closely towards her and she could smell his warmth, a faintly pungent, spicy scent.

She stared at him for a few heartbeats longer, then made herself look away, across the room. She took a sip of her wine. Well, where do I go from here, she pondered.

Soolin suddenly realized that two familiar faces were staring at her from across the cafe and she tensed in reaction.

Vila noticed her change immediately. "Someone you know?" he asked worriedly. He did not turn around.

"A couple of creeps who used to be the competition. They aren't very good — I'm surprised to see they're still alive."

"Are they trouble? What do you want to do?" Vila asked anxiously.

One of the men nudged the other, then they both downed their drinks and left by the front door.

"They've left. I don't think they'd try anything, but to be on the safe side, I think we should cut short our evening out. Let's give them a few minutes then leave by the back door, if this place has one."

"There's another exit down that hallway there," he said with a nod, indicating a place slightly behind him and to his right.

Soolin glanced at the hallway, then gave the thief a steady stare. "How do you know that?"

"I always notice things like that," he said simply. He'd been a wanted man most of his life; knowing all the exits in a place had saved him from many an unpleasantness.

The next few minutes passed slowly. Vila fidgeted with his empty glass until Soolin announced it was time to leave. He reached into a pocket that was now full of cash and tossed a few credits on the table to cover their bill, then they walked slowly down the dark corridor till they came to the door at the end.

The lock refused Soolin, so she stepped back. Vila knelt down to examine it. "Half a minute," he pronounced as he pulled a probe from his trouser cuff.

The door swung open and Soolin took the lead, passing Vila as he replaced his tool.

The right air was cool and damp, and she took a deep breath, glad to be free of the closeness and smoke of the bar. She eyed the dark alley with suspicion; there were too many places that could hide a man. She drew her gun and stepped forward.

"Hurry up, Vila!" she hissed.

"All right, all right. I'm right behind you," he whispered as he hustled to catch up.

"Stay close," she warned, and started cautiously along one wall.

They were nearly to the street when Soolin heard a soft scuffing behind her and a muffled yelp. She whirled about, half–dropping into a crouch as she brought up her gun on the tight group of men behind her.

Cree, tall and muscular, had one arm curving up under Vila's arm and around his chest, the hand clamping Vila's mouth shut as he held his head to the side in a vice–like grip. Cree's other hand held a long, wicked–looking knife to the thief's throat, the blade pressing tightly into the skin. Vila dangled a good six inches above the ground. His eyes wide, he hung limply in the tall man's grasp.

Bran stood behind them, wisely using the cover they provided.

There was a tense moment when no one moved.

"Unless you are looking for a new way to commit suicide, I suggest you release him. Now," Soolin spoke in cool, deadly tones, her gun never wandering from Cree's head.

"Don't be like that, Soolin," said Bran. Why don't you put the gun away, eh?"

"We just want to talk to you.

"Why don't you say whatever it is that you want to say."

Bran shrugged. "All right. We've been doing real good for ourselves since you left. Right now, we've been hired to erase one of the higher ups in the city here." He waited, proud of the prestige he felt the job gave him. When Soolin's expression didn't change, he continued, irritation creeping into his words. "As you've probably guessed, we've got a problem; he has a security chief who has him wrapped up so tight we can't get near him."

"You want me to shoot the security chief." Soolin was not quite successful in keeping the disgust from her voice.

Bran noticed her tone and his mood became ugly. "Yeah. That's right. You shoot Kim Te Sai for us by tomorrow evening, and in return, we'll let your boyfriend here go. Alive, mind you," he added as if that was a generous bonus.

Soolin suddenly re–holstered her gun. "All right. Tell me where to find this Kim Te Sai."

Bran gave a wide smile, pleased she had given in so easily. "Smart girl, Soolin." He then rattled off Sai's description plus times and locations where Sai might be found.

Soolin wasn't listening, though; she had no intention of killing the security chief. She had promised Avon to have Vila back by midnight and she was going to have him back by midnight. The thought of returning to SCORPIO for help was not even considered as she would appear incompetent in the eyes of the others.

No, she would handle this. She just needed a different situation, one where she could get the upper hand.

Bran had finished the instructions. "Don't worry about your pal, Soolin. We'll take real good care of him. When we hear that Sai is dead, we'll just turn him loose. But if you try anything funny, I'll let Cree here chop him up into little pieces while he's still alive. Understood?"

She flicked a glance up at Vila to see how he'd taken this last bit of information and found that he had his eyes tightly closed. She was suddenly angry that he was being terrorized by these two. She had been with Vila and the others long enough now to feel loyalty towards them. Her anger chilled into ice as she realized that, yet again, brutal, violent men were threatening someone that mattered to her.

She favored Bran with a frosty stare. "Understood." She turned and walked out of the alley, never looking back. The sooner she left, she reasoned, the sooner she'd be able to double back and discover a way to free Vila.

Bran and Cree shared an uneasy glance; there was something about the gunfighter's last word that had made their skin prickle.

Bran nodded at their captive. "Put him down and let's get him stashed away."

Cree lowered Vila to the ground, shifting his grip to the thief's upper arm. He squeezed until he got a gasp of pain from Vila. "Better not try anything," Cree growled in warning.

"No, no. I won't give you any trouble," Vila rushed to assure them, his voice high–pitched.

"See that you don't, or I'll start in by cutting off your ear," Cree said, letting the point of the knife scratch up the back of Vila's ear. The big man gave Vila a closer look. "Nice ear," he said with approval, peering intently at the side of the thief's head. "It'd look good in my collection, too," he mused.

Vila's eyes slowly rolled heavenward. It was at times like these he was fairly certain that the Universe was controlled by a Supreme Being; one that took delight in causing him misery whenever possible.

* * * * *

Deep within the dark shadow of a building, Soolin watched as Vila was led into a warehouse. Cautiously, she crept closer. The area was still familiar to her and she was fairly certain Bran would probably keep Vila inside. She decided to wait ten to twenty minutes to give them time to relax and let their guard down.

* * * * *

Vila held his arms out stiffly behind him, grimacing as Bran tightened the cords around his wrists with a sharp tug.

"Take it easy!" he complained. "No need to be so rough, you know."

"Shut up," Bran said, already irritated by the thief's non–stop chatter. All he wanted was to lock up his talkative prisoner so that he could have some quiet. He gave Vila a push and the thief stumbled awkwardly, falling to the hard floor.

Vila rolled to his side, in time to see the door slam shut. "Brutes," he muttered to himself and started to twist and struggle against his bonds.

Two minutes later, his hands were free, and he was up examining a window of the room he was in. It had a very simple locking device and he had it unlocked in a few seconds.

"Stupid, too," he said and slid the window open. An alarm sounded, the imperative clanging causing Vila to start. "Not that I have any right to talk," he muttered as he jumped onto the sill then out to the ground.

As he sped down the street, he heard his former capturers shouting angrily after him to stop. The pavement ahead and slightly to the right of him glittered briefly with sparks from the impact of an energy bolt. He veered to the left and sprinted all–out for the shelter of a large stockpile of industrial containers and equipment that loomed ahead of him. He threw himself through an opening of two layers of equipment and landed in a roll as a large crate behind him exploded from another shot.

Scrambling on his hands and knees, he fled deeper into the rows of equipment

* * * * *

Soolin was standing beside the warehouse door when she heard the alarm sound, then angry voices and shots fired from down a side street.

"Vila!" she exclaimed, somehow knowing that the elusive thief had escaped. She drew her gun and raced towards the fight, rounding the corner in time to see Cree and Bran disappear into the stockpile. Picking up speed, she ran swiftly towards them.

Another shot was fired and something burst into flames. A cold rage welled up inside of her — they were shooting to kill with no intention of recapturing him! She was glad her clip gun was loaded with a killing charge.

She reached the first row and slowed to a trot, not wanting them to hear her coming.

"There he is!" Bran shouted excitedly. "Watch this."

A huge drum on a platform exploded, spewing a black liquid in all directions. She zigzagged down the rows towards it.

Suddenly she burst upon them, taking in the entire scene in a split second. Bran and Cree were in front of her, their backs towards her. They were laughing, advancing on Vila, or at least who she thought was Vila, for the poor man was covered with some sort of black goo. The thief was rubbing desperately at his eyes, trying to clear his vision as he huddled in plain sight on the ground.

Bran raised his gun at the hapless man.

Soolin didn't even bother to try to warn them off. She fired twice. The two gunmen spun and dropped to the ground, quite dead.

Pausing as she passed them to double check on their condition, she heard Vila call out, his voice quavering, "Who's there?"

She glanced over at him and saw he'd frozen, not knowing which way to run from the danger he sensed all about him.

"It's me, Vila. You're safe; they are both dead," she said, her voice holding no expression. Killing gave her no joy; usually any satisfaction she felt was in that she accomplished her job flawlessly. But this time, she felt a triumphant relief that she had prevented those two from harming Vila. It had been too close, though. She reached down and tugged Bran's vest off his corpse.

Approaching Vila with the garment, she could see him tremble. Probably an adrenaline reaction, she thought to herself as she crouched beside him.

"Sit up," she ordered.

He obeyed without a word.

"Hold still; I'm going to clean your face." She smeared off a majority of the stuff, then using a clean corner of the vest, she carefully wiped at his eyes.

He suddenly flinched backwards a few inches. She stopped. "What's wrong?"

"That's blood I'm smelling, isn't it? What are you using to clean my face?" he asked suspiciously.

"Vila, you're in no condition to be choosy. Now hold still," she said, annoyed.

Soolin's cold voice had frightened him, but now her familiar irritation gave him comfort.

"Eh, right." He fell quiet as she resumed her task. He began to fidget. "Soolin?" he asked tentatively.

She sighed. "Yes?"

"Thanks for coming after me."

The quiet words so sincerely spoken, made her bite back a flippant reply. She stared at him. How he could be so guileless while covered with black slime mystified her, though she began to see how he'd managed to secure a place beside the no–nonsense Avon with his disarming ways. Vila was, without a doubt, a most unusual person.

"You're welcome. Now, try to open your eyes."

He squinted and peered worriedly about, blinking to clear his vision. Looking down, he caught sight of himself. "What a mess! I can't go back to the ship looking like this," he complained, horrified.

"I agree with you there," she said, shaking her head at his pitiful condition. "What we need is a hotel room with a cleaner in it." She paused thoughtfully. "I know where one is, come to think about it, and it's quite close by, too."

She stood up. "On your feet now, Vila, and do me a favor; when I register us, stay out of sight. No one in their right mind would let us rent a room if they saw you first!"

* * * * *

Inside the hotel room, Vila tiredly laid back and allowed himself to nearly submerge in the wonderfully hot water of a bath. He surveyed the pink, freshly scrubbed skin of his arms and legs with satisfaction. It had not been an easy job to clean off the black, oily substance; it had, unfortunately, completely soaked through his clothes and had covered most of his body. Soolin had taken his filthy outfit and fed it into the room's cleaning unit — a couple of times. The simple act of bathing had calmed him. He put his head back and relaxed into the soothing heat. A half hour later, she had knocked on the door.

"Vila, your clothes are clean when you are."

Vila jerked awake from his unexpected nap. He sighed, then held his breath and dunked his head beneath the water. He came up for air and wiped the excess water from his face.

"Vila? I don't hear you splashing. Are you done?" Soolin's voice came from behind the door.

Vila resignedly fished out the soap and washcloth again from where they floated around him. "Just a little longer."

"Hurry it up or we'll be late!" she said, her tone sharp.

"Look, this isn't easy, you know. If you're really interested in getting out of here quicker, you might come in here and help me scrub my back," he called out, irritable. Scowling, he took the soapy cloth and began to run awkwardly at his left shoulder.

He froze as he heard the door open.

"Lucky for you you weren't lying after all," Soolin said dryly, eyeing him. "Your back is still a mess." She started towards him, smiling as his head twisted around to see her, his expression faintly shocked.

She came to a stop at the edge of the tub, hands on her hips, staring down at his upturned, surprised face. "You didn't think I would come in, did you?" she challenged.

"Er…no," he finished lamely.

She held out her hand, her smile decidedly mischievous. "Give it here," she said, raising one elegant eyebrow, her voice low and sultry.

Vila's face went totally blank, dumfounded.

Soolin couldn't restrain herself any longer and she giggled. "The cloth, Vila."

A red flush crept up the thief's face. "Oh, right," he said, flustered, as he handed her the cloth.

With her free hand, she made a little circular movement with her index finger, wordlessly ordering him to turn about.

"Oh, right," he said, unaware he was repeating himself as he turned, presenting his back to her.

She smiled fondly at him, realizing how at ease she felt around him. It made her feel good.

She knelt down and started scrubbing, relieved that his back was actually only splattered and not covered with the black substance.

It was at some point in her soaping and rinsing the she began taking a more definite interest in her job. This close to him, she couldn't help but have her senses take full notice of him. Her hands traveled over his smoothly muscular shoulders, enjoying their solidity and warmth. His scent was still discernable through the herbal soap smell and she recognized it from earlier this evening.

She had a sudden desire to kiss his neck, wondering what he'd taste like.

In fact, she wondered what sort of lover he'd be, for there was no one in her past that came remotely close to Vila's style. The first men she'd had sex with had been her family's murderers. They'd been rough and forceful with her; the only good thing had been that they were quick and the pain hadn't last.

She had had other partners since then, but as a rule they had left her dissatisfied with their ineptness or had not minded her lack of participation. Her curiosity had remained though, and when Dorian propositioned her, she had accepted. He was handsome and he had an aura of power and mystery about him that had intrigued her. He'd been more considerate of her than her other lovers but their lovemaking had, at times, seemed more like a test of wills. Dorian definitely had been on some sort of domination trip.

She looked down at Vila and tried to imagine him attempting to dominate her and found she could not even picture the two of them together. She was intrigued, which was a novelty in itself. Feeling both curious and that she had nothing to lose, she bent down and gave his neck a kiss.

Vila, who had developed a worried look when Soolin stopped scrubbing, jumped at the touch of her lips. Remembering her playful mood of a few minutes earlier, he scolded, "All right, Soolin. You've had your fun. Don't you know it's not nice to tease like that?"

She kneaded his shoulders and gave him another kiss. "What makes you think I'm teasing?"

"You can't he serious," he said with disbelief. Then, more hopeful, "Can you?" He twisted to the side, trying to get a clear view of her face.

Soolin tilted her head thoughtfully as she took up the cloth and squeezed the water out of it, watching the rivulets cascade down his back, rinsing the last of the soap away. "You're clean now, Vila," she said, switching her gaze to stare at him steadily. "When you're dry, come out and join me in the bed." She tossed the wet rag at his face, smiling.

Vila caught it one–handed and stared after her, open–mouthed.

After she had left, he straightened up and looked forward. "Do you think she meant it?" he asked of his toes. "Nah," he dismissed, then cocked his head to the side. "But then again…."

He levered himself out of the tub and toweled himself dry, still quizzically questioning himself and getting nowhere.

Finally, towel wrapped around his middle, he opened the door and peered suspiciously into the bedroom.

And there she was, in bed, between the sheets, her jumpsuit folded neatly over a chair.

"You're not kidding!"

"Right the first time, but this is a limited offer; take much longer getting over here, it'll be an expired offer."

"Oh!" he said, padding quickly over to the bed. He sat down, undid the towel and slipped between the covers, turning to face her. He stopped.

"Well?" she asked.

"It's just that we're both undressed and in bed already," he said, a plaintive note creeping into his voice.

"That's the idea, isn't it?"

"Yes. No. Yes…you're getting me confused!" He took a deep breath, then continued. "It's just that I like the beginning bits, all the undressing and such…you know, the foreplay. I like all that."

"Oh. I've not had that much experience with foreplay; is it that important to you?" She asked him that in much the same tone as she would talk about the weather.

He scowled at her. "I've just said it was, didn't I? In fact, I think it's as much fun as the ending, if you know what I mean."

"Well, what do you want to do about it? We haven't much time left; I promised Avon we would be back to the ship by midnight."

"You know, you're not making this any easier. How come you decided to pick on me, eh? Why not pick on Avon or Tarrant?" Even as he said it, a small part of his brain was screaming at him to shut up, and just take what life offered like he usually did.

Soolin looked thoughtful. "Well, I suppose it's because I'm fond of you. And curious. I thought we could have a little fun together," she finished, her expression a trifle sad.

Vila could not believe his ears; here was one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen, sad, because he was choosing to argue instead of making love to her!

"Look, you just put me off–balance, that's all. Let's start all over, eh?" he said, scooting closer to her. "I'll make it right."

He picked up her hand, kissed the back then turned it over, covering the palm with kisses. He nuzzled it, glancing up at her to see how she was taking it.

She smiled at him, leaned forward and slid her other hand behind his head and neck. "That is better but I think I'd like this even more," she said, interrupting herself to twist on top of him, using her hand holds as leverage. She wiggled about, finding a comfortable position, enjoying the warmth of Vila's body, the crinkly little chest hairs tickling the soft skin of her breasts.

He smiled up at her, caressing her velvety–soft torso, delighting in her sumptuous curves. You like this better, eh?" He gave her mouth a lingering kiss, then said, "I must admit that it does have its advantages."

"You don't mind?" she asked hopefully. She was finding it incredibly exciting herself, to be the aggressor.

"Mmmm. Not in the least; do your worst!" he invited her, nuzzling her neck and the silky blonde hair that fell all around him.

She nipped his ear.

"Ouch!" he protested, jumping slightly.

"You need to be careful of who and what you challenge, Vila," she said playfully and then kissed his ear gently.

"Life is always full of dangerous risks, and you know I've never been one to side–step these things," he said, feeling himself start to swell in reaction to her.

Soolin smiled down at him, kissing him on the tip of the nose. "I've noticed," she said dryly, shifting her position to allow him more freedom — for the moment.

* * * * *

Back on SCORPIO, Tarrant stood up purposefully and strode up to where Avon was sitting. "It's midnight," he declared.

"So?" drawled Avon, staring up at the tall pilot, his face closed to any expression.

"It's midnight and they are not back yet."

Avon looked back down at the console in front of him. "Thank you for the news report," he said, punching a button on the desk and reading the change it caused.

Dayna swiveled her chair to face the two of them. "Oh, Tarrant, sit down!" she chided. "They'll be back soon, so quit worrying. You know that they can take care of themselves."

"I know Soolin can take care of herself, but Vila…? He can cause more trouble than even she can handle."

"Not true this time, Flyboy," Vila nearly sang, as he breezed onto the flight deck, Soolin close behind him. They both took their seats immediately, their attitudes alert and relaxed. Vila looked up expectantly as Tarrant moved around to stand behind the front console.

"Any trouble?" fished Tarrant.

"None worth mentioning," answered Soolin. "Of course, we didn't go gambling after the concert," she said with a sly look at Vila.

Tarrant nodded knowledgeably. "Wise decision, Soolin. You probably saved yourself a lot of trouble there."

Vila sat smirking at the pilot. Tarrant was aware of Vila's expression, but didn't know what to make of it.

Avon had been watching the entire exchange out of the corner of his eye. He knew immediately that both Soolin and Vila were being evasive, and he could see that Tarrant was incapable of drawing the information out of them. Well, as long as they were both back and in good spirits, it probably didn't matter what had happened.

"Tarrant?" Avon's inquiry was soft.

The tall pilot turned expectantly towards Avon. "Yes?"

"If you're through counting noses, perhaps you'd like to take the ship up now?"

"Right," said Tarrant with relish, rubbing his hands together. He strode to the pilot's position, all eagerness.

Dayna watched him go and groaned. She leaned close to Soolin, who was sitting beside her in the middle position of the console. "Looks like we're in for another flashy takeoff," she whispered to her friend.

"No doubt about it," Soolin agreed, strapping herself firmly into her chair.

Dayna wasn't finished, though. "You managed to have a good time, didn't you? And with Vila, of all people!" She seemed amused by the unlikely prospect.

Soolin leaned in closer. "Dayna, you shouldn't be too quick to judge people; they may have hidden talents you know nothing about."

Dayna leaned slightly forward to where she could see Vila. "I'll say Vila keeps his talents well hidden. What I want to know, is how did you ever find them?"

Soolin smiled slyly. "Just lucky, I guess."