Automatically, Tarrant checked the navigation readout. Twelve minutes until they hit the atmosphere of Gerin. Not too literally, he hoped. There wasn't a lot of information available about the planet, but the bits and pieces Orac had scraped together suggested hurricane force winds and lots of electrical storms. That, and the fact that there was a recently abandoned mining base on Gerin which might make an alternative if Xenon base were compromised.
Fun, fun, fun. Missions like this always made Tarrant feel nostalgic for his days in the Service. At least two-thirds of the places he'd landed in back then were actual spaceports or at least properly levelled areas. These days it was usually a case of aiming for the least rocky bit and praying.
With another small segment of his attention he kept half an eye on the lines scrolling up the flight console, hoping that nothing was going to go wrong with Scorpio's automatics. Slave said they were fine, which meant precisely nothing because Slave was about as much use as...as much use...as...as...
Something useless, probably. The majority of his attention was otherwise, and very thoroughly, occupied. He hazily checked the readout again. Ten minutes. This really was the time to start concentrating properly.
"Would you stop doing that, please?" Tarrant was impressed by how level he managed to keep his voice.
There was a muffled laugh. "'Ahs no ah..." Tarrant suppressed a shiver as Avon took his mouth away. "That's not what you said five minutes ago."
"That was five minutes further away from Gerin." A slight waver in his voice this time and that was only because, damn him, he had stopped. A typically annoying moment for Avon suddenly to decide to do what he was told.
"We're nearly there. The detectors are picking up a lot of atmospheric disturbance. I need you to help with the landing."
"Say that again?" Silky voice. (Warm fingers.)
Tarrant could have kicked himself, if Avon hadn't been in the way. This was Avon's latest game, invented, as far as Tarrant could tell, purely to irritate him.
"You heard me," Tarrant said.
It was a response which sometime worked when the others were around because there were only so many times Avon could pretend not to catch what he said before it became too obvious to be amusing. However, this time a short, determined silence gave Tarrant just enough warning to lift his hands from the flight console and thereby avoid an unplanned course change.
"Ahh. Yes. No. No, don't do that. Avon."
"All right, all right. I said, 'I need you'. Happy, now?"
Avon crawled out from under the console and stood up, brushing dust off his leather trousers, no hurry. He wiped the corners of his mouth, then carefully licked his lips. He certainly looked happy enough. Tarrant tried his best to substitute annoyance for arousal.
"Can't you ever let it go? Not even once?"
Avon just smiled and sat down at the navigation console with the air of a cat who has the cream, the keys to the dairy, and a selection of compromising photographs of the farmer. Tarrant could remember a time when he had considered killing Avon on an almost daily basis. Come to think of it, he still did, but at least the reasons why were more enjoyable these days.
Avon flicked a few switches and the panel in front of him sprang into life.
"All right, Tarrant, what do you need me to do?"
Tarrant checked the readout again. (We still have seven minutes left...no.)
"Turbulence projections for the trajectory down and a backup program to get us through it. The storms are stable but they're hellishly fast. I'd like to have something ready in case the automatics fail."
"It'll take me a few minutes."
"Well, anything less than six and a quarter is good."
Avon murmured something Tarrant was pretty sure he didn't want to hear. Not if he wanted to keep his mind on the job.
"I'm very sorry, sir..."
They were exactly half way through the atmosphere when the precision guidance cut out completely, followed a second later by the compensators. Scorpio canted sharply and began to slide sideways through the violent air. Tarrant struggled with the controls but they were dead to his touch.
"Avon, the backup, now please."
"Already synchronising. Switching through in five seconds."
Avon sounded a lot calmer than he did, Tarrant thought. But then Avon probably didn't yet realise that Scorpio was completely out of control.
"...Two, one. Now."
For a moment, nothing seemed any different. Then, miraculously, the ship was back in Tarrant's hands, if only just. The trick would be keeping her there. For a minute or so they flew in silence, except for the buffeting of winds which got stronger as they descended. The number in the distance-to-surface display came down, but not nearly far enough. What would be a survivable height at which to lose control, in these conditions? Was the display even showing the correct reading?
"You're drifting, Tarrant. Point oh one five."
He spared a glance from the flight console to look over at Avon, who was watching his own monitor intently, hitting buttons very quickly without looking at them.
"I can't help it."
"Point oh one eight. I don't have time to expand the projection much further."
Tarrant concentrated totally on Scorpio. In the background he could hear Avon reading off numbers in an increasingly tight voice. Somewhere even further away, Slave apologised as another system failed. As the response of the flight controls became more and more erratic, Tarrant fixed his eyes on the distance-to-surface reading (no, distance to impact, now). He only needed to get them a little bit further down. Then a little bit further again. Then the winds were beginning to ease and they were nearly there...nearly...nearly
Scorpio tore herself out of his hands.
"We're out of the projection," Avon said clearly, then, sensibly but unencouragingly, braced himself for the crash.
Tarrant was tempted to follow his lead, but he kept fighting with the controls. Afterwards he wasn't sure if it had made any difference at all but somehow Scorpio remained more-or-less level during the last few seconds of descent before she smashed down on landing gear Tarrant didn't remember lowering.
Tarrant came round a few minutes later to find Avon supporting him with his head tilted forwards and a sticky cloth against his face. As he tried to sit up straight, Avon held him in place.
"Keep your head still. I think you've broken your nose."
Tarrant could well believe it. Pain hammered along his cheekbones and backwards into his skull, blurring his vision. Taste of blood in his mouth. He felt sure he was going to be sick at any moment.
"The bleeding's nearly stopped. I'll get the medical kit. Can you manage for a minute?"
Reflexively, Tarrant nodded, and promptly passed out.
When he came round for the second time, Avon had somehow managed to get him to the couch at the other end of the flight deck. In the pain-free second as consciousness returned, Tarrant almost lifted his head. Avon's cool hand on his forehead restrained him.
"I'd take these, first, if I were you."
Awkwardly, since he daren't move, Tarrant took the painkillers and managed a sip of water to wash them down.
"What's damaged?" he asked, looking for a distraction from the sickening pain triggered by simply swallowing.
"Apart from your good looks, I don't know. Slave is useless. Correction, even more useless than usual. Hopefully he's just blown a few circuits in the excitement. Otherwise we'll have to run all the checks on the rest of Scorpio by hand."
Managing to avoid another nod, Tarrant closed his eyes and waited for the drugs to kick in. Without moving, he tried to assess if he'd been hurt anywhere else in the crash. There was a nasty ache in the ribs on his left hand side, but that was probably just bruises. He felt some other bruises, nothing very important and a cut on his bottom lip. There did seem to be another pain focused on his left brow bone, but that was too close to his nose to be accurately reporting details to his nervous system. All in all, things could be worse.
He could hear Avon a little way off, pulling circuit boards out of Slave's inner workings. The under-his-breath commentary didn't sound encouraging. Tarrant didn't fancy flying all the way back to Xenon base on manual. Actually, he realised, that wouldn't be a problem. Without the computers they'd never be able to lift off from Gerin.
Eventually, Avon stood up from his examination of Slave. "How do you feel?"
"Much better. Thanks." Tentatively, Tarrant sat up. The blinding pain had left a stubborn residue of headache, but that was bearable. The other bruises had quieted down completely.
"Good. Slave is still being uncooperative. Start checking the internal systems. I'm going outside to assess the damage."
That attracted a 'don't be an idiot' look.
"Have you seen the temperature out there?"
"Avon, I should go. I know the ship better. And anyway, I'm youn..."
He bit the end off the sentence, but it was too late. He could blame the headache. In fact, Tarrant thought, he must have a concussion. Featuring just below Servalan, Blake and hey-remember-the-time-you-lost-Liberator on the list of topics not to raise with Avon was age. From the perspective of youth Tarrant thought it was a stupid thing to be so touchy about, but he knew better than to say that as Avon turned without a word and stalked off the flight deck.
The screaming wind made it impossible to catch more than five percent of what Avon said over the communicator. Tarrant, checking damage from the warmth of Scorpio, was actually quite relieved. What he could make out didn't bode well for Scorpio or for the state of Avon's temper. Tarrant could always wait until later to hear bad news. He kept the communicator channel open so that Avon could call for help if he needed it.
Tarrant decided to start with a quick tour of the ship for visible internal damage. He was pleasantly surprised to find things more or less okay. A couple of breakages of things they'd forgotten to secure in the weapons room, but nothing serious. In the cramped bathroom Tarrant checked to see if the water system was functional by gingerly washing his face. He looked ruefully at his reflection; he was going to have two beautiful black eyes by tomorrow. After changing his blood-spattered clothes, he continued the tour.
Away from the flight deck the rest of Scorpio had also survived without serious damage. He opened the door to what the others referred to as 'Avon's gadget room', then hesitated. The storeroom Avon had claimed as his own didn't actually have 'Avon - Private' written on the door, but then it didn't need to.
Their relationship, if you could call it that, didn't extend to casually wandering in and out of each other's territory. In fact, it didn't extend to anything much beyond pretty good sex and an easing of the open hostilities that had characterised most of their time on the Liberator. Tarrant was quite happy with the arrangement, and he supposed Avon must be too; Tarrant had never bothered to ask.
In this case, he had a perfectly legitimate reason for being in Avon's domain. Still, he settled for standing in the doorway and didn't actually enter the room. There was no obvious damage, just a few broken bits and pieces, nothing which demanded immediate clearing up. He closed the door and went back to the flight deck.
After twenty minutes or so, the shrieking microphone cut out and Tarrant heard the airlock activate. A minute later, Avon slammed his way back onto the flight deck. Even swathed in cold weather gear Tarrant could see he was shivering. Leaning against a wall, Avon pulled the mask away from his face, then began to struggle with fastenings.
"Here, let me." Tarrant tried to make it sound something like an apology.
To his surprise Avon just nodded and let his hands drop to his sides, frost melting from his fringe and eyelashes in the warmth of the flight deck.
"How does she look?"
Once his gloves were off, Avon started trying to rub warmth back into his fingers.
"Not b-bad, c-considering you made such a m-mess of the landing."
Hm. Apology apparently not accepted. Tarrant undid the last of the suit fastenings and decided Avon could do the rest himself.
"Can we take off, once we get Slave back?"
"P-probably. If we don't get frozen in place. There's a hell of a blizzard. Luckily the wind is keeping the snow from building up around Scorpio."
Avon finished stripping off the suit and hung it up next to an air vent to dry. He leaned against the warm air flow himself for a moment, eyes closing. Tarrant thought he looked exhausted and, well, at least not young. As if he had heard the thought, Avon opened his eyes and frowned.
"All right, let's get on with it. Which systems did you get through?"
They had been methodically examining damage reports for a couple of hours when Avon spoke.
"Well, this isn't good." It was the oddly excited tone of voice Avon reserved for really bad news.
"The heating system is out. And the recycling. We're on auxiliary oxygen."
Tarrant considered the problem. Not devastating. Not yet. Re-entry-capable spaceships hold heat in for a long time, and Scorpio's systems would generate more. Best of all, they were on a planet with a breathable, if slightly thin, atmosphere. But it was a cold breathable atmosphere.
"How long before the air-system starts pulling air in from outside?"
Avon smiled mirthlessly. "About six hours. Twelve if we reset the tolerance levels and get a bit breathless."
Tarrant considered an obvious comment. Now didn't seem like the right time.
Instead he said, "What about the base?"
"We have Scorpio."
"Not Xenon base. We came here to check out an abandoned mining base, remember? There should be life support, supplies. How far away did we land in the end?"
Tarrant always got a kick out of thinking of something before Avon. Usually it happened in a situation like this when Avon was too focused on the purely technical to consider other solutions. But whatever the occasion, he savoured the brief exclamation of annoyance.
"Ah, of course. There will probably be parts to repair the other systems as well. And we can wait it out in relative comfort until the storm dies down. Good idea."
"So, how far is it?"
Avon spent a couple of minutes fighting with the scanners and navigation circuits before they surrendered the information.
"Not very far at all. We're about half a mile away. Although that's far enough in this weather."
"We've got two cold weather suits, though?"
"Yes. Do you think you'll be able to make it?"
Tarrant considered half a dozen responses before he decided Avon's enquiry was more-or-less genuine.
"That's settled then. We'll finish listing parts for repair, then get going before it goes dark."
Avon looked up at the silent blizzard tearing across the main screen.
"Not that it will make much difference," he added.
The airlock shut behind them with the doomy finality common to all very heavy doors. The freezing air stung Tarrant's face, but not unbearably. Here in the lee of Scorpio the wind was merely a gale. Beside him, Avon fiddled with a direction finder.
"Got it. Let's get going." Avon was shouting at the top of his voice and Tarrant could barely hear him.
As they stepped out of the shelter of Scorpio, Tarrant realised Avon had been right about who should check the outside of the ship. The wind hit him in the face like a brick. A razor-sharp brick. It smashed through the cushioning of the painkillers and he automatically put an arm up to shield himself. He felt tears start to freeze on his cheeks.
Avon put his mouth about six inches from Tarrant's ear and yelled, "Are you alright?!" What sound the face mask let through the wind whipped away so that only a whisper reached Tarrant.
Tarrant realised he had stopped walking. He thought about trying to yell back, but decided against it, settling for a careful, painful nod.
Avon bent over the direction finder for a moment, then beckoned. Leaning against each other for support, they set off into the gale.
At first, Tarrant counted paces. He was willing to trust Avon to keep them on the right path, because Avon's life depended on it and that was as good a guarantee as you were likely to find. However, a rough idea of how far they had come would be helpful. And it distracted him from the agonizing cold. The exposed parts of his face had gone numb in the first few minutes, but the wind knifed through his cold weather suit everywhere.
The chill in his toes and fingers quickly turned into a burning which spread through his hands, feet, up his arms and legs. Freezing to death was supposed to be painless, Tarrant thought. He wondered how long it would take to start to go numb and almost hoped it would be soon. That was stupid, of course. It meant frostbite and a lot of other bad things. Jumbled recollections of Space Academy survival training distracted him for a moment.
Counting paces. The tally faltered somewhere in the high hundreds but it wasn't until he'd counted the same ten numbers about a dozen times that he realised he'd lost track. That shocked him and adrenalin sharpened his senses. Instead of the fortunately flat ground where he had landed (crashed) Scorpio, Tarrant could see suggestions of odd-shaped hillocks through the driving snow. Spoil tips from the mine workings, he thought hopefully.
Not far, maybe. Keep walking.
Of course, the mine complex would be in the same direction as the wind. It would have been too easy to have had the wind behind them. Why did Avon always have to do things the difficult way? He slipped on frozen scree, lost his balance, landed heavily on his side. Stupid. By the time Avon had turned, Tarrant was getting back on his feet.
"I'm fine," he mouthed in response to Avon's mute enquiry. No point in actually making any sound. Avon didn't react and Tarrant realised the clear plastic of the mask must have frozen over. He tried a thumbs up instead and Avon nodded and moved off.
After only a short distance, Tarrant found out that he wasn't fine at all. The ache in his ribs had sharpened into a serious pain which snatched at his laboured breathing. Broken rib. Definitely broken. At least his feet and hands didn't hurt any more. He had to stop.
Tarrant tried to call out to Avon, even though he knew it was pointless. He took a deep breath and the swirling whiteness suddenly began to go grey. He didn't even feel the hands which broke his fall.
Peaceful darkness. Tarrant would have liked to stay there, but he knew it was a bad idea. He was in a blizzard. If he stayed still he was going to die. He could hear the keening of the wind and he struggled to think himself towards it, open his eyes.
"...so stay here. Understand?" Tarrant became aware of Avon again, knelt over him, very close. They were in the shelter of a low cliff, the wind noise a little less.
"Can you hear me, Tarrant?"
Tarrant nodded, winced.
"Good. Listen. The entrance should be nearby. I'm going to look for it. I'll be back, but you have to stay here, right here, or I won't be able to find you again. Do you understand me?"
Tarrant nodded again. There wasn't a lot else he could do. He huddled against the cliff and watched as Avon vanished into the whirling snow. For a couple of minutes, he luxuriated in not moving, in not having to move. He wondered if the base systems would be operating. Even if not, they wouldn't take long to get going. He tried to imagine what being warm again would be like. Another Space Academy memory; it would probably hurt like hell.
Didn't matter. He hurt already. The cold and his ribs and his head and some new bruises he didn't remember getting. Tarrant shifted position, trying to somehow ease his breathing and as he did so he looked out into the blizzard again.
Whiteness and endless movement which utterly confused his depth perception. It was like looking into space, or standing on a glass floor over deep water. Unable to look away he watched the racing flakes until he began to feel sick and dizzy from the motion. The vertigo sapped his willpower as the cold started to take the last of his strength. Tarrant finally closed his eyes, but the endless wail of the wind was still there.
Avon had left him alone. Even if he found the complex he would never find Tarrant again, not in this nightmare. Alone. He wanted Avon to come back. Strange thought: that he could suddenly want him so badly after all the times Avon had been around and Tarrant had wished him somewhere else. Didn't matter.
He wanted Avon. Not because of the cold or the base or the hurt. Just because.
Determinedly, Tarrant began to crawl in the direction he thought Avon had gone. If took only a few minutes for the snow to cover all traces that Tarrant had ever been there.
From somewhere a long way away Tarrant felt a dull impact against his hip. Again. He curled up a little tighter. Ignore it. Whatever it was, it would go away. Then there was a sudden coldness on his face and sharp pain in his cheek, which hurt a lot more than it should. Of course. His nose was broken. And Avon knew that and it was probably Avon who'd slapped him. Resentful, Tarrant opened his eyes.
"I told you not to move, you idiot!" Even though Avon had taken his own mask off as well, it was more lip-reading that sound. Avon looked angry. Which was hardly a novelty. But he'd wanted Avon. Wanted him. Because...the thought faded out and Tarrant closed his heavy eyelids.
There was a sting of hot breath against his ear. "Tarrant. Get up. I've found the way in. It's not very far. Come on."
Simple words. Short sentences. Tarrant's chilled brain fumbled with the syllables and let them slide away. Only the emotion behind them gained any purchase. Avon was concerned, worried...afraid? That didn't seem very likely, now did it?
"Get up, Tarrant. Please don't make me leave you here."
Not likely, but maybe true. Tarrant forced his eyes open again, just to make sure.
Avon turned Tarrant's head gently and looked him in the eyes. Avon said something else, something stolen by the wind, but it didn't matter. Tarrant felt a muzzy triumph that he'd been right. Then Avon kissed him and, just for that, Tarrant struggled to his feet.
Avon was right. It wasn't very far to the entrance although it took them a long time to cover the distance. But afterwards the journey was a complete blank to Tarrant. He was rather glad. He had fragmented memories of arriving at the base, the light coming from the door to the underground complex, the suddenly painful warmth of the air and a ringing silence instead of the wind. Avon leading him down a long corridor, coaxing, but clearly on the ragged edge of his patience.
"It's not far, Tarrant. Come on. Yes, rest, but not yet. Come on."
Then the next clear memory was of lying in a narrow bath, water circulating gently against his skin.
People said that freezing to death was painless, Tarrant decided, because compared to the alternative of surviving it was. Every single nerve ending which he'd thought frozen forever was screaming. Tarrant might've been screaming too, except that he didn't want to disgrace himself any more in front of Avon. Instead, he just let the tears run down his face and vanish into the water.
Tarrant tried to look on the bright side. At least it was temporarily drowning out the thumping in his head and the pain from his ribs.
All in all, it had not been a good day.
Suddenly, Tarrant felt very tired and not at all bothered by what Avon might or might not think.
"Avon, aren't there any painkillers in the medical unit?"
A dark head, dripping water, appeared over the edge of the bath next to him.
"Yes. But the medical computer said to get you thawed out first. Something to do with metabolism."
"Is it supposed to feel like this?"
"I'm not sure. But the baths are set to warm up at the right rate to prevent tissue damage."
"According to the computer."
Avon shrugged. "It knows more about frostbite than I do. I suppose we'll find out soon enough."
Tarrant took a couple of shallow breaths. "Just get me some painkillers, would you?"
Avon reached over the side of his bath and picked a small sealed bottle up from the floor. He threw it over.
"There you are."
Under other circumstances, Tarrant might have been embarrassed to find himself so predictable. As it was, he was too grateful. He tried to read the label, then gave up and just took two. That seemed like a good number, and about as high as he could count right now anyway. He lay back in the slowly warming water and hoped fervently that the day didn't have any more unpleasantness in store.
Eventually, the water grew pleasantly warm and the stinging pain eased. Tarrant didn't realise he'd dozed off until he was woken by the sound of an alarm beeping irritatingly. Avon, wrapped in a towel and shivering slightly in the still-cool air, was doing something to the medical computer.
"Nothing. I'm trying to cancel the program for my bath, that's all."
"Is that good idea?"
"I'm warm enough. And bored enough. Ah." The alarm cut off. "Got it. I've left yours running."
"I'll get out in a minute," Tarrant said with patent untruthfulness. Actually, he didn't think he'd ever be able to stand up again.
Avon began sorting his clothes out of the pile on the floor.
"Don't bother. I'll look around the stores and see if they've got the parts for Scorpio. I'll let you know if there's any heavy lifting I can't manage."
Ouch. Tarrant grinned cheerfully.
"Well, if you don't need me..."
Avon just shook his head and continued dressing. Tarrant wondered if that constituted a win under whatever arcane scoring system Avon used. What the hell, he'd award himself a point anyway.
After Avon had gone, Tarrant lay in a blissful haze of warmth and industrial-strength analgesics, and let his mind wander. He wondered if the others would be concerned about them yet. He tried to calculate time since the crash-landing. There had been a few hours on the ship - say five - then the walk to the base. That couldn't have been more than an hour, maybe two. Any longer would have killed them both.
So, they hadn't been out of contract for long. They should have called in when they landed, but it was common enough for missions like this to run late. Still, the others would be getting worried soon. Except Vila, who was always worried anyway. There would probably be a communications system on the base somewhere.
Tarrant vaguely wondered if he ought to pursue the idea. Avon had probably thought of it already. Or maybe not. From Avon's point of view the others weren't really his problem, since he had Scorpio and they were stuck on Xenon base. They could - and would have to - wait. Tarrant decided it was a valid perspective, especially since it meant he didn't have to get out of the bath.
Closing his eyes, he slipped a little further down into the water. He had a vague idea that this might not be a terribly sensible place to fall asleep and perhaps it was that thought which pulled his mind back to the blizzard outside.
As he sank down into sleep, Tarrant suddenly realised that he couldn't move. The weight of snow pressed down on him, bringing a lying warmth whilst it killed him. He was going to die here if he didn't move and he struggled against the paralysis, tried to call out. Avon had left him alone in the snow and the wind. Left him, when he wanted him, needed him.
For an interminable few seconds, Tarrant could actually hear the shrieking of the wind. Then he heard his own voice, shockingly loud, calling Avon's name. He jerked awake, sending water splashing over the end of the bath. Tarrant sat for nearly a full minute, clutching the sides of the bath hard enough to make the plastic creak.
It was just a nightmare. Shivering despite the warm water, Tarrant climbed out, dried himself and dressed. By the time he picked up the painkillers and left the medical unit, the vividness of the dream was already fading.
Just a nightmare.
He found Avon in the technical stores. He was sorting happily through boxes of parts and there was already a stack growing in the center of the room which Tarrant assumed was for Scorpio. The effects of a hot meal and good night's sleep on most people could be duplicated in Avon simply by giving him access to lots of shiny new toys. He looked completely recovered and about ten years younger, Tarrant thought wryly, which was a lot better than he must look.
Tarrant sat down on the edge of a box to catch his breath, and the noise made Avon turn quickly, hand automatically going for a gun. Then, just as quickly, he relaxed.
"Yes." Actually, he felt a little bit fogged out and rather high but he doubted Avon wanted a detailed run-down.
"Good." Avon went back to the box he'd been ransacking. "There should be everything we need in here somewhere. It's very well stocked."
"It looks to be."
"It gets better. There's a transport vehicle in one of the other rooms. Tracked, completely enclosed. We should be able to get everything we need for Scorpio in it and plenty more besides."
"Why's it all here?"
"Why didn't they take it with them?"
"Oh, Orac said the mines were abandoned after the Galactic war. I suppose they were expecting to be back quickly and then no-one thought it worth their while. It was a marginal operation anyway."
"What were they mining?" Tarrant didn't really care, but it was nice to talk, without an emergency looming. And the chance to sit around and watch Avon working didn't detract from the experience.
"I don't remember. No, wait, Technetium."
"Is that valuable?"
"If you can process enough ore cheaply enough. It's rare, anyway." Avon added another box to the pile for Scorpio then paused and smiled. "Why? Thinking of going into the mining business?"
"Might be safer than piloting."
"Probably. It's harder to crash a mine, at any rate."
"You couldn't have landed her."
Avon looked at him narrowly, then shrugged. "You're probably right."
Tarrant felt slightly mollified. "I couldn't have landed her without you. We make a good team."
Avon frowned. "Well, hooray for us," he said softly. It sounded like a quotation rather than a reply.
Tarrant stood up again, and winced, putting a hand to his side. Avon took a step towards him.
"I'm sorry." And he almost sounded it, too, although Tarrant wasn't quite sure what about. "We should get the medical computer to have a look at you. Scorpio will wait until the morning."
Avon ran the medical scanner over Tarrant's ribs, frowning with concentration. He checked the computer a few times, did the scan again.
"Well?" Tarrant asked uneasily.
"Mmm. Not too bad. Two broken ribs and a couple of cracked ones. No damage to the lung. The computer recommends bandaging and," Avon smiled slightly, "bed rest."
Tarrant blinked. The technical stores had put Avon in a better mood. Now all he had to do was think of something they could do which avoided any of the bruised or broken bits of Tarrant's body.
The base heating system seemed to have its own priorities for reheating the complex and sleeping quarters featured rather low in the hierarchy. The third barracks-style room they tried had reached a tolerable temperature, but not yet one which encouraged hanging around undressed outside the sheets. More unfortunately still, Tarrant thought, the beds were single bunks.
Avon removed the leathery and/or studded bits of his clothing (leaving not very much at all) and disappeared quickly under the sheets, grumbling about the cold. Tarrant, still struggling to take off his boots without bending his back, had started to resign himself to a chilly and solitary night when Avon moved over, making space in his bed.
"Get on with it, Tarrant, before we both freeze again."
He tried to hurry undressing, wincing as he did so. He took another couple of the painkillers and slipped into bed beside Avon.
"Tired?" Avon asked.
"Not very. I had a nap in the medical unit." There was a catch in his voice he hoped Avon didn't notice as he suddenly recalled the dream he'd had there.
"The advantages of youth."
Avon baited the hook with a long pause, but silence seemed like by far the better part of valour to Tarrant, especially in view of his current state of health.
Eventually, Avon gave up. "Well, in that case, I think we had some unfinished business on Scorpio..."
For a second, Tarrant wondered what Avon meant, then he grinned. "I suppose I might be able to manage that."
Avon shook his head. "Sometimes, Tarrant," his voice grew muffled as he slid down beneath the sheets, "I really wonder why I bother."
They didn't actually sleep together very often in the non-euphemistic sense. On Xenon base it was something which never happened, by unspoken but unbroken agreement. On trips aboard Scorpio they occasionally drifted into sleep together, but before morning one or other of them would have moved to a different bunk. But now the cold room outside the cosy haven of the bed discouraged moving. Besides, Tarrant felt unexpectedly but very definitely cheered by the idea of staying. He didn't want to be alone.
Tarrant tried to sleep, but something nagged at him. The bandages around his ribs were uncomfortable, but that wasn't it. It was a toothache-y idea, something he ought to leave alone, but couldn't.
"Would you really have left me?"
Avon opened his eyes.
"Outside. You said, 'don't make me leave you'. Would you really?"
('Please don't make me leave you.')
Avon's eyes darkened. "Of course I would."
Tarrant wondered what he'd expected Avon to say, or to admit. It hadn't been what he wanted to ask, anyway.
"I thought you weren't going to come back."
Avon's voice held a hint of warning. "Tarrant, if I had stayed there with you we would both have died. It would have been spectacularly pointless."
Yes, it would have been. Tarrant had no right to expect or even want anything else. He rolled onto his back, so he wouldn't have to see the certainty in Avon's eyes, and thought, it's just sex. That's what it's always been. Sex and something like friendship. Fun and games. That's all it means to Avon. All it means to me. This feeling, this is painkillers or leftover hypothermia or something else that isn't me. Just shut up now before it's entirely too late.
There was nothing more to say, no way to explain. Except...
"I needed you."
A chill settled slowly over the room, banishing the warmth from the heaters. Tarrant wasn't sure if Avon had actually pulled away, or if was just an effect of the silence. Avon's game, and Tarrant had broken the rules.
Tarrant sat up abruptly, caught his forehead on the bunk above.
When the sledgehammer pounding in his head had died down enough that he could hear himself speak, what he heard was, "I don't think I want to do this any more."
(Was that really me?)
"No?" Avon's voice was polite and distant, but it was a question not a statement. An offer. Tarrant knew he could change his mind, right then, and nothing more would be said.
Painkillers and concussion.
"No." Tarrant looked down at the other man. He'd thought he'd become pretty good at reading Avon, over the last few months. Now he discovered that either he'd been fooling himself, or Avon had deliberately been letting him in. Permission had been rescinded. He was looking at a portrait empty of expression: hooded eyes; straight nose; high cheekbones; smooth, sharply defined lips.
Tarrant didn't even realise how long he'd been staring until Avon looked away and said, "In that case, Tarrant, I suggest you find another bunk."
Numbly, Tarrant climbed out of the bed and into another. He thought about going to a different room, but they would be colder and even here the touch of the air and sheets was enough to start him shaking.
He lay still in the cold quiet, listening to Avon's even breathing. He felt relieved and empty at the same time. He'd never wanted anything more complicated than what they'd had, and, obviously, Avon felt the same. Better to step back now, before he did or said anything really stupid. Embroiled in the fight against the Federation as they were, he honestly appreciated the good sense of Avon's distaste for sentiment. Attachments were a weakness. It was for the best.
And so on, and so forth, endlessly. Despite the painkillers, Tarrant knew he'd never manage to sleep.
When Tarrant awoke, aching and queasy, Avon was already gone. He found him, once more, in the storeroom, packing the parts they needed into the tracked transporter, along with a good selection of other useful materials. He greeted Tarrant's appearance with a cool politeness which offered no opportunity to respond in any way other than in kind.
When they'd finished they switched off the base systems, tried to disguise as far as possible the fact that they had been there. Orac had been right, the complex would make a very useful adjunct to Xenon base. Tarrant hoped he'd never see the place again.
The trip back to Scorpio was comfortable enough, but Tarrant was glad Avon had volunteered to drive. Tarrant kept his eyes away from the snow sweeping across the windscreen. Just a glimpse made his stomach start to churn. He was tremendously relieved when they reached Scorpio and were able to link directly up to the airlock.
They managed to restore the heating systems before the ship started to suck in freezing air from outside. Tarrant was glad about that too. He'd had enough of being cold to last the rest of his life.
The rest of the repairs went smoothly enough and Slave was soon back to his usual faintly irritating self. He apologised for the failures during the landing until Tarrant threw a tantrum and a screwdriver and told him to shut the hell up.
Finally, they sat in the same seats they had occupied during the disastrous landing. Tarrant prayed fervently that this time Scorpio would surprise them and actually manage an entire flight without a system failure. He wanted to get back to Xenon base as quickly as possible, to the others. He could use a change of company.
They went through the flight readiness checks, question and response. It seemed to take forever and Tarrant was sure that one of the systems would fail to come on line. To his relief, one light after another came on green, although the orbital booster power readout on his console was still dead. It didn't matter, as long as the damn thing fired.
"All pilot systems are green. Count is two minutes and running. Avon, I need you to keep an eye on the power to the booster."
Almost imperceptible pause, so brief Tarrant might have imagined it. Then, "I've got it."
That was it then. Everything finished and ready to go. As they lifted off, Tarrant watched the storm-wrapped planet recede below them and felt...cold.