The superiority in Sester’s tone made Argus’s fists clench in anger. He was normally controlled but for some reason, this man with his easy smiles made him lose that control very easily. It was like those times that would cause him to hate himself afterwards; when he became a dangerous killer full of the power of death and the rage was close to the surface. Not the disciplined soldier he always was, but a creature that scared him; a being capable of doing things that he had fought most of his life.
Reya saw the danger signs and said in warning, "Argus."
"Stay out of this, Reya!" Argus was angry that she was trying to protect Sester again. The smug look on his opponent's face made Argus’s blood boil.
Reya said reasonably, "This is not going to help Avon."
"I know what’s going to help Avon and that’s having him," he jabbed his finger like a knife towards Sester, "Off this ship!" There was a ringing sensation in his ears, each peal made the anger feel good and filled him with an energy that was bursting to come out in action.
Reya stepped quickly between the two men and squarely faced Argus. "You…are…not going to do this."
"Or what?" The challenger in Argus reared its ugly head; this creature needed to win. "What will you do if I hurt him? Are you going to defend him, like you always do? Are you going to hurt me?" In a corner of his mind, Argus realized that he was being unreasonable and that he was headed for trouble like a pursuit ship caught in a gravity well. I should not be doing this. It was a quiet voice that was drowned by the rage that was overwhelming him. The looks on the face of his enemy, when Reya wasn't looking, did not help.
Reya shook her head, "I’m not going to do this with you."
Argus snarled, "You did it, with him." What am I doing? The quiet, reasonable voice struggled to be heard.
Reya’s guilt flared up at his charge, as well as anger. She fell silent.
Sester clapped his hands slowly; it was a sharp and cynical sound. "Very good. You amaze me, Commander. Is this how you’re going to help Avon? By beating me up, like you did before and bullying someone you supposedly love?"
Reya’s eyes flashed with shock and disbelief. "Like before?"
It was Argus’s turn to have a burst of guilt.
Sester answered Reya but his eyes were looking triumphantly at Argus, "Yes, didn’t he tell you?"
It had been very easy for Sester; just a harmless word or two at the appropriate times and the looks calculated to annoy and aggravate an increasingly frustrated opponent. Argus may have been brilliant at military tactics, but on a personal level, he was woefully inexperienced. In many ways he was an innocent when it came to the devious ways of humans and was no match for a psychostrategist.
Reya turned to Argus. Her face was troubled. The tone in her voice was almost a sound of pleading as she asked something she hoped was not true. "Is this true? After you promised me you wouldn’t?"
Argus knew he had let her down. He wished that he could turn back time and undo what was going to cause her pain. The look on his rival's face caused Argus to say instead, "I told you that I wouldn’t, IF he did not pose a threat to the security of this ship."
A slow reluctant anger was building up inside Reya; along with a feeling of disappointment and betrayal of trust. "You lied to me. You had already decided that he was a threat when you made the promise. You always intended to beat him up."
"No, I didn’t."
"You beat him up, Argus! How can you say you didn’t?"
Argus still didn't understand how he lost control that day, but he found it impossible to admit it while his nemesis was standing there with an amused look on his face. "Just because I did, doesn’t mean that I lied to you. I didn't plan to beat him up when I went to his cabin to talk to him."
Reya said, "Alright, you didn't plan to beat him up. It just happened." It was hard to believe that someone as disciplined as Argus could let his emotions rule his fists. If she had not witnessed that one troubling incident that had made him not act like himself, she would have found it impossible to accept that it could happen. This did not resolve their issue of trust though.
Reya said acidly, "But did you also accidentally not tell me? For days? For weeks? Was that also not planned? Why didn't you tell me?" She tilted her head towards Sester and saw the serious and troubled look on his face. "Why did neither one of you see fit to tell me?" Reya challenged Argus, "Did you threaten to beat him up again if he told me? Is that why?"
Any defence of Sester by Reya always made things worse for Argus. His eyes were hard and unyielding as he said, "Don’t paint him out to be the victim here, Reya. You seem to forget that he’s a dangerous man. He works for Servalan. He cannot be trusted."
Tempers were definitely getting out of control for both of them. Reya said angrily, "You beat him up. The only one who seems to be dangerous here, is you!"
Sester felt as if he was winning a very important battle and he scarcely had to do anything. He had been trying hard to be good, for her sake. Manipulating Reya had been out of the question, he could not do that to her, but he had no such compunctions about Argus. The man was his rival and both of them were dangerous in their own ways. Sester had been looking for a way to even the score between them. Argus had walked right into this one.
Sester was enjoying the fireworks but he decided that it was time to step in before the situation deteriorated further. The battle was not over yet, but the damage had already been done. He could afford to wait. The relationship between these two was starting to fracture, but he was under no illusions. Reya and Argus's bond with each other was still strong. He wondered how miserable these two could make each other before they reached the breaking point. Their inability to communicate effectively with one another was their weakest point, as well as their equally strong wills. It was not that they were incapable of it. Under the right encouragement, each was quite capable of it. He had done it often enough with Reya.
Sester was very good at being the sympathetic and caring listener. That was why she was conflicted about him when her experience told her not to trust him.
At first Sester considered Reya's irrational wish to believe in him predictable, even inevitable. It was a situation he had faced many times with women. Once they had a taste of his caring side, they couldn't let him go. It was a natural ability he learned to be very careful with. Sticky and overly emotional situations were useful in his work but not as desirable for his personal life.
With Reya, things had quickly become very personal. Over time, he learned that her response to him was something different than what he had experienced before. She cared about him and genuinely wanted to believe in him. It was something much more than gratitude for what he had done for her. It went beyond the potency of his natural charm. Reya valued him for himself despite what she saw as his weaknesses. It had nothing to do with how he impacted her life. He didn't know why, but this made it hard for him to let her go.
Here she was defending him against someone she loved. For a moment, it made him feel...he wasn't quite sure what it was, but it wasn't good. Why should I feel terrible? Argus is only getting what he deserves.
He tried to tell himself that Reya would have found out eventually and she would be as angry as she was now. And hurt.
An inexplicable impulse caused him to say to her, "Reya, don't be angry with Argus. He was only trying to protect you from me."
Reya turned to him in surprise. She said, "Stay out of this. It has nothing to do with you."
Sester was as surprised by his own words as she was. He said, "If it weren't for me, none of this would be happening." He knew why he was doing this; he could not bear seeing her hurt.
She shook her head. "You don't understand." Looking pointedly at Argus, she said, "This has to do with trust."
Argus's face looked pained and he opened his mouth to say something but Sester said, "Reya, please give him a chance. Argus made a mistake." He looked pointedly at his nemesis. "He makes many mistakes."
Sester knew the only way to help Reya, was to assist his rival out of this mess.
Argus's lips curled in anger at what Sester was doing. He said with quiet menace. "Stay out of this, Sester."
Sester wished the man would understand what he was trying to do and cooperate for once. "I don't think I will. Since you have an inability to fix this without making it worse..."
Argus said with great cynicism, "Don't try to use this situation to make things better for yourself."
Sester had a smile on his face. He could not resist the open challenge between them either. "If I wanted to make things better for myself, I would do nothing."
Argus said angrily, "And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Do I really have to explain it to you?"
Reya said, "Sester, please leave us."
He turned to her. "No. I am doing this for you as well as for him."
Argus added sardonically, "You mean for yourself."
Reya said, "Argus. Stop it!" She looked at both men and then said, "Get out. Both of you."
Argus said, "Reya, please..."
Sester said, "But..."
Reya pointed to the door. "Now! Both of you. I can't talk to either one of you now if you both insist on making this a contest. I will not be the prize for your male pride!"
Argus said in a subdued voice, "But this is my cabin."
Reya asked with a tone that made Argus wince, "Are you saying that you want me to leave instead?"
Argus said in a mortified voice, "Nooo." His head hung down. "I'll leave."
Sester was also subdued. "My apologies."
The two men felt ashamed of themselves, in their rivalry, they had pushed things too far and had hurt someone they both cared about.
Argus made sure that Sester made the first move to leave. As Sester passed him, he could hear the other man saying in a barely heard voice, "Don't be a fool. Talk to her."
Argus's anger flared, "What did you say?"
Sester looked back at him just as the cabin door opened. There was no challenge or aggression in his eyes, only sincere concern. "She needs you to talk to her."
Sester had never used the full weight of his ability to persuade on Argus before.
Argus hesitated with indecision and confused anger. The man he hated was not acting like an enemy now.
Sester took one last look at Reya and said, "You need to be honest with her. Don't hurt her anymore." With that he left and didn't look back.
Argus stared at the door as it slid closed. It was hard to take advice from his enemy, especially when he was right. He was almost afraid to turn around to face Reya again. "He's right. I have hurt you and I'm sorry. I don't know what comes over me when he's around. I feel..." There were so many things he wanted to express but he didn't know how to say it. He was always afraid that if he opened his mouth, everything would come out wrong and only make matters worse.
When Reya didn't say anything, he asked fearfully, "Is he right? Have I made too many mistakes with you? Is this one too many?"
Argus sounded so miserable and insecure that Reya's face softened. The deep regret in his eyes made her want to reach out to him. She could never stay angry with him for long. Her voice was gentle and reassuring as she said, "No. Don't ever think that. I'm angry now, but it doesn't mean that I love you any less. We just need to cool down for a bit before either one of us makes things worse. We've both made mistakes."
"No. I make all the mistakes and you've been wonderful. I don't deserve you. I don't know why you stay with me."
Reya went over to the doorway where he stood and placed her hand on his arm. "That's why. Because you deserve someone better than I am, but you don't see it."
"I don't understand. How could you say that after all of the things I've done? I'm not perfect. I keep saying the wrong things. I..."
Reya reached up to brush his face. "You're perfect for me."
"I don't th..."
Reya put her fingers to his lips. "Don't say any more. Just know that you are to me. I want you to understand something, Argus. No matter what happens with Sester, you are stuck with me. The only way for you to be free of me is if you walk away. I never will. When I thought I had lost you, I stopped wanting to live. You are that important to me. If you had not given me a charge to keep the others safe, I don't know what I would have done. I understand why you hate Sester, but he helped me deal with some of the pain. Neither of us knew that you were still alive. He was genuinely trying to help. For that, we both owe him but there was never any question that he would replace even a small fraction of what you are to me. I regret that we slept together but it was a circumstance that didn't give us any choice. It never meant anything to me."
Argus lifted his eyes to meet hers. Reya always knew how to make him feel better. No matter what she said though, he knew that he did not deserve her. "I understand about Sester. I do. In my head. But..." How could he explain the war that went on inside of him whenever his opponent smiled smugly at him?
Reya sighed with resignation. "Another part of you takes over. Yes, I understand."
"I don't want it to."
"I will try harder."
Argus asked with hope of a different answer, "Do you really want me to leave?"
"Yes, for now. I think it will do us both good."
"Can I come back later?"
"No. I will let you know when you can."
Argus said, "As long as you don't hate me."
Reya sighed. "I could never hate you."
"I am sorry for what happened and for not telling you."
Argus hesitated. "I can't say that I'm completely sorry for beating him up, but I am sorry for what I did to you. I should have been honest with you."
"We both have things to work on with each other but you'd better go now."
Argus didn't know what she could possibly need to work on but he said, "Alright." He decided that he should head in the opposite direction that Sester went.
Avon's stare was starting to make Vila feel uncomfortable. The man did not seem to blink. Avon finally looked down at the chessboard, made a move with his bishop and said, "Check." His eyes lifted up to stare at Vila again.
"Yes?" asked a flustered Vila.
Avon said, "You're in check. Again."
Vila looked down at the board as if he had forgotten that they were playing. "Oh." He tried to remember what strategy he had been following, with very little success.
Avon said with impassive indifference, "Take all the time you need, since you appear to have nothing else to do than to lose to me."
Vila glanced at Avon and then shifted his king to move it out of danger. "It's not going to work. You can't get rid of me that easily."
"Are you quite sure?" Avon moved a piece to attack Vila's king again and said, "Check."
Vila looked at the offending piece and said, "I wasn't talking about the chess game. The only way I'm going to leave is if Cally comes back. Nothing you say is going to change my mind."
A brief look of irritation appeared on Avon's face. He had been right, Cally was not going to leave him alone until she knew that he wasn't going to kill himself.
Vila said with a light smirk, "Besides it's hard to be rude when you've given up calling me a fool."
Avon asked, "How about a wager?"
"Eh?" Vila always found the idea of a wager tempting, but it was the last thing he had been expecting. "What kind of wager?"
"A chess wager. You can stay if you win. When I win, you will give me time alone. Neither one of us will tell Cally. I promise that I will not do anything that she would not want me to do. Agreed?"
"I don't know," said Vila uncertainly.
"Unless you don't believe me or you don't think that you could win."
"It's not that."
"Then what's the problem?"
Vila looked at the door through which Cally had exited earlier and said, "Cally will kill me if she found out I left you alone. I like to keep on the good side of people who can do that."
Avon asked dryly, "Do you plan to be afraid of every woman on this ship?"
Vila said defensively, "I wouldn't call it being afraid."
Avon said sarcastically, "You wouldn't."
Vila frowned at the insult and then a wide smile lit up his face. "You know, it really isn't going to work, Avon. You might as well give up."
Avon was staring hard at him again. Vila shifted uncomfortably in his seat and then looked down at the chessboard. He moved a piece to block Avon's check and said in return, "Check."
The hint of a sly smile crossed Avon's face. "Are you taking up my wager, Vila? Do you honestly think you have a hope of winning against me?"
"What makes you think that I'm going to lose?"
"The last five games."
"And what if I win?"
"You have to win first."
Vila tried not to look too nervous.
Sester sat alone in his new observer craft in one of the ancillary cargo holds. His mind was deep in thought as he planned what he was going to say to Servalan. Something was bothering him but he couldn't identify what it was yet.
Thoughts of Reya and the encounter with Argus in their cabin kept interrupting his concentration. His own actions to help Argus had surprised him. Most of his own behaviour when Reya was around amazed him. She made things happen that he never expected. She defied everything that he could calculate or strategize.
He smiled wryly at these thoughts as he familiarized himself with some of the new communications technology in the ship. It was time to put aside personal issues, at least until after he talked to Servalan. He could not afford any distractions when facing his employer.
The Athol military engineers had already gone over his craft thoroughly and reported that it contained no 'surprises'. Avon wanted to do it himself but Cally had refused to allow him return to work yet. Cally could be very tough when she wanted to be.
Sester's mouth held a bitter taste as he thought of what Servalan had tried to use him to do to Avon. In the end, she had achieved what she wanted, despite his attempts to prevent it.
Sester's eyes hardened. A puppeteer did not easily submit to being used as a puppet. He did not like being used in someone else's plots. It was time to regain some control with this woman. She had to learn that playing with a psychostrategist was not something to be taken lightly, not even if she was the President of the rapidly expanding Federation.
He did not believe everything Servalan had told him about Anna. Sester wished that he had been able to do some investigation before everything came out. Avon had been too impatient and Argus had burst in before he could explain to Reya that he did not trust everything that Servalan had told him.
Sester sighed. He hoped it was not too late for the truth when he finally discovered it. For now, Avon would have to endure the consequences of the information he had not been prepared for; whether it was the truth, the half-truth, or a complete fabrication by Servalan.
Sester had his own suspicions. He was determined to find out the truth.
The onboard computer made the required relay connections and the Federation President, in an elegant red and white pantsuit, said immediately, "I expected more frequent reports now that I have given you a new ship."
Sester inclined his head slightly and said politely, "My apologies, Madame President."
Servalan's voice was one of a superior dressing down a subordinate. "Mere apologies are not adequate."
Sester smiled pleasantly. "How can I make it up to you?"
"Tell me what I want to hear."
"Don't I always?"
There wasn't an ounce of sarcasm in Servalan's cold voice. "I was beginning to think that you had forgotten how."
Sester gave her an easy smile and said with light deference, "I wouldn't dare forget, Madame President. I do value my life."
"You have nothing to fear from me," she said with the smoothness of a snake luring a prey into a comfortable lair.
"So long as I remember who holds all the power?"
"Of course." Servalan kept a severe face as she regarded him from the screen. "Does Avon?"
Sester's relaxed and pleasant manner slowly changed. "Your message was delivered."
Servalan leaned forward towards the screen and asked impatiently, "Well?"
For a moment, Sester's face was blank, caught between his continued game with the dangerous Federation President and his disgust with what she wanted to do to Avon. His words were measured as he responded to her query. "If your purpose was to kill Avon, then you didn't succeed."
"You know that wasn't my intention," Servalan said with annoyance. "How did he take the news?" Her voice took on that strange mixture of concern and eagerness she always had when contemplating an Avon who was hurting.
Sester said in a controlled voice, "Not well. He suffered two heart attacks; once when talking to Grant, the second when hearing your story about Anna. I must congratulate you. It was very well done, Madame President. You prepared him using Grant and when he thought that it was over, when he was already weakened, you hit him with the real blow."
The odd mix of emotions on Servalan's face turned to another strange combination of triumph and compassion. "I never expected the heart attacks."
Sester said with professional and non-personal detachment, "You should have, Madame President. You have extensive files on Avon's physical and mental condition. This should have been anticipated in your plans. If you had told me what your purpose was, I would have advised you against this course of action. Unless, as I have said, you intended to kill him."
Servalan eyes narrowed and held his, as if she was trying to read what his intentions were. "You of all people know what my intentions are concerning Avon."
"Do I?" He leaned towards the screen. "Do you?" There were no easy smiles now. Every word was like a weapon that cut deep to where the truth was hidden.
"What are you trying to say?" Servalan asked in a voice that would have come out like a hiss, if she was really a snake. Predators did not like it when their prey suddenly exhibited predatory instincts of their own. Sester was such a charmer that it had been easy to forget what he was.
"If you want to play with Avon, that is your prerogative. As you have said many times, he belongs to you. But you have placed me on this ship for a reason. One of them is to ensure that Avon is taken care of and that he remains under your control." Sester's eyes dared her to deny this.
Servalan did not. "Go on."
"Give him time to recover, Servalan. Before you kill him. Your games push him too much to the edge. Be careful that you don't push him so far that he cannot come back."
The heavy but professional warning in Sester's manner filled Servalan with great concern. Her voice betrayed her fear. "Tell me what happened?"
Sester told her, "He wants to die."
Servalan's face paled. "He tried to kill himself?"
"No." Sester watched her carefully as he said, "The only reason he doesn't, is because of Cally."
Servalan's eyes narrowed again at the mention of Cally. Her voice was so cold that it could have frozen the space between them. "She has her uses."
"Yes. She does, but you already knew that."
Servalan said ruthlessly, "When her usefulness ends, I will have her killed."
"Wouldn't she remain more useful as leverage against Avon? We know that he is willing to do anything for her." Servalan had just confirmed one of Sester's suspicions.
There was murder in Servalan's eyes. "She cannot be allowed to live."
"If you kill her, Avon will die," he warned her.
"It is not your place to tell me what to do. Only to advise," Servalan said with a menace that was icy and smooth.
"I would never presume to tell you to do anything, Madame President."
Servalan paused in thought and then she said, "Very well. I will give him time to recover. I expect regular reports on his progress."
"Of course." Sester had achieved two of the things he wanted to do. The rest would have to wait for another time.
Servalan reached for her panel to cut the communications channel but hesitated. She asked him with curiosity, "Why do you refer to it as 'my story about Anna'?"
Three. It certainly took you long enough. He asked, "Isn't it?"
"Are you implying that I fabricated the story?"
Sester's smile returned. "I am not implying anything."
"What have you been doing?" Servalan needed intelligent people to serve her, but they invariably developed minds of their own. She did not like her tools acting according to their own agendas.
"It occurs to me that you could not possibly have known some of the things you told me."
For the first time during their conversation, Servalan smiled. "Clever of you to notice but I do not pay you to analyze me."
"Call it a pleasurable exercise."
Servalan's warning this time was light, almost playful. "And a dangerous one."
"That's part of the pleasure, Madame President." Sester's voice contained a relaxed charm that hid a new resolve. I will not let you destroy Avon and Cally.
If Avon's stares were calculated to fluster him, Vila thought that he was doing a very good job. He was playing the game of his life, running his few remaining pieces around the board, just one step ahead of a firing squad. The training sessions with Sester were proving very helpful.
Vila was surprised that his side was still alive. At first, his bravado had quickly turned to dismay as his confidence was chipped away with each piece Avon removed from the board. Vila refused to lose though. There was more at stake here than just a game to be lost. He realized he should never have taken Avon's bet.
From Sester, Vila recognized that he had reached the end game almost half an hour ago. He wondered how long end games were supposed to last. Half an hour seemed like an awfully long time but each time he thought that there were no moves left, his stubborn mind gave him another one. Vila moved his king again.
Avon looked at the move and then stared at him again. Without taking his eyes off Vila's, Avon reached out and lay down his king.
Vila looked down in confusion, trying to understand what Avon had just done. "But you're winning."
"It may appear that way."
"You're going to have to explain that to me." He still could not see why Avon had conceded the game to him.
"We could play for another hour and still be in relatively the same position we are in now."
Vila was still mystified. "But that means that we tied."
"Under normal circumstances."
"Alright, you're really going to have explain that to me."
"You have never won against me before. To achieve a draw when you have been in an end-game position for the past twenty-one minutes, is an incredible achievement."
"It still doesn't mean that I've won," said Vila stubbornly.
"You have. When I concede my king, the game is over and you achieve what you set out to do. You can stay. I will not compromise you with Cally."
"One of these days, I'm going to beat you. It won't just be a draw."
"I don't doubt that, but not today." Avon's eyes held amusement. "Your skill level has increased significantly since the last time we played. Have you been studying?"
"Well, yes." Vila wasn't sure how Avon would react to his playing chess with Sester. Or that Sester had been teaching him.
"Out with it, Vila."
"I've been playing with Sester."
Avon was staring at him again. Vila wondered why it was that he could never tell what Avon was thinking when he did that. He tried to defend his actions. "You did tell me to keep an eye on him."
"I did." Avon looked down at the finished game and contemplated the final configuration of the pieces.
Vila asked tentatively, "You're not mad that he's been helping me, are you?"
"Why would I be?"
"Well, you don't like him."
Avon laughed. "That would be a mild understatement of my attitude towards Sester. I don't mind if you use him. Just don't let him fool you."
"Hm?" Avon was still studying the pieces on the chess board.
"You're not going to try to kill yourself, are you?"
Avon looked up at him. This time he wasn't staring at him disconcertingly.
Vila said, "I know you don't want to hear this and I don't know much about Anna, but I do know Cally. She's ten times better than..."
Avon looked away from him. His jaw had tightened. It was the only evidence of a reaction.
Vila hoped that he hadn't said something Avon wasn't ready to face. Cally had warned him not to say anything to cause him stress. "Look, Avon. I didn't mean to..."
Avon said, "You're right."
"I am? Of course I am. You shouldn't be hung up over Anna. She tried to kill you and she was spying on you for the Federation."
"Cally would die before she did anything like that."
Avon got up from his chair and said, "I know that, Vila." He began pacing slowly and rubbed his left wrist with his right hand.
Vila stood up and watched him. "Then I don't understand. Why are you treating her this way? She cares about you."
Avon stopped with his back towards him. "Don't pursue this, Vila. I know what I'm doing."
"It doesn't look like it."
Avon turned to face him and said, "I'm tired. I'm going to lie down."
"Alright. I know when someone's telling me to shut up, but I still think you don't know what you're doing."
Avon said, "Let me worry about that."
"Yes, but do you really want Cally to worry? You know she does. All the time."
The corner of Avon's eyes seemed to crinkle in a wince but it quickly disappeared. He said, "I'm going to get some rest." Avon went over to the bed and lay down without another word.
Vila sat down again as he watched Avon close his eyes. He said in a quieter voice, "I know. I know. I'll shut up now." There was a worried look on Vila's face as Avon pretended to get some rest. Cally was right, we can't leave you alone.
There was something wrong with Avon. No matter how much he tried to appear otherwise, something had changed. Vila had a bad feeling.