II: "Rumours of Death", continued...
True to her word, Cally had left elixir in the galley. The first carafe disappeared, and the second reappeared half-empty, but she didn't visit Avon again and she was very careful to treat him in a casual and open manner, asking no pointed questions, letting him define the boundaries of the friendship. She had begun to think that he'd withdrawn again, when, one midnight, as he relieved her of the watch he asked her if she'd care to stay and talk a while.
"And how are the wounds healing?" she asked.
"No poisons festering, no gangrene setting in?"
She tried to listen with her mind for signs of trouble. Guilt would be the most likely reaction to set in now. "No free-floating guilt?"
"Oh. Good." Cally was quiet for a few minutes, wondering whether to stay or go. Avon might be feeling just fine, but she was feeling a little tired and if he didn't have anything to talk about-- she suddenly realized she needed someone to talk to. For weeks now she'd been denying her own needs, trying to help everyone else-- she wanted to talk and it wouldn't hurt Avon to know other people had problems. "I was thinking the other day about what my life would have been if I hadn't left Auron-- "
"You'd all be safe and happy."
"Really?" Cally had forgotten how sarcastic Avon could be, but she wasn't going to let him stop her. "I wonder. It's true that it was because of me that Servalan set that plague on them; because she counted on me to bring Liberator there. And I did. And they're dead. But would they have been safe if I'd never left? Would they have been safe if I hadn't joined Blake?"
"Who knows? Will it make any difference thinking about it now?"
"None," she said, annoyed by his lack of sympathy. She needed to talk now, to confess, and Avon's detachment goaded her. She wanted to shock him into a reaction. "And it doesn't alleviate the guilt I feel, either." She paused for a moment, then said, quietly and deliberately, "Do you know, Avon, that sometimes I'm glad they're all dead? Glad. Because now I'm free. I'm free of all the trite philosophy; free of all the stupidity. And I'm free of having to be someone other than myself." Cally looked at Avon defiantly, expecting the disagreement, shock or moral censure she would have gotten from anyone else, but he appeared unimpressed and that spurred her to go on airing her guilty thoughts. "I'm free of all of them. I can do anything I want, be anything I want; I can think anything I want-- I can make up my own mind and I can be gloriously wrong. I can choose my own friends, my own causes, and I don't have to dream about running away to something better."
"Is that why you left? You were running away? And we all thought you were pursuing your high-minded ideals."
"I left because I felt I would suffocate if I didn't," Cally snapped. "At least I wasn't being deported to a prison planet convicted of bank fraud!"
And Avon put up both hands, palms out. "Peccavi," he said, acknowledging the hit, and he started to laugh. Cally always seemed to make him laugh. And he admired her courage-- even he couldn't get her to back down when she thought she was right.
And Cally laughed with him. Talking to Avon was such a relief. No shock, no censure, just hard-edged practical reality cutting through all the maudlin sentimentality and illusions. There would never be anything left of self-pity after talking with him.
Avon scanned the telltales for a while, checking this and that. He was surprised by Cally's... confession. Most of all he was surprised to hear her admit she sometimes felt relieved by the deaths of her family and friends. He went to sit near her, and, as he watched the stars on the screen, thinking about all that had been said, he remembered something, a question Blake had asked a long time ago: "Who and what would you be, Avon, if the Federation and the Families had never owned you?" The question had seemed stupid then, but--
"Do you know, Cally," he said quietly, "if I hadn't been caught, I'd still be a prisoner myself."
Cally was surprised by his self-revelation, but she kept her eyes on the stars as she answered. "Yes, I know what you mean. Other people's expectations... duty, honour, love, and hate: they catch us up and try to make us into what we were never meant to be." She looked at Avon then, and trying to shake off the mood, said, with false cheer, "But our lives are our own now; we can reinvent ourselves."
"We were both lucky to escape then," he agreed.
"Yes. And now I need some sleep." She got up, started to go, but turned back to ask, "Isn't it ironic that freedom should hurt so much?"
"It must be that free-floating guilt."
Cally smiled. She was always surprised how much she enjoyed talking with Avon when his wit and the quick mind behind it weren't bent on sarcasm. And it occurred to her what a valuable friend he might be, if he chose--
Cally looked at him waiting.
"Are you glad they're dead?"
"Sometimes. Hurt turns to anger and hate... and, well, sometimes I feel that loving those people was a heavy burden and I'm glad to have been relieved of the..."
"Hmmm... responsibility?" She reached down and patted Avon on the shoulder, saying, "Have a quiet watch, my friend." Just before she left the flight deck, she paused and said, "By the way, I've been wondering about something. Did you really need five hundred million credits? A hundred million would have been enough, surely?"
"Oh, no. A hundred million wouldn't have been nearly enough."
"Really?" she asked in mild disbelief. "Perhaps you'll tell me the whole story sometime?"
"It isn't interesting," he said, flatly, closing himself off out of habit, without even thinking.
Cally nodded, accepting the rebuff, and turned to go.
And Avon, watching her go, felt a twinge of regret, and unexpectedly discovered that he didn't want to shut her out completely, didn't want to lose-- what? He enjoyed having someone to talk with who could give as good as she got, someone who wasn't afraid to be honest with him. "Remind me," he called after her.
"I will," she said over her shoulder. Avon didn't see her smile.
Cally was a puzzle. She'd tried her damnedest to talk him out of his revenge-- and then she'd insisted on accompanying him! She'd condemn one to one's face for a moral lapse and then defend one to all comers and never admit of any contradiction; she'd grieve over the deaths of her family one moment, tell you what a relief those deaths were in the next-- and placidly accept that contradiction--
And admit to feeling guilty for feeling relief.
In all the years he had never imagined that anyone else felt that way, that anyone else experienced those same contradictory feelings.
That had been a heavy burden.