by Jane Carnall
"It's all right," Blake said softly. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Vila relaxed minutely. He trusted Blake, he told himself firmly, and if Blake said he wasn't going to hurt him, then he wouldn't. He had woken from a twitchy sleep to see a tall shadowed figure undressing beside the bunk, and it wasn't really surprising that he'd yelped. But Blake wouldn't hurt him. Blake wouldn't.
But he was still tense when, the larger man, having stripped off, slid under the covers beside him. Blake's hands were not cruel, but they were large and strong, and Vila moved as they dictated.
He was rolled on to his stomach, Blake careful to make sure he was comfortable, stroking gently down his back and nuzzling his shoulders. A finger entered, probing, and then another. Vila bit his lip, suppressing a whimper part pain, part fear. Blake settled himself on Vila, entered gently, and climaxed after a few smooth thrusts. He withdrew from Vila's body with the same care, rolled off him, and sat up, beginning to slide off the bunk.
The thief shivered. "You're... just going?"
Blake stared down at him, then smiled a little. "Well, I can't stay all night," he said reasonably. "I'm due on watch in a couple of hours, and I want to nap till then."
"Oh." Vila curled up further. "Sorry. Doesn't matter." He had always hated being left alone after a service session, even if the only person to be with was the person he'd just serviced. But he could always go and sit in the computer unit with Avon. Avon probably wouldn't throw him out.
Blake touched him on the shoulder. "I'm sorry, Vila. Next time, perhaps. But I really must go now." He dressed again, and left the room.
After a couple of days, Vila had begun to believe it would not happen again, or more accurately had begun to hope; for when he next looked up and saw Blake standing just inside the door of his room, pulling off his jacket, he couldn't even pretend to be surprised. The larger man hung his jacket over the back of the chair, checked that the door was locked, and came smoothly over and sat down, by Vila, on the bunk. "What's that you're drinking?"
"Ha -- halvani."
Blake took the glass from Vila's unresisting hand, sniffed the liquid, and sipped. "It's good." He set it down carefully on the shelf above the bunk. "You've no need to be afraid of me, Vila." The sudden change startled the thief; he glanced up to meet Blake's eyes, large, dark, and compelling.
Vila stared, transfixed. He felt the larger man's hand cup his chin, tilt up his mouth to be kissed. Blake was gentle with him.
"I won't hurt you, Vila. Come on, off the bunk."
He undressed Vila, not brutal, never anything but firmly gentle, as the thief was to learn Blake always was. And when it was over, he stayed, he let Vila curl up next to him and rest his head on the larger man's shoulder. The thief was grateful.
It set the pattern for the nights to come. Two or three nights in a row, perhaps, Blake would not come to him, and never when he could not stay with Vila till he fell asleep; never when he was in a fury; never to hurt. He did hurt Vila, sometimes, but not intentionally, and it was not much. He was kind; one night he had come to find Vila screaming in his sleep at a nightmare of Fedration prisons, and had stayed and held Vila, and had not had sex. Blake was the nicest Alpha Vila had ever known (you couldn't call Avon or Jenna, nice) and it bothered him sometimes that he never responded sexually to Blake. It didn't seem to bother Blake at all, so there was nothing to worry about. The thief had wondered sometimes, watching Blake and Avon laughing together or arguing some esoteric Alpha debating point, whether someday Blake would suggest that Avon share his Delta, but it had never happened. Or not yet...
It was strange -- since he'd been shared often enough before, and hated it -- but still, when he thought of how it might be with Avon, he was aware of a small, pleasurable tingle of excitement. Stupid, too, even to think of it; at least Blake was kind, and there was no guarantee that Avon would even think to be gentle. And besides, he was Blake's Delta, and Blake had never said anything to him.
In fact, the Alpha very rarely spoke at all. Usually, he simply came in, undressed, and if Vila were not already in bed, stripped the thief off. Then he had sex, and then he would let the thief go to sleep with his head pillowed on Blake's shoulder. When the thief woke up, Blake was always gone.
It became routine, almost, as the Liberator darted from one end of the human-inhabited galaxy to the other, Travis at their heels. All that long year, Centero, Destiny, Whileaway, Yggdrasil, Lindor, Haderon, Cephlon, Aristo, Horizon, Earthsea -- Vila grew used to Blake and to Blake's habits. He wondered, occasionally, which of the others knew; Avon must, of course, even if Blake hadn't told him. Avon was Alpha Elite, and would assume that any Delta would inevitably be the property of some Alpha. Cally, on the other hand, was different; so alien, she probably never even understood about Terran class structures, let alone why Blake would want Vila. And Gan didn't know. Vila didn't want Gan to know. He couldn't tell if Jenna did or not; she looked down on him so thoroughly he couldn't perceive any change in her reactions to him. She wanted Blake, too.
At first he hadn't been able to understand why, when Jenna and Avon wanted him, Blake took a Delta instead, but he worked it out later. Jenna and Avon were Blake's equals, and a relationship with either of them would involve more than kindness. Sex with Vila was the easiest way out.
He was sitting in the rest room over a glass of soma when he finally came to that conclusion. Quite unexpectedly, a tear rolled down his face and landed in the soma. Fiercely, he rubbed his eyes and took a gulp at the glass. It wasn't any different now from what it had always been before; he'd always been property, and Blake was nicer about it that anyone else he'd ever belonged to.
Another tear slid down his nose, rapidly followed by several more, as Vila gave up the struggle, tucked his head into his arms, and cried. He wished Blake was having sex with him because he wanted him. He wished Blake had never been interested in him at all. He wished he'd been born on Zephron, like Gan, where Deltas weren't property. He wished that he could have a room with a door he could lock so that no one else could enter, so that he could sleep there all alone whenever he wanted. He sniffled, rubbed his face on his sleeve, and looked up.
Avon was standing looking down at him. "What's wrong?"
The words were levelly pitched, neither threat or accusation; however, Vila felt both. "Nothing." He stood up, gauging distances between himself, and Avon, and the door.
"Oh sure, nothing." Avon's voice was laced with contempt. "That's why you're sitting in here crying your eyes out."
"I'm not," Vila started fiercely, then realised that his face was still wet. "Leave it, Avon... please. It doesn't matter."
Avon was about to say something when Blake came swiftly in, clearly in a towering rage. He drew breath to yell, saw Vila, and stopped short. "Get to your cabin, Vila. I'll have a word with you later."
The thief ducked out, relieved to be let go. He heard both Blake and Avon yelling behind him before he was out of earshot. Avon, thankfully, did not mention that moment in the rec room again; it was swallowed up in the maelstrom of emotion after Gan was killed.
Blake came to him that night in desperation; it hurt. And when Vila reached for the larger man afterwards, seeking his own form of comfort, Blake had already begun to dress hurriedly, looking still torn with rage and guilt.
The thief was all alone on the ship now, the solitary Delta with three Alphas and one alien; and Blake had changed. He never stayed with Vila, and though not cruel, not brutal, it seemed as though he no longer had the energy to spare to be gentle.
Fosforen went by, Exbar, Albian, Atlay; Vila found himself wishing that since Blake no longer seemed to come to him for pleasure, he would stop having Vila, pass him on to Avon, perhaps. The thief had become the technician's shadow; Blake avoided Avon, and the technician tolerated Vila's company quite well.
After Goth, as the Liberator began it's long run to Star One, Blake came to Vila's cabin for the first time in five or six nights. As usual, he had sex in silence, as usual in desperation, seeking something, justification, solace, warmth; whatever it was, Vila knew he didn't supply it.
Blake sat up and began to pull his tunic on again. Daring for once, Vila reached out and touched the larger man's curls. "Blake...?"
"What is it?" he snapped. Tired, grouchy, miserable -- he sounded all of these. Vila quailed.
"Nothing... only, stay a while? Just a little while? It's been a long time since you stayed."
Blake dropped his head into his arms. "I know." He sounded drained. "I don't have time. There's never time." He pushed himself to his feet and finished dressing. Fully clothed, he looked down at Vila and managed a smile. "I'd tell you that when all this is over I'll have more time for you, but right now I can't believe there's such a thing as 'when this is over'. Goodnight, Vila."
"What d'you want?" Vila was nervously belligerant.
"Oh, come on, Vila, you're not that naive." Tarrant bestowed a flashing grin on him as though it were an accolade. "Besides, a Delta alone on a shipful of Alphas? Don't tell me one of the others hasn't tried you out already."
"You're not an Alpha," Vila spat.
Tarrant cuffed him. Not particularly hard; simply a warning against insolence. "What I am is irrelevant. What you are, however...." He measured Vila with his eyes, as though assessing his value on the open market.
"I'm a free agent," Vila stated, wishing frantically for Avon to decide he needed some unskilled labour and request Vila's presence over the intercom. Once out of here and I swear, I'll -- "I don't have to do what you tell me."
Tarrant's lips curled. "Oh, don't you?" He advanced on Vila, securely confident in his grade and his strength, but the thief, with brittle bravado, held his ground. "No. I don't -- " I don't. I can't. I won't.
Of course, it made no difference. Afterwards, Tarrant heaved Vila to his feet and put him on the bunk, tucking him in, before he left. The thief lay utterly still, assessing physical damage. Nothing serious. He had a nasty set of bruises because he'd struggled and Tarrant had held him down, but they wouldn't show once he was dressed. He wasn't bleeding, his hands hadn't been touched -- Tarrant had been efficient, not brutal.
All that was wrong with him, really, was that he desperately didn't want to be alone and that he wanted very badly to curl up and cry. Obviously, he couldn't have it both ways -- Avon was on watch and probably wouldn't mind Vila joining him if he was quiet, but certainly not if Vila intended to cry all over his latest sleek outfit. Actually, the thought of Avon's reaction was almost funny -- Vila managed a small, quirked grin as he climbed carefully out of the bunk and stumbled into the shower.
Tarrant came again, almost every night, but never stayed longer than necessary. It was no use even trying to accustom himself to the pilot; Tarrant simply held him down (hard, sometimes bruising, always painful) and had him, then left. Vila found he had to get up again and nap on the flight deck or in the teleport bay if he wanted to sleep at all.
He was tired and miserable and nobody noticed; and time, and the galaxy, went by. Obsidian, Crandor, Kairos... Keezarn.
"How was she, then? Your little pirate."
Vila rolled over and stared up in misery. "None of your business."
"Ah, but it is, isn't it? Come on, Vila, I'm not angry. Just tell me about it." He climbed on to the bunk and knelt above Vila, grinning down at him. "Well?"
The thief shook his head. Tarrant, still grinning, pinned Vila's arms down with a hard twist of his wrists, forcing a sound of pain out of the thief. "Come on, Vila. Tell me."
"No." It came out in a cry of pain, and Vila jerked and struggled for a moment, then slumping, sobbing. He had never cried before. Tarrant let go of him.
"All right." He sounded annoyed. "You don't have to be such a coward, Vila, I wouldn't really hurt you."
Vila didn't even argue. He lay completely still, cooperating completely with Tarrant's hands on him, rolling him over and clumsily probing. I'm not anything. I'm not here. I'm nothing. Nothing's here....
By the time Tarrant left, Vila was cried out; and shivering with desperation. There was a solution; he had always known it, and been too scared to follow it through. The results of asking Avon for help might be worse than the effects of his current use, but now he did not think he could bear another night like the last one. The technician might refuse him... shuddering violently, Vila decided not to think about that.
He knocked on the door. There was a long pause, but the door opened, finally, and Avon stood there, looking his usual, pristine self, and regarding the shivering little thief with some surprise.
"Please -- " Vila started nervously, "please -- can I come in? I -- I want to ask you something."
After a moment, Avon shrugged and stood aside to let Vila through, closing the door behind him. "Well? What is it?"
"Could -- could you stop Tarrant?"
"Stop Tarrant doing what?"
"He -- he hurts me. When he uses me. I'm not complaining about that, h-honestly I'm not, Avon, but he hurts me and he doesn't need to, I've been trying to do what he wants but he still hurts me."
"What the hell are you babbling about? Tarrant uses you?"
"Yes. I -- I wouldn't bother you, but it's been going on for weeks and I h-hurt all over and I can't think straight -- " He stumbled to a halt, waiting with flinching anticipation for Avon's jibe.
"Vila. Sit down." The technician took his arm and guided him down to the chair. "Are you trying to tell me that Tarrant's been raping you and beating you up for -- how long?"
"Oh no, not rape," Vila denied miserably. "I mean, I'm a Delta, I know that. And he doesn't exactly beat me up -- he just holds me still. Only it hurts."
"Forget the semantic quibbles," Avon said with tightly curbed anger. "He has sex with you, correct?" Vila nodded.
"And you don't want him?" Vila shook his head.
"And he knows that?"
"Yes. I tried to tell him no, the first time, but he -- "
"Right. Stay there. I'm going to find our esteemed pilot."
"To explain a few elementary rules of polite conduct to him." He gave Vila a startlingly pleasant smile, and left.
Tarrant was in one of the rec rooms, playing chess with Orac. He would have preferred Dayna, but the younger woman was getting hard to find in her spare time lately. While concentrating on a particularly tricky situation, he vaguely heard someone come in, but only looked up when a hand came down and pulled the activator out of the little computer.
"What the hell -- " Tarrant snapped, looking up. Avon. And in the foulest temper Tarrant had ever seen.
"I am going to tell you this once only, so put whatever passes for your brain on active mode," the other man suggested. "I have just discovered what you've been doing to Vila. If you ever even touch him again I'll -- no, I won't." He smiled with deadly amusement, his eyes space-cold. "I'll tell Cally what you've been doing to Vila. It may take some time to explain; Aurons don't seem to have a concept for rape. But if you're very lucky, when she's finished with you, you may not be conscious enough to know when you're tipped out the airlock."
"What the hell are you so bothered about? I only used him, for God's sake, Avon. I was careful. He's not really hurt -- if you want to share him, I'm sure we can come to some agreement -- "
He got no further. Avon backhanded him across his mouth. "You filthy-minded moron," the Alpha snarled. "I don't permit rape on my ship. Nor do I permit useful members of my crew to be systematically destroyed by considerably less useful crew. Is that quite clear, Tarrant?"
Tarrant looked up at him, bloody-mouthed. "Clear as crystal," he said sarcastically. "I congratulate you on your diplomatic abilities."
"If I were as diplomatic as you, you'd be dead." Avon glanced down at the board, replacing the activator in Orac. "And by the way, Tarrant, that's mate in three moves -- checkmate in five."
Vila still sat huddled in the chair as Avon had left him. He looked up as the technician came in, but almost without curiosity; without hope.
"Tarrant will not touch you again. I have made it clear to him what will happen if he does."
Gratitude would have been nice; surprise was unexpected. "Why?" Vila whispered.
"What I want to know is why you didn't tell me what was happening sooner," Avon snapped.
A fragile shrug. "I didn't -- didn't think you'd bother stopping him."
Furious, Avon slammed both hands down on the low table beside Vila, not noticing the thief flinch back. Leaning forward, he snarled "I've known you for three years longer than Tarrant. You irritate me considerably less. Even if you couldn't trust my opinion of rape, you could have taken that into consideration!"
Vila swallowed, uncertain exactly what he'd said to provoke Avon to such rage, but anxious to conciliate him. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean -- it was just that -- you never stopped Blake -- why should you stop Tarrant?"
The technician frowned. "Blake? Are you telling me that Blake used to -- rape you?"
"Oh no, he never hurt me. Not like Tarrant. But I thought maybe you just didn't know about Tarrant hurting me -- "
"I am beginning to doubt my senses," Avon whispered, sitting down, still leaning forward. "For how long was Blake -- having you?"
"Two years, almost. Since just after you picked us all up from Cygnus Alpha to just before we found Star One."
"Two years..." Avon shook his head. "I never knew. Believe me, Vila, if I had known I'd have done something to stop it."
"What could you have done?" Vila asked, bewildered. "Blake's an Alpha, he's got as much right to me as you have."
"You think -- " Avon stopped, shaking his head, and started again. "You think I only told Tarrant to hold off you because he's a Beta?"
Vila shrugged. Of course there was the other reason, but Avon being an Alpha gave him an actual claim on Vila superior to Tarrant's own claim; whereas since Blake had a prior claim on Vila and he and Avon were both Alphas, Blake had had the superior claim. He explained all this to Avon, who looked positively ill.
"You believe all this? You think of yourself as property?"
"But I am," Vila said, confused. "Earth law. Delta service grades are property and must be owned, either by someone of a higher grade or by the state."
"Have you missed something? We're not on Earth. We haven't been for some time, and we can't go back. Earth law hardly applies."
"But -- "
"Do you enjoy thinking of yourself as property?"
Vila whispered something almost silently.
"Then why the hell -- " Avon started to shout again, but halted abruptly when, this time, he saw Vila cringe. He made a visible effort to calm himself, and continued more quietly; "Why do you do it?"
"All the rest of you were from Earth. Except Cally and Gan. And Tarrant and you are. You thought I was property and if I wanted to stay on the ship I had to cooperate."
"Blake wouldn't have made it a condition -- " he stopped abruptly. He'd never have thought Blake would rape, either. Vila was looking at him with grave, disbelieving eyes.
"All right. I don't make it a condition of you staying on this ship that you consider yourself property. Consider yourself any way you please, but I'm damned if I want to own you -- or let anyone else aboard do it."
Vila swallowed suddenly. "Does that mean you don't want to have me? I can just sleep all alone?"
Avon stared at him. Two sudden realisations hit him. The first; he had found Vila attractive for so long, in a low key, understated fashion, and the realisation that he had for a long time assumed that one of these days -- when both of them were in the mood, when there was an opportunity, time and space, someday -- they would make love, struck him consciously at the same time as the second realisation; that Vila would never believe that an Alpha was giving a Delta free choice, and so it would, from Vila's viewpoint, be rape. Never. Never to touch, never to hold --
"Of course not," Avon snapped. He sounded exasperated. "Dammit, Vila, I don't want you. Even if I did, it wouldn't mean you had to do anything about it. What makes you think I regard you as my property?"
"You order me around -- "
"You yell at me -- "
There was a pause. Vila's face had dropped; he was staring down at his hands clenched in his lap. "Avon," he said, without looking up. "You really don't want to have me? You stopped Tarrant just because -- because you like me?"
Trust Vila to reduce everything to the personal elements. Avon drew breath to say so, and then stopped. "Yes," he said at last. "Yes, Vila, I do like you."
Vila's head dropped down onto his arms; he drew a rasping breath, and cried.
Time passed. Avon dropped his search for Blake, in favour of an older and more enduring love and hate; Anna Grant and her murderer. Burying himself in the absorbing emotions for someone nearly five years dead was almost soothing. What he felt for Vila would never have been a passion to rock worlds, it would not have inspired a plan of revenge so complex, subtle, and painful five years after Vila's death. Avon might never even have consciously realised that he was attracted to Vila until it was borne in on him that this was one man he could never have. Vila and Avon were too alike for storms of soulshaking passion, that turn the universe upside down and make lives run backwards and the sun stand still; this disease of the heart is felt only for the unknown, the other, the stranger seen and unseen, the alien; love more akin to worship than to liking.
It went wrong. It went wrong like a massive stack of files sliding off a desk; first one and then another and finally he could feel them all slipping as he tried to push them back; and he knew they would fall to chaos no matter what he did.
Five days of agony to buy an animal; five days to buy only a piece of information, a name that might or might not lead him to his quarry, the murderer.
He was tired, and he hurt. He was moving on autopilot; as the disasters multiplied, he began to wonder if this was the way people went mad; pursuing a course that seemed to have its own logic, that went against the whole weave of reality and tore holes in it. He was one of Blake's people, and Blake was a rapist. He could find no reason for trust, except "I've got the gun." He could never say it; especially not to anyone who mattered. But in the end, the given word was all there really was; and he had given his word to himself, to kill the murderer of Anna Grant. Just and sweet.
Easy, man; you'll kill him.
Kneeling, staring straight into Servalan's eyes; the last time he'd been this close he'd kissed her. He had an impulse to do it again, and knew it was insane.
They were so close. Tarrant was an irrelevance.
"I might have known you were behind all this."
"You flatter me."
"Go to hell, Avon."
"Probably. But I'd like some information first."
"In exchange for what; a quick death?"
"That is the reward for silence."
"I've had worse offers."
"Tell me what I want to know, and I'll get you out of here."
He expected her to capitulate instantly; she only looked at him and said in her lovely voice, "Yes?"
"What's the matter with you, Servalan?" He pushed himself to his feet and stood up, a pace away from her. "I'm offering to set you free."
The irrelevance -- for a moment, Avon couldn't remember his name -- interrupted. "You're offering to let her go, it's not the same thing."
"What are you talking about?" he said to -- Tarrant.
The young man sounded amused; he was grinning, at least. "I'm talking about the President of the Terran Federation, Ruler of the High Council, Lord of the Inner and Outer Worlds, High Admiral of the Galactic Fleets, Lord General of the Six Armies, and Defender of the Earth."
The owner of these titles looked up at him, chained to a brick wall.
"Get to the point," said Avon.
"The point is, that a few dozen guerrillas walked in, killed her guards, beat her up, and then chained her up. You want to set her free? Convince her that it didn't happen."
"She's been a prisoner before."
"Yes, but in her own palace, on Earth, in what should be the centre of her power!"
Avon forgot the irrelevance again. He turned to his real concern. "Is that it? Have you finally lost your nerve? Have you murdered your way to the wall of an underground room?"
"It's an old wall, Avon, it waits. I hope you don't die before you reach it. Why should I tell you anything? What can you threaten me with?"
He pulled her up into his arms in a horrid parody of a lover's embrace. "I spent some time with your interrogators."
"It's too late for that, Avon."
"Who is Bartolomew?"
"Tell me who."
"Tell me why."
The irrelevance interrupted again. "He killed someone. A girl. Anna Grant."
"Anna?" And Servalan smiled. Not capitulation, with triumph she said "Release me. I'll tell you anything you want to know."
A woman, blond-haired and blue-cloaked, was coming downstairs. They heard her before they saw her; acting on instinct, both Avon and Tarrant ducked back into cover. As the woman moved towards Servalan, Tarrant stepped out into the light. "That's far enough."
Her hand moved, almost instinctively, towards her gun, but when Tarrant said, warningly, "Don't," she stopped, shoving the weapon back.
Avon came, as hesitantly as a cat on thin ice, out of shadow. He knew her. He was going mad. "Hello. Anna."
She froze. Uncertainly, she said "Avon." Then in a whisper, "Avon." And she turned and launched herself at him, "Avon... oh -- I was afraid they'd kill you -- I heard there was someone with Blake but I didn't know for sure and I didn't dare let myself hope -- " all fast, quick and desperate between kisses. Avon stood utterly still, watching reality tear under his fingers. "Oh Avon -- Avon -- why didn't you come back for me? -- What's the matter?"
Another irrelevance had come down the stairs into the cellar.
"I didn't come back because you were dead."
She had taken a step back. "Well. As you can see, I'm not." Her eyes were ever blue. Bluer than anything Avon had ever seen.
"As I can see."
"You don't seem very pleased about it. Of course, it's been a long time, I suppose there's someone else. Is that it? Is there someone else, Avon?"
"No." He was surprised she was even bringing this up. How could there be anyone else? One thing Anna had never been was jealous; they had never needed to be possessive of each other. "No, there's no one else."
"What, then? What's wrong? Why won't you touch me?"
"Perhaps because I can't believe it's you." He could hear the monotone, knew it confused her.
"Have I changed so much?" She sounded almost flirtatious. That was wrong too.
"I don't know. Have you, Anna?"
"Not the way I feel for you. Nothing's changed since you left me. There hasn't been one single moment when I wasn't alone. I want you to know that. You must see that. Avon, look at me. Look at me!"
He had swung away. He was curiously numb; anaesthetised. Yet his mind was like superconductive logic; crystal circuitry might have been working out the conclusions. But crystal was hard and cold and did not run round in disbelieving circles, as his mind was running now, brought up every time against Which is absurd. ("Anyone you so much as looked at was marked for collection.")
"How did you get away, Anna? That last day. The day I got myself shot. How did you get away?"
"I waited for you, and when you didn't come back, I ran."
("Bartolomew was running you.") It all made symmetrical sense, except that the conclusion was nonsense. "Where to? Where did you run to, Anna? Not to your brother, he thinks you're dead. Who hid you, Anna?"
"My husband. I didn't love him, he knew that, there was only you. But he wanted me, and I was afraid."
("Bartolomew stayed close and let you run. Close, and let you run. Close, and let you run. Close, and let you run.") He saw one logical route out of the echoing circle, and took it eagerly, longing for it. "He -- wasn't Bartolomew, was he?"
Avon had almost forgotten Servalan, and the question he had asked her. He no longer wanted an answer. He knew that was why, now, she answered it.
"No. He wasn't. Not even Chesku knew who Bartolomew was. But you do, don't you Avon?"
He did. He knew. One of the irrelevancies shouted "Avon!" in warning, but he was already moving. The gun was already in his hand, and he shot her as she drew. His Anna. His Bartolomew. He had kept his word. Of all the things he had known himself to be....
He could touch her now, hold her, listen to her lie to him as she lay against him one last time. He could kiss her. He never wanted to let her go. But he laid her down, and looked at her closed face, and thought of the eyes bluer than any other blue. He was a man of his word. He would kill her murderer. He took his bracelet off and dropped it beside her body.
"Can you convince yourself that that didn't happen, Avon?"
He looked up. Oh yes; he had promised Servalan her freedom if she told him who Bartolomew was. Well, she had told him. He fired, heard the chains rattle free, and sheathed his gun quite absently, looking down at Anna Grant's face. He could hear the irrelevancies talking, but of course it had nothing to do with him. Nor did the crackle and glow as they vanished from the cellar.
"Avon," said a voice he remembered. He looked up, briefly. She was holding a gun, presumably Anna's, on him.
"You really think I care?"
"Put the bracelet on."
He looked down at Anna's face once more. "Why?"
"Just do it."
It was there, within easy reach. It wasn't as if he would have to get up, or anything difficult.
The gun caressed the side of his face like Anna's hands. Deadly; but at least it was honest. "I'm going to send your friends a corpse. Tell them to bring you up."
It seemed that there was a reason why he shouldn't agree to that, but he couldn't think what it was and it couldn't be very important, anyway. He had given his word, and it was the end. "Liberator. Bring me up."
There was a yelling from the stairs, the name of a dead woman who was never real. Dying took up most of Avon's energy; he had none to spare to feel sorrow for the other man as he heard a shot and knew himself dying.
It was a moment before he realised he was still alive, and aboard the Liberator. "Servalan was planning on sending you a corpse." It was no consolation to know that she must regret his being alive almost as much as he did.
Vila handed him a glass. "Corpse reviver?"
He didn't care whether the fluid in the glass killed him, knocked him out, or gave him the strength to stand up. He drank it in one long gulp, and handing the glass back, pushed himself upright. "But the rumours of my death -- "
Tarrant interrupted. Showing off his erudition. At another time, Avon would have been irritated. "Have been greatly exaggerated."
"Well. Slightly exaggerated, anyway."
He had hoped that they would all have the good sense not to follow him. One of them, however, was not precisely notorious for good sense.
"Avon, what do you want?"
"Booze? Something to put on your interrogation hurts? Food? Come on, Avon, you have to eat, anyway."
"All right, I won't say a word. You go to your cabin and lie down, I'll bring you the booze and the food and something from sickbay. And then if you like I'll go away."
He had been heading for his own cabin anyway. There were a couple of bottles of wine and some protein concentrates there. And nothing more than bruises. He fished them all out, moving slowly, set the bottles and a glass on the bedside table, the carton of protein concentrates on the floor within easy reach, and lay down on the bunk. Muzzily, he thought that it would be sensible to have a hot shower. He hurt still, but there was weariness deep in every bone that soaked up the pain. It would return full-force when he woke up. Then he'd worry about it.
The door opened. "Go away, Vila."
The thief came in quietly with two bottles clutched under one arm, a kit from the medical unit under the other, and a tray of food in his hands. With some care, he set it all down. "Just let me take your jacket and boots off, anyway. You'll sleep easier."
That was true. The technician was not uncooperative as Vila unbuckled his boots and pulled them off, setting them down against the wall with uncharacteristic neatness. He even rolled half over to let the thief ease him out of the jacket, and watched through slitted eyes as Vila hung it over the back of a chair.
Then the smaller man sat down on the edge of the bed. "If you tell me to go away, I will. But it'll be easier waking if you let me heal your skin up."
That made sense, too. And he couldn't be bothered to argue.
Vila peeled his tunic off as gently as possible, but it still hurt. He heard through the pain a soft inbreath of empathy. Not shock. Vila had been tortured himself; it was noted, briefly, on his medical record. There was a patchwork of bruises over most of him. They had burned him, often enough that some of the blisters had had time to half-heal. He heard Vila fumble in the medical unit kit, and felt moments later a cool tingling bliss of unpain all down his back and curving around his ribs. Tranquil, Vila's fingers smoothing in the healing foam did not trouble him at all, not even when Vila casually eased down his trousers and began on the injuries to his legs.
A few minutes after Vila had finished on his back, he felt the thief's hands gently urging him to roll over. Sleepily, he did so, allowing the thief to spray the unpain coolth on the rest of him.
The gentle, intelligent hands carefully massaged foam into one of his feet, heavily bruised, then attending to the cuts and burns on his legs. Sleepily, sensually pleased, Avon enjoyed the feel of Vila's hands touching him, the beginning lift and swell of arousal. In timeless appreciation, he didn't object when the hands stopped touching him. On the edge of sleep, he could feel Vila's warm and solid presence sitting on the side of the bunk.
He heard, vaguely, a heavy sigh, and the warmness stood up. Oh yes, Avon concluded, he thinks I'm already asleep so he's going....
Then he felt Vila lie down beside him, and the soft touch of bare skin on his. His eyes snapped open; he was staring into the other's face. "You -- "
"It's all right, Avon. I don't mind. I should have known -- " he swallowed. "I'll do whatever you want. I'm grateful."
"The hell with that. Vila, I don't want you. Get out of here, and do it fast -- I was doing a good job of getting some sleep before you pulled this ridiculous idea." Vila's face was very readable; the technician longed for disappointment, would have settled for hurt, but all he could see was relief. And courage.
"But you -- you're -- "
"It doesn't matter." He rolled over again, on to his stomach, pulling up the light coverlet and lying as flat and still as possible. There was a long pause.
He lay there, breathing.
"I just wanted to say -- well, that I love you too."
The technician reached out one blind, long-fingered hand, and tugged lightly at Vila's hair. "Even if I did," he said drowsily, "I still couldn't touch you, could I?" Relinquishing the hair, his fingers brushed Vila's cheek. "Go away. Go to sleep. All alone's best for both of us, it seems."
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