Unfinished BusinessBy Nova
Who would've thought, when the Scorpio crew gathered in the tracking gallery at the Gauda Prime base, that only six weeks later they'd be living happily ever after? Just to make sure he wasn't dreaming, Vila turned and aimed the infrascope at Dayna and Soolin, energetically drilling the latest batch of recruits on a strip of ground between the base and the hangar that sheltered their three salvaged L-type cruisers.
The recruits broke rank and gave him a bonus glimpse of a broad back, tangled curls and an emphatically gesturing hand that had to belong to Blake himself. Vila couldn't see his companion but the protective concentration of Blake's stance made it easy to guess the other man's identity. Blake was in love and it suited him, just as much as it suited Dayna and Soolin to be giving orders, instead of taking them.
And in the second room down the back corridor of the base, Tarrant would be keeping their bed warm, while he waited for Vila to join him. The most unlikely happy ending of them all. Vila sometimes caught himself trying to score points off Tarrant, as if he was still the cocky ex-cadet who regarded Deltas as expendable - except that these days the wounded look in his lover's eyes usually stopped him in mid-jeer. The fiasco in the tracking gallery had almost broken Tarrant. Even after Blake emerged from the base's cryogenic unit, whole and healed, Tarrant had gone on feeling that he'd failed everyone. Vila had been obliged to comfort him. It'd been his duty, hadn't it?
His pleasure too, as things turned out.
So they were all happy now. Oh well, except for Avon, of course - but then, Vila had given up on Avon four months ago, in a shuttle orbiting another planet. If Avon chose to shut himself away and refuse to answer when Dayna and Soolin hammered on his door, that was fine by Vila. Avon would've spaced him without a qualm. Since Vila didn't like to think about that, he tried not to think about Avon at all - which wasn't too hard right then, because he had other things to occupy his mind. Tarrant's long lean body, for example. Tarrant's irrepressible curls, tickling his skin. The buoyant shouts that echoed around their room, every time he wrapped his hand round Tarrant's long lean cock and provoked him into another orgasm ...
A reverberating thump on the watchtower's crossbeam startled him out of a lecherous fantasy. Vila scrambled down the steps, saluted jauntily and handed the infrascope to the stocky woman who was replacing him on guard duty. He headed back to the base, savouring the rub of his loose trousers across an incipient erection, but as he circled the parade ground, something snagged his gaze and activated his internal radar. Something out of place and therefore potentially dangerous. Vila pushed his Tarrant-fantasies to the back of his brain and scanned the area, quadrant by quadrant, until he finally focused in on the loading bay by the hangar, where a dozen crates of the new Pylene-50 antidote were waiting to be airfreighted to Helotrix.
A man was sitting beside the stack of boxes. A stranger or, at any rate, someone Vila didn't recognise. He slumped forward, head bowed, shoulders hunched defensively, hands dangling loose between his knees. So spiritless and withdrawn and defeated that it took Vila a full minute to realise he was looking at Avon.
His heart skipped a beat. While his left foot tried to steer him back to the base and Tarrant, his right foot took an impulsive step forward. Vila stumbled and swore. It looked as though Tarrant would have to wait a little longer. Apparently, if Avon was making a mess of things again, right there in front of him, Vila couldn't quite manage to walk on by and pretend he hadn't noticed.
He marched across to the loading bay, kicking a relay of pebbles to signal his approach. Avon didn't look up, even when Vila was standing over him, so he cleared his throat and said, falsely cheerful, 'Haven't seen you for weeks, Avon. What are you doing here?'
'I am leaving Gauda Prime,' Avon said.
That was disconcerting. Under normal circumstances Avon would've added a rider like, 'Isn't that obvious?' or 'What makes you think it's any of your business?' Vila wasn't used to receiving a direct answer to a direct question. Startled into reciprocal directness, he said bluntly, 'Why?'
No reply. Avon just sat and stared at his dangling hands. A pulse jumped galvanically above his wrist but otherwise he was still as stone. Vila found himself shivering in the Gauda Prime sunshine. He rubbed the gooseflesh prickling his arms and decided to try a different tack.
'Where are you going, then?' he said, as casually as if he were inquiring about Avon's holiday plans.
For an unnerving instant he thought Avon had retreated into total catatonia. Then a terse, tense voice said, 'I have asked Blake's pilot to set me down at Space City, on his way to Helotrix.'
'Space City?' Vila yelped, forgetting to sound casual. 'Avon, they've got bounty hunters drinking in every second bar. You wouldn't last a week.'
'If that long,' Avon agreed.
His voice was so flat and uninterested that Vila almost missed the implication. But once he caught on, the image of Avon strolling the streets of Space City, preparing to commit suicide by proxy, was vivid enough to temporarily displace his memories of the shuttle over Malodaar. He discovered with a sense of shock that even when he'd hated Avon most, he had always assumed Avon would be there for him to hate.
'Just tell me one thing,' he demanded. 'Does Blake know about this?'
Avon shut down completely. The pulse at his wrist abated, all signs of breathing ceased and his whole body seemed to contract, as though he were dwindling into a vast impassable distance. Vila hesitated for a moment, considering a range of possibilities and discarding them.
Then he went to find Blake.
The new recruits were jostling into the base, laughing and joking and elbowing each other, in reaction to three hours of strenuous discipline. Dayna and Soolin lounged against the wall, watching their students indulgently, while they chatted with Blake and his lover. Vila dodged between the recruits and scuttled over to them. He hovered on the edge of the group, waiting for a break in the conversation, then lost patience and tugged at Blake's sleeve.
'Blake,' he whispered, 'can I have a word with you?'
'Of course,' Blake said genially. 'What do you want?'
Beside him, Nic Carnell stretched like a cat, settling himself more comfortably into the crook of Blake's arm. Ostentatious spikes of black mascara made his eyes look perpetually wide with surprised amusement, although as his gaze rested on Vila, the pale eyes narrowed into slits for half a second, before dismissing him and flicking away. Vila bristled and hauled harder on Blake's sleeve.
'In private,' he insisted. '**Please**, Blake.'
'Oh, very well,' Blake sighed. 'If you must.'
As he spoke, his arm involuntarily tightened round Carnell's waist. Carnell laughed and tilted his head for a kiss, while Dayna and Soolin cooed together and Vila tapped his foot, frowning across at the loading bay. When he glanced back, Carnell's hands were travelling slowly down Blake's chest, to fan out suggestively just above the groin.
'Hurry back, lover,' he husked in a voice as ambiguous as his eyes, simultaneously mocking and endorsing the clichˇ.
'I won't be long,' Blake promised. He released Carnell reluctantly and followed Vila to the corner of the base, where he caught hold of his elbow and spun him round, saying testily, 'All right, what's this about?'
'It's Avon,' Vila said. 'He's leaving.'
That didn't produce the reaction he expected. Blake just continued to study him with a mixture of impatience and generalised benevolence, so he added rather desperately, 'Now, Blake. He's waiting for a cruiser now.'
Blake's eyes cleared. 'Oh, we can't allow that,' he said firmly. 'This is my fault. I talked things through with Nic and decided I'd only make matters worse by demanding explanations - but I didn't realise how that might look from Avon's point of view. Thanks for warning me, Vila. I'll go and sort it out straight away.'
He squared his shoulders and went striding across to the loading bay. Vila watched him go, wondering whether he ought to accompany Blake and act as referee. But Tarrant was waiting and he'd already done more than he intended and besides, he still hadn't forgiven Avon. So he turned away and hurried off to the second room down the back corridor of the base.
2. A shadow stretched across the ground and overlapped the toes of Avon's boots. He could feel an intense gaze scanning every centimetre of his body but he refused to look up. After a while a familiar voice rumbled, 'Vila says you're planning to leave us. Would you mind telling me why?'
'Why not?' he said, bleak and toneless. 'I am not needed here.'
'Oh yes, you are,' Blake said warmly. 'I'm sorry, Avon. I should've spoken to you sooner but ... well, I've been busy. If you're feeling guilty about that wretched business in the tracking gallery, then forget it. You were operating under considerable stress. I really don't intend to hold it against you.'
There was nothing Avon wanted to say to that, so he said nothing. As he stared into the vortex of his thoughts, the shadow at his feet reached out further, shrouding and smothering him. He squeezed his eyes shut and endured the pressure of Blake's presence, grinding his nails into his palms as a form of distraction. In all their years together Avon had never willingly admitted any weakness to Blake. He did not intend to start now.
Some time later the shadow shifted abruptly, exposing him to the light. 'Avon,' Blake said, low and compelling. 'Avon, look at me.'
Voices jabbered inside Avon's skull. **'If you had access to the computers, could you open the doors?' 'Of course. Why?' 'Just wondered how good you really were ...'** Ever since their initial encounter on the London, he had done whatever Blake asked him, even when it went against his better judgment. Evidently, his judgment remained faulty, because he groaned inaudibly, lifted his head and locked onto accusing hazel eyes.
The sight hurt but he couldn't look away. Avon stared and went on staring, as if the gaze were a lifeline. A long minute later the hazel eyes softened and Blake's mouth blossomed into a smile. He bent forward, seized Avon's hands and hoisted him to his feet.
'I've always wanted to do this,' he confided, pulling Avon into a bear-hug. 'Stupid of me to hold back for so long. But I could never show anyone how I felt, till Nic came along and helped me. He's an amazing man, Avon. Truly amazing. I hope you'll get to know him better now.'
Avon ducked his head and wrenched himself out of Blake's grip. 'No, thank you,' he said politely, turning away to face the hangar. 'I'm afraid I can't pretend to have any consuming interest in your friend Carnell.'
A brief charged silence followed. 'Homophobia, Avon?' Blake rasped finally. 'I wouldn't have expected that from you.'
'Justifiably,' Avon confirmed and heard Blake's breath rush out in a sigh.
'That's a relief,' he said, a little too heartily. 'Nic changed my life, you know. The Federation mindwipers did a good job of suppressing my sexuality. I suspect only a renegade psychostrategist like Nic could've unravelled their conditioning.'
'As intelligent as he is altruistic,' Avon commented. 'How nice for you.'
Blake laughed. 'Hardly altruistic, considering that he benefited from it. But yes, in his own field he's as talented as you. As a matter of fact, the two of you are remarkably similar. Nic's one of your greatest admirers, Avon. You'll have a lot to discuss together, always supposing you decide to stay.'
He settled a hand on Avon's shoulder and waited for an answer, absentmindedly massaging the muscles that had tensed under his palm. 'But I shan't be staying,' Avon replied, once he had brought his breathing under control. 'Look around, Blake. Fen is heading this way, which suggests that the cruiser will be departing as soon as it is loaded. I believe it is time for us to say goodbye.'
When he risked a backward glance, Blake was waving the pilot away with a peremptory flourish. 'No goodbyes,' he announced. 'You can leave on the next cruiser, if you insist, but I want to hear a more convincing reason first. Not here, though. You'd better come to my room, where we can talk without being interrupted.'
His hand tightened, spinning Avon round and steering him past the loading bay. Avon glanced fleetingly at the small bag of his possessions stowed beside the packing cases, then let Blake lead him into the base. As they made their way through the warren of corridors, an assortment of rebels paused and turned to look back at him. Hardly surprising, given that this was their first real chance to examine the man who had shot their leader - although in general their reactions came closer to curiosity than rejection or revenge, which appeared to indicate that Blake had indeed elected to forgive and forget. Avon eased out an inconspicuous sigh. It would have been so easy to hate Blake's endless optimism and generosity, if the same qualities hadn't made it depressingly easy to love him.
For a while there, Avon had almost convinced himself that he had cauterised that old wound, somewhere around the time when he had woken in the base's medical unit and looked across to see Blake's head pillowed on Carnell's chest, their hands twisted together in a Gordian knot. But apparently, sixty seconds' eye contact with Blake was enough to reactivate his ridiculous obsession. He scowled resentfully at Blake's back and followed him through the mess hall, taking care to avert his eyes from the doorway into the tracking gallery.
Blake was quartered in a quiet corridor at the rear of the building, clearly a fringe benefit of leadership. He palmed the lock and ushered Avon in, then stretched across to thump the light panel on the far side of the door. The room, windowless like the rest of the base, was as dark as early evening, shading into night blackness when the door swung shut behind them.
'Damn,' Blake grumbled. 'That blasted light's shortcircuiting again.'
He groped towards the panel and tripped, presumably on one of the piles of clothes or printouts that had always littered the floor of his Liberator cabin. Adrift in the darkness, Avon reached out to steady him. Blake latched onto his shoulder. Avon hooked a supporting arm round Blake's waist. Blake swayed towards him. He was breathing Blake's breath, soaking up the reliable warmth of Blake's body, inhaling that characteristic Blake-smell, like cut grass and sunshine. It seemed somehow inevitable that they should move even closer, leaning into each other, cheek to cheek, mouth to mouth.
The first touch of their lips was tentative and awestruck. Then, as Avon ran an exploratory finger along the line of Blake's jaw, Blake groaned and opened to him. His mouth was hot and wet and urgent and engulfing. Avon sent his tongue plunging past neat slick teeth: and after that, his usual grasp of detail deserted him. His hands were searching for Blake in the dark, frantic and reckless. His tongue was fucking Blake's mouth. He was drinking Blake in. And each time they paused for breath, Blake went on chanting, 'Avon, Avon, Avon,' as though his name were a mantra, a perfect sequence of sounds leading to enlightenment.
The darkness made it easy to forget everything, except for the soft curls tickling his palms and the hard cock pressed snugly against his own erection. Pleasure coursed through Avon's body, faster than a double shot of soma and adrenaline. He staggered, giddy with lust, and Blake's arms enveloped him, holding him steady and safe. His heart knocked against his ribcage, so loudly that it took him half a minute to separate and identify the knocking at the door.
'Blake,' he said shakily, 'you have a visitor.'
'Take no notice,' Blake mumbled and at the same moment an anxious voice called, 'Roj? Roj, are you there? Answer me, please.'
As Blake went still, Avon slid out of his arms. Even before Blake thumped the light panel again, he was making his way through the darkness to the opposite end of the long narrow room. Blake muttered, 'Got it this time.' The room blazed. The door swung open. Avon glanced back and saw Carnell stumble across the threshold, with a suddenness that proved he must have been trying to force the door.
He watched for half a second longer, then decided that he was not obliged to torture himself with images of Blake and his lover, cheek to cheek, mouth to mouth. Instead, he swung away to study the nearest picture at eye level. One of Rice's meticulous abstract holograms, as it happened - a reproduction of the one that had hung on the wall of his own cabin, until it and the Liberator imploded. For a minute or two, Avon was able to lose himself in memories of a long-ago conversation. **'I can't see why you like that thing so much, Avon.' 'Well now, perhaps you have to live with it to understand it.'** Then Carnell's voice, pitched deliberately low but carrying, overrode the past.
'Pardon the intrusion, lover,' he was saying. 'Deva told me you were meeting with Avon alone. After your last encounter, that struck me as being a little risky, so I had to make sure you were all right.'
'Are you satisfied now?' Blake asked and Carnell lilted, 'Almost.'
Footsteps marked out the length of the room, halting behind Avon. When he turned, Carnell's hands shot out and began to pat the fabric of his jacket in a swift efficient body search. As the hands moved lower, Carnell's pale eyes lifted and fixed him with a laser-bright stare. Avon stared back, blandly expressionless, admitting a private relief that the bulge at his groin seemed to have subsided before the hands could discover it. He clenched his jaw and repeated the maxim that had sustained him during three months in a Federation prison.
**An action may be considered symbolically degrading by its perpetrator but if one rejects the symbolism, one refuses the degradation.**
Carnell completed his search, then flashed him a streetkid's grin. 'Sorry, Avon,' he said with blatant insincerity. 'But you'll understand why I needed to know you weren't carrying any concealed weapons.'
Avon smiled back at him. 'As a matter of fact, I understand very little about the way you conduct your affairs,' he said, stressing the last word slightly. 'But then, it is none of my business.'
'No, it isn't,' Carnell agreed, while a flicker of his black lashes underscored the warning. 'My best wishes for your trip with Fen to Space City, Avon. Roj, I'll see you later tonight.'
He strolled over to Blake, looped a possessive arm round his neck and drew him into a swift wrenching kiss. Then he departed, leaving an uncomfortable silence behind him. Avon returned to his study of the hologram, resisting the urge to brush Carnell's touch off his clothes. It occurred to him, somewhat belatedly, that he would have expected the door lock to be keyed to Carnell's palm print but, despite their apparent symbiosis, it seemed that Carnell was not sharing Blake's room. That hypothesis elated Avon but his elation depressed him. He was staring blindly at the hologram, damning his futile four-year passion, when Blake coughed apologetically beside him.
'Nic shouldn't have done that,' he said. 'If I'd realised what he intended, I would've stopped him. But I'm afraid he's under the impression that - well, that you're in love with me.'
'And he is quite correct,' Avon said resignedly.
He folded his hands and gazed at a mark on the wall to the left of Blake's shoulder, regretting his ineradicable impulse to tell the truth. Regretting it even more urgently when Blake gasped and said, 'Avon' and reached for him. Instinctively Avon flung his arms up and out, warding Blake off, in a gesture that immediately reminded both men of their confrontation in the tracking gallery. They stood there, frozen in place, while Blake's face slowly contorted into a scowl and Avon relived, in agonising detail, the moment when Blake had clutched him and whispered his name and collapsed at his feet.
His eyes blurred and the room seemed to fill with strobing red light. He wanted to say something, anything, to defuse the situation but he could not speak. Finally Blake broke the deadlock, pacing over to his desk and flinging himself into a chair.
'All right, Avon,' he said, brisk and furious. 'I brought you here to talk, so that's what we'd better do. I thought we could forget about the past and get on with our lives but apparently I was wrong. Perhaps you should start by explaining why you shot me.'
'Joy' was not a commonly occurring word in Avon's vocabulary but he felt uncompromisingly joyful then. The tension that had held him rigid for five months dissolved in an instant and he smiled gratefully across at Blake.
'Oh, yes,' he breathed. 'At last. Thank you for that.'
Blake's head jerked back, as though the smile had been a slap. 'You want to explain?' he said, startled. 'Very well then, go ahead.'
Avon located an armchair opposite the desk and sank into it. 'When you contacted me five months ago -' he began and Blake said, 'I did what?'
He blinked, surprised by Blake's vehemence. 'We will not make a great deal of progress, if you insist on interrupting at every half-sentence,' he pointed out. 'Suppose you allow me to tell the story in my own way.'
'By all means,' Blake said, relaxing with an effort. 'Why don't you tell me **everything**, Avon, just as if I knew nothing about it?'
'An excellent idea,' Avon said cordially. 'I shall do precisely that.'
He leaned back, hooded his eyes and gazed into the past, recalling the events that had brought him to Gauda Prime. Blake's initial message to Orac, establishing a coded frequency on which they could communicate. The revelation that Servalan had found and subverted the Clonemasters' surviving Blake-clone and planned to assassinate Blake, then substitute the clone as leader of the Gauda Prime base. Avon had offered to come straight to Gauda Prime but Blake insisted that he needed an outside contact, someone who could reclaim the base and avenge him, if Servalan succeeded.
So Avon had waited, although the waiting had been ... difficult. Blake promised to keep sending weekly messages, as an assurance that he was still alive. If at any point the messages ceased, Avon was to go to Gauda Prime, test the Blake he met there with a prearranged signal and kill him, supposing he failed to give the countersignal.
'As you will undoubtedly remember, your suggested question was, "Have I betrayed you?" ' Avon said, clipped and steady. 'It occurred to me afterwards that "you" can be either singular or plural, so I asked both whether you had betrayed us and whether you had betrayed me. Instead of replying, "The man who trusts can never be betrayed", you talked about Tarrant and said, "I set all this up." Consequently, I shot you. But when you caught hold of my arms as you fell, I knew.'
The words wedged in his throat. He swallowed convulsively, bent forward and said into his cupped hands, 'Knew it was you, Blake, and not the clone. Since then, I have been waiting for you to tell me what went wrong but you said nothing. Not even an attempt at explanation. Why, Blake?'
He raised his head and looked directly at the man sitting opposite him. Blake's eyes were shadowed and his full mouth quivered slightly but his voice remained level, as he said, 'One thing puzzles me, Avon. You've never been particularly trusting and yet you seem to have accepted this whole story at face value, without any guarantees.'
'Hardly,' Avon said tetchily. 'I hadn't realised that you wished me to repeat every minor detail of our discussions. Since you appear to be in a pedantic mood, let me remind you that I asked two questions to establish your identity, questions to which only you and I could know the answer. True, there was a break in transmission at that point but communication was resumed within fifteen minutes, scarcely long enough for a Federation interrogator to have extracted the information by drugs or torture. So, when you told me that you hid Saymon's flutonic power cells in a bed of ferns and that your parting words to me on the Liberator were, "For what it's worth, I have always trusted you, from the very beginning," I knew that I had indeed found Roj Blake again.'
He caught himself lingering over Blake's name and turned his head away, troubled by the display of sentiment. Blake had, after all, set up an elaborate trap, then left him alone with the memory of shooting a man he loved, until finally he had abandoned the struggle to preserve his sanity and settled for taking a cruiser to Space City and certain death. It was unforgivable and yet, despite everything, Avon admitted he was still hoping for some justification of Blake's bizarre actions. Without conscious volition, his eyes shifted sideways to focus on Blake's desk.
The chair was empty. When Avon scanned the room, he found Blake braced against the far wall, shoulders taut, head bowed. His fist lifted and slammed into the rough plaster: once, twice, three times.
'He was always asking about you,' he said in a drained dead voice. 'Fascinated by my past, he told me. Convinced that you and I would've become lovers, if my Federation conditioning hadn't prevented it. I remember the day he asked those questions, because he made it a test of my commitment to sharing everything with him. It sounded quite plausible at the time but then, I suppose plausibility is a puppeteer's stock in trade.'
Avon flinched. Although he had loved Anna Grant far more than he considered prudent, he would have been unequivocally pleased to pass on any information that might have caused her to leave her husband. It was more than a little unnerving to realise that, if he had guessed where this was leading, he would have opted to preserve Blake's faith in Carnell by remaining silent.
Driven by a familiar compound of reluctant empathy and allegiance, he rose and went straight to Blake's side. His hand lifted automatically, then dropped back against his thigh. It was not the right moment to offer comfort or, perhaps, he was not the right person.
'Well, Blake,' he said, striving for detachment. 'What now?'
3. Blake looked ruefully at the greyish-white dent along the edge of his hand. It was going to be a hell of a bruise later on. In the Liberator days he could have just applied a regen pad and healed it instantly. Then again, in the Liberator days he'd never been able to resolve his fights with Avon, whereas now he was beginning to glimpse an unexpected form of amnesty, hovering at the borders of his consciousness.
So you lost something and you gained something. That was the way it always seemed to go.
Loss. Right then, the word meant Nic to him. Nic Carnell, who had patiently unblocked every twist and turn of the process by which the Federation psychostrategists had suppressed Blake's sexuality. ('For no particular reason,' Nic said, widening those impossible eyes. 'I'm afraid they were just practising on you, lover.') Nic Carnell, who had ash blond hair that caught and held the light, a mobile mouth that kissed every word he uttered and a waist narrow enough to be spanned by a pair of large hands. Nic Carnell, who had called Blake 'lover' and sucked his cock and fucked his arse and shown him who he really was.
Nic Carnell, who had coerced Avon into shooting him.
'And God knows what else he's been up to,' Blake groaned, mind racing. 'A rogue psychostrategist, running loose on the base! The potential for damage is almost infinite.'
Plans and lists started to take shape in his brain. When he spun round, poised to head for the intercom, Avon arched an eyebrow at him. 'You really do see this episode in terms of damage control, don't you?' he commented. 'I confess I would be tempted to focus on the element of personal betrayal.'
'I'm not a random terrorist now,' Blake said brusquely. 'I happen to be responsible for over a hundred people. That changes one's priorities. If Nic's been working for the Federation all along, I'll have to move fast.'
'So you are sure he is a Federation agent?' Avon asked. 'You don't think he might have lured me to Gauda Prime simply to eliminate a perceived threat to your relationship?'
Blake shrugged. 'Nic's motives are never simple - but his plans happened to coincide with a Federation attack on the base. I can hardly discount the political element.'
'Well, you know him better than I,' Avon said with a dismissive flourish. He turned away to Blake's chest of drawers, where he began to pick up a selection of random objects and set them down again, saying over his shoulder, 'And you believe my version of events, rather than his?'
That question was easier to answer. Blake said, 'Yes' and staggered, slumping against the wall, suddenly weak and light-headed. He wanted to ask for something but he couldn't identify it precisely and besides, his voice seemed to have failed him.
'Avon,' he croaked. 'Avon, could you ...?'
'Of course,' Avon said, reading his mind without apparent difficulty.
He moved closer and slid an arm round Blake, light but consoling. Ten minutes ago, that would have elicited a complex mixture of arousal and guilt but now Blake only felt as though he had reached a temporary haven. He sighed and let his head fall forward onto Avon's shoulder, drawing strength from the undemanding embrace. Avon was right, damn him. Apparently, he needed to confront his sense of betrayal, before he took action.
Closing his eyes, Blake watched images parade across the darkness. Carnell arriving at the base six months ago, claiming Deva as his cousin and charming all the other rebels, Blake included. Carnell smiling up at him from the pillows on his bed. Carnell reading the news reports on Avon's attempts at a rebel alliance, encouraging Blake to consider making contact, offering to send a welcoming message to the Scorpio crew. Systematically manipulating Blake into that fatal pair of statements: 'I was waiting for you. I set all this up.'
'I'm a fool,' he said mournfully into Avon's neck.
'True,' Avon agreed, smoothing his curls with a deft impersonal touch. 'But then, you have always been a fool, Blake. Somehow you manage to make it work in your favour. As you will this time, I am sure.'
'Thanks for that vote of confidence,' Blake said wryly. He straightened up and added, 'I'd better talk to Nic now.'
'Not alone,' Avon stated, visibly alarmed.
'Then you'll stay?' he asked and Avon nodded.
'As you wish. However, I would suggest calling in further reinforcements. If you have no objections, I shall contact Vila and Tarrant.'
While Avon strode across to the intercom, Blake propped his back against the wall and started working his way through the Auronar exercises that Cally had taught him, to prepare himself for the confrontation with Carnell. Somewhere in the background he was vaguely aware of a door opening and shutting, followed by low hurried voices: Vila and Tarrant, talking with Avon. After that, Vila left and Blake went on floating in his detached healing trance, until he felt a hand close gently round his elbow and heard Avon's voice murmur, 'Blake, we should discuss tactics, before -'
Footsteps echoed along the corridor and halted outside the door. 'Oh, hell,' Avon said, interrupting himself. 'Vila must have found Carnell sooner than we anticipated. Excuse me, Blake. No time now. But I promise you will survive this experience.'
When Blake looked up, Tarrant was stationed by the door, blaster levelled and ready. Avon slid into place at his side, hands clasped behind him, and Vila hovered in the corridor, pushing his blaster back into its holster. Carnell glanced round the ring of faces and smiled straight at Blake.
'How unfortunate,' he sighed with humorous resignation. 'My estimate of your limitations seems to have fallen a little short of the mark. I was so sure your innate stupidity would keep you from discovering my plans.'
It was a calculated insult. Vila muttered indignantly and Tarrant turned to see how Blake was taking it. At the same moment Carnell lunged sideways, seized Tarrant's blaster and rammed the muzzle into Avon's temple.
'Although, of course, most situations can be reversed quite easily, if one understands basic human motivations,' he said, only slightly breathless. 'In this case, lover, I'm counting on your friends' thoroughly laudable concern for Avon. Throw your blaster into the far corner, Vila. Oh, very obedient. Now I think we'll all take a stroll down to the hangar. Vila and Tarrant first, where I can keep an eye on you - and please, don't try any heroics. My natural sphere of operation is intellectual, remember. I'm not used to handling blasters, so if I'm distracted, my finger might slip on the trigger ... and I'd hate to arrive at Servalan's headquarters with my shirt stained by Avon's blood and brains.'
Blake's stomach lurched and bile scalded the back of his throat. He directed an anguished glance at Avon and received a steady imperturbable stare in return. That helped. He drew in a slow deep breath and watched Carnell motion Tarrant into the corridor, then rip Avon's jacket open. The blaster glided down Avon's chest and round his ribs, until it pressed into the hollow of his back, hidden by folds of cloth.
'Ready, lover?' Carnell asked, crinkling the corners of his pale eyes. 'You can walk on my left side, with Avon on my right. I dare say the two of you would prefer to hold hands, given that it may be your last chance, but I really can't allow that. I do try to be considerate but one can only take consideration so far.'
When Blake moved away from the wall, he realised his knees were shaking. A mixture of complicated anger and uncomplicated terror, neither of which were likely to be useful right then. As their small procession set off down the corridor, he pulled his scattered thoughts together and tried to work out some method of distracting Carnell. Information, to begin with. Information was always handy.
'All right, Nic,' he growled, 'would you mind telling me what's going on?'
'Not at all,' Carnell said promptly. 'As an amateur in these matters, you could hardly be expected to work it out for yourself. I ran into your old friend Servalan six months ago, when we were the only unsedated passengers on a pleasure cruiser travelling from Earth to the frontier planet Zerok. We were both somewhat down on our luck but Servalan was researching a plan to acquire seventeen billion in Zerokian black gold, so she decided to improve our mutual fortunes by employing me to dispose of Avon. Since Deva is my second cousin once removed, I happened to know that, contrary to received wisdom, Roj Blake was alive and on Gauda Prime. So I proposed a scheme that would not only destroy Avon but also deliver the Gauda Prime base **and** a notorious rebel into the Commissioner's hands. The details she left to me ... and very enjoyable I found them.'
His sidelong glance seemed almost flirtatious. Blake shuddered and gritted his teeth. 'Innate stupidity's a turn-on for you, is it?' he asked. 'Tell me, Nic, did you despise me all the time you were fucking me?'
'What a cynical comment,' Carnell murmured, sounding wounded. 'I'm a psychostrategist, lover, not an actor. I can use emotions but I can't mimic them. Admittedly, I'd planned to deliver you to Servalan but as soon as I met you, I realised I would have to factor a rather overwhelming attraction into my plans. Why else do you think you survived? **I** told you to wear that bulletproof vest to your meeting with Avon. **I** wheeled your bleeding body to the cryogenic unit. **I** kept you occupied for the last six weeks, so you wouldn't get in the way when Avon emerged from his room and gave me a second chance to kill him.'
'Very touching,' Blake observed. 'On the other hand, you also arranged for Avon to shoot me. Somehow I don't find that particularly endearing.'
'Be reasonable, lover,' Carnell said gently. 'I had to find a way to cast Avon as the villain of the piece. Otherwise, his crew and your rebels would have rallied to protect him when the Federation troopers stormed the base. Such a waste of good planning. If it weren't for human error, your inconvenient friend would now be dead, the Commissioner would be in charge of Gauda Prime, and you and I would be settled comfortably in a Space City penthouse, living on her generous fee.'
He sighed, ironically regretful, and ran a fingertip down Blake's arm. Blake gagged, choking on a reflux of disgust. As he struggled to speak, he heard Avon's voice from the other side of Carnell.
'To err is human,' he quoted. 'I would have expected an experienced psychostrategist to take that into account.'
Carnell stiffened. 'It was hardly my fault that Roj is so casual about the fastenings on his bulletproof vest,' he snapped. 'And I certainly couldn't have anticipated that Servalan would plant a second agent on Gauda Prime. That wretched girl Arlen undermined my entire scheme, firing at cousin Deva and alerting Roj's rebels, giving them time to target the Federation troopers before they blew you apart. Most annoying. I shall have words with Servalan, when we meet again.'
'Ah yes, Servalan,' Avon murmured. 'Why, precisely, did she decide that I had to die?'
'She regretted it as much as you would have,' Carnell assured him. 'Servalan always enjoyed matching wits with you - she told me she particularly appreciated that kiss in the Teal-Vandor combat zone. But after her little experiment on Terminal she felt you were becoming dangerously motivated, especially when you started dabbling in intragalactic politics and -'
'And perhaps she realised, after her experiment on Terminal, that I would prefer to kiss a corpse,' Avon cut in, a fraction louder. 'Hers, for preference.'
Blake found himself hoping that the last exchange was aimed at him, although he was unable to check Avon's expression, because Carnell was blocking his view. That bothered him more than he liked to admit. A fine time to realise that he had loved Avon for years, when he couldn't touch Avon or speak to Avon or even channel his emotions into a glance, without activating Carnell's antagonism. The psychostrategist appeared to have convinced himself that his feelings for Blake had been sincere. Blake doubted that but he recognised that it made Carnell dangerous, both to him and, more importantly, to Avon.
A resin-scented breeze touched his cheek, warning him that they were about to head out into the open air. Absorbed in the conversation, Blake hadn't even registered the faces of the rebels they had passed - not that it mattered, because he couldn't have risked Avon's life by trying to enlist their help. He hoped that Vila and Tarrant had been equally restrained. Hoped that Carnell would settle for escaping in one of the cruisers. Hoped against hope that, once all of this was over, he and Avon could begin to sort out their complicated history.
It ought to be possible. If Avon was still alive by then.
Out on the landing strip beside the hangar, the pilot and one of the guards were whistling and joking as they loaded boxes into a cruiser. 'Get rid of them,' Carnell ordered, shifting slightly to give Blake a view of the concealed blaster.
Blake winced and went striding forward. 'Sorry, Fen,' he said, thinking fast. 'Avon tells me we may have made a mistake with the formula for the Pylene-50 antidote. It looks as though you'll have time for one more meal at the base, while he tests a few random samples.'
'Oh, wonderful,' Fen grumbled. 'Deva's on cooking roster. No sane person would eat his stew, if they had the option of a Helotrix barbecue.'
Nonetheless, he and the guard set off cheerfully towards the base. Blake hesitated briefly and then returned to Carnell, wondering whether his cooperation had saved Avon or doomed him.
'You'd better let Vila and Tarrant unload those boxes first,' he said with sudden inspiration. 'The cruiser will take you further, if it's not weighed down.'
He was playing for time, manoeuvring to keep the antidote out of Servalan's hands and, he confessed, yearning for a chance to communicate with Avon, before Carnell made his final move. When Carnell nodded and waved Vila and Tarrant across to the cruiser's storage hold, Blake took half a pace backwards and looked diagonally into Avon's eyes. As he stared doggedly, begging Avon to understand, Avon's lips parted fractionally and drew in a silent breath - an expression so similar to his reaction when Saymond's humanoid had tapped him with a shockstick that Blake glanced down at Carnell's gun hand, to make sure he hadn't pulled the trigger.
He needn't have worried. Carnell's attention was still focused on Vila and Tarrant, checking for any signs that they might try to duck behind the cruiser and escape. When Blake turned back, Avon was watching him intently, signalling with his eyes. An unlikely blend of encouragement and reassurance and something else, something too complex for Blake to read.
He was still trying to decipher the message when Vila shunted the last box to the edge of the hold and jumped down to the ground. As Tarrant slammed the hatch shut, Carnell whipped an arm round Avon's neck. He jabbed the blaster under Avon's jaw and marched him across to the door of the cruiser.
'This is goodbye, lover,' he said, smiling at Blake. 'Unless you'd care to accompany me. You've done more than enough for your cause, you know. Why don't you let someone else look after you, for a change?'
The world contracted. Blake could only see the barrel of the blaster, dull silver against Avon's parchment skin. Fear chilled his blood and slowed his heartbeat to a standstill but at the same time his brain was moving faster than the speed of light, calculating the odds. At last, after all the cat and mouse games, there was a choice he could make, without endangering Avon in the process. He braced his shoulders, lifted his head and looked into Carnell's pale eyes.
'All right,' he said hoarsely. 'All right, Nic. If that's the price of Avon's life, I'll pay it.'
The blaster jerked sharply, scraping Avon's cheek. Blake watched Carnell's smile warp into a death's-head grin.
'You want him so much?' he asked. 'Then take him, lover.'
He raised the blaster high, ramming the hilt down between Avon's shoulder blades. Avon gasped and went stumbling forward but Blake caught him before he fell. He wrapped both arms protectively round Avon, keeping him upright, holding him close. By the time he looked back, Carnell's flashpoint fury had burnt out and his expression was as urbane as ever.
'Sorry, Roj,' he drawled, caressing the barrel of the blaster. 'For what it's worth, I really did love you. But I have to salvage something from this debacle.'
He steadied the blaster and pointed it at Blake. The muzzle wavered and dipped, then swung up again as Carnell aimed and fired. His hand grazed his temple in a parody of a military salute. As he hoisted himself into the cruiser, Avon groaned softly and crumpled against Blake's chest.
4. Tarrant stared incredulously. He'd had a hell of a day. It had started well enough, when Vila woke him by burrowing under the covers and applying a warm wet mouth to his cock, but then Avon's voice had interrupted them at exactly the wrong moment, crackling imperiously over the intercom. Tarrant had been quietly furious - he hated the way Vila always jumped when Avon said 'frog' - although, after Avon had briefed them on his plans for Carnell, he'd joined in with enthusiasm. Over the last few weeks he had started to think of Blake as an elder brother and besides, the traditional Space Command distaste for puppeteers meant that he had never warmed to Carnell. So he'd been grinning to himself as Carnell marched them through the base, anticipating the look on the puppeteer's face when he realised how comprehensively he had been fooled.
But now Avon was dangling limp and motionless in the circle of Blake's arms, which wasn't the way they'd planned it.
'No,' Tarrant whispered. 'Oh no, not again. I've killed Avon.'
Even in this extremity, Blake's mind seemed to be capable of functioning on half a dozen levels at once. 'You, Tarrant?' he asked, lifting shocked eyes from Avon's body. 'I would've said Carnell pulled the trigger.'
'He did,' Tarrant said, shivering. 'But it shouldn't have worked. I was sure my blaster wasn't charged.'
Then Vila was at his side, tucking an arm around him and hugging tight. 'Course it wasn't,' he said briskly. 'Fact is, Avon's hardly eaten or slept for a month - and the last half hour can't have been exactly easy for him. Looks to me like he must've passed out, soon as he knew we'd pulled it off.'
Tarrant relaxed and watched Blake tilt Avon's head back and hold a finger to his lips, laughing with relief when a puff of breath tickled the skin. 'Vila's right,' he said. 'I should've guessed ... except that I seem to be missing some vital information. You say your blaster was empty, Tarrant. In that case, why were we letting Nic push us around?'
'That was Avon's idea,' Tarrant explained. 'He thought it'd be better for everyone if we gave Carnell a chance to escape. Much better than if you had to order his execution.'
As Blake frowned, a hot wind roared towards them, buffeting them sideways. The cruiser lifted from the runway and soared into the misty Gauda Prime sky. They watched until it diminished into a speck of silver light that winked and flared up brightly and then was gone. Blake rubbed his eyes and let out a gusty sigh.
'Avon may have had a point,' he admitted. 'Although Fen won't be too pleased when he realises we've given away one of our three cruisers. You're a fellow pilot, Tarrant. I'll leave you to explain, while I take Avon to the medical unit.'
On cue, Fen came running towards them, alerted by the sound of the take-off. It took Tarrant five minutes to calm him down and five more minutes to convince him that Avon had enough funds to replace the ancient cruiser with a new pursuit ship. By that time, Vila had helped Blake to shoulder Avon and carry him into the base. When Tarrant followed, he found Deva at the central intercom, summoning all the base personnel to the mess hall.
The next five hours were a model of controlled chaos. Blake returned from the medical unit, sidetracked to assure Tarrant that Avon would recover and then proceeded to brief everyone on the measures needed to safeguard the base's security. Hurried meetings were held, where everyone argued about how much Carnell knew and what he might have interfered with. Passwords were changed. Data bases were crosschecked. More guard patrols were rostered in overlapping shifts. Tests were run to ensure that no sonovapour canisters had been plumbed into the air supply and that the drugs in the medical unit had not been exchanged for slow-acting poisons.
Every now and then Tarrant felt a brief erotic twinge in his groin but he was working too hard to snatch even a quick kiss with Vila. Eventually, he and Dayna and Soolin finished examining all the weapons in the armoury and reported back to Deva, who crossed the last item off his list and sighed wearily.
'That's it, for the moment,' he said, capsizing into the nearest chair and massaging the shoulder that Arlen had wounded. 'You can take a break now. Oh, and Tarrant, would you mind having a word with Blake on the way to your cabin? I sent him off for a rest five minutes ago but he'll sleep better if he knows the armoury's secure.'
Tarrant nodded and headed out of the tracking gallery, stumbling from exhaustion, steadying himself with a hand against the wall. The door to Blake's room was slightly ajar. As he paused, summoning the strength to knock, he caught a glimpse of Blake standing in the middle of the room, alarmingly still and silent. That worried Tarrant. He leaned forward to peer through the crack, afraid that Carnell had somehow baited a trap in Blake's room, but instead he saw Avon curled up on the bed, wearing baggy brown pyjamas rolled at the cuffs. Avon slept with the same intensity that he brought to everything else, knees drawn close to his chest and an arm crooked round his head. Although Blake was gazing down at him with such concentrated tenderness that Tarrant wasn't surprised when Avon stirred and swatted the air, muttered irritably and opened his eyes.
As he focused on Blake, all the lines of his gaunt face softened and he blinked with dazzled pleasure - an expression more directly revealing than any Tarrant had seen in the two years that he'd known Avon. While he stared in amazement, completely forgetting the message that had brought him there, Blake husked, 'How are you feeling now?' and Avon's mask dropped back into place.
'I have survived, I find,' he answered, formal and restrained. 'Since I no longer require nursing, perhaps I should return to my own room.'
Blake brushed that aside with an impatient gesture. 'You're welcome to stay here for as long as you like,' he told Avon. 'Which reminds me, are you still planning to leave the base?'
Avon shrugged. 'Circumstances have changed since then,' he murmured. 'Blake, I understand that you will need time to recover from Carnell's betrayal. But if, after that, you feel inclined -'
Then he broke off, because Blake was clearing his throat and clasping his hands behind his back, like a schoolboy about to embark on a recitation. Tarrant swallowed a chuckle. Over the last few hours Blake had clearly been preparing a speech and now he was determined to give it, so determined that he hadn't heard a word Avon said.
'For what it's worth, Avon, I always loved you, from the very beginning,' he announced. 'Nic was only your reflection, a reminder of everything I'd loved in you. If you'll just give me a chance, I know I can prove ...'
His voice faltered and he hesitated beside the bed, looking both commanding and suppliant, large and helpless. Avon tried to rise but his hand caught in the sleeve of the baggy pyjamas and he fell back on the pillows, laughing up at Blake.
'So much for Carnell,' he observed. 'I could almost find it in me to feel sorry for him. But no, not quite. Blake, will you stop talking and come here?'
Blake stared uncomprehendingly for a second, then groaned and stumbled forward, dropping his jerkin and kicking off his boots. Tarrant realised that it was time for him to leave but for some reason his feet were refusing to obey orders. He rationalised it briefly, telling himself that he couldn't risk making a noise and disturbing the lovers, but then Vila's imagined voice said, 'Come off it, you're just curious' and Tarrant admitted he couldn't bear to turn away. Not yet. Not while Blake was settling tentatively on the bed with Avon bending over him, dipping down suddenly to brush his lips across Blake's mouth in a butterfly caress.
A tremor ran through Blake's body, bracing his shoulders and jerking his head back. As he gasped and shuddered, Avon whispered, 'Steady, Blake. Steady.' He tugged at the buckle of Blake's belt and eased his trousers over his hips, eyes widening appreciatively.
'That's better,' he said with an uncharacteristically sweet smile. 'Now I have you where I want you.'
'Do you?' Blake whispered, still half-disbelieving. 'Do you really want me, Avon?'
Avon's breath hissed out in an impatient sigh. 'Consider the evidence, Blake,' he snapped. 'Then decide for yourself.'
He knotted his fists in Blake's shirt and wrenched with a force that sent buttons wheeling across the floor. His eyes closed and his fingertips skimmed Blake's chest, reading its smooth contours, slowing and stilling when he reached the stretched silver flesh where his bullets had torn into Blake's body. At the same moment Blake reached out to peel back Avon's pyjama jacket and stroke the puckered red lines that marked the trajectory of three Federation gunshots. They lay side by side, silent and intent, exploring each other's scars. Tarrant realised, somewhat disconcerted, that the sight was quickening his breath and plumping his cock.
As he watched, part thrilled and part ashamed, a hand sneaked down his hip and closed with unerring precision over his balls. 'Voyeur,' Vila breathed into his ear. 'Always wanted to corrupt an Alpha. Looks like I've been doing a good job.'
He hooked a thumb and forefinger round Tarrant's shaft and steered him away from the door. When Tarrant turned on him indignantly, Vila grinned back with a mischievous triumph that smoothed the worry-lines from his forehead and made his eyes gleam like paired stars. Tarrant had never thought of himself as observant but somehow he noticed everything about Vila.
'You look different,' he said. 'Happier, I think. What's happened, V?'
'Talked to Avon in the medical unit, didn't I?' Vila said, trying for casual. 'He explained why he nearly chucked me out of that shuttle. Said he was sorry about it - an apology from Avon, I ought to frame it or something. Said he had to stay alive, because Blake needed him.'
'And that settles everything?' Tarrant asked with an edge to his voice. 'You don't think you could, just possibly, be letting Avon off too lightly? Again.'
Vila's grin broadened. 'No need to be jealous, baby,' he said, patting Tarrant's cheek. 'Blake's always come first with Avon, by a few thousand spatials. It's just nice to know Avon wanted to apologise all along, only he couldn't, on account of bloody Carnell making him think Blake had sworn him to secrecy.'
Tarrant winced. He'd tried to talk Vila into calling him 'T' or 'Del' but Vila appeared to be untrainable. 'Baby' was so embarrassing: so common: so Delta. He loved it. As a matter of fact, he loved everything about Vila, even his more inconvenient perceptions. Remembering Avon dazzled with pleasure, Blake helpless, Tarrant had to agree that their mutual absorption rendered jealousy irrelevant. All right, he'd probably never know whether Avon and Vila had slept together on Xenon Base - Vila was unexpectedly good at keeping secrets. But it didn't matter. The world was more complicated than it had seemed, back at Space Command or even on Scorpio, and Tarrant found he liked it that way.
As he reached for Vila, a plaintive cry came soaring towards them, repeated three times in quick succession, with a bass groan anchoring its descant. Tarrant shivered responsively. When his eyes veered back to the door, Vila's hand settled in the small of his back and shoved, impelling him down the corridor.
'They'll be all right now,' he said, satisfied. 'Come on, baby. We've got some unfinished business, you and me.'
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