Lovin' Every Minute of It

Ann Wortham & Leah Rosenthal

"We're going to Malsonia III," Blake announced loudly as he strode into the Rest Area of the Liberator where the other members of his crew were relaxing around the room on lounges.

Jenna Stannis, a blonde ex-smuggler and Blake's pilot, was reading a book; Cally, a dark-haired telepath and freedom fighter from Auron, was meditating, her legs crossed into a lotus position; and Vila Restal, a small, light-haired thief, was sipping a glass of adrenaline and soma while playing chess with Kerr Avon, a dark-haired, glowering man, who also happened to be a genius at working with computers.

"What?" Avon said, his face expressionless but his tone conveying displeasure. "Blake, don't be ridiculous! Malsonia III is a haven for criminals. It would be suicidal for us to go there. Those pirates would love to get their hands on a ship like the Liberator. I thought our little run-in with the Terra Nostra would have taught you about the wisdom of dealing with thieves." Avon sneered contemptuously, ignoring Vila's obvious outrage at this insult to the thief's profession.

Blake scratched his head and began to pace back and forth, his eyes hard and determined. "We'll be perfectly safe, Avon. They've requested our help—sort of."

Avon did not fail to notice Blake's momentary hesitation and qualification of his reply. "Blake—"

"Don't interrupt me this time, Avon," Blake growled, stopping his pacing just long enough to favor the computer expert with a glare. "Just try to be quiet and listen for once."

Avon leaned back, his arms crossed over his chest, and put on his best "convince me" expression.

"I'm curious, too, as to why we would want to help a bunch of criminals," Jenna piped up, laying down her book, pushing her hair back from her face, and fixing Blake with a searching stare. "Malsonia III does have a bad reputation—even among my old cohorts."

"Yes, tell us more," Cally urged, unwrapping her legs from around herself and sitting up straight.

Vila remained silent, an unusual situation which Avon didn't fail to take note of. He actually looked slyly pleased. Avon studied the other man suspiciously a moment then shrugged and dismissed it. Vila was probably not even paying attention to the conversation taking place around him.

Blake moved to sit next to Jenna, his eyes lit with an almost fanatical gleam. "The Thieves Guild on Malsonia III has managed to, shall we say, 'obtain' a safe belonging to a rather highly placed Federation official. The entire safe has been removed to the safety of their planet, but nobody has been able to get it open. There are some extremely valuable gems inside that they are desperate to get their hands on. Explosives can't be employed due to the delicate nature of the jewels—a blast of any kind would shatter them."

"Just how does this concern us?" Avon asked cuttingly, his lips curling up in a sneer. "We have plenty of wealth on the Liberator, which we're never allowed to use, I might add. Besides, the Thieves Guild is hardly likely to let us have the gems…." Avon's eyebrows arched inquiringly.

Blake cleared his throat loudly, not meeting his computer expert's eyes. "Well, there are also a large number of secret, highly sensitive documents in that safe. In return for our help, we'll be allowed to have them." He smiled wanly and raised his head to confront Avon's glare.

"I'm not going to argue with you about this." Blake stood up, rubbing at the side of his neck with one hand. "We're going. If you don't want to help out in this venture, then don't. But, you are along for the ride. The same goes for all of you." Blake exited in the direction of the Flight Deck, not waiting for Avon's reply.

Avon stared after him, stunned at Blake's precipitous exit, but not really surprised. Blake was growing more and more fanatical about his all-consuming cause and Avon was beginning to fear for Blake's life—and emotional stability. It was a continual source of irritation to him that something in his nature demanded he feel this sense of loyalty toward a man who was obviously on a path leading to self-destruction. With a heavy sigh of trepidation and weariness, Avon pushed himself to his feet and trudged after Blake. He was perversely glad that Vila, Cally, and Jenna trailed in his wake. Somehow, he felt he was going to need their support.

Blake was standing in front of the flashing visual display which represented the liberator's flight computer, Zen, as Avon and the others trooped on to the Flight Deck.

"All right, Blake," Avon addressed the other man's rigid back, his tone even and neutral, "You've asserted yourself and put us all in our place. Do you think you could take the time to tell us how we're supposed to help these criminals on Malsonia?"

Blake turned to face his crew. "Vila will open the safe, of course."

"And that's all?" Jenna questioned skeptically. "That's all they want from us? I find that hard to believe."

"She's right," Avon said, trying to reason with Blake. "It doesn't make much sense that they would let us go once Liberator is within their grasp. For that matter, we've all had high Federation bounties posted on our capture." Avon glanced around at the others, seeking support.

Jenna looked vaguely defiant. Cally, unfortunately, looked interested in Blake's plan, and Vila was still remaining uncharacteristically silent. He had a smug, self-satisfied smirk on his face that Avon didn't much like the looks of, though.

"They won't give us any trouble," Blake insisted. "They've given their word. "

"Their word?! You're basing our continued existence on the word of a band of self-admitted thieves, Blake." Avon was openly incredulous. "I don't like the way you play free with our lives."

"We'll be safe."

"I rather agree with Avon." Jenna spoke up again. "It does seem a risk—trusting these people just for the chance at some Federation documents."

Blake sighed loudly. "They aren't just any Federation documents, Jenna. The safe happened to have belonged to Supreme Commander Servalan, herself."

Jenna's skeptical grimace disappeared and her eyes lit up. "Well, that settles it, then," she said firmly, and Avon groaned in disgust, realizing she'd simply been looking for a good excuse to jump Blake's way.

"I wouldn't say it settles it at all," he spat out, aiming a withering glare at Jenna.

Blake continued to look determined as he faced Avon down. "What about you, Cally?" he challenged.

The Auron stepped forward to stand next to Avon's shoulder. "I agree with you, Blake. It's a necessary and acceptable risk."

"Now how did I know you were going to say that?" Avon mumbled snidely. "Another bloody idealist who doesn't care who dies for the cause." His exasperation caused him to practically spit the words out.

Cally remained calm, even in the face of her friend's obvious anger. "I do not fear death, Avon. The Federation must be defeated, no matter the cost."

"That's it, then," Blake interrupted before Avon could prepare a suitably cutting retaliation. "Three votes for and one against. We're going."

"Wait a minute!" Vila suddenly piped up. "Don't I get a vote? Don't I have any say in this? I'm the one who has to open the safe, after all."

Everyone turned to stare at Vila, who had moved to sit in the lounge area. He leaned back, making himself comfortable on the Flight Deck couch once he realized all eyes were focused on him. His wide brown eyes were sparkling with devilment. "Maybe I don't want to open that safe for a bunch of dusty old documents. Did that ever occur to you, Blake?"

Blake seemed stunned and taken aback by his thief's unexpected defiance. His mouth opened and closed a few times but no sound issued forth.

"You'll do as you're told," Jenna snarled menacingly in the surprised silence.

"I think not." Vila grinned cheekily. "I think you'd all better be nice to me if we're going to Malsonia, though. Isn't that right, Blake?"

"How—how did you know?" Blake stuttered.

Vila crossed his arms and put his feet up on the table in front of the couch. "I read the original message when it came in," he said with a smirk.

"What is going on?" Avon growled, his patience reaching its limit. "Blake?"

The larger man cleared his throat awkwardly, looking embarrassed. "Uh, it seems that the Thieves Guild on Malsonia III has heard of the exploits of, uh, Vila in relation to the Liberator and that is why they contacted us."

"What they actually said," the gloating thief interrupted, "was that they had heard of the great Vila Restal and his ship the Liberator, and they were begging for my assistance. The rest of you were promised sanctuary under my protection."

Avon could only hope his face wasn't betraying how appalled he felt. "Blake…," he said in a strangled gasp. "You don't mean…?"

"I'm afraid so." Blake shook his head sadly. "We're going to have to pretend that Vila is in charge for this mission."

The color had drained from the other crew member's faces and Vila was burbling in delight, slapping his knees as he laughed.

"I feel ill," Avon mumbled as Vila continued to sputter hysterically.

"Well, what do you vote, then?" Blake asked Vila morosely, through clenched teeth.

"Oh," Vila choked out in between guffaws, "I wouldn't miss this for all the money in the universe. I'm going to love every minute of it! Say, Cally," he crowed, his face glowing. "Be a good girl and fetch me some of that marvelous adrenaline and soma. And Jenna—I'm feeling a bit hungry. Hard work being a rebel leader, you know. Avon—"

"Don't do it, Avon!" Blake snapped as Avon advanced on Vila, murder in his dark eyes. "You can strangle him afterwards."

"I'll even help you," Jenna muttered under her breath.

"Me, too," Cally hissed.

Malsonia III was a very hospitable planet, the majority of its land mass concentrated in the southern hemisphere and the climate warm, breezy, and tropical. Although the planet was ostensibly run and operated as a haven for criminals, the Thieves Guild, which had the largest membership, ran a "clean" operation within the boundaries of their jurisdiction. In fact, any criminal who tried to take advantage of a fellow professional, was immediately banished from the planet—if he managed to escape a summary execution, that is.

Vila was still laughing over the amazing turn of events that had placed him in nominal charge of the galaxy's most feared terrorists when the Liberator gracefully arced into orbit around Malsonia III. He was also looking forward to his visit down-world—not only was his interest piqued at the thought of an "uncrackable" safe, but he'd spent a good part of his career dreaming of vacationing on Malsonia III. It had a reputation equal to none when it came to carousing, wine, women, and song. Vila was fairly bursting with anticipation. The fact that the other members of Liberator's crew were less than happy did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm.

Blake had given Vila a long lecture on the art of being a leader, and had insisted that both he and Avon would have to accompany Vila, if only for the sake of appearances. Blake would be presented as Vila's bodyguard and Avon as his right hand man—his advisor, so to speak. Cally and Jenna would come along as protective coloring. Blake had a feeling that the group awaiting them below would be the type to be impressed by a man who had two such beautiful and capable women as followers.

Vila accepted whatever Blake told him, nodding wisely and a bit indulgently at the rebel leader's preaching tone. After all, Vila was the one with experience in criminal dealings—the others were intergalactic babies compared to him!

"Let's go, " Vila said stridently, shifting from foot to foot impatiently while Avon zipped up his black leather jacket and fingered a teleport bracelet, obviously dawdling. He was dressed in his best black leather outfit, decorated with a smattering of silver studs, and looked darkly imposing. Cally, Jenna and Blake were already standing next to Vila in the teleport alcove, ready to have Orac teleport them all down to the planet.

The two girls were dressed in slinky, low-cut gowns, their hair done up in intricate styles. Blake had insisted that they "look" the part they would be forced to play and they had agreed, glad to have a chance—and an occasion—for dressing in something other than utilitarian outfits. Jenna's gown was emerald green and Cally's a dark midnight blue. Vila wore a soft blue suede shirt belted with a silver belt and dark blue pants. He looked at home in the company of the two elegant women and only his ingrained "people" sense kept him from trying to slip an arm around Cally or Jenna's waist. He was rather fond of his arm….

Blake himself had dressed in the most impressive set of clothes he could find in Liberator's extensive wardrobe room: a white shirt open almost to the waist, brown leather jacket with huge sleeves and an intricately tooled leather belt with a gold buckle. He looked menacing even without a weapon.

Only Vila was armed with one of Liberator's special laser guns. The leaders of the Thieves Guild had insisted that all weapons save Vila's must be left behind. For some reason, they felt it would dishonor Vila to strip him of his gun, but the others were not to be afforded the same courtesy. Avon was still sulking.

"Would you come on, Avon," Vila reiterated. "You're going to make me look bad. You're making us late."

Avon favored the smaller man with a withering glare. "It is of absolutely no consequence to me whether or not you look good, Vila." He leaned down to fiddle with the heel of one of his boots.

"Vila's right," Blake growled. "Quit sulking and get over here. The sooner he gets the safe open, the sooner we can get out of here and back to normal."

Avon sighed, rolling his dark eyes, and joined his companions. "Teleport now, Orac," he ordered, and they winked out of existence.

The coordinates they'd been issued by the Thieves Guild deposited them in the middle of a huge courtyard, completely ringed in by marble walls and statuary. There was a subtle air of decadence about the place, even though everything appeared to be well-maintained and clean. There was only one person present to meet them.

He was a small, slightly-built man with raven black hair and mustache, and he stepped forward the moment they materialized, extending his hand in greeting to Vila. "I'd know you anywhere," the stranger exclaimed. "You look just as I imagined you would."

Vila smiled while he pumped the man's hand enthusiastically. The others watched in stunned disbelief. It was finally beginning to sink in that on this world, among these people, Vila was the expert and they the fools.

"I'm Silvan," the black-haired man told Vila, pointedly ignoring his entourage. "I'm to be your guide and your host while you're here. If you have any problems, if something displeases you, tell me immediately and I'll see that it's corrected."

"Thank you, Silvan," Vila said expansively, puffing out his chest with pride. "I'm sure everything will be satisfactory."

"Come along then and I'll show you your quarters."

"Quarters?" Blake stepped forward, towering over Vila and Silvan. He chewed at his lower lip, one hand rubbing at the side of his neck. "I thought we were just going to open a safe? Take us to it and then we'll be on our way."

Silvan raked Blake with a contemptuous gaze then turned back to Vila. "This man is important to you?"

"Yes, he's my bodyguard."

"Well, see he minds his tongue. We don't take kindly to strangers giving orders in our territory."

"Still, Silvan, he asked a valid question. Where is the safe I'm to open?" Vila was determined to play his part to the hilt, but he didn't want to make Blake too angry. After all, eventually he would be forced to return to the Liberator with the others.

"We've planned a party in your honor, Vila. It isn't often we get such a celebrity visiting Malsonia. The safe will still be here in the morning," Silvan replied, taking Vila by the arm and steering him through a gate toward a large, domed building. "In the meantime, we want you to relax and be comfortable."

"We don't have the time!" Blake growled, forced to trail after the two thieves, Cally, Jenna, and Avon following him. "And it isn't safe for you," he added to Vila as the two men glanced back at him. Silvan obviously annoyed at his presumptive words.

"I like parties," Vila said softly, shrugging and wrinkling his brow. "We'll stay." Flattery was something Vila saw very little of and he was damned if he was going to miss a celebration being given specifically in his honor, even if it did make Blake a little mad.

"I'm going to wring his little neck," Blake snarled under his breath. Avon had the bad grace to snort in amusement. "Yours, too," Blake added, tossing a glare in Avon's direction.

"It wasn't my idea to come here," Avon reminded him pointedly. "In fact, I remember voting against it."

"Oh, shut up, Avon," Cally whispered, taking his arm and squeezing it. "None of us are pleased with the situation but you're just going to make it worse if you pick a fight with Blake."

Avon shrugged, his face impassive. "I find the entire thing rather amusing now. The thought of Vila as the captain of the Liberator is so ludicrous…."

The quarters Vila and his crew were taken to were sumptuously decorated, fairly dripping with velvet curtains and upholstery, marble fixtures and works of art. The misaquired wealth of a thousand worlds was obviously represented throughout the entire complex. Avon's black eyes were gloaming with admiration by the time they had reached the guest quarters. Vila was given an entire suite of rooms for his use while the other crew members were placed in much smaller accommodations, although just as sumptuous. Blake remained silent, but Vila could see the growing impatience in the other man's eyes, so he asked about the safe again.

"Time enough for that," their host reiterated. "The party will begin in two hours—plenty of time for you to refresh yourselves. In the morning, we'll take you to the safe."

Vila shrugged and darted his eyes in Blake's direction. What more could he do? What more could Blake expect of him, after all? They were obligated to attend this party, it seemed. Somehow, he couldn't bring himself to feel disappointed….

The party was already in full swing by the time Silvan returned to escort Vila and his people to the ballroom where it was being held. The huge room was decked out in garish colors and was dripping with ostentatious displays of gold and silver plates, silverware, goblets, statues, and tables overflowing with exotic foods. A steady stream of waiters were coming and going, carrying huge trays stocked with various colors of liquor in crystal glasses. The room was lit by large carved crystal chandeliers, one of which already had a thief swinging lazily back and forth on its lower portions. The criminals themselves were clothed in sumptuous silks and velvets and there seemed to be more than a few of the crowd who were used to fine living. The Liberator's crew were surprised at the volume of large, burly men in evidence, being more used to Vila and, consequently, thinking of thieves as small and rather sneaky looking.

Their entrance caused quite an uproar with everyone stopping to cheer and demand a speech from the "great" Vila Restal. The crowd began to bang their goblets and glasses on the heavy wood tables in confirmation. One of the largest of the men present, a giant of a man with flaming red hair and a thick beard of the same color, came forward to shake Vila's hand and bid him welcome on behalf of the Thieves Guild. Blake looked pissed; Cally and Jenna looked ill; Avon just looked wryly amused.

Vila was, of course, wallowing in the attention. He tossed a smug look in his companion's direction then mounted the speaker's dais that had been set up, the redhead ushering him forward.

"I am Ramos," the giant boomed, grinning to show a mouthful of gold capped teeth, "King of Thieves!" He turned to the crowd below. "Bid our guest welcome!" he enthused. The thieves banged the tables again and Vila couldn't help grinning. He could definitely get to like this place. In fact, Liberator was beginning to look more and more like a bad place to be.

"My fellow, uh, security experts," he began his speech, not really sure what he was expected to say and really rather anxious to get on with the celebrating. "I wish to thank you for the great honor you do me and my, uh, crew of loyal followers. If my people can be of service to you, you have but to ask; they exist to serve. But, as I always say, it's best to leave business for the proper time—so, let's get on with the party." He winked and stepped down as the roomful of thieves and criminals roared their approval.

Ramos gave the litle man a resounding clap on the back that sent him stumbling sideways, then trailed a little ways after him.

"The man in black leather is one of your people?" Ramos asked, his voice suddenly hushed and furtive.

"Yes," Vila answered, a little puzzled. "My, uh, assistant. My adviser."

"I would like to borrow him." Ramos' green eyes glinted strangely. "Do I have your permission?"

Vila was confused as to what use Avon could be to the head of the Thieves Guild, but he nodded his head yes distractedly. "Sure. Why not? As long as Avon agrees."

"I must obtain his approval as well?" The redhead sounded disappointed.

"Yes. Uh, excuse me, Ramos, but I need to speak with somebody." Vila nodded at the man again, and sauntered off toward the rest of his crew members.

"Loyal followers?" Avon said sarcastically as Vila rejoined them. "We exist to serve??"

"Yes, well, what did you expect me to tell them?" Vila snapped back. "You know, I don't really need any of you along. These people are interested in me and my abilities. I don't get much recognition from you lot, so I'm going to enjoy this while I can. Besides, it was the truth. You are all my followers on this mission. Not a one of you could do the job." Vila glared at his seething crew mates challengingly.

"I find myself tempted to try, " Avon warned.

"You're pushing your luck," Jenna added icily.

"Your people?" Blake looked stunned, still trying to assimilate what Vila had said in his speech. "Your people?!" He was hissing and red-faced with fury.

"I really wish you wouldn't yell," Vila told him. "You'll make them suspicious." He deftly snagged a glass of wine from a passing servant's tray, downing it in one long swallow.

*You're going to regret this, Vila,* Cally telepathed, and Vila jumped guiltily at the sound of her voice in his head. *The others will not forgive this humiliation. Neither will I.*

"You're always humiliating me," Vila mumbled, but he quit teasing Avon and Blake.

"Why don't we split up?" Jenna offered in an attempt to defuse the potentially explosive situation. "We may be able to pick up some useful information."

"Good idea," Blake agreed. "Try not to get into any trouble," he warned Vila, "and remember why you're here."

Vila was insulted. "I never get into trouble! And I know why I'm here—because none of you high and mighty Alpha types could open that safe."

"All right, all right. We know how 'indispensable' you are," Avon admitted grudgingly. "Just don't drink too much—you tend to babble."

Vila snorted in derision. "You'd best remember you're here under my protection, Mr. Computer Genius. I'm the one with the connections on this planet."

*Vila!* Cally's voice rang in his head again, *One day you're going to push Avon too far. Try not to make it tonight—for all our sakes.*

Vila shot Avon a darting glare, and moved off into the crowd of his well-wishers, smiling and bowing at them. The glass he was still clutching in his hand had been refilled and he sipped at it as he left.

"Someday…," Avon muttered, his previous amusement at the situation beginning to fade.

"Yes," Blake agreed, staring thoughtfully after their thief's disappearing back. "But not today. Later. Back on the ship." Blake's words were ominous in their promise and Avon found he felt a small stab of pity for Vila. But only a small stab….

"Oh, be fair, you two," Cally interrupted. "You're only getting a little of your own back, after all. Vila's entitled to enjoy being on top for once."

"She's right, of course," Blake admitted, his face still creased into a frown. "But his people?"

"Your ego will recover," Avon remarked snidely, defending Vila in spite of himself. The whole affair was rather funny—Blake wasn't handling his subservient role too gracefully.

Several hours and many drinks later, Blake's intrepid crew managed to meet in a corner of the enormous ballroom to discuss how the evening was going. Cally and Jenna both looked annoyed, their faces flushed red and their intricate hairdos now hanging in disarrayed ringlets down their necks and foreheads. Vila was a little flushed himself, but mostly from merriment and drink. He couldn't seem to stop smiling; in fact, he had never had so much fun in his entire life. Not only was he the center of attention, but he was revered among the thieves of the planet as something of a hero, and treated accordingly. His every wish was instantly granted—all he had to do was but voice a desire. Blake seemed smugly pleased with himself and even appeared to have loosened up somewhat to enjoy the party. He was evidently being treated with respect simply due to his "position" as Vila's bodyguard. Everyone was fervently hoping that the rebel leader hadn't learned anything that would lead to more "bright ideas"—like Vila being in charge.

Avon was the last crew member to make his way to the corner and join his companions. All four turned to stare at him. The computer expert's face was even more flushed than the girls', and sweat was rolling down his forehead and cheeks. He was walking rather warily and stiff-legged and the set of his jaw was indicative of controlled fury. He joined the group without comment, simply arching an eyebrow at their scrutiny and offering no explanations.

"What's happened to you two?" Vila finally questioned Jenna and Cally. "You look like flowers that have wilted."

"Never mind that," Blake interrupted, a determined glint in his eyes. "Have you found out anything of interest?"

Jenna grimaced, her classically beautiful features twisting into a cold, deadly snarl. "We've found out that this planet is inhabited by very forward men! We've about had ourselves pinched to death. My anatomy can't take much more of this, Blake, and my gown is fraying."

"You seem to be holding your own," the large man laughed, trying to choke back his amusement as Cally and Jenna both glared daggers at him.

"It's not funny," Cally hissed, rubbing at her backside. "I've never been so humiliated in my entire life."

"All right, all right," Blake conceded. "I'll let it get around that you're my women and everyone's to keep their hands off. Maybe then they'll leave you alone. Satisfied?"

"If it works," Jenna mumbled.

"Say, what's wrong with you, Avon?" Vila babbled, moving to peer intently into the computer expert's face. "You look worse than the girls." He gave a gasp of understanding before Avon could answer, and jumped back, a delighted grin curling up his lips. "Oh," he laughed, pointing a finger at the leather-clad man, "You're sore too, aren't you?" Vila began to shake so hard that he had to wrap his arms around himself. "They've been having a pinch at you!"

"I am not the least bit amused," Avon snarled, his expression pained and his eyes lit with a cold fury. "I am not amused, Vila," he repeated. "That big red-headed fellow even had the audacity to proposition me—and he said you had agreed to 'share' me." The hiss in Avon's voice was dripping with veiled menace. "I hope he was lying, Vila. If he touches me again, I won't be responsible for my actions. I'm warning you, Blake."

"It's not my fault you chose to dress in that sexy black leather and studs, Avon," Vila sputtered, realizing why Ramos had asked if he could "borrow" Avon. "Oh, I am sorry, Avon. I thought he wanted you to do some computer work for him But it does make sense. Why, they've probably never seen anything like you around here before! And, just think, a penny-ante embezzler, a failed one, at that—they consider you fair game, my friend." Vila was trying to assume a lecturing tone but the effect was spoiled by his continual lapses into helpless giggling.

Blake reached out and wrapped his arms around Avon, catching him only moments before his hands would have closed around Vila's throat. "Not here, Avon. You're going to have to swallow your pride and play along for now." He gave Avon a little shake before releasing him, and gasped out, "All right?" Then he dissolved into uncontrollable laughter, having to clutch at Vila when Avon shoved him rudely away. "Can you pull it off?" he added, "or are you willing to admit that Vila is simply the better actor…?"

Avon's only reply was a low growl, deep in his throat.

"Better be good to me, Avon," Vila said smugly. "You're really gonna need my protection now. I'll just have to tell everyone that you're mine so they'll leave you alone."

"Blake—!" Avon's horror was mounting.


Vila walked up to Avon and casually tossed an arm around the man's shoulders, giving him a friendly little squeeze. "It won't be so bad," he promised. "I'll be good to you, you'll see. Besides, you have your choice—me or them," he waved an arm at the milling crowd of lascivious criminals.

"I'm going to be sick," Avon moaned, putting his face down into one hand. "I'm definitely going to be sick."

Although Avon was hating the fact that he was, for a switch, dependent on Vila, it only took a few more well-placed pinches and a proposition or two, one of which was very graphically detailed, to convince him that perhaps Vila was the lesser of evils.

He positioned himself close to Vila, making sure that his evidently irresistible backside was protected by Vila at all times. He was forced to endure a smirk or two from the other man, but to his credit, Vila didn't gloat too much. He simply slung a companionable arm around Avon, drew him up next to him, and acted as if that were the normal state of affairs.

The crowd of rowdy criminals seemed to catch on quickly, although Avon helped them out with a few well-placed glares. Even so, he still couldn't help feeling as if he were constantly being ogled. It made his skin crawl and, quite unconsciously, he found himself pressing closer to Vila. His companion seemed surprised, but tightened the arm around his shoulders slightly.

By the time dinner was served, Avon's jaw was positively aching from the constant gritting of his teeth and his appetite had definitely fled. Matters were made worse by the fact that he was seated between Vila and Ramos, who didn't look like he'd quite given up on Avon yet. Avon had tried to grab the seat on the opposite side of Vila, but the big redheaded man had steered him to the middle seat, and Avon could see that Vila was afraid to protest.

"Play your part," Vila murmured, leaning over to whisper into Avon's ear, "and maybe he'll leave you alone."

"I'm doing my best," Avon hissed back. "I'm tired, Vila, and I'm sore. I hope you're having a good time, because I'm not."

Vila stared at him disconsolately. "Sorry 'bout that. Shall we leave early, then? Go to bed?" He winked suggestively and Avon could feel the heat of embarrassment creeping up his neck to his face.

"No!" he snapped. He could see Blake across the table, snickering.

Vila shrugged. "Whenever you're ready."

"I have my own quarters, Vila," Avon whispered urgently, hopefully.

"Oh, well, if you don't mind any midnight visitors I suppose you'll be safe there…."

"You're saying I have to sleep with you, aren't you?" Avon tried to keep his voice steady and neutral.

Vila shrugged again, managing to look totally unconcerned. "It's up to you…."

Ramos chose that moment to lean across Avon's lap and beckon Vila closer. One of the giant's hands casually landed on Avon's thigh. "You sure you don't want to share friend Avon tonight?" the big man asked, his voice heavy with innuendo and regret. "He says you don't care to be without him—perhaps we could make it a threesome, eh, Vila?"

Vila gulped, turning a little white. "Uh, thanks for the offer, Ramos, but Avon gets nervous in strange places, you know."

Ramos was brushing his fingertips lightly up and down the inside of Avon's leg now, and it took every ounce of willpower on Avon's part to keep from punching the man square in his sweaty, beefy face. He moaned softly, his teeth clenched, then jerked in surprise as the man doubled his seductive motions. Avon looked up to meet the green eyes, so close to his own, and realized with a sick twisted feeling that Ramos had interpreted the moan as a sign of pleasure.

"Vila…," he rasped out, cutting his eyes sideways at his companion and sighing in relief as Vila's attention was drawn to what Ramos was doing.

"Here now," Vila said boldly, outraged. "What are you doing? You keep your hands to yourself." He reached out and grabbed the larger man's offending hand.

"I was just having a sample," the redhead muttered sullenly. "He's quite a dish—you shouldn't be so stingy with him."

"Well, he's my dish. Why, I've killed men for less," Vila boasted, his voice hardening, his eyes narrowing. The actor in the thief began to display itself and Avon sighed in trepidation, knowing they were headed for big trouble if he didn't do something fast.

"It's all right," he interrupted Vila's tirade, cringing inwardly but forcing himself to place a placating hand over one of Vila's. He patted it awkwardly. "It's all right."

Vila backed down in the face of Avon's warning nudge and hold on his hand, but he continued to aim a random snarl or two in Ramos' direction simply as a matter of principle. The redheaded man seemed to accept Vila's threats and settled back into his chair, pouting.

The rest of the dinner passed in remarkable quiet, but toward the end of the main course, Avon became aware of Blake wiggling his eyebrows at him desperately and making little mewling sounds. Blake had been seated directly across from Vila, and once he had Avon's undivided attention, he made a subtle gesture in the thief's direction, then lifted his goblet to his lips as if to drink, his eyebrows still jumping up and down.

Avon stared a moment, then turned to Vila. His companion was chattering nonstop to the criminal on his left, one hand holding a huge goblet of liquor. It was obvious what Blake was getting at: Vila was being plied with drink, very expertly and very thoroughly; and the little idiot was falling for it. If something wasn't done and soon, the criminals of Malsonia III would know everything there was to know about Roj Blake, the Liberator, and more than likely, Kerr Avon, as well. Avon swallowed the tattered remains of his pride in one large gulp, set his face in granite, and allowed himself to fall over onto Vila's shoulder.

"I'm thirsty," he said softly, as Vila turned to stare at him in astonishment. He batted his eyes at the large drink Vila was holding. "Can I have some of that?"

Vila looked confused, but handed it over to him. "Of course."

Avon drank it down with a grimace of distaste, then smiled widely. "Quit drinking so much," he spat out between clenched teeth. "You're drunk already."

Vila tapped him on the end of his nose with one finger, grinning devilishly. "Don't be ridiculous. Have a soma, Avon. Loosen up a little. Do you good." Then, he turned back to the man on his other side, regaling him with outrageous stories.

"I'll get you for this, Restal," Avon mumbled morosely. As a waiter scurried to replenish Vila's now-empty goblet, Avon quickly intercepted it and drank it down. He hiccuped loudly and fell against his friend's shoulder again. Well, at least it kept him away from Ramos, who continued to aim sultry, suggestive gazes his way.

Two hours and countless drinks later, Avon began to feel as if he couldn't possibly down another glass of liquor—not for Blake, not for Blake's glorious cause, not even to avoid spending the night with Ramos. But every time he tried to let a glass slip past him and into Vila's hands, Blake would wag his eyebrows again and glare. It was finally, ultimately, just too much for the computer expert.

"Vila?" he said, his voice a low, velvet purr. "Can we go to bed now?" He quirked an eyebrow, hoping his face wasn't as red as it felt.

"Hmmm? Oh, sure," Vila replied, reacting to a pinch in his side. "No need to get over eager, though," he added under his breath.

Avon's head was spinning—he wasn't used to consuming large amounts of alcohol and that, combined with the pawing he'd been forced to endure, was making his temper even shorter than usual. "I'll show you just how eager I am, Vila," he promised in a slurred voice, his eyes flashing darkly.

He staggered to his feet, pulling at Vila's suede tunic and trying to ignore the fact that all eyes were now on them. "C'mon," he insisted.

"Your friend is anxious," Ramos noted glumly. "Are you certain…?"

"Yes!" Avon hissed, whirling to confront the man and almost falling into his lap. Fortunately, Vila had stood up and caught him around the chest.

"I think we'd best go to bed," Vila told Ramos with a sly wink. "As you say, Avon is anxious. Goodnight everybody." He spun Avon around and shoved him toward the door before anything more could be said.

"I just adore black leather," Avon could hear Ramos saying as they left. If he hadn't been swaying so badly, he would have shook Vila's steadying arm off and gone back to shoot the redhead dead. He did try to twist free from Vila's hold and found that the walls wavered strangely when he did so.

"I really am going to be sick," he moaned pitifully, reaching for Vila in desperation.

"You shouldn't have drank so much," Vila lectured him, picking him up as his legs buckled under him and the world whirled nauseatingly.

Even in his misery, Avon dully noted that Vila no longer sounded the least bit drunk. With a flash of insight and fury, he realized that the little beggar had only been pretending all along—he'd never been any where close to being intoxicated. He kicked himself mentally; he should have known. He'd been drinking with Vila often enough by now to know that Vila only got drunk when he wanted to. The last humiliating thing Avon remembered was Vila kicking open the door to his suite and carrying him across the threshold. Then, he finally gave up and let himself pass out.

Awareness hit Avon like a ton of bricks the next morning; a soft whimpering noise woke him, echoing inside of his skull—he felt like he'd been beaten with a stick and left to die. He opened his eyes with an effort, almost having to pry them apart, they were so swollen from the aftereffects of the night before. With a jolt, he realized that he was the one making the pitiful whimpering sounds. Light blazed, seeming to stab clear through to his brain, as his eyes finally came fully open and focused. He jerked back against the pillow with a startled cry. Vila's face loomed over him, concern and sympathy practically radiating from him.

"Get away from me, you traitor," Avon snarled, wincing as the sound of his own voice reverberated in his head.

Vila's hand swam into view, holding a mug of something hot and steaming. "Thought this might help." The man actually had the nerve to grin. "Blake and the others are waiting for us—it's my big day, y 'know."

"So, why do I have to come?" Avon cautiously slid his hips back until he was sitting up against the wall. "Your moment of glory doesn't particularly interest me at this point." He reached out one shaking hand to take the proffered mug of liquid. It tasted bitter but seemed to help clear some of the fogginess from his brain.

Vila shrugged, still grinning, his brown eyes sparkling. He didn't look like he was suffering one whit from the night before. "Of course, you can stay here, if you like. I'll just tell Ramos and the others that you had a rough night…." His smile suddenly turned lecherous—at least in Avon's estimation.

Glancing around the room, Avon had a fleeting thought: if he was in the bed, then where had Vila slept…? No, he didn't really want to know the answer to that question. He groaned and climbed out of the bed, grabbing at a post to steady himself. "All right, I'm coming."

"Want some help getting dressed?" Vila's tone was all innocence.

"No!" Avon tried to glare but it hurt his eyes too badly. He settled for a menacing growl.

"I'm just trying to get along,' Vila complained, plopping down into an overstuffed chair. "It's no picnic sleeping with you, ya know. Hurry up then, willya?"

Avon ignored him this time, staggering to the shower and slamming the door behind with a satisfactory bang. He promptly fell to the floor, his aching head cradled in his hands, praying that the person beating on his brain with a hammer would stop soon. "I'll get you for this, Vila," he moaned. "I swear I will!"

Blake, Cally and Jenna were waiting impatiently when Avon finally emerged from his shower. He felt somewhat refreshed, but was still suffering from a massive hangover. He couldn't walk a straight line and there were huge dark circles underneath his eyes.

Blake looked a little appalled, but also curious. "Good grief, Avon," he said, rushing to his friend's side to help him stay upright. "What did Vila do to you last night?" He shot a glare in the smirking thief's direction. Vila looked away, whistling tunelessly.

"Et tu, Blake?" Avon said wearily. "That's right. Twist the knife a little deeper." He jerked his arm out of Blake's grasp, then yelped as vertigo hit him again. Jenna and Cally were giggling, and the Auron telepathed a message to Avon.

*Serves you right for always picking on Vila so mercilessly.*

"Yeeoww, " Avon wailed as her words bounced around inside of his head. "Cut that out, Cally."

"Silvan and Ramos are waiting to take us to the safe," Jenna reminded in between giggles. "Hadn't we better get going?"

"Yes," said Blake firmly. "I'll…no, Jenna you give Avon a hand. I don't think he's going to make it otherwise."

"Don't touch me," Avon hissed at Jenna as she moved to help him, her face still red from laughter.

She grabbed his arm in spite of his snarling protests and guided it gently around her slim waist. "Behave," she cautioned. "Right now I'm much stronger than you."

The truth of her statement did nothing to improve Avon's disposition. Ramos and Silvan were standing outside the door to Vila's suite when Blake's group emerged; the big, redheaded man's eyes immediately lit up at the sight of Avon being led by Jenna.

"Have a rough night?" he inquired solicitously, his eyebrows bobbing up and down suggestively. He smacked his lips.

Avon pretended he hadn't heard the question and clutched Jenna tightly as waves of nausea swept over him. "Why does this always happen to me?" he whispered despairingly. "Why doesn't Vila get hurt? He's the Delta; I'm an Alpha. I'm not built for this kind of thing. I'm supposed to be privileged—"

"Oh, shut up, Avon," hissed Jenna. "You're whining."

Avon tried to draw himself up, offended. "I never whine. I've never whined in my entire life. Oh, my head hurts."

The small group of rebels and thieves finally reached their objective: a tiny room with heavy security, both electronic and human. Everyone was searched for weapons before being allowed to enter, and this time, even Vila was disarmed. His special tools were the only instruments allowed to pass through. The room itself was bare save for a huge, squat safe that dominated it. It was sitting on the floor, ugly and gray, a digital readout on the front of it blinking out red numerals.

Jenna led Avon to a corner where he leaned up against the wall and lowered his forehead to rest against the arm he propped himself up with. Cally and Blake trailed Vila to the center of the room where he was staring thoughtfully at the safe. Ramos and Silvan had remained at the entranceway, presumably to allow Vila room to work. They began sidling in, though, obviously curious as to how the "famous" thief would tackle this problem that their best people couldn't solve.

"Uh, this is a tough one," Vila said loudly, his expression concerned.

Avon glanced up and took a good look at the safe. He snorted softly, lowering his head back to his arm. Vila had opened a safe just like the one in front of him not two weeks earlier. It had been during their last raid on a Federation base and Avon seemed to remember Vila opening it in something like fifteen seconds. Not exactly what could be described as "a tough one"—at least for a man of Vila's talent.

Vila was making a great show of laying out his tools now, and had forced Blake to act as his assistant. "After all, Avon isn't feeling too well, right now," Vila was saying.

Avon looked up just in time to see a fleeting gleam of humiliation in Blake's eyes as the rebel leader knelt next to Vila, the thief's tools spread out on a velvet covering in his hands. Well now, Avon thought wryly, that one moment almost made the whole trip worthwhile. He smiled coldly, one of his most deadly, toothsome smiles, and felt an intense surge of satisfaction as Blake caught it and blushed.

The smile was a mistake, however, for it also invited the attention of Ramos. The redhead picked his way across the tiny room to Avon's side and Avon knew that he was doomed. Vila was busy opening the safe and would be no help to him now.

"Friend Restal knows many things, doesn't he?" Ramos questioned, inching close to Avon and speaking in a conspiratorial whisper.

"Yes, he does," agreed Avon, nodding his head then wincing at the pain the motion gave him. "Mmmm," he couldn't quite stop himself from whimpering.

"You are in pain?" Ramos moved even closer, his breath now hot against Avon's cheek.

"Yes, I'm in pain," the smaller man spat out without thinking. "Of course I'm in pain. What does it look like?"

Ramos' eyes glinted hungrily. "He mistreats you, then? Restal?"

Avon cast a derisive glance in Vila's direction. Vila was working furiously at trying to open the safe, gesturing and mumbling wildly while picking up and discarding various tools. He was putting on quite a show. "Mistreats me? You have no idea what I have to put up with!"

Ramos' face was split by a wide, exultant grin and, too late, Avon began to realize that something was going on that he didn't understand. "Ah, then you'd be glad to be rid of him?"

"Well, I have to admit the thought isn't repugnant to me."

"Restal has taught you many things?" The gleam in the redhead's eyes was growing brighter.

Avon lowered his head back to his arm yet again with a heavy sigh. "I suppose you could say that. Yeah, he's taught me a few things."

Ramos clapped the smaller man on the back, nearly plastering him up against the wall with the force of the blow. "Then stay here with me, Avon!" he boomed, laughing heartily. "I won't mistreat you and I wager I can teach you some things that Vila's never even heard of!"

"I've no doubt of that," Avon mumbled, struggling to straighten up and somehow salvage his dignity. Everyone in the room was staring at him, the safe momentarily forgotten. "What are you looking at?" he snarled at them.

"Nothing," Vila finally broke the stunned silence, turning back to the safe and opening it with a twist and a flourish. He clambered to his feet and was at Avon's side before anyone could even react. "I think it's time we left."

Blake was rooting through the contents of the open safe, searching frantically for the Federation documents they'd been promised. "Here they are!" he cried triumphantly, lifting a bundle of papers out and waving them over his head. "Good work, Vila!"

Ramos gave Avon another clap on the back and a sly wink before moving to Blake's side. He leaned down and pulled a handful of sparkling gems out of the safe.

Avon took advantage of the man's distraction and raised his teleport bracelet to his lips. "Orac, get us out of here," he said, cringing at the whine in his voice.

The last sight he had of Malsonia III was a startled Ramos, his clenched fists dripping with jewels, making a flying lunge at him. "Don't go, I just love black leather!" the man's voice echoed after him eerily.

The teleport area of Liberator was crowded for a few short moments while the crew sorted themselves out, but the room soon emptied. Vila scurried off first, giving a strangled yelp of fear as everyone turned to glare at him accusingly. Avon had a feeling that they weren't going to see much of Vila for awhile.

Cally and Jenna left next, unable to keep from giggling at Avon's and Blake's still-flushed faces. Jenna gasped out something about taking them out of orbit, and Cally mumbled that she'd help. Avon cocked an eye at Blake, waiting for the rebel leader to exit as well, but the man stood rock still, the Federation papers clutched tightly in his hands and a look of horror frozen on his features.

"What's wrong, Blake?" Avon finally ventured to ask snidely. "Do you need someone to interpret them for you?" He snatched the papers out of the other man's slackening grasp and scanned them quickly. "Do you know what these are??!?" His voice went up an octave in spite of his best efforts to keep it level. "Do you?!?" Avon shook the papers under Blake's nose. "Blake, this is unbelievable!"

Blake cleared his throat nervously, his glazed eyes focusing on the rattling pieces of paper. "Calm down, Avon," he said softly. "It's nothing to get excited over…."

"Nothing to get excited over?!" Avon was livid now. "These so-called 'important' papers are no more than a guest list for Supreme Commander Servalan's annual masquerade ball! What the hell good are they?" He waved his arms in the air dramatically. "I compromised my honor for this? I swallowed the last vestiges of my pride for this? I SLEPT WITH VILA FOR THIS?? What the hell are we supposed to do with this information? Pretend to be invited guests and kidnap Servalan at her own…uh, forget I said anything," Avon suddenly stuttered, recognizing the insane glint in Blake's eyes. It was the "boy-have-l-got-a-plan-and-you-just-gave-me-the-idea" glint that Avon was learning heralded the start of a potentially dangerous, almost certainly stupid, mission.

"Avon—" Blake began in a wheedling tone.

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Ashton Press/Ann Wortham

Leah Rosenthal

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