by Jane Carnall
Avon took a look inside the small room, sighed, and flipped his communicator. "Captain."
"There's two here." His voice was dry and cold; it gave no indication of what his feelings were about these new problems.
"Are they seriously injured?" Paradoxically, his Captain's voice was little warmer, yet gave an impression of more compassion.
"They're a mess, but both of them are fit enough to move a little."
"I will be with you in three minutes, Avon."
He kept a wary eye on the two kneeling figures. Their heads were bowed, he couldn't see their faces, and had no idea what language they spoke -- if any; many slaves were muted for their owner's amusement. They were human, or close-to-human hybrid. Both were heavily cut and bruised.
When the Captain said three minutes, he meant three minutes. "Report, Avon."
"As you can see. Human, looks like Terran-normal stock. Both male. Either they don't speak Standard or responses have been trained out of them. I think I heard them move to this position just before I opened the door, so they can't have been injured too seriously."
"Very well. Attempt standard command tests."
Avon raised his voice. In clear Standard, he ordered "Break position! Raise your heads!"
Both slaves lifted their heads, bringing their hands from behind their backs and resting them, open-palmed, on the floor. Their eyes were still lowered. One was clearly at least ten years older than the other, black hair streaked with grey and craggy features. The younger man's hair looked light brown; he had a pleasant, ordinary face.
"On the left, you -- stand up!"
A more complicated test; they might have learned the first order by rote. The dark-haired man stood up. Avon glanced at Spock, who nodded. "And you." The younger man rose to his feet, stumbling a little. He glanced up at the two men, fear for an instant plain on his face, and saw the Captain for the first time.
An involuntary whimper rose in his throat. He started to shake. Still staring at Spock, almost rigid with fear, he came fully to his feet, trying to stand straight.
The other slave had also glanced at Spock when his companion whimpered, and was, visibly, frozen with terror.
Avon cursed. Spock looked at him unreadably, possibly in rebuke, possibly in enquiry. "Transport directly to Sickbay. Confirm that nothing is seriously wrong with them. Then arrange for their keep." He turned and left; Avon, glaring at the slaves, thought once again how irrational his own species could be. Humans had enslaved these humans; a human had beaten and -- probably -- raped them; and a Vulcan had now rescued them. Nevertheless, the mere sight of a Vulcan was enough to terrify them sufficiently for them to show it.
He pulled open his communicator again. "Avon to Griffon."
"Three to beam across. Direct to sickbay, please."
"Very good, sir."
They hadn't seen Master since the last time he fed them. He had beaten both of them then, for some infraction that he didn't bother to explain. Or simply to ready them for his bed that night; but he had not returned at his accustomed hour.
After a long, long while of waiting, holding hands, in the dark, they had heard noises from outside their kennel. Without discussion -- it wasn't safe to talk with Master so close -- they had separated and knelt up in position on the floor.
When the door opened and the light was switched on, they risked a peep and realised that it wasn't Master, but a master they had never seen before. They were to be guestgifts, then.
They heard him speaking, but it did not sound as if it were to Master, nor could they hear any reply, just a faint buzzing noise. Minutes later, a second set of footsteps arrived. Not Master's.
In accented Standard, the newcomer demanded a report. From the description, it sounded as if Master hadn't bothered to tell either of his guests anything about their gifts. That might mean it wasn't a gift. A sale? Were both of them sold, and to the same one? Was it a dealer?
Neither of them dared look at the other in hope or fear. Master liked variety; sooner or later, one or both of his current brace of slaves would be sold off. Neither of them could bear the thought of that time.
"Break position! Raise your heads!"
They lifted their heads simultaneously, trying to show -- what a well-trained pair we are -- and, thankfully, unclasping their hands held behind their backs. They did not risk raising their eyes.
"On the left, you -- stand up!"
The older slave stood briskly. Sold apart? Please, no -- The prayer was choked off before it had ever really begun. Hope was too dangerous.
"And you." The younger slave rose to his feet, stumbling a little. He glanced up at the two masters, fear for an instant plain on his face, and saw the two new masters for the first time. The man who was ordering them stood one pace ahead of the newcomer, the Demon. An involuntary whimper rose in his throat. He started to shake. Still staring at the Demon, almost rigid with fear, he came fully to his feet, trying to stand correctly. Even if it meant being sold to a Demon, it would be better than the two of them being separated. The other slave had glanced up at the Demon when his companion whimpered, and his companion could feel his terror like his own.
When the Demon left, they could relax a little. The other master was talking into a communicator. With utter, desperate relief, they heard him tell his ship to beam them both over.
They reappeared in a place that the elder slave recognised as some sort of hospital. The new master ordered each to lie down on a couch, and he and yet another master spent a few minutes conferring. Then the new master went away. The other master sprayed each of them with foam that soothed and dissolved into the skin.
The new master was back after a while, bringing long loose black tunics and soft slippers. He tossed one set on each couch.
"Put these on."
They obeyed him. It was the first time either of them had worn clothing for over a year, and to both of them it felt strange.
"There is nothing physically wrong with either of you beyond minor cuts and abrasions. Are you hungry?"
The question seemed to be addressed to them both; they said simultaneously, "Only if it pleases you, Master."
"Both of you, follow me."
They were fed -- the food was good and filling, and both of them had to resist eating too greedily -- and allowed to use a fork instead of their fingers. Then the new master ordered them to follow him again, and took them through a door into a bedroom. He showed them the bathroom, and how to use the equipment, and told them that they could sleep now.
He left. Once the door was safely closed and locked, they turned to each other and hugged.
"Leonard... do you think they're traders?"
He meant; will they resell us?
"Somebody wants us."
The bedroom was obviously their new Master's, whoever he was; the bunk was wide enough for one Master and two slaves. Vila shivered and pressed closer. "It could be the Demon," he whispered low.
"We're still together."
They sat down on the floor, arms still around each other. "He said we should sleep."
"There's no bed for us. Are we meant to use his bunk?"
"The carpet's soft."
"The Master might be angry if he wants us and has to get us up to bed first."
It was also true that on the rare occasions that Master had had them sleep in his cabin, he had expected them to sleep in his bed. They stood up again, and had to separate to take off their slippers and tunics. They curled up under the quilt, wrapped around each other, and went to sleep.
Avon turned to Spock. "I observed them through the cabin monitor, once the computer said they were asleep. They are holding each other, clinging to each other. That's the only hopeful sign."
"If they had been completely programmed, they wouldn't have been able to express physical affection for each other. Furthermore, the computer says they were talking to each other prior to sleep. There is something unslavish somewhere in them."
"I'd say that we have perhaps a thirty-percent chance of turning them back into adult sentient beings again. Centre might do better."
Spock raised an eyebrow at him.
"Humans in the Empire call Vulcans Demons; and they teach their slaves to fear you. And that's how they think of you. Those two are scared shitless of you, just as they will be of any other Vulcan."
Spock's eyebrows flew up. "Then you will have to work on them."
Avon smiled humourlessly. "I don't think I can do too much damage in three weeks." He did not like the idea. Re-educating humans out of slavery was a specialised job, and one of which he had no experience. But he was the senior human officer on the ship; and the other five human officers had never been on a slave patrol before. "I'll read up on some of the literature. I won't go in until the computer confirms they're both awake."
"Very well, Avon," Spock said formally. "I leave it entirely to your judgement. Consult if necessary."
His first officer nodded shortly and got to his feet. He paused a moment, looking down at the captain as though he would say something, but when Spock looked back up from his desk with a query in his raised eyebrow, he turned and left.
Spock looked after him until the door closed behind him; a man of middle height, clad in the blue and black of Science; pale skinned, dark haired, dark eyed. A harsh face, at first look, seldom smiling. Another look, and you might call it a tired face; lines wearing in, flesh beginning to sag. Few people saw past the hardness or the weariness even to the humour in the lifting brows.
He banished the face from memory and turned back to his work.
They woke up much later, and the new Master had still not appeared. Relaxed, they rolled over, kissed each other, and spent five minutes playing a sleepy child's game with their toes.
Then the door opened and the Master of last night walked in. With panicky speed, the two of them scrambled out from under the covers and knelt on the bunk, heads bowed.
"You don't need to do that," Avon said in as pleasant a tone as possible. "Your skins should have healed up. Would you like to wash?"
They looked at each other, biting their lips. "Only if it pleases you, Master," said the elder slave.
"I take it that means yes. Do you know how to start the shower?" He had shown them last night; he wondered if they would remember.
"Yes, Master. Are we to shower together, Master?"
"As you like."
The two of them scrambled off the bunk together and made for the bathroom. Avon watched them go, turned to the cabin's terminal, and ordered breakfast and two sets of basic clothing. They were undoubtedly a curious pair; he wondered how they had come together.
When they came back -- still damp, much cleaner, and far faster than he had expected -- he stood up and fished out the official papers. "Listen, please."
They had dropped to their knees, heads bowed; he read out the official Statement of Manumission, and added, "That means you are free. From now on. In three weeks, we'll be arriving at Centre and they'll answer all your questions; but if you have any questions now you'd like to ask, I'm here to answer them."
They glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes, but said nothing. The manuals had said that this was a common initial response. "Maybe you'd like to get dressed first." He waited until they were both clothed again (they dressed fast) and added, "I do have a few questions I'd like to ask you. You don't have to answer them; from now on, you don't have to answer any questions you don't want to; but it would help us. First of all, what are your names?"
"Leonard," the elder man said.
"Vila," the younger.
Leonard was a few years older than Avon, with dark ruffled hair, blue eyes, and well-defined features, stockily built. He was afraid, flinchingly so, but still with a certain kind of look about him that might be stubborness, might even be defiance.
More promising, at all events, than the other; skinny and small, scanty mouse-coloured hair, wide brown eyes; crouching there he looked completely defenseless, open and vulnerable, not a spark of fire.
"When were you enslaved, Leonard?"
"About fifteen years ago. In a raid on Earth."
"And you, Vila?"
The younger man shrugged. "All my life."
"Was Leonard your name before you were enslaved?"
The older man nodded.
"Do you know how old you are?"
"I think I'm about forty-five."
"And you, Vila?"
"Thirty-two. I think."
The new Master had read out something and said they were free. Vila didn't believe it; Leonard didn't dare. They both remembered -- painfully -- games owners had played in the past, pretending to free a slave and punishing it for eagerness, for enthusiasm.
Then a series of standard questions; their names (which apparently were to remain unchanged; neither of them had had an official name in a year, since Master had chosen to call them slave1 and slave2); the length of their enslavement (Vila lied; he always did) and their ages.
"And how did you come to be in the possession of Zaffre Arré?"
They hesitated for a moment. Of course, it must be Master's name.
"We were on the same transport ship, master," Leonard said at last. "Master came and took us both away."
"Don't call me 'Master'," the master snapped. "You are free. You call me by my name, Avon."
Again they shared glances. It sounded like a direct order. Even Master wouldn't punish them for obeying a direct order; at least, not except in one of his more perverse moods.
"If it pleases you, Avon," Leonard said.
"Not because it pleases me. Because you are free."
They looked at him, their eyes wide. He had read it as bewilderment to begin with. It was disbelief.
"You don't believe me, do you? Oh, hell." He was getting a crick in his neck from looking down at them, too. He sat down cross-legged, wishing he'd thought of that before, and handed the Statement of Manumission to the older man. "Can you read Standard?"
"Yes, Avon," the older man said. He scanned down the thin sheet.
"As˙you can see," Avon pointed out, "it's verified by the Federation seal."
The older man passed it to his friend, who looked at the sheet -- and the seal -- closely, and then passed it back with a small reverence of the head.
"Now do you believe me when I tell you you are free?"
"Avon, if we are free, can we see your identification?" the elder of the two asked respectfully.
"Certainly." Avon opened his shirt and pulled out the small disc. It hung on a strong cord around his neck; removed from the touch of his skin, it would begin to glow orange. Lying in the palm of his hand, the Federation insignia was a clear, perfect green.
"Then it is true," the older man said in a peculiar, choked voice. "We really are... free?"
"Certainly it's true. This ship is on it's way to Centre, where people will show you how to re-enter free life. You're entitled to free transport to your planet of origin or any Federation world you like."
"Free," Leonard repeated. He put a blind arm out and pulled the other man, Vila, in against him, burying his face in his neck. Seeing that he might be more useful elsewhere, Avon got up silently and left.
"Vila," Leonard said. "Vila -- we're free, we really are free. They can't ever separate us. Vila, we could go back to Earth, I'd like to show you Earth." At Vila's continued silence, he pulled back to look at his companion. Vila's face was blank and silent-looking; the look Leonard had seen only a couple of times before, when Master did something to Vila that the slave, even though so much more experienced in subjection and survival than Leonard, almost could not bear.
"It's impossible to fake a Federation seal, Vila. Or a Federation identification disc. And everyone knows that if you get to a Federation world or a Federation ship you're free."
"You're forgetting," Vila muttered. "The Demon. He was in charge. Of the one who was here just now."
An involuntary shudder ran down Leonard's spine. He had forgotten about the Demon. "But they still can't -- couldn't fake -- "
"I don't know," Vila said wretchedly. He burrowed closer to Leonard. "Maybe he's a Federation renegade, maybe the Demon wants to play something on us. But I don't think it's safe -- I think maybe it's what the Demon wants -- like Master used sometimes to pet us before he -- " Vila choked.
Leonard wrapped his arms more tightly around his friend. "Maybe there's a way we could -- could test it," he said uncertainly. "If I tell them that I was a healer before masters punished me, and ask them if I can learn in their hospital, if we really are free they'll say yes."
"I'd forgotten you were a healer," Vila admitted. "Maybe that would -- would work. Leonard -- " he meant to ask, What can I do? If we are free? All I know is what made me this. But this new fear was sudden and raw and he could not, no more than he could endure Leonard's gentle touch on the smarts of a fresh whipping. Later.
He pushed his face into Leonard's neck instead and blew lightly, wordlessly saying what neither of them had ever dared put into words. Leonard stroked the back of his friend's neck, wondering himself how soon freedom would lend their tongues the ability to say words that slaves, together only by a master's whim, never dare say.
Avon returned after an hour, to find the two of them sitting close together on the bunk. They stood up as he came in. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Leonard clenched both his hands together. "I was a healer. A physician. Masters downlevelled me because I disobeyed. Could I -- work in your hospital on the ship? Learn there?"
"Of course," Avon said mildly, trying to conceal surprise. One of the difficulties with ex-personal slaves was that they frequently had no skills beyond pleasing. "I'll arrange a first session tomorrow, if I can. And you, Vila?"
Leonard looked sideways at his companion. He looked as though he might be whispering something, but Avon had not Vulcan ears to hear it.
"Would you like to come to sickbay -- that's what we call the hospital aboard here -- with Leonard? Or stay here? I can get you books, or music, or games, if you like."
Vila looked up at him and swallowed. "I'll come -- with Leonard."
Avon thought he was probably less motivated by a desire for knowledge than a wish not to be left alone. He found himself not unsympathetic. "As you like. I'll go and make the arrangements now. When I come back I'll show you how to use the computer."
Leonard had used something like the computer aboard this ship before, when he was still graded a high slave and worked as a healer. The Federation man directed most of the instruction at him, adding with a half-grin "You'll probably be better at showing Vila than I am."
The only safe reply for a slave to make to that was silence. Leonard was silent. The Federation man only paid attention to Vila after that to show him his access code -- "Try not to forget it, please -- if you do, someone has to reaccess any files you've made and give you a new password."
The man showed how to access the menus. Leonard ordered a meal. Avon waited until it had arrived, looking and smelling edible, and then left, saying that he would be back after they had slept to show them both to sickbay.
"It looks like maybe we are really free," Leonard said, relieved. "Vila? He's agreed to show us round sickbay, he's shown us how to use the computer."
Vila leant his head against Leonard's shoulder and, after a long pause, asked "What did you order to eat?"
"It sounded like an Earth dish I liked -- channa. Spiced chickpeas with poola bread. And fruit juice."
It was good food, better than any they had ever been able to eat together before without a master standing over them. They drank the sweet juice from one cup, sharing the hot spicy food in one dish, wiping up the sauce with the soft bread and feeding each other small pieces. They were sitting at the low table, on the soft couch, leaning against each other. Sometimes they both reached for the same piece of bread; the first time it happened, Vila laughed softly and snatched it out of Leonard's fingers, gently feeding it into the other's mouth.
When the last bite was finished, Leonard caught hold of Vila's hands and kissed each on the centre of the palm. "I love you," he said, very quietly. "We're free and I love you."
Vila leaned forward and kissed the older man's mouth, saying nothing.
After their sleeping period, Avon returned and escorted the two of them to sickbay. The young human doctor who had treated them when they came aboard had willingly agreed to show them around sickbay and begin whatever training seemed necessary.
"Leonard. Vila. This is Doctor Liam Kelleher."
Doctor Kelleher was, Avon had previously noted, disarmingly friendly. It would have made no difference, since the young man was the only human doctor and therefore the only possibility at present, if he had been a surly grouch; but it should make the task easier. "He has agreed to be your guide in sickbay until we reach Centre."
Kelleher beamed and shook hands, as Avon faded unobtrusively into the background. He would wait for a few minutes, but it was vital (so all the books said) that the two ex-slaves should not become dependant on him. Leaving them alone for a couple of hours with another human was (so all the books said) the best way to discourage dependancy. And Kelleher knew enough to call him if necessary.
Meanwhile, he could go back to his own cabin and relax.
As he had known he would, he paused by Spock's door and touched the door signal.
Avon entered, closing the door behind him.
While the Griffon was on its way back to Centre, once out of Empire space, watches were considerably relaxed; Spock usually spent the extra time in his cabin, communing with the computer, as Avon called it. But he did not appear to be working now. "Have you anything to report?"
"Nothing since I saw you last only half an hour ago," Avon retorted. "I merely wondered if you would care for a game of Dan, since I should have two hours before I'm needed again."
Spock lifted one eyebrow. "Certainly." He reached for the board, setting it on the table, while Avon took out the twin lidded bowls filled with stones, one set green, one blue.
He was not being quite duplicitous. A game of Dan between himself and Spock, even though they were both excellent players, might only last two hours. On the other hand, he did concentrate thoroughly on each move, each placing of each stone. It wasn't particularly surprising that the game was but two-thirds over when Spock reminded him that the two hours were almost up.
"A good game," Avon said. "A pity to leave it unfinished. Tonight?"
Spock lifted his eyebrows. "Agreed."
His eyes remained on Avon as the human left. Avon had planned that, of course. He had deliberately stretched out the moves. But so had Spock, once he had realised what his first officer was doing.
On their first meeting, he had regarded this Vulcan-taught human, Kerr Avon, with some uncertainty. The human's record showed him to be pragmatic, cynical, and untrusting, with a knack of driving subordinates to do more than they believed themselves capable of doing. To his credit was the record that though his subordinates sometimes hated him, they invariably respected him; his capacity for sheer slogging hard work; and his gift for seeing the correct solution to a problem.
Spock regarded the human's purely Vulcan education and training, together with his brilliant intellect, as neutral factors. Avon was still human.
But he had learned to trust Avon. Starfleet Command had been right, for once; Avon's pragmaticism balanced Spock's perfectionism, while his tendency to see all six sides to any problem -- and to be cynical about all the possible solutions -- had proved invaluable to Spock in the past. He had been aware, of course, of Avon's ability and ambition; his first officer had made no secret of the fact that he wanted command, and Spock considered that in another three years, at most, Avon would get it.
But it had been two years ago, a year after they first met, when Spock had discovered that Avon played Dan at Spock's own level, and had first played the game with him. It had been a good game, and Avon had stayed to talk, setting the pattern for future evenings.
And eventually Avon stayed the night.
It was, of course, a myth that all Vulcan men went virgin to their marriage beds. It was, however, expected of them to be discreet. With discretion, Spock had experimented, found his preferences, and, very occasionally, indulged them. But it was different with Avon. Simply, they matched; Spock found himself content.
And for the first time, Spock had found himself wanting the telepathic awareness that the bond would give. He had held off for a year, wondering, doubting, uncertain; when he finally asked, Avon had simply shaken his head.
Spock asked him again, a month or so later, and Avon had again refused, saying shortly that he liked some privacy. From that time, Spock had felt more and more uncomfortable with their relationship; he wanted permanence, Avon wanted privacy, and for a human the two were evidently incompatible. So at last he had simply called a halt; informed Avon that he would no longer sleep with him, and noted with a very private pain that Avon simply nodded, expressionless, and went back to his work.
It would have been possible, though Avon was discreet as a Vulcan, for Spock to find out who his first officer was sleeping with now, but he had deliberately refrained. He didn't want to know. Focussing on not wanting to know should get him safely through three years.
Vila stood back, watching Liam (he had insisted they call him that) and Leonard talking enthusiastically. Liam had quickly ascertained that although the older man was eight years out of practice, his skill had never left him, and his technical knowledge lay just beneath his surface memory, requiring only reminders. There were, of course, advances that the Federation had made that the Empire -- and still less Earth -- had not, at least eight years ago, and there was technology that Leonard had never used.
"But I reckon, only a couple of years refresher training and you'll be qualified to practice anywhere. And that's the sort of thing Centre does no problem. For that matter, I'd have you rated you a paramedic now, if you'd like to work here some of the time till we reach Centre."
Leonard had agreed enthusiastically; Liam added, satisfied, "And that should convince any bureaucrat that you're medically qualified and only need refresher training, which'll save time."
The door signal buzzed and Avon came quietly in. Vila took two swift steps forward to stand just behind Leonard.
"Well. Has it been profitable?"
"Oh yes," Liam smiled. "Would you help me arrange some way for Leonard to work here for the next few weeks? If you could rate him paramedic -- he's qualified -- it'll save time when we get to Centre convincing the staff he should have refresher medical training."
"Certainly. What about Vila?"
Liam glanced back at him, disconcerted. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't think -- "
"Vila, do you have any medical training?"
The smaller man shook his head.
"I would advise you to consider some training course or other, in the next few weeks. In the meantime, would you both like to come back to your cabin?"
Leonard stood up obediently, and both of them moved towards the door.
Doctor Kelleher glanced at Avon, disconcerted. The first officer gave him a brief, sour smile, and left sickbay, the two men following him. Once in their cabin, Avon moved to the computer terminal. "May I?"
He sat down, not really expecting a reply, and called up the medical administration files. "Shall I rate you as Doctor Leonard?" He turned to look at him, and was startled and pleased to see the man straighten, shaking his head. "My name's McCoy." As though realising what he had said, he smiled suddenly, and added, clear and certain, "Leonard H. McCoy."
Avon was unable to repress a broad grin of satisfaction. "Very good, Doctor McCoy." He turned back to the computer, setting up a tentative timetable for the next week, subject to the Healer T'rek's approval and Doctor Kelleher's schedule.
If Leonard -- Doctor McCoy -- was to succeed in working in sickbay, he would have to get used to Vulcans. But there was no reason why he shouldn't be taught by a human, at least at first, if it would be easier.
"I've made arrangements. You'll start tomorrow, Doctor McCoy. Vila, would you mind coming here?"
The younger man had been standing very close to the older, but as soon as Avon spoke he took a step forward. Avon gestured at a chair. "Sit down where you can see the screen, please." (It occurred to him that when this assignment was over he could stop adding these unnecessary phrases to perfectly reasonable requests.) "Look, Vila. This is a file of all the courses available on this ship, with a brief description. When you've finished studying it now, you can save it under your password and look at it whenever you like. Tell me if any of them interest you, and I'll arrange it. Is there anything else either of you want?"
"How do we get more clothes? All we've got is what you gave us..." The older man's voice trailed off uncertainly. Finding his name was obviously not the end of slavishness, though, Avon thought, pleased with himself, it was a damn good start.
"I'm sorry, I should have shown you before. Here. Same system as for food. Just type in your size, and computer'll synthesise it for you. The regulations are that you're only allowed three of each garment at the same time, so when you don't want to wear something any more, you put it in disposal, here." He stood up and went over to touch it, to make it quite clear; the most disconcerting mistakes could be made. "There's a similiar hatch in the bathroom, which will clean clothing that you do want to wear again. Just put your clothes in and close the hatch, exactly as for this one." He smiled. "But don't get them mixed up."
Vila had stood up when Avon did. The first officer glanced at him and sighed silently. A lifelong slave was probably a hopeless case; still, Leonard McCoy was improving satisfactorily, so the rescued pair wouldn't be a complete liability on the Federation. He had at least 18 days left before they reached Centre, and once Leonard had settled into sickbay routine -- and Vulcans -- he could concentrate on Vila. It was not a job he was looking forward to.
"I will call for you tomorrow at half an hour before shiftstart, 0930 hours shiptime, Doctor McCoy," Avon said formally. "You can ask the computer to wake you. My comm code, should you need to contact me before then for any reason, is obtainable from the computer; simply type in the message and address it to first officer. Or, if it is urgent, use the intercom; touch the red button, and ask for me. The message will be relayed."
He left, heading rapidly for the turbolifts. The sooner he had settled with T'rek, the sooner he would be able to go and see Spock.
The only reason it took Leonard so long to realise that Vila was silent was because for almost an hour after Avon had left their room, he could hardly stop talking. The hours in sickbay would have been exhilarating if that were all -- to be treated as a professional equal again was almost intoxicating. Eight years since anyone had talked to him about medical matters -- fifteen, since it had been as an equal. Fifteen years since the last time anyone had called him Doctor McCoy instead of "Leonard", or "boy", or "slave2".
Vila was leaning up against him with his arms round him, but beyond minimal encouraging grunts, he had said absolutely nothing. "Vila?" Leonard slid down until they were lying face to face, putting his arms around the younger man. Vila was still-faced, silent. Leonard rubbed his back slowly. "Vila... I love you."
Vila's arms tightened round him in response, but he still said nothing. The two of them lay there, Leonard rocking Vila, for a long while.
T'rek had made no difficulty. "I shall ensure that the rest of my staff know that tomorrow none of them are to enter that area of sickbay unless in emergency. After that, only for brief, necessary visits until they are informed otherwise."
"Yes." Avon smiled with a certain bleak humour. "Humans need to get used to Demons."
The healer did not smile, but Avon knew Vulcan humour well enough to understand the glint in her eye and the brief twitch of her eyebrow. "Indeed. May I compliment you on your almost demonic attitude towards us?"
Somehow, Avon did not find that funny. He smiled, made a brief reply, and left for Spock's cabin.
He wasn't there. Avon tried the door, and found it was still keyed to his palm print. The Dan game was on the table, exactly as they had left it. He sat down on the couch, and swung his feet up, leaning back against the padded arm. His eyes were fixed on the door, though he wasn't seeing it. He was early, of course. Thanks to Vulcan timesense and general perfectionism, Spock was never late. One of his more unendearing qualities, Avon thought.
It was a curious neurosis of his; while recognising the fact that except in law he was not Vulcan, and his species was pure human, Avon hated anyone, Vulcan or otherwise, pointing it out. He was in no danger of deluding himself otherwise; he had always known, so far back as he could remember, that his guardians were not his parents, that his parents were dead, and that he was human, not Vulcan. Even if it had been unclear to him at any time in his memory, the many differences between the two species would never cause any confusion. Not even to a child.
The door opened and Spock entered. He raised one eyebrow at Avon lying neatly on the couch, and went on through to his sleeping chamber. Avon came smoothly to his feet and followed.
"Where have you been?"
"You are early," Spock said, disappearing into the bathroom.
Giving up, Avon went back into the sitting room and replaced himself on the couch. When Spock reappeared again, looking presumably by some abstruse Vulcan standard neater, he added, "You didn't answer my question."
"I was in the gymnasium. Do you wish to finish this game now?"
"Yes, then we'll have time for another after the meal."
Spock sat down in the chair opposite. "Very well. Your move."
Avon sat up and contemplated the board.
The game took no more than half an hour to play out; once over, Spock went over to his computer terminal immediately to order supper, leaving Avon to replace the stones. This was uncharacteristic; Avon was usually the first to clear the board. For Spock the endpattern was at least as important as the game itself; indeed, Avon sometimes wondered if Spock treated the game as a means to creating endpatterns. It wouldn't surprise him. Spock gained more territory than he did six games out of ten.
After the meal, Spock reached for the board and set it between them again. "Your turn for the blue."
"We could play another time."
"Indeed," Spock agreed evenly. "Then you have some other arrangement for this evening?"
"None at all." Avon smiled. "We have spent evenings together without playing Dan, you know."
"Under different circumstances," Spock said flatly. "Which no longer apply."
Avon looked directly at Spock, meeting his eyes. The Vulcan stared straight back, completely expressionless. "Shall we play?"
Avon dropped his eyes and reached for the bowl of blue stones. "Very well."
In bed together, snuggled closely, Leonard kissed Vila. "We could." It was the first time he had ever tried to initiate sex in their relationship. Vila had seemed to have a kind of sixth sense for when it was and was not possible, with a wide margin of safety.
Vila made no response.
Leonard hesitated. He was used to no-response meaning that Vila was certain it would be too risky, but what risk was there here? Nevertheless, his own desire faded. "All right. I do love you."
Vila hugged him suddenly tighter, and whispered "I know."
"Tired?" Leonard whispered back.
In the dim light from the glow that Vila hadn't turned off, Leonard could just see Vila nodding. "Yes," he whispered. "Tired."
Leonard kissed him again, and settled himself for sleep, wondering with a small portion of his mind if he would ever get tired of sleeping with a light on. The bed was still wonderfully comfortable.
Vila waited until the change in Leonard's breathing indicated he was asleep, and slid out of bed, careful not to wake him. Sitting crosslegged on the floor, his head bent into his folded arms, he wondered what to do. They would reach Centre, whatever it was, and assuming Liam had told the truth, in eighteen or nineteen days. It was pretty clear that he and Leonard would be separated there.
And it would not be much longer than that, and possibly sooner, before somebody discovered that Vila's only two skills were locks and whoring. Once they found that out, eventually they would also find out that he had been enslaved for cause, not raided like Leonard or born as he claimed.
He stood up, silently, and drifted to the door, fishing out a metal probe he had palmed in the hospital earlier and slid into a crack between the couch padding and the framework. The door, however, was unlocked.
That worried Vila. He didn't intend to leave tonight -- not unless an absolutely unrepeatable chance offered itself -- so he could claim to any security outside to have heard a noise, and go unprotestingly back in. But the door should have been locked.
And the corridor outside was empty. The lights were dim; Avon had explained ship's night at one point. So -- assuming Avon had no reason to lie about that -- he could risk venturing into the corridors. There were enough shadows to ensure that unless the ship was actually being searched, he could avoid any wandering crew.
Master's ship had been worst -- apart from Leonard -- because except for two occasions, both flukes, he had never been able to get further out than Master's own rooms, and he was not fool enough to try stealing anything from there. So Leonard and he had gone hungry and hurting sometimes, and Vila had known he should have been able to steal enough for Leonard.
Keeping close to the wall, his pale hands tucked into his sleeves and his head ducked down to hide his face, Vila stole along. He had, tonight, no plans at all of where would be best to go. The only place he knew how to get to was the hospital; but that was one place where there would certainly be people awake. You got to places on this ship, mostly, by getting into the -- turbo-lifts -- and saying where you wanted to go, which was all right if you knew, but far too conspicuous, anyway.
They must have stairs. Somewhere. Even if only for emergencies, for getting from level to level when ship systems were damaged.
They did. Tucked very discreetly away behind the turbo-lift doors, but not locked, and no alarm if they were used. He went up, counting levels carefully. When he could go no further, he started to go down again, this time checking the corridor outside each door. The doors along the corridors were all identical, all labelled; he read the nearest labels, few of which made sense to him (what was a pre-biotic survey lab?) but which might help him work out what else was on each level for tomorrow night.
One level was more brightly lit and was probably the hospital level. He didn't bother checking; he could hear voices from outside the door.
"Turbo-lifts take forever..."
He slipped silently down half a flight, and froze. Much more clearly, he could hear someone saying "Where are you going?" and the sound of the door opening.
Another voice, far too clear, said "It'd probably be quicker to walk. It's only three down."
The first voice was also far too close, as he silently (silently, silently) started to glide down the stairs. "Walk?" It sounded amused. "We're on the fastest ship in Starfleet and you want me to walk? What do you think I joined up for?"
The second voice laughed and recited, in a mock half-chant that would have covered Vila if he had been twice as noisy -- especially after the first voice joined in -- "To seek out new life, and new civilisations. To explore strange new worlds. To -- "
He slipped out of the door on to the corridor, the level immediately above the one he should be on. It would be safest to wait for the two of them to pass.
And the door immediately opposite was just opening. Vila dropped silently onto his face in the darkest shadows, heard the door open and close, and someone walk quietly away, open another door, and go inside.
Now the safest place for a thief to be is a dark room (he had seen no light when the door opened) that somebody has just left. Particularly when the room is locked, even if it was a simple handprint that Vila could open with his eyes shut inside thirty seconds. In fact, in the shadows, that was the best way to work on the lock.
He opened the door, slipped in, and closed it again. The room was empty; but he could hear faint sounds beyond it, that might come from the next room or might be something in the vents. He hesitated, listening harder.
And simultaneously, a door across the room opened, light from the room beyond illuminating this one faintly, and the silhouette in the doorway said "Avon?"
Vila jumped back to the door, fumbling with the lock, and the lights went up suddenly, making him blink with dazzle. He felt swift movement from behind him, and a hand on his shoulder swung him round.
It was the Demon.
Spock stared down at the small human, thinking -- with almost complete irrelevance -- that for once Avon had judged wrongly, twice; wandering around a starship late at night was hardly slavish, and the man didn't look all that scared. Spock's grip shifted from shoulder to neck, and the sudden rush of images he could not altogether shield out, changed his mind completely.
The still face was actually frozen in the torrent of fear pouring out of him; he was not shaking, or sweating, or any other human fear-reaction simply because he was too afraid to show anything.
He let go of the small human, who swayed and nearly collapsed. "Sit down before you fall down," Spock ordered hastily. Sitting obediently, the small human's hands were lying by his sides, twitching a little. Spock realised that he should undoubtedly send a com-message to Avon and allow him to manage it. However, Spock was reluctant to do so for two reasons; he didn't want to see Avon for at least another twelve hours, and because the small man did not look in any fit state to be left, even for five minutes.
Sitting down beside the small human, Spock said, in as even a voice as he could manage, "I am not a demon." What was the man's name? "Vila, you have no need to be afraid of me."
He put a careful hand on Vila's shoulder. The human started violently, and began to shiver. Through the thin cloth, Spock could feel the jerky muscular spasms, even though Vila was trying to control his movements. Spock patted him gently. "I will not hurt you. Calm yourself."
At first he had been too afraid even to think. The Demon's order penetrated through the haze, and he sat down. The Demon sat down beside him and said something else, and something about not being afraid. Then he touched Vila's shoulder. He could feel the heat of the long-fingered hand through the thin cloth of his tunic.
Vila understood, and a good deal of the immediate terror vanished. The Demon thought he had been sent to his cabin to please him. It had probably never occurred to him that a slave would go wandering around the ship without permission. He would find out sooner or later, but at the least it postponed the punishment and at best, if he pleased the Demon well enough, he might not be punished even though he had been out of his quarters. After all, the door had been left unlocked.
The thought of pleasing a Demon was terrifying enough, but he could do it. He strove to control his shivering.
"I will not hurt you. Calm yourself."
Vila nodded, swallowing. After a moment, knowing what he had to do, he moved closer to the strange, hotter than normal body, and leant against him, resting his head on the Demon's shoulder. He could do it.
Spock stiffened with shock as the human practically snuggled up to him, seemingly deliberately inviting a caress. Completely at a loss what to do, he continued to gently pat Vila's shoulder, focussing on his biocontrol. He had no wish to become sexually aroused under these circumstances.
Possibly his touch had been misinterpreted? Or, equally possible, Vila had decided to try and ensure his safety in the only way he understood. Avon had said that Vila was a lifelong slave, and probably unsalvageable.
Whether Vila wanted comforting or reassurance, he had come to Spock for something and should not be denied; although Avon was technically responsible, he was only so because Spock had given him that responsibility.
Spock turned his attention back to the human, putting an arm around him, hoping that it was the right thing to do. His sole human experience was Avon, which wasn't very much help. The shivering had stopped.
"What do you want?"
Vila shook his head. "I'll please you," he said steadily.
"Please me?" Spock lifted one eyebrow. "Vila, you have no need to do any such thing. Why did you come to my cabin?" And as it occurred to him for the first time, "How did you open the door?"
The human's face twisted up to his, staring at him wide-eyed. He started to tremble again. "You -- you know? You know I wasn't sent here?"
"Of course. No-one on this ship, except it seems for you, would believe they had a right to send you anywhere against your will -- especially for such a purpose. Why did you come here?"
"I didn't -- didn't mean to -- " Vila whispered. "The door of our room was unlocked, and I couldn't sleep, so I went out. I thought this room was empty -- I was afraid of being caught -- "
"Providing you remain away from high-security areas, you have the same right to wander around the ship, when you should be asleep, as any other person aboard. You do not, however, have any right to enter private rooms without permission, any more than anyone may enter your private rooms without permission. But I am pleased to have an opportunity to talk with you. I have examined the records Avon has made, and have found several curious anomalies. Would you object to explaining them?"
Deliberately, he repressed his desire for sleep; he could remain awake for forty-eight hours without the slightest difficulty, and to get Vila talking instead of shivering would be an achievement worth sleeplessness.
Leonard woke in panic, startling himself upright on the bed. He had reached out for Vila, and Vila hadn't been there. Scrambling off the bed, he went through to the bathroom, determined to keep calm.
Vila wasn't there either. Doubtfully, he checked the door. It was unlocked. Oh, hell.
It was not like Vila to go venturing without telling him. Perhaps Vila had meant to be back before he woke up? In which case, what had happened to him? He might be in trouble -- Leonard found himself heading for the computer. Avon had said to call him if they needed anything.
Then he stopped. Vila might just be hiding up somewhere, in which case why cause trouble? On the other hand, he could be hurt, or dead --
Oh, hell. He typed in Avon's com number, and asked him to come as soon as possible.
Avon, too, was having a sleepless night. He had finally given up the attempt to rest, and had called up a routine programme of work. The message slid its way across the screen twice before he took it in.
Leonard. In trouble. He must be, or the message would have been phrased even more tentatively. Please come as soon as possible was practically a demand, from him. Avon dressed rapidly, left his room, and without waiting for the turbo-lift dashed down the emergency stairs one level, raced along the corridor, and slammed through the door.
Leonard was sitting huddled up on his bunk. There was no immediate sign of danger. Avon took a breath, closed the door behind him. "Doctor McCoy. What the hell's the matter?"
"Vila's -- missing," Leonard said with an effort.
"I think he went out to look round the ship, but he didn't wake me up and he wouldn't do that unless he didn't expect to be long, but his side of the bed's cold and he isn't back yet -- "
"All right," Avon said, lifting one hand to halt the flow. "All right. I'll log on to security scan and we'll go over the whole ship. Don't worry, he's probably just lost somewhere."
Leonard unfolded himself from the bunk and followed Avon over to the computer. "I don't think so," he said softly. "Vila doesn't get lost."
Avon refrained from comment. "I'll scan the areas where he might be in actual danger first -- shuttlecraft bay, engineering. Don't worry, those are two areas where he'd have most likely been spotted and brought back here."
"You are, of course, under no compulsion to answer any of these questions," Spock said in what he hoped was a pleasant manner. "I am simply curious. Firstly, you can read Standard, which is not consistant with your statement that you have been a slave all your life."
Vila almost shrugged. He didn't feel he had a choice. "Maybe I was a little older...."
"How much older?"
"Yes. That would explain it. Secondly, how did you manage to get through this door?"
"It wasn't locked."
"Yes, it was."
"I opened it."
"How did you open it?"
Vila's shoulders slumped. "I crossed the recognition circuit with the override circuit."
"Indeed. Finally, why have you allowed us to believe that firstly, you are a lifelong slave, and secondly, that you are stupid?"
There was a long hesitation. Finally, the human said very quietly, "It's safer."
"For a slave."
"What else am I ever going to be?"
"You are not a slave. You are free; and free to decide what you want to be, not take the safest course."
"Couldn't I just take the safest course?" Vila asked wistfully.
"Certainly. So long as that is your free choice, not forced on you out of fear."
The human sighed. "Any suggestions? All I know is thieving."
"I would recommend computers as your career choice," Spock said thoughtfully. "If, never having tried to decode the cabin locks before, you worked it out in less than a minute, you have both the ability and the aptitude."
"But that kind of lock's simple -- "
"Possibly for you. I could not have worked out the solution from first principles, as you must have done, so quickly."
Vila, by this time, was almost relaxed. "So what's to learn about computers?"
"I will show you." He switched on the terminal, calling up the first cadet teaching program.
It was another two hours before Vila nodded off. Spock lifted him from the chair, moved him to the bed, and spread the quilt over him.
The security scan had gone through almost the entire ship with a fine tooth comb, twice. The first time Avon had assumed that it was only necessary to look for lifeforms in unexpected places. The second, after several unexpected lifeforms had been found but none of them Vila, Avon took advantage of the fact that it was nightshift and instructed the security system to scan the entire ship, except the private cabins, list all people found, and to highlight any who were not crew on duty.
"If this doesn't work, I will have to initiate a shipwide personnel search," Avon said tiredly. "Doctor McCoy, how likely is it that he could be moving around in order to evade security scans?"
"Very likely," Leonard said, hunched in the chair. "Except that if he can move around, he would have come back here."
Avon set the program going. "Perhaps you would consider satisfying my curiosity."
"What?" Leonard asked distractedly, his eyes fixed on the screen.
"If I had received a message from Vila saying that you were missing, I would have expected him to panic. It seems a little unexpected that you should."
"Vila probably would panic," Leonard said quietly. "But he wouldn't have called you for help, he would have gone out and searched for me himself. He has more strength than I do -- and he's braver."
This time, Avon's refraining from comment was obvious. Leonard turned and looked at him. "He is, you know. I'd be dead three times, this past year, if he hadn't been there."
"I think you underestimate yourself."
"No. You're underestimating Vila."
"Possibly," Avon conceded. They fell silent again. After a long while, Avon added, "Tell me it's none of my business. How did a trained medic come to be downgraded to service level? I would have thought even the slaveowner mentality would see the waste of that."
"I disobeyed," Leonard said quietly. "I killed someone."
Avon's look whipped round in shock. "What? ...your owner?"
"No. She was a slave." Leonard's eyes looking somewhere else, he added, "She'd been tortured. I was supposed to heal her -- mend her -- so they could do it all over again. Instead I killed her. I was hoping they'd believe it was a mistake, but the free healer who examined her said the overdose was too massive to be an accident. They were suspicious about people who had died before, and that convinced them."
"Who were... 'they'?"
"The Empire police. They owned me for two years. After I disobeyed, they destroyed my records and resold me as a skill-less slave in the open market. I was lucky."
"Lucky they didn't put me to the torture to find out if a free citizen had suggested it. Lucky the woman I killed wasn't an important enough witness for a full scale investigation. Lucky the first person who bought me had me in mind for a service slave, not a suicide one... or I'd have been dead seven years ago."
"And how did you come to meet Vila?"
"We were on the same trader, in the same hold." Leonard fell silent again, remembering that dayless, nightless period, eight feeding-times long, in the whispering dark. He had seen Vila no more than a dozen times during those eight "days" when the hold door was opened and light let in, eight times for food and hosing down, once the first time he had been chucked in there, and three times when the doors were opened to let customers examine the merchandise. They had never believed they would have more than that; when they were bought by the same man, they had counted it incredible bounty. So it was, Leonard thought. So it was, even if the man was Master. Most people bought service slaves for simple rape, or even (if they were lucky) to be decorative, never used at all except by guests. Master had service slaves because he actively enjoyed and deliberately sought ways of agony and humiliation. All Leonard's previous owners had simply not cared if he was hurt or shamed; Master made sure that he was, and enjoyed it.
And Vila had had worse of it than Leonard; far worse. Master had bought two not so much, as they had thought, because he liked two men at once, but because if a service slave was to be completely available any time he wanted one, they had to be given some chance to recover in between times. Vila, more resilient, tougher, had been used more often, for longer.
He came back to himself, sitting in the dim light, staring at Avon. For how long had he been lost in memory? Avon's face was no help; he was looking very hard at the screen, which showed nothing interesting. Leonard rubbed his face and discovered it was wet. He hadn't cried for years.
Avon said, neutrally, to the screen, "I apologise."
"It's OK." He managed a small tight grin. "After all, I woke you up at four in the morning."
"I wasn't asleep."
"Oh... were you, well, worried about anything...?
"I tend to suffer from insomnia."
Leonard hesitated, but couldn't bring himself to ask the questions. Not yet. "Well... how did you take us from... from Zaffre Arré?"
"You didn't know? No, of course not. He was a smuggler most of the time, privateer/pirate when business was bad. We were at the end of the run when we spotted him, chased him half way back, and then locked on to his ship. When we searched it, among other things we found you two aboard."
"Where -- where is he now?"
Avon's grin was cold. "In hell, I trust. He was shot by the boarding party. Some of his crew are still alive; they're in stasis, awaiting trial. Don't worry, you won't be needed -- most of them left alive didn't even realise you existed, and none of them ever saw you."
"No," Leonard said absently. The security scan had nearly finished, and there was still no sign of Vila. Cold fear was coiling at the bottom of his stomach.
The door signalled. Avon swung around, frowning. He seemed about to say something, then glanced at Leonard, who swallowed, and managed, "Come in."
The door opened. Avon was sitting by the terminal, the other human, Leonard, next to him. Spock lifted one eyebrow and gently pushed Vila in, following him. Leonard leapt up and grabbed hold of Vila, pulling him close in a fierce hug.
Avon stared at Spock. "We have been scanning for Vila for over an hour," he snapped. "Where was he?"
"In my cabin," Spock said calmly. "I thought I should bring him back here to end the night; I surmised that Doctor McCoy might become concerned. I hadn't considered that he would already have instigated search proceedings."
The two of them were still locked in a hug. Avon glanced over, shook his head, and said loudly enough, "Doctor McCoy."
Leonard looked up over Vila's shoulder.
"I will see you again in four hours. Sleep well." He turned and headed out of the room; Spock followed, closing the door behind him. Avon was halfway down the corridor towards the turbo-lifts; Spock caught up with him just as the lift doors were opening, and got in. He expected Avon to say something, but his first officer remained silent, his face shuttered and grim. Once the lift stopped, Avon was out, moving off to his own room.
His first officer turned.
"I apologise for causing you unnecessary trouble."
"I wasn't asleep. Apologise to Doctor McCoy, if you have the urge."
"I intend to do so."
Avon nodded and turned back to his own room again. "Incidentally, my resignation from this assignment will be on your desk this morning."
"You cannot resign."
"I can with due cause; such as the unreasonable behaviour of a superior officer." He went in. The door shut behind him with finality.
"Where the hell were you?"
"In Spock's cabin."
"With the Demon? All this time?" Leonard pulled Vila closer. "Are you OK?"
"I'm all right. Just sleepy. Let's go to bed?"
"Last time you said you were tired you went off over the ship."
"Now I really am tired." Lying down on the bed, Vila put his arms around Leonard and hugged him back.
"Are you really all right?" Leonard whispered.
"Yeah... that Demon's not so bad after all."
The older man fell silent. Vila hugged him again. "He didn't have me," he said, guessing at Leonard's fear. "And he could have. He didn't hurt me at all."
"I was worried about you."
"I'm sorry. I thought I'd be back before you woke up."
"When Avon couldn't find you the first time, I thought you must have left the ship."
Vila hesitated, rubbing Leonard's back. "I... I was thinking about it."
"I didn't think you'd need me."
The older man buried his face in Vila's neck. "I love you. Don't ever leave me like that."
"I love you," Vila said. He sounded surprised, and hugged Leonard harder. "I do. I won't ever leave you like that. Ever. I promise."
Avon escorted Leonard to Doctor Kelleher's office and then, following brusque orders left on his com that morning, went to see Spock.
"I apologise," he began without prelimnary, "for the late arrival of my resignation. I have not yet had time to draft it."
"No apologies are necessary. Sit down, Avon. I would like you to explain what you meant by 'unreasonable behaviour'."
His first officer sat, his face still shuttered. "Surely that is obvious? Vila spent most of last night in your cabin."
"Correct. However, I still fail to understand why you feel that to be unreasonable behaviour on my part."
"You like humans, don't you?"
Avon observed Spock stiffen. "I have refrained from enquiring after your present partners. You should deal the same courtesy to me. Though I fail to see that it is any concern of yours, I spent two hours this morning showing Vila the basics of computer technology, and the rest of the time he slept alone in my bed."
"It is my business," Avon snapped.
Spock lifted one eyebrow. "Really, Avon -- "
"You made Vila my responsibility. Will you dump him the same way as you did me when he grows tedious?"
"You were responsible for the ending of our relationship, such as it was, not me."
"I'd love to know how the hell you work that out!"
"You refused to bond."
"Are you out of your skull? There wouldn't have been a bond, if we went through any ceremony you like. Haven't you forgotten something? I'm human."
Spock stared at him, utterly silent.
Avon went on, a little more quietly. "You were fantasising, Spock. That's all. I'm not capable of a real bond, and without it, any ritual we went through would be completely meaningless. You're a Vulcan. Eventually you'd have grown tired of it -- as you did, anyway."
"For a clever man, you're not very bright. Didn't you know my mother is human?"
Avon started to say something, then choked to a halt. "She's what? Then you -- your parents -- "
"My parents, Sarek and Amanda Grayson, bonded sixty years ago. The human mind is capable of it, Avon." As Avon stared at him in stunned silence, Spock added, "And I have never found you tedious."
"So you ended it because I wouldn't bond with you and you thought -- "
"I assumed that you found the idea unappealling."
"No." His first officer's grin was sudden and dazzling. "Not unappealling."
"Then, now that you are more fully informed, would you consider -- "
"For a clever man, you're not very bright," Avon interrupted. "Yes, damnit!" He stood up, pulled Spock up with him, and kissed him.
After a long, long while (1.234 minutes) Spock pulled back. "We both have duties."
"We could call the bridge and tell them that an unforeseen eventuality compels the first officer and the captain to be absent for about eight hours."
"That would be most improper."
"And no-one would believe it."
"Besides, I have no watch today. I should, however, spend some time with Vila setting up a programme of computer training."
"Just so long as that's all," Avon murmured.
"You cannot seriously believe that I would do such a thing," Spock protested with lifted eyebrows.
Avon smiled with more than a touch of malice. "Of course not."
At the end of his first day's work in sickbay, Leonard was more exhilarated than tired. Avon appeared, as he had expected, to escort him back to the cabin, but once in the turbo-lift he said, factually, "Tomorrow I think it would be best if you made your own way back."
Leonard nodded, watching Avon with some curiosity. In four days he had come to know this man quite well, at least to external appearances. Mostly it had been from the habit of a slave learning the new master; despite Avon's punctilious address of him as Doctor McCoy, he did know that it was not a real respect but an artificial one, for whatever reason.
Avon was reserved, quiet, and impassive as a Demon except for those dazzling grins that concealed -- and were meant to conceal -- more than they revealed. He smiled seldom with real humour; it was often difficult to tell when he was sincere or ironic. His hands were considerably more expressive than his face; long-fingered, precise, and curiously gentle -- at least to inanimate objects; Leonard had never actually seen him touch anyone.
He did not, as he seemed to now, glow from within with impossible to conceal happiness.
I wouldn't have minded being owned by him, Leonard thought. Not even after I was downgraded, and certainly not before. I wonder why now, he's happy?
Leonard hadn't expected the Demon still to be with Vila. Conquering fear with impassivity, he moved across the room to the couch, and stood there, still not habituated to sitting down without permission in the presence of free people. The Demon stood up. "Doctor McCoy."
Leonard locked his hands together behind his back, so that neither Avon nor the Demon would see them shake. "Yes...?" It felt unfinished; he did not know what to call the Demon.
"I apologise for the worry that I caused you early this morning."
Leonard mumbled something.
The Demon looked at him intently for a moment, then, with a formal word of farewell, turned and went out. Avon followed him. Vila leapt up and hugged him tightly. "Good day?"
"Yes... what was the Demon doing here?"
"Spock? Oh, he was starting me up on computer systems. He isn't a demon, you know -- they call themselves Vulcans."
"Vila..." Leonard was shaking.
The younger man pulled him in even closer, rubbing at his back. "You told me not to be scared of Avon," he whispered. "I'm telling you, you don't need to be scared of Spock." He tugged Leonard over to the bed, and with slow care undressed him and encouraged him to lie down.
Once naked himself, he curled around his lover, stroking down his back with gentle, delicate fingers. His lover. Vila had never dared think about Leonard that way before; not when at any time Master could walk in and order one of them out, and the one left behind wouldn't know, perhaps for only an hour, perhaps for a day -- perhaps longer -- whether the other was serving Master or had been leant to a guest or even sold. We're free and I love you, Leonard had said, and Vila repeated it, very softly, in Leonard's ear.
And, free, they made love, for a long time, the first time.
Avon went straight across the room to Spock's sleeping cabin, sitting down on the bed to pull his boots off. He looked up at the Vulcan, standing formally still in the doorway, and smiled, narrow-eyed.
He had a habit, Spock noted, of deliberately drawling out his words, deliberately annoying. When afraid, Avon tried to make people angry.
"Are you ready to bond?"
Avon lifted his eyebrows. "Ready? How can I prepare myself for something of which I have no experience?"
"That wasn't what I asked."
"True." The human stood up, barefoot, and moving in on Spock, began to undress him. The Vulcan reciprocated, wondering a little.
Avon slid a cool arm around his bare shoulders, pulling him back to the bed, lying down alongside him and close, running a sensual hand up and down his spine.
"We must bond first." Spock laid one hand against Avon's face, and saw with horror the muscles tighten under the skin, the deliberate hard impassivity. He had seen this look before, Avon facing torture. Trying to project, he came up against a shield diamond-hard and solid, and felt Avon flinch away from his touch.
"I'm sorry," the human said flatly. "I'll try harder."
Spock shook his head, his mind still dazed from collision with the walls around Avon's mind. "The bond -- cannot be endured. Both must enter willingly -- "
"You have defences I cannot penetrate. And you are afraid." Spock closed his eyes and rolled over, his face to the wall. "I did not intend to force you to this. Avon, I will not demand the meld." He lay still, hardly breathing, waiting for Avon to do something; go to sleep, leave the room, start trying to arouse Spock: but Avon did none of these things.
He put his arms around Spock, pulling him in so that they lay nestled together, rubbing his face against the back of Spock's neck. "Yes. But I'm willing. I want this."
"You said you wanted your privacy -- "
"I'm beginning to see I don't have any with you. So I might just as well make it mutual. Come on, Spock -- what do I have to do?"
"Open your mind to me."
It was a moment before he recognised the sound Avon was making as laughter. This human laughed as often as a Vulcan; the sound was harsh and unpracticed. "That's all?"
"I'm not sure I know how."
"Do you trust me?"
"Oh yes. I'm afraid I do."
"I know... fear is not logical. I'm not afraid of you. Just of trusting you too much."
"How much is too much?" Spock asked, honestly curious. He wriggled round, looking at Avon with lifted brows.
His first officer grimaced. "With my life. My soul. My honour."
Spock's face changed minutely, unreadably. "T'hy'la," he said.
The human knew the Vulcan word, of course; it had simply never occurred to him that anyone would use it to him. He shook his head and burrowed in against Spock, breathing the alien scent of his body, consciously trying to open barriers.
Leonard McCoy was lying naked on his stomach across a large bed. His hands had been cuffed to the collar round his throat; it was not actually uncomfortable so long as he kept his hands folded across the back of his neck. A chain led from the collar to a staple set firmly into the wall beside the bed.
He was contemplating what lay before him with bleak uneasiness. He had been raped before; he had been seven years a slave, albeit an expensive highly-skilled one, but that had not protected him from the occasional sexual use, merely from wanton damage. But this deliberate preparation to be consumed, like a dish of scented sweets, was wholly new.
Some indefinite time ago, probably no more than ten days and certainly no less than three, the Empire police, then his owners, had discovered he was responsible for the death of a tortured slave. He had been ordered to heal her -- mend her -- so that the torture could continue.
Disobedience. Theft. Killing without orders. He had expected punishment; but not this. His records had been destroyed, and he had been sent to a common market and sold as a skill-less slave.
The door opened. Someone walked with swift light steps across the room. Above him, behind him, the someone chuckled. A man. He flinched and pressed himself lower to the covers.
"Well now. Boy, sit up, if you can."
With some difficulty, lacking leverage, McCoy obeyed. They looked at each other.
The man who had come in was clad in black, highlighted with silver; it contrasted dramatically with his pale skin, blending with the shadowy colour of his hair and eyes. His nose was large, and there were incipient lines on his face and the beginnings of bags under his eyes. It was a stern face, pitiless and pragmatic, but there was a hint of humour in the dark eyes and lifted brows. "You were a high-skill slave not long ago," he said thoughtfully. "And then you disobeyed an order. Didn't you?"
"I -- " McCoy shivered and swallowed. "Yes. I disobeyed."
"And have you learned your lesson?"
McCoy ducked his head. "The master is the master, and does all things according to his will."
"You lie badly, slave." One black-gloved hand slid under his chin and jerked his head up. "What's your name?"
"Leonard McCoy," he answered automatically.
The other gloved hand cracked across his cheek. "Wrong. Tell me again."
Wincing, McCoy muttered, "My name is what pleases -- what pleases my master; my master has not -- not yet chosen to give me a name."
"And who is your master?"
The man smiled. "For tonight, it seems. But I didn't buy you. No matter." He stepped back from the bed, reaching for a bunch of keys. "I find this sort of thing distracting, boy. But when I take it off, don't think you can run for it if you take me off guard. You'd be caught before you got ten metres, and punished as a runaway is punished. Do you know how?"
"They -- they cut your hamstrings."
"Oh yes. Anyone catching a runaway slave is legally entitled to do so much. Of course, the first time, you might only be beaten and sold." He freed the cuffs from the collar, though without removing either, and unlinked the chain. "Lie down on your front and spread your legs. Wider than that."
McCoy felt cool gloved fingers exploring his anus, and flinched again. The man slapped his bottom lightly, though it stung. "Lie still. Fuckable, aren't you? How many people have already used this piece of ass?"
When McCoy did not answer, he slapped him again, harder this time. "So many you can't remember?"
"Eight... nine, I think."
"And were you good?"
"I don't know."
"Well, did they beat you afterwards?"
"None of them? You must be good. Perhaps I won't need to punish you afterwards either." He pinched McCoy's bottom, quite hard, eliciting a sharp moan of pain. "Keep your position."
There was a brief pause; too brief for the man to have undressed, and when McCoy felt him touch him again, all he seemed to have removed were his gloves, and he had unfastened his trousers. He felt a hard warmth pressing against his anus, and sliding inside as though it had been lubricated. The man's weight came down on him as he thrust harder, and a hard hand gripped tightly at his shoulder, squeezing again and again in the rhythm of the man's fucking him, until in one last spasmodic grip, the man came, flooding McCoy like a vessel.
He withdrew with a savage twist that made McCoy cry out again, and left him lying moaning on the bed.
The pupils of Avon's eyes had gone wide and dark; the human's only visible sign of vast, vast astonishment. Spock gazed into them, feeling the bond between them as bright and precious as copper, strong and supple as a thrice-forged blade.
Avon had always assumed that the bond would feel like an intrusion, however willing he was; as if part of someone else's mind had invaded his. It felt like an extension of himself; if he focussed, he could feel Spock's body as though it were his own, feel simultaneously the touch of cool human skin and the touching of warm Vulcan. Wonder possessed him. Slowly, their movements perfectly orchestrated, each knowing the other, they made love, drawing their minds closer with each touch, till at orgasm neither of them could be sure which one cried out, which one hugged or stroked or kissed the other --
They fell apart into separate identities, Spock cradled in Avon's arms, closer than touch. "I'm a fool," Avon whispered. "T'hy'la. It is better." Spock made a wordless sound of agreement and content; in a human, Avon would have called it a grunt. Neither of them were in the least sleepy; only utterly content to lie together, touching and touched, wordlessly, fiercely in joy.
And Leonard woke, shivering and clutching at Vila tightly.
"What's wrong?" the smaller man asked, sleepily.
"I don't -- I dreamed -- about the first time. The first time after I was sold off."
Vila's hand curved into Leonard's hair. "It's all right. We're safe now, remember?"
"Safe? I don't know. Vila, I dreamed it was Avon."
"Avon?" Vila looked worried. "But you said we could trust him."
"Yes. Trust him. But maybe you shouldn't trust me," Leonard said dully. "I thought today I wouldn't mind being owned by him. And I dreamed that -- that it was him the first time -- and even while I was hating it and hurting I remember thinking that it was all right, because it was Avon."
He felt Vila go still and cold, lying beside him. "Do you want him?"
"No." Leonard shivered. "No. But -- compared to the first man who really had me -- yes."
"Then don't trust me either," Vila said flatly. "Because I'd rather have him than any of the others who've had me. At least he's clean and polite, dammit!" He put his arm around Leonard's shoulders, pulling him closer. "But I'd rather have you. And I trust you. Do you trust me?"
"Yes," Leonard said immediately. "Always, Vila."
"Then you're a fool," Vila said, still in that quiet, flat voice. "I'm a thief and a cheat and a liar, and a slave. I was thinking of running out and leaving you yesterday night, because it seemed easier than risking you leaving me, once you didn't need me any more. I'm a gutterrat. At least you had a home, a family; I don't even have a world. I didn't lose anything when they made me a slave; I didn't have anything to lose. I've done things from hunger that have been worse than anything even Master made me do. You know why I never let us have sex, even touch, when Master might have discovered us?"
"Because he'd have punished us," Leonard said automatically, then suddenly realising -- "He'd have made us do it in front of him?"
"Because he'd have made you punish me, or me punish you, and watch that. That was the only thing that would have been worse than anything I'd ever done before. Because if he'd ordered me to do it to you, you'd have found out how much of a slave I am. And if he'd ordered you to do it to me, you'd have refused, and he'd have killed you, and I'd have had nothing left." Vila was tense, shaking; Leonard touched his shoulder, but the younger man shrank away. "You're the only slave I ever met who disobeyed the way you did. You're the only slave I ever knew who had room left to care about anyone else, even serving the way we were serving. And now we're free, and you're going to be a Healer again, and I'm still nothing but a gutterrat who'd do anything rather than starve. You don't need me any more." He twisted himself away, lying against the wall, his face hidden. Leonard could not tell by the sound of his breathing if he was crying.
"You finished? Vila, listen. I was a slave-medic for years before I was downgraded. I obeyed. I killed who they told me to kill. I mended who they told me to mend. I broke the oath I swore so many times I can't remember, before I finally couldn't any more. And even then I didn't have the courage to do anything more than make sure some torture victims got a painless death."
Leonard gulped. "And you. You didn't care about me? You took more beatings than I did, to spare me. You sneaked out to find food and painkillers, for me, knowing that if Master or any of the crew caught you, they'd smash your hands. I didn't do anything for you -- you wouldn't even let me hold you, most of the time. You're braver and stronger than I am."
"You don't need me any more," Vila repeated, bleakly.
"Maybe I don't. I don't need you to steal for me or take my beatings for me. You don't need me to give you a reason for surviving, either. Maybe you are a gutterrat, maybe you are a thief and a liar and a cheat -- but you've stolen and lied and cheated for me, and I owe you my life at least four times over. Because I owe you that much, whatever I have is yours, always. I don't need you. You don't need me. I want us to be together, without a question of need or who owes who. I want us to be together."
Vila turned over. His face was wet, but he wasn't crying any more. "You said you loved me."
"I did -- I do. I'll promise -- "
"Don't promise," Vila interrupted. "Don't promise what you'll break. You won't love me forever. Only don't leave me. Not even if I tell you to go. Not because you owe me anything. Just because I don't want you to leave me."
"All right," Leonard said quietly. "Where you go, I go."
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