The tape had sat, unwatched, in Tarrant's room on Xenon base for nearly a week. He had taken the surveillance recording of the freight bay out of the computer the day after Zeeona's death. He didn't think any of the others noticed; everyone was busy inventorying damage, frantically salvaging what could be salvaged in the few days grace before the Federation might arrive. At the time, he'd had no clear intention of doing anything with the tape. But it was all that was left of Zeeona, except for the memory of the ravaged body they had buried in the unfriendly soil of Xenon.
He'd half expected a protest from Avon at the idea of wasting time on a funeral, but he hadn't objected at all. Of course, he hadn't involved himself, either. Dayna had been the one who helped Tarrant dig the grave and carry the body.
Avon simply turned up at the appointed time, standing a little way apart from everyone while Tarrant tried to think of something to say and the others tried not to look embarrassed. Then he had gone back to stripping equipment from the base.
Business as usual. Tarrant had briefly wanted to kill him. Also business as usual.
As the others mumbled awkward nothings and left, Tarrant watched the first spadeful of soil trickle into the grave. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he thought of Cally, so far away on Terminal. There had not been even the semblance of a funeral service for her, friend and crew mate.
That was when it had begun, this reopening of old wounds.
Imagination, so the line went at the Academy, was a character flaw. Nobody piloting a thin shell of metal at supralight speeds ought to be dwelling on the consequences of getting it wrong. Anticipation, memory, reflexes; these were all essentials in a good pilot. Imagination was a weakness.
Tarrant was a very good pilot.
He didn't dwell on the past. He had felt Deeta die and then, when he had destroyed the android which killed him, he had put his brother's death behind him. Nothing more to be done, no point letting himself think about it. He didn't usually think about the future much either, preferring to let tomorrow take care of itself. And, until now, the philosophy had worked well enough, give or take a few hiccups.
Insomnia had never been one of his problems, either. Until now.
The crew had decided to spend their very last night on Xenon Base on board Scorpio. The hanger was the only part of the base not yet wired with most of Dayna's stock of explosives, and everyone had been too exhausted to take off that night. Orac would give them sufficient warning of any Federation approach to let them get clear in time, should unwanted company turn up.
Tarrant twisted in the narrow space. Scorpio's flight deck bunks were built for function, not comfort. Not bad for short trips, but the idea of living here was unappealing. Only the single cabin which had been Dorian's was anything like comfortable and, automatically and without any discussion, Avon had occupied it. Well, since they were leaving Xenon base in the morning, Tarrant supposed he'd better get used to it. Nothing to be done, no point in worrying about it.
The rest of the crew, being rather more suited to the dimensions of the beds, seemed to be sleeping fine. He could hear a faint snore from Dayna, and Vila talking to himself in his sleep, too quietly for Tarrant to make out the words. Soolin slept like a cat, lightly and silently.
Tarrant himself wasn't sleeping like anything at all. Instead, he thought about Zeeona.
Why did he feel her loss so keenly? Perhaps is was the simple fact that he had held her dead body in his arms. The friends he had lost in the past had usually been more considerate than to leave such tangible evidence. During his time in the Service, and after his desertion, a corpse had been a rare find after space combats or accidents. Friends had been there, and then they been gone, quickly and cleanly.
Although he had felt Deeta die, felt the pain of the wound in his chest, they had left before any sort of funeral. There must have been a formal ceremony, he supposed, for the defeated champion of Teal. If he'd seen Deeta dead, seen him laid to rest, would it have made it harder to set the loss aside?
He hadn't seen Cally's body, either. Avon had seen, her, of course. Tarrant wondered if he had touched her, held her, said goodbye. It didn't seem very much like Avon, but then Avon had surprised him in the past. Tarrant remembered the kiss in the blizzard on Gerin and he thought about Avon, sleeping alone in Dorian's cabin.
Avon had surprised him again, only last night.
The last night but one at Xenon base. Picking up the tape of the freight bay, Tarrant had headed for the crewroom. The day after tomorrow they would be leaving for good and he couldn't very well watch the tape on Scorpio. He adjusted the lights so as not to attract the others, loaded the tape, found the place, made himself comfortable, delayed as long as he could.
It was worse than he ever could have imagined. The tiny figure on the monitor, struggling with the equipment, finally, bravely, pulling off its glove. Then the hideous, soundless death. Tarrant wondered if she had screamed, if she had called his name.
Tarrant ran the tape again and again until his tears had dried into a dull pain, like a torn muscle. It hurt to breathe. He had let her die. All the losses of the past were concentrated into that one idea. He had let her die and they had never said goodbye. So many endings, so few resolutions.
Oh, yes, he could try to blame someone else. Vila, who had said something or other, Tarrant couldn't remember, and made Zeeona want to make amends; Avon, who had somehow suspected what would happen but didn't care because it wasn't his life; Soolin, who had backed Avon because Soolin was practical and it was the best way. Tarrant was practical, usually.
Not this time. He had let her go. If he had stopped Zeeona going down, if he had gone with her, if he hadn't kept her on Xenon base, if he'd never become involved with her at all. (If he had never cared for any of them.) If, if, if.
His throat was tight with suppressed sobs and his head ached. He should get something from the medical unit. Instead he watched the tape again.
"It doesn't do any good, you know."
Tarrant jumped and nearly overbalanced from the edge of the seat as he turned round. Zeeona crossed the screen again, unwatched. Avon was leaning in the doorway, arms crossed, expression closed. He looked to have been standing there all night. But Tarrant had seen Avon pull that particular trick before, folding into stillness in the space between two breaths. He could have been watching for an hour, or just a few seconds.
Tarrant settled for the most neutral response he could come up with, although his voice was rough from tears.
"I didn't hear you come in."
"I like to keep an eye on what my crew is up to."
Tarrant frowned, needled into irritation and all the more irritated because he knew that it was deliberate.
"What's the matter, Avon? Can't sleep?"
He was surprised by one of Avon's more genuine smiles. "More soundly than you probably think."
Avon pried himself away from the door frame and walked over, stood directly behind Tarrant, watching the screen. Zeeona knelt beside the machinery, began her work, but Tarrant had trouble concentrating on her. For one thing, the repeated viewing had actually begun to blunt the awfulness. For another, having Avon standing behind him wasn't exactly a settling experience. Tarrant felt his shoulders tense up. Expecting a knife, he thought wryly.
On the silent screen, Zeeona died.
"Regrets, Tarrant. Might-have-beens. They don't do any good. Let it go."
The rank hypocrisy of Avon saying that to anyone temporarily robbed Tarrant of the power of speech. Eventually his mind produced someone else's words.
"Regret is part of being alive," Tarrant said.
There was such a long silence that Tarrant looked round. Avon stared down at him.
"What?" Avon said.
"Cally told me that. After Deeta died."
Avon kept staring, then suddenly laughed. "Did she really?"
"What's so funny?"
"Did she tell you it was a saying among her people?" Avon chuckled again, then stopped with an effort. "No, never mind. It's nothing. Really, nothing."
Tarrant was distracted by a soft click as the tape looped back to the beginning. Zeeona began her doomed walk across the bay. To his horror, Tarrant felt the tears rising again. He had every damned right to cry, of course, but not with Avon there. He wouldn't do it.
Instead, Tarrant concentrated on imagining what would be the most perfectly awful and inappropriate thing Avon could possibly say next. He was trying to decide between 'At least it was quick' (Zeeona struggled with the neutron bombarder controls) and 'You hardly knew her anyway' (the glove fell to the floor) when Avon rested his hands lightly on Tarrant's shoulders.
Tarrant had to award ten out of ten for unexpectedness. For a moment Avon's hands simply lay there, then they squeezed gently, repeatedly.
In front of Tarrant's eyes, Zeeona died.
The tears came, unstoppable, and Tarrant didn't fight them because what did it matter if the others heard, now? Nothing in his life had ever hurt like this. His throat grew raw with sobs and he hugged himself, shaking, not resisting the waves of grief. Zeeona. He tried to remember her warm and alive and his, but all he could find were images of death, the cold grave on the planet above. Other images followed hers: Cally, Deeta, even Jarvik, their lives cut short and their deaths meaning, finally, nothing at all.
The tears began to slow, at last. At the precise moment Tarrant became acutely conscious of Avon's touch, the other man released him and crouched down beside his seat.
"It will pass, Tarrant." His voice was soft and utterly serious. "Believe me, it will pass."
Tarrant just shook his head, unable to put words to the confused mess of his feelings.
Avon reached past him, switched off the monitor. Hit 'erase'.
As Avon leaned back, Tarrant made a small sound, protest or gratitude, he wasn't sure, and Avon turned to look at him. There was the briefest pause, suspended moment, then Avon dipped his head and kissed him. Caught utterly by surprise, Tarrant responded without thought, leaning into the kiss. Then the lips were gone.
Tarrant managed to shape a question. He thought it was 'what are you doing?', but something intercepted it before it reached his tingling lips and transformed it into, "Why?"
Avon sat back on his heels and looked at him. Slight, one-sided smile. "Why not?" Without waiting for an answer, he rose and walked away, leaving Tarrant blinking at the blank monitor.
Avon paused at the door. "I'll be in my room," he said, then he was gone.
Unnecessary information, and therefore an invitation. It was, Tarrant supposed, as much of an explanation as he could expect.
The door was closed, but not locked. Tarrant stood in the corridor, wondering what the hell he was doing there. He remembered what he had said to Avon on Gerin. 'I don't think I want to do this any more.' Why did he now?
He knocked, more from trepidation than politeness.
After a few seconds, he pressed the door control and it slid open. Avon was propped up on the bed, fully clothed but barefoot, reading something from a screen. He didn't look up until Tarrant had stepped through the door and closed it. Then he merely glanced across, looked back down at his screen, and patted the bed beside him.
It took an age to cross the small room. Tarrant sat obediently on the edge of the mattress, folding his hands in his lap.
"I won't be long," Avon said. He balanced the screen on his knees with one hand and reached out, running his other hand lightly down Tarrant's back. Tarrant shivered. After a second's pause, Avon did it again, this time using just his fingertips.
"I'm trying to read."
Tarrant gave up and closed his eyes. To be honest, he didn't want to talk anyway. He leaned back slowly until he found Avon's leg. He felt the thigh muscles tense as Avon braced himself, caught Tarrant's weight. The reading screen shifted, slipped, and the hand on his back lifted for a moment, then returned without comment.
It was...nice. The fingertips circled his shoulders, teasing out the knots of tension. Their pressure increased against recalcitrant muscles, decreased again as they eventually relaxed. Up and down his spine, working between each rib. His headache subsided and then weeks of strain began to drain away. It helped that there was nothing specifically Avon about the contact.
Except of course, that he was back in Avon's room again, sitting on Avon's bed, Avon's knee solid against him. Tarrant felt his back begin to tense again.
The hand stopped.
"What are you thinking about?" Avon asked softly.
The shock of Avon voicing such a question caused Tarrant's mind to bypass all filters and connect straight to his mouth.
"Ah." Long pause, Avon's hand flat and still against his back. "The door is just over there, if you had misplaced it."
"No. It's just..."
Tarrant realised he didn't know what it just was. Maybe something to do with Zeeona, or the fact that being in Avon's room again was something familiar made very uncomfortable by the long coolness between them. The hesitation stretched out, became a silence.
Avon sighed, set the screen to one side and sat up straight, causing Tarrant to lose his balance. Avon caught him, steadied him, released him, so there was no longer any contact between them.
Tarrant forced himself to look round at the other man. It must have surprised Avon as much as it did Tarrant himself, because he caught Avon more off-guard than he had ever seen him. Avon's eyes were dark and the lines of his face blurred with weariness, lost battles, and the fear of more losing battles to come.
Then Avon's lips tightened and he was his normal, sardonic self.
"Just go away, Tarrant."
The weariness was still evident in his voice. Tarrant wondered if it had always been there and he had never heard it, or whether Avon was just too exhausted to hide it.
"Go," Avon repeated.
"I don't want to," Tarrant said uncertainly.
"Yes, you do."
Avon picked up the screen and looked down at it, dismissing him.
There was nothing else to do. Tarrant stood up, walked away, halted at the door, turned without really meaning to. Avon's dark head was bent over the reading screen, the glow from it lighting the sharp planes of his face. Later, Tarrant wondered what would have happened if he hadn't stopped to look back, because just as he hit the door control and stepped through, Avon spoke without looking up.
"You can always come back. Another time."
To Tarrant's surprise, he hadn't slept badly that night. Exhausted by tears, he had fallen asleep thinking about Avon. Actually, in the morning he was rather more than half-convinced that he had dreamed the whole thing. Avon certainly said nothing, although that wasn't much evidence one way or another. He'd been pretty much the same when they'd been sleeping together before. But the freight bay tape was gone so Tarrant decided that, improbable or not, it had happened.
The day passed in frantic preparations for departure and it wasn't until sunset that Tarrant made his way up to the surface, to Zeeona's grave. If any of the others noticed how red his eyes were when he returned, they didn't comment. Public displays of sympathy weren't the sort of thing you could expect from the Scorpio crew. Tarrant wasn't sure if he was grateful or not. Then the day was done, and in the morning they would be leaving for good.
And so to bed, in Scorpio's uncomfortable flight deck bunks.
Tarrant had been the one who had ended their relationship, but Avon had never shown any sign of regret, or any desire for things to resume, until last night.
On Gerin, Tarrant had found himself wanting more than Avon was prepared to offer, or perhaps it had been more than Tarrant was prepared to ask for. The difference between reality and expectation had seemed very important at the time, but not any more. He thought of Deeta, of their years of separation. Tarrant had always been so sure they would see each other again.
Tarrant turned over again, banged his elbow on the wall and swore under his breath, and thought about the size of Dorian's cabin.
It was only the length of the flight deck away and he found the door was closed, but not locked. Tarrant was inside, door closed again behind him, before he could let himself think about it any more. So it wasn't until he cracked his shin on a box of Xenon base salvage several steps into the room that it occurred to him what a phenomenally bad idea sneaking up on Avon in the dark could turn out to be.
Avon didn't take chances, and his general attitude was that issuing warnings and shooting to disable were for people with an under-developed sense of self-preservation.
Tarrant stopped, trying to get his bearings. The sensible thing to do would be to call Avon's name. Unless, that is, Avon was still asleep, in which case it might be the last thing he ever said. Tarrant was hoping for rather more inspiring last words than that. As quietly as possible, he retraced his steps and found the lighting controls. Slowly, he brought up the lights to a level where he could just see the room.
Avon lay in bed, propped up on one elbow. True, his gun was pointing directly at Tarrant in a very business-like way, but he looked faintly amused rather than angry. At least as far as Tarrant could tell in the dim light.
"It's me," Tarrant said, to break the silence.
"I know. I heard you stealthily crashing around. You should probably take lessons from Dayna if you plan to make a career of it."
Tarrant stared pointedly at the gun. "I thought I had an invitation."
"And so you did." Avon put the gun down on the shelf by the bed and lay back.
After a few seconds, he turned his head to look at Tarrant. "Are you waiting for it in writing?"
Tarrant was a heartbeat away from walking out again. All that kept him in place was the certainty that next time the door would be locked. And that if he spent the whole night going over and over everything that had happened, he would go mad.
(Please don't make me feel any more of an idiot that I do already.)
Maybe Avon read the unspoken words on his face, because he suddenly shook his head and rolled over onto his stomach on the far side of the bed. He twitched the top corner of the sheet down. "Just get over here, Tarrant."
There was an odd hiatus after the sentence, which should have been filled with something like, 'I don't bite'. But that was so manifestly untrue in Avon's case that silence was probably a better option.
Now or never. With a sudden adrenalin buzz of confidence Tarrant crossed the small room, and made it to the bed.
Clothes. Yes. He stripped quickly, slid under the sheets. They moved together, met halfway, the last tension between them dissipated by the warm skin contact from shoulder to ankle.
Tarrant lay still, breathing in Avon's scent from the man beside him and the bed beneath him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes.
Avon spoke, just behind Tarrant's ear.
"You aren't going to cry again? It's just that it's a clean pillowcase."
The warm touch took the sting out of the words and Tarrant shook his head. "I'm all done."
Avon began to kiss his shoulder lightly. The kisses slowly transmuted into gentle nibbles. Up and down, warm breath and smooth lips. Tarrant shivered and Avon paused.
"Good? Not good?"
"Um, good. Very."
Avon laughed softly and resumed the kisses.
And it was good. Something familiar and warm and comforting, something he had missed more than he had ever admitted to himself. Something alive and of the moment.
Avon slid quietly out of bed and picked his way through the jumble of Xenon base salvage to the small bathroom. There was the sound of splashing water and Tarrant rolled over to see steam began to wisp through the open door. Of course, Dorian's cabin had a shower. Monstrously unfair, really.
A stack of reports on the floor by the bed caught Tarrant's eye and he begin to scan them idly in the light from the bathroom. Federation traffic, nothing very interesting. He noticed one name cropping up throughout the brief reports.
Avon reappeared carrying a couple of slightly damp towels. He dropped one on the bed next to Tarrant, then sat on the floor, drying his hair briskly.
"Where's Gauda Prime?"
Avon looked up sharply. "What?"
Tarrant gestured to the reports. "I've never heard of it."
"I didn't invite you back in here so you could go snooping around."
"So, you're not going to tell me?"
"I'll tell you about it tomorrow. When I tell the others."
Fair enough. Tarrant picked up the towel and headed for the shower.
Out of respect for Scorpio's antique water recycling system, he kept the shower brief, but when he stepped back into the cabin, he thought that Avon was already asleep, or at least pretending to be so. Tarrant hesitated. He didn't, in all honesty, want to go back to the flight deck bunk, to try and sleep alone. On the other hand, he didn't want to impose where he maybe wasn't wanted.
Avon had instigated the reconciliation, and Tarrant wasn't sure exactly what he had been offered. Was it what they'd had before or perhaps a little bit more? Did it include the rest of the night? He was well aware of the sharp, illogical difference in intimacy between sex and sleep.
He considered going back to his bunk in just a towel and finding some new clothes in the bags on the flight deck, but the thought of finding any of the others awake as he stepped out of Avon's cabin squelched that idea almost immediately. It wasn't that he was ashamed of anything, but it would involve an explanation he couldn't even begin to make right now. And staying with Avon until tomorrow morning made the need for an explanation a practical certainty.
Tarrant was hunting for his clothes when Avon pulled the sheet down a little and held out his hand. He didn't say anything, and in the darkened cabin Tarrant could have easily pretended to miss the gesture. Instead, he took the hand in his, and Avon pulled him into bed and then close up against him.
Tarrant lay in Avon's arms, his head on Avon's shoulder and felt utterly (unbelievably) safe. For just a moment, he thought of Zeeona but he was too tired, too comfortable, for her name to cause anything more than a distant ache. Just as Tarrant began to drowse off, Avon flexed the arm that he lay on.
"Do you want me to move?" Tarrant asked, sleepily.
"Hmm? No. Just checking for circulation."
Tarrant started to lift himself up, but Avon's free arm held him close.
"It's fine." There was a pause, then Avon added diffidently, "Actually, I think I could spend all night like this."
Since Avon couldn't see him, Tarrant smiled.
A resolution, but not, he hoped, an ending.