by Jane Carnall
The ceiling was low; if Avon reached up he could brush it with the tips of his fingers. It was oddly disconcerting. Two metres high, no more, and perhaps three metres broad and five long, walls and floor and ceiling of concrete; a primitive holding cell, but effective. The guards had searched him quite thoroughly and had -- unfortunately -- found the lockpick in his boot. Presumably they would put Vila in with him; hopefully the thief would have managed to keep at least one probe. With tools, the lock was ridiculously simple; without, the two of them would be stuck here until Blake came back, and three days in a prison cell was not Avon's idea of rest and relaxation.
At least he'd managed to slide the outlaw Tarial cell into their computer system. The guards had caught them on their way out, not in, and fortunately didn't seem to have realised their mistake. Wouldn't know for sure until Orac tested it out, of course -- but where he'd hidden it, it wouldn't be spotted except by a skilled technician who knew what to look for.
The door opened again and Vila was thrust in. Avon caught hold of him as he stumbled, steadied him, and guided him to the bunk. Vila sat down on the lower bed with a groan. "Why does it always happen to me?"
Avon grinned sourly, sitting down beside him. "No scanners. The lock's primitive. Can you open it?"
"With my primitive fingernails? Not a chance." Nevertheless, he staggered to his feet with a plaintive moan, and went over to the door. "No. Need a probe, anyway -- and I don't have anything."
"Nothing at all?"
"For a primitive planet, they do things thoroughly." The thief came back to the bunks and sat down again, elbows on knees, resting his chin on his hands. "And it was going to be such a great holiday, too," he said mournfully.
"Possibly we shouldn't have tried to convince Blake it would take three days, instead of six hours," the technician commented.
Vila gave him a wry grin. "Yeah. Avon, they even took my cards -- we won't be able to play poker!"
"Some small mercy," Avon said sincerely. "Someday I'll work out how you cheat."
Several hours passed. They were fed -- tasteless but filling synthetics -- in metal dishes thrust through a hole in the door. The man pushing the trolley grunted at them to hand them back, cleaned, tomorrow morning, or they'd have no breakfast, and went on. The lights began to dim.
"Might as well go to bed," Vila muttered, rolling onto his back on the lower bunk where he had been sitting. Avon gave him a glance of pure dislike and climbed up to the upper bunk. There was a single, thin blanket for each, but the building wasn't cold.
The door opened, a shaft of brighter light from the corridor driving back the shadows. One guard stood in the entrance, his hand on his gun; the other strode over to the bunk, shining a torch. The beam landed on Avon's face for a moment, then moved to Vila's. "You. Off the bed."
"Eh?" Avon could hear the thief moving to obey. "What -- ?"
"Shut up." The technician saw in silhouette the guard grab Vila's arm viciously and drag him out; the other guard slammed the door. Disturbed, Avon sat up on the bunk; he could think of no reason why the guards should want to question Vila, unless they had found out who the two of them were. Fuzer was neutral, but with a policy of appeasement towards the Federation. Two of "Blake's people", and, better, information about the rebellion, would no doubt be very appeasing.
They had taken his chronometer; but it was at least two hours later that the door was opened and Vila shoved back in. He said nothing, but as he lay down on the lower bunk as before, and pulled the blanket up around him, Avon could feel and hear in the rustles of the blanket that he was shivering.
"What?" Almost a grunt.
"Did they question you?"
"No." A sound that might have been a sob, or a laugh. "No."
Avon climbed down from the bunk and sat beside him. "What happened? Are you all right?"
Vila yanked down the blanket and glared at him, tearless. "Why don't you just shut up and let me get some sleep, Avon?" he snapped.
"Vila -- "
"Shut up." Vila pulled the blanket over his face again, and Avon, shaking his head, could only climb back to his own bunk and try to sleep himself.
The next day passed in long, slow boredom. They were fed in the morning, and taken, twenty prisoners at a time, to shower in curtainless cubicles. In the afternoon, for half a blessed hour, the twenty prisoners were let out to walk around a walled yard in a supervised circle. Avon had never realised how beautiful the sky was before, a deep arching blue with small fretted clouds.
Hours later, the evening meal, and again the dimming lights. As Avon climbed to his bed, he reflected that at least, there would only be one more full day; some time the day after, the Liberator would come back into teleport range, find their tracers, and send someone down to pick them up.
Vila was no company in this strange mood. When they were let out of their cells, he'd moved as far away from Avon as possible. Locked in the cell with Avon, he'd spent most of the time lying on his bunk, hands folded behind his head, staring emptily at the bunk above.
When the lights began to dim, Avon climbed up to his bed. As he lay down, he thought he heard Vila sit up.
Again, the door opened and the torchbeam shone; whether the two guards were the same men as last night or different, Avon was unable to tell. Vila went with them again without a word of protest. The technician thought that they kept him longer this time. It might have been an illusion; he was not in a calm state of mind.
The door opened. "In you go," a guard's voice said, genial but with an edge to it, a subtlety that Avon didn't understand. Vila was holding something in his arms; a bag, a package. He bent to set it down on the floor by the sink, and went suddenly to his knees, bending over, hunchedly protective and trembling.
"Vila? What is it? What did they do to you?"
No response. He jumped down from the bunk and came across the room, squatting beside Vila. "What is it? Did they question you?"
"I told you," Vila said harshly, as though through a constricted throat, "no. They didn't ask me anything. Just leave me alone."
Tomorrow the Liberator would return. It was Avon's first thought when he woke up; the second, that Vila had behaved very strangely last night. The thief was already up, squatting by the sink sorting through paper-wrapped packages from a bag. The bag he had brought back with him. The cause, or an effect?
"What's that, Vila?"
The smaller man glanced up. "Food. Not synthetics -- the stuff the guards get."
"Why did they give it to you?"
"I said I was hungry."
Avon slid down from the bunk, picked up the cleaned dishes from last night, and put them on the ledge by the door. "You lie so badly. They interrogated you, didn't they? And naturally, you told them everything."
Vila ducked his head down and said nothing. The technican watched him, frowning. He couldn't believe that Vila would betray them all, just like that, and if he had why weren't the two of them under stronger confinement? But why would they reward him if he had refused to talk?
The morning meal came round; Avon exchanged the clean bowls for two full ones, handed one to Vila, and sat down on the bunk, dipping his spoon into the bland paste. "Well? Why did they give you the food?"
Vila looked up at his tormentor with a curiously blank expression. "It doesn't matter, Avon. I didn't tell them anything. And the food's good -- there's bread, and chocolate, and cheese, and dried fruit -- "
"I think I'd prefer this synthetic muck," Avon said savagely. "At least I know where it came from."
The day seemed even longer, time slower. Again the curtainless showers, again the afternoon supervised exercise. At last the evening meal, and the lights dimming. And tomorrow the Liberator would be here, and the others would make pick-up. Avon was thirsting for coffee. He wondered if the two guards with the torch would come again tonight, or if the food meant that Vila had given them whatever it was they wanted. Tomorrow night they would be back on the Liberator, and at least he wouldn't have to share a room with Vila any more.
Again the torch, late at night, and again the men; not two this time but four or five. One of them remained in the doorway, his gun silhouetted against the dim light of the hall, pointing at the bunks. One held the torch.
Avon lay still on the top bunk, listening to the sounds from below, and cursing his lack of understanding. After one man had had his turn, he replaced the guard in the doorway; the next man replaced the guard with the torch. Five men. A couple of them took seconds.
Why hadn't he realised? How could he have been so stupid? He had seen men raped, in the holding cells; the small, the weak, the young. Those unable to fight back. He had simply never connected it with Vila. Blake's stubborn idealism had prevented this kind of rape in their hold on the London, of course; that and the unusually high drug level.
He kept his gaze fixed on the guard in the doorway. One lapse of attention, five seconds, would be all he would need. Once with a gun in his hand -- briefly he fantasised shooting all five of the guards, the men who were raping his friend -- they could escape. They wouldn't need to stay free for long; twelve hours or so at most.
It was fantasy. He knew that. Reality was lying in a dark cell, helpless to do anything, to say anything, while his friend was raped repeatedly.
They left at last. Avon climbed down again and sat on the bunk; Vila was curled up, buried under the blanket, his arms tucked over his head. "Go away," he said fiercely.
"Vila, I'm -- sorry," Avon managed.
"I didn't understand -- "
"Shut up and go away!"
Avon climbed back up. If it was the only thing he could do for Vila, he would do that.
Blake and Cally arrived in the little cell with guns and extra bracelets just after the showers the next day. "You took your time," Avon observed.
"Perhaps next time you won't overestimate," Blake suggested with a smile. "Here, Vila, put it on."
The thief sat up carefully, sliding on the bracelet in silence. He had said not a word to Avon all morning, but this time the technician had not pressed him.
"All right, Gan -- bring us up."
The teleport bay of the Liberator appeared around them. Blake went to the intercom, said "Jenna, get us out of here, speed standard by four," and turned to Avon and Vila. "Are you two all right?"
"Fine," Avon started, "but -- " when Vila cut in. "Fine."
"And they didn't work out who you were?"
"If they had, Blake, you'd have been rescuing us from a top-security prison. They assumed we were common thieves -- I don't think they ever even considered the possibility that we didn't come from their planet."
Vila left unobtrusively while Avon was speaking; only the technician's eyes followed him, and he said briskly to Blake, "I want to test Orac's link to the Tarial cell," and headed to the flight deck.
The cell was still in position, and as far as Avon could tell, undiscovered. He had Orac set up a semi-permanent link to Zen, with a sieve program, and went back to his cabin for a shower and change of clothes. He dialled himself a large mug of strong black unsweetened coffee, and drank it in blissful gulps between showering and changing. And Vila was still a problem.
There was no answer when he knocked on the door, so he opened it and went in. Vila was sitting on the bunk, his legs curled up underneath him, rocking. "Go away."
"Are you all right?"
"Fine. Go away."
"They didn't hurt you?"
"I cooperated. They didn't do me any damage. Thanks for asking. Now will you go away?"
"I think you need a hot shower, a change of clothes, and something to eat."
Vila stopped rocking and scrambled awkwardly off the bunk. "All right. I will. But go away."
"Go through and have a shower. I'll find you something to wear and put a meal together."
Vila didn't feel he had the strength to argue. He closed the bathroom door firmly behind him, ducking into the shower set on hot. The water, cascading over him, cleansing and heating, did make him feel better. He stayed in the small cubicle for a long time, hoping Avon would be gone when he came out. He'd never wanted the other man to know what had happened to him. He didn't want to talk about it. He didn't want to think about it.
He hadn't heard Avon come into the bathroom, but the soiled clothing he'd been wearing for three days was gone and a clean set of clothing was folded where he'd left the old. He felt more solid, less vulnerable, clean and cleanly clothed.
Through in the other room, there was a tray of hot food on the table, and Avon sitting on the other chair. Vila looked at him. "Thanks. Please... just go, I really don't want to say anything."
"Because you know I know."
"Would it make any difference if it was someone else? Cally... or Blake?"
Vila panicked. "You haven't told them?"
"No. I didn't intend to, unless it would help."
"It wouldn't help. I wish you didn't know." Vila sat down on the desk chair and planted his elbows on the table, his head in his hands. "Why can't you just forget about it?"
"Why do you want me to forget? You've been beaten up before."
"I was raped. Not beaten. I was raped and I cooperated and you're never going to forget it, are you?"
"Why did you cooperate, then?"
"You remember the last night. Five of them. You were wide awake all through it. Why did you go along with what was happening?"
"Because at least one of the guards was standing in the door with his gun on me the entire time," Avon snapped. "If I'd tried to do anything, I would have been shot and it wouldn't have done you the slightest good."
Vila had lifted his head from his hands and was smiling at Avon, or through him; an unpleasant, cynical grin. "Yeah. You'd have made a wonderful Delta, you know that? You've got the right attitude. If it's inevitable, cooperate and maybe you won't get beaten up as well."
"I take it that that is intended to be complimentary."
The grin vanished from Vila's face as if it had been sliced by a knife. "No," he said after a moment. "Who'd want to be a Delta?"
"Why are you a Delta?"
"I chose the wrong parents."
"Oh, come on, Vila. You're bright enough; you could have been upgraded."
"Never thought you were naive, Avon," Vila said, almost wonderingly. "Only way a Delta gets upgraded is through the army, and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life crawling around in mud, blood, and lasers!"
There didn't seem to be anything to say to that. Avon said nothing. After a while, Vila reached out and took a piece of hot crisp protein from the plate filled with them. Once he started eating, he realised how hungry he was.
"You didn't eat any of that food either," Avon said abruptly.
Vila hunched his shoulders and went on chewing. "No," he said, having finished swallowing a suddenly-tasteless mouthful.
"Why did you ask for it?"
"I didn't. They gave it to me." He took another handful of dry crunchies and looked at the brownish pellets as if they were the most fascinating things in the universe. "I think it made them feel better if they could tell themselves they were paying me."
"You told me you'd said you were hungry."
"I was lying." The thief turned and looked at Avon with a mask, through which his eyes were hot and bright as lasers. "Why are you here?"
Avon shrugged. "I had nothing else to do this evening -- and your conversation is usually considerably more entertaining than any of the other alternatives on offer."
Vila shook his head, still staring at Avon, and the crunchies he held dropped with a small dry pattering sound on to his plate. "That time -- months ago -- when you -- "
"I remember," Avon said repressively. He had never been used to being turned down, and had assumed that Vila would have the good taste not to mention it. Ever.
"I never thought you'd just take no for an answer."
"Are you saying you would rather I hadn't?"
"No," Vila said instantly. "No. But -- I've wondered, y'know, why you did."
"What else could I have done?"
The thief sighed. "You know damn well what you could have done. What those guards did. Why are you here?"
"Not to rape you. I don't take my pleasures that seriously."
"It wouldn't be pleasure for me."
"Because when you're not being so defensively Delta," Avon snapped, "you're good company and you play good poker."
"I might say the same about you," Vila bit back, "when you're not being so Alpha arrogant."
For a moment, Avon frowned, and then a smile came briefly. "Well, now you know I would take no for an answer... would you say no if I asked you again?"
Vila swallowed, edging back in his chair. He would like to be held, comforted; to make love. He wasn't sure Avon was offering any of the three. "Depends..."
The technician sighed. "I suppose that's an improvement on no. Depends on what?"
Gathering all his courage, Vila told him. Avon looked completely blank for a moment. A crystal-circuit inside his mind was informing him that he hadn't meant anything more than a few pleasurable hours for both of them, and these requests seemed to imply something more; something best avoided. Another was ticking the list off; hold Vila, yes, comfort Vila, he'd try, make love to Vila... "Well now," he said softly. "Why not?"
Vila had wondered, occasionally, in the corners of his mind, what it would be like to be made love to by Avon. He hadn't thought of slow, lingering kisses that made his mouth, his neck, his throat, burn with pleasure. Nor had he thought of what it would be like to be held, pressed so closely, against Avon. Strange, to be so close with one so distant.
Avon started to undress him, pleased when Vila reciprocated. Gently, he tipped the smaller man into bed, lying down beside him with one arm thrown over the other's chest. Vila lay still, suddenly gripped by panic; Avon wasn't that larger than him, but far more effective. Now, there was no escape.
"Avon -- "
Avon stopped kissing him. "What is it?"
He didn't sound too cross, yet. "Avon, if I asked you to go away now -- "
Vila was curiously relieved when Avon laid his head down on Vila's shoulder and groaned; adding, in a frustrated growl "I'd go through to your bathroom and have a long, cold, shower." He lifted himself up onto his elbows; for a moment, his face was lit with a smile as appealling as unexpected, "There's always an alternative, Vila. Just tell me to stop."
Vila nodded, and pulled Avon down to him again. "Hold me?"
He felt Avon's touch shudder against his skin, as the other man whispered, "Yes; and let you go."
Feedback: e-mail me (or comment me if you have a livejournal).