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The Commander's face was pale, even with his naturally dark coloring. He wasn't injured that badly physically, but there was a reason she was the one doing Vigil and not his shipmates, especially his closest friend among the rest of the crew of Border Outpost Seven. They had seen what had happened to Diorre Jearsen, and—in some ways worse—what had happened when Zakhla, Varan's closest friend aside from Jearsen, entered. They were too close to him; none of them, she could tell, knew what to say. Though they'd been curious, she'd also sensed significant relief that she had volunteered to take the Vigil for them.
Was that … yes. The eyelids had flickered. Sasham Varan's eyes opened slowly, searching almost aimlessly. Then he sat up with a look of horrified desperation, lunging half-off the bed.
She had known that was coming, and was already there, catching the Commander as his body collapsed in pain and weakness. "It's all right, Commander. It's over. You are safe."
His eyes finally focused, locking onto hers with a feverish desperation. Huge eyes, wide with panic and confusion, gray eyes the color of storm clouds and steel, held her own gaze for long moments, searching for reassurance. His gaze finally shifted from her eyes, glancing upward to the unique hair that was her trademark. "E…Eönwyl?"
"Yes. Please, Commander, lie back down. You have just awakened for the first time in days. I have been sitting Vigil for you."
He leaned back, the paleness under the olive-brown skin still starkly present. He tried to smile. "I… I didn't know you were a Believer."
"I am not. But I respect the Seekers."
He looked around, confused, still clearly a bit dazed. "Why you…? Not meaning any offense."
"No offense is possible, Commander. Not after what you did."
He stared at her blankly, then closed his eyes and shuddered. His legs drew up and with shock she realized he was almost ready to withdraw. She'd only known him casually—at least in any ordinary sense—but Varan had been a minor legend even before his arrival on Tangia. This was so utterly contradictory to his record…
"What I did? I … I don't even remember. T-Torline's Swords, I … Diorre, she was screaming, screaming, and they tore her apart, and then the Zchorada, there was… I can't even think about it! I won't! It's still there in my head, I can still hear him!"
So it was true. "He's dead, Commander Varan. They found the psionic that attacked you, and you'd put a rannai bolt right through him, front to back."
That got through to him. "I did? … Yes… yes, I remember. That was when he did it. The scream that I keep hearing, and then the walls want to open up…"
"I know, Commander." She touched his shoulder, an intimacy that she hesitated at but felt was appropriate. "Commander—"
"Sasham. If you sat Vigil for me, at least you can use my name." He tried to sound normal, but his voice shook and the long black hair hung in his face like a veil from which he peered like a frightened child—a child ashamed of his own actions.
"Sasham then." It was odd, given how usually she didn't even get along with Imperials, but then, this man was unusual. "Sasham, your Exsheath recorders survived -- and so did you, after the psi somehow started breaking through your suit shields. What exactly was in the recorder records I don't know, but whatever it was, it has courier ships taking the fastest-route Nexus lines to Oro. You may have saved the station yourself."
"But I didn't save her." His voice was so low she could barely hear it. "And none of my own service—no one, from Navy or Guards—would sit Vigil with me?"
"They wanted to," she answered carefully. "But you have a problem. You actually woke up once before. Do you remember?"
He shook his head. "No… no, I don't. I had nightmares. I remember thinking I'd woken up once, and looking around and then realizing they'd caught me, one of them was waiting, right there where you were, and I had to kill it, get it fast, escape… then it all faded out again."
"Lieutenant Commander Zakhla was sitting Vigil for you."
The gray eyes closed, trying to deny it by shutting out the world. "Oh… Towers and Demons… no. I didn't—"
"No. He's fine. Got a slight crack across one leg but that will heal, and they got to you before you hurt yourself too much. Still, that's why you went back into a coma."
"I… I wish I could see him. But… but now that I think about it, I'm terrified to think of it. What in the name of Torline is wrong with me?"
"Phobia. It happens sometimes even with ordinary trauma, Sasham. Add in a psionic trying to finish off your mind, and it's amazing you're still talking sane. They're sure they can help you. It will just take time."
The shadows that seemed to flicker behind his eyes told her that the thought of having attacked one of his best friends was only the second part of his problem. He had much worse to get over, and not even a chance to view her before the Farewell. "Time. Yeah." He made a visible effort to brighten—something that astounded her. He was trying not to inflict pain upon her, at a time he really didn't need to be bearing burdens, especially for a relative stranger. "So… why you? I can understand why Z…Zhakhla couldn't.. Or any Chakron. They look so close to… well, anyway, but why you?"
"Maybe they knew you too well. It would hurt too much, or they didn't know what to say. I think several of them would have done it—even Monitor Frankel, if it weren't against the rules—but I volunteered." The fact that Frankel had tried to find a way around the rules actually worried her. Monitors did nothing out of personal sentiment; supposedly they took voluntary conditioning to ensure that. As Varan had known Frankel before he became a Monitor, though, perhaps that changed things. "I knew Diorre—she did T&T duty on this station and another one I used to visit pretty often—and I owe you. My ship was docked here when the attack hit."
"And you always pay your debts. Yes, I remember."
"And I owe you an apology."
He blinked at her, confused. "You do?"
"Some weeks ago when we got into a rather heated discussion about the Empire and its relative merits."
His expression showed he did remember. "You don't like the Empire."
"No," she said frankly, "but I shouldn't allow that to extend to the individuals in it. You have every right to believe in the Empire. It has done you no harm. And a man who has your level of courage and resource… well, as I said, I owe you an apology. You are a patriot and a good one. If I could believe everyone in Imperial service was like you, I would probably have a different opinion of it. I'm sorry I ever implied you were either a blind follower or dishonest with yourself. It was uncalled for and rude."
He nodded, managed a faint smile. "Apology accepted." He looked away for a moment, took a breath. "Well, I seem to have awakened to myself. You look… tired. How long…"
"Three and a half days."
He sat up a little straighter and gave the Sign of the Towers, hands together, thumbs in the middle, the fingers curving around them, two middle fingers acting as one, to yield the familiar Seven, the Six and One. "You have warded my soul after peril, and have watched until it has returned from the Dark. I am ready to heal in the Light," he said, formally. "Your Vigil is ended. I thank you." He smiled again, surprisingly. "You have the endurance to be a Believer, at least."
She laughed quietly at that. He was trying. This wasn't a man to give up easily. Good. Sergeant Diorre Jearsen wouldn't want him to, either, of that she was sure.
"Thank you. And if, for any reason, you decide the Navy are no longer for you, remember to look me up. A trader like me can always use a few people she can trust."
He looked at her with eyes that once more showed the pain and loss, but at the same time the gratitude at her simple approach, that neither minimized his pain, nor encouraged it. "I don't think that will happen… but I will certainly remember. Thanks." Then he seemed to think of something. "Hey… what about you? What were you doing during the attack?"
She grinned. "Protecting my investment. What do you think?"
She left, knowing this would leave him wondering until he got the story out of someone else. He needed a little something lighter to think about right now, and if at first he wondered if that meant she'd gone and hid on board her ship, well, he'd learn the truth eventually.
The black-and-silver of the Monitor passed her, the passionless brown gaze meeting hers for a moment. She could see that he already knew Varan was awake. Once he was past, she shivered. The Monitors had never given her any trouble—not compared to the regular Guards and Navy on some worlds—but they still bothered her. Well, it was time for another trading run, now that it was pretty sure the Zchorada had given up for the time being. Now that he was awake and seemed to be running on mains, Varan's friends would be able to get him back on course. Her job was done.
Somehow, though… it didn't feel that way. It didn't feel that way at all.
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