by Jane Carnall
"In pairs," Blake said firmly. "It's a Federation-aligned world."
"Is it safe?" Vila sounded frightened.
"So long as you're inconspicuous," Jenna said smoothly, "though of course you could stay up here and operate the teleport."
"Oh no. You're not leaving me up here -- "
"Cally," Jenna said over Vila, "want to come with me?" She moved towards the exit from the flight deck, and Cally, smiling a small private grin, followed her.
Avon noticed Vila looking at him hopefully, and, more to annoy Blake than for any other reason, invited "Vila."
"Yes?" Vila bounced up.
"Why don't you get kitted up -- inconspicuously," he added, looking pointedly at the bright coat Vila was wearing.
"You're just jealous," Vila said, disappearing rapidly.
Avon bestowed a gleaming smile upon Blake and Gan. "Try to stay out of sight," he suggested, following Vila.
They arrived in a broad square, paved with yellow stone, on which the fading sunlight lay like gold. In the centre of the square a fountain splashed real water. Vila went over and sat down on the broad rim, happily trailing his hands through the liquid.
"Hey, look, Avon -- money. Someone's been throwing credits into the water."
"Several someones, evidently," Avon observed, standing beside him.
"Must have been drunk. Mind you, I don't think there's anything worth more than a decicredit -- "
He looked as though he were going to investigate. Although the square was deserted, Avon could think of no better definition of the word 'conspicuous'. "Watch out for the fish."
Vila snatched his hands up out of the water. "Fish?"
"There." A sliding, gleaming shape flickered through the water. "Probably carnivorous," Avon added maliciously.
The thief shook his hands dry and rubbed them down the side of his trousers. "Let's go and find somewhere to eat," he suggested. "And then somewhere to drink."
Wandering at random they found an Akhaian restaurant in a street of smooth red tiles. They secured a table in a alcove, and discovered that half the menu was in a script they couldn't read. The other half was printed in Federation Standard and was full of dishes that they didn't recognise. Still, the place smelt wonderful.
"Fasolatha," Vila read, enjoying himself. "Hummous. Tyropittakia. Cacik. Menemen. What's ouzo? Nohut yahnisi."
Avon flicked the menu out of his hands and began to read down the list himself. As he had thought, the menu included a brief description of each main dish. "One half-bottle of ouzo, whatever it is, not more."
While they were paying the bill, Vila asked the young waiter "What's the nearest good place to get a drink?"
She looked thoughtful. "Um... Quiet?"
"Yes," said Avon. Vila shot him a look.
"Well, the Drummer's a good bar, though it's got a fairly strict dress code, (they might let you in with him)," she added in parentheses to Vila. "The Montaigne's a good place. Good beer. The Drummer's more for pick-ups. I'm going along to the Montaigne myself in five minutes when my shift's over, so I could chum you up the road."
"Thanks," Vila accepted for both of them. It had grown dark while they ate, and the air was cooler; the waiter had donned a light jacket.
"You new in town?"
"Yes," Vila said brightly. "Just in."
"Town's quiet this time of year. Tourists usually come in summer, not autumn."
"We thought we'd see what it was like offseason," Vila said vaguely.
"Ah." They were passing by a brightly-lit building, and the woman jerked her head at it. "That's the Drummer."
"Oh... yes," Vila agreed, suddenly comprehending the woman's remarks about a 'dress code'; all of the bar's customers that he could see were wearing leather. "We just want a drink, really."
"Tell you the truth," the woman nodded, "that kind of stuff's not my scene. But live and let live, right?"
"Absolutely," Vila nodded. Avon was silent; and if silence can increase, became more so.
The Montaigne was well-lit, and not too crowded; their guide ordered "three pints of homebrew, Charlie", and sat down at a table of friends, while Avon made firmly for an empty table. The beer was good, cold and bitter. Vila drank happily.
"You do realise what kind of bar this is?" Avon whispered finally in tones more suitable for a conspiracy than a drinking session.
Vila looked affronted. "I've got eyes, you know. Nice place, I thought."
"The beer," Avon conceded, taking another long swallow, "is good. I have never been sure what Deltas know and don't know."
"Better than good," Vila argued. "And you can shut up about Deltas -- Alphas are more disconnected from reality than anyone."
A man came over from the table where their guide was sitting. "Sorry, I don't want to intrude, but Rainei mentioned you're new in town."
"Yes?" Avon said hostilely.
"We are," Vila said over him, smiling as warmly as possible to counteract Avon.
"Well -- if you need help, this place is the main community centre. I'm the other owner -- it's Charlie's night on the bar. Oh, I'm Dav, by the way."
"Vila," Vila said immediately. "And this is Avon."
"Pleased to meet you. Anyway, we've a good network, if you need a place to stay -- or if you want to know anything about the place they don't put in the straight guidebooks."
"We don't need anywhere to stay tonight," Vila beamed at him. "But thanks for the offer. We were going to spend tomorrow just wandering around, taking a look at things, but we'll certainly remember this place."
Dav smiled back, casting an odd look at Avon. "Surely. Anything I can do."
"Your beer," Avon said with all the charm he could muster, determined not to be outdone by Vila, "is excellent."
"Glad you like it -- it's our own brew. Well, see you around." He retired, and Vila grinned at Avon.
"He was beginning to think you belonged in the Drummer, just sitting there all morose and silent and butch-in-leather!"
For once, Avon didn't rise to the bait. "Tell me, are Delta bars like this?"
"In an Alpha bar... even one of this type, especially one of this type, no one would come specifically to welcome a newcomer -- let alone admit to being the owner of the bar."
"Well..." Vila shrugged. "I've been in a couple of your Alpha bars, and they're cold. At least the bartender'd say hello, in a Delta bar, even if he didn't ask your name and offer you a place to stay." He paused a moment, glancing round. "I bet, here, they don't have to worry about the agent from security in the corner."
"You can always tell them," Avon said dryly, "by the standard-issue Thug Mark Nine boots."
Vila grinned appreciatively, but there was silence for a moment between them; both aware that they had admitted something that no one with sense admitted to someone who knew their name, on Earth. Sexual deviants were reprogrammed, or if reprogramming failed, sterilised and deported. Avon had confined this part of his sexuality to occasional anonymous encounters and a few discreet visits to an extremely discreet bar on an upper level of the Dome, several corridors from home. He considered it reasonably safe, as a member of the High Council was known to be a regular. Fortunately he was not there the night the Federation Security raided the bar and arrested everyone present, including a recently-deposed member of the High Council and the toyboy he was drowning his sorrows with. Thereafter there had been nowhere.
He supposed Vila had not needed so much discretion, and said so casually. Vila shrugged. "Oh, they do morality raids now and then on the bars, and if you're caught, that's it. But so long as you're careful where you do it -- and watch out for the Thug Mark Nine boots on who you're doing it with -- well, no, they don't bother so much. There's always plenty of Deltas." Vila picked up his glass, flickering a smile, half cynical and mostly mockery, at Avon, and drank.
"True," Avon said, after a moment, "but check my feet, Vila."
"What?" Caught by surprise, Vila did glance under the table.
"I am not wearing Thug Mark Nine boots. You don't actually need to do the apologetic Delta with me."
They had more beer. Avon went through to the men's room and found Dav standing next to him. Avon fixed his eyes on the wall and found a graffitio that said WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING UP HERE FOR? ARE YOU ASHAMED OF IT? To the right, when he turned his eyes away from the first message, a com number and FOR A GOOD TIME CALL ERIK -- Just below (would Dav never finish?) someone else had remarked (why did they bring laserpens in here anyway?) SAY IT WITH FLOWERS -- SEND HIM A TRIFFID. (What was a triffid?) The scrawl right next to that one said WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DARK AND HARD? -- IT STAYS DARK ALL NIGHT. Dav flushed, and with relief, Avon flushed and resealed his trousers. While they were washing their hands, Dav remarked, "Nice man, your friend."
"Yes," Avon said repressively.
"You come from one of the equator cities, don't you?"
"And so?" Avon prevaricated.
"Hey, don't bite my head off. The Federation law's stronger there, and I noticed that you were both looking a bit paranoid. I just wanted to make sure you knew, you've really nothing to worry about up here. We get on well with the straights -- no hassle, no raids."
"No morality?" Avon enquired, with an acid smile.
"Morality, yes," Dav countered. "If it's consenting adults, it's their business. Used to be that way on the equator before the Federation took control. Lucky for us most of the mines are down there, and that's all they really want from us; metal."
"I came here to get away from politics," Avon muttered under his breath, but Dav caught it.
"No way any gay person on this world, now, can ever get away from politics. We're free this far north, this generation; but the children growing up, they're going to Federation schools. Friend, we have to fight them." He grinned. "I'm sorry; you don't want a political lecture this time of night. I'd better let you get back to your friend, or he'll likely have something to say."
"And Charlie?" Avon was pleased with himself for remembering the bartender's name.
Dav chuckled as he swung the door open and let Avon out ahead of him. "Oh, Charlie knows I'm more likely to be talking politics than making love -- isn't that so, Charlie?"
They had almost bumped into the bartender, who was collecting glasses. The taller man, thin as a heron, glowered down at Dav, mock ferocious. "Too right. Absolutely too bloody right. Next time I'll just gag you."
Vila had ordered more beer. Another man wandered over to the box in the corner and flipped up a lid, revealing a row of keys. When he started to press them, it turned out to be a musical instrument. Several people got involved, including Vila, who knew a couple of drinking songs the rest had never heard. Avon, who knew his voice to be musical, if a creaking door is musical, stood beside Vila and listened, and bought them all a round of drinks. Then Virele, Rainei's friend, bought another round of drinks, and Avon swore silently that if Vila ever reminded him of who joined in on the last and most obscene verse of "Banned From Argos" he'd kill him. Slowly. Painfully.
They were both aware that the others assumed the two of them to be lovers; Vila played up to it openly, putting an arm around Avon's shoulders as they stood by the box-thing, and smiling into his eyes; Avon took the opportunity to whisper to Vila almost noiselessly that he'd let Dav believe the two of them came from the equator. He let Vila do the work, but cooperated in maintaining the illusion. It was not that he would have felt cut out from the warm nest if he had made it clear to Dav that he and Vila were not lovers; but it was a warm thing to pretend, just for a couple of hours, that he and Vila were what they believed the two of them to be; lovers travelling together, looking for a place to stay in the North where the old ways still held.
Just for a couple of hours. The singing group broke up to catch their breaths and Avon and Vila went back to their table; as they were sitting down, Vila said casually, "I wonder if Blake managed to find somewhere?"
"Is he -- ?"
"Well, they called him a child molester."
"We haven't seen him with any children; I reserve judgement. I'd think it unlikely, though."
"Yeah, but listen. When he was being interviewed by his lawyer, in the hall just up from the holding cell, I heard him yelling when the lawyer told him what the charges were. I didn't know it was him then, I realised it later. He didn't yell that they were all boys, he practically roared -- like I said, I heard him all the way down the hall -- that they were all children."
"And they were all boys," Avon agreed. "I looked his records up after we got Orac.... it does seem probable."
"So maybe we should tell him, eh?"
"You may tell him what you like about yourself," Avon said frostily.
"What have you got against Blake?" Vila asked plaintively. "He means well -- "
"You can call Blake tactful," said Avon. "You can call him subtle. In fact, you can call him anything you like -- but he won't listen to you."
"Well... I see what you mean."
Somebody else had bought another round, the last before closing; but Charlie and Dav didn't rush anybody out. In fact, there were still half a dozen regulars sitting and talking when Avon and Vila excused themselves and left.
Three of the moons were up, bright in the sky; and both men were a little tipsy. "Nice night," Vila yawned contentedly.
"Mmm," Avon sounded almost mellow.
They found a quiet doorway and Avon lifted his arm to call for teleport. Vila put a hand on his arm. "Hey -- what's the hurry?"
Vila grinned up at him, eyes dancing. "It's a moonlit night, and you're a beautiful man, and you ask me 'what'?" He made a mournful face. "Avon, you have no romance in your soul."
Avon's grin flashed suddenly. "No soul, no heart, no romance."
"Not even enough for just one kiss?" Vila asked, head tilted to one side. "Hey, Avon, this is shoreleave. I promise, I'll forget everything back on the ship -- if you want."
"It's cold," Avon said dryly, "and dark, even with the moons up, and this is a public street. My cabin is warm, and well lit, and above all private."
"No romance," Vila mourned, a sparkle lighting in his eyes.
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