“Jenna Stannis.” Her real name rolled over Captain Atton’s tongue as if it were a dessert he was tasting. The two of them were sitting in the ‘office’ area of his spacious cabin, sharing a post-trade drink. He had just offered her a permanent position as the co-pilot on his crew and she had accepted.
Jenna reacted in shock but quickly covered it up. She hoped it had been fast enough. “I’ve heard of her. Isn’t she supposed to be dead?”
“You look very alive to me.” Atton’s eyes swept her slowly from top to bottom, and stopping at some interesting points in between. Jenna stifled an impulse to jump out of her seat and hit him in some very painful places. When he was done, he said, “You’re as beautiful as your reputation says you are.”
He rubbed the collar of the expensive brown jacket that was reminiscent of the leather material in old archive photos. It gave him a tough but stylish look. He looked very much the part of a successful and tough smuggler.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. My name is Jen Blade. Redden will verify that.”
“You told Redden that, so of course he would verify it.” He smiled at her indulgently. This man was sly and dangerous but he could be pleasant if you knew how to handle him. “I’m not like Redden.”
Jenna said coolly, “You’re more successful.”
Atton laughed. “Yes, I am. Very. I understand you were too, once upon a time. Before you got caught.”
“I told you that I’m not…”
“Not Jenna Stannis? Let’s make this clear, I know you are. It would save us both some aggravation if we can get that out of the way. I do hate wasting time on something that’s inevitable.” He lifted a mug of refreshing beer to his lips, perfectly cooled to the right temperature, and drank from it as he watched Jenna’s reaction.
Jenna realized that this man must have some information that he was very certain of. Other than for his deliberately rudeness, he didn’t seem threatening yet, but she prepared herself. “Alright, I am. What do you want to do about it?”
“Nothing for the moment. I like to know who’s working for me. It makes for fewer surprises. Make no mistake, Jenna Stannis, I am the captain of this ship. I don’t care what your past reputation was as long as you do your part. And don’t think that you can use us to help your rebel friends, unless, of course, they can pay. We are only in it for the profit here.”
Jenna told him, “I’m interested in the profit too. For now. Else I wouldn’t be here.”
“Then we understand each other.”
“We do. And if you look like that at me again, you will regret it. Do we understand each other?” Jenna was very familiar with how people like Atton operated. They respected strength and were merciless to those who allowed themselves to be pushed around.
“We do.” Atton smiled and raised his mug to her. They both drank from the glasses as if in an informal agreement. “I need a superb pilot with good instincts. Anything else I can obtain somewhere else.” He took another swig of his beer and said, “We’re going to pick up some special cargo on Ciscus then we’re headed to Sector Ten.”
At the mention of her old stomping grounds, Jenna became very interested but didn’t show it. She hoped she would have time to see an old friend.
She remarked casually, “I was wondering what we were doing in this region. There are nothing but neutral research labs in this area.”
“Neutral labs with some very interesting research.” There was a glint of mischief in his eyes.
Cally watched silently as Avon slid off the bed and nearly fell onto the floor as his legs gave out. Cally was waiting and immediately put her arms around him to give him support. She could feel him stiffen at her touch but he let her continue. She said, "I will refrain from saying, I told you so."
Avon fixed her with a steely gaze but didn't push her away as she helped him back onto the bed. He said, “We will do it your way.”
"Good." Cally was trying to be gentle and understanding. Since he woke up, Avon had been distant and impassive. His barriers were firmly up and prevented her from sensing him as anything other than a peripheral presence. The occasional warmth she felt from him was gone. He should have at least been mildly irritated or angry at his own weakness, but there was nothing. It was as if his mind had come back, but something fundamental was missing.
"Here, lean on me." Cally told him as she slowly guided him off the bed.
She could feel the warmth of his body where they were touching; it was in sharp contrast to his cold manner. Cally knew that the greatest damage was not to Avon's body, but something much deeper. He didn’t seem to want her to touch him. She wondered if they were back where they were before, before they had the breakthrough in physical intimacy.
It was something that she had not explored yet. She was afraid to find out.
So far, she had refrained from asking questions that might cause him stress. Until now, she had been focused on his physical recovery. A normal healthy human should have recovered much quicker than this and be able to walk unaided. Avon was far from fit and it was taking him a much longer time. Having two heart attacks in close proximity to each other had been very damaging to his already compromised health. Each progress seemed to require a momentous struggle.
The most troubling aspect was that Avon had cut her off from his mind. Whenever she tried to reach out to ‘touch’ him, she met with an impenetrable barrier. He no longer responded to her on a mental level. Her attempts to 'speak' to him were always answered by verbal means. It was as if they were strangers who had never shared the most intimate of connections.
Avon did what he was asked to in terms of regaining his strength and his health, but there was nothing beyond that. The rest of the time his eyes would be closed or he would stare at the ceiling. Attempts by Vila to deliberately irritate him or give him amusement were met with blank stares and a request to leave.
Supported by Cally, Avon slid slowly off the bed. His legs buckled again, but this time, leaning heavily against her, he was able to stand. He felt weak and unsteady. His legs were shaking as she guided him forward to walk a few steps. A few was all he could manage as she helped him back onto the bed again.
Avon lay back on the bed spent. He was sweating and his breathing was strained.
Cally asked him, “How are you feeling?”
His response was an automatic and emotionless, “I’m fine.” This was always his answer now. It was as if it were something he had been taught to say in response to questions of this type. A polite and meaningless civility that had little to do with the truth.
“How are you really feeling?”
Avon turned to stare at her with expressionless eyes but didn’t say anything.
"Avon, what's wrong? Why won't you talk to me?"
He said, "We have been talking."
"I don’t mean questions about your health." She put her hand on his chest and felt him flinch.
Cally said, “Avon, please talk to me. I know something’s wrong.”
“I have nothing to say.”
She asked, “How can you say that after everything that’s happened?”
For a split second Avon’s jaw seemed to tighten but it was so quick that she could have imagined it. He said without a trace of emotion, “Don’t pursue this.”
Unfortunately for Avon, his response guaranteed that she would continue to pursue it.
“Avon, what did Sester say to you?” This was a question she had wanted to ask him. Repeated attempts to question Sester had produced nothing. The man refused to answer her queries despite threats or entreaties.
Avon said, “It has no bearing on my present condition.”
“Then it has to be about Anna.” Cally knew that this had to be a big part of what was bothering him; the information he had found out about Anna. She was conflicted herself about the whole situation. It was hard to compete with someone who lived in ideal terms in someone else’s mind. Avon didn’t seem to be able to let go of her.
Avon seemed to stop breathing for a few seconds, as if the mention of Anna’s name had paralyzed him. He didn't want to talk about this. Keeping everything and everyone at a distance was the only way he knew how to cope with what threatened to overwhelm him. "I need time to process what happened."
Cally tried to encourage him. "It will help if you talk about it."
The cold, impersonal tone of his voice was like a slap in the face. Cally’s voice was full of concern. "Avon, what's happening? Why are you acting this way? After all the progress we've made, why do you want to throw it all away?"
There was a flash of guilt, quickly suppressed, as Avon saw the look in her eyes. The hardest part of the past week did not lie in dealing with the revelations about Anna. Once Sester had agreed to help him, that part of it was resolved in Avon’s mind. He owed Anna for killing her and he planned to pay that debt.
The most difficult thing was separating himself from Cally. The idea of being without her was a pain that cut so deeply that he could barely breathe, but he was doing it for her sake. He did not want to hurt her, but he knew that it was inevitable that she would be; as long as she stayed with him.
The revelations about Anna had made him realize that. It had filled him with overwhelming guilt, not just because he had killed her and it may have been in error.
Avon's mind went back to the day of his collapse…
His heart was racing, despite the drugs. His eyes were staring ahead but saw nothing in the room. A heavy weight seemed to be pressing him down as he listened to the voice of his enemy. A voice that was pronouncing his doom.
[Reya's voice asked, "That was why she tried to kill Avon?"
His enemy said, "I'm not sure she intended to kill him. She believed that Avon had become the kind of person who would kill her for betraying him to the Federation."]
She believed that, of him? I trusted you, Anna. Why did you not trust me? I would have died for you. I would have done for you what I did for Cally. Why did you not believe me? A sharp pain seemed to pierce his heart. Avon gripped his chest. I have been many things, Anna, but I would never have killed you.
[Sester's voice was relentlessly redrawing the nightmare of that day. “I watched the footage from the cellar that Servalan provided when we rebuilt the scenario for Avon. Anna did pull a gun on him. Cally shouted in warning and Avon whirled around and shot her. It was a purely instinctive reaction on Avon’s part, but Anna may not have meant to kill Avon."]
As Sester said this, Avon felt himself back in the cellar. The musty smells. The darkness that stretched from hidden corners. The silence of the tomb swallowing up every living sound, except the one he did not want to hear.
A voice of warning, triggering an instinctive response. I do not trust instinct.
["She may have only wanted to prevent him from killing her, so that she could tell him the truth.]
I should not have… As hard as his mind tried to prevent the past from replaying itself, it could only watch helplessly as the Avon of the cellar whirled and drew his gun in one motion.
The Avon that was listening to Sester's voice was finding it hard to breath. His mind was trapped in the cellar of his nightmares, reliving a moment that could only end death. His body was reacting as if it were in a fight it was losing, trying to call on reserves that it could not find. His mind and body were both on the verge of collapse.
[Sester's voice continued speaking. "That would make more sense with what we know about her. But unfortunately, Avon never knew that when he shot her. There was no way he could have known that she didn’t intend to kill him."
Reya's voice asked, "So Avon made a mistake?"]
I made the mistake. The Avon in the cellar fired and then stared in shock. It was not Anna, it was Cally he had shot. I…killed her.
The gun dropped from fingers that could not hold onto the reality of what he had done.
He rushed to her side, catching Cally before she fell to the ground, and cradled her in his arms.
I killed Cally. No! I killed Anna. The Avon of the cellar stared down in confusion at the dead face of someone he loved more than his own life. It was the face of Cally. I killed her…no…I didn't…
His mind was in shock. It could not process what was happening.
[Sester's voice droned on mercilessly, "It is likely he did. Anna tried to explain it to him after she was shot. She tried to tell him that it wasn’t all lies and that she did love him. She tried to tell him that she let him go but it was too late and she died before she could say more."]
In the cabin, Avon's heart was failing. His body was nearing the end of what it could endure. His mind had already passed that point.
"Avon!" Cally's frantic voice and her hands on his shoulders shook Avon out of the nightmare. She injected another dose into his neck. Avon held onto her as his confused mind tried to make sense of what was happening.
The focus of his eyes returned to reality. As he finally saw Cally's face in front of him, a sense of irrational relief and joy filled him to see someone he should have known was alive. * Cally? *
Avon's mental voice caused Cally to put her arms around him. This was the first time, since he woke up, that his mind reached out to her. Perhaps this was all he needed. She hoped that the shock that seemed to make him retreat away from everyone had been broken. * Yes, Avon. It's alright. *
* I was in the cellar with… * He could not say it.
Cally held him tighter and thought, When will it be over for you? She knew Avon had hoped that finding the answers would put this matter to rest. It only seemed to make matters worse.
Avon felt the strength with which Cally was holding him. Her warmth infused his body. He loved her more than he thought could be possible, even more than Anna. The vision he had in his cabin, while he was listening to Sester's voice, told him that. In his vision, when he looked down at the face of the one he loved more than himself, it was Cally's face that he saw. And it had filled him with horror to know that one day, she might die because of his mistakes. It had almost happened once already. The thought was something he could not bear, that was why he had collapsed.
I cannot let you die. I cannot be the cause of your death. Not again. It will only end badly if you continue to follow me.
It was for her own good. He had to do this, for her sake. Avon was resolved. Cally was better off without him. His stomach reacted in pain to the thought, but he quickly suppressed it.
When he didn't say anything further, Cally said, “Avon, you have to talk about this. If you don’t, it’s only going to get worse. It’s already getting worse.”
There was no hint of the pain he was feeling, there was only an impassionate voice. “Talking about it will not change the facts.”
“Avon, not everything is about facts.”
He said coldly, “Facts are the only thing that matter.”
She placed her hand on his arm, trying to reach him. “Do I matter?”
“You…are a fact.”
“I am not just a fact. Can a fact do this?” She bent down and sought his mouth with hers. Her desire was in the kiss, but Avon had no reaction. He lay passively, accepting her actions but doing nothing to contribute. Cally felt as if she was only kissing a body, not Avon.
She straightened up and said, “Avon, I’m not Anna.”
Avon’s jaw tightened imperceptibly. “I know.”
She said in a soft voice, “I never will be."
Avon lifted his hand a little, as if to touch Cally’s face, but he let it drop back down and looked away from her. Despite this, a faint touch of emotion crept into his voice involuntarily as he said, “I don’t want you to be.”
“Are we over now, because of Anna?” There was an underlying pain and fear in Cally’s voice that cut through the barriers he was trying to maintain.
No! A startled look came over Avon’s face.
It was what was needed, but it was not what he wanted. “Don’t think that.” I can't do this. I can't hurt her this way. But he still had to save her from himself.
How could this be done? Avon didn't know.
For now, he could not leave Cally while there was still danger around them. The aliens and the Federation had to be dealt with first, then he could die knowing she would be safe; from them and from him. And all of his debts would finally be paid.
He looked into eyes that contained the same love as his. Anna never truly loved him like this. He had been a fool to think she had. Anna may have loved him, but it didn’t stop her from betraying him, and she had given him up when she let him go. Perhaps she was only fond of him. Maybe she had learned to love him while she was working to destroy him, but she never loved him enough to tell him the truth or to trust him.
Cally asked, “What am I supposed to think, Avon? You’ve cut me off and you won’t let me reach your mind.”
“Give me time.”
Cally repeated her earlier question, "Avon, what did Sester say to you? Does he have anything to do with this?"
Avon answered, "No."
"He must have said something to cause you to shut yourself off."
Avon did not want her to pursue this avenue of questions. He had to divert her attention from the topic of Sester and what he did or did not say. Avon's voice became quieter as he said, "It has to do with Anna."
"She loved you." Cally didn't want to say it but it was now a reality that she couldn't ignore. What impact did this have on Avon? How would it affect their own relationship? She was almost afraid to find out.
"Yes, she did." Avon's eyes contemplated the ceiling as he suddenly realized another possibility. "Or so Sester says."
Cally asked with surprise, "You have doubts?"
"His information comes from Servalan."
Cally said with hope. "You're right."
"We may never know the truth," he told her.
"Or we can have Sester find out. He keeps saying that he wants to help you."
Avon said, "Servalan will expect it. I don't want to give her the chance to plant even more damaging information. I am inclined to believe Sester's information because it fits with what Anna said in the cellar."
"You want to believe she loved you."
"It doesn't make me any less a fool if she did. She never loved me enough to tell me the truth and she chose the Federation rather than to leave with me." The tone that was creeping into Avon's voice caused Cally to put her hand over his in reassurance. Avon looked down at her gesture, staring at their joined hands as if his own part in it was something he did not understand. He squeezed her hand in acknowledgement and then he looked up at her and with steady eyes said, "I still killed Anna."
"Avon, you didn't have a choice. It looked like she was going to kill you. If it had been me in the same situation, I would have done the same thing. Any of us in that cellar would have."
"It doesn't change the facts. I am the one who shot her."
"Avon, don't do this to yourself. If you insist on holding yourself responsible, then I will have to share in the blame too. I am the one who warned you when I saw the gun."
"I can't let it go, Cally. I never could with Anna."
"Avon, it's not rational."
For the first time, a brief half-smile appeared on Avon's face. It always amused him when she accused him of that. He knew he was being irrational, not because of Anna, but for Cally. For her, he would gladly do things that made no logical sense to his own survival. "Our positions appear to be reversed."
"I learned from the best," she said lightly.
Avon let go of her hand and reached up to touch her face gently. "It appears I should as well." For the time they had left, he wanted to give her what she deserved from him.
"Avon, can you let go?"
"I…will try." For her, he would even let go of Anna. "I want to go back to our cabin. Both of us."
Cally wanted that as well but she had doubts. "Are you sure you're strong enough?"
Avon deliberately relaxed his barriers a fraction, allowing her to sense more of him but only a controlled part. "If you help."
The touch of Cally's mind into his caused them both to gasp. Each knew what the other wanted.