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Charmed

By Ika
For Executrix, should she care to accept it

- Whatever I've done, I avoided surrendering my soul.

- I don't find your pretence of scrupulosity very convincing.

- Oh, it's not that. I'm saving the final throw of the dice, for when I really need it. It's pathetic to panic too soon and surrender when worse is yet to come.

- Executrix, Assume a virtue if you have it not

It's the only way I can be sure that I was right

- Blake, Star One

There's a crack, there's a crack, in everything:

That's how the light gets in.

- Leonard Cohen, The Future

PROLOGUE: GET BACK TO YOUR POSITION

"Shut up, Avon," said Blake slowly, looking into Avon's face.

"Make me," said Avon, and Blake split apart. Sudden delight split his mind along the line between enjoyment of the argument and the angry need to protect himself from it. Light flooded in through the break like unexpected laughter, taking him by surprise, wiping his mind of ambiguity and of calculation. He was utterly charmed. The way Avon staged himself as a razor-sharp wit - the gravel of his voice, the blank nastiness of his expression, the way he held his body - even when he was saying "You're an idiot", or "Make me", with all the subtlety of a five-year-old: oh, Blake loved it.

He wanted to hold the moment, the feeling, but he found himself holding Avon; kissing him.

Avon returned the kiss competently, deliberately, and hard, before detaching his mouth from Blake's. "Novel," he said, and his mouth was so close that Blake could feel his breath on his own lips. "Don't try it on the flight deck, though," he added, beginning to undo Blake's belt.

Not here! thought Blake, or was it Now, here? His hands rested on Avon's, feeling the busyness of fingers working on buckle, neither helping nor hindering.

Avon pulled the belt through all its loops and out, and dropped it on the floor; Blake let Avon manoeuvre him into a corner (not for the first time), felt cold metal against his back and warm Avon against his front, and forgot which direction gravity was working in.

Avon kissed him quickly, then moved his head back a little so that Blake was craning his neck to get it back, the darkness and the warmth behind that perfect mouth. He licked at Avon's lips, reaching as far as he could, tasted the particular, indefinable taste of them; and then the very tip of Avon's tongue touched the very tip of his and the explosion was tiny enough to dance on the head of a pin. Avon's mouth closed on his again, and Blake's hands slipped like water down the contours of Avon's back, down and over and round to cup his buttocks. One well-angled jerk/pull brought Avon's body against his, all the way down, chest to chest, hip to hip, thigh to thigh, cock to cock.

Avon wormed a hand in and started playing with one of Blake's nipples. Blake arched and yelped; Avon used the extra space the arching made between them to slip his other hand in through Blake's fly.

His fingers curled with terrifying accuracy around Blake's cock, each one a sweet tight ring flexing and teasing, little finger making little excursions to trace the ridge that led down towards Blake's balls, index finger pressing tiny sensitive spots just under Blake's foreskin. Blake was entirely enthralled by such small individual attentions, at the same time as he grunted, bucked his hips and began to fuck Avon's fist.

He let his hand trace the shape of Avon's pelvis, round to the front. His fingers met Avon's again there, helping him to unbutton trousers. He found Avon's cock already weeping and rubbed his palm over the wetness, smoothing it over the whole head before trailing his fingers down the shaft, then closing them. He fucked Avon's cock with his hand and Avon's hand with his cock. He let Avon's cock fill his hand, let Avon's hand pump his cock.

"Oh," he said; and Avon, as if he had been given permission, began to breathe more noisily, to give little grunts and sighs and yesses. Blake leaned his head on Avon's shoulder, feeling Avon's breath, Avon's words, ruffle his hair; he kissed Avon's neck and mumbled into it. That's good. I like that.

I love.

That.

CHAPTER ONE

I WANT TO HIT AT THE HEART

The lights in Blake's cabin were low apart from a rectangle of brightness on the desk. Blake was reading from printouts, not from a reader; the black characters on the white paper were uncompromisingly set down in their straight lines, square and unbudgeable as Federation troops.

He was reading old speeches from his Freedom Party days. Except that to have given so many speeches, written so many manifestos and analyses of the situation, he would have to have been working approximately forty-eight hours a day throughout the three years the Party had lasted (Orac's calculations).

Ghost-written, he thought and smiled grimly to himself, taking a drink from the tumbler beside him. Ghost-ridden.

Tonight was one of the nights when he couldn't tell which were forgeries. Had he believed that the key to the situation on Earth was education of the lower grades? Possibly. It sounded perfectly plausible. But... no little prickle of recognition, no feeling in his gut, no connection.

Some nights he could see through the bars of the black letters on the white paper to a younger man; a wiser man. A man whose mind and heart and body were connected together: not someone with nothing but a sore, blind, gut-deep anger hastily assembled into the shape of a half-remembered belief. Nothing but a grudge and a ghost-written, ghost-ridden name.

Blake riffled through the papers, looking for something he could trust. Education of the lower grades. Support for the movement for the autonomy of Betron-IV. Disruption of food rationing. Lobbying against all forms of rehabilitative psych treatment. They all sounded like good ideas.

He put them all down and drank the rest of the whisky, raising the glass almost solemnly, as if it were a toast.

Here at the limits of his knowledge, he would stick by what he did know.

They butchered my family and gave me tranquillized dreams. They had to be stopped. The whole fucking thing. All of it, piece by piece or - preferably - at a stroke. It was the only way.

THESE EXERCISES DO NOT APPEAR TO IMPROVE THE TEMPER

Cally's quiet voice: "Yes, Vila, that's good. Don't forget to pull up from the spine. Keep it straight - that's it."

Avon was standing in a ridiculous posture, with all his weight on the back foot, waiting for Cally to finish with the others. His back leg was beginning to go into small muscular spasms. He sighed ostentatiously, dropped his right hand from its position palm-outwards level with his face, shifted his weight onto his front leg, let his shriekingly-straight spine twist back into its usual and more comfortable kink, shook out his left arm, and said: "Tell us again what the purpose of this exercise is."

Cally sighed. "These are very ancient Auron warrior exercises," she said. "By balancing the principles of fort and da in the body, your movements in combat will be more effective."

"And do the Liberator guns respond to the balance of fort and da?" asked Avon. "Or only to their technical principles?"

"Shut up, Avon," said Blake. "You of all people could do with learning how to relax. These are relaxation exercises as well, Cally?"

"Relaxation is not my first priority in hand-to-hand combat," Avon interrupted.

"Which is exactly why I can do this," said Cally from behind him, and pushed him gently in the shoulder so that he lost his balance and staggered forward. "You are fighting yourself, Avon. You are constantly rigid and tense, and it makes you easy to unbalance. Once your own body is balanced, you can begin to fight your opponent."

"All right," said Avon between his teeth. "Get on with it, then. I have work to do." He untwisted his protesting spine, put his weight back onto his right foot, and slapped his arms into roughly the right place.

"That's fine, Avon," said Cally, and moved down the line to Blake. "Let me see you do the last part of the form, from white-crane-spreads-wings."

Avon dropped out of stance again, into a more characteristic position which managed to be both bolt upright and flagrantly lounging. He watched Blake go through the moves with Cally placing a hand on his shoulder to push him forward when he leaned too far back, or taking his hand and pulling it into the right position, as he went.

"That's good, Blake."

"Hmm," said Blake. "It feels very awkward."

"Your body movements are synchronized, but not properly connected yet," said Cally. "That will come with practice. Now," she said, turning to face the rest of them as well, "we should finish with some meditative postures."

Avon settled irritably into the posture Cally had chosen for him and stared at the floor, thinking about all the other things he would rather be doing with his time.

"What's wrong?" said Cally suddenly. Avon looked up

"That sound," said Blake. "I keep hearing it."

CHAPTER TWO

PRIVILEGED TO SHARE HIS NIGHTMARE TRIP WITH HIM

Blake's voice had broken two sessions previously, affecting mostly its middle notes. Now he seemed to be whispering at the bass end of his range and screaming in falsetto simultaneously. But very, very quietly, only just audible over Jenna's near-silent weeping, a continuous screaming whisper of guilty, guilty.

Orac was in charge. Cally was monitoring Blake's and Jenna's condition, standing ready with sedatives. Vila was brewing tea. Zen was flying the ship. Avon was watching. Gan was dead.

"That's enough," said Cally softly. She handed Avon a tranquillizer pad and looked away, helping Jenna to sit up. Avon put his arms hard around Blake, smoothed curls off his wet forehead, and stroked the pad into place. Blake's hand, which was locked and twisted urgently in the fabric at Avon's shoulderblade, relaxed, opened, and fell. Avon lowered him gently to the couch. Blake's voice tangled in names that Avon didn't recognize and fell below hearing.

Avon sat with his hand on Blake's hair and watched him sleep.

"Tea?" said Vila's voice by his ear. He nodded and took the mug.

"I need to get out of this room," said Jenna, and Cally steered her out of the door.

"You look terrible, Avon," said Vila. "Get some rest."

"I am resting here."

Vila perched on Jenna's couch, facing Avon. "I thought it wasn't necessary to act like a fuckwit to prove that you care?"

Avon gave him a filthy look. "I'm not proving anything."

"That's the spirit," said Vila comfortably. "Blake knows you - "

"Nor, in fact - " Avon raised his voice - "have I become irrational. I am merely being practical. Since Orac has decided that Jenna should be Blake's partner in this, I am staying here to give Cally what help I can."

Cally, who had come back in, raised her eyebrow eloquently at Vila behind Avon's back. Vila gave her a what-can-you-do shrug, then turned back to Avon.

"You're not going to be any - " he began, but Avon interrupted him, turning towards the computer.

"Progress, Orac."

"Progress is unreasonably slow. I suspect the operation of some further factor which was not taken into account in my initial diagnosis. Suggest that Cally replace Jenna Stannis for the next treatment period."

Avon's face tightened. "You have previously stated that replacing Jenna once treatment has started would be an unacceptable risk. Clarify your reasoning."

"It is very simple. The eradication therapy is not having the anticipated effect. Therefore, a fuller diagnosis must be made of the factors affecting and reactivating Blake's conditioning. Cally's intervention at this point would seem to be the most likely method of arriving at such a diagnosis."

"Because of her telepathic abilities."

"Yes. As I have previously explained, neither you nor Vila Restal is suitable for dual therapy, Vila because of his natural resistance to indoctrination, and you because of your... paranormal affinities."

"As you have previously explained. All right, Orac."

PROTOCOL FOR YOUR PUPPET

Almost exactly the same thing had happened again.

What Blake remembered was being ambushed for the second time by the mindwipe. Last time, on Earth, he had relived it in a mirrored, echoing cell, surrounded by floating fragments of his own body and voice. This time all the breaking had been inside; what he remembered this time was the Federation exploding inside his head while Avon's arms like restraints around his body held him together from the outside, like scaffolding.

So he was outwardly whole: as for the inside, even Orac had given up ('for the moment', everyone kept reminding him), saying there was no point continuing the eradication therapy until more information was available.

There was nothing left to renounce, and it - whatever 'it' was - was still there, waiting to overtake him again. Like the Federation propaganda about him, which was turning out to be less deadly than the Resistance propaganda about him (Messiah, whispered Governor leGrand). Like the mark of Servalan's weapon on him.

So all he could do was try to outrun it.

CHAPTER THREE

IT IS TO BLAKE YOU SHOULD LOOK FOR THE NEW

"I tell you, there's nothing there!"

"Just do the scan, Vila."

Vila sighed, pressed buttons noisily, said: "All clear. I told you," and scuttled out of his seat onto the couch.

"I'm bored," he said.

Cally and Jenna ignored him.

"I can't remember the last time I was bored," he went on. "You'd think I'd be enjoying it. No Federation pursuit ships, no aliens trying to kill us, no Blake asking me to break into the President's money-belt, no Avon telling me I'm an idiot for doing as Blake says and then telling me I'm an idiot for not doing it faster..."

"Are we holding orbit, Cally?"

"Yes, Jenna."

"...no conversation," Vila concluded gloomily. "I'm going to go and check up on them."

"Don't be an idiot, Vila," said Jenna.

"Why shouldn't I?"

Jenna and Cally looked at each other in a particularly female way. Vila rolled his eyes.

"I'll listen at the door first," he said. "I might even knock."

"Just leave them to it, Vila," said Jenna. "I doubt they'll welcome anyone's interference right now. Or thank anyone for their help," she added a shade pointedly. Cally patted her arm.

Vila sighed again, settled back down on the couch, and started shuffling a pack of cards. "Pick a card?" he asked hopefully. "Jenna? Cally?"

"I'm not falling for that one again," said Jenna. "Not since the time you found the card in my bra."

"I'll be good! I swear! Go on, Jenna..."

"Jenna," said Blake, who was suddenly on the flight deck, and - Vila, watching him, absent-mindedly put the cards back in his pocket - at his brusquest. "Set a course for Freedom City."

The women exchanged glances. Blake set his shoulders. Vila's eyes became perfectly round as he breathed: "Freedom City..."

"What's wrong with Del-10?" asked Jenna.

"Nothing," said Vila, "but it's hardly Freedom City, is it? If Blake thinks we should... Oh. I see."

Blake's face didn't change. "All right," he said. "If you can't trust me, will you trust Orac?"

"You do understand, don't you Blake?" asked Cally.

"Of course," he said, and hit the communicator button. "Avon."

"Yes?"

"Bring Orac to the flight deck."

"I suppose there is no point in telling you that I am busy."

"None at all."

*

"Orac," said Blake. "Where is Docholli?"

"To whom do you refer?"

"To the Federation cybersurgeon of that name," said Blake dangerously. "The one you have been tracking for the past two days."

"I have already informed you," said Orac. "He is on Freedom City. Now, is there anything..."

Avon pulled the key out.

"Thank you," said Blake. "Jenna, set a course. Speed standard by ten."

"Ten?"

"It will be a drain on the power banks," said Avon neutrally.

"I'm aware of that," Blake snapped. "We can't afford to hang about. Docholli's managed to stay one step ahead of the Federation, so far, but his time is running out. And that means so is ours. Standard by ten, Jenna."

Jenna lifted her eyebrows, held Blake's eyes for a moment, and turned her head so that she could look away from Blake to Zen without dropping her eyes. "Standard by ten," she said to Zen.

Avon took two paces at an oblique angle to Blake, turning slowly, so that his body became a partition wall sheltering Blake from the rest of the crew. They stood opposite each other, poised and braced against each other, balancing/mirroring each other, the distance between them constant.

"Have you lost your mind?"

"Twice," said Blake, his voice simultaneously intimate and carrying.

Avon smiled. "Exactly," he said. "And until we can all be sure that it is not going to happen a third time, you are a liability, Blake."

Blake paused, then said: "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

Avon didn't say anything.

"Oh, I don't blame you. Being proved right must be very satisfying."

"Less and less so, every time it happens," murmured Avon, then: "It is nothing short of insanity to go after Docholli before Orac has come up with the correct diagnosis and treatment for what remains of your conditioning."

"Well, then, it had better work fast, hadn't it?"

HEARTLESS CALCULATOR

Avon let himself in to Blake's cabin. The lights were low apart from a rectangle of brightness on the desk, where Blake was sitting, looking at printouts.

Avon sat on the bed and looked at Blake for a moment or two (Blake ignored him, whether studiedly or through genuine weariness Avon couldn't tell), then remarked: "You are rushing this."

"True," said Blake heavily. "If we don't find Star One quickly, we will not find it at all. Is that all you wanted?"

"None of us is safe until you are correctly treated," Avon added neutrally.

Blake turned round in his chair to face Avon. "None of us is safe anyway! Or had you forgotten? If we can destroy Star One, it won't matter what condition my mind is in, because there won't be a Federation left to take advantage of it."

"Ah," said Avon almost-silently, and twisted his mouth into a smile. "I see. This is another of your schemes to mortify yourself. Well, this time, Blake, I at least will not be available to rescue you when it goes wrong."

"I don't expect you to rescue me," said Blake shortly.

Avon looked at the floor for a second, then back up at Blake, with the concomitant eyelash effects.

"What do you expect of me?"

A short, hollow laugh from Blake. "I expect you to undermine everything I believe in."

"Nothing else?"

"Don't be coy, Avon. It doesn't suit you."

"Yes it does," said Avon, and leaned in to kiss Blake's mouth.

In a long, slow, ripple, Blake relaxed into the kiss and then tensed away from it; pull-push.

Avon felt the very beginning of a mingling, a large warmth surrounding him, smoothing his edges, pulling him into a place he wanted to be. Then he felt himself pushed back into his skin, its intractable boundedness.

Blake felt himself tilting, being pulled out of shape, his balance shifting from his head to his cock, dizzying him. He felt a blind demand from somewhere - his body? Avon's body? - and refused it, gathering himself back into his head, pulling away.

"Well," said Avon quietly. He sat back on the bed and thought for a moment. But he seemed to have no more resources left, so he left.

BEHOLD, THE MUTANTS SHALL WITHER

Twenty minutes later, Avon suddenly froze, opened his eyes, and looked unseeingly down at his hand falling away from his half-erect cock.

No. That wasn't going to work.

He sighed, rolled himself off the bed, and knelt on the floor in the dark room, leaning his forearms against the edge of his bunk, clasping his hands together against their shivering. It was an odd position for casting, but an appropriate one for praying. He hoped, nonetheless, that he was doing the former.

Somewhere in his skin, in the contact between his hand and his cock, Blake floated: just at the moment, Avon doubted whether even orgasm would blank his conscious mind. Granted, he knew virtually nothing about this spell - acquired in his University days in a dark flurry of whispers and hints - but here at the edge of his knowledge, he would stick by what he did know: a charged mantra must be activated in the complete absence of the caster's conscious will. Orgasm. Pain. Or meditation.

He closed his eyes against the dark, listened to his own deep breathing, and entered his mind with relief. His body might be rebellious, but here at least he was in control. He pushed himself calmly through a labyrinth of stately equations until he reached a dead end. Then... let go. Blankness.

"Chrestomanci," he whispered.

And fell over.

As he landed he hit his head on something which didn't feel like the floor, but more like... a boot? Or a hoof, he thought, scrambling into a more defensible position, and said hoarsely: "Lights."

And there were lights, illuminating Avon's cabin, bright and full of despair as before, but now with a tall, thin man in it. He looked down at Avon with a polite, faint expression - faint bewilderment, faint surprise - on his marble-perfect face, and removed a strange, cylindrical hat from his head, brushing it with the tips of his fingers. His hair was as smooth and black as the hat.

I was praying, after all, Avon thought resignedly. "Greetings," he said, and a little of the politeness cleared from the man's expression, leaving faint relief behind it.

"Greetings," the man answered. "May I ask where I am, and who you are?"

"My name is Kerr Avon," said Avon, since that seemed the easier question to answer. "You are..." he hesitated. On the material plane? On the way to Freedom City? "...You are on the Liberator."

"Some sort of vessel," the man said, cocking his head to one side to listen to the engines' quiet hum, then bringing it back round to look at Avon. "Er - you may get up if you like," he added politely. "And - I apologize if it is a custom of your world to greet visitors naked - but wouldn't you feel more comfortable, er, dressed?"

"As you prefer," said Avon. He pulled a dressing-gown round himself, sat on the bed, scowled, and felt slightly less ridiculous.

"Now, would you please tell me why you called me?" asked the man. The last of the politeness had left his face now that Avon was covered, and his eyes were appropriately black and piercing.

"My - " said Avon, hesitated again, considered that a demon was unlikely to care what word he used, and continued: "friend, Blake, is in danger. I hoped that a bargain could be struck between us."

The man nodded, slightly helplessly. "What sort of bargain did you have in mind?"

"What would you ask from me?"

"Well," said the man thoughtfully, "just now I would be very grateful for some tea. And then perhaps you could explain from the beginning."

TO PUT IT MILDLY, IMPROBABLE

The man perched on the flimsy chair by Avon's desk, pinching his dove-grey trousers at the knee to shake their line into its proper fluidity, and looked intently at Avon: Avon looked intently at the man's trousers, which were devastatingly understated and made Avon's monastic dressing-gown feel positively carnivalesque.

When it became clear that Avon was not going to speak, the man sighed and began.

"You called me in the hope of bargaining for your friend's safety. Forgive me, but - were you, by any chance, under the impression that you were summoning a demon?"

Avon blinked. "I was under no impression," he said slowly. "The spell - It was passed to me some years ago, at a considerable price and with very little information about its effects. I do not know of anyone who has cast it before."

"I'm flattered," said the man, "but I'm afraid the price was probably too high. It's not precisely a spell, you see, simply a way to call me."

"You are Chrestomanci?"

"That's what I'm usually called. Yes."

"And, if you are not a demon, who are you?"

"Chrestomanci is the title of the post I hold. I work for the Government to oversee the use and misuse of magic."

Avon stared at Chrestomanci in utter shock.

Oh, this was cruel. It had been some years since he had had to confront this, the snarl of cruelty at the centre of magic that twisted its coolly law-bound ordering of the planes into an altogether more savage order of retribution and payment in blood.

His luck had, at last, run out. He had brought the chief official of the Mage Corps onto the Liberator. By magic. Doubly outed. Right out of the game.

He smiled. Chrestomanci looked rather taken aback.

"You're the head of the Mage Corps," he said flatly.

Chrestomanci frowned. "I think you misunderstand," he said. "Or perhaps I do. I'm beginning to think there is a great deal I don't understand about this world. What's the Mage Corps?" He crossed his legs and picked up his cup of tea.

Avon took a deep breath. "I think you were right when you said we should start from the beginning. What do you mean, this world?"

"Perhaps I should say this universe, since I see you have developed space travel. This vessel is in space?"

"Yes. We are in Sector Eight, on the way to a settlement called Freedom City."

"Space travel," said Chrestomanci, and shuddered slightly. "There are some witches on my own world working on that. I must say it has never appealed to me. It seems that this universe has used mechanical means instead?"

"Mostly," said Avon. "This ship at least does not run on magic, although it incorporates organic elements as well as - machinery. You come from a different plane?"

"A different world, or universe," said Chrestomanci patiently. "Planes are another axis again. Worlds are formed along historical fault-lines."

"And there is no Federation in your world?"

"There are federated states, in Italy and in Atlantis... but I think you mean something else?" Avon nodded briefly and Chrestomanci went on: "Would you explain the Mage Corps to me?"

"Much of the galaxy is ruled by the Terran Federation. Where magical affinity is detected in a person, that person is legally required to join the Mage Corps or to have his abilities permanently removed by the Mage Corps."

"So you yourself are not registered," said Chrestomanci thoughtfully. "I see why you were - er, shocked to hear that I was a Government official." He leaned forward slightly and looked slowly and hard at Avon. "Forgive me," he said after a moment, "but I don't seem able to detect any witchcraft in you. Would you give me your hand, please?"

Avon leaned forward and let Chrestomanci take his wrist between his long fingers. They pressed with light, practised delicacy against his tendons, shifting them slightly under the skin.

"Hmm," said Chrestomanci, and let Avon's hand go. "Odd. Well," he added, putting down his teacup and standing up, "I think we'd better go and see Blake, don't you?"

"Will that be absolutely necessary?" Avon debated for a second whether to stand up in order to at least reduce the difference in height between them, or to stay sitting in order to emphasize his lack of intention of going back to Blake's cabin with a seven-foot dove-grey vision of elegance from another dimension. He stayed sitting, but had to crick his neck to see Chrestomanci's face.

"I'm afraid so," said Chrestomanci with what sounded like genuine sympathy.

"All right," said Avon with ill grace, and stood up: then, reconsidering, sat back down again and pressed the communicator button.

"Blake," said Blake's voice.

"Come to the rest room," said Avon. "There is something I need to show you."

"I suppose it wouldn't help if I told you I was busy?"

"Just do as you're told, Blake," said Avon and let go of the button. He turned to Chrestomanci and said, politely, "Would you follow me?"

"You said Blake was your friend?" asked Chrestomanci.

"Yes, I did, didn't I? Come on. I can explain to you as we go."

OH, BETRAYAL, TREACHERY, PIRACY - CALL IT WHAT YOU WILL

Since it had happened, Blake was moving more quickly, speaking more quickly, as if he was trying to catch himself off guard. After Control he had brooded, all ponderous deliberation and self-pity; now, after Atlay, Avon had the sense it was an effort for him to slow himself down enough, to explain himself, for his speech to be understood by the crew. Let alone his actions.

"All right, Avon," he was saying as he square-shouldered his way into the rest room, threw himself onto one of the couches, "I've had just about enough of -"

His double-take was classic.

"Who's this? Why is there a strange man on my ship? Avon?"

"This is Chrestomanci," said Avon.

"How did he get aboard? What are you up to this time?"

Chrestomanci coughed slightly. Blake glanced at him, then looked a little more closely.

"I'm sorry," he said, and offered a hand to shake. "My name is Roj Blake. Welcome to the Liberator. How did you get on board, by the way? We haven't slowed down enough for the teleport to function."

"Your friend Avon summoned me," said Chrestomanci, "though I confess I am a little unclear quite why he did. He tells me that you are suffering from some form of mind control?"

Blake glared at Avon murderously. "Brilliant, Avon. So now I am to be known as Roj Blake, the child-molesting terrorist with the dead followers - who might be recalled by his Federation puppeteers at any moment? I suppose you also told him I'm - " Blake stopped himself, but Avon - who had been watching the infinitesimal adjustments going on in Chrestomanci's mind as he listened, the sharp eyes in the vague face - covered up so smoothly it might have been he who'd interrupted.

"Once you have destroyed Star One, Blake, it will not matter how you are known. As I believe you pointed out to me not an hour ago. Incidentally, Chrestomanci had heard nothing about you until you arrived, and whatever he makes of you - at the moment, probably that you are a boor - it will have no effect on your rather alarming Messianic myth, since he is from another world."

Blake stared at Avon. "Another world. Well, that makes all the difference. One with no communications systems, I suppose?"

"Effectively. An alternative timeline, if you like that expression better."

Blake stared at Chrestomanci. "Really?"

"Oh yes."

"Well," said Blake, apparently somewhat at a loss.

"The point is," Avon said, "that he is here to help you, Blake."

"Are you a doctor?"

"No," said Chrestomanci, "I am an enchanter."

"An enchanter? Avon?"

"Really," said Avon, "both you and Chrestomanci speak perfectly adequate Terran. I fail to see why you keep speaking to me as if I were an interpreter."

Blake passed a hand over his forehead. "I'm sorry," he said to Chrestomanci. "You must be finding this even harder to follow than I am. Perhaps we should go back to the beginning. You are an enchanter from alternative universe. Why are you on my ship, again?"

"As I say, I'm not entirely sure myself." Chrestomanci offered Blake a rueful smile. "Avon summoned me. He appears to be - the nearest I can get to it is a sorcerer, but I must say that the witchcraft in your world seems to work very differently to mine. Usually when a summons has worked, it has turned out that there is a good reason for me to be in a certain place, so it's probable that I can help you in some way. Would you mind if I had a look at what has been done to your mind?"

"Yes," said Blake.

"Ah," said Chrestomanci. "I do assure you that I will only be looking for the structural alterations. I won't do any more damage."

Blake looked at him for a little while, chewing his finger; then he looked at Avon, who was impassive; then he looked back at Chrestomanci.

"All right," he said.

Chrestomanci put his right hand on Blake's head and closed his eyes. Avon watched the lack of blue light, thunder, and sulphurous smell for a few seconds, a little puzzled; then "Yes," Chrestomanci said, retreating a step or two and blinking. "Well, it is a spell, but it is a most unpleasant and complex one, and magic does seem to work in a most peculiar way in this world. I can block the effects, but I think I will need Avon's help to undo it."

"A spell?" said Blake.

Avon and Chrestomanci caught each other's eye and sighed in stereo.

I'M AS GOOD AS YOU ARE

"Vila," said Avon between his teeth, "I am not asking you. I am telling you."

"Oh, well, then," said Vila from his position half-prone on the flight deck couch, "that makes all the difference. When we run into a squadron of pursuit ships I'll tell Blake you didn't ask me, you told me you weren't going to stand your watch."

"Let us hope that our visitor is a necromancer as well as an enchanter, then," said Avon, turning to leave.

"Magic," said Vila thoughtfully. "You're full of surprises, Avon. Oh well, makes a change from telepathic gadgets and hairy aliens, I suppose. That's if you're telling the truth. Are you sure this isn't one of your scams and he's not some relation of yours you've rustled up to help? He does look a bit like you. Taller, though," he added after a beat.

Avon glared at him.

"On second thoughts, no, you can't be related," said Vila. "He's quite the charmer, isn't he? I've never seen Jenna so polite. Showing him round, getting him a spare set of clothes from the Wardrobe Room... She seemed very taken with him. So did Blake, for that matter. I'm sure he and Chresto-whatsit will get on fine on their own."

"All right, Vila," said Avon resignedly, "what do you want?"

"Want? Nothing. I just want to have my time off like I'm supposed to in the schedule."

Avon took two strides across the room and caught Vila by his collar. "Let me start again," he said. "Blake needs me in the surgical unit. Therefore you will have to take my watch. All right?"

"All right," said Vila meekly.

HERALD AT LAST THE EPOCH OF TRUE FREEDOM

Avon hesitated in the doorway of the surgical unit, hearing voices, and listened.

"But you obviously can operate outside your own world," Blake was saying. "Here you are, after all."

"I can't deny that I am, in the circumstances," said Chrestomanci agreeably.

"Then surely you have the authority to act! The very existence of the Mage Corps is a travesty. The Federation hoards magical power and tranquillizes those who refuse to serve it into submission. Only a very few manage to escape - like Avon - and they spend their lives running and hiding, in the dark, unable to use the few abilities they can develop against the very people who are trying to wipe them out."

"My dear fellow," said Chrestomanci, "I truly wish I could help you. But my jurisdiction is very limited. Apart from the personal distaste I feel at the harnessing of witchcraft to the service of a single political group - "

"Personal distaste? You're talking about the lives of millions of people!"

Chrestomanci paused for a moment. "You must see, Blake," he said, "that if I were to use my position to influence the politics of this world, I would be little better than your Federation. No, I'm sorry, but my hands are tied."

"If so, why are you here?"

Avon judged it time to interrupt, and came into the unit. Blake and Chrestomanci were sitting on the couches, leaning in towards each other. Blake's face was intent on Chrestomanci's, mobile and passionate in argument as ever. Avon felt an odd twinge of jealousy.

"He is here, Blake," he said, "in order to help you. Perhaps you ought to stop shouting at him."

Blake smiled at Chrestomanci as if they were sharing a joke, which irritated Avon immensely.

"Not at all," said Chrestomanci politely. "Your friend is quite right that my post involves certain responsibilities, sometimes even beyond my own world. As the present Chrestomanci - "

"Chrestomanci is your title?" interrupted Blake. "I thought it was your name."

He was staring at Chrestomanci as if he'd seen a ghost. Avon frowned.

"Oh no," said Chrestomanci, "the name of my post. Since the death of my predecessor, though, I haven't been called anything else."

"Hmmm," said Blake thoughtfully. He began chewing on a finger.

"Shall we get on with it?" said Avon, who was feeling disconcertingly excluded. He unrolled his magical pouch on the table and cocked his head at Chrestomanci.

"Yes," said Chrestomanci. "Now, Avon, could you take a look at these spells and... see if you can explain them to me?"

Avon waited. Chrestomanci didn't move.

"Which spells?" he asked crossly.

"The ones in Blake's head, of course."

"Oh," said Avon. "Then... I'll have to perform a charism of discernment." He lay his fingers lightly on Blake's head, feeling intensely self-conscious, and began to clear his mind. It was much harder when his body was busily singing the texture of the curls under his hand (and prudently reminding his mind that there was someone watching). He closed his eyes but Blake's face floated in front of them anyway. He concentrated, and the feeling in his palm receded primly to its proper status as data, without history or meaning, without anything more than what it was. Then it receded entirely and he could perform the charism.

What he saw was very hazy. A circuit diagram, laid out clearly somewhere... but there was so much noise he could hardly make out the outlines. A voice (guilty, guilty, renounce, renounce); flashes of faces, bodies living and dead, passing in front of his vision, distorting the straight silver lines; touches of pain, touches of pleasure; smells of sweat and charred flesh and fresh air. Distracting him. He narrowed his internal eyes and looked harder, trying to make out the flaws and the connections in the circuit diagram, and the voice faded to a whisper as the diagram faded in. There was some sort of circular flaw there, near the centre, a short-circuit or a...

At last the voice was silenced - but the diagram winked frustratingly out at the same time, just on the edge of clarity. Avon opened his eyes and dropped his hand quickly from Blake's head.

He shook his head. "I can't make it out," he said.

"Hmmm," said Chrestomanci. "Would you please try to explain to me what happened?"

"I was able to make out the pattern, but it was very indistinct. There was a great deal of interference - voices, feelings and so on. Perhaps" - Avon glanced at Blake, who was fidgeting - "it would be more successful if Blake was sedated."

"Oh no," said Chrestomanci sharply (and "Good," muttered Blake), "that would be most unhelpful."

Avon blinked. "All right," he said. "What do you suggest?"

"Perhaps I could watch you perform a simple spell. That might give me a clearer idea of the form witchcraft takes in this world."

"Is this going to take long?" said Blake. "I'm very grateful for your help - " he spoke to Chrestomanci, Avon noticed - "but you say you have managed to block the effects of... whatever it is... and I don't have a great deal of time to spend on inessentials at the moment. My own personal distaste at the Federation does involve action, you see."

"My dear Blake," said Chrestomanci, and coughed. (My dear? thought Avon). "The little I understand of the spells on your mind suggests that they involve some sort of contract. I have blocked their effects, true, but I can't imagine you would be very comfortable going about the place under some sort of unknown obligation."

"No," said Blake softly/murderously. "I don't suppose I would."

Avon glanced at him, and felt another odd twinge. To cover it, he said: "Blake, you need not flatter yourself that we would go to all this trouble if it weren't necessary."

"Of course not," said Blake.

Avon disentangled his gaze from Blake's and asked Chrestomanci: "Is there any need for him to stay and watch the casting?"

"No. Blake, if you need to be elsewhere, please go. Shall we agree to make another attempt in two or three hours?"

Blake nodded and left.

"What would you like me to cast?" asked Avon. Chrestomanci was watching Blake leave.

"Anything," said Chrestomanci. "What about levitation? Show me how you would raise this - er, this whatever-it-is."

"It's a laser probe," said Avon, taking it. He went through the steps of the spell: clearing his mind, sprinkling herculaneum powder and tarragon, and repeating the few charmed syllables of the mantra. When the probe had successfully hovered three feet from the floor for a minute or so, he relaxed his mind carefully and let it fall.

"Well?" he said.

"One does feel very disoriented," said Chrestomanci instead of answering. "If you were in my own world, I would say, I'm afraid, that you had been lamentably badly taught, and that you must indeed be a sorceror at the least, to be able to work any sort of spell through such a layer of hocus-pocus. But on the other hand, it is very rare for such a highly technologically developed world to contain any magic at all, and it might, I suppose, be the case that witchcraft here is nothing but another technology." He stood up.

"Where are you going?" said Avon.

"I'm going to have a bath," said Chrestomanci. "I find it does wonders for this sort of problem. Do you think your computers could manage to replicate me a dressing-gown?"

A MESSIAH

"What did he mean by a contract?" Blake demanded, going straight past Avon and flinging himself down in the chair by the desk.

Avon rather pointedly cleared away the circuits he'd been working on, having to lean over Blake to do so. "This is an occasion," he remarked. "I am usually the one who barges into your cabin."

"I had noticed. Now, what did he mean by a contract?"

"I have no idea." Avon sat down on the bed.

"Avon," said Blake in his trying-to-be-calm voice. "I know nothing at all about this - about magic, and for once I would be very grateful for one of your traditional bursts of helpfulness, or self-advertisement, or whatever it is when you take the time to explain - loudly - exactly where my ignorance lies."

"I'm flattered."

"You shouldn't be."

"Oh, I'm not. Blake, I have no idea what Chrestomanci meant. I was not aware that a spell could contain a contract unless it had been made with the express consent of both parties. Selling one's soul, for example."

"Assuming one's soul is one's own to sell," muttered Blake.

"Don't be melodramatic."

"He said I was under some sort of obligation. What do you want me to do, just wait for the Mage Corps to call it in? Or for the next defector to get hold of it?"

"Get hold of what?"

"Exactly," said Blake, getting up to pace. "That's what I asked you."

"And I told you, Blake, I have no idea."

Blake dropped suddenly to sit on the bed beside Avon. "All right," he said.

They were silent for a while.

Avon hesitated; then he asked: "Why did you seem so interested in Chrestomanci's name?"

"What?" Blake turned his head to meet Avon's eyes, which looked at him clearly and flatly.

"Earlier, in the treatment room. You seemed shocked to find out that Chrestomanci was the title of a position. I am asking why."

"Why do you want to know?"

Avon smiled brilliantly. "Idle curiosity."

"Not good enough," said Blake.

"I can't help feeling some sort of interest in what goes on in your mind. Seeing that it has nearly killed us in the recent past - and in the not-so-recent past, come to think of it. I just wondered if the title meant something to you. It might be useful, if so."

"I'm the last person you should ask about what's in my mind," said Blake bitterly. "Why don't you ask Chrestomanci? Or the Mage Corps?"

"That would seem a little impractical," said Avon. "Did the title mean anything to you?"

"No."

"Then why...?"

"He and I are both trying to fill a dead man's place. That's all." Blake shook his head, as if clearing it. "It doesn't matter, Avon. Now, I should get on with tracking Docholli before you two start poking about in what's left of my head again."

Avon paused, then nodded.

THAT'LL TEACH THEM TO PAIR UP ON THE QUIET

"Yes, Cally," said Jenna before Cally could do more than raise an eyebrow, "I am supposed to be on watch. But I'm bloody well going to be on watch in the galley with a cup of tea. I'm tired out. It's bad enough running this ship with six people - I mean five... shit... But trying to do it with three is ridiculous. Want one?" she added. Cally nodded. Jenna brought the mugs over to the table and, pointedly, sat down.

"It shouldn't be much longer now," said Cally.

"That doesn't exactly cheer me up," said Jenna. " I'm not looking forward to arriving at Freedom City. We were exhausted even before we spent two days poking about in Blake's nightmares."

"I know," said Cally, and the memory flashed between the two of them, leaving a struck-match smell behind in the air or in their minds. They were silent for a minute, then Jenna said: "Well. If that's what Star One does, someone should probably blow it up."

Cally grinned. "What a good idea, Jenna. Who did you have in mind?"

"At this rate, probably the two of us. I don't think Blake is going to emerge from Avon's deep-dark eyes any minute soon. Whatever's going on between those two, I wish they'd let us in on it."

"Why don't you ask them?" Cally asked innocently.

"Oh yes, I'll go and talk to Blake about his private life. Then, I know, I'll go and tickle a warg-strangler for sheer relaxation."

"You could ask Avon."

"I don't need to ask Avon. Avon is the most transparent man I have ever met. Anyway, I don't exactly mean... Well, this is what I mean. Why are we sitting here talking about Blake and bloody Avon, as if we didn't have lives of our own?"

"Um," said Cally, but Jenna was off.

"Because we don't have lives of our own, that's why. Because this ship and our lives are just bargaining chips in whatever little powerplay Blake and Avon have going on between them. I feel like Inga."

"Inga?"

"Blake's cousin. Oh, you weren't there, were you? Blake gave her a little goodbye kiss, but it was intended for Avon - and me, for that matter. Just to remind us that we might be up to our eyes in slime and temper, but as far as the rest of the galaxy's concerned it's untarnishable Roj Blake, chivalrous rebel hero, business as usual."

"You're tired," said Cally.

"Yes. Aren't you?"

"Yes. I hope our visitor finishes his diagnosis soon."

Jenna grinned. "I wish this ship had video links as well as audio. I wonder how Chrestomanci's managing?"

As if on cue, a smooth, dark head appeared at the door, and asked: "Is this the kitchen? Can I make myself a cup of tea?"

"I don't know," said Cally, poker-faced and waving a hand at the bank of electrics in the galley wall. "Can you?"

Chrestomanci took two steps into the room, cocked his head at the flashing lights and stainless steel, then turned a helpless look on the women. He was wearing a very uncomfortable-looking robe-like garment, patterned with peacock-blue scallops on a magenta background, which managed to be both austerely cut and voluminous at the same time.

"No," he said, rather plaintively. "Would you mind...?"

"I'll do it." Cally got up. "Sit down."

"How are you getting on?" asked Jenna.

Chrestomanci sighed. "Well, I hope you won't be offended if I say this is not the nicest world I've ever been on."

"That's all right," said Cally.

"We don't like it much either," Jenna added. "We're hoping to take it back and get a new one."

"Yes," said Chrestomanci thoughtfully, "I get the feeling this world is heading for a major transition. I should, perhaps, have been keeping a closer eye on it: but technically, you see, it falls rather outside my jurisdiction. Thank you," he added, as Cally handed him a mug. "I do find tea helps me get my bearings. Things are so very elaborate here."

"How do you mean?" asked Cally.

"Oh, the kettle," said Chrestomanci incomprehensibly, "and the magic, which seems to have to pass through hundreds of entirely redundant steps before getting anywhere near what it's trying to do, and - well, on my world a married couple would simply introduce themselves as such, rather than communicating quite so much through inference."

"Married couple?"

"Oh, I'm sorry," said Chrestomanci, "have I said something wrong? Is it rude even to refer to married status?"

"No," said Jenna, "of course not. But - there's no-one married on this ship."

"Oh, Jenna," said Cally suddenly, "he means - "

Jenna's mouth fell open. "He doesn't!"

"You do, don't you?" demanded Cally. "You mean Blake and Avon?"

"Yes," said Chrestomanci, allowing a tiny frown to ruffle his marble brow. "Have I just got the wrong end of the stick?"

Jenna was laughing too hard to answer, so Cally said: "I'm afraid so. Same-sex eroticism is unheard of among humans."

"This is quite the most peculiar world I've ever heard of," Chrestomanci muttered at the same time as Jenna swallowed a gust of laughter and said, "Not unheard-of, Cally. Just... " and she was suddenly serious, looking at Chrestomanci: "It's not - We don't talk about it."

"I see," said Chrestomanci. "That is a more familiar pattern. But - do you mean to say that your friends think they are being discreet?"

Which set Jenna off again.

THAT'S JUST THE PROBLEM: NO HEART

"Please stop fidgeting, Blake, it's distracting," said Avon. Blake exhaled grumpily, slumped back in the chair and sat so conspicuously still that his body was almost trembling with tension.

Avon laid his hand back on Blake's head. It felt warm, then blank, then almost uncomfortably cold. Blake closed his eyes. He felt a metallic itching at the edges of the empty spots in his head - edges he never felt until they itched - then a strange, visceral tug at the knots in him. A strange/familiar breath of warmth began along the lines where he hurt, where he was anatomized; guilty thawed, and renounce.

And then it reversed itself, going backwards along all the feelings in fast-motion: renounce and guilty froze back into silence, lines withdrawn, knots abandoned, edges invisible, cold hand, blank hand, warm hand.

Avon took his hand off Blake's head. "I'm sorry," he said.

He looked exhausted. Well, Blake supposed he didn't look much better himself. He looked from Avon's parchment face to Chrestomanci's marble one. Under the silence of the room he heard the ship's engines carrying him onwards, closer to Star One, where there would be an end to it.

"I still think it would be sensible to sedate Blake," said Avon, not looking at him.

"No," said Blake angrily and Chrestomanci patiently.

"But the interference from Blake's conscious mind is preventing me from discerning the effect of the Federation spells," Avon pointed out. "Just as I must remove all trace of my conscious will in order to - "

"I beg your pardon?"

Something in Chrestomanci's voice made Blake look up, away from the finger he had been sulkily examining.

Avon was looking at Chrestomanci too. "Surely you... For a spell to be successful, it must be cast in the absence of desire."

"Oh, dear," said Chrestomanci. "I think I might... Avon, what exactly do you see when you perform your - what do you call it, charism of discernment? - on Blake?"

Avon sighed. "I see the pattern of the neurological disturbance laid out, but it is very hard to make out. There is all sorts of interference - voices, faces, sounds, and so on."

"Oh, dear," said Chrestomanci again. "Avon, I was right the first time. You have been execrably taught, and it is absolutely amazing that you are able to perform any magical acts at all when all your energy is being spent making it as difficult as possible for yourself."

"What are you talking about?"

"You are focussing on the wrong thing. What you're calling interference is nothing of the sort, nor is the neurological flimflammery. If you stop trying to screen the noises out you'll see that the true pattern is quite different from the one you are trying to discern."

Avon blinked. "Are you quite sure?"

"Witchcraft is not mathematics," said Chrestomanci sharply. "Now look again."

Avon, surprisingly docile, put his hand on Blake's head and, presumably, looked. It felt different this time. Not cold. The edges in his brain still itched, but this time the touch of Avon's mind felt tentative, tender, almost wondering: then, all of a sudden, the touch was withdrawn so quickly that Blake felt sick. When his vision cleared slightly, he saw Avon glaring at Chrestomanci with his worst glare.

"What have you done?"

"Nothing," Chrestomanci said, "I assure you."

"I did not put that there!" Avon was squared up to Chrestomanci as if they were about to fight. Although he was a full head shorter than the other man, the effect was somehow not comical.

"No," said Chrestomanci, "but you reinforced it. That's why I couldn't make sense of the spell at first; because there are two layers, and the second is very knotted, since you were trying to hide it from yourself. And very successfully too," he added courteously.

"Could someone please tell me what is going on?" said Blake.

Avon sat down all of a piece and waved a hand limply in Chrestomanci's direction. "Tell him," he said hoarsely.

"Well," said Chrestomanci to Avon, "I suspect that the circumstances in which you learned that you were a mage, and then learned magic, have a great deal to do with this. In the first place, you learned secrecy as a way of life; mages on worlds where magic is prohibited always have a very difficult time, and it often has a dreadful effect on their talents. Secondly, this world has got from somewhere the idiotic notion that magic has to be dissociated from desire, which has meant that you have been consciously trying to prevent yourself from casting the spells you want to cast. Magic is nothing but desire, on any world. And that desire is going to find a way through."

"Into my head," said Blake. "Well, Avon, it's good to know what you really think of me."

"You don't understand, Blake," Avon said, haggard.

"No," agreed Chrestomanci. "The second layer of spells, Blake, are some very fierce wards of protection. Unfortunately - "

" - since I am fully aware that what you most need protecting against is yourself," Avon continued, "they have in some respects backed up the Federation barriers." He looked at Blake, his face so blanked that it screamed to Blake how much Avon thought he was risking.

Blake, quite unexpectedly, laughed. Avon's face faded into puzzlement.

"I know the feeling," he said. "I've wanted to murder your past."

"Anna Grant."

"Whom you don't want to tell me about."

"Whom I don't want to tell you about," Avon agreed. "The point is," he went on, his voice sharpening, "are we any nearer to being able to undo these spells?"

"All of them," Blake added quickly. "I don't like Avon's reinforcements much."

"It's not quite as simple as that," Chrestomanci said. "The contract that I mentioned? I believe it's a contract between the two of you."

"What?" said Blake, then, when Avon's expression didn't change - unless he was looking at the floor slightly more intensely than before - "You know about this," he added flatly.

Avon looked at him. "Yes." He paused, then said: "I have your heart."

"Don't flatter yourself."

"That's a technical term, Blake. It implies nothing. It was - "

"Part of the wards of protection," Chrestomanci supplied, and Avon nodded faintly. "But it means that Avon is not free to leave you. It binds him to you."

"Oh," said Blake. "Then - "

Avon nodded again, even more faintly.

"How can we break it?" Blake asked Chrestomanci.

"I have to give you your heart, freely," said Avon. He sounded like a rusty gate.

"But he can't," said Chrestomanci, "until he is unbound from you."

"And I can't unbind him without my heart," Blake finished.

"Exactly." Chrestomanci got up and began drifting to the door. "I think I shall leave you two to it."

"Um?" said Blake "To what, exactly?"

"To break the spell, of course," said Avon, who had the sandbagged expression he got when he made a breakthrough, received an electric shock, or was about to come. "It's really not very difficult, Blake."

And he knelt on the end of the couch - Blake swung his legs down and out of the way in a hurry - and leaned his forehead against Blake's. Close up, his face looked strange and familiar all at once, and Blake could smell his particular smell and feel the particular warmth of his breath against his lips.

He put one hand on the back of Blake's head and closed his eyes. Blake copied him.

There was a feeling as if the room had twitched, and although Blake could feel himself sitting warm and close and cupping Avon's skull gently in his palm, the two of them were also standing face to face, suspended in darkness, while behind them a double silver cage (not a circuit diagram, but extravagantly three-dimensional) held the faces and voices of Blake's nightmares, which - even the sounds and the smells and the tastes - were somehow themselves and also a tiny silver sphere. His heart, confined behind the double barriers of the Federation spells and Avon's wards.

Blake started to move towards the cage, but as he looked at it its two layers twisted horribly, doing something to space, and he fell to the floor - no, he fell, and Avon caught him. He was on his knees again in an incomprehensibly empty space, with Avon's arms around him, and he caught his breath in terror, but "It's all right, Blake," Avon was saying this time; there was something there. He let out a long breath of relief, reached out for the sphere and stood up out of Avon's arms, all in the same movement.

And then they were singly themselves again, back in the treatment room. Blake opened his eyes.

"Was that all there was to it?"

"Perfectly simple," said Avon, "once we were connected."

"We just had to break the contract at the same moment."

"Yes," said Avon.

"Well," said Blake, looking away. "You're free to leave me now, Avon. Are you going to?"

"I'm surprised you have to ask."

"I don't, really. Which of your boltholes is going to have the honour of - " Then he caught Avon's eye, and delight shot through him, settling his heart back into its place and smoothing the seams around it. "Oh," he said.

"You are really not very bright, Blake," said Avon. He hesitated for a moment, then went on: "But at least your heart is your own again."

"No," said Blake.

He didn't have far to move before the two of them were kissing. As he explored Avon's mouth with his tongue, mapping the shape of it for the thousandth time, he felt his edges being smoothed into place, sweetly and calmly ending precisely where Avon began; then as he began pressing closer, pushing a hand up between their chests to feel the play of muscle under leather as Avon pulled him closer in, he couldn't tell whether his fingertips were crackling with the pleasure he was getting or the pleasure he was giving.

"Blake," said Avon close to his ear, then, a little further away, "Blake," said Jenna; "Oh!"

By the time he'd disentangled himself, Jenna was a retreating voice on the other side of the door: "I can see I'm interrupting. We're all in the galley. Come and have a drink with us when you're ready."

Blake stared at Avon disbelievingly.

"Well," said Avon, "statistically it's extremely surprising that that has never happened before."

"Another part of the contract?"

"Perhaps."

"Which must mean - well, if it's like the rest of your so-called protections - that it's served its purpose."

Avon raised an eyebrow. "Well, now. Roj Blake the queer terrorist?"

"Perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad thing," Blake said thoughtfully. "Though," he added, glaring at Avon, "I prefer 'gay freedom fighter'."

"Semantics," said Avon dismissively. "So long as you do not expect me to become your loyal helpmeet."

"Hardly," said Blake.

"Very well, then. Shall we go and have a drink?"

MUTUAL AFFINITIES

"What?" snapped Blake. "Why are you looking at me like that, Vila? Yes, all right, I'm queer. Do you have a problem with that?"

"If I did, I'd have left a year ago, when I noticed," said Vila cheerfully. "No, it's... Are you sure you're all right?"

"Fine. Why?"

"Because you're acting very strangely."

"Vila," said Cally sternly. "He's happy."

"Oh! Is that what it is?"

Blake looked inside himself to where the sore places and the itches were. They were still there, but they'd changed somehow; they didn't feel like clockworkings, powering him in the absence of anything warmer or brighter, any more. "Yes," he said, surprised. "I think it is."

"I wonder what he's like when he's happy," said Vila to Cally.

"So do I," she said, looking at him thoughtfully.

"Is he any more amenable to reason?" Jenna chimed in, coming over to perch on the arm of Cally's chair. She still wouldn't look at him directly, Blake noticed; but it could wait. Well, it would have to wait. "Blake," she went on, "we're all exhausted. Between trying to straighten out your head and running this ship without you..."

"We have to find Docholli," said Blake automatically. "Immediately."

Avon, ostentatiously sitting with Chrestomanci on the far side of the table from Blake, sighed theatrically.

"It is certainly true that magic has very specific limitations," he remarked.

"What do you mean?"

"Delighted as I am that you are 'happy' - whatever that might mean - it is all too obvious that you are still trying to compensate for your lack of any ideas about where your so-called revolution is going by going there very fast."

Blake considered this for a moment, then said: "Bollocks."

"Oh, a reasoned argument," said Avon. "How refreshing."

"Were they always like this?" said Chrestomanci to Jenna.

"More or less," she said. "Thinking about it, I can see why you thought they were married." She caught Blake's eye, shyly, for the first time that evening, and tried out a smile.

Avon, having spared a moment to glare at both Chrestomanci and Jenna, went on: "Could you be a little more specific, Blake?"

"Whether or not I have any ideas about where the revolution is going - and as a matter of fact, my ideas are exactly what they always were: simply to return the destinies and the resources of the worlds to their own control, free of the Federation's exploitation" - Avon rolled his eyes and started to interrupt, but Blake raised his voice and went on - "we have to move fast if we even want the option of destroying Star One. If we don't find Docholli before Travis does, everything we've done so far will have been useless."

"And when we've found him?"

Blake paused, then he said: "I am quite sure that destroying Star One is the right thing to do."

Chrestomanci poured himself another glass of wine and asked, "What is this Star One you all seem to have such a grudge against?"

"The Federation central control computer," said Avon politely. He pushed his plate away - Chrestomanci might not have been able to work any of the technology in the galley, but that hadn't stopped him providing a passable banquet - and lit a cigarette. "It makes the galaxy habitable and sustains the communications and flight networks among all the planets."

"It imposes Federation control as the price for order," Blake corrected him. "It seems to me that an association among entities is only worthwhile if it is freely entered into. Wouldn't you agree?"

"It seems to me," said Avon, "that it is possible to guarantee free association without necessarily dispensing with an arrangement which has proven to benefit all parties."

"But it's just a computer?" asked Chrestomanci. Both Avon and Blake winced.

"I mean," he went on, "it is just a tool?"

"To an extent," said Avon doubtfully.

Chrestomanci sighed. "I do dislike high-tech worlds," he said plaintively. "Clearly even without this Star One computer it would be possible for planets to communicate with each other and to be habitable? There are other methods?"

"Perhaps," said Blake slowly. "But only the Federation has sufficient resources to sustain all the things Star One does."

"But there's no need for any one group to sustain all of them!" Cally interrupted. "You're quite right, Chrestomanci. We've lived under centralized control for so long we forget there are other ways of doing things."

"There are other resistance groups in the galaxy, I take it," Chrestomanci murmured.

"Hundreds," said Jenna. "Between us..."

"That's brilliant!" said Cally.

"I'll drink to it," Vila said, pouring another round for everyone.

Chrestomanci leaned towards Blake, who was sitting beside him, and murmured: "And you can count me in, as well. Avon should be able to scry well enough to contact me, and there must be something I can legally do. Hoarding magic can set up some serious anomalies across worlds, which would bring this situation into my jurisdiction. It's not fighting the Mage Corps directly, but it should have the same result."

"Thank you," said Blake. "And - well, thank you."

"It was my pleasure," said Chrestomanci. "Honestly. You remind me very much of an old friend of mine, whom I was able to help in a similar situation many years ago."

"An old friend?" asked Blake, raising an eyebrow.

"Precisely that and no more," said Chrestomanci, and smiled. "I never have any luck with curly-haired men." And as Blake stared at him in shock, he added: "It was good to meet you, Roj Blake," leaned in to kiss him on the mouth, and vanished.

THE END


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