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The Shadow That Walks Between Us

By Linda Terrell

 

He screamed and scuttled backwards on hands and knees as waves of terror hit him again. A wall caught him and he tried to push through it, battering himself against it. Only a small spark of sanity railed in the darkness of his mind and sought control. He fought it, finding an odd solace in the insanity and desperation.

Yet, some part of him remained detached, watching him writhe and scream and thrash about. That part of him wanted to reach out but now things were coming towards him, surrounding him and taking his air. Their bodies and faces kept changing, becoming demonic, reptilian and spider-like, excreting slimes and fungus. Especially that one!

He couldn't stop the screaming which seemed to come from somewhere else--not a part of him. He didn't want to stop it, it kept the things away.

Hands reached him, holding him firmly but gently, guiding him, turning him to face her as her "voice" penetrated the mists of terror.

"I told you I was the only one who can reach him. Now please stay back!" Cally ordered with uncharacteristic fierceness as Blake sought the comfort of her arms, clinging to her like a tortured child, wide-eyed with fear.

The lithe Auron was showing the effects of her physical and mental struggle with Blake: her hair was wet with perspiration, her tunic askew and ripped and she was breathless. Still, she had depthless compassion for Blake who was now pressing his curly head to her neck, crying harshly, ending with whimpering sobs as she "spoke" to him, calming him by letting him "see" through her eyes what was really surrounding him: Vila, Gan, Jenna and Avon.

Avon made a small move forward and Blake went into spasms of fear, trying to bury himself in Cally's tunic.

When he had entered the teleport room and saw the tableau of Cally holding onto a wild Blake, Avon had instinctively moved toward them, reaching, in a rare gesture, to reassure Blake--and now the man was recoiling in horror.

Avon didn't know how to react or cope and, as usual, locked up in stony silence. But his frozen face showed real hurt.

Right now, Blake knew no one--not even Cally. Only her telepathic abilities allowed her to get close to him. That, and the fact that she had been with him when the nightmares overtook him, a Federation 'gift' to take back its cleared victims years later. Blake, as they knew him, was gone, locked away within himself. It was as if the old conditioning had suddenly been turned on, some subliminal switch closed, leaving Blake a quivering mass as he relived his struggle against drugs, shock, and beatings.

Gan stayed back with his guileless look of benign curiosity and endless understanding that both irritated and comforted. The giant was a well of stoic optimism. His present body language conveyed the very real message that he would be there to help when called upon and if not, he would understand.

Jenna had fled to the comfort of the Flight Deck, finding a distracted solace in the familiar nest of instrumentation. She couldn't bear Blake's agony. Damned nuisance, being in love with your Fearless Leader.

It was Avon who was genuinely rattled at being rejected. His pale face showed it, pinched with shock and hurt. He moved with uncharacteristic reluctance away from Blake, turning abruptly and striding determinedly to his cabin.

Equally as uncharacteristically, Vila did not flinch: His eyes widened as he tossed Cally a look. "Avon's going to be awfully hard to live with--if he even chooses to live with us at all. He can shut himself away for weeks and still be in the same room with you. Just as well, mind you. It looks like I won't have Blake to hide behind."

Cally was getting Blake to his feet with difficulty as he wouldn't let go. "Yes, I know," she grunted. Blake was a large man, solid and willful. Wisely, Vila stood back when Blake glanced around, looking like a stricken rabbit.

"I fear we are going to have to nurture Avon as well as Blake." Blake would not be prized from Cally's hand. "Avon does not deal well with rejection and the last thing he needs now--we need now--is to be rejected by Blake, even knowing Blake's condition. You saw him reach out. That is extraordinary for Avon. He has been opening up lately--this could lose him to us."

"Or bring him to us, Cally," Gan shrugged. "Avon needs to be needed more than he admits. Maybe this will help him see it."

Once again, Cally and Vila could only stare in wonder at Gan's simple wisdoms. He did have a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Usually, in as few words as possible.

Blake stood shakily, taking this all in, looking warily from Gan to Vila to Cally. His gaze always returned to Cally. He looked woebegone, his eyes tear-reddened and his tunic stained and torn. Even his hair looked forlorn, the curls hanging damp about his face and neck. Vulnerable.

It disturbed Gan deeply to see Blake helpless. He who was naturally graced of tremendous physical strengths had always admired and found courage in Blake's strengths of purpose and vision.

"He could afford to lose some weight," Vila offered lamely when Cally couldn't budge Blake's stubborn solidity.

"We may yet lose him, Vila!" Cally snarled, regretting it when Vila's face crumbled and Blake jumped, wrapping his arms around her from behind.

"Well, I know when I'm not wanted..." Vila stated with his usual false cheeriness.

"But you are needed. I cannot handle all of Blake when he clings like this. He will let you get near as long as I am close."

Vila turned and took a small step, rigid with caution. "You sure?"

"No."

"Oh, I see. No I don't. It's up to me, then isn't it? And Blake." The thief's pout turned to a grin and he came carefully to them, stopping only when Blake had moved to the end of Cally's reach.

Cally directed all the comfort and reassurance she could at Blake until his eyes came into focus with curiosity rather than fear.

Vila chanced taking the man's hand. Blake returned the grip weakly, warily, never letting go of Cally.

"Cally, let go of Blake's hand," Vila directed.

"First, I have to get him to let go of mine." She saw the wisdom of Vila's idea and let her hand slip from Blake's slowly relaxing grip.

Blake remained calm, intently scanning Vila's face while Cally 'talked' to him, telling him Vila was safe.

Yes, Vila was safe, he didn't keep changing like that other one.

"I guess this means we take rotation with Blake," Vila was serious.

"You are right and I thank you for the 'we'...VILA!"

Blake had sagged to his knees, a wave of weakness and nausea overwhelming him. He shook violently and he was rapidly being covered in a cold sweat. His tunic darkened with it and his curls died.

"I think," Vila grunted as he cradled Blake, "we need to work on curing his body before we can deal with his head."

"Yes, but no drugs." Her voice was tight.

"Sure, of course not. Not even soma?"

"No!"

Gan entered pushing a wheeled chair. "Thought you'd need this. He's a large man and large men tend to get larger when they are helpless."

Letting out a near sob of relief for Gan's homely concern and foresight, Cally grabbed the chair from him.

"Thank you, Gan. But you will have to stay back for now, as much as I need you. I do not think it is wise to inflict too many people on Blake just yet. He only just accepts Vila--but I feel he will accept you, probably before any of the others." She smiled wryly at Vila, who replied with a knowing eye roll.

Gan smiled his infinitely patient and knowing smile. "Blake'll come round. He always does. I think he's stronger than me that way. Meantime," he turned to leave, "Jenna needs some hand-holding. So does Avon, come to that." And the giant left.

Vila said, "We're lucky we have Gan. He can be a real calming influence. Now if we could just sic him on Avon.... Come on, Blake, sit here and we'll follow Cally."

Blake seated himself gingerly. "Yes...Cally," he murmured turning on his most charming smile.

"If he'd smiled at you like that a month ago, Cally, I would have said he was trying to seduce you."

"Oh, but Blake is seductive. That is part of his magic, why we follow him. We have all been seduced by him, even Avon." Cally spoke with a far-away look. "It is Avon Blake seems most terrified of. All the rest of you were able to stay, but Blake did not cease going crazy until Avon left. Curious, is it not?"

"You're grasping," Vila warned, but his brain, too, was seeing a perverted logic in Cally's sudden brain-storm. "But it's making sense and I don't like it."

"That the closer he is to someone, the more he rejects them now?"

"Yes, so what does that make us?" Vila was stung, his pout falling into a grimace.

"You are fond of Blake and so am I. I think I get through because my psi talent goes in under Blake's fear and reaches his reason. You are harmless, Vila. You tell us so often enough." She put out a hand and squeezed Vila's shoulder. "But you and I know and must accept that Blake is fondest of another on Liberator..."

"And it isn't Jenna," Vila said under his breath. Deciding against any more cute remarks, Vila pushed Blake on into Medical.

That was a mistake. Blake went berserk at the sight of the instrumentation there. With a bellow that was nearly a roar, he shot up out of the chair and hurled both Cally and Vila aside, running aft.

Vila pulled Gaily up with him. "You know, I've always thought Blake could take Gan to a draw in a fair fight." He tensed to run after Blake.

"No, Vila," Cally restrained him with a gently hand. "If we chase him, he will panic that much more. He cannot get off the ship."

"Not after I tell Zen not to let any of the life capsules launch!" Vila shot back over his shoulder as he ran to the Flight Deck.

Cally berated herself. Sometimes there was very little difference between machines that helped and machines that hurt.

Blake was easily located--after they convinced ORAC to search for him via the teleport bracelet Blake still wore.

ORAC harumphed and sniffed disdainfully at such gross misuse of his talents. But ORAC was a computer after all, and, in the end, had to do as ordered, although as more details were given to him, ORAC seemed genuinely concerned for Blake, especially as patient and guinea pig. ORAC quietly began a search of Federation Puppeteer files.

#

Blake knew he had to find someone but he didn't know who or where. A face flashed through his mind and he rejected it. That one again! But the deep spark that was Blake told him here was cold logic, a way to sanity and comfort, a way back to himself.

But the face kept changing. First the one he knew could help, the one he cared so much for. Then, that other, dark, challenging, cruel.

The way back! That was it, he had to get back. Back where? His planet, and it was outside this building. He had promised to go back, hadn't he? Going back would rid him of this terror and the dark, roiling mists that kept him from himself.

The face loomed before him again, the eyes accusing, laughing, the lips parted in that predatory smile. Somewhere, the screaming began again, running together into one long shriek.

It hurt to scream so. No, it felt good to scream--to slip into the darkness away from that terrible noise.

#

Gan found him, curled into a fetal ball in the cargo area, rocking and whimpering, so blind to everything that Gan was able to roll him over and bring him to his knees with gentle hands and voice.

Suddenly, Blake rushed past Gan. The man barely flicked the giant aside but the bigger man went sprawling.

Just as suddenly, Blake went sprawling over Avon who had followed Gan with his usual stealth. He was convincing himself that he was doing this out of pride, curiosity, anger--anything but affection.

Avon was coming to his hands and knees when Blake picked him up off the floor and began smashing him against the bulkhead.

#

He opened his eyes experimentally, prepared to retreat if it still hurt. Blake had hurt him and he wasn't sure he wanted to face the reality of that just yet.

"Ah!" he winced when he tried to move his arm. "Where...is...he?" It was a snarl.

Vila's voice reached him. "Sedated. Dammit, Avon, why'd you do that? Cally didn't want to use drugs on Blake but it was the only way to get him off you. He was totally crackers. He was going to kill you!"

Avon was stung beyond his own belief. "And if he had, it would have been all my fault?"

"Pretty much, yes...well, er, no, not like that, exactly. It's just that when he sees you, he seems to get worse. Cally has a theory--"

"Shut up." Avon attempted to roll over. Even his teeth hurt. "I always thought he hated me..."

"He doesn't hate you," Vila said a little too hastily. "He loves you and that's the problem."

"Vila," Avon warned.

"No. Listen to me. Cally and I had this theory. Well, no, actually, Cally did but I agree. We put it to Orac while you were sulk, er, shut away in your cabin. It's a Puppeteer's trick. A subliminal order. The original conditioning wiped Blake's brain of his friends' faces and names. So the next time they put in an order that at some distant date, he'd be wiped clean again of his current friends and the closer he is to any of them, the more permanent the wipe. I think that's something like ORAC said. He uses such complicated words, Avon. But, you see, Blake is fighting it so it isn't just a simple wipe, but a walking nightmare for him."

"Shut up," Avon repeated, turning away.

"Er, yes, right. Sure. You're alright now so I'll go back to Bla...Cally. We're taking turns with him. He seems to accept me, us. Well, you know I'm harmless and..."

"SHUT UP."

Stung by the anger in Avon's voice, Vila clamped his mouth shut. Yes, hurt was there too. Avon hurting. That wasn't good for any of them. Avon was unpredictable at the best of times. This wasn't the best of times.

#

How dare Blake turned on him like that!?! Avon's mind raced, his fury turning to icy righteousness. He would reject on his terms, not the other way around. Oh, how he had so carefully snarled and snapped and slashed at Blake these months, to keep the man away, to reject the affection Blake always offered. And he had wanted it. Wanted that strong, silent warmth. But to succumb was to show weakness and Blake would possess him.

A corner of his brain reminded him that it wouldn't be so bad, not with Blake. Could he even think of possessing Blake? Never--not when he'd have to share him with so many.

He laughed. He was jealous. Jealous not just of Cally and Gan and how Blake...allowed...them to get close to him. But jealous of--Vila! He was further gone than he thought.

He decided to get through to Blake. Oh yes, he would get through. Kerr Avon wasn't going to be left hanging and alone again, not this time. For once, he told himself, he was not going to back up and freeze everyone out. He will come to me.

You're being petulant, a cool logic told him from that part of his brain he reserved for all things Blake.

Nonsense, I'm being sore...and petulant.

Stiffly, he moved off his couch and dressed gingerly. Formulating a plan, he moved out toward Blake's quarters....

#

Cally felt a soft swirl of air as the door to Blake's cabin opened and Avon slipped in. Moving with unusual stiffness, he sat down beside Cally, drawing his knees up. Clasping his hands around his legs, he leaned forward.

Vila lay curled up near Blake's couch, sleeping with that innocent air so peculiar to the thief.

Blake was still, the muscles in his face twitching as some picture disturbed him.

//Avon, if Blake should awake and see you...//

"He will not see me," Avon whispered tightly. "I want him to come to me."

He felt a flash of apprehension from Cally, then realization. //It could work. There would be little fear for him if he took the initiative. But he must not see your face.//

"1 know," Avon rested his forehead against his knees and let out the smallest of sighs.

Cally moved silently with her own cat-like grace, stirring Vila with her foot and pulling him gently to his feet. He grinned stupidly and leaned heavily against her.

//We will be right outside. Blake could hurt you...//

"I'm ready this time." I hope.

//Let us hope Blake is. I fear it may be too soon. But he is still lightly sedated.//

Avon had lapsed into silence. Cally and Vila left, settling themselves on the floor outside against the closed door.

Mumbling, Vila fell back to sleep against Cally, his head on her breast. She allowed it, even welcomed it. Vila could be so endearing. And wasn't he harmless?

#

There was a movement and Avon flinched. He was vulnerable, sitting in the center of the room, nothing near to hide behind or grab and use as a shield. For all his bulk, Blake could move nimbly and fast when he wanted to, with a finesse one wouldn't expect in such a solid, burly man.

Fingers were touching him, exquisitely lightly. Exploring. His hair, his shoulders, arms and hands. Moving back, urging him to show his face. Avon pressed into his knees.

Blake had come to him and knelt before him, searching reassuring himself by touch in the dim room.

"I...have to...find someone." It was a hoarse whisper.

"Who?" Avon chanced, keeping his voice pitched high and soft. It was his own most seductive voice.

"Don't know," Blake grunted succinctly, sitting back with legs crossed, eyeing Avon intently.

Avon could sense that gaze and it made his skin prickly. That warm, humorous gaze that often ended so many arguments--he feared the blankness of it now. Chancing a look between his knees, he could see only Blake's bulk, not his face. Just as well. Blake mustn't see his face, not yet. He waited endlessly for Blake to speak again. Blake must take the lead here, be allowed the initiative.

"Cally...where?" Blake continued having trouble speaking, finding words. That shook Avon. Blake was the best repartee artist he'd come across in his adult life.

"Outside, Blake. Close."

"Which one...are you...then?"

Avon shuddered involuntarily. Would the name alone push Blake back into his nightmares?

"Which one do you want?"

"The one...who can help. He's...outside this...place...I... need...him before...my mind...dies."

Hearing a sharp intake of breath, Avon chanced another glance. Blake was curling into himself again and beginning to rock, the square, strong face contorting.

Gathering all his iron will and determination, Avon did not move, did not reach out, did not touch or soothe. He was surprised to find he wanted to but he knew to do so would destroy what very little rapport had been gathered here.

Blake moaned and Avon cringed, never raising his head. Blake cried and Avon curled into himself. It was the single hardest thing he had had to do since...leaving...Anna. He never thought his control could waver after that, but he felt it cracking. Dammit. Watching people he liked hurting was not a recreational pastime, feeling Blake break down was almost more than his shields could bear--he had come to depend on Blake's strength more than he knew. That annoyed him and still he dared not move. How much did you know I depended on you, Blake?

Blake was quiet for some time then Avon felt the man move to him again, touching lightly. It was almost sensuous, this child-like tenderness. If he didn't watch himself, he could grow to enjoy it.

"Which one...are...you?" Even in madness, Blake's voice could still caress.

"Avon...." he tensed.

There was a long sigh, then the sounds of Blake putting himself back into his bed. "I do not...know...him. The...other knows. My mind...is...dying." He curled up and rocked himself into a fretful sleep.

Avon kept watch for another hour. Then, rising slowly--relentlessly stiff from his vigil--he left the room. He did not stop to talk to Cally or Vila still sitting outside, or Gan who passed him carrying food to Blake.

"Go off watch, Jenna," he said as he walked onto the Flight Deck.

"No. Avon." Her blond head didn't turn to acknowledge him. "I need the distraction."

"We do not need you taking double and triple watches because you cannot deal with losing Blake." Avon's tone was unusually gentle given the subject-matter.

"It's Vila's watch anyway," her tone was accusing.

"He is watching Blake, along with Cally, and Gan. Go to your quarters, or the mess or the rest room. Your watch was over two hours ago and...why am I arguing over a watch?" he snorted, throwing himself across a corner of the U-shaped couch. "Stay on watch until you drop if it suits you, Jenna. I can ignore you."

"You excel at that. And don't snarl at me because you can't deal with losing Blake."

Avon leaned his head into his hand and listened to Jenna leave, her perfume lingering. She did have a penchant for heady scents, that one. Someday he would seduce her, just to see her reaction. Just to see if he could and if she would.

"Status report, Zen."

+Traveling Standard by four with no destination change since four watches ago.+

Leaning forward, Avon rested his hands on ORAC's solid rectangle. Activated, ORAC came to life with a sullen 'aoow'.

"You went to Blake."

Avon knew better than to ask how ORAC knew that.

"Yes, and sat in a wretched position for several hours. But he came to me and spoke. Do I dare ever show my face to him?"

"No. You must not. He will collapse. It is you he is most conditioned to fear and reject right now."

"That has become clear. But who is the one he thinks he needs?"

"You, Avon."

"But he fears me."

"Yes, but a part of his sanity--what he can hang on to--tells him your cold logic can find a way for him."

"Then who is 'the other'?"

"You, Avon."

Coming to his feet, Avon struck one of his more sartorial poses, hand on hip, the other resting at waist level. "How very useful, Blake is a schizoid."

"No, you are."

"Don't psychoanalyze me, Orac!"

"It is a statement of fact. You have always been two people with Blake and he has seen it when the others could not. He now only knows enough to need the logical Avon, whom he fears and to seek the friendly Avon, whom he cannot remember."

"Then you are saying the one he needs is the one who terrorizes him?" Why did that hurt?

"Yes."

Avon's eyes clamped down as he went introspective. "To help cure him, I now have to terrorize him?" he let out a breath through pursed lips. "Well now, we'll do our best, I'm sure."

"I suggest continuing to sit quietly near him as often as possible. After he has accepted you--"

"If he accepts me."

"Will you please let me continue or have you formulated your own diagnosis and cure? Why do you insist upon asking me questions when you are prepared to supply your own answers?"

Avon couldn't contain a smile. "Please continue."

"That is better. Now, as soon as he has accepted you, and I believe he will, there is a possibility you could face him as 'the other'. Blake has much stronger mental processes than you give him credit for. Even now, some of his circuits, as it were, are healing. But be careful. Expose yourself to him too soon, and he will shatter. And he will take you with him."

"I'm not sure I was meant to be a diamond cutter." Avon keyed ORAC off before the box could deliver a patronizing harangue.

"You do do better with computers, Avon," Vila's breezy voice reached him from the doorway. "Sitting with Blake until he came to you was your own idea was it? You didn't consult with Orac first?" He bounced down the steps and spread himself insolently across the same corner of the couch that Avon had just abandoned. "The age of miracles may still be with us. But I doubt it."

Regarding Vila with a strange irony, Avon spun on his heel and left the deck.

"Just as well," Vila muttered, settling himself comfortably. "Status Zen."

#

He never saw the man come in, just usually woke up and found him already there, near, darkly quiet. Both fearing and liking the presence, he was continually drawn to the figure. Like Cally, there was something compelling and comforting when he was near, speaking with that soft, velvet voice.

There were long, terrible periods of darkness which overcame him and he would be lost for hours, days. Then he would wake and the figure would be just in sight as he opened his eyes. Did the man time it or did he sit there that long? But he never showed his face.

This time he would see the face. He was tired of talking into the dark hair and bowed head. Though sometimes the man would chance a look and once he almost caught the dark eyes. Sometimes he would adopt the same drawn up pose, resting his head on his knees and staring until the man stirred.

"I want...a name." he whispered, touching lightly yet again, just barely stirring the smooth cap of hair. "And a...face, please."

His face was centimeters from the man now. He put out his hands and took the head, urging it to look up, at him.

The man only allowed his eyes to clear his arms. Black diamond eyes flashed at him, then the lids closed over them.

"What name do you want?" the figure asked, muffled into his arms.

"You told me...Avon...once." He remained close, breathing the other man's breath. So close.

A very deep sigh rose from Avon--he saw the shoulders rise and fall with it. Felt the breath released. Avon was looking at him, the eyes wise and bright. No smile lit the sharp features but there was a softness there. Long lashes shadowed the cheeks. A firm mouth was set haughtily. In all, not an unpleasant face.

"Why do you...hide? I...like...your face." Talking was less of an effort but it still tired him.

A flash of surprise crossed Avon's face. "Cally thought that you might think me to be another who disturbs you."

"I...don't think so. There is...another...face. Dark, like...yours. He keeps me...from safety. He brings...the dark. You do not."

"Are you sure?" The predatory smile began then was shut down as the face returned to stone.

He smiled at Avon. His nearness was a comfort. It kept the darkness away. The dark had never once taken him while this Avon was with him. So he sat and returned Avon's silence with his brightest smile.

Avon crumbled, a smile capturing his face. Even as a woebegone waif, Blake radiated charisma and charm. Unfolding, he reached out and touched Blake's shoulder. "I can reach you, can't I?" Avon said with wonder and satisfaction.

#

And so it went for weeks: hours spent on the floor with Blake, sometimes just staring at each other, exchanging smiles and affectionate touches.

Blake seemed at ease and the Dark rarely took him. But he still wasn't quite Blake. There was always something hesitant and dependent about him. He would move about Liberator with familiarity but showed no signs of taking command. No flashes of the brilliant leader--he simply was.

Avon suspected an emotional 'bomb'. Cally concurred, which made Vila cower and become reluctant to rotate watches over Blake alone.

Avon's watches drained him. He slept unusually long after a session with Blake. Blake usually slept equally as long, but far less fretfully. It was as if Blake's turmoil was transferred to Avon then Avon had to fight to be rid of it.

He lost weight, Blake did not.

Meanwhile, Jenna moved about with cold detachment. Blake neither recoiled nor sought her. This left her with little idea as to where she fit on his list of priorities. But it was obvious that everyone took their place on Liberator after Avon.

#

'I'm too comfortable,' he chastised himself. 'You really are letting yourself become too comfortable with this situation.'

Blake was looking at him, the warm brown eyes searching his.

"Have you thought about where you're going to leave me?" Blake asked quietly, matter-of-factly.

It came like a slap across the face. He literally reeled from it and found himself as close to panic as he ever wished to come.

"'Leave?' How could you even think of such a thing?" he said with all the dignity he could muster, his words dripping with outrage.

Blake continued, completely unaware of the emotions he had aroused in Avon. "Well, I'm not much good like this. It seems logical to leave me somewhere quiet to let me try and get it together."

"Then what have all these hand-holding and snuggle sessions been about?"

"You can't keep looking after me. I have to be of some use on this ship and..."

"Never ask that or even think that again!" he had Blake's shoulders in a vice-like grip and was shaking him. "Don't even dream it." He stopped as suddenly as he had begun, searching Blake's trusting eyes. He was shaking at his own outburst. He couldn't believe he could be hurt so much. "You could think that of us? Of me? After all I...." His voice caught as Blake continued to watch him with his level, appealing gaze.

"It sounded like an adequate solution at the time," Blake offered.

Arms slipping from Blake's shoulders, Avon sat back a bit, then rocked forward. "You mean more to...us, than that. We, I...."

"Avon?" Cally called tentatively.

He tried to compose himself but it was far too late.

"I am sorry to barge in like this, Avon, Blake. You know I would not do such a thing as a rule...but I sense great distress from you, Avon." Moving to the two men, she knelt and put her arms around them both.

"Blake is confused," she smiled as Blake bowed his head to her shoulder, slipping his arms around her waist. "And you are hurting."

He closed his ayes, setting his head in his hands. "Blake wants to know when we are going to put him off somewhere to heal."

Cally did not register surprise. "He has come to what seems--for him--a logical process."

"Where did he get an idea like that?" He was indignant and didn't try to hide it.

"Wounded wolves are killed by the pack. We are a fighting crew and he is on the outside now. See it as he does. You always said you were more levelheaded than Blake."

"Cally, you're really suggest--" He smiled, realizing he'd taken the bait. "Once I would have, wouldn't I? I think Blake is worth a little more time."

"I think you are right and he's falling asleep." She settled Blake against her, like a very large, bulky child. Then watched Avon's face. "It really stung you."

"I, I didn't think I could still be hurt so deeply."

"Then think of the times you have stung him."

"I did. I think that's why it hurts so much. Dammit, I'm into the very thing I've been trying to avoid: being hurt by people I like." His hooded hawk features fell into a pout, causing Cally to giggle, which caused Blake to stir, which made Avon finally break down and laugh softly.

"I hope Blake doesn't remember this later. He'll hold it over me."

"You still do not know him, do you?"

"I'm trying, Cally."

"Yes, and we often sit and wonder at it."

"Oh, you gather together to analyze me, do you?" He put a hint of threat into his purr.

"No, Orac analyzes. We just find hope and strength in it."

Well, then, there was nothing left to be said, was there?

He didn't move until Cally left.

#

Avon was becoming closer to Blake than he had ever imagined possible with any human being; could never imagine being possible after Anna.

But Blake needed him and he very much wanted--even enjoyed--being needed. Gan had seen the right of it.

Naturally, Avon didn't show it. He barely could admit it to himself. So he left the special times for himself and Blake--exclusively--and remained noncommittal when discussing Blake's progress with anyone.

"You're really enjoying it, aren't you?" Vila needled buoyantly. Avon wasn't as short-tempered with him as usual and Vila found he could get away with more than he would ever have dared normally.

Avon riddled him with silence.

"I never imagined you as a nursemaid," Vila continued. "But I must say, you seem to have a real talent for it. Blake is improving."

There was admiration behind Vila's chiding. Avon had improved so much in temperament that everyone was nearly overlooking the fact that Blake was not himself yet. In face, he'd developed an almost frightening dependence on Avon. And Avon was enjoying it.

#

Blake always sought his eyes--he would accept no less. Avon was not allowed to bow his head and hide anymore. It disturbed so much that if Avon attempted it even as a joke, Blake could be rapidly reduced to tears of fear and frustration.

Meeting those gold-lit forest eyes gave him a rare pleasure. That of simply enjoying the presence of another person. Blake. To see Blake light up when he recalled that Avon was back with him again. Blake.

It had turned into a bit of a game with them, that both of them looked forward to. Although he'd sometimes find Blake watching him work at a computer, or join him for coffee, nothing was as satisfying as the hours spent sitting with Blake on the floor in his quarters.

Blake always came to him then. Reaching, touching lightly, often slipping an arm around his shoulder or waist. And thus they would sit for hours, never a word passing between them. None were needed.

Blake was decidedly comfortable with the relationship. Avon revelled in it, but only behind closed doors, only in the man's immediate, intimate company. Only when those eyes encompassed him, inviting him into that warm, loving circle that was Blake, did Avon allow himself to enjoy it, even wonder at it and his own reaction.

How did he ever get into this? He told himself daily that he'd 'wean' Blake away from him. But how? When he was addicted.

"You keep the Dark away. That's why I want you here. With me. By my side." Blake replied, leaning close until he was nearly eyelash to eyelash with Avon.

"I can't always be with you." Avon was attempting one of his rare weaning sessions. As usual, he was failing.

Why do you try to send me away? To break from me? The two of us are one.... "Avon...."

"Does...the Other still disturb you?" Avon was holding Blake's face with his hands pressed firmly to the temples.

"Not since you started coming," Blake sighed easily. "I thought you were once--you can be so dark and glowering."

Avon grinned--crystal imbedded in coal. "Part of my charm."

Blake sat back, lit with his own smile. He was smiling with his whole face now and his eyes danced.

"When are you coming back to all of us?" Avon pressed carefully. "When are you going to become the irritating idealist leading us reluctantly astray? You've simply been cruising up to now."

Emotions flickered across Blake's face. "I, I don't know yet. I can't find that part of me. I can't be sure..." he began to shake and pull Avon to him to steady himself. "I'm so damned scared I'll go off on you while I'm on deck or in the middle of a fight. I'm...scared to have any of you depending on me."

"Oh, we depended on you, did we?"

Blake regarded him somberly. "Oh yes. More than you can ever admit, Avon."

Avon allowed a lot from Blake. This lost and insecure Blake.

The shadows are gone from me, Blake. It's like walking out from under a cloud. No more feeling through the mists and finding a seamless wall. The way between us is clear now and I can like you. But why does it bother me? At what expense our new friendship? Your spark, your passion, your sanity? Must I lose the very thing that drew me to you in order to stay close to you?

"It's all still too close to the surface," Blake murmured, carefully pushing himself away from Avon. He never pushed Avon away from him.

"I think," said Avon, rising, "that it is time to find a suitably obscure planet and try for some R and R." He leaned over Blake. "You know, sunshine, birds, trees, running water, crawly things. The usual pastoral nonsense."

Hands folded neatly in his lap, Blake rocked a bit as he thought it over. Putting a hand inside his shirt, he rubbed his collarbone in an unconscious gesture of introspection. "Yes. That might help."

"You've always enjoyed playing back to Nature. You have to think about it?" It was a measure of how insecure Blake still was.

"I'm afraid so. I have to think about everything anymore. Sometimes, even you." He chewed at his frown. "Guess I'm still pretty far gone, aren't I?" he finished with a small laugh.

"Well, now, as long as you're not doing it because you think I enjoy coddling you."

"Oh, that's the last thing I think you are doing." The voice was husky, almost sultry. Blake kept rocking slightly, staring past Avon. Vulnerable.

"Yes," Avon whispered, seating himself beside Blake again "Gan coddles. Cally cares. Vila whimpers. Orac snipes. Jenna scolds."

"And you, Avon?" Blake teased, looking sideways at him.

"My thesaurus is broken."

When Cally innocently suggested that perhaps Avon should cut down his time alone with Blake to let the man sort things out himself, the look Avon gave her would have cut diamonds.

#

Blake was busy reintroducing himself to the teleport when ORAC picked up a communique from Travis to Space Command.

So far to the end of Zen's range was it that ORAC was obliged--with much dickering and reasoning--to relay it to the screen.

Travis' hawkish face filled the screen as he made a downright petulant report to Servalan on how forces beyond his control (i.e. slower pursuit ships) were hampering his hunt for Blake and Liberator.

"At least he's well away from us," Jenna breathed. "But he's on the right track to find us, whether he knows it or not."

"Which is why we're going to rest and regroup on that delightfully obscure planet directly ahead," Avon announced.

"Who appointed you our Recreation Councilor?" Vila made a show of straining his vision at the forward screen. "Where ahead?"

"Directly ahead, somewhere behind Travis' right ear."

"Oh. Naturally."

Jenna spoke. "Well, it's certainly got to be better than watching Travis' baleful eye. I'll put it--BLAKE!"

They all spun toward the stairs as a cry of despair and betrayal struck them.

"It's the Other!" Blake cried, pointing at the just fading view of Travis.

"You, you all lied to me! Avon." It was a question and an accusation.

Avon's face was suddenly lit with a horrible realization. "Orac was wrong," he said to everyone and to no one. "The 'Other' is Travis."

Turning on an anguished cry of "Treachery," Blake ran, possessed, to the teleport.

Vila was a sprint runner when suitably motivated. Avon wasn't far behind. They both slid into the teleport room in time to see Blake's figure blink out of view--and, possibly, existence.

"Blake," Avon's voice held a cold fear that made Vila's heart back up.

Setting his face in a mask of urgency, Avon's hands began to fly over the teleport controls.

"We're out of teleport range of anything." Desperation tore at his voice.

Vila stayed Avon's hands. "You can't reverse it in mid-beam. Blake'll be scattered."

Avon pushed Vila away with enough force to put the man on his backside. "I'm trying to augment it, you idiot. Enough to at least get him to the planet we're headed for."

Checking the readouts, Vila announced flatly, "It's too far, Avon." He touched the man's hand. "And too late."

Freezing, Avon let out a breath and, pressing his palms to his eyes, he leaned heavily against the console.

"Wait," Cally spoke from the doorway.

The lights on the instrument cluster brightened and flared with a surging thrum. Then they returned to normal with a faint light pulsing at a grid reference for the planet ahead.

"I asked Orac to boost the signal. It may have worked." She too, bowed her head into her hands and leaned back against the wall. "Thank goodness Orac did not argue with me. He does rather resent telepathic orders."

"He resents orders, Cally." Avon said softly, moving back to the flight deck. He stopped long enough to reach out and touch Cally tenderly in a gesture of well done. "But he does do as told."

Vila's jaw dropped. "You called Orac 'he'"."

Avon's reply was almost cheerful. "So I did. Comes from associating with Blake, I suppose."

They arrived back on the deck to see Gan helping Jenna to a place on the couch. His eyes posed The Question.

"With Orac's help, we think Blake made it to the planet ahead." Avon clasped his hands behind his back.

Jenna was near collapse with relief at Avon's news. The deck seemed to go out from under her and she threw herself onto the couch gratefully. "No thanks to us."

"No," Avon's voice returned to its clipped and deadly acid mode. "No thanks to us. Thanks to Orac and Cally's quick thinking. Blake's luck is still holding."

Inside, Avon was wretched with fear for Blake. The man would hardly call in. In fact, the first thing Blake would do would be to get rid of the bracelet.

They were going to need Cally down there: She could search by telepathy for him.

Vila was actually objecting to being left behind on Liberator with Jenna and Gan.

"But he trusts me, too," he wailed, all but stamping his foot. Here he was, volunteering to go down and they tell him no.

"He doesn't trust any of us now. He saw us all 'talking' to Travis. No doubt he'll be especially resentful of those of us he was closer to these last few weeks." Tilting his head, Avon looked at Vila, adding softly, "Do you really wish to face Blake the way he probably is right now?"

"If he made it," Vila accused. "If he's not shut himself away again and can't even contend with the planet around him. Oh, we've done a good job of it this time, haven't we?" The thief sniffed as he positioned himself at the teleport controls.

Backing into the teleport, Avon took his place beside Cally, one arm out, every so slightly protective. "Put us down."

As Avon spoke, the Liberator was rocked by a blast. Avon and Cally were thrown against the walls of the teleport and Vila sent flying over the controls.

"What the hell!?!" Avon said as he came to his feet in one movement.

They all stumbled to the Flight Deck.

A voice was demanding their surrender while the screen presented the most ludicrous craft any of them had ever seen. Federation it was not.

A veritable farm of antennae sprouted from a roughly deltoid shape. It was about half the size of the Liberator but it had come in under all her defenses. And fired on them, successfully, before they were even aware.

Each one told themself that, after all, they had been preoccupied with the possible loss of Blake.

"That is an Uirloryan fighter," Cally gasped, her face going cold. "They are said to be legend, preying on the outer fringes of the Great Void."

"That legend packs a hell of a big gun." Vila pointed out. "We barely got the shields up in time--and here comes another."

They watched in stunned fascination as a flare from the Uirloryan ship grew and engulfed them. The Liberator shuddered as the shields absorbed the energy.

"That wasn't as rough as before," Gan noted, unnecessarily. "Perhaps they haven't met anything as big as Liberator before."

Jenna's level voice reached them from her place in the, pilot's chair. "They could have underestimated. They could also be toying with us. We have to lead them away from the planet."

"Yes." Avon hissed. Then to the Auron, "Cally, you must go down."

"We cannot lower the shields...."

He whirled on her. "Do as I...please, Cally. Blake cannot be left alone. You are probably the only one left who can get through to him. He can't shut off your telepathy."

"You want to go and we all know it." Cally reached out and touched Avon's arm. "Jenna is an excellent pilot..."

"Blake would never leave this ship," Avon's jaw was set, his eyes hardening, until he resembled Blake himself in one of his intractable episodes which usually came about when the ship was in jeopardy. "Nor will I."

"Who put you in command?" Jenna asked. Her tone indicating she was prepared to challenge Avon's choice of captaincy. "You may be a commander of computers but you have no natural aptitude for space combat. Please go help Blake. You and Cally. I can lead this lot off."

Avon actually looked defeated. He had to concede Jenna was right. He'd ever only obeyed Blake's combat orders because his instinct told him Blake knew what he was doing. He always felt turned inside out during a ship-to-ship battle. Blake had a rare talent for it, he did not. "You are right, Jenna. I would be of little help. Unless you are planning to ruin the computers."

The ship rocked again.

"They are definitely toying with us," Jenna stated. She was cool and rock-hard in her rightful place. This was something she knew how to do as well as Blake.

Avon lit the deck with a rare smile. "You're angry when you're beautiful. And just as determined."

Jenna put on her best 'Avon' mask.

"Avon being reasonable. I don't believe it. I hope I live to see it again someday," Vila added, beginning to chitter as he always did when faced with danger. Odd, how the man always came through, often even helping.

"You should live so long," Cally shouted as she and Avon rushed to the teleport.

Vila jogged on after them to operate the controls.

"Don't come back for us until you have the Uirloryans well away from here, or destroyed."

Cally tugged at Avon's sleeve. "You are telling that to Vila?"

"Relay that, Vila," Avon never missed a beat.

"Yes, Sir." Vila saluted as he activated the teleport.

#

"I would say that if Blake is true to his training," Cally swept the late summer forest with both eyes and mind's eye, "he has moved from this area."

"If he hasn't blacked out. And if he remembers his training." Avon added, following her gaze. "Anything?"

"No, I do not feel Blake near.

"Well then, try to feel him far."

Cally gave him a look of inspired reproach.

"Then we have to find a trail..." he started to bend down to examine the forest floor. Looking up, he saw Cally in that pose she assumed when she thought she felt something.

"You said you couldn't feel Blake."

"Yes, but I... This direction feels right to me. Let us take it."

"Pure hunch," Avon muttered, already moving after her. Cally's hunches were rarely wrong.

As they moved on through the coniferous forest, it became increasingly apparent that this part of the planet was suffering from a long dry season. They had enough food and water with them for two days. Blake had nothing.

Scanning the trees, Avon craned his neck. Looking back at Cally, he explained. "If memory serves me, Blake has a penchant for trees."

"We must look for a shallow den," she said firmly.

"Very well, so now he's burrowing."

"Use your eyes, Avon," she went on with the air of a teacher. "You must note that those trees do not offer much. They are thinned by drought and the branches dry and brittle. They would barely hold me, let alone Blake."

"Mmmm," Avon replied distractedly. Cally was right--again. "Let's hope we can find him before nightfall."

"Let's hope the Liberator finds us all."

#

Blake came to with a blaze of sun on his face. He felt torn apart. Disoriented.

A small animal nearby panicked him. But before he ran off through the trees, something told him to calm down, go steadily. And though every molecule cried out to run, to curl up in a small hold, he moved cautiously and cunningly.

This wasn't the planet he needed, however. Where were the domes? The environmentally controlled cities? Perhaps this was a park. Looking at the dried brush, crackling under his feet, he doubted it. No respectable Park would be allowed to get like this.

They would be after him soon--them and that one. He cried out again at the betrayal, putting his fists to his temples, bending into the pain.

Avon! No, Travis. No, it was Avon talking with Travis. All of them with him, with the murderer. Folding his arms across himself, he went to his knees, crying wretchedly. All that caring. The discovery of Avon's affection, the opening path between them. Cally, Vila--how could you let him? Did he hypnotize you too?

His head thundered and his eye burned. Avon wore an eye patch. Travis laughed at him and aimed his studded arm at him and Avon fired and Jenna took Travis in her arms and kissed Avon and Vila, and Cally laughed and Gan shot him and they left him while Servalan piloted the Liberator to pieces...

When the tears and the visions began to bring the Dark, Blake shook himself, running his hands though his thick curls, pulling the hair until the reality of that pain brought him back from the brink.

Avon had kept the Dark away. How could he have done that while turning on him too?

He needed to rest and regroup. Somehow he got in motion again, stumbling off in a random direction. Pulling himself together, he decided on a course of deliberate random. Some old instinct told him how to look for signs of water. He didn't question how he knew, there wasn't time for more introspection.

Nearly a day later and not really sure how, he managed to find a spring-fed pool. Cool and quiet, overhung by an eroded embankment that suggested of days gone by, when it would have had a small waterfall and cascades offlowers and vines. Now, only the pool was alive.

Best not stay too near the water--that's where they'd want him to be. Drinking deeply did not ease the pain behind his eyes nor the hole in his stomach. An ancient calling urged him to a small den, well covered by old vines and an outcropping of roots and logs. He literally crawled in, curled up and dropped off to sleep despite numerous attempts to remain awake. Alone and unarmed except for a sturdy limb he'd picked up and cleaned for a staff, he couldn't afford to sleep, and he couldn't afford not to. So he slipped in and out of fitful sleep, convinced he'd soon be outnumbered and out-gunned. But he'd go out on his own two feet, beholden to no one.

#

Cally and Avon didn't find Blake before nightfall. They didn't find him the next morning either. Soon they would be as out of food and water as they supposed Blake to be.

"I sometimes envy Blake his physical reserves," Avon panted, putting his hand out against a tree. Leaning into his arm, he wiped his forehead on a sleeve.

"You have used up your nervous energy," Cally said, still looking as though she could take on another twenty miles. "Now you are into the last of your food energy. Soon there will only be your body's sugar and protein reserves."

"I know how it breaks down," Avon grumped. And must you look so damn fresh and, and--fit?

She put an arm around his waist in a brief hug. He didn't object. "You are tired. Come on, Blake is near and so is water."

He pushed himself away from the tree and let momentum propel him after Cally. "You've been saying that."

"Yes." She took his hand and tugged him along. "Because it is true."

#

Over a day away, Liberator and the Uirloryans had just about fought themselves into a draw. Liberator had the firepower but the smaller ship outmaneuvered them.

"This is getting ridiculous!" Jenna exploded, bringing her fist down on her chair.

"'Getting'?" Vila shrugged and let the statement stand without embellishment.

Radio contact had gotten them nowhere. Gan had called, threatened, cajoled, asked, suggested, bribed--nothing.

ZEN could not establish whether there was life on the Uirloryan ship.

"It's either robot-controlled," Gan drawled, "or whoever is left is making one last glorious fight."

Jenna tossed a read-out at the screen. "I'd say robot with those reflexes. We haven't been able to touch it. Orac can't read it. I wish Cally had been able to tell us more about them..."

Vila stretched, popping his joints. "Cally and Avon'll be out of food and water soon..."

"Don't remind me!"

+Information.+

"Yes, Zen?" three voices asked.

+Federation patrols within scanner range.+

"Terrific--we'll have a party," said Jenna, scowling.

"There's six of them!" Vila's voice broke as he glanced around and over both shoulders--an instinctive gesture he used when feeling cornered.

Jenna suddenly brightened. "I don't think the Uirloryans can outmaneuver six Federation ships--and us. Do you?"

"Oh, Jenna, that's, that's...suicidal." Vila looked to Gan pleadingly. "She can't mean that, can she?"

Gan sat back, folding his arms thoughtfully. "Why not?"

"Oh, of course. Why not? I've nothing better to do with today so let's all kill ourselves by attacking six Federation ships. I've lived a full life. Opened a lock or two. So what's left except dying?"

"Shut up, Vila," Gan said, thoughtfully.

"If we can get the Uirloryans in a cross-fire..." Jenna murmured.

"...and if we can keep the hell out of their way..." Vila finished.

"Let's go," she ordered.

"Uh oh."

#

Wake up, Roj! Up, now! Your first class is in thirty minutes.

His mother was calling him. Cally was calling him. Avon was calling him. Travis shot his mother and laughed.

Blake came awake with a strangled cry. Feeling for the staff--a six foot rod of hard wood, three inches thick--he swung it across him, coming to his knees.

Cally's 'voice' touched him. //Blake, please listen to me.// He shut it out, staring in a rage at Avon who dared to approach his lair.

"No, Avon! He is on the edge now."

"He may be hurt. He's certainly hungry. I'm hungry."

She shook her head. "No. He is in a rage now. And the Liberator is not back. Let us sit and wait."

Avon's lips twitched with a smile. "I thought we were bearding lions in their den."

"Perhaps," she smiled, settling herself against a tree. "But we cannot get close enough to even stun him. We could burn him out but we would burn with him in this tinder. There is water near--we will just have to keep him from it."

His eyes narrowed, genuine concern flickering across his face. "Whatever else I am or have been to Blake, I am not cruel. He is also very stubborn."

"He has been without water a day now. Water deprivation takes a toll in less than three days, on the stubbornest of people."

A distant roll of thunder startled them all.

Bending down, Avon picked up the dry leaves and crumpled them. They crackled and disintegrated. "Well, rain for someone. But it won't come in time for this area, I fear."

"Sit down, Avon, and stop fretting. We can help Blake but not by brute force."

"Yes," distracted. "But I'll wager Blake's more the bear than lion." He sat down, curling one leg under him and resting an arm across his knee.

"No, he is a very hurt, frightened child."

"He is a very hurt, frightened, two-hundred pound child."

Cally flinched. When Avon reached out, solicitous, she took his face in her hands. "Go to him, Avon. He is frightened and confused and a part of him wants you."

Avon looked stricken. "And the rest of him will try to kill me."

Her compelling eyes caught him. "Blake is crying and shutting me out. Go to him while I keep trying to talk to him."

With an exaggerated sigh, Avon got up and carefully picked his way to the den. Standing before it, he held out his empty hands. "When you decide to come out, Blake, I will not touch you. I won't--can't--hurt you. Certainly not more than you are hurting yourself."

Blake had not moved since he woke. Up on his knees, the staff held deftly, he was beginning to shake with the conflict, and the Dark which rose in his chest.

"Somewhere in your thick head, you've got to know we were only scanning a transmission from Travis, not conspiring with him."

Oh yes, I do know but Travis laughs and you shoot me and my mother dies and you laugh and I die and you laugh...

Freezing in position, face sculpted into a death's-head grin, Blake waited.

Avon sat down before the entrance, drawing his knees up and resting his chin on them.

#

"That's got it!" Jenna cried. "Straight into them."

"Oh no."

"Shut up, Vila."

"Oh, come on, Gan. There are six of them..."

"And there will he two of us!" Jenna's face was lit with that compelling radiance they had often seen on Blake when he was in his this-is-the-way-to-do-it mode. "Clear the blasters for firing, Zen. We're going at them with everything."

Gan broke the ensuing silence. "You have no idea if this will work."

Grinning, Jenna pushed back her hair. "Blake rarely does either. He works on instinct."

"Well," Vila tried not to fidgit, "Blake's taken his instinct to a planet thirty hours from here."

"If the Uirloryans want a fight," she jabbed at the air in front of her, "let's give them one. In the tangle of a seven ship battle, we can high-tail it."

"With six ships after us."

"Thank you, Vila. I appreciate your caution. But do shut up and do your job." To ZEN she barked, "Start a slow radial spin, Zen. Fire on my order, Vila."

"Oh gawd, we're going to die."

 

Thus it was that Jenna Stannis added another chapter to the Blake legend by sending Liberator into six Federation ships, all weapons firing during a slow spin.

Equally surprised were the Uirloryans, who suddenly found themselves in the path of scattering pursuit ships. They soon realized, however, that two or three shaken and wounded pursuit ships might be easier prey than one determined Liberator.

#

Thunder and lightning disturbed him all night. He had barely nodded off when something startled him awake.

Coming to his knees, he was aware that he couldn't see very well and breathing was difficult.

Smoke!

His brain was congratulating itself on the astute observation when he was again aware of something near.

Blake was up on one knee, leaning on a thick staff, staring down at him like some prophet come from the Mount.

Chancing a look around, Avon was appalled to see there was fire on all sides.

"Cally!" he called, coldly realizing that he was not feeling her presence. Another, more immediate, prickling cued him, and he spun just in time to see Blake come up, raising his staff. He's seen the man use one before; seen Blake nearly reduce Travis to a smudge. It was a lethal weapon in those hands, with Blake's bulk behind it.

Avon started to duck and spin away when a tree exploded in flames nearby, knocking them both to the ground.

Rolling frantically, Avon came to hands and knees amidst heat and flame. He thought he saw Blake's figure fall back into the fire. His lungs burned and he watched in wonder as his clothes began to smolder.

"...Cally..." it was a small croak. How far was the Liberator? Had she even survived to return for them?

Damn stupid way to die--for Blake. His brain's Blake Department reminded him that Blake would do no less for him. Not this time, Avon. We're all dead, this time. Travis, Servalan, Uirloryans, rogue rebels, and clinical depression I can deal with. Cremation, however, is not on my list of survival techniques.

He sagged forward, actually feeling a pang of regret at losing all of them. Being roasted alive was so futile, but he'd already lost Blake. Twice. He almost sobbed as he saw again the figure falling into the fire. So, so what? It was hard to think. He couldn't see, only felt his back burning and his hair singeing.

Out of the eternity of flames, strong hands lifted him, put him on his feet and urged him on. When he stumbled and hesitated in confusion, a sharp crack on his backside provided motivation.

Who would dare! Who was left who was big enough to get away with it?

Avon allowed it--he wasn't strong enough to fight Gan at the best of times. And it, just didn't seem good to argue with the giant while he was trying to save a life...or, two? Avon thought he could sense Cally, held closely to Gan, being carried.

His brain said keep moving, his body said rest. Gan wouldn't allow it. Pushed. And pushing. His feet met water. Gan forced him into it until he had to start paddling. It was one of the rare times in his life that Avon panicked.

"Dammit, Gan! You know I can't swim!" he managed through gasps and gulps of water, thrashing about. How ironic, to drown while burning to death.

Again, the strong, sure hands stayed him, holding him close and just above water. He soon gave up trying to help himself and let Gan hold him and guide him. He couldn't see, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't hear.

When the firestorm rolled over them, Gan pulled them under slowly so that they could take in their breath. As his lungs burned for the air he couldn't dare breathe, Avon ached for Blake and the lost chances; for the relationship that had grown and, yes, even for the madness that had brought them closer...

Then there was the familiar nothingness of the teleport.

Three bodies materialized, gasping like beached fish.

Avon weakly fought off the hands that helped him. Cally was unconscious and the big, gentle man still held them both.

* * *

Again, Avon woke slowly, reluctantly. He wondered if he had cried for Blake. So futile, you wondrous rebel. All that idealism and passion dead for naught. You were a damn nuisance, Blake. So why do I actually miss you? Well, if not in glory, you certainly went out in a blaze. Although I don't regret I didn't.

The pain came again. Blake is a cinder on an unnamed planet. How incredibly useless.

"What'd you say? Avon?" Vila's voice came to him ragged with anxiety.

"...useless...." He could barely hear himself. "Blake...useless...."

"You always say that. Say something new."

"Shut up, Vila."

"That's more like it. Not original, but definitely Avon."

"...Cally?"

"Cally's asleep."

That was a comfort, at least.

Avon slept.

#

An overwhelming sense of presence woke him. He fought that too. Waking was uncomfortable.

His eyes opened of their own will and he swore. Sleeping had been so easy this time. So...painless.

He was naked under a light cover and he swore again. Everything was annoying. He was going to be in a rotten mood for weeks. He was looking at Blake.

Through a transparent tent, the strong face was turned slightly toward him. That Blake was covered in such a manner and he wasn't, told Avon the man had suffered more damage than he had.

He could see Blake's breathing was an effort, almost desperate as the great lungs fought to pull in air and diffuse it properly. Those lungs were probably even now filling and Blake trembled with the effort.

He could just make out another covered bed on the other side of Blake. Cally. There seemed to be less of a struggle there and he looked again at Blake.

A turmoil of emotions raged in Avon. Relief that Blake was alive; confusion that he was alive and here. Worry. Fear. Protectiveness...he'd never get over that.

"Gan never ceases to amaze me," Avon muttered.

"What about Gan?" Vila asked, looking pale and anxious. But, oddly, not furtive and flinching as any of them would expect.

Avon did not try to turn to Vila, he was watching Blake, taking in the man's struggle. There was something very alive in the man's battle for life. There was almost a power to it. Blake had a passion for living as well as for his Cause. He was not a man to die easily.

"What about Gan?" Vila asked again, bring Avon back into focus.

"How did Gan get us all back? I only recall him carrying me and Cally to the water. Holding us under during the firestorm. My body hurts."

"I'll say," Vila made a show of fussing with Avon's sheet which was threatening to annoy him further. The thief was adding to Avon's growing irritation by pulling the sheet back and pointedly examining him.

Avon took the sheet back. "Are you quite through?"

Folding his arms, Vila stood back, calmly, coolly. "You had a few bad areas on you. The tissue regenerator could barely handle it. But it all looks okay now. His voice and manner were just detached enough to dissipate Avon's anger before it could erupt. "Now, what's this about Gan getting you back? Gan never left the ship. We couldn't teleport anyone into a fire. We got a reference reading on the bracelets and teleported you blind. Blake showed up with you, wearing a bracelet. I guess not all his reason had left him..."

"I was carrying a bracelet for him..." Avon tried to remember getting it to Blake but couldn't picture it. Had the man left his own bracelet on? How sane was Blake now, or would he be? If he recovered.

"He had his arms around you, you know. Typical Blake. He was holding on to both of you."

"No."

"Huh?"

"We were clinging to him."

"Yeah."

"How is he, Vila?" Avon raised up on one elbow, taking Vila's arm and bringing him close. "How bad is he?"

Vila did not pull back, did not flinch or cower. He looked Avon truly in the eye, jaw set, his hand closing over Avon's. "Bad, Avon. Real bad. His lungs got burned and he can't breathe without help. We got medicated oxygen going into him under pressure. It's just barely helping. He's lucky--we're lucky--he's in generally good shape and has a lot of reserves, and a hell of a hold on life..." Vila's eyes were misting over and he shuddered.

Avon released him. "Cally?" He felt helpless and small, and his voice reflected it.

"Better than Blake, just." Brutal honesty. No sense pretending it was better than it was. "But Aurons seem to have remarkable recuperative powers. She's breathing on her own. Her lungs are clear, at least. We've had to aspirate Blake's lungs twice already."

"Aspirate? How?" Now why did he ask that?

"A very long needle. You don't want to see it. I don't want to see it and I've had to do it!" He ran a hand through his sparse hair and then covered his eyes.

Ah, Vila. You do manage to come through at the most unexpected times. I fear there won't be any happy-puppy expressions from you for a time.

"Go back to sleep, Avon. You need to heal, which you're doing nicely. I'll be here 'til Jenna comes to relieve me. Don't look so startled. Jenna's not staying distracted this time." Vila looked back over his shoulder at Blake. "She can deal with physical damage. It's the head thing that beat her." Vila turned back, trying to smile with little success.

"I think I'll just lie here." Avon's voice came to him from a distance. Then he started to rise. "Actually, I need to know just where I'm hurt and what I can do."

"Oh no you don't." Vila slapped a tranquilizer disc on Avon's arm.

Wide-eyed, Avon tried to grab for him. "...dammit..." was all he managed to get out before he slipped away.

#

"He's going to go on a rampage when he's better," Vila noted ruefully to Jenna when she came in. "Probably repair every circuit on the ship then try to readjust us."

Jenna was smiling warmly at him. "That's the only way Avon can cope with emotion. Perhaps you can get him drunk."

"And perhaps I can die young. Blake's drowning again."

Stoically, Jenna went to the struggling rebel. "I'll...never be able to get used to this," as she and Vila prepared to insert several inches of hollow metal into the man and aspirate the lungs.

Vila ran to lose his lunch as usual, but he always came back to do his share of caring and tending.

Blake's breathing improved immediately. Jenna's color did not.

#

Vila did not dare try to tranquilize Avon again. He knew he'd not be able to fool Avon enough to get that close. So Gan approached from the flank. Jenna slipped something into the food. Vila played innocent.

By the time Avon was allowed to come fully awake, he was declared healed and hearty--and nasty. In the ensuing days, he repaired or replaced every circuit on the ship, in between sitting with Blake and Cally.

I won't lose you like this! Not after all we've been through. You're supposed to die fighting for your Cause. Dammit! I've found most of my strength in yours, so take some of it back, Blake. I really don't know if I can cope with you dying like this. You and I are linked and we're supposed to go out together, in glory and legend. Look how you have me thinking! I'm talking in faerie tales. Well, that's what you've given me: a vision. I depended on you more than I could admit. So I'm admitting it now. For whatever good it will do you. Just don't die this way, Blake.

They never knew when they'd find him there, sitting quietly, often in the dark, between the two rebels. Concern was etched clearly on his face, fear for them burning in his eyes.

Thus it was that Cally spoke to Avon first, by virtue of the fact that he was there to hear her.

She sat up and prepared to get up, all in one motion--until she saw Blake. "I thought I felt a struggle near. I knew it was Blake but I could not reach him. I still cannot."

All Avon could manage was to lean with his elbows on her bed and look at her like a beaten dog. He was more tired than he would allow.

Gan entered to see the Auron sitting up, looking comfortable and fit but wracked with concern for Blake who still fought alone--fought the ravages of damaged lungs and a Federation conditioned mind.

How much of Blake would come back to them?

"I don't care if Cally looks well," Gan emphasized to Avon with rare fervor. "She must rest and so must you. You look worse than she does and you're supposed to be well."

Avon was hesitating. Clearly, he didn't want to leave Blake, even though the latest prognosis by the readouts and ORAC was favorable. His lungs had ceased filling and were healing. He breathed on his own now, but he still fought. Something had a hold of him and they all feared what it was. It wasn't a question of would Blake still be mad when he came to, but how mad?

Avon wasn't coping very well with it all, despite exhausting himself with every device and instrument on board.

Gan's hands were under his arms now, lifting him sending him to the door. "Argue with me and I will pick you up and carry you to bed. Then I will tuck you in!"

Feigning horror at Gan's not-so-joking threat, Avon pushed himself free. "I will be on the Flight Deck indulging in hot coffee and verbal barbs with Vila." He turned briefly, gazing across Blake at Cally.

//Blake is improving. His mind is not dark now. I can feel tremendous strength in him. Blake does not give up.//

A small light flashed across Avon's face. "Neither do I." And he left.

"Did you mean that?" Gan arched an eyebrow at her, moving to look more closely at Blake. "You meant it for both of us or I would not have heard it too. Were you just saying it or does Blake feel stronger to you?"

"You are a worse mother hen than Blake ever thought about being," Cally chided.

Gan locked onto her with his open, guileless look. He had an innate honesty which wouldn't allow Cally to lie. "Your eyes are happy, Cally," he murmured. "You can't hide the feelings in the eyes, you know. Only Avon can do that, and only when he wants to. He hasn't been wanting to lately."

"Blake is improving," she laughed. Gan's caring and mothering were such a dichotomy in the big man. Which is why she loved him. "He will be back with us soon." Leaning close to Gan, her eyes shaded. "But he will need more of our caring and mothering and understanding when he is better than when he was near-death. Conscious and cognisant, he will hurt more. We must be there for him."

"No, Cally. Avon must be there for him, and we must be there for Avon."

#

The Flight Deck was dimmed as Blake liked it for a night watch. He had always insisted on a 24 hour Earth day on board the ship. That much of Earth, at least, couldn't be taken away from him. Only it was Jenna now on watch. Vila slept on the couch while she paced before Zen.

With precision, she described a neat oblong of 48 steps, no real agitation showing in her body language. It was, rather, a type of meditation for her. Movement helped her keep her mind clear and alert.

Silently, Avon walked to the couch and seated himself across from Vila, meeting her look resolutely. She returned a twitch of a smile.

"You and I have a lot in common with Blake," she said. As always, she was dressed comfortably for a night watch, in a loose fitting wrap-around affair of maroon and gold, long, slim legs flashed briefly when she turned sharply.

Avon thought her perfume headier than usual. Perhaps he was just more aware than usual. Or light-headed. Careful, Avon--shoals ahead.

He pressed his fingertips together in a steeple before him. "We both love him?"

If that got to Jenna she didn't show it. "Time to bare our souls, Avon? I think not. I think," she glided to him and sat beside him, settling the dress, and herself, demurely. "I think you are trying to bait me."

"Oh, I am not allowed a little soul-baring, is that it? I used 'love' in its many varied and broad forms. I love my mother, too."

"We are required to love our mothers, Avon. We choose to love Blake."

"Are you going to fight me for him?" Amusement rode every word, covering, as usual, a deeper feeling that touched him.

She took his face in her hands, turning him to face her. "Why bother? We both know who'd win." Then she covered his lips with hers.

'Curious development,' he thought. He let her continue, his tongue requesting more.

Jenna welcomed that. Then pulled back, she searched his face with clear eyes and a rich smile. "Thank you. I've wanted to do that since the first time we were alone together. Someday, one of us is going to seduce the other."

"Why, Jenna!" he said with mock chastity. "Whatever would Blake think?" Or do.

"We've all made our choices. Blake has chosen his Cause and he's celibate for it and I'm not sure I will wait for him."

"Then take him, dear lady."

"You're closer," her eyes danced. The moment was past now, however, lost in Avon's gentle humor. Amazing how Blake could change people even while he was unconscious.

"You're right. You could rape him and he probably wouldn't notice unless you dressed as Travis. Now, there's a thought!"

"Avon!" She turned from him, folding her arms and setting her jaw in disgust.

"It'd get his attention."

"That's quite enough, Avon. Besides, you're the one who's always dressed in black around here." She started to laugh at the mental image that brought up.

Avon was laughing with her. "You're right, it is quite enough."

He continued to hold her hand while they laughed helplessly--together.

Finally, she drew Avon to her, urging him to rest his head on her shoulder and relax, to sleep. "I need to mother someone right now, Avon. And you need the rest. Vila's already asleep. Don't look at me like that. I've rocked him to sleep more nights than I can count these last few weeks."

It was a rare relaxing for them both. A unique coming together--the Black Knight and the Valkyrie.

Avon noted sleepily that he really must allow this more often. Then his head dropped and his hand slipped from hers.

Jenna was so comfortable with Avon's warmth against her that she had to nudge aside a pang of guilt. She hadn't even had such moments with Blake.

Vila mumbled and curled tighter.

Someone was calling him and shaking him roughly.

"Avon. Wake up! Avon, Blake's awake and calling for you." Gan practically picked him up and planted him on his feet.

He yawned expansively; he had been so cozy.

"Blake's awake," Gan emphasized. "He's asking for you."

"Blake's awake," Avon repeated blankly, getting his bearings. Snapping to, he stared at Jenna as if seeing her for the first time. "Right," he said and ran to the medical.

He slid into the room and found Blake trying to sit up, calling his name. It took him and Gan and Vila to subdue the man, who tried to get off the bed, all the while calling for Avon.

"I'm here."

Blake looked right through him.

Pulling back, Avon sat against the other bed and watched them tranquilize Blake and settle the man. He continued to watch numbly until Cally took his hand.

//It is disorientation. I do not sense the Dark in his mind this time.//

"Don't lie to me!" Avon's voice was threatening.

//Avon!//

Raising his head, Avon smiled a tiny apology at her. He was shaking.

#

Some hours later, he heard Vila talking to him softly.

"I really think you should try talking with Blake now. He's only lightly sedated and he can hear us. Cally's been moved to her cabin so it's private. Well, after I leave." Vila chanced a rougher shaking. "Come on, try it again, like the first time. It'll work again."

Avon sat up slowly, rubbing his sleep-deadened arm. "I don't think I can...I can reach him again. He looked right through me, you saw. I can't cope..."

"Aw, go on. You want to. You're just scared he won't accept you, or one of us can do it better."

One of the galaxy's greatest wheedling and cajoling experts, Vila.

"Are you volunteering?" Avon moved carefully to Blake's side. With the tent removed, his features were clearer, suffused with flickers that ranged from anger to sadness.

Vila leaned close over Avon's shoulder. "I think he's dreaming."

Blake's eyes flew open and Vila jumped backwards with a strangled cry.

"Thank you for your insightful diagnosis," Blake rumbled in his remarkable baritone. "Now, please leave me--us."

"Er, right." There was a rush of air as Vila turned and fled on a silly grin.

"I think we've hurt his feelings--again." Suppressing a smile, Avon looked directly into Blake's eyes and saw, not madness and terror, but the compelling light of the charismatic rebel. And not just a little amusement. Blake's eyes had a way of sparkling when he was in high good humor.

Avon absorbed the awake, amused Blake. The man may have looked soft with his slightly fleshy face and a hint of a girth, but Blake was a man of contained power. Vila was right, Blake probably could take Gan to a draw, and beyond, in a fair fight.

They all dipped regularly into that well of passion and purpose. Blake kept them together with a purpose in life. Damn few others in the galaxy could have done it.

For Avon, there would be no purpose, no life, without Blake, without his pushing and maddening assumptions. Avon wasn't sure if he should forgive Blake for that, or thank him.

"Avon?" Blake's hand was touching him with a familiar lightness.

"Well now, you're back with us, I see. I fear the vacation is over. Back to wallowing in idealistic certainties, I suppose. Don't tell me--you were suddenly brought back to your senses by your need to save Cally and me. Fear for us overrode any Federation conditioning and snapped you out of it."

"You're babbling. That means you're hiding something you feel." Smiling, Blake rolled onto his back and indulged in a luxurious stretch, muscles and sinews standing out briefly as he pulled and popped his joints. Then he turned to look again at Avon.

"You could say that. You would say that, Avon. But the truth be known it all just rather faded while you sat outside of that den I'd gone to ground in. I watched your face all night, and it never changed. You cared right then. It touched a switch somewhere in me and all the shadows went away. Especially that one that's always gone between us, not letting us say what we really want to. Should have said."

"No," Blake chuckled warmly, shattering Avon's remaining barriers as usual; lighting the dark places in him. "I was attempting to point out the approaching fireball. I nearly lost you then."

"That's funny, we've spent weeks here trying not to lose you."

One of Blake's greater sighs. "I guess there are still shadows between us. But they are your shadows. I see quite clearly."

"Oh?" Challenging. "And just what do you see that I cannot?"

"Oh, Avon. I see what you will not." By taking up Avon's challenge, Blake diluted it. "For a small time there, you really cared--and admitted it."

"Well now, you always did want me to care about you." Avon's was small again. He was not about to do himself the disservice of trying to explain the vigils of the last few weeks. Let Blake assume as always.

"No, Avon," Blake said with that infinite patience that could usurp Gan's. "I've always wanted you to care, period. That you choose to care about me, I welcome. It was---and is--a comfort. But don't restrict it to just me."

"Oh, I won't." It was wrapped in that velvet purr that always meant Avon was serious, whether for caring, or for killing. "Tell me, how did you find Cally and me? What brought you through those flames?"

"Damned if I know. I fell and rolled down into the pool. That's the last I remember doing on purpose. Now you tell me, I am curious as to what triggered it..." Blake's grin was a knowing smile now. His wise look. He and Gan could often exchange looks, but Blake's had an enigmatic quality that Gan could never copy.

"Think you know, do you? It just so happens that I do not cope with--helplessness--very well." Avon closed his eyes, taking a tempering breath. "You were helpless."

"Silly me."

"You're not supposed to be helpless! That isn't in our contract. I verbally eviscerate you and you bounce back. You do not crumble! It's all laid out on page 3, subparagraph B." Avon rushed to a finish with a gesture of dismissal.

"Rather like me not to have read the fine print."

"Don't do it again--I've already fulfilled my quota."

"This month." Blake started to curl into himself, bringing a cold rush of panic to Avon. But the man was merely getting into a more secure position as he prepared to sleep. "Oh no, Avon. I won't let you out of it that easily. It is our contract and contracts work both ways. I don't know if that switch will close again. What might trigger me off again. Without some expert counter-conditioning it'll always be there and I will need you. Be there. Please."

Avon felt a warmth spreading through him. Blake always saw through him. Whatever part of the contract that was. "Very well. But I want a larger percentage of the take."

"That's not in our contract...." Blake murmured sleepily, his eyes closing and his breath slowing. "And I won't sign a new one."

Now why did that feel good?

 

 

The End

 

Varied Inspirations, Kicks in the Pants and Guilt trips courtesy of Genny "Hawkins" Mila.

 


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