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Careless Whispers

By S. Lewis
"Who will free me from this turbulent priest?"

Henry II

My thanks go to old King Henry, whose above remark inspired this whole venture. Inspiration is a very funny thing....

And deep gratitude to the FBS, as warped a group of women as one could hope to find, whose literary criticisms ("more angst, more angst!!) and thoughtful commentary ("this is making me hot!") proved invaluable in the writing of this work.

ADDITIONAL CREDITS:     

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay

*****

MY HERO BARES HIS NERVES

My hero bares his nerves along my wrist
That rules from wrist to shoulder,
Unpacks the head that, like a sleepy ghost,
Leans on my mortal ruler,
The proud spine spurning turn and twist.

And these poor nerves so wired to the skull
Ache on the lovelorn paper
I hug to love with my unruly scrawl
That utters all love hunger
And tells the page the empty ill.

My hero bares my side and sees his heart
Tread, like a naked Venus,
The beach of flesh, and wind her bloodred plait:
Stripping my loin of promise,
He promises a secret heat.

He holds the wire from this box of nerves
Praising the mortal error
Of birth and death, the two sad knaves of thieves
And the hunger's emperor;
He pulls the chain, the cistern moves.

*****

Chapter 1

Not a day went by that Kerr Avon did not think, at least fleetingly, about taking his leave of this place. This place, the people who populated it, and their duly elected President who reigned over the galaxy beneficently.

Most especially that President.

The reasons for leaving were numerous and eminently logical and entirely to the benefit of himself.

To wit:

He hated the planet itself. Earth was a very long way from being Paradise, no matter what sentimental Spacers chose to believe.

To wit:

He despised the people. There were too many of them, in the first place, and each one seemed to be a bigger idiot than the last, in the second place.

To wit:

He loathed the President. This particular antagonism went back so far that it needed no further elucidation.

Balance all of that against his reasons for staying.

Rather, his reason for staying.

To wit:

President Roj Blake

It might have been a laughable contradiction, had not Avon lost his sense of humor on that particular subject a very long time ago.

Most often, his wistful thoughts of departure were, indeed, fleeting. The notion was here and then gone, and he would turn his attention to whatever piece of imbecilic business next required it. He was, after all, a being of some importance within the government. Which meant, unfortunately, that imbecilic pieces of business were forever being placed in front of him.

On other days, most often after a particularly bruising battle with the Most Exalted Ruler of the Glorious Refederation, Avon would give more serious consideration to the idea of fleeing this life.

Once, he even went so far as to visit the Spaceport and make inquiries about outbound passage. To anywhere. Armed, then, with a sheaf of itineraries and fare rates, he retreated to his spartan quarters a few blocks from the palatial presidential residence and gloated.

He could escape.

It was possible.

He could simply vanish out there into the vast galaxy, and no one would ever know where he had gone.

Or why.

With Avon's usual luck (bad), Vila showed up as he sat at the table surrounded by the blatant evidence of his future betrayal.

Ahh, now, he objected to that word as a description of what he was planning. Strongly objected, even if the word had come from his own mind. Who or what, pray tell, would he be betraying?

Vila eyed the detritus that covered the top of the table. He shook his head. "Poor Avon," he said.

On principle, he disliked receiving pity from this man. "What are you talking about?" he snarled.

Vila did not answer immediately, being very busy fetching glasses and a bottle of quite fine liqueur that Avon had certainly not intended to share with him. (And with whom had he intended to share it? He dismissed the question impatiently.)

When drinks had been poured, Vila finally joined him at the table. He surveyed the papers knowingly. "Still looking for a bolthole, are you?"

Avon answered by taking a sip of the liqueur.

Vila smirked. "Nearly ten years now you've been plotting an escape from Blake. Ever think maybe it's time you stopped fooling yourself?"

The liqueur was every bit as good as he had anticipated it would be. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he said loftily. "And I doubt if you do either."

'That's what makes it so sad," Vila replied. "You really don't have any notion of what it is I'm on about."

Avon was sometimes given to think that all of the alcohol that Vila had consumed over the years was starting to affect his brain. Such as it was. "Nothing wrong with a man planning a trip, is there After all, President Blake does not hold us prisoner here."

"Not all of us," Vila muttered obscurely.

The concept of Vila Restal being obscure called for another swallow of the liqueur.

"I heard about the brouhaha between you and Blake at the Council meeting this morning," Vila went on. 'You two just never quit, do you?'

"The man is an idiot."

Vila sighed deeply. "So you have been saying for what seems like most of my life."

Avon brooded into his glass. "Truth is, he does not realize just how many enemies he has out there. Blake simply goes blithely on doing good, and being the bloody hero of the people, and the bastards lurk.

"Isn't it lucky he has his own bastard, then, watching out for the lurkers. Meaning you, of course."

"Who else?" Avon replied in a glum voice. Then his gaze lifted from its introspection and pierced Vila. "I never intended to spend my life nursemaiding a fool."

Vila snickered. "Not even a noble fool?"

"Especially a noble one," Avon said darkly.

Vila indicated the papers.  "So you hide in this room and plot your escape."

"Yes." Avon set his glass down with a crash. "It is not a betrayal," he said sharply.

Vila looked surprised. "Who said it was?"

Avon blinked. "Well, you were undoubtedly thinking something like that," he countered weakly.

"Taken up mind-reading now, have you?"

When Avon simply declined to continue the absurd conversation any longer, Vila just finished his drink and got up to leave. He paused by the door. "If you weren't such a dope, Avon, and a dope with a vile temper, I could tell you the facts of life."

"You?" Avon said with a sneer.

"Oh, yes," Vila said. "Me. Surprising, ain't it?"

Avon just nodded.

Vila bid him a cheerful good-bye and departed.

Alone, he poured himself another glass of the liqueur (after all, there really was no point in saving it, was there?), and stared at the mass of information that could help him escape from the trap his life had become.

Rate schedules and flight itineraries.

Lifelines for a drowning man.

For some reason, however, his enthusiasm for the entire project had evaporated. He used one arm to push the whole pile of paper into the waste receptacle.

Then he took his drink over to the window.

From here, he could stand and watch the lights of the Presidential mansion. He stayed there, sipping the mellow liqueur slowly, and staring at the large house until all the windows went dark. Including those on the third floor.

The President of the Refederation was, it seemed, safely in bed for the night.

Avon drained the glass and left it on the windowsill. He turned off the lamp and went to bed as well.

Chapter II

Avon gloomily contemplated himself in the mirror.

These damned official banquets and receptions were a massive waste of his valuable time and energy, as far as he was concerned.

Usually his solution was to simply refuse to attend. Or, if absolutely ordered to be there (by His Regal Highness, of course, the only being who even pretended to order Kerr Avon around), he was not above promising his presence and then just not showing up.

He was not unaware that such action infuriated Blake, which was an additional pleasure.

Blake, it should have come as no surprise, loved the chance to play host. Such occasions gave him the opportunity to be adored anew, not just by the usual syncophants, but by the various and sundry politicians and businesspeople from all over the galaxy who pilgrimmaged to Earth in order to meet him. (Avon was occasionally driven to wonder just where in Hades all these believers had been back when Blake was winning the revolution for them.)

Blake, the sun about which all the visitors orbited, would smile and ooze charm, playing the political game with consummate skill. Everybody loved him.

And he loved everybody.

It made Avon sick.

So he tried his best to avoid all such occasions.

But Blake hadn't ordered him to attend this particular banquet. Hadn't even suggested strongly that perhaps he ought to come. In actual point of fact, Blake hadn't invited him at all.

Which was precisely why Avon had decided to go.

And not only to go--he intended to play the role out completely. To that end, he dressed with extra care in black leather trousers, high boots, and a white shirt with sleeves so flowing that they might have been worn by His Highness.

The evening was cool, so he donned a black cape that was lined in red silk, and then left his rooms. It was only a short walk to the Presidential residence, where he presented himself just after the appointed hour.

There was a flurry of confusion at the door, because his name did not appear on the official guest list. The poor sentry looked to be in a state of nervous collapse, because of course he knew exactly who Avon was - and also knew his reputation.

But at the same time, his orders were strict and explicit: No one whose name was not on the list was to be admitted. No exceptions.

Avon did not go into one of his well-known and universally feared rages. Instead, he merely smiled, ever so faintly, and requested gently that the President be informed of his arrival.

One of the guards scurried away.

Avon stood patiently on the front stoop and awaited his return.

It was not long before the man came back, looking slightly pale. "Admit Chief Advisor Avon," he said. "Immediately." It sounded like a direct quote.

Avon graced them all with a smile and entered the house. A servant took his cloak as he strode into the reception room. His arrival coincided, serendipitously, with a general lull in the conversation. All eyes turned to watch him enter.

He ignored everyone.

Blake was standing in the center of the room (of course), surrounded by a gaggle of admirers, primarily off-planet politicians, who seemed to be worshipping his every word (of course). But now Blake fell silent as well, watching as Avon approached.

Avon did not join the ring of adoring listeners. Instead, he stopped just short of that group. Stopped and waited.

After a moment, Blake excused himself from the group and walked over to where Avon was standing. "This is a surprise," the President murmured, his eyes taking in Avon's appearance.

"I felt sure that my invitation was somehow mislaid," Avon said blandly.

"And I felt sure that had an invitation been issued, you would have ignored it, as usual," Blake replied. "Why go through such a pointless exercise all over again?"

No one else was standing close enough to hear their sotto-voiced conversation, although Avon would have wagered that everyone in the room wanted to. He gave Blake a small smile. "If my presence is going to prove an inconvenience, Mr. President, I will leave."

"No, no," Blake said quickly. "It's fine. A place is already being prepared for you at the table.

Avon gave a gracious half-bow.

Blake glared at him. "You have a very perverse nature, Chief Advisor Avon."

"That fact has been noted in the past," Avon agreed blithely.

"Accurately so," Blake growled. Then, in one of those frequent changes of mood that tended to drive Avon more than a little crazy, Blake grinned at him.

"Whatever the reason, I'm glad you're here." His eyes were now warm as he gazed at Avon.

Damn the man. He would continue to let his foolish heart bleed over every soul in the galaxy, showing his feelings to a populace that cared not at all.

Avon was confused at his own reaction. Had he wanted Blake to throw him out? Sometimes he didn't know what the hell he wanted; his motives bewildered him as much as they probably did Blake.

A small part of his mind basked in the warm gaze that Blake had turned on him.

He frowned.

"Some of the guests would like to meet you," Blake said after a moment.

Automatically, Avon opened his mouth to say something disagreeable, but then in a mood change of his own, he simply nodded. "As you wish, sir."

So Avon played the part as Blake wanted him to, moving around the room, making inane small talk, and keeping his impatience in check. He could sense a pair of  Presidential eyes on him as he socialized; probably Blake wanted to be sure that he was behaving himself.

Pausing, Avon listened to a minor governor yammering about taxes or something equally boring. His eyes wandered, watching Blake hold court across the room. His Highness was temporarily distracted from his spying on the Chief Advisor, so Avon could stare.

For the dinner, Blake was rigged out in a new white tunic with polished gold buttons. Very dignified. Even his usually unruly curls had been tamed. No one would ever believe that he had once been a scruffy bounty hunter. The only souvenir of those miserable days was a small scar and one eye that still drooped a little.

Avon refused to think about the scars that were hidden by the tunic.

Seeming to sense that he was being watched, Blake suddenly turned to look in his direction. Avon averted his eyes immediately.

At long last, just as he was giving serious consideration to pummelling the governor into unconsciousness, dinner was announced. Avon sighed in relief.

The entire group adjourned to the next room. As promised, a place had indeed been set for Avon, about halfway down the table from where Blake was reigning now. Tarrant, his dress uniform heavy with medals, was directly across from Avon. He smirked as they took their chairs, but didn't say anything.

Several times during the meal, Avon looked up to find that Blake was still watching him. In the name of all the gods, didn't the man even trust his table manners?

Blake caught his glance once and smiled.

It was as the dessert was being served that the Ambassador who was the primary guest of the evening asked her question. She was seated next to Blake, and so as to be sure that Avon could hear, she raised her voice. "Chief Advisor Avon?"

"Yes?" he said shortly; his store of diplomacy was beginning to run a little low.

"I have always wanted to know the truth of what happened. One hears so many rumors. Tell me, what is the actual story of Gauda Prime?"

Avon felt as if someone had kicked him in the gut. He set his cup down with extreme care, hoping that no one would notice the way his hand trembled.

The room was deathly silent.

Across the table, Tarrant was frowning fiercely. Avon glanced at Blake, who met his gaze without flinching. It was he himself who lowered his eyes.

Then he stood. "Excuse me, please," he said in a low voice. Quickly, he walked out of the dining room and, without pausing, left the house.

It was as he reached the street that he heard his name being called. He stopped, but did not turn around.

Blake reached him, carrying his cape. "You forgot this," he said, holding it out.

Avon took the garment and draped it over his shoulders. "Thank you."

"Kerr---" Blake said.

Avon did not look at him. "Your guests are waiting, Mr. President."

"To hell with them." Blake was quiet for a moment. "I'm sorry for what just happened."

Avon, staring blindly into the night, did not respond.

"Avon?"

He finally shrugged. "I did shoot you," he said. "Everyone knows it."

Blake shook his head. "It only matters to fools like her. It doesn't matter to us. To you and me."

The utter stupidity of that remark made Avon wince. "Blake, you're an idiot." He turned and walked away quickly.

"Avon!"

He ignored Blake's shout.

Chapter III

Once he was safely within the solitude of his rooms again, Avon undressed quickly, donning his sleeping trousers. Not that he had any real hope of sleeping any time soon.

He sat in the dark and did nothing.

Thought nothing.

Or tried not to think, at any rate. But that proved to be more difficult than it might have been.

The question kept echoing in his mind: What was the truth about Gauda Prime?

His memories of that dreadful day had never really been more than a jumble of confused impressions. A flashing red light. The sounds of shouting and gunfire. The smell of sweat-drenched fear. The taste of hot blood.

Blake's blood.

Avon lowered his head to the table, resting on his folded arms. A screaming began inside his mind.

Like the screaming he'd heard that day.

On Gauda Prime.

The screams of the dead and the dying and the mad.

The world was ending.

He smiled. So: this was how it ended.

Gunfire.

Not his.

More people came running into the room, but they were not Federation troops. Guns were going off all around Avon.

Then one thought gripped him, blocking out everything else, even the fear. Blake. He had to protect Blake. Simply standing over the fallen hero was

not enough. Avon dropped to the floor, his body landing directly on top of Blake's unmoving one. His arms moved to shelter Blake's head as the battle raged on above and around them.

Foolishly, he whispered to Blake. "Don't worry," he said. "Don't worry, you can trust me, don't worry." With one hand, he patted Blake gently, feeling warm, sticky blood. "You can trust me."

Finally, after an eternity, the battle seemed to end. A heavy silence filled the room. Avon didn't look up, didn't move, didn't stop crooning nonsense into Blake's ear or patting his chest.

Someone pulled him up at last, forcing him to relinquish his bloody embrace of Blake. He moaned a protest, his sticky hands reaching out desperately for the one piece of reality left to him: Blake's dead body.

They didn't seem aware of his protest. Or maybe nobody cared. And why should they have? He was the madman who murdered their hero.

As they dragged him from the room, he kept staring back at what he had done.

The place they took him to was not actually a cell, but simply an ordinary room with a narrow cot and a toilet. They left him alone there. Occasionally, someone came in to check on him or to deliver food, which he never ate, and which would be taken away again in due course. Avon had no idea whether or not the room was guarded.

It didn't matter.

Avon mourned without even really understanding what it was he had lost.

The screaming woke him up every time he tried to sleep and it took him a long time to realize that the screams were only in his own head.

With his meal one day came some news from a kindly attendant (keeper?). "Your crew is alive," she said. "They're all recovering."

He looked at her, nodding his thanks. But the mourning and the screams went on.

Then, days or perhaps weeks later, they came and took him out of the room. Maybe they were going to kill him now. Avon felt a great sense of peace come over him at the thought. This was as it should be. This was as he wanted it to be. A life for a life.

Not that it was a fair exchange, even so. But it was all he had to offer.

It was the only penance he could make.

And, in the name of all the gods, he wanted to die!

But they only took him a short way down the hall before stopping. A door opened and two hands pushed him into the room.

There was a bed in the middle of room. And sitting up in that bed was Roj Blake. Alive.

Avon felt his knees go out from under him. Someone caught him, kept him from falling, and then helped him walk to the bed. He gripped the railing. Blake was pale and battered-looking, a wrecked knight errant, but his eyes were open.

Avon tried to speak, but could not.

Blake's hand crept along the mattress toward him, but Avon gasped and pulled away. "Avon," Blake whispered.

A von just shook his head.

"I only now...found out you thought I was dead." It was obviously a very hard thing for Blake to have to speak. "I'm so sorry."

At that, Avon began to laugh.

No one else in the room seemed to think that laughter was an appropriate response to the situation.

But Avon couldn't help himself. For long moments, his shrill laughter was the only sound in the room. He finally managed to catch his breath and find his speaking voice. He leaned over the bed, putting his face very close to Blake's and spoke. "I killed you, you stupid son of a bitch, and you're apologizing to me?"

"It's all right," Blake said. "It's all right."

Avon stayed where he was, staring into Blake's face. He could feel the other man's breath, warm and slightly damp against his skin. He inhaled, trying to suck the breath into his own lungs. "Blake," he said.

Blake smiled at him.

They tried then to take him out of the room. But he grabbed Blake's hand and held on.

"He will stay here," Blake said and even now he commanded everyone in his presence.

They did not approve, clearly, but someone eventually brought a chaise into the room, and Avon slept there. When the screams in his head woke him now, he would hear Blake's voice, offering comfort and forgiveness. Each time, the words would lull him into sleep again.

Finally, the screaming stopped. The next night, Avon moved back into his own room, although he imagined that Blake was sorry to see him go. But that, he knew, was simply his own fantasy.

So each day they were together and each night they slept apart.

As always.

 

They had never spoken of Gauda Prime to one another.

Not until tonight.

Avon finally got up from the chair and went to the window. Most of the lights were off now at the Presidential mansion. The party must have ended. The

only light still on was shining from the third floor.

As he watched, some movement or patch of shadow against the light caught Avon's eye. He frowned. After a moment, he went to a drawer and took out a carved wooden box. Inside the elaborate box there rested a pair of antique binoculars. The glasses had been a gift to Blake, from some politician or other trying to curry favor.

Shortly after receiving them, Blake presented the binoculars to Avon.

 

"Currying favor?" he said with a nasty smile.

Blake shrugged. "Well, that would be pointless in this instance, wouldn't it?"

"Ahh, but the Fearless Leader loves lost causes."

"Perhaps it would be best if I learned when to give up," Blake said wearily.

Avon snorted. "You never give up."

Blake just looked at him in silence.

 

Avon put the memory behind him and went back to the window. After a moment, he had the focus adjusted. Sure enough, he had seen someone. Blake himself was standing on the balcony outside of his bedroom. The guards must love that, Avon thought.

Blake just stood there, leaning against the railing and staring at ... well, it occurred to Avon that Blake was staring right at him. Or at his general location,

anyway.

It made him nervous.

He sharpened the focus even further and aimed the glasses at Blake's face.

The President did not look like a happy man. In fact, the sadness visible on his face was so naked, so powerful, that it hit Avon with the force of a physical blow.

"Blake?" he whispered against the window.

Then he lowered the glasses sharply. He was neither responsible for nor affected by whatever moods His Regal Highness chose to get himself into.

After a moment, Avon lifted the binoculars again.

But the balcony was empty now. A few seconds later, the light went out in the bedroom.

Avon returned the binoculars to their case, wishing devoutly that he had never taken them out in the first place. He did not want to have the image of Blake's sadness burned into his heart, and he knew that it was.

It joined there the image of Blake lying on the floor in that room on Gauda Prime. And that of the face of the ravaged knight in the bed, the knight with the gentle voice.

Avon stayed at the window for a very long time.

Chapter IV

It was very early and Avon had not been asleep nearly long enough.

The cold, steely grey morning light was just beginning to seep into the room when Avon was awakened by a sudden knocking on his door. Groggily, he sat up, wondering why anyone was bothering him at this hour.

Unless.

Unless.

He propelled himself out of the bed and across the room, frightening thoughts tumbling through his mind in a feverish cacophony. One word seized him.

Assassination.

Or, given the expression he'd seen on Blake's face the night before...was even suicide beyond the realm of possibility?

More likely, the idiot fell down a flight of stairs in his damned mansion and broke his fool neck.

By the time Avon actually reached the door, he had worked himself into a state of near-panic.

He flung the door open breathlessly.

And found President Roj Blake standing in the hallway. Avon just stared. This was not the image of presidential dignity from the banquet of the night before. The Blake he looked at now was wearing roughspun trousers and a linen shirt that fell loosely. For a moment, he might have been the younger man Avon had known back on the LIBERATOR, despite the grey of the hair and the slightly ravaged face.

"May I come in?" Blake asked after a moment.

Silently, Avon stepped aside so that he could enter. He stuck his head out to survey the empty hallway, then turned and looked at Blake in disbelief.

"You're alone?"

"Completely." Blake smiled, looking improbably like a mischievous child for the moment. "I slipped away unnoticed and walked over here. It was quite wonderful."

"It was quite stupid," Avon snapped. He closed the door. "What the hell are you doing here, anyway?'

Ignoring the question, Blake wandered around the room curiously. "So this is where you live. I have wondered what it might be like." His sidewise glance at Avon was gently accusatory. "I've never been here before, you know."

Avon shrugged. "It is like any other rented accommodation. And, as you can clearly see, it is not the sort of place where one would entertain the exalted President of the galaxy."

"Even if one wanted to do so, right?" Blake responded with a sly smile.

Avon felt at a strategic disadvantage, half-dressed as he was. He went to the wardrobe and took out a shirt, which he pulled on to cover his bare chest. Blake was still looking at him, but, for once, his expression was impossible to read.

Then the President wandered over to the window and looked out. "Nice view," he said.

"You can see the house I live in."

"Can I?" Avon said indifferently. "I hadn't noticed."

For some reason, Blake smiled a little at that. He opened the window and leaned out at an alarming angle.

Quickly Avon crossed to him, put a hand on his shoulder, and pulled him back inside. Then he shut the window firmly. "It seems a chilly, damp morning."

Blake nodded.

Avon still had his hand on Blake's shoulder. His grip tightened. He could feel the muscles beneath the shirt ripple. Immediately, he pulled his hand away. He blinked. "Would the President like something to warm him after his walk?"

A strange expression flickered through Blake's eyes. "What did you have in mind?" he asked.

Avon swallowed hard. "A drink?" he said.

After a moment, Blake nodded. "That would be fine, thank you."

Avon dug out the bottle of liqueur that Vila had opened not long ago. He poured two glasses full of the golden liquid and walked back to Blake, handing him one. "What is the purpose of this visit, Highness?"

Instead of answering, Blake sampled the drink and nodded approvingly. "Very nice," he murmured.

Avon felt a warmth inside that had nothing to do with the alcohol. He had known that Blake would like it.

"I came to apologize," Blake said then.

Well, that was hardly a surprise. Given Blake's infernal nature, it would have to be guilt that would drive him to such absurd behavior. He wore guilt like the ancient religious fanatics wore their stigmata. The only question was what, specifically, might he be anguishing over this time?

Avon sat at the table and gestured for Blake to join him there. It wasn't until they were both seated that he realized some of the flight itineraries he had retrieved from the waste receptacle were still cluttering the table. Blake picked one up and looked at it for a moment. He didn't say anything about it, however.

Instead, he got on with the apology. "You were subjected to unforgivable rudeness at dinner last night," he said in a quiet voice. "For that, I am very sorry."

"This is unnecessary," Avon said crisply.

"To me, it is quite necessary."

Avon sneered. "Well, then, if it makes you feel better, I am content. Even if your pathological need to purge your guilt causes you to awaken one from a sound sleep, creating panic."

Blake eyed him. "Did I panic you? Why?"

Cursing himself, Avon made a dismissive gesture. "I assumed my dwelling was ablaze."

"I see," Blake responded mildly. "Well, then, I apologize for that as well."

Good gods, was there no stopping the man?

"Enough," Avon said. "At the very least, I learned a good lesson on turning up uninvited at one of your gatherings. Not a mistake I shall repeat, rest assured."

"You don't need an invitation, Avon, surely you know that." Blake drank some more. "The guard unit has been informed that whether or not your name is on any damned list, you are always to be admitted to that house. Day or night."

Avon had absolutely no idea how one was supposed to respond to something like that, so he said nothing at all.

He cast several slanted glances at Blake. What he saw across the table was a pair of weary eyes and a face with too many frown lines. It was the visage of a man who had not slept well for more nights than one. At least, it was not the face Blake had worn as he stood on the balcony the night before.

For that fact, Avon was very grateful.

He knew too well that he lacked the strength to deal with the ravaging unhappiness that had been so visible on that other face. Whatever it was that made Roj Blake so unhappy, Avon didn't want to know about it. He finished his drink in a gulp. "Your devoted staff will become quite hysterical if they should discover your absence," he said.

"Yes," Blake agreed wearily. He brushed a hand across his eyes. "I had best return."

"Not alone," Avon said. "Wait a moment so I can dress, and then we'll go together."

"Unnecessary," Blake said.

"As necessary to me as your ridiculous apology was to you," Avon replied flatly. "I would not like to be blamed by the masses should any harm befall their beloved leader. There is, after all, no reservoir of good will toward me." He paused by the bathroom door and flashed a bitter grin. "In other words, sire, your precious people hate me."

"Avon," Blake began.

But he shut the door on whatever it was Blake was going to say.

Safely alone, Avon leaned against the wall for a moment, breathing deeply and trying to restore his equilibrium. It made him furious that he had to do so. Why was it that in the whole galaxy only Blake could get to him so much?

Dismissing that inflammatory thought, he showered quickly and dressed.

When he emerged a few minutes later, Blake was still at the table, reading a flight itinerary. He looked up when Avon entered, and smiled.

Avon gently pried the paper from his hand and dropped it onto the table. "We should go," he said.

Blake nodded and stood. He watched, frowning, as Avon donned a sidearm. "Is that necessary?"

"I sincerely hope not," Avon replied crisply. "But I would rather carry it unnecessarily than be without it should the need arise."

"So you're to play bodyguard."

"Just another game, albeit a slightly ironic one, given the circumstances." He did not specify what circumstances; it seemed unnecessary with this man. Then, he smiled. "I have watched your back before."

"Many times," Blake said. "And always damned well."

Avon inclined his head solemnly, accepting the compliment.

It was fully light by the time they emerged onto the street, but the day had not really begun yet, and so traffic was still sparse. No one acknowledged the unusual sight of the President taking an early morning walk, accompanied by a sullen-faced man in black, who kept one hand on his weapon the whole time.

Not until they were in sight of the official residence did Blake break the silence between them. "Are you planning a trip, Avon?"

Well, that was the wrong question.

To say "trip" implied departure and then return. What he was planning - or not planning, depending on his mood - was something quite different.

"If you need to get away for a while," Blake said, "that would be fine."

Avon stared at him blandly. "I was not aware that your permission was required."

"It's not," Blake said. He made an impatient gesture. "You can do whatever you damned well please."

"Thank you, Highness."

They stopped at the bottom of the steps that led to the front door. The guard standing up by that door saw Blake and paled.

"If you will excuse me, Mr. President," Avon said. "I have some matters to attend to before the Council meeting."

"Of course."

Without meaning to - and definitely without wanting to - he met Blake's gaze. The bleakness he saw there was naked and unending. It was, to Avon, frightening.

Blake turned and began to trudge up the steps.

Avon watched him go. Scarcely breathing, still stunned by what he had seen in Blake's eyes, Avon could only stare.

No one in the known galaxy had ever accused Kerr Avon of having a heart. He had even been known to take some pride in that fact. But at that moment, something deep within him seemed to shatter irrevocably as he watched Blake.

Avon drew a deep, shuddering breath.

This could not be allowed to go on. He could not bear it. He simply could not bear it.

He knew, then what he had to do.

Chapter V

The details of arranging for his departure from Earth were more quickly and easily taken care of than Avon would have imagined possible. He was able to book passage on an outbound ship leaving that very morning, and heading for a distant corner of the galaxy. What he would do upon arrival there was a question that he did not bother addressing at the moment. For now, it was enough that he was escaping.

It was enough that he would never have to look into Roj Blake's pain-wrecked eyes again.

A sizable advance to the proprietor of his boarding house assured that his belongings would remain untouched until some future date. That done, he began to pack.

This was also a job that was accomplished quickly. Everything which he felt it was necessary to take with him at this time fit into one case. Primarily clothing, of course. A few, personal items. Rather ridiculously, he also decided to take the antique binoculars, with their heavy wooden box. It was unnecessary, true, but in the privacy of his own mind, Avon pled guilty to being human enough for some sentimental attachments.

All in all, the small pile of belongings did not seem like much to show for a lifetime. Especially for a man who had once set out determined to be wealthy.

He donned a cloak of efficiency and finished the job quickly.

At the very moment when he should have been arriving at the chamber for the Council meeting, Avon was, instead, setting off for the Spaceport.

This was not a betrayal.

No, one could not legitimately call what he was doing an act of betrayal. If anything, it was an attempt - albeit a somewhat cowardly one - at survival. Nearly a decade of his life spent within the charged sphere of Roj Blake's all-consuming personality was all that he could take and hope to remain (even minimally) sane.

He had long ago admitted to himself the depth of his feelings for Blake. Frankly, he cared. A great deal. Too much. How much easier life would have been if he hadn't.

The relationship was... unbalanced.

Blake's heart encompassed the whole galaxy. Probably the whole universe.

Avon's area of concern was much more limited.

The two sets of emotions could never be reconciled. In the long run, this flight he was making would be the best solution for everyone. Blake included. And he only hoped that the President would understand that.

Eventually.

Avon also knew that there were dangers in what he was doing. Danger, even, to his very sanity. He knew the madness of being around Blake day in and day out.

The madness of being far away from him was yet to be experienced. Deliberately, he shut his mind off from remembering the two years when Blake had gone missing. That was then. This was now.

It had to be easier now than it had been then.

Avon rode to the Spaceport in a hired shuttle.

Even now, when he was about to make his escape, Avon continued to be haunted by the sadness he'd seen in Blake's face, both the night before on the balcony, and that morning as they parted company at the bottom of the steps. Avon felt utterly helpless in the face of that much emotion, and helplessness was something he could not handle.

Avon knew that whatever was troubling Blake, he could not fix. For all he knew, he himself might have been the problem. In any event, the constant battling between the two of them could only be aggravating whatever Blake was miserable about.

Whatever popular opinion held, Avon did not enjoy watching Blake suffer.

Given that, departure seemed to be the only viable alternative.

He arrived at the Spaceport to discover that his flight had been delayed by at least two hours. Avon refrained from expressing his opinion to the harried official in charge, and simply took a seat in the lounge to wait.

The public vidscreen was on, broadcasting the news. Avon stared at the images without really noticing what he was looking at. Various stories came and went.

But, abruptly, he realized that the esteemed President was on the screen. Blake was speaking to a large crowd in the civic auditorium. It took Avon a moment to recall the occasion: a recent gathering of agricultural experts from all over the galaxy. As the tape continued to run, the smooth-voiced announcer recapped the event.

Avon watched avidly, trying to ignore the ridiculous wave of emotion that swept through him.

Blake finished his remarks to great approval, as always. He gave a wave and a smile to the cheering throng. Hero of the people.

But as the camera zoomed in for a close-up, Avon was stunned to see that the smile was very unBlakelike. It touched only the lips, never reaching the eyes at all.

The eyes were distant.

And so damned sad.

Avon rubbed at his upper lip with a fingertip. He wished to hell that someone would turn the screen off.

Meanwhile, another speaker rose and the announcer began a recapitulation of his remarks. But Avon, leaning forward in the chair, was staring at the background, where Blake had taken a seat on the stage. He couldn't seem to stop watching the man.

Blake smiled again and this time it was a true smile, a genuine Blake smile, lighting up his whole face.

Avon relaxed. Things were not as bad as he had imagined.

But his sense of relief was only temporary. As his gaze took in the rest of the picture, he saw himself cutting across the stage and coming to sit beside the President.

It was he at whom Blake was looking.

He at whom Blake was smiling.

Avon felt sick.

And he didn't even know why.

Except for one realization that was absolutely clear. Blake, for whatever reasons, seemed to need him around. Well, this did not exactly come as a surprise. Blake was a people-person. He needed people. But to see his specific need for Avon so graphically demonstrated in front of his eyes brought the truth home painfully.

Avon closed his eyes.

He didn't want to stay here anymore. It hurt too much. But could he stand to inflict even more pain on a man he had already hurt so much? Was he willing to go on hurting inside so that Blake could be...as happy as the man on the screen was?

It wasn't fair.

After a few minutes, Avon stood, picked up his case, and walked out of the Spaceport.

He was over two hours late arriving for the Council meeting. No one said a word as he walked in and took his usual place at the table.

One of the Council members was talking, about what Avon had no idea. He waited another few moments before turning his eyes toward the head of the table.

Blake was looking at him.

Avon returned the gaze flatly.

Finally, the speaker finished his remarks and sat down. "You are late, Chief Advisor," the President said. "My apologies," Avon replied, sounding not at all apologetic.

After a pause, the angry brown gaze, as usual, softened. "Well, we appreciate the fact that you finally decided to honor us with your presence." The tone was sarcastic as Avon's had been.

The eyes, however, were warm, filled with relief. And something more. Happiness, perhaps? A missing piece of Blake's universe was back where it belonged and the President was pleased.

Avon frowned. He had a feeling that he had just made the biggest mistake of his error-prone life.

Chapter VI

The sky was already shadowed with the approaching evening by the time Avon finished his work for the day and left the government complex for the walk back to his rooms. No doubt the proprietor would be pleased to see him. The landlord was under the impression that having someone of Avon's importance living in his establishment gave him certain advantages at tax and inspection time. Avon did not bother to disabuse him of the notion. The rooms suited him perfectly, especially in their location.

This particular night, he took a brief detour from his usual route.

The bar he went into was quiet enough and dark enough to suit his current mood. He picked a corner booth away from the other patrons, none of whom seemed in better spirits than was he himself, and ordered a large whiskey.

His mood was strange.

Kerr Avon was resigned.

He could not remember ever feeling this way before. It was as if he could see the rest of his life stretching out in front of him and what he saw there depressed him.

He saw Roj Blake.

Everything in his life always seemed to come down to the same thing. The same person. Blake.

Now it seemed that in order to keep his Regal Highness from falling into some sort of massive depression, Avon had to stay close. No matter what that cost him personally.

And, perhaps for the first time in his life, Avon was willing to admit to himself just what that price was going to be.

It was simple, really: more pain than he had ever known.

Sitting in the bar, sipping the cheap whiskey, Avon began to construct his emotional walls again, walls that he had lived with most of his life. Unfortunately, over the last decade or so, he had allowed those walls to bechipped away, slowly and carefully. It was only now that he realized what a mistake that had been.

He needed to protect himself.

"Avon'?"

He looked up to find Tarrant standing beside the table. "The military sees all," he said.

Tarrant, holding a drink, sat down across from him. "Were you trying to hide?"

Avon only shrugged.

Tarrant took a quick swallow of his drink. "I understand that you missed a commercial outbound flight today. One upon which you had just booked passage."

Avon's voice was cold when he spoke. "Tarrant, if you are maintaining some sort of surveillance on me I suggest that you cease and desist immediately. Or I will be forced to take you apart, limb by limb, even if you are Blake's favorite military yes-man."

"No, no," Tarrant replied quickly. "Nothing like that. I just heard a rumor, that's all."

"And so you felt compelled to run after me and find out if it were true." A dark thought struck him. "Did you tell Blake? Did he send you?"

Tarrant shook his head. "I didn't say a word to him. I wouldn't do that; he has enough worries already. Avon, I'm here as a friend, not a military officer. I just thought...is there a problem?"

"No," Avon said.

"But you were going to leave."

"However, in the end, I did not, did I? So obviously everything is fine."

There was a pause. Then Tarrant sighed. "All right, if you say so. Whatever might be going on is your business."

There was obviously more that Tarrant wanted to say, but it took him a moment of nervously toying with one of the damned decorations on the front of his uniform, as well as another swallow of his drink, before he spoke. "Blake would be...lost, you know. If you ran out."

Avon just glared at him.

Tarrant plowed ahead anyway; in many ways, he was still the brash young pilot he had been on the LIBERATOR and the SCORPIO. "He counts on you, everybody knows that."

"I have often warned him against that," Avon pointed out.

"Well, our Roj is an optimist. He continues to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that somewhere inside of you a real human being exists."

"Your Roj is an idiot."

Tarrant shook his head and stood. "I take note of the fact that you did not leave," he said. "That must mean something."

He walked away.

Yes, Avon thought bitterly, it means that I am a fool.

Chapter VII

"President Blake?"

Deliberately, he ignored the perfectly modulated query of his aide. Someone was always seeking his attention, his advice, his acknowledgement, and frankly, Blake was very tired of being the center of this particular galaxy. The sun around which everyone and everything else seemed to orbit. Sometimes, as the saying went, having a thing was not so fine as wanting it. Fighting an apparently hopeless revolution, in gloomy retrospect at least, seemed infinitely preferable to governing after the victory.

He supposed some might find that bit of truth to be a cosmic joke.

Except that it had ceased to amuse him.

Which was, perhaps, why he did not reply to his aide. For the moment, he wanted only to remain lost in his own thoughts, and not respond to whatever was wanted of him.

"President Blake," the voice said again. "Chief Advisor Avon is requesting an immediate audience." Now there was just a hint of urgency in the tone, and it made Blake smile faintly. No doubt his poor aide was being subjected to the sharpest edge of Kerr Avon's tongue, not a fate Blake would wish on even his worst enemy.

He leaned forward a little and touched the corn button lightly. "By all means," he said in a soft voice, "send Chief Advisor Avon in immediately."

The timing was...interesting.

Having just spent long minutes lost in thoughts of Avon, he now had to but glance at the doorway to see the very object of his recent fantasies come striding into the office.

Blake smiled.

Avon did not.

"Forgive me, Mr. President, if I have arrived at an inopportune moment, but we did have an appointment, did we not?"

It always took Blake a few moments to adapt mentally, to shift from dealing with his make-believe Avon to dealing with the man in the flesh.

Blake grimaced a little.

An unfortunate choice of terminology, that. While still working to reconstruct his protective shields, he continued to stare at Avon. It was so easy and so poignant for him to remember the younger man he had seen at their first meeting on the LONDON. That sharply planed, imperious face. The icy gaze. The cutting glances.

The soft hair.

The endlessly fascinating lips.

Blake pulled himself back from that extremely dangerous line of thought with a sharp mental jerk.

The Avon he was looking at now was middle-aged. A little grey touched the hair and the face was lined. A pang of guilt stabbed through Blake; he frequently felt as if most of those lines were his legacy to Avon.

Of course, the changes he could see made Avon no less interesting to gaze upon. So Blake gazed.

"Regal Highness, have you passed into a catatonic state?" Avon inquired sharply.

"No, no, I'm fine," Blake replied.

"Well, then, perhaps you might at least pretend to be aware that I am here."

"I am."

Oh, I am, Blake thought. Too aware, which is exactly the problem. Every millimeter of my flesh is painfully aware of your presence.

Blake knew now, had known for what seemed like eons rather than merely years that he had fallen hopelessly in love with Kerr Avon. Probably it had happened at their first meeting on the prison ship.

The knowledge of his love was a secret that he fully intended to carry to the grave with him.

Avon finally sat in a chair facing the desk. "Blake," he said in a somewhat more patient voice, "we are here to discuss the recent unrest among certain elements in the military, are we not?"

"Yes, of course we are." Blake adopted briskness. "I did read your report on the subject."

"And Tarrant's as well, I assume?"

"Tarrant's as well, yes."

Avon was watching him with a faintly curious expression. "And?"

Blake was all too aware of what Avon was seeing: just an old rebel, carrying one or two more stone than he should have been, with a face slightly battered and lined, all of that topped off by a mass of tangled curls badly in need of a barber's attention. And so many of those curls were grey now.

Funny that. On Avon all the signs of the passing years looked distinguished. In his own case, however, Blake felt as if they only made him look old.

Avon seemed to sigh. "And having read both of the reports, Mr. President, have you come to any conclusions which you would like to share? With me? Now?"

Blake nibbled a finger briefly. "Yes. I want to give the rebellious units another chance to settle themselves down before we take any sort of punitive action." He glanced at Avon again; might as well give the son of a bitch a chance to earn his salary as exalted Chief Advisor. "What do you think?"

As always, Avon considered his words carefully before speaking. "I suppose that giving them a little more time might be acceptable," he said at last. "However, sir, if they do not come around soon, you will have to take action."

"I understand that."

"I also understand that" Blake said heavily. "Too much of the military still misses the Federation, when their power was so great. I understand all of that too well, Avon."

"I sincerely hope that you do." Avon stood. "Well, that would seem to be all for the moment. I shall leave you to whatever vital things it is legendary presidents do when they are alone."

Blake felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. In a galaxy where almost everyone else seemed to treat him with the reverence usually reserved for the recently deceased, Avon's tartness was often a splash of cool and oh-so-welcome reality. His Chief Advisor could make the word "sir" into a near-insult.

He could not help wondering, though, what Avon would say if he knew how this particular legend occupied his solitary moments.

Oh, it didn't really bear thinking of.

Blake did not speak until the other man had reached the door. "Avon?"

"Yes."

"Have dinner with me this evening, will you? No banquet," he added quickly. "Just the two of us."

Avon looked back at him, one brow raised. "Was there some other matter that requires discussion, Mr. President?"

Usually, Blake would have tossed off some easy, casual reply. But, abruptly, his mood seemed to make only strict honesty possible. "No. There is nothing official to discuss. I would simply like to have your company for the evening. Please," he added.

He could only hope that the desperation in his heart was not obvious in his voice or on his face. And one more thought occurred to him: in view of the mood he was in, spending an evening alone with Avon was probably an exceedingly stupid thing to do.

Better - quicker and certainly less painful - to just run a jagged blade across some vital vein.

But it was too late now.

Avon's gaze rested on his face for a beat longer than might have been expected. "The usual time, Blake?" was all he said.

Another faint smile touched Blake's lips. "The usual time will be fine. And, Avon

"Yes, Mr. President?"

"Thank you."

Avon shrugged. "You issued the invitation. By rights, I should be the one proffering gratitude."

But he didn't. He simply left the office.

Blake leaned back in the chair and released his breath in a long sigh. It was hard, life.

It was hard and he was tired.

But there was dinner tonight to look forward to. Blake smiled a little.

Chapter VIII

On impulse, Blake gave his entire household staff the evening off. The chef arranged a cold supper on the library table and departed with the others, leaving the large house uncharacteristically quiet.

He considered changing clothes, but then decided that it would be better to stay all buttoned up in his working suit. And then the fact that he even found himself considering such a ridiculous notion caused Blake to wish all over again that he had never issued the invitation.

But, still, he was impatient for the evening to begin.

Blake poured himself another glass of the Zondarian brandy and sat down to await his guest's arrival. He did not doubt for a moment that Avon would be punctual. Avon was always punctual.

Except, of course, when it suited his purposes to be late.

Damn the man.

He always did everything right. Proper Avon. Perfect freaking Avon.

Beloved Avon.

Blake noticed that his hand trembled slightly as he lifted the glass. He'd already had enough brandy, too much actually, but then his over-indulgence in that particular vice was becoming old news. Perhaps he should talk to someone about it.

He sipped the brandy, held it in his mouth thoughtfully, and then swallowed. Vila could undoubtedly have offered some excellent advice on the subject, but unfortunately, the former thief was off-planet at the moment. He, in the company of both Dayna and Soolin, constituted an official delegation to...to...well, to some damned planet, the name of which escaped Blake for the moment.

It was considered quite a public relations coup for any planet which could host a visit by members of the President's former crew. And while Blake knew that Dayna and Soolin were undoubtedly chafing under the ceremonial duty, Vila was most certainly enjoying himself immensely. He dearly loved playing Hero of the Revolution.

The planet, whatever the hell it was called, had wanted Avon to be the one who visited, of course. They always asked for Avon first. Everybody in the galaxy wanted to see the infamous Black Knight of the Revolution, as the pop media had dubbed him. But Avon, unless directly ordered to by Blake, never even deigned to respond to such invitations.

The Black Knight, indeed.

The title always brought one image sharply into Blake's mind: a figure in black and silver standing over him on Gauda Prime. Confused, desperate, emotionally very nearly destroyed, and having just gunned down the very object of his quite obsessional journey through the stars, Avon still seemed compelled to protect him.

It was...baffling.

Blake gave himself an angry mental shake. Damn, he had to get himself under control before Avon showed up. After so many years of hiding his feelings, of disguising his emotions, it should have been easy to go on doing so for the rest of his miserable life. Strangely, though, it only seemed to get more difficult every day.

Blake reasoned that madness waited just down the road.

He also reasoned to welcome it gladly when the time came.

He gave a helpless chuckle. This, indeed, was how legendary presidents spent their time alone. Wishing that they were not alone. A man had to laugh about it.

Or he might well weep.

Right on the correct hour, the door chime sounded. Blake stretched his arm out to the wall and pressed the release button. Then he took a deep breath and prepared himself to play a familiar role yet again.

A moment later, Avon appeared in the doorway of the library, looking slightly puzzled. "You're alone, Mr. President?"

"Yes." Blake waved a hand. "Oh, never fear--the usual guard is outside, as I'm sure you saw. But I let the others go for the evening. Sometimes I weary of the attention."

"Indeed?"

Blake frowned slightly. "Whether or not you choose to believe it."

"Actually," Avon said, "I do believe it. Once a rebel, it seems, always a rebel."

Blake gave a low chuckle. "Yes, so it seems. Help yourself to a drink, why don't you, and then sit down."

"Thank you, sir." Avon walked to the bar.

"Do me a favor," Blake said suddenly.

Avon looked up. "If I am able, of course."

"For this evening, do not call me 'sir'. Or Mr. President. Or Regal Highness. Or any other of those charming designations you like to use when speaking to me. Could you perhaps just call me by my name?"

"As you wish." A pause. "Blake."

"Thank you."

Avon, seeming slightly amused, came and sat with him on the large, curved sofa. At the other end. Which both irritated and relieved Blake.

They drank in silence for several minutes, but it was a comfortable silence. More than simply comfortable, in fact, to Blake. Moments such as this had been so rare of late that he clasped it to his heart, embraced it with near-desperation. It would be a memory that would get him through more than one night.

He gave a deep sigh.

Avon responded by looking at him curiously.

Now Blake wanted to talk.

"It has all been very strange, hasn't it, Avon?"

"To what are you referring, exactly?"

Blake gestured vaguely with his free hand as he took another swallow of the brandy. "Everything. Our lives. The convoluted path we have taken to arrive at who and where we are now."

Avon seemed, almost, to smile. "It has been... interesting, yes. But what brought forth the observation at this particular moment?"

"I don't know, really. I've just been feeling rather introspective of late, it seems." He shrugged. "Thinking of the past."

"The past is a dangerous place." The expression that crossed Avon's face was one of bitterness. "Especially for the two of us."

"True."

They stared at one another down the length of the sofa, down the length of years, and for a moment both men were back on Gauda Prime. Blake could see the flash of naked pain in Avon's usually unreadable eyes. He had forgiven Avon the moment it happened, before he even hit the floor. But obviously, even now over four years later, Avon had not managed to forgive himself.

"It's all right," Blake murmured. "It really is all right, Avon."

Avon's lips tightened, but he did not speak.

Blake knew full well that what had happened on that distant and terrible planet had been his own fault. His stupid tests. His damned arrogance. His blinding faith in Avon and their friendship.

That all of Avon's people had survived was nothing short of miraculous. That Avon himself had not been gunned down, either by the Federation troops or the rebels who arrived promptly, was another miracle. And the fact that there was sufficient medical aid to save everyone including Blake himself, was the biggest miracle of all.

The unbelievable chain of events did not end there, either. Only months later the government they had fought so hard and for so long finally imploded. Blake much to his own surprise - not to mention some chagrin - was overwhelmingly elected to serve as the first President of the Refederation. It all seemed so unlikely, even now.

Now, as he sat here staring into the tortured eyes of his almost-killer feeling only love. Love so potent that it threatened to consume him entirely within its flames

A fate to be devoutly wished for, in fact. If only it would finally happen.

Blake blinked quickly and looked away, then awkwardly pushed himself to his feet and went to the bar for another drink. On his way back to the sofa, he thpped over nothing and very nearly went sprawling at Avon's feet.

"Perhaps we should eat now," Avon said mildly.

"Soon," Blake said, wondering why his tongue suddenly felt so clumsy. "If we eat now, the whole evening will end too soon." He dropped heavily onto his portion of the sofa again and looked at Avon with what he hoped was good cheer. "So, tell me, Avon, what have you been up to lately?"

The look that Avon gave him in response to that absurdity was a peculiar mix of bewilderment, tolerant amusement, concern, and something more that Blake couldn't quite identify.

Probably scorn, he thought bleakly.

And why not? Scorn was what he deserved. What a pathetic being he was.

He downed the new drink in a single gulp.

At that, Avon stood. "Dinner, I think," he said firmly. He started toward the table where the food awaited their pleasure.

"Avon, I love you."

It was only a whisper. That was all. Just a whisper. In fact, Blake wasn't even sure at first that the words had really been audible anywhere but within his own fevered brain.

He prayed they had not been.

But that frail hope ended when he saw that Avon was frozen in place.

Suddenly and terrifyingly sober, Blake tried to fight down the panic that was threatening to overwhelm him completely. A hot flush coursed through his body, followed immediately by a chill that caused him to shake uncontrollably.

In the name of all the gods, what had he just done? Avon was going to walk right out of this room. Off the planet, probably. Out of his life.

Forever.

A soft moan escaped Blake's lips.

Avon had not yet moved.

"I'm sorry," Blake said hoarsely. "I'm so damned sorry. I didn't mean to say that. It just...slipped out."

At last, very slowly, Avon turned to look at him. The face revealed nothing. "You didn't mean to say it because it isn't true?" he asked in the softest voice Blake had ever heard coming from the other man. "Or because it would be awkward?"

Blake stared at him. There would seem to be little use in further pretence now. He took a steadying breath and hoped that he could at least emerge from this fiasco with a little dignity.

Although he knew all too well that dignity was a very cold companion through the dark nights of his life.

"I didn't mean to say it, because I know that it will drive you away," Blake said finally. "And I cannot...I do not know how I will be able to live with that loss." He lifted the glass a bit desperately, saw that it was empty, and set it aside. "I do not think that I can live with it, in fact. Not and remain fully sane." He gave a short, harsh laugh. "Or as sane as I am now, anyway." He shook his head. "I am aware of how...pathetic this must sound to you. I apologize for subjecting you to it."

Avon was still standing by the table. "When you say that you...love me, Blake, I do not understand what you mean. Precisely."

Ah, yes, his precise beloved.

"You would like me to define my terms, is that it?"

"I suppose so."

"That seems fair enough."

This had to be the most ridiculous conversation that any two human beings had ever held, Blake decided, but there seemed to be no way out of it now. He pushed himself to his feet and managed to make it across the room without disgracing himself further. If it had to be finished, damnit, then he would finish it.

After all, wasn't it a well-known Roj Blake tradition to go down in flames?

Anyway, he should probably want to make this moment last as long as possible, as it would no doubt be the last he would ever spend with Kerr Avon. Actual physical pain gripped Blake's chest at the thought.

Avon didn't move as Blake came closer, closer, so close that he only had to bend a little and his lips brushed chastely across Avon's cheek lightly before reaching his mouth. It was not really a kiss he placed there; it was more of a benediction.

A declaration.

A farewell.

And this man, the damned Black Knight whom everyone thought was cruelty personified, had such a wealth of kindness within him that he did not pull away, did not reflect the displeasure that he had to be feeling. He merely stood perfectly still and accepted this one kiss from Blake.

It was a gift beyond any that Blake had ever received.

Blake felt tears spring to his eyes.

He pulled back finally, gasping at the wrench it caused his heart to part his lips from Avon's, not even trying to hide the trail of wetness coursing down his cheeks. "I meant just what I said. I love you, Avon. I have always loved you. There will never be anyone else in my heart." He felt himself smile, although he had no idea at all how he managed it. "Is that precise enough for you?"

Then he turned away sharply and headed out of the room. "Good-bye," he said, proud of the fact that his voice broke only a little.

He did not look back, however.

His courage did not extend that far.

Chapter IX

Blake didn't stop until he was safely upstairs in his bedroom. There, he stood in the middle of the room helplessly, feeling absolutely lost. What was a man to do when his life was over?

This felt much more like death than anything that had happened on Gauda Prime.

Blake had no idea how long he stood there in the silence. Moments. Hours. Years. It didn't matter.

He never even heard the door opening or the sound of Avon crossing the room, but suddenly he was there, standing in front of him.

"Was I simply supposed to vanish?" Avon asked. "Did you imagine that I would run off in shock or horror?"

Blake only shrugged.

"You might have given me a chance to respond, at any rate. Don't you think that would have been appropriate?"

"I was afraid," Blake said flatly.

"Afraid," Avon repeated. "How unlikely that sounds, coming from the hero of the recent revolution. The man who runs the galaxy is afraid of a few simple words?"

"This mattered too much. You mattered too much."

Avon's gaze fell to study the floor for a moment, then lifted to him again. "Past tense?" The words were a mere breath that Blake could feel against his face, warm and moist, and nearly unbearable.

He sighed and shook his head. "Past. Present. Future. Into eternity, as far as I can tell." He tried to smile again, but this time couldn't quite manage it. "I have it bad, Avon." He allowed his eyes to linger on Avon's face, drinking in the sight like a man thirsty too long. "I have loved you from the moment Vila first introduced us. Although it took me a while to realize it." He gave a ragged laugh. "Two days, at least." After a pause, he said, "I suppose there is no dignity left to me now, right? So you might as well know the whole truth about just how desperately I have cared."

Avon was very still, just looking at him, scarcely even seeming to breath; it was as impossible as ever to read his thoughts on his face. And probably that was fortunate, just at the moment.

Blake ran a hand through tangled curls. "All those nights when I pretended to be with you while I ... satisfied myself. Except that I was never satisfied. Never. And it was worse when I tried to be with someone else, tried to make-believe it was you. It made me sick." He shut up then and took a step backwards, giving a helpless wave. "This must be very unpleasant for you. I understand. Just go."

"Do you want me to leave?"

Aghast, Blake stared at him. "Even I am not arrogant enough to imagine that choice is mine to make."

"Oh, but it is. It is." Avon's eyes darted around the room for what seemed to be a very unAvonish nervous moment and then returned to lock with Blake's gaze. "Blake," he said softly, shaking his head. "Have you actually imagined that I stayed with you out of some sense of passion for your cause? That I tracked you across the galaxy because I wanted clear title to the LIBERATOR? That I hang about here as top presidential lapdog because I believe in good government?"

Blake didn't - couldn't - say a word.

Avon lifted a hand as if to gesture or perhaps touch him, but then he stayed the move, and lowered his arm slowly. "Blake, your damned cause annoys the devil out of me and always has. The LIBERATOR could have been mine half-a-dozen times over, had I so chosen And being a part of government is like being in a particular level of hell, I think."

Blake had never felt so completely stupid in his entire life. "Then why--?"

Again Avon lifted his hand, but this time he completed the gesture, pressing his palm to Blake's face.

Blake couldn't help gasping at the contact.

"You really have no idea, do you?" Avon whispered.

"No," Blake breathed.

"I have done all of those things, as well as many others equally stupid, for one reason only. Because of you. The man Blake. Not his causes or his ship. Him." A faint and unexpected smile touched the dark eyes and brightened them. "You." Then, with infinite care, he leaned forward and put his lips to Blake's.

This was not a benediction.

Neither was it a declaration.

And it was definitely not a farewell.

It was, simply, a kiss. It was, gloriously, a kiss. It was a gesture of caring and innocence and quiet passion.

Avon was kissing him.

Blake moaned deep in his throat at the searing touch of Avon's lips and broke the contact, trembling helplessly. "You never said," he managed to get out, breathlessly. "You never let me know."

"I had no idea that my feelings were reciprocated. And self-immolation has never been my style."

Disbelief filled Blake. "How could you not know I cared?"

Avon shook his head slightly. "Oh, I know that," he said. "I always knew that. You care, Blake, about the entire galaxy. Probably the whole bloody universe, in fact. You care about all the people around you. You, Blake, are a caring man, damnit, incurably so. I always assumed that I was simply one more object of your damned caring."

Blake raised a hand and clutched Avon's shoulder in a death-grip. "Ahh, it's so much more. You are so much more to me than that."

Avon looked for a moment at the hand holding him. "Apparently," he said thoughtfully. Then he smiled. This was a smile unlike any Blake had ever seen on his face in all the years they had known one another. There was a childlike innocence in the expression. A sense of wonder.

Blake felt his heart shatter as if it were made of fragile crystal. The pieces, bright and beautiful, fell about him like the shards of a rainbow, as his entire being filled with joy.

"Two days?" Avon murmured. "It took that long for you?"

As Blake realized just what Avon was saying, his heart began to pound so hard that he thought surely the sound must be audible. Abruptly, he lost the ability to stand. He staggered to the bed and sat there. "I'm still a little drunk, I think. Maybe more than only a little. Maybe I've passed out and this is all just a dream." He looked up at Avon blearily. "It wouldn't be the first time, you know. I have this kind of dream a lot, and then I wake up alone in a sticky bed." He grimaced. "I guess there are no secrets left me now, are there?"

"This is not a dream."

"Prove it," Blake said with sudden daring. "Prove to me that this is real. That you're actually here."

After a thoughtful moment, Avon nodded. Then, very carefully, he came closer and knelt on the floor between Blake's legs. His hands rose slowly, as if it were, indeed, a dream, and he touched Blake's face. It was as much an exploration as a caress. Eventually the curious fingers journeyed into tangled curls and stopped there.

Avon sighed.

"What?" Blake asked, concerned.

Avon gazed up at him from beneath thick, dark lashes. "I have had dreams as well, you know."

A delighted smile filled Blake's face. "You've dreamed about me?"

"Oh, yes. Rather incessantly, if you must know." His fingers continued to play with Blake's hair for some moments. Then he leaned closer, until his lips brushed with feather-lightness against Blake's again. "Reality is better," he said in the manner of a man who had just made an amazing discovery. "Much better, don't you think?"

Blake felt himself pushed backwards slowly, until he was lying flat on the bed, with Avon hovering over him. It was real, yes. Too real. "Kerr," he said in a half-sob. "Kerr..."

"Shh," Avon said. "It's all right." Then he smiled a bit wryly and shook his head.

Blake used a fingertip to trace Avon's profile lightly. "Something funny?"

"I was merely entertaining myself with the image of you in your quarters having solitary sex and me, for so long only paces away, doing the same thing. Having, I suppose, the same fantasies. Highly undignified, you know."

Blake nodded. "Oh, yes. But how damned dignified we would both be the next day. Two dignified and bloody unhappy people." His hand rested on Avon's neck, just at the spot where he could feel the pulse beating most strongly. "All those wasted years."

Avon was lightly, seemingly absent-mindedly, stroking Blake's arms. "Not wasted," he corrected softly. "Speaking for myself, at least, not one day we spent together was wasted. And while I might have been unhappy at times..." He paused, biting his lower lip. "I would rather be unhappy with you, Blake, than look for happiness someplace else. With someone else."

Blake gave a low chuckle. "We are such fools."

"Possibly." Avon stilled and it was almost as if it were physically painful for him to reveal the next layer of emotion. But he did so anyway. "The only time I was really unhappy were the two years you were gone. That was a sort of...living death."

"Yes, for me, too. It seemed more like two centuries."

"At least." Avon leaned forward and rubbed his cheek against Blake's hair. "I went a little mad, I think."

"My fault."

Avon shook his head. "Don't bear my guilt, Roj. I don't require that of you." A finger travelled along Blake's jawline. "And then Gauda Prime happened." The very name of that planet became an obscenity in Avon's mouth. "I nearly killed you. I...nearly... killed...you."

Blake captured Avon's head between two gentle but determined hands, pulling him down very close. He frowned sternly. "I forbid you to think about that," he said, trying to sound like the leader of billions, while wanting to reach only one man with his words. "That is past. We're here. It doesn't matter."

 

"As you wish, sir," Avon said almost lightly. "As you wish."

For several moments, there was no conversation at all. They stayed as they were, merely contemplating one another, both sets of eyes seeming to radiate absolute amazement at the reality in which they found themselves.

"Speaking of things lacking in dignity," Blake commented finally, "the two of us jumbled in this bed, fully clothed and increasingly...disturbed would seem to qualify." His hands slid down to Avon's hips and rested there.

His words elicited a shockingly predatory grin--shocking because it came from Kerr Avon in this particular context. Even more startlingly, he then ground his hips slightly, but with obvious deliberation, against Blake's. "Are you disturbed, Fearless Leader?"

Blake felt his whole body respond to Avon's movements. "Definitely," he said tightly. "Aren't you?"

"Gloriously disturbed, in fact. Have you a remedy for this absurd situation into which we have fallen?

Blake swallowed hard. "We could...disrobe?" he suggested, feeling courageous beyond words.

The smile he received was blinding. "No wonder you are the leader of the free galaxy," Avon said. "That sounds a perfect solution." He pushed himself up and away, pausing as Blake stayed his departure by gripping his arm. Avon looked at the restraining hand curiously and then at Blake, his face softening. "I'm not going anywhere," he said gently.

Sheepishly, Blake released him.

Avon stood next to the bed and began to loosen the fasteners on his tunic. Then he glared down at the man still on the bed. "Neither do I have any intention of baring myself while you continue to lie there fully garbed in your damned presidential accouterments," he said sharply. Again, his teeth gleamed dangerously. "Undress, Roj."

Blake got up as well then. Slowly, both men began to remove the various items of their clothing, watching one another as they did so. The twin gazes displayed curiosity, growing passion, and a certain amount of stark terror.

Whether by coincidence or design, they reached complete nakedness at the same moment.

Blake, feeling more of a genuine hero than he had ever done before, let his gaze move slowly up and down Avon's body. It was not the first time he'd seen the other man without clothes, of course. After all, so many years spent in close quarters led to a certain intimacy.

But he felt as if it had never happened before, because for the first time he could let his emotions, his desire, his need show openly in his eyes. Now there was no fear that he would accidentally reveal himself and risk scorn or hatred. Now there would be no running off to a place of privacy, there to satisfy his secret desires alone. Or to try, anyway.

And to never, ever, be satisfied.

Now, for the first time, he could let all of what he was feeling radiate through his eyes.

And it was certainly the first time he'd ever seen Avon displaying obvious sexual need. There was a soft thatch of dark hair on Avon's chest. The stomach was flat, the hips well-formed. His cock jutted almost arrogantly, rosy in color, obvious in its want.

Blake felt his lips part. "You're beautiful," he said without thinking.

Avon seemed to blush.

Avon. Blushing.

It was astounding.

"I didn't say that to embarrass you," Blake said by way of apology.

Avon was not quite looking at him. "I suppose that it is inevitable that once the floodgates are opened, there will be no stopping the emotions from pouring out," he murmured.

"I do tend toward that sort of thing," Blake pointed out. "If you haven't noticed over the years."

"I have noticed, in fact. It has always been one of your more irritating qualities."

"Oh?"

A grimace crossed Avon's face. "If honesty is to be the standard here tonight, then I suppose it must be said: I have always found your emotional expressions irritating primarily because they are so often directed elsewhere."

The dawning knowledge of what that signified warmed Blake. "And not at you?"

Avon gave a sharp, dismissive nod.

"Forgive me," Blake said. He smiled a little. "Truth? I always wanted to express my emotions to you. I lacked the courage."

"Hmmm." Avon seemed to have lost interest in the conversation. He was frankly appraising Blake's bare body.

Now it was Blake's turn to feel the heat of total embarrassment suffuse him. "I am not...in your condition," he said. "I need to lose a couple of stone."

Avon didn't say anything. He was still looking. Momentarily, the tip of his tongue emerged and ran along his upper lip.

Blake had never felt so awkward. "I'm just a battered old rebel," he said softly. "Not much to see."

Avon, smiling enigmatically, made the first necessary move, stepping closer, not stopping until his body was fully pressed against Blake's.

Blake couldn't help gasping at the myriad of sensations that swept over him.

"Actually," Avon said, sounding more than a little breathless himself, "I find you rather...perfect. I always have,"

"Oh," Blake said. He was otherwise speechless.

Avon pulled back so that his gaze fell onto Blake's scarred chest. One hand reached out to trace the souvenirs of Gauda Prime. "My battered rebel," he whispered.

Blake grabbed the trembling hand and kissed the palm, trying to make the simple gesture an act of absolution.

Avon looked up at him. His eyes seemed suspiciously bright, but no moisture spilled from them. "My battered rebel," he said again. He tenderly encased Blake's face in his hands. "You are so beautiful to me."

Blake felt the blood rush to his head, and he actually came very close to toppling over. Luckily, Avon pushed him in the right direction, and they landed on the bed with Avon on top of him. Blake laughed in pure delight and ran both hands the length of Avon's spine, enjoying the tremor his touch caused in Avon's body. "You should warn me before saying something like that," he said. "The shock of hearing it might kill me off."

"Oh, you can't die now," Avon said in a voice suddenly gone hard. "There's so much we have to do." His mouth descended onto Blake's abruptly, his tongue aggressively breaching the barriers of lips and teeth to plunder the damp cavern within.

It took Blake a moment to recover, but then, accustomed to leading--all things in general and this man in particular--his own tongue began a sweet duel for dominance.

Avon drew back a little to look at him through shadowed eyes. "You may rule the galaxy, Regal Highness," he said dangerously, "but in here, for tonight, at least, I command."

Blake started to grin, then stopped as a terrifying thought crossed his mind. "Avon ... ?"

"What now?"

"You said 'for tonight at least'. You don't mean that tonight is all there will be, do you?" He knew that his voice trembled, but Blake didn't care. Was this happiness to come with a time limit?

"Idiot." Avon propped himself on an elbow and gazed down at Blake contemplatively. He used a thumb to catch several stray drops of sweat on Blake's smooth chest, then brought the thumb to his mouth and licked it slowly. "Do you imagine, Roj, that even if I somehow had a millennium to spend with you that it would be enough time?" He shook his head. "No. Unless you tire of my company, I will be here until I die."

"You won't die," Blake said fiercely. "I won't let you ever die."

Avon chuckled. "So now the power of immortality rests with you as well. I am greatly impressed." This time, he leaned over and licked Blake's chest directly. They both watched the shudder that seized Blake's entire body at the sensation. "You taste good," Avon said off-handedly.

"Thank you."

Avon held out a finger.

After a moment, Blake opened his mouth slightly and took the finger in. He sucked it briefly, yearningly, then released it. "You taste...unbelievable. Just as I always thought you would."

Avon blinked at him. "You have actually thought about how I would taste?" He seemed surprisingly delighted at the prospect.

Blake smiled. "Oh, frequently, Avon."

Without warning, Avon reached down and took Blake's cock into one hand. "You're hard," he said.

Blake moistened his lips. "It seems as if I've been hard for years," he said. "Everytime you walked into a room."

"What fools we mortals be," Avon quoted.

"Don't turn philosophical on me now, please," Blake said urgently, thrusting forward into Avon's firm grip. "No more words at all. Do something."

Avon smiled.

He bent to begin a slow and very deliberate tour of Blake's suffering body, determined, it seemed, to satisfy the curiosity, the desires, of a decade at this one moment in time. Kissing, licking, nibbling, stroking, he moved from the mouth to the ears, and then on to the neck. Time was spent on a careful exploration of the broad, hairless chest, with each nipple being given its fair share of attention.

Before moving on, Avon planted several soft kisses along the length of the scars. Tears filled Blake's eyes as he understood the significance of the gesture.

Avon had finally forgiven himself.

"Thank you," Blake whispered.

By the time Avon finally reached Blake's navel, the President of the free galaxy was a thrashing, sodden wreck, tossing his head back and forth on the pillow relentlessly. He was muttering things that made no sense.

Avon dipped his tongue into the belly button and then blew lightly on it. Blake arched upwards, groaning in anguish. His cock was flaming, harder still, harder than he could ever remember it being in his life. Perhaps by accident, his erection brushed against Avon's cheek.

"Well, now," Avon murmured. "That looks almost painful."

Blake gasped out garbled assent.

Avon chuckled. He used two fingers only to delicately travel the length of the throbbing cock. He licked the moist, glistening tip, and then blew on it as he had the navel.

"Ohgods," Blake said in a voice that sounded very far from being presidential. "Ohgods...Kerr...please... please, Kerr."

Suddenly, Avon's voice was a whisper right into Blake's ear. "At your command, sire. As always, it seems."

A moment later, at long last, Blake felt his cock held between soft lips, then slowly sucked into a hot, wet mouth. The sound that he made in response was a wordless shout that, hopefully, was not quite loud enough to have been heard by the guards outside the house.

Not that he cared. All that mattered in the entire galaxy was what Avon's mouth was doing to him.

Avon's tongue played with him for a moment, before his whole mouth sucked once, as, at the same time, his fingers caressed Blake's aching balls. He sucked again and then again.

That was all it took. Blake came, exploding with another yell, Avon's name this time, thrusting uncontrollably and shooting cum down Avon's throat.

It was the single most glorious moment of Roj Blake's life. Nothing he had ever done before - not his triumph over Federation torture, not his leadership of the victorious revolution, not even being sworn in as President of the Refederation - none of those things brought him as much pure joy as he felt in that moment, when Kerr Avon let him know what love felt like.

Blake thought that there was a very good chance that he might die from an overdose of this sweet, agonizing pleasure. He wanted the moment to go on forever, even as he realized that ten more seconds might mean death.

Finally, his body stilled and settled back against the bed. He opened his eyes.

"Avon," was what he said.

It was only a whisper.

Chapter X

He was only vaguely aware of Avon releasing his now-limp cock, and then sliding forward until he was stretched out next to Blake. One arm was draped across Blake's heaving chest in a loose embrace that seemed more like a life-giving grip.

Blake stared at Avon dumbly for long seconds, wondering what he had ever done in his entire life to deserve having this man lying beside him. Lying beside him and looking at him the way Avon was. It pierced the very core of Blake's being to see the expression in Avon's eyes. It was a miracle: everything that he was feeling was reflected back at him in his lover's gaze.

"Are you all right?" he asked finally.

Avon looked amused at the question. "Fine, thank you very much. And yourself?"

Blake lifted a trembling hand and smoothed back Avon's sweat-damp hair. It felt like silk beneath his fingers. "I only meant...I shouldn't have come like that. You probably didn't want ... ."

Avon put a finger to his lips. "Shut up, idiot. I wanted it. I've waited a long time for this. For you. A lifetime, really."

"I know. Me, too." Blake smiled. "Worth the wait, in my opinion."

"Worth everything."

Suddenly, Blake felt a shaft of guilt cutting through his own contentment. "Gods, you must think I'm a selfish bastard. Let me...let me do you." That didn't sound quite right He tried again. "Let me make love to you."

"I thought that's what you just did," Avon replied quietly.

Blake closed his eyes, not ready even now to have Avon witness the depth of the emotion that coursed through him at the simply uttered words. It took him a moment before he could speak. "I want to take you in my mouth," he said then.

Avon pulled back slightly. "I assumed we would get to that sooner or later," he said, still sounding vaguely amused.

Blake took a deep breath.  "I want to make it good for you."

"Oh, it will be."

He reached down to find Avon's cock hard and obviously ready. Then he looked into the quiet brown eyes. "You're so calm," he said.

"No," Avon denied with a smile. "I am anything but calm. The fact is, I almost came when you did." His voice dropped and an edge of awe entered his tone. "It was rather amazing, you know."

"No," Blake said into Avon's ear. "I don't know. But I'd like to find out."

Avon drew in a ragged breath. "Yes," he hissed.

Blake shivered. Suddenly impatient, he moved down in the bed until his face was beside Avon's crotch. The musky, sweaty scent filled his nostrils and he revelled in it. His face rubbed against damp, kinky hair and he wanted to weep for happiness.

As far as he was concerned, there was not much time for preliminaries. Finesse would have to wait. He wanted Avon in his mouth now, wanted to taste him, and he also wanted Avon to feel what he had at the moment of climax.

He wanted to make Avon as happy as Avon had made him.

Tentatively at first, his tongue simply licked the eager cock. Each time his tongue touched heated flesh, he could feel Avon's body respond helplessly. Amazed at the sense of absolute trust he felt radiating from the other man, he paused and lifted his head to stare at Avon's face. Both of his eyes were closed, and his mouth was a thin, tense line.

Seeming to sense that he was being watched, Avon opened his eyes and looked at Blake.

"Thank you," Blake whispered.

A quizzical brow lifted.

Unable, perhaps unwilling, to explain, Blake simply shrugged.

"Suck me," Avon grated. "Suck me, damnit." The softness of his gaze took the edge off the harsh tone.

"All right, Kerr," Blake said softly. "I love you."

Forcing himself to go slowly, he lowered his mouth to Avon again. First, he licked and nuzzled the tight balls, hearing Avon whimper. Then he moved his mouth to the cock itself. Slowly, slowly. He was absently aware of his own erection returning, but his attention was fully on Avon, who twitched and moaned and muttered imprecations from a dozen different planets.

Then, abruptly, he stilled completely, not even breathing for long seconds. "Now," Avon murmured in a voice of total wonderment. "Roj?" And then he came, almost violently, thrusting again and again into Blake's welcoming mouth. He seemed to sob.

The tart taste was like nothing Blake had ever experienced before. And, truth to tell, he didn't really experience completely this time, because his own climax arrived promptly, splashing Avon with the hot, sticky result.

Avon didn't seem to mind. If he even noticed.

When Blake could finally move once again, he crawled up in the bed and immediately gathered Avon into his arms. Neither man spoke for a long time.

Finally, and rather surprisingly given their particular natures, it was Avon and not he himself who broke the silence. "If you had not spoken up," he said so softly that it was difficult to hear, "we would never have known. We would have lived and died without ever knowing how very good life could be."

Blake buried his face in Avon's hair. "I guess something in me just decided that I couldn't go on one more day, one more night, existing as I was. It was too lonely."

"Something in you?" Avon patted Blake's chest. "Undoubtedly your much vaunted heart," he said wryly.

"Probably," Blake agreed. "Ironically, that is the same heart which has been the object of so much scorn from you over the years."

Avon, his hand still on Blake, looked at him. "I suppose it must have seemed that way to you." He bent and kissed the place on Blake's chest where the heartbeat was strongest. "Shall I reveal the truth to you now?"

"At this point, why not?"

"Your damned bleeding heart. Why it hasn't gotten you killed off long ago, I have no idea."

"Because you were always watching out for me," Blake reminded him.

"I suppose." Avon was frowning. "It has caused you to do many stupid things, your heart. Many dangerous things."

Blake gave him a delighted smile. "So you have worried about me."

"That fact can scarcely come as a surprise, especially after..." His wave indicated the two of them in bed.

"It doesn't. Just that you are willing to admit it."

"Well, as you said, at this point, why not?" Avon's frown deepened and his eyes shifted slightly. "And also...in such a crowded heart, I never thought that there could be any more room."

"Room for you?" Blake asked softly.

Still watching the far wall, Avon nodded. Blake wrapped both arms around him again and pulled him closer. "You always had my heart, Avon. All of it. Just you."

Avon kissed him lightly.

They lingered over the kiss, each lazily exploring the other's mouth, tasting, inhaling, discovering new pleasures with every touch. Minutes passed. Finally, with a sigh, Avon settled down into the sweaty, tight embrace.

Blake was entirely content

But even paradise had to give way to more practical considerations after a time.

"Well," he said at last, "I hate to bring an end to all of this blatant sentiment ... ."

"Please do," Avon broke in. "We are in serious jeopardy of drowning in the stuff, and my patience for such displays is limited."

"Yes, I know," Blake said, giving him a consoling pat. "I just realized that I'm hungry. Dinner is still waiting downstairs. Come on."

Avon groaned a protest, but got up all the same. They both donned only trousers and padded barefooted back down to the library. Blake couldn't help laughing softly as they went. Avon only glanced at him. Indulgently. Which Blake thought was quite wonderful.

"I sincerely hope that your household staff does not arrive back too soon," Avon commented as they stood at the table, surveying the buffet of meat, cheese, bread, and fruit. "Our half-dressed appearance might give rise to gossip."

"I don't mind," Blake said, popping a piece of cheese into his mouth and chewing vigorously. Then he eyed Avon. "Do you?"

Avon looked at him from across the table. "That is a very serious question, isn't it?" he asked.

Blake thought about it for a moment, then nodded. "Yes," he said. "I think perhaps it is."

Avon moved around the table and stood in front of Blake. With one hand, he moved curls aside and pressed his lips to Blake's temple. Then he pulled away enough so that he could gaze into his eyes. "Roj, I don't give a damn if you broadcast an announcement on the galaxy vidnews."

Blake looked at him in some amazement. "I almost believe you mean that."

"Why should it come as a surprise?" This close, Avon seemed unable to resist the temptation to touch. He crooked a finger and ran it down Blake's cheek. "Have you ever known me to be overly concerned with what others think? Why should I suddenly need their approval for whom I choose to ---" There was a pause, and for a moment, it almost seemed as if Avon might finally say the dreaded words he had not yet uttered. "---be with," he finished quickly.

Blake refused to allow himself even a pang of disappointment.

They busied themselves with filling plates and then, rather ridiculously, sat cross-legged on the floor to eat. Blake was finding it hard to keep from grinning at absolutely nothing. Avon, on the other hand, seemed abruptly solemn and not inclined to conversation.

"What?" Blake asked him midway through the meal, his curiosity finally getting the better of him.

Avon took another bite of his sandwich, chewed, and swallowed. "I almost left, you know."

Blake just kept eating.

"Quite recently, in fact. I booked passage, packed, went to the Spaceport."

"But you didn't go."

"I did not."

Blake finally looked up from his plate. "Why not?"

Avon shook his head, an expression of bitter humor on his face. "Well, now, that is the joke, you see."

"Tell me."

"I convinced myself that you needed me too badly. That my departure would have...injured you."

"I rather think you understate it," Blake said. "Your departure would have destroyed me."

Avon's eyes narrowed as he studied Blake. "Perhaps. Although you are a much stronger man than you sometimes give yourself credit for being."

"I'm not that strong," Blake said flatly.

Avon shrugged. "At any rate, you see, that was not my real motivation. Although I cleverly convinced myself that it was."

"And that is the joke?"

"Oh, yes, that is very much the joke." Avon toyed absently with a crust of bread. "It was me, you see. I need you too much. Kerr Avon was fooling himself."

Blake reached out and put a hand on Avon's knee.  "The fact is, Kerr, we need one another.  Equally.  It has been that way since the very beginning and it always will be that way."

"How fortunate that we seem to have finally realized that simple fact," Avon said.

"Fortunate," Blake repeated.  "You might say that.  I myself would probably put it more strongly."

"As is your habit."

"Yes."

They smiled at one another, openly, honestly, lovingly.  Blake felt his heart leap.

When the last piece of sweet citrus fruit had been eaten, they stood, leaving the empty plates on the floor.  By unspoken agreement, they headed back up the stairs.

The second floor landing was bathed in silver-white moonlight.  Avon, reaching there first, paused and turned to watch Blake climbing behind him.  His face was pensive.  The gentle light made it seem as if Avon glowed.

Blake grew dizzy with the sight.  He reached out helplessly and wrapped both arms around Avon tightly.  "I can't believe this is real," he whispered damply into Avon's neck.  "Gods, if I wake up now and find out it's just another dream, I'll kill myself."

Avon managed to work a hand free of the tender vise that was Blake's embrace.  Yet again, his fingers tangled int eh curls that seemed to fascinate him so.  "Ahh, Roj," he said.  "This may be the most true, the most real moment of our entire lives."

As they pressed even closer together, Blake realized that both of them were erect again.  He chuckled.  "Have you, in your heretofore misbegotton life, ever explored the possibilities of sex on the stairs?"

"That would certainly entertain the staff," Avon replied, but he made no move to extricate himself from Blake's increasingly fervent caresses.

"I am the President, after all," Blake pointed out in a voice that was beginning to sound strained. His hands were gently squeezing Avon's ass. "These are the President's stairs." His hands slid slowly up Avon's spine, to the back of his head, and held him. "And you, my dear Avon, are the President's Chief Advisor."

With one hand, Avon began to rub Blake's crotch through his trousers. "And in your feeble-minded view of things, I suppose all of that adds up to carnal activity on the steps."

"If I'm lucky," Blake said. Then, in a quick move, he had the front of Avon's trousers open, and a strong, eager cock in his hand. "Oh, yes," he said, inordinately pleased with himself. "I'm a very lucky man."

"Luck has nothing to do with it," Avon said in a voice filled with menace. "What you are doing here is paying for your sins. Loving Kerr Avon, if indeed you do, is a punishment, not a reward."

"I do love you," Blake said, concentrating primarily on what his hands were doing to Avon's rapidly heating flesh. "And incidentally---"

"Incidentally?"

Blake glowered at him. "No one is allowed to slander the object of my adoration. Not even the adored one himself."

Avon merely snorted. Apparently, his tolerance for such sentiment had been reached. He made short work of the fastenings on the front of Blake's pants and released the anxious cock inside. Slowly, his hand slid up and down. A thumb massaged the damp tip. "How easily we slip into decadence," he murmured.

Blake lowered himself to his knees in front of Avon and kissed his cock lightly. Then, he looked up, frowning. "Love is not decadent," he said.

"Perhaps not. But sex on the stairs would probably qualify for the title."

"Uh-huh." Avon's hand was caressing Blake's face.

Blake turned and took a finger into his mouth. It was sticky from the juices of the fruit they'd eaten, the flavor of that mingling with the taste of Avon himself. One after another, Blake licked each finger clean. He could hear Avon gasping and smiled. Finally, he lowered his head again.

Or he started to, at least, but the movement was halted by a hand suddenly gripping his hair. The hand forced him to look up again.

Avon shook his head.

"Don't you want me to?" Blake asked, suddenly afraid.

Now Avon smiled widely and the brightness of his face put the moonlight to shame. "Oh, yes," he said. "I want you to. But I want to do you, too. At the same time."

Blake thought about that, about the way Avon had said it. Then he grinned. "Another dream?"

Without answering, Avon dropped to his knees as well. They stared at one another. "I can see myself reflected in your eyes," Avon said.

"Do you like what you see there?"

"Strangely enough, I do," Avon admitted.

"Good." Blake put both hands onto Avon's bare shoulders and pulled him forward slowly, never looking away. Their lips met in a chaste kiss. Embracing, they sank to the floor. There was some awkwardness until they were both settled comfortably. Blake held Avon's cock in his hands.

Into the darkness beyond the silver light, Avon spoke. "Love me," he whispered. Sentiment that could not be witnessed was, it seemed, acceptable.

"Oh, I do," Blake said. "I do." He took Avon into his mouth with one move.

Avon gave a long sigh.

A moment later, Blake trembled as he felt himself taken into Avon's mouth. Already, it seemed as if he had always belonged there, as if his life had never been complete until now. Avon began to suck him. In only seconds, they had found the perfect rhythm. Blake closed his eyes and gave himself up completely to the duel, equally wonderful sensations of sucking and being sucked.

The hot pressure built too quickly and his entire body burned with it.

They came. Together.

Blake's eyes flew open. He could see Avon's fist pounding the floor helplessly, and the very sight excited him all over again.

When it was over, he felt himself pulled up and into Avon's arms. "So this is what people have always meant when they talked about love," he said brokenly. "I never really knew."

"Neither did I," Avon said, and that seemed a monumental confession, coming from him.

Blake lifted his head and looked into Avon's face. "Kerr?"

"You won't leave, will you? I mean, you'll sleep here with me?"

"Is that what you want?"

"Oh, yes," he breathed.

Avon looked at him for a moment, seemingly lost in thought. Then, he nodded. "Very well. I shall stay for tonight anyway. We can discuss it more sensibly tomorrow. You are, after all, the President"

"Which means, I assume, that my living arrangements are my own concern."

"Careful, Highness," Avon said, a familiar sharpness returning to his tone. "Your naivete is showing."

Blake frowned at him. "You can't imagine, surely, that anyone will care I have chosen a man as my companion?"

"Of course not," Avon said. "Simply that you have chosen me. Probably there are some who will not view me as the most appropriate choice."

"Let them think what they will." Blake was completely relaxed into Avon's embrace. "I want to go to sleep with you in my arms," he said. "And when I wake up, I want you still there. Not just for tonight, either. For the rest of my life."

"Have you forgotten how much I irritate you?"

Blake grinned at him. "Not at all. No more than I have forgotten that I often drive you crazy. None of that matters."

Avon shook his head. "I fear that idiocy has take over completely." The words were immediately softened by the fact of his lips planting a kiss on Blake's cheek. Then, he sat up, obviously startled. "Blake, I believe your loyal retainers are here. The back door just opened."

"Oh, hell," Blake said.

They struggled to their feet, grinning like mischevious schoolboys, and ran up the rest of the stairs to the bedroom.

This time, Blake locked the door. Leaving their trousers on the floor, and ignoring the sweaty, sticky linens, they crawled into the bed again.

Blake was still having a difficult time believing that the whole evening had actually happened. He wrapped his arms around Avon and squeezed. "I love you," he said.

"I know." Avon kissed him again, slowly. "I'm very glad."

Again, Blake waited. But that was all Avon said. Instead of saying more, he simply scooted even closer, burrowing into the shelter of Blake's body. It was enough. They fell asleep that way.

Chapter XI

He was becoming quite an expert at this business of packing up all of his meager belongings.

Admittedly, his mood was considerably changed from what it had been the last time he had gone through the same routine. This time, he was totally surprised to find, an occasional and solitary smile flickered across his face. Every time he caught himself smiling at absolutely nothing, Avon firmly chastised himself and frowned.

But the smile kept returning.

Not that he was without doubts. He was still quite far from certain that this was the wisest course of action. But it seemed the only course he could take. Blake insisted. Blake cajoled. Blake wore him down, until he finally gave in. Gave in and promised to move into the Presidential mansion.

Although Avon didn't really think that a vow exacted while he was hovering in the edge of...well, while he was thinking about something else altogether, should necessarily be considered binding.

Still, here he was, packing up to move into that damned mansion. To make blatantly public what, until now, had been just between them.

The fools who surrounded Blake would undoubtedly make much of this rather startling development.

Not that he minded for himself.

He had not lied when he told Blake that he gave not a damn what people said or thought of Kerr Avon. But it did bother him in ways he could not really explain, even to himself, that political enemies might attempt to use their relationship to harm Blake. Might try to twist what they had into something... evil.

Avon knew how much something like that would hurt Blake.

Face it, he told himself impatiently, you are still condemned to spend your life nursemaiding a fool.

But Roj Rlake was his fool, and so the rest of the galaxy had better be cautious of how they treated him. Or risk Avon's wrath, which could be considerable. And lethal, since he cared not at all if the rest of the galaxy fell into a black hole. So long as one particular soul was left untouched.

That was simply how it was and Avon made no apologies for it, even to himself.

Finally, everything seemed to be packed up and labelled for delivery later. As Avon passed the window, he paused to look out. Just in time to see the Presidential ground shuttle pull to a stop outside. Two guards stepped out, followed by His Excellency himself.

Avon sighed in exasperation.

The guards, thankfully, stayed on the sidewalk, but Blake came into the building. He must have run all the way up to the third floor, because the knock on the door came only a moment later.

Avon turned away from the window, sitting on the sill, and crossing his arms. "Come in," he said.

The door flew open and Blake barreled into the room, immediately filling it with his presence, with the force of his singular personality. "Thought perhaps you could use some help," he said with shameless good cheer.

Avon frowned at him. "I am quite capable of packing on my own," he said frostily. "And I told you that I would hire a shuttle."

"I know that," Blake replied, sounding entirely unrepentent. He stood in the middle of the room and just looked at Avon, beaming.

After a moment, Avon got up from his perch on the sill and walked over to him.

Blake held his arms open wide and Avon moved into them. Immediately, he was wrapped in a bear-like embrace. "Maybe I was worried you would change your mind," Blake said.

Avon realized, not for the first time, that he very much liked the way Blake smelled. "Frankly," he said aloud, I'm convinced that both of us have lost our minds completely." The aroma was reminiscent of a spring day, not unlike cinnamon, but primarily something that was, simply, Blake.

"Possibly we have," Blake agreed.

Avon inhaled again. "I must say that you sound remarkably unconcerned over the fact."

"Couldn't care less, actually." Blake was nibbling on Avon's earlobe.

What he was doing was causing a definite reaction in various parts of Avon's anatomy. It was quite ridiculous, really. They had made love, in his opinion perfectly, only three hours or so earlier, before Avon slipped away in the early morning light and returned here. There was, consequently, absolutely no reason why he should be responding to these fervent caresses like a man long deprived. But his body didn't seem to realize that.

Especially when Blake proceeded to nibble and lick his way to Avon's other ear, making small sounds of pleasure as he went.

"Ahh, Highness," Avon said. "Your guard is waiting downstairs. And undoubtedly my landlord is hovering in the hallway, overcome with delight at having the revered President in his humble building."

Blake's mouth was now making a wet trail around Avon's neck. "To hell with all of them," he mumbled. His hands, meanwhile, began to expertly unfasten the front of Avon's trousers.

Still, Avon felt obligated to be the sensible one in this relationship. Or to try to, at any rate. If only Blake didn't smell so damned good. "We do tend to get a little...loud sometimes, you know."

Blake grinned at him; the man obviously did not know the meaning of restraint. "Yes, we do, don't we? It's quite wonderful, I think." He pushed Avon gently backwards until they reached the bed. Avon more or less collapsed there, sitting on the edge. Blake fit himself between Avon's legs as if it were the place he most belonged in the whole galaxy. And perhaps, Avon decided, it was.

Quite against his previously iron will, Avon's body was still responding. His cock was hard already. He gave Blake a dark look, blaming him. "Sex seems to have turned you into even more of an idiot child than you have always been," he pronounced.

Two dark honey-colored eyes gazed upon him. "Not sex. Love. Love, damnit. As I have repeatedly pointed out to you." His fingers were performing an already dearly familiar ritual on Avon's straining flesh.

"Semantics," Avon gasped out, determined to have the last word.

But Blake didn't appear to feel at all vanquished, damn him. He just smiled in an oddly sweet manner and then lowered his mouth onto Avon.

Avon squeezed his eyes closed, swept away on an ocean of pure desire. It rose within him every time Roj Blake touched his body, and Avon was still a little amazed on each occasion. Equally amazing was that, for the first time in his life, Avon was more than willing to be swept away. The ramifications of that he had not yet taken the time to explore fully. Perhaps he never would and perhaps it didn't matter.

Abruptly, Blake stopped what he was doing and lifted his head. "Kerr?"

Avon gasped a protest, then opened his eyes and struggled to focus. "What?" he whispered.

"I just wanted to tell you how happy I am."

Avon smiled at him.

Blake sighed, shook his head, and bent to his task again. He brought Avon to the edge very quickly, left him there until the hands tugging his curls had to be painful, then, with one final suck, pushed him over.

Avon tried his best not to yell, but one muted shout escaped anyway. It could not be helped. What Blake did to him felt indecently wonderful. He just lay there, panting for a few moments, before opening his eyes again.

Blake was watching him avidly.

"Roj..."

"Shh." Blake leaned forward and kissed him lightly. "Let's go home."

Avon could taste a trace of himself that lingered on Blake's lips. He let his fingers trail dawn Blake's chest. "Don't we have some unfinished business here?"

Blake grinned. "I make too much noise," he said ruefully.

Avon couldn't help grinning back at him. "Yes, you do." His hand lingered. "When we get back to your mansion, then."

Blake stood and reached a hand down to pull him up. "If you like."

Avon stood close and groped him through the heavy trousers, feeling the flesh inside stir. It was some comfort to realize that Blake was as helpless as he in the face of the passion that raged between them.

"And, Kerr----"

"What?"

Blake was staring at him. "It is not my mansion. It is our home."

"Semantics again," Avon replied lightly.

"Not to me," Blake replied very softly. "None of this is just semantics to me."

Avon stilled, looking into the injured, gentle eyes. Then he reached up and twisted his fingers into soft grey curls. "I'm an idiot," he said, "I sometimes wonder that you put up with me at all."

Blake moved his head a little under the caress of Avon's fingers. "Well, I have to," he said with a faint smile. "Who else in the galaxy would have you?"

Avon used his grip on the curls to pull Blake's head closer. "No one," he whispered, still looking into his eyes. His mouth moved to cover Blake's with an almost savage urgency.

When the kiss finally ended, Blake was smiling again.

"Shall we go home?" Avon said.

"Yes," Blake boomed, probably startling the landlord in the hallway.

Avon gave a soft, entirely superfluous laugh, which sound, as always, seemed to amaze Blake a little.

They each picked up a case and started from the room. Blake glanced toward the window. "Tell me something," he said.

"What?"

"Were you really unaware that you could see the mansion from here?"

Avon chose to mumble something quite unintelligible under his breath, as he led the way through the doorway.

Behind him, Blake chuckled.

Chapter XII

The sound of shouting filled the council chamber. Of course, such noise was hardly unprecedented within the walls of this room. Blake was long since resigned to the fact that the running of his government was never going to be easy.

But sometimes he wearied of the constant conflict.

He finally picked up the gavel in front of him and began to pound it repeatedly on the table. While not everybody shut up, at least the volume of the noise went down a little. He leaned back, sighing, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. After a moment, his troubled gaze travelled the length of the table and rested malevolently on the man at the far end.

Why had he ever thought that sharing a bed with Kerr Avon would make the man any easier at all to deal with in the rest of life?

They had been lovers for nearly two weeks now and, to Blake's mind, at least, each time they were together was better than the last. He fully expected to die soon, from utter satiation. Or complete happiness.

And he would have bet the galaxy that Avon felt exactly the same. There were some things that could not be faked.

Like love.

Like passion that came from the soul.

Like tenderness so sweet it could bring tears to the eyes of the most powerful man in the galaxy.

All those things were what they had every night.

But then why did Avon have to fight him so fiercely here? It seemed to get worse every day, just as their lovemaking got better every night. Just thinking about what they did together in bed - and other places, much to Avon's chagrin - made Blake warm even as he sat here in a Council meeting.

Perhaps the problem was his. Maybe he was just more sensitive now to the sarcasm and jibes. It continually bewildered him how his passionate and tender lover of the night turned each day right back into ... well, into the same Kerr Avon that he had been battling for years.

It was a puzzle.

It was headache-making.

Blake massaged his temples as the voices rose yet again. None of the voices was Avon's, of course; he never actually deigned to shout. "Enough!" Blake finally bellowed in his best irate-rebel manner.

Instantly, silence prevailed.

"My decision has been made."

When he used that tone, no one would dare to argue further.

Except, of course, for one man.

"So you are deciding without regard to reason, Mr. President?" Avon said in his soft-steel voice.

Blake glared at him. "I have listened to damned reason until my head is splitting with it, Chief Advisor. A decision must be made now, and there is only one person who can make it. I have done so."

"In that case, sir, I see no reason for me to waste anymore of my time here." Avon rose and stalked out of the Council room.

Blake leaned back, exhaling loudly. "In the name of all the gods," he murmured to Tarrant sitting beside him, "one of these days someone will shoot that son of a bitch and make my life much happier."

Tarrant grinned broadly.

A low buzz went around the table, and Blake realized that his whisper had carried much further than he had intended. Embarrassed, he gave a short laugh and stood. "This meeting is adjourned."

One of his military aides, a thin, ginger-haired man whose name Blake could never remember, moved into position behind him. He trailed Blake into the hallway. As they made their way to Blake's office, the man cleared his throat a couple of times, as if there were something he wanted to say.

Blake ignored him, distracted by his own thoughts. And anyway, he told himself firmly, I am not personally responsible for the problems of every bloody being in this galaxy.

Not anymore.

A newly familiar sense of happiness crept into his mood. And, again, bewilderment. How could he be so angry at Avon one moment and love him like crazy the next? It made no sense. And Blake didn't give a damn.

All that mattered to him was that his life finally felt complete. There was no longer that vast emptiness inside, a void that he could only try to fill with his Cause. His Government. His fantasies.

Now he had someone to love. Someone, who even if he didn't - couldn't - say the words, loved him back. What did words matter, after all, when he could look into Avon's eyes and see the truth? It was rather amazing that those eyes, which had once appeared so impenetrable, now seemed to be filled with almost more emotion than Blake could stand to see.

It was also strangely exciting, he silently acknowledged, that all of those emotions were visible only to him. To everyone else, Kerr Avon remained as much of a cold enigma as always.

The secret Avon was his alone.

At his office door, he dismissed the meek aide, who scurried away obediently. Blake opened the door and went into his office to find a familiar figure lounging indolently on the sofa. He smiled in real delight. "Hello, Vila. Welcome home."

Vila grinned and waved breezily. "Blake. It's good to be home, finally."

"I assume the mission went well?"

"Of course. Have we ever let you down?" Vila preened a little. "The people worship me, you know."

"I'm sure." Blake settled into the chair behind his desk. "Where are Dayna and Soolin?"

Vila gestured, managing to encompass the entire city. "Around and about. They said to tell you that we're all coming to dinner later."

"Fine." Blake began to rearrange the items on his desk, still thinking about other things.

Vila scratched his nose. "Something funny." he said.

"Hmm?"

"I went by Avon's rooms, but they were empty. Bloody sod finally jump ship, did he?" Vila spoke lightly, but his brow was creased with obvious worry. "I mean, he's been threatening for years to run, right?"

Blake was only half-listening. "No," he said distractedly. "Avon didn't run. He moved into the Presidential house." Belatedly, he realized that what he had just said to Vila might be considered something along the lines of an announcement. He looked up into Vila's face. "Ahh, Avon has moved in with me." There was a hint of challenge in his tone. "We're living together," he added, just to make it absolutely clear.

Vila stared at him, open-mouthed, for a moment. Then another grin split his face. "Well, fancy that. And about bloody time, too."

"What?" Blake sputtered.

"Don't you think that the rest of us are pretty flaming tired of watching the two of you moon about over one another in silence?"

Blake shook his head, hardly able to believe what he was hearing. "You mean. . . you knew?"

Vila snorted. "What kind of idiots do you think the lot of us are, anyway? Of course we knew." He shrugged. "I personally couldn't believe that the two of you weren't already sleeping together on the LONDON. Gods, man, the bloody sparks were there ten seconds after you met Avon."

"Yes," Blake whispered. "I know." He smiled with some sadness for all the lost years. "We're the idiots, I think."

"You won't get any argument from me about that," Vila agreed cheerfully. Then he stood and turned uncharacteristically solemn. "Blake...I'm glad about this. You're happy, right?"

Blake nodded, knowing there was a fairly stupid grin on his face. "I'm happy. Unbelievably so."

"And Avon?"

"Him, too, I think." He thought for a moment of the look on Avon's face the night before as they made love. No one else who knew him would have believed the softness there, the gentleness, the passion. "Avon is happy," he said firmly.

Vila grinned again. "Well, then, all is right with the galaxy."

Blake laughed. "If you say so. Now, Vila, glad as I am to see you, there is work to be done. Or things will not be right with the galaxy."

"Right-o. See you later." He left, whistling cheerfully.

Alone, Blake determined to concentrate on the work that he, indeed, had to do. All other problems, he relegated to one part of his mind to worry over later.

His thoughts of Avon, he tucked into one corner of his heart. Which made everything just fine in Roj Blake's private galaxy.

Chapter XIII

"President Blake?"

Blake reached for the com, without lifting his eyes from the report he was reading. "Yes?"

"Senator Pol is here and would like to speak with you."

Well, great. That was just what he needed. Pol was a troublemaker, a pompous, self-righteous autocrat. "Fine," Blake said wearily. "Send him in." Coming after that morning's tense council meeting, a visit from Pol was almost sure to make Blake wish he had lost the revolution.

Pol blustered into the room and sat down without waiting to be invited to do so. He was a small man who carried himself with ramrod straightness and a bitter man who seemed to delight in spreading his bitterness to everyone else. "President," he said. "I hope you are well."

The words were correct. The tone implied that he hoped Blake might keel over dead at any moment.

Blake tossed him a meaningless smile. "I'm fine. Busy, of course," he hinted.

"I appreciate that fact. And I shall try not to take up too much of your valuable time."

Ahh, how weary he had become of all the political dances one was forced to be a part of. "Thank you," he said.

Still, it was a moment before Pol spoke. "This is not a subject I am especially comfortable discussing," he said, adjusting the front of his tunic nervously.

"And what subject is that?" Blake said impatiently. It had been a long day, and he was eager to get home.

"Some of us are concerned about the fact that Kerr Avon is apparently living in the official residence with you."

Blake exhaled slowly. Despite all of Avon's dire warnings, he had not really believed that anyone would actually dare to approach him on the matter of his personal life. He made the effort to speak softly, calmly. "I cannot see where that matter concerns anyone but myself and Chief Advisor Avon. The mere fact that I am President should not be allowed to dictate my private life."

"That is, of course, true. As far as it goes."

Blake was struggling against the hot anger that was threatening to erupt. "Why don't you just say whatever it is you've come here to say, Pol? My time is much too precious to waste on foolishness."

Pol's face seemed to harden. "Hardly foolishness, from our perspective, Mr. President. We are troubled by this open declaration of your relationship with Avon---" He must have seen the darkening in Blake's eyes, because he corrected himself quickly. "---Chief Advisor Avon."

Blake clasped his hands together on top of the desk, probably to keep from wrapping them around Pol's scrawny neck. Avon had been right, as usual; he was criminally naive. "I was not aware that in this day and age, in the Refederation, that love was something one had to keep hidden," he said.

Pol seemed too nervous to sit. He stood and began to pace the office. "Shall I be absolutely blunt with you, Mr. President?"

"That would be a refreshing change, coming from you, Pol."

The man reddened slightly. "Very well. You might as well know that some of us have long suspected the true nature of your relationship with Chief Advisor Avon."

At that, Blake raised a brow. "Long suspected?"

Pol shrugged. "It was not difficult to deduce the truth, after all. As far back as the revolution itself, there were...rumors. All of which seemed to have been substantiated by the way you have kept him so close over the years. Even after he nearly killed you in cold blood. Does a man forgive such an act of evil except in one he is...in thrall to?"

Blake kept his face stony, his voice cold. "What happened on Gauda Prime is a subject that will not be mentioned in my presence," he said. "Or in that of Chief Advisor Avon. What happened there concerns no one but the people involved."

"Well, then, let us not forget where you first met him. On a prison ship."

There was not a trace of humor in the sharp laugh Blake gave. "Where I was also a prisoner," he pointed out.

Pol turned to look at him. "Ahh, yes, but you were an innocent victim of the Federation's treachery. He was a guilty man."

Blake gave an impatient gesture. "You still have not gotten to the point."

"The point is, as long as you remained at least somewhat discreet, we could not object. But now, with him living openly in the mansion, some of us are made very uncomfortable. We do not object to your having a companion, of course, but we must object to your choice of a man like Kerr Avon."

Privately, Blake was still rather bemused by the notion that so many people apparently had believed for years that he and Avon were lovers. Astounding.

And even their closest friends, who knew the truth, thought they should have been lovers long ago. Why had the two of them been so blind? Blake shook his head.

Pol seemed to think that the gesture was meant for him. "We do not want this government run by a man like Chief Advisor Avon." Now he gave the title a nasty twist. "He is ruthless. Unprincipled. Have you forgotten the murder he committed here the day your forces took control?"

Blake shook his head. "I have not forgotten."

"Know that many of us remember, as well. That was murder, pure and simple. Murder of a prisoner of the rebel coalition."

After a moment, Blake shrugged. "The eventual fate of the prisoner would have been the same in any event."

"Yes, but carried out by the proper tribunal."

Blake smiled slightly. "So the real complaint is that Avon denied you the chance to do the job yourself."

Pol frowned. "You are being quite deliberately obtuse."

"I am outraged, Pol," Blake said evenly. "I run this government, and I shall continue to do so until the citizens tell me they no longer desire it. During that time, I will take my counsel where I choose, from those quarters I trust implicitly. And, likewise, I shall take to my bed whom I choose." He banged a fist onto his desk. "Why else did we fight a damned revolution, if not to give each one of us the right to choose?"

"We do not deny any of that," Pol said. "Our only complaint is with Avon himself."

"Well, I have heard your complaint, and here is my response: Kerr Avon is the most principled man I have ever known. And if he has on occasion been ruthless, well so have I. Show me how to defeat evil, as we did, without some ruthlessness. Perhaps had you been on the front lines of the battle for freedom, you might have done some of the same things." He eyed Pol with chilly thoughtfulness. "But we shall never know, will we? Because you were not there."

Pol's mouth opened and then closed again; his eyes flashed anger.

"Unlike some I could mention, Chief Advisor Avon does not alter his moral stance with a change in the political wind."

Pol took that remark as personally as it had been intended. "Very well, sir," he said stiffly. "I do not wish to argue the matter with you. We merely wanted our concerns to be on the record."

Blake gave him a very small smile. "Your concerns are recorded. In my memory."

Pol, angry and looking even more nervous than he had in the beginning of their conversation, left the office.

Blake leaned back and closed his eyes. Ahh, Avon, he thought, why do I always chastise you for your cynicism? You see life so much more clearly than I.

Blake was tired. And angry. And, abruptly, very lonely.

Chapter XIV

The miserable day finally ended, as even the most endless-seeming of presidential days eventually did. Blake endured the short ground shuttle ride from the governmental complex to the palatial official dwelling in silence. His perpetual guard was undoubtedly well used to the petulant moods of the galactic leader.

So, too, must have been the houseman who greeted him at the door, took his cloak, and affirmed to him that, yes indeed, Chief Advisor Avon had arrived home some time earlier.

Blake acknowledged that news with a stony-faced nod. He was given to wonder, on occasion, what the staff thought of his new living arrangements, but seemed to lack sufficient curiosity to ask them their opinion.

And the staff members were much too polite, it seemed, to bring up the question themselves.

Unlike some members of the legislature.

Blake sighed. He knew that his conversation with Pol would have to remain a secret from Avon. He would be either publically angry or privately hurt and Blake would not be the cause of either emotion. Not over something as foolish as Pol's remarks.

Actually, Blake rather liked the notion of being Avon's protector. It was something of a role reversal.

Blake dismissed that idiot Pol from his thoughts and went looking for Avon.

He checked the library first, expecting to find him there, ensconced in front of the computer that had been installed at the same time its owner took up residence in the master bedroom. But the library was empty, the computer screen dark.

So Blake tackled the staircase.

His mood brightened perceptively with step. At the second floor landing, he absolutely grinned in silver-dappled memory.

It continued to surprise him a little to realize the great pleasure he took of late in even the small details of life. For example, searching for Avon at the end of the day, and finding him here. And, even more astoundingly, realizing that Avon was waiting for him. What Roj Blake - former fugitive, battered rebel, melancholy politician - had finally created for himself was a normal life. Against all odds.

He finally walked into the bedroom and found the object of his heart's search.

Apparently, a day spent aggravating his President had worn poor Kerr out completely. He was asleep on the bed. Blake stood, looking down at him. Barefooted, but otherwise fully-clothed, Avon slept, as he often did, like a child. His body was curled almost fetally; one lightly-clenched fist was flung out to the side and the other was pressed to his chest. Dark lashes fluttered against pale, sweaty skin, as he breathed through a slightly opened mouth. His dreams must have been pleasant, as there was a small smile on his lips.

Blake wanted to crawl in beside him, pet him, cherish him, wrap him in tenderness.

He also wanted to crawl in beside him and commit various and sundry acts of lust upon his body.

Blake assumed all those feelings might not be a bad definition of love.

But all he did was stand there and watch him sleep and, surprisingly, there was so much satisfaction in that simple act that Blake was content.

What were the words that bastard Pol had used to describe Kerr Avon?

Ruthless?

Yes.

A killer?

Yes.

Unprincipled?

Decidedly not.

But there were other words, words that Pol had not used, which were equally applicable. Words like kind. Loving. Gentle.

Blake smiled a little. Of course, who else in the galaxy besides he himself would use those words to describe this man? Probably no one.

Most people saw only the Avon that Pol knew, the one they had seen on the day of victory. The day Blake's forces finally took control of Earth.

He stormed into the makeshift command post, looking for Avon. Looking for the one person with whom he really wanted to share this moment.

And Avon was there, still bent over the computer, coordinating troop movements.

Blake, still gulping for air after his run up the stairs, just stood there, watching Avon.

Finally, Avon turned to look at hem. "Well, Fearless Leader," he said.

"We've done it, Avon! We've won!"

"Apparently." Avon leaned back in the chair and gazed up at Blake. "Now comes the difficult part. What will you do with your victory, Blake?"

Blake stepped closer; it was an old habit, invading Avon's space. In actual fact, it was a two-way game, as Avon did the same to him as often as the reverse. Of course, Blake knew perfectly well that their motivations were entirely different. Avon used it as a power play; he stood so close simply because he liked being close to Avon. Liked inhaling his clean, spicy scent.

"Our victory, Avon."

That earned him a small smile. "Hardly. If I never named the battle as mine, it would seem churlish to stake a claim in the victory."

Blake wanted to grab the stubborn bastard and shake him. Grab him and embrace him. Grab him and love him. He chased that thought away firmly. He tried to put all of the emotions he was feeling into his words. "I could not have done it without you, Avon. Surely, you know that."

Avon nodded. "I suppose that might be true. Even non-believers have their uses. You had my skills and my intelligence. But your precious cause never had my heart."

And what about me, Blake wanted to ask, have I ever had your heart?

He might even have said something at that moment  - flushed with success of one sor4 perhaps he might have summoned up the courage to try for another kind of victory. He might have risked it all by declaring - at last! - the deepest, darkest secret of his heart.

I love you, Avon, he might have said.

 

He took one more step toward the other man, lost in the dark gaze that seemed, at least in Blake's suddenly fevered mind, softer, more open, than he had ever seen it before.

Oh, it was his imagination, of course. The victory over the Federation had gone to his head. He simply could not be seeing on Avon's face what he thought he saw.

Still, he might have said something.

The words seemed to be hovering on his lips. Blake took a deep breath and opened his mouth.

Avon was staring at him with what might have been anticipation.

It was at that moment that Vila came running into the room. "Guess what?" he said.

Avon's eyes were still on Blake, something in their depths that he could not read. It almost looked like disappointment, but that made no sense. Did it? Watching Blake, he spoke to Vita. "Oh, good, children's games. And the perfect time for them, too."

Blake swallowed down the bitter taste of disappointment. The moment was gone and would never come again.

Vila was looking smug, the way he always did when he knew something that Avon didn't. "An old friend of yours just got herself captured," he said. "She's in a holding cell downstairs."

It took a moment for Avon to react. Then his face grew still, and his dark eyes glittered like twin chips of black ice. "Servalan," he breathed, and it was as if he'd uttered a curse.

"Herself," Vila confirmed. "Servalan, Sleer. Whatever she's calling herself these days. Big as life, although looking a little stunned when I saw her."

Avon's eyes closed.

Blake took yet another step toward him, resting a hand on Avon's shoulder, squeezing. "Are you all right?" he asked in a low voice.

There was no response.

"Avon?" The single word was a plea.

Then his eyes opened.

Blake stared into the vast emptiness, suddenly afraid for Avon's sanity in a way he had not been since Gauda Prime. "Avon?" he repeated, desperate to reach the other man, to pull him back from whatever hell he had fallen into.

At last, Avon moved. He grabbed his blaster from the table, and started for the door, pushing past Vila without a word.

Vila 's eyes were wide as he gazed at Blake. "Avon hasn't looked like that in a long time," he said.

 

Blake knew what Vita had seen on Avon's face as he left the room. Not in the months since Gauda Prime had Avon's expression been so cold, so empty. Now Blake moved as well, charging through the doorway. "Avon!" he yelled.

The two of them moved through the frantic activity in the corridor, ignoring it. Avon also continued to ignore Blake, who hurried to keep pace. "Avon, she'll face a tribunal. This is the end of Servalan. It's a new beginning for the rest of us." His words seemed to have no effect on Avon. "She isn't worth it, Avon."

Not until they were actually standing in front of the wooden door of the holding cell did Avon even look at him. "Blake," he said softly. "Don't interfere in this."

"But you can 't just----"

"Oh, yes, "Avon interrupted. "I can. I will. I must." He looked into Blake's eyes, and for just that moment, his face softened. "Blake, understand, please." Then the mask was back. "She deserves to die."

"I know that. But let the new government take care of her."

Avon shook his head. "She has not done to those people what she did to us. To me. She did not drive them mad."

Again, Blake wanted to grab him. He wanted, even more, to wrap Avon in his arms and weep. But he dared only to touch his cheek lightly. "You are not mad, Avon."

The smile Avon gave him was terrible to see. "Even though I have committed acts of madness? You must know that better than anyone." Then he turned to the door.

"Kerr..."

Avon inhaled and then let the breath out slowly. He turned and met Blake's gaze again. "You keep asking me to forgive you," he said, his voice hoarse. "For all of your self-perceived crimes against me. Do you really want that? Or has every word been a lie?"

"I want it," Blake whispered. "So much."

"Then you shall have it." Avon touched Blake's shoulder with the barrel of the blaster, much like a knight of old might have been blessed by the king's sword. "I forgive you, Blake. For everything you have done to me. For everything you have caused me to do."

Gauda Prime, again.

"Avon," Blake said, anguished.

"I forgive you, Blake. But that forgiveness has a price."

"Servalan 's life."

"Yes."

 

Blake had no doubt at all that whatever choice he made now would cause him regret later. But he knew, as surely as he had ever known anything in his life, that if he went against Avon on this, there would be no future at all for them. Painful as the relationship often was to him, he would not see it end. Could not see it end. If the future did not hold Avon, then Blake could not face it.  His triumph against the Federation would turn to ashes in his mouth, without Avon beside him.

It was at this moment that Blake at last acknowledged to himself that he could not live without Kerr Avon.

The realization was terrible and wonderful.

"Do what you must," he said wearily.

"Thank you, "Avon replied. "You needn't stay."

"Oh, yes, "Blake said. "I must. I will not let you go through this alone."

Avon shrugged. "Your choice." Without warning, he used his boot to kick the door open.

Servalan rose from the bench she had been sitting on. Her black gown was dirty and torn, her face streaked with mud. The fear on her face lessened just a little when she realized who it was entering the cell. "Avon, " she said, "I'm glad you've come. We can talk." Then she saw Blake as well. "Ahh, the hero of the masses himself," she said, managing even under the circumstances to sound vaguely mocking.

"Don't talk to him, "Avon said in a hard voice that could not conceal a terrible, fierce anger. "I don't want you speaking to Blake. He doesn't have to listen to you."

"Fine. I shall speak to you, then. We have always been able to communicate on a rational level, you and I."

Avon gave a short laugh; the sound caused a chill to course up Blake's spine. "You have not seen me since I lost all claim to rationality."

She smiled. "Ahh, yes, you're the man who very nearly killed the savior of the rabble. I wonder you feel safe around him," she said to Blake.

Avon took a step closer to her. "I told you not to talk to him." His voice was brutaL

"What game is this, Avon? Just tell me the rules, and I'll be glad to play."

He shook his head. "No more games, you black-hearted bitch. I'm here for Gan. For Cally. For Jenna. I'm here for Roj Blake. And most of all, I'm here for what you have done to me. I have not forgotten Terminal. I have not forgotten anything."

She suddenly seemed to understand what was happening. "Avon, "she said, lifting her arms, begging him.

 

He raised the weapon. "May you burn in whatever hell exists beyond this one we live in," he said.

The first shot killed her. But Avon kept firing until the weapon was drained. At last, he dropped the blaster and turned to look at Blake. "She can 't hurt us anymore," he said, sounding strangely gentle.

Then he walked out of the cell.

Blake swallowed down the bitter bile rising in his throat and followed him.

Oh, yes: there were few creatures in the galaxy more ruthless than Kerr Avon.

But it was a ruthlessness that was only practised in the name of all he cared about. And now Blake knew, as he had not known for all those years, what - who - it was that Avon loved.

It was he.

And the fact of that love, in Blake's mind, absolved Avon of many sins, not the least of which was killing a woman who surely deserved to die.

At last, he bent down to the sleeping man and placed a feather-light kiss on one cheek. Then he went into the next room to shower before dressing for dinner.

Minutes later, he emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, hair still dripping, to find the object of his recent contemplation awake. Avon was sitting cross-legged in his bed, looking tousled and, when he grinned, absurdly young. "My Lord," he greeted Blake. "Done with slaying dragons for the day?"

Blake eyed him. "Perhaps not. You bastard."

Avon stretched. "I deduce from your tone that you are still irritated over this morning's Council meeting."

"Irritated? I'm furious." But the longer he looked at Avon, the less angry he was.

"That's too bad," Avon drawled. "Shall I gather my belongings and leave your abode, sire?"

Blake fought against a grin. "That would be too easy. I intend to make you stay here and face the enormity of my wrath." He nibbled a finger and gazed at him. "Untold agonies await you, Kerr Avon."

Avon smiled slowly. "That sounds...interesting."

Blake glowered. "Count on it."

Carefully, his eyes never leaving Blake, Avon got up from the bed and walked across the room. "Maybe my punishment should begin now."

Blake tried to dampen the heat rising in him. "Vila and the others will be here soon."

"This won't take long."

Blake could feel his body begin to react to Avon's nearness, to the low voice so filled with implication, to the gaze that managed to be both amused and passionate at the same time. "What won't take long?" he said, his mouth suddenly gone dry.

Avon, who had previously confessed (under the cover of darkness and the excuse of lust) to being just as much a victim of his obsessions as Blake was of his, wove his fingers into damp strands of hair, then leaned forward to rub his cheek across them, inhaling. "Ahh," he said. "Sometimes it is rather frightening, isn't it?"

Blake turned his head just a little, so that he could look into the eyes so close to his own. "What frightens you, Kerr?"

Avon chuckled. "Why do you ask? Are you prepared to ride forth and slay dragons in my defence?

"If I can, yes."

"How noble," Avon said, and surprisingly, there was no hint of teasing in his tone, despite the fact that he was smiling. "My hero."

"What frightens you, Kerr?" Blake repeated.

After a moment, Avon lowered his eyes. "The... intensity. The need. Logically...it shouldn't get stronger every day."

"Logic and love," Blake said, teasing a little himself now. "Perhaps they cannot coexist."

After a moment, Avon pulled back. "If you are angry with me, Blake. you should make me suffer."

"Angry?" Blake had completely forgotten his earlier mood. Then he realized that this was a game Avon was playing. "How should I make you suffer?"

Avon smiled. "Force me to take you in my mouth."

Blake blinked. "Take me in your mouth?" he said, still trying to figure out what the rules were.

"All right," Avon said cheerfully. "I will."

He removed the towel with a yank, dropped to his knees, and took Blake's aching cock into his mouth, all before Blake could say anything more.

Blake drew in a sharp breath and fell back against wall for support. He stared down, watching as his flesh moved quickly in and out of Avon's mouth.

Avon's eyes were closed and the expression on his face was one of near-rapture. The fact that Avon could be made so happy by doing this for him brought tears

Blake's eyes.

Avon was right. Sometimes it was frightening.

He stopped thinking then and gave himself up completely to the emotions and sensations that built so quickly and exploded all too soon. "Kerr," he sighed as he came; it was always the same. The name a prayer, a paean of thanksgiving.

Avon swallowed every drop of Blake's cum, licked cock clean, then kissed it and stood. Blake grabbed him by the back of the neck and pulled him into a hard kiss. Avon wrapped both arms around Blake's body and held on.

Pol would deny me this, Blake thought. I should have killed the bastard.

"Now I'll return the favor," Blake whispered when the kiss finally ended.

But Avon shook his head. "No."

Blake frowned. "Why not?"

Avon spoke directly into Blake's ear. "Because I want to wait. I want to think about it all evening. I want you to know I'm thinking about it all evening. I want to think about you knowing I'm thinking about it." He took Blake's hand and pressed it into his crotch. "Feel me?"

Blake responded with a gasp.

"I'm hard already. I want it so bad, but I'm going to wait. You're going to wait." He planted a hot, wet kiss on Blake's cheek. "Think about it, my dragonslaying knight."

Abruptly, he turned and headed for the bathroom. "See you downstairs."

Blake took a deep, shuddering breath, his fingers lingering on the spot where Avon's kiss had branded him.

Finally, he started to dress.

Chapter XV

As promised, the entire crew showed up for dinner. For a change, each arrived alone, unaccompanied by any of the varying escorts they frequently brought along. Tarrant had once remarked cheerfully that it was a big advantage to one's social life to be able to offer dinner with the President as an inducement.

But tonight, it seemed, was just going to be for the six of them. Blake was glad for that, considering the circumstances. He did not think that it was a coincidence; undoubtedly, Vila had put out the word.

There was a little idle conversation over drinks as they awaited the last arrival. Everyone in the room kept glancing at the doorway, while pretending not to.

And finally Avon appeared.

He came in looking freshly showered and extraordinarily relaxed, in soft brown trousers and a white shirt of real silk that wrapped tightly around his torso.

Blake, rather stunned at the sight, watched him gracefully cross the room. He was fully aware that he was smiling like a besotted idiot, but he did not care. Besotted, he was. "Good evening, Chief Advisor Avon," he said quietly, hearing, but hoping that no one else except Avon was, the edge of helpless passion in his voice.

Avon gave a slight bow. "Mr. President." He straightened. Their eyes met and held endlessly.

Ignoring for the moment, the others in the room, Blake leaned closer and spoke very softly. "I just fell in love all over again."

Avon only smiled at him, but Blake could see the banked fire that was just behind the gentle brown gaze. Blake knew what Avon was thinking about. He was thinking about the same thing.

Blake ran the tip of his tongue across his upper lip.

Then he became aware again of the other eyes that were watching. Yes, Vila's chattering mouth had been in operation. Well, this was what he had wanted this evening for, so he might as well get to it.

He turned away from Avon to face the others. "Well, you all seem to know what's happened already," he said briskly. "I guess that means there is no need for a presidential proclamation on the subject." He smiled a little. "Although I wouldn't mind issuing one, actually."

He gave a sidewise glance and saw that Avon was apparently very interested in the far wall. "But just in case it's not absolutely clear in anyone's mind," he went on, "Avon is living here now." He looked again and this time waited, patiently, until Avon's gaze locked with his. What he saw there made it necessary for him to swallow hard before continuing.

Avon nodded once, almost imperceptively.

"We are lovers," Blake said, sounding, quite unintentionally, very Presidential. Then, he grinned.

There was a pause.

It was Dayna who spoke first. "I want to tell you something.

Blake looked at her uncertainly; the young black woman had always been more in Avon's camp than his own. "Yes?"

"Cally would be very happy about this. She always knew that the two of you belonged together." Dayna smiled brightly. "I told her she was crazy. Of course, I didn't know you then," she said to Blake. "And once I had been around you both for a short time, I knew what she meant."

Avon spoke for the first time. "I had no idea that the rest of the galaxy was so fascinated by the details of my private life," he said dryly.

"Oh, but we are" Vila put in. "After all, there were a lot of very boring hours to pass on the flight deck. Very amusing, I must say. The romance of the century was happening right in front of us, and the two people involved didn't even know it."

"Shut up, Vila," Blake and Avon said, automatically and in unison.

Everyone laughed. Blake dared to put an arm across Avon's shoulders. After a brief hesitation, Avon relaxed into the light embrace. Blake inhaled and got a little dizzy from the clean smell of Avon's body. Or maybe it was just from the pleasure of holding Avon like this, under the eyes of others.

For so many years, this had been a dream, one he had never really expected to live. His fingers toyed with damp strands of soft hair where they curled against Avon's neck. Beneath the skin, he could feel the blood coursing, or imagined he could.

He realized that the conversation in the room was continuing, but Blake had no idea what was being said. He tried to pay attention.

Soolin was in the middle of an anecdote about the recent trip she and Dayna had taken with Vila. Everyone was laughing, so Blake smiled as well.

Avon slipped out from under his arm then, and went to the bar. As he moved away, his hand brushed, perhaps by accident, against Blake's crotch. It was so subtle, so quick, that no one else could have noticed.

Blake, however, had definitely noticed. It was as if an electrical shock had surged through his body. By the time it passed, Avon was already standing by the bar, pouring wine into a crystal goblet. Blake stared at him helplessly. Eventually, Avon stopped admiring the deep burgundy color of the wine and looked up. He gazed right into Blake's face as he slowly lifted the goblet and took a sip of the wine.

Without really being aware that he was even moving, Blake crossed the room and stood near Avon. The air between them seemed to resonate. "Would you like a drink, Blake?" Avon asked him quietly.

"Ahh," Blake said. Then he nodded. "Some of my Zondarian brandy, please."

Avon made a expression of distaste as he poured the deep golden brandy. "I do not understand how you can drink this stuff," he said, a familiar refrain. "It's so sweet. Like sugared water."

Blake shrugged and took the snifter from Avon's hand. Their fingers touched fleetingly and each man smiled just a little. "I like it."

"You have very odd tastes."

Blake eyed him. "That has been noted by others," he said meaningfully.

Avon laughed outloud.

A stunned silence fell upon the room for a moment, as everyone looked their way.

Avon seemed indifferent to the notice his laughter had received. He walked casually away and leaned against the wall.

Blake knew that he could not follow him again, so he stayed where he was.

After Avon took another sip of the wine, several burgundy drops glistened on his lips. With excruciating deliberation, he licked them off, still watching Blake.

Blake realized that he was being manipulated by a master. How ironic: Avon had so often accused him of being a manipulator. Well, two could play at that game. He took a deep breath and went to sit on the sofa beside Soolin.

Peripherally, he was aware of Avon smiling.

Everyone else was listening to Vila now, as he expanded on his role on the successful trip. Soolin turned to Blake and smiled.

"I suppose this comes as a surprise to everyone," Blake said.

"Sort of," she admitted. "Only because we never thought that either one of you would unbend enough to admit to caring."

Blake looked at his hands, then up at Soolin again, smiling faintly. "You want to hear the truth? I got drunk one night and blurted out my feelings. I assumed that Avon would either knock me down or run for the hills. Probably both."

"But he didn't."

"No," Blake said in a contented voice. "He didn't."

Soolin patted his arm. "Good for you." She gave a small grimace. "Nobody else could handle him."

Blake pretended amazement. "And you think I do?"

He became aware that Avon had moved closer. A smoldering gaze was resting on him.

"Well," Soolin said, "I wish you luck."

Blake gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "Thank you. I may well need it." He did not look at Avon again.

Dinner was announced a moment later. Blake and Soolin led the way into the dining room. Avon sat at the other end of the table from Blake's place. He and Vila were good-naturedly arguing something, as usual.

Blake was content to watch and listen.

Every time he looked that way (with what he hoped appeared to be only casual interest), Blake found Avon's dark eyes on him. He knew what Avon was thinking about.

He was thinking about it, too.

Although Blake was genuinely glad to see his friends, he could only hope that the evening would be an early one.

A very early one, in fact.

Chapter XVI

Even more so than usual, the first time that night was fast and hot and breathlessly urgent.

The bedroom door was hardly closed behind them when Blake grabbed Avon, pressing him back against the wall with the full weight of his body. Avon moaned. "Yes," he said hoarsely. "Do it. Do it now."

Blake tugged Avon's trousers down and off, setting free an erection that bobbed with eagerness. "Gods, I love you," he whispered into the damp flesh of Avon's crotch.

Avon's only response was another moan.

Blake took Avon's cock into his mouth, licking at the drops of pre-cum on the tip, and then sucking desperately.

It took only seconds and then Avon came with a long sigh of grateful release. Blake fought for breath when it was over, his head resting against Avon's stomach. "That never happened before," he whispered.

"What?"

"I came inside my trousers." His lips traced a wet trail across Avon's flesh. "I shall send you the cleaning bill."

"I'll pay it," Avon responded, still sounding short of breath. "Gladly." He tugged Blake up and travelled along his jawline with a thumb. "You are rather...remarkable."

"A compliment?" Blake said. "That is remarkable, coming from you."

They were both still shaking a little as they undressed and crawled into bed, curling together. Blake was wrapped around Avon, his unsteady breath touching the back of Avon's neck. He planted a lingering kiss there. "I love you," he said again.

"You had better," Avon replied in a lazy voice.

Blake grinned and nuzzled sweat-damp strands of hair. "May I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

He gave Avon's neck a lick. "Do you think that I'm a bad president?"

"What?"

Releasing him, Blake sighed and rolled onto his back to stare at the ceiling. "It occurs to me that perhaps the opposition is right, and I don't know what I'm doing."

Avon turned over to look into Blake's face. "That's an extraordinarily stupid thing to say, even for you."

Blake gnawed his index finger. "Is it? I wonder sometimes."

"Stop wondering. You're an excellent president. Better than most of humanity deserves, in fact." Avon leaned forward and outlined Blake's lips with the tip of his tongue. "You're also an excellent lover," he said with a grin. "But I'd prefer to be the only one who knows that."

"You are," Blake said. Greedily, he took in the grin and the increasingly forceful caresses coming from Avon. He could never, would never, get enough. "Avon?"

"Hmm?" Avon was exploring Blake's left ear as if it were a new and fascinating terrain.

"Do you disagree with me so often and so vehemently in the Council because you honestly believe I am that wrong? Or maybe it's more personal than that. Maybe Kerr Avon doesn't want people thinking he's nothing but a lackey for President Blake. Even more so than before, now that he's sleeping with that president."

Avon blinked at him. "Just how much wine did you consume at dinner, anyway?"

"Only one glass." Blake didn't drink as he once had. He no longer desired or needed the numbness.

"Hardly enough to intoxicate you."

"Hardly."

"Then I can conceive of no reason for the absurdity of what you are saying." Avon was toying with Blake's left nipple as he spoke. "I have told you before that I do not care at all what people think of me. Since I am not in the habit of lying to you, why not take me at my word?"

Blake reached up to run a hand through silky strands of hair, but didn't say anything.

"I do not care what people say about Kerr Avon," he said, punctuating each word with a kiss to Blake's chest.

From somewhere, Blake remembered one of the things that fool Pol had said to him: "We do not want this government run by a man like Kerr Avon."

He had a sudden flash of insight, followed immediately by a stabbing of guilt that it had taken him so long to understand the truth. He interrupted Avon in his continuing caressing, using both hands to pull him up close. Holding the face between his palms, he gazed into the eyes. "That's right," he said. "You don't care what people think of you. But you do care what they say about me, don't you?"

Avon's eyes darted away, then back to Blake's. "As part of your staff," he said, "I should always endeavor to protect your reputation."

Poor Avon. He so hated being caught doing something noble. Blake smiled. "You don't want people thinking the President is Kerr Avon's lapdog."

Avon shrugged. "Whatever. Think what you like."

"Thank you," Blake whispered.

Avon twisted out of his hold and slid down his body again. He ran his hands across Blake's chest. "Roj, I disagree with you because that is what we do. It is what we have always done. We argue."

Blake wriggled under the assault his body was receiving from Avon's increasingly urgent hands. One of those hands was now stroking his cock slowly. "That feels so good," he said.

"It's supposed to." Avon licked his ear. "I like arguing with you," he said wetly. "I like everything we do together." He pulled back and smiled sweetly. "Don't you, Roj?"

Blake was already hard again. His cock was now nestled between Avon's legs and he couldn't help thrusting a little.

"Don't you, Roj?" Avon repeated, stroking Blake's quivering thighs.

"I.... love everything we do together," Blake gasped out.

"I know you do," Avon said with some smugness. In one sudden move, he slid even lower and took Blake's erection into his mouth. He sucked slowly, languorously, luxuriously.

It felt wonderful.

Then, just as Blake was about to come, Avon released him,

Blake groaned in protest of this abandonment. His lips moved, silently shaping one word: Kerr.

"Not yet, Blake," Avon whispered. "Not yet." He scooted down further still and began nuzzling a wet trail up the insides of Blake's legs. Hands, tongue, and lips left fiery streaks in Blake's flesh. Avon seemed to be in no hurry. "Your legs," he murmured between kisses and licks and gentle bites. "Have I ever mentioned that I quite like your legs?"

"Do you?" Blake managed to wring the words from his tortured body.

"Oh, yes, I quite do. They are like..." Avon lifted his head and looked at Blake's face. "...maybe like the trunks of ancient trees."

"Hmm," Blake said, not sure whether to be flattered or insulted by the analogy.

Avon was stroking the legs under discussion tenderly. "Strong. Powerful. When your legs are wrapped around me, I feel...protected." He smiled sheepishly. "Does that sound foolish?"

Blake only shook his head, unable to speak, to get words past the lump in his throat.

"So strong," Avon murmured again. "But I can make them tremble, can't I?"

He did just that, by resuming his attentions to Blake's thighs.

Blake was shaking uncontrollably. "Gods...Avon... Kerr...my love...please..." He gripped Avon's shoulders and tried to force him to his throbbing cock. "Please," he whimpered.

But Avon pulled out of his grasp and came up to kiss his mouth instead. "Roj," he said softly, "will you fuck me?" His gaze was liquid tenderness. "That's what I want."

Blake's heart began to pound so hard that he thought it surely must burst. "Kerr? Are you sure? We never..."

"I know." Avon stroked Blake's face with one shaking hand. "But tonight I want you inside of me. Please?"

Blake stared at him, wondering how it was possible to love someone so much, so completely. For a moment, he was filled with terror at the intensity of his feelings. But then he relaxed, knowing that his heart was safe in the care of this man. "I want that, too," he said finally. "So much."

"Good." Avon leaned over to reach into the bedside drawer and brought out a tube of cream. He glanced up and smiled almost shyly, looking younger than his years. Sweat was trickling down his face. "I was prepared, you see." The smile turned vaguely self mocking. "I seem to have an unsuspected streak of optimism in my nature."

"The whole evening was leading up to this," Blake said. "Wasn't it?"

Again, Avon smiled. "Yes." He squeezed a dollop of the cream into his hand. With his eyes never leaving Blake's face, he began to annoint his cock. He rubbed Blake's flesh slowly, carefully, as if the annointing itself were the object of the exercise. "How's this feel?" he asked dreamily.

"Wonderful," Blake sighed.

"Good." Finally, he finished to his apparent satisfaction. He handed the tube of cream to Blake, who could scarcely hold onto it. "Your turn," he said, lying on his stomach.

Blake forced himself to move. He applied cream to the mounds of Avon's ass and began to massage it around and then into the crack. Tentatively, he inserted one greasy finger into the opening and then two. "Okay?"

"Mmph," was all Avon said.

He kept rubbing, poking, exploring, totally bemused by what he was doing, until finally he realized that Avon was moaning hopelessly into his pillow. "I guess we're ready," he said.

"Yes," Avon said through gritted teeth. "About bloody time, too."

"If I hurt you..."

Avon gave a short laugh as he scooted up on his knees slightly. "Roj, you have just spent what seemed like hours torturing me to the point of madness. "I'll be fine." Then he turned his head to look directly at Blake, his gaze clear and honest. "I want to feel you inside of me. I need that," he said simply.

Blake leaned forward to kiss the corner of his mouth lightly. Then he raised himself onto both arms and positioned himself so that his impossibly hard cock was poised at the entrance to Avon's body. He began to push slowly, carefully, terrified of hurting Avon, but at the same time wanting desperately to be sheathed within his lover. He was holding his breath as he moved.

Avon caught his breath audibly.

Instantly, Blake stopped. "Kerr?"

"Keep going," Avon said intensely.

Blake, deciding that too much hesitation might be as bad as too little, took a deep breath and gave one final shove. Caught up in the unbelievably wonderful sensation of being gripped in the hot, damp passageway, he only vaguely heard Avon make a sound that was something between a groan and a sigh. "Kerr?"

Avon didn't say anything.

Blake almost pulled out, although he had never wanted to do anything less in his entire life. Then he saw the tears on Avon's face. Frightened beyond words at first, he then knew, somehow, that what he was seeing were not tears of pain. He leaned down to kiss them away, one by one.

Then he had to move, a gentle thrusting that caused his bones to melt and his heart to race even faster. He could feel his cock being seized and held by Avon's body and it was remarkable. "Kerr," he said, wanting to say so much more, but not able to form the words.

"Roj---"

He paused. "What?" He rested against Avon's back lightly. "What?"

It was obviously an effort for Avon to speak, but he forced the words out. "You are a good president because you are...a good man. The only truly good man I ever met. You are so... good."

"Thank you," Blake whispered.

Avon closed his eyes and sighed. "Now fuck me," he said. "Fuck me hard."

Blake shuddered. Then he began to fuck Avon hard. He pulled almost all the way out, until only the tip of his cock was still inside Avon. Then he pushed all the way in again. The only sounds in the room were the smack-smack-smack of two wet bodies colliding, and the harsh rattle of oxygen-starved lungs struggling for air.

Blake could feel himself racing toward an explosion that he both yearned for and begrudged, because it was going to be wonderful, but it would also mean an end to this. He didn't want it to end. Not ever.

But, at last, he couldn't hold back for even one more instant.

He came.

He shouted Avon's name and something else that he could never remember afterwards. He wept hot, salty tears that fell onto Avon's skin.

Beneath him, he felt Avon shudder and gasp and come as well. He heard Avon whisper his name again and again and again. His heart wanted to answer.

But all he could do was collapse onto Avon. His cock slipped wetly out, and he felt a jolt of sadness that they were no longer joined.

"That was..." Blake fought for both breath and words. "Kerr?"

"That was the... most perfect moment of my life," Avon whispered into the pillow. "I can never repay you."

Blake wanted to speak, but still could not. He rolled off Avon at last. For several moments, they simply lay side by side, breathing in a duet of sweet aftermath. Finally, Blake slipped from the bed and went for a damp cloth. When he returned, he began to gently clean them both. There was some blood, and he looked at Avon, frowning.

Avon only shrugged. "Believe me," he said. "It was worth it."

When they had settled down again, with Avon wrapped in his arms, Blake said quietly, "What did it feel like for you?"

Avon's eyes were closed. "As if we were one being. You were in me, and I was a part of you. Maybe that sounds strange."

"No, it doesn't. I felt the same way."

Eyes still closed, Avon smiled.

Blake kissed the smile.

Suddenly Avon opened his eyes and looked at him. "I never felt so safe in my life."

"I'm glad."

Avon yawned, then smiled wryly. "We better sleep. I have to be up early, you know."

Blake was stroking Avon's back. "You do? Why?"

"Has the President forgotten? He is sending me to Tandor for the unity talks."

Blake groaned in protest. "I did forget. Oh, gods, I set that up so long ago. Before we..."

"Well, yes, but we can hardly change the plans now, can we?" Avon's eyes were bright with humor. "What could be said? Sorry, but the President's Chief Advisor must decline to attend your negotiations on account of hormones?"

Blake gave an official scowl. "Not even on account of the President's hormones?"

Avon laughed. "I'll be back in two weeks."

Blake groaned again. "Two weeks, Avon? I'll go crazy."

Avon was still smiling as he leaned to kiss him. It was a slow, lingering meeting of lips. "Think about the night I return," he suggested.

"Ha. That might be damned embarrassing in public."

Avon chuckled. "How flattering."

Blake glared at him. "You're going to enjoy the fact that I'm suffering, you bastard."

"Perhaps a little." Avon settled back into Blake's arms and closed his eyes again.

"Will you miss me?" Blake asked softly.

"Don't be maudlin."

Blake didn't say anything more.

After a moment, Avon sighed. Then he planted a quick kiss on Blake's cheek. "I will miss you," he muttered. "Are you happy now?"

"Ridiculously so." With a satisfied smile, Blake pulled him even closer.

Both men were asleep almost immediately.

Chapter XVII

Avon woke up just as the sun was appearing to begin its journey across the sky.

As usual, he had somehow ended up sprawled across his bed partner, using Blake's broad chest as a pillow. It was a very pleasant way to sleep. A heavy arm sheltered him, seeming to offer a safe haven in a very unsafe galaxy. Also as usual, Blake was snoring.

Avon had absolutely no intention of going back to sleep, so he didn't give Blake the customary sharp jab in the ribs to shut him up. Actually, when he wasn't trying to sleep himself, he didn't mind the sound.

Actually, he decided fuzzily, he quite liked it.

Moving carefully, he managed to rearrange himself so that he could look into Blake's face. His Highness looked younger when he was asleep; many of the worry lines were eased from his face. His lips were turned up into a small smile. For several minutes, Avon stayed very still, just watching Blake.

Finally, the gentle pleasure he was taking in the moment began to change, transforming itself into a slowly rising heat. Avon gave a small, almost sad sigh.

Shifting again, he began to lay a trail of soft, damp kisses down the bare skin of Blake's chest. Almost unconsciously, he murmured softly as he moved, the words nonsense that he never would have said if Blake were awake. He was enjoying himself.

It was not until he had criss-crossed Blake's chest twice that the sleeping man finally began to stir.

"Humphh," was the first thing Blake said.

"So speaks the Ruler of The Galaxy," Avon said. "No wonder billions worship you." He crawled upwards and stared down into Blake's face. "Do it again, please," he whispered.

That woke Blake up all the way. He blinked twice, then, with a low moan, rolled over so that he was straddling Avon. "I was dreaming about you," he said in a husky voice.

"Were you?"

"Yes."

"Anything you'd like to share?"

Blake smiled and shook his head a little. "I don't think so." As they spoke, his body was slowly rubbing against Avon's. "You're really leaving today?"

"I am, yes. You're the one who ordered this journey, you know."

"Don't remind me."

"This trip is part of my job."

"I know. In case I never mentioned it, I couldn't run this government without you."

Avon scowled.

Blake laughed gently. "Yes, I know how much you hate the government. But you just happen to be damned good at what you do."

Avon ignored that. He could feel Blake's cock getting harder, pressing against his own erection. He arched upwards, wanting more, needing more. "Do it again," he repeated.

Again, Blake smiled. "Oh, I intend to."

He began to methodically drive Avon crazy. It was not a difficult task, Avon admitted to himself. Then he more or less stopped thinking anything at all, and just let the large, gentle hands and wonderful mouth do magic things to his body. He was vaguely aware of more nonsense coming from his lips, but decided that Blake was probably too involved in what he was doing to listen anyway.

Blake finally lifted his mouth from Avon's cock. "I want to do it this way," he whispered, raising Avon's legs and putting them over his broad shoulders. "So I can see your face."

Avon frowned.

Blake gave another laugh, a warm, musical sound that caused Avon's cock to throb in response. "You don't have any secrets from me," Blake said, reaching for the tube of cream. "Not from me. Not now."

"I suppose not," Avon said.

"Do you mind that?"

"Not as much as I mind the fact that you frequently seem compelled to engage in conversation, when I am interested in something much more vital," Avon muttered, taking Blake's cock into his hand and massaging cream into it.

Blake leaned close to Avon's ear. "I want to give you something to think about for the next two weeks," he whispered.

Avon let the full import of those words wind through him like a ribbon of flame. He wrapped both arms around Blake and held on tightly. "Do it," he said. "Do it, do it, do it."

Blake moaned and did as Avon asked.

The public relations department always liked to make a small splash whenever an occasion arose. The galaxy was large, and they used every possible opportunity to catch the positive attention of the farflung population. The unity talks on Tandor were important enough, they reasoned, to justify a bit of ceremony as the President's Chief Advisor departed.

Of course, definitions differed as to what, exactly, constituted a bit of ceremony.

The pubflaks had planned to have a large band, some flashy laser displays, roaring citizens, and speeches, of course---including one by the Chief Advisor himself, intended to extol these new talks as yet one more step on the road to Galactic Valhalla, under the leadership of the Great Man Blake.

That was their idea of a small splash.

Avon disagreed.

In his opinion, Blake coming alone to the Spaceport to wave good-bye seemed an excessive display.

As always, it had fallen to Blake to mediate some common ground between those two widely divergent views.

So there was a small band. No lasers, no hordes of cheering citizens, merely a small gathering of government workers, who happened to be in the area anyway. Blake knew that they could count on Vila to show up, of course. Cheering at PR events was one of his talents. Especially now that he had promised to give up thieving - unless, as he put it, it was "in the name of the Cause."

Blake would make one of his standard and rousing speeches, but Chief Advisor Avon would not speak.

No one was entirely happy with the compromise, but they could all live with it.

Avon was bearing up well, but Blake could read the impatience and annoyance in his posture as they stood on the stage and listened to the band play its final tune.

"If I never depart," Avon muttered under his breath, "I can not return."

Blake hid his smile.

The small craft that was awaiting departure would carry only the pilot, one military aide, and Avon himself. That was the way Avon liked it, and he had a way of getting what he wanted.

As he had that very morning in bed with the President.

Blake felt a little weak in the knees even now as he recalled in detail their own private ceremony of farewell. He knew that if he lived to be two hundred, he would never forget waking up as Avon, his gaze still fuzzy with sleep, said softly, "Do it again, please."

And Blake had, indeed, done it again.

Impossible as it would have seemed, this was even better than the night before had been. Maybe because he wasn't so worried about hurting Avon. Or maybe it was because of Avon himself, who seemed even more desperate than he had the first time. In fact, Blake could still feel the marks on his back, evidence of Avon's need.

Blake licked his lips at the memory. Fucking Avon was a habit he could get into so easily.

He realized abruptly that the band was no longer playing, which meant that everyone was waiting for him to speak. Belatedly, he cleared his throat and stepped forward. He was fully aware of Avon giving a small smirk as he did so. The bastard knew exactly what was on Blake's mind.

Blake managed to get through his brief talk without humiliating himself further. He shook hands with the pilot, accepted a salute from the military aide (who the hell was that ginger-haired man, anyway?), and then walked to the boarding ramp with Avon.

They stood in silence for a moment. Blake wanted to grab Avon and kiss him soundly, but he knew how much the other man would hate that, so he just held out a hand. "Have a good trip," he said in a soft voice.

They shook hands firmly.

"Thank you, Mr. President," Avon said. His expression was ironic.

"I love you," Blake said, knowing that no one but Avon could hear him.

Avon just looked at him for a long moment. Then he gave a small smile and turned to walk briskly up the ramp. He didn't look back before vanishing into the ship.

"Good-bye, Kerr," Blake whispered into the air.

He didn't plan on standing around long enough to watch the actual departure. As he walked away, a familiar voice floated over his shoulder. "Well, Blake," Vila said. "There's an ancient saying that seems to fit this moment."

Blake paused. "What?"

"While the cat's away, the mouse will play."

Blake looked at him. "What in the Jovian hell might that mean?"

Vila shrugged. "Well, I'm not entirely certain, but I think it means that you and I should get drunk tonight."

Blake laughed. It didn't sound like a bad idea. Vila fell into step beside him, whistling cheerfully. Blake heard the sound of the ship lifting off behind them. "Well, Vila," he said, "what's new?" Vila was a better source of gossip than either the viscasts or the intelligence office.

"Lots of talk," Vila said.

Blake grimaced. "Mostly about Avon and me, I would imagine."

"Some of it."

"And?"

"And the general consensus is that most people would rather lie down beside a viper every night than Kerr Avon."

"Hmm," was all Blake said.

"The other talk is about whether or not you're going to run for re-election. Everybody thinks it will be a very nasty campaign."

"I'm sure."

"So? Are you running again?"

Blake only shrugged. Then he raised his eyes skyward to watch the small ship disappear from sight.

Chapter XVIII

It was going to be a four-day journey to Tandor.

Unfortunately.

The trip was not yet ten hours old, and already Avon was nearing the end of his (admittedly limited) store of patience. The problem was the military aide who was supposedly along to help, but who promised only to hamper.

Lore was his name, and he was a nervous man. Twitchy, even. It was only natural to assume that anyone as nervous as Lore seemed to be was also completely incompetent, as well. Nothing irritated Avon more than incompetence.

Lore also seemed annoyingly ubiquitous. Every time Avon turned around on the small ship, there he was. Even the mess was not to be a refuge, apparently. Avon went in there at dinner time, and found Lore already seated, picking listlessly at a plate of food.

Ignoring the other man as best one could in such close quarters, Avon set about making his own meal from the ship's supply of military rations.

The bitter thought came to him that His Royal Highness was dining much better, sitting at his regal table and being served a freshly-cooked meal by his devoted staff. There was, at least, one comfort to be found in that picture, of course: Blake, being Blake, was undoubtedly sitting at that sumptuous feast feeling entirely melancholy. He would be lonely. There was a certain perverse satisfaction to be found in that fact as Avon sat gazing into a bowl of what the military mind considered food.

Avon chose not to consider the theory that even this meal might have seemed less dreadful if he were sharing it with the proper company. One could not wallow in cheap sentiment.

Lore surprised him completely at that moment by speaking without having been spoken to first. "President Blake is a great man."

Avon paused in the act of lifting a forkful of food to his mouth. How, exactly, was one supposed to reply to a remark like that? He finally decided that the only proper response was to take the food into his mouth and chew.

But Lore proved to be surprisingly persistent. "Don't you think that President Blake is a great man?" he asked, his pale blue gaze fixed on Avon.

Avon swallowed. "I think," he said carefully, icily, "that whatever I think of the President is my own business. And his. It does not, certainly, concern you."

Lore's gaze darkened slightly as he gave a small nod.

Avon made a mental note to His Highness, firmly requesting that Lore never be assigned to him again. Or even be allowed in the same room.

"Well, I think President Blake is the greatest man who ever lived," Lore said, frowning.

"Oh, shut the hell up," Avon replied.

Lore shut up.

Whatever small appetite Avon might have had upon entering the room was gone now. He shoved the rest of the meal into the disposal, and left the mess. In the corridor, he passed the pilot, apparently going for a meal. Avon hoped the auto-pilot was in good working order. "We are on schedule, I hope?" Avon asked him.

The pilot, who had seemed a perfectly reasonable man before lift-off, now appeared to be uncomfortable. "Yes, Chief Advisor Avon," he mumbled, hurrying on into the mess.

Avon sighed. His list of grievances to be presented to The Greatest Man In History was getting longer by the moment. He decided that his own small cabin was a perfect place to spend the rest of this trip.

Once safely back there, he unpacked. There was a pile of official reports to reread in preparation for the talks on Tandor. Then he removed some clothing and toilet articles from the bag. There was one other item, safely buried beneath all of that. It was an item that Avon had managed to secretly stash, despite the fact that while packing he was being annoyed by the presence of a cheerfully unhelpful assistant. Roj Blake had many skills; packing a neat suitcase was not one of them.

He took out the small holograph of the President and looked at it. "I shall exact my revenge, Highness,' he muttered. "You have sent me off on a ship of fools, and I am not happy about it."

The holograph seemed remarkably unaffected by the hostile words. It reacted, in fact, much as the real Blake would have done, by continuing to grin and completely ignoring what Avon had said.

Avon sighed.

He had intended to bury himself in the reports. Instead, he merely donned his sleeping trousers and crawled into bed. But sleep eluded him. After a considerable time spent staring at the ceiling, he gave up. Sitting up again, he touched the light sensor and reached for the first report on the pile.

As he tried to read, however, his eyes kept straying from the print-out of dry text to the holograph. It was rather ridiculous, really.

"Two weeks," he said aloud. "Damn."

The holograph just grinned at him.

Chapter XIX

Blake felt as if he probably ought to apologize to poor Vila. From the expression on the other man's face, it was perfectly clear that he felt Blake fell far short of being a jovial drinking companion.

Although his failure was certainly not for any lack of effort.

This was, in fact, the third night in a row that the two of them had, in Vila's cheerfully leering words, "settled in for a bit of fun." Said fun being, it seemed, drinking whatever came to hand and telling jovial stories - most of which seemed to be about either Glorious Thefts I Have Pulled or Beautiful Women I Have Seduced.

On both topics, Blake suspected that more than a little hyperbole was involved.

On neither topic did he have much to contribute.

Blake did, however, have the drinking part down just fine. All he really wanted to do was consume sufficient alcohol so that when the time came, he could more or less just topple into bed, sleep the sleep of the dead drunk, and then rise to face the next day as the President should. At least during the days there was sufficient work to keep his mind occupied.

It was the nights that were difficult.

Quite absurd, really.

He'd had years of solitary nights. Essentially, a lifetime of them. There was no reason why after only two weeks of...companionship he should now find the idea of going to bed alone (meaning, of course, without Avon) so completely unacceptable.

Absurd, yes, but that seemed to be the way it was.

So he preferred to sit here drinking and listening to Vila's increasingly silly stories.

Thusly did Roj Blake reason to make it through the two weeks until Avon's return.

He was not especially proud of himself.

Vila was glaring at him. "You know, Blake," he said. "I could have given up on you after the first night, like the rest of your so-called loyal crew. They all said that a melancholy rebel was not their idea of a good time."

"Sorry," Blake said.

"You might at least pretend to enjoy my company."

"I am."

For a moment, Vila looked mollified, then he frowned. "Which is it?"

Blake blinked at him. "Which is what?"

"Are you enjoying my company or just pretending to?"

Blake laughed.

Vila looked pleased with himself as he glanced at the wall chrono. "Well, Blake, time for all good little thieves and politicians to be tottering off to bed, I think."

"I suppose," Blake agreed, although he was still rather more sober than was desirable. But perhaps it was time he stopped this sort of behavior anyway. Knowing Vila's big mouth, Avon would be supplied with a detailed account of his activities.

Avon would not be amused.

His disdain for displays of maudlin sentimentality was relentless.

Blake sighed and set his last drink aside almost untouched.

After Vila was properly sent on his way, Blake bid the sleepy guard goodnight and climbed the stairs to the third floor. Once in the bedroom, he changed into his sleeping trousers and then poured himself a glass of water from the carafe on the bedside table.

He walked out onto the balcony. It was a crisp, clear night, and overhead the sky was a canopy of stars. Blake stared up at them, not fooled for a moment by the seeming beauty of the night sky.

No one knew better than he what a cold, unforgiving place space could be. What a lonely place. He was reminded, suddenly, of the time after Star One. His days of solitary wandering. He'd been hurt, afraid, unsure.

Even now, he could not know for certain that he'd made the right choices back then. But he must have done, mustn't he, because everything had turned out fine.

All it took was time and all it cost was pain.

"Ahh, Kerr," he said to the stars. "I know it took a lot of time and so much pain for us to end up this happy. But it was worth it. I think so, anyway, and I hope you do, too."

He narrowed his gaze and tried to imagine just where out there amongst the stars Avon might be at this moment. "I miss you," he murmured. And then he gave a soft chuckle. "I know, there I go being maudlin again. Can't help myself, you know. It's just the way I am."

There was no response forthcoming from the stars. Blake drained the water from the glass in a long gulp, then went back inside.

Lacking any other brilliant notion, he went to bed. Disgruntled and alone.

Chapter XX

Avon was beginning to think that the damned ship was never going to reach Tandor. This journey had seemed the longest four days of his life. The list of complaints he had compiled to present to His Excellency was long, detailed, and exceedingly bitter.

That fool Lore continued to shadow Avon every time he left his cabin for food or simply to relieve the boredom a little. Mostly, the idiot was still babbling on about what a great man the President was. Frankly, Avon was getting a little sick of the man's name by this time. Blake, Blake, Blake.

And the pilot wasn't much better, looking nervous or frightened whenever Avon encountered him.

But all of that and even the monotonously dreadful food paled whenever Avon thought about the real problem.

He missed Blake. Actively, desperately, constantly. To his own disgust, he found himself spending more than a few hours of the trip simply sitting in his cabin, looking at the damned holograph.

The holo had been made the day Blake was sworn in as President. It was not the official portrait, which showed a stiff, very proper man. A man of dignity and high purpose. The President. The Blake in that holo belonged to the galaxy.

This one was much different. The holo Avon had was made before the official ceremonies began. The holographer caught Blake unawares, still wearing some of his old clothes from the ship, before he was shaved and trimmed to respectability He was laughing at something. The grin was real and had nothing at all to do with The Greatest Man In History.

This was the Roj Blake that belonged only to Avon.

And, unlike the official holo, of which replicates could be found throughout the Refederation, there was only one of this portrait.

Avon was actually looking at the holo when he became aware, albeit belatedly, that the ship was landing. Gods, he thought, I had better get a grip on myself. Sex has turned me into a sentimental idiot.

 

He stood quickly and began putting things into the suitcase, ignoring the slightly injured voice in his mind that whispered, "Not sex, Avon. Love."

He was just ready when the door to his cabin slid open without warning. Avon whipped around to see Lore standing there.

"Chief Advisor Avon?"

Avon glared at him. "You appear to need a refresher course in basic courtesy," he snapped. "Never enter my quarters again without permission."

Lore paid absolutely no attention to his words or his icy stare. "Would you come with me, please, sir? There's a problem."

"What problem- -?" he began impatiently; then he just sighed. "Very well," he muttered. No doubt, this would be one more item to add to his list of aggravations. Oh, Blake would pay for this.

Avon almost smiled, thinking of the revenge he would exact.

Leaving everything in the cabin, he followed Lore through the ship to the hatch, which was already open. The pilot was nowhere in sight. Lore stepped aside so that Avon preceded him through the hatchway.

He was halfway down the ramp before he realized that something was very wrong. He stopped, looked, and blinked in surprise. "What the hell?" he said. "This isn't Tandor."

That much was painfully obvious: the landscape before him was that of a barren desert, not the bustling spaceport he had expected to see.

Avon turned around to look at Lore, seeking an explanation. What he saw was the barrel of a blaster aimed directly at him. "What the hell?" he said again.

"Keep walking, sir," was all Lore said.

They reached the ground and Avon, totally bewildered by this strange turn of events, looked at Lore again. "I demand an explanation for your behavior," he said icily. "Where are we?"

Lore's face was stern. "This is a small, unpopulated planet in the Moro sector. No where near Tandor." He paused, then said, "I'm going to kill you."

As Avon automatically moved back a step at those words, he was already planning an escape. There was the question, of course, about where he could go on an empty planet, but he would worry about that later. If there was a later. "Why are you going to kill me?" he asked in a tone of infinite reason, buying time.

Lore held the blaster steadily. Where had that timid little man suddenly found all of this courage? "I have to do this," he said, sounding almost apologetic. "President Blake asked me to."

"What?" Avon said stupidly.

"He said his life would be happier if I killed you."

For one insane moment, Avon wondered if it might be true. Could Blake have really...?

Then, absurdly, he flashed on a vision, a sharp-edged memory: Blake, the morning of his departure, as they still lay in bed. Finished with their lovemaking, they were quiet now, just looking into one another's eyes. Avon was playing with an errant curl, an activity in which he took an embarrassing amount of pleasure.

The expression in Blake's eyes reminded him of something, and after a moment's thought, it had come to him. The look, the emotion, was not unlike that which had been visible in Meegat's eyes all those years ago, when she thought he was a god.

Blake loved him.

In actual fact, Blake adored him.

At that moment, Avon knew this more surely than he had ever known anything in his life. The knowledge warmed him, strengthened him.

He took a deep breath. "The President doesn't want you to kill me, Lore," he said quietly. "Whatever he said, it was only a joke."

Lore shook his head. "President Blake is a great man," he said stubbornly. "He wouldn't joke about something like this."

"President Blake is an idiot," Avon spat out.

"Don't say that." Lore was flushed with anger.

Avon nodded. He was still edging away, very slowly. "Where's the pilot?" His gaze darted back toward the ship. "Kyle!" he yelled.

"He won't help you," Lore said. "Kyle is a holdover from the old days. He doesn't like you and he doesn't even like President Blake." He frowned. "When we get back, I shall have to warn the President about him. But for the moment, he serves my purpose nicely."

"Lore," Avon said, "President Blake doesn't want me dead, really. He...needs me." The stupid obstinacy he could see in Lore's eyes angered him suddenly. "Blake loves me," he burst out.

He could have said more. Yes, he could have told Lore, your precious President Blake is, indisputably an idiot. But he was also the only being in the galaxy who mattered, at least as far as Kerr Avon was concerned.

But he didn't say any of that. It wouldn't have done any good.

He stared at Lore. "Don't--do--this," he said in a tight voice. He didn't want to die. Not now, when life was finally---finally!---so worth living. `Don't," he said again, hopelessly.

Hopelessly, because even as he spoke, he knew that Lore was indeed going to kill him. He saw the blaster rise just a little, saw Lore's finger tighten on the trigger, and Avon moved at the same instant.

Not quite fast enough, unfortunately, or far enough, because the blaster fire skimmed across his right side. The pain made him cry out as he ran.

Behind him, Lore yelled something---probably "Stop!," the fool, as if he would---and fired again. This time, he missed completely. The man was not a very good shot; no wonder he was on office duty most of the time.

Avon kept going, clutching at his side, nearly weeping with the pain, as he scaled a small hill.

There were no more shots, no more shouts from Lore, and finally Avon stopped, leaning against a massive boulder for support. He turned to look back down the hill toward where the ship was. The ramp was already retreating. Obviously, Lore had decided to take the simplest course of action.

Avon was being abandoned, injured and alone, on this empty planet.

With nothing that could be done, Avon just stayed where he was and watched the ship take off. It disappeared more quickly than he would have thought possible.

He was alone.

There was no food. No water. No help for his serious injury. Given all of those facts, Avon reckoned his lifespan at about three days. Maybe four. Always assuming, of course, that there was no hostile wildlife in the vicinity. However, with the way his luck was going so far on this trip, Avon was not prepared to wager a great deal on that assumption.

As a heavy silence settled around him and the pain inside grew more intense, Avon was very nearly amused by the fact that one thing concerned him above all else. Not, surprisingly, his own impending death, which seemed pretty much of a given.

No.

Laughably, all he could think about was how Blake would take the news.

Especially when Lore told him why he'd done it. Because the President, who was The Greatest Man In The History Of The Universe, wanted him to.

Then Lore would see what happened when a great man's heart broke.

Avon shook his head.

Poor Roj. Poor, idiotic Roj.

Avon knew very well what it felt like to believe that you had killed the one person you loved above all others. He understood the guilt. The grief. The kind of insanity that took over a man's being.

All of that was what Blake had in store and for one moment, Avon wished desperately that they had never loved, so that Blake could be spared what was coming.

He slid to the ground, pain and a burst of akin to grief overwhelming him. "Oh, Roj," he whispered. "Oh, my poor Roj."

Chapter XXI

Roj.

"Humph," Blake said.

A smile began even as he started to awaken. His arms reached out, searching, wanting to embrace the warmth that always came with the voice. But when his hands could not find what they sought so eagerly, his eyes opened.

Blake was alone in the bed.

He sat up, startled. "Avon?" he said in a voice surprisingly small for such a large man.

The room was dark and empty.

After a further confused moment, Blake swung his feet to the floor and sat up. He shook his head slightly trying to clear the fog from his mind.

He'd heard Avon so clearly, or thought he had anyway, whispering his name. It was not uncommon of late to be awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of Avon's whispers. Sometimes Blake pretended to sleep longer than he actually did, just for the pleasure of listening to the nonsense Avon murmured when he thought no one was listening.

Nonsense, yes, but such sweet words to a man who had hungered so many years for just a little sweetness in his life. And Blake thought that if he listened long enough, he might even hear Avon say the words he had not yet said.

And after the whispers, the sweetness, would come the loving.

Which was sweet, too, but of a different nature. Sweetness heated by passion.

Blake rubbed his eyes with the heel of one hand. This was foolish. Avon was a very long way from here. At Tandor by now, probably right in the middle

of the unity talks.

But the whisper had seemed so real.

Roj.

Suddenly too restless to stay in bed any longer, Blake got up. He pulled on a robe and left the room, using the moonlight to guide his way downstairs to the library. Once there, he poured himself a glass of the sweet brandy that Avon so hated. He dropped onto the sofa, in almost the same spot he'd been sitting in just over two weeks ago. The night his life really began. The night he had admitted his love to Avon.

Roj.

"Damnit," Blake muttered. This was what came of going to bed only half-drunk. He took a small swallow of the brandy, then set it aside. Clearly, his imagination was working overtime. He leaned back and closed his eyes. As the image of Avon's face filled his mind, he smiled faintly and slipped, unawares, back into sleep.

 

He stood in a vast field of flowers, more flowers than he'd ever seen at one time. The sky was a perfect shade of blue, the air smelled pure and sweet. Blake wandered over the plush carpet of pink and yellow blooms, searching. He wasn't even sure of what it was he sought, until he found it.

His beloved. Kerr Avon.

Avon, wearing a white shirt and trousers, was sitting on the ground, surrounded by the flowers. He watched Blake's approach with dark and laughing eyes. "Roj," he said in a soft voice.

Blake laughed aloud and dropped to his knees beside the vision, feeling his breath catch. "I love you," he said.

Avon smiled and held out his arms, welcoming him. "Roj,"  he said. "Roj."

 

`Roj?"

"Hmm?"

"Roj, wake up."

He finally opened his eyes, struggling to focus on reality rather than on the dream image, and saw Tarrant kneeling beside the sofa.

"Roj?"

"What's wrong, Del?" Blake mumbled, rubbing a hand over his face wearily.

"There's a problem, sir," Tarrant said in a quiet voice.

"Of course there is. My military attache doesn't pay middle-of-the-night visits to spread good cheer. So?"

The young man hesitated and then said, "The shuttle never reached Tandor."

Blake just continued to look at him, puzzled.

Tarrant touched his hand lightly. "Roj, Avon's shuttle never got to Tandor. They've been searching for it, but so far nothing has turned up."

Blake struggled to understand what Tarrant was saying. "The shuttle is lost?" he said blankly. "But where is Avon?"

Tarrant spoke patiently, as if to a backwards child. "The shuttle is lost, yes. We don't know where Avon is."

Finally, horrifically, Blake understood. He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them, and nodded very carefully. He had to avoid making any sudden moves or everything would fly apart. He wrapped his arms tightly around himself, holding on, keeping the universe together.

"Mr. President?" Tarrant said.

"I'm fine." Blake looked at him. "Thank you for coming yourself with the news, Del. I'll talk to you in the morning."

Tarrant stood, but said, "I'll stay, if you like."

"No, that's not necessary. Besides, shouldn't you be...doing something?"

"I am, Blake. I'm coordinating the search from this end."

Blake reached out with one hand, slowly, and absently patted Tarrant's arm. "Fine. You go do that, then. It's important."

"I could send Vila over. Or Soolin and Dayna'?"

Blake shook his head carefully. "No, thank you. I really think that I would like to be alone for a while."

"All right." Tarrant walked to the door and then stopped. "It could be fine, you know. They might have had some minor problem."

"Thank you. I will keep that in mind. It could be just some minor problem."

Neither one of them believed that, of course. Shuttles didn't vanish without a word because of some minor problem.

But they both pretended, just for a moment.

Then Tarrant left, closing the door quietly.

After a long moment, Blake got to his feet precisely. He picked up the snifter and started to take a swallow. Then, abruptly, he threw the glass across the room. It shattered against the wall, splashing brandy.

No, he would not numb himself to this. He would feel every moment.

He walked upstairs to the bedroom. Without touching the light sensor, he took off the robe and crawled back into bed, staring dry-eyed into the darkness.

"You bastard," he said aloud. "You godsdamned, son-of-a-bitching bastard. How could you go off and die and leave me alone? Especially now. How could you do this to me?"

It occurred to Blake that he should probably cry or something; that was what you did when someone died... when you lost someone. But there were no tears now.

Apparently, there were some things so terrible that ordinary grief couldn't even begin to touch them.

It seemed that the loss of Kerr Avon was one of those things.

Blake pressed his hands to the sides of his head and squeezed. Oh, this was the old madness; he could feel it coming back. Except that before he was made nearly insane by not being able to remember. This was just the opposite. He remembered every moment, not only of the last two weeks, but of the last nearly ten years.

So this was his reward for loving.

It wasn't for several more minutes that Blake remembered one more thing: the whisper.

Roj.

A trembling began deep inside his being. "Kerr," he breathed. "Oh, Kerr."

He knew in that instant that the darkness surrounding him would not end with the dawn. If Avon were truly gone, truly dead, it would never end.

And Blake didn't care.

Chapter XXII

Avon opened his eyes to find that it was night. The black velvet sky overhead was crowded with stars and was really quite nice to look at. He just stayed where he was on the ground and stared upwards for a long time.

Earth was out there somewhere. Blake was out there somewhere.

"I miss you," Avon said. "Are you satisfied now? I miss you."

His voice echoed in the silence.

It finally occurred to him that out here in the open was probably not the wisest place to remain. There might well be unfriendly wildlife about. And the temperature had dropped considerably with the advent of night. He was cold.

Well, all right.

Again, he looked up. Ahh, there was the answer. He would head for the stars. The ancient religionists used to believe that heaven was up there somewhere. Avon was all too aware that he would not find paradise anywhere, but at least he would be a little closer to home.

Closer to the only paradise he'd ever known.

He managed to use the boulder against which he'd collapsed to lever himself upwards to his feet. Pain stabbed through him at every movement, but he gritted his teeth against the agony, and stood. A small triumph.

The mountain rose before him, dark and unknown. He took one shaky step, followed by another and another,

"Once upon a time," he said, "there was a very smart computer tech who did some very stupid things. And so he ended up on an empty planet, slowly dying all by himself, and climbing a mountain to nowhere. Why, you ask? Well, so he could get closer to the stars."

His harsh laughter rolled across the landscape.

"Damned fate," he said, when the next wave of pain had passed. "It makes you pay for whatever pleasure you manage to find in this life. Happiness does not come cheaply."

Each and every step he took caused the pain in his side to intensify. He could imagine, had seen enough war and enough death, to understand all too well just what was happening inside his body. It was not going to get any better, only worse as time went on.

If only I was half as smart as I like to think I am, he mused, I'd just sit down right here and die. That would be so much easier.

But he didn't.

He just kept putting one foot in front of the other, always heading up the incline, checking the stars every once in a while to be sure they were still there.

Maybe he lasted an hour. Perhaps it was two hours. He didn't know, but finally his legs just gave out, crumpling beneath him. He sat, working his tortured lungs for breath, vaguely considering giving up.

But finally he moved again, crawling on his hands and knees, because his legs just refused to work anymore. "Once upon a time," he said, "I was stupid enough to be happy." He cleared his dusty throat and spat. "Probably, I was just being greedy, expecting more than fourteen days of happiness. Two weeks...well, better than nothing, I guess."

He could feel the sharp pebbles cutting his hands and going through his trousers to lacerate his knees. The ground was dry and so the wetness he was feeling had to be blood.

If there were any wild beasts around, the smell of fresh blood should draw them quickly. It might be best. Fast, and if not particularly tidy, at least decisive.

But he didn't pause to give any lurking beasts a chance. He just kept moving.

"I am angry," he said hoarsely. "I don't want to die. Not here. Not like this. It isn't fair."

Now that was such an unlikely thing for Kerr Avon to say---when had he ever been tempted to think of the universe as a fair place?---that he laughed again.

This time, even he could hear the edge of madness in the sound. A horror he had already faced once in his life: to go mad and know that you were.

The next wave of pain flattened him to the ground and he moaned. It took longer this time for him to move again. His strength was fading, and so he couldn't even crawl any longer. Instead, he dragged himself along the ground with his fingers.

"Blake," he muttered. "It's not fair. You conquered the whole galaxy. Couldn't you keep me safe?"

His fingers were so slippery with blood that it was harder and harder to get a grip on the surface

And he was feeling a little guilty about that last remark. "Yes, I know," he said quietly, reasonably. "You would have done anything to keep me safe. I know that. You would have thrown yourself on a live explosive, if it came to that." He chuckled and rested his head against the ground for a moment. "Funny thing is, I'd do the same for you. For all the good that does either one of us at the moment, right?"

He must have lost consciousness for a time.

When he came to, it was even darker.

He brought his fingers to his mouth and sucked each one for a moment, hoping to ease the burning pain. Then he began to drag himself even higher.

"The stars," he explained. "Have to get closer to the stars."

He was mildly interested to realize that there were tears on his face.

Do not go gentle into that good night... rage, rage, against the dying of the light. He could not even remember where he'd read or heard the words before.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right, he gasped out. Because their words had forked no lightning they do not go gentle into that good night.

He paused to give his numbed and bloody fingers a short rest. "Gods, Roj," he said. "Poetry. I really am losing my mind."

He wasn't even really aware of starting to move again, of continuing to drag himself up the mountain, but he was in motion. Wild men who caught and

sang the sun in flight, and learn, too late, they grieved it on its way...Do not go gentle into that good night.

He reached a ledge and paused there. "I don't want to die," he told the stars. "Please."

It was then that he saw what looked to be the entrance of a cave several meters away. A cave. Shelter, perhaps. If he could get there.

Again, his hands began to drag the dead weight of his body.

"Roj," he said. "I miss you. All right? I really, really miss you."

He didn't know what else there was to say.

Chapter XXIII

Blake awoke very slowly.

He felt vaguely drugged, fuzzy-minded, and detached. One part of his mind wondered, idly, why he was so reluctant to wake fully and face the day.

He rolled over to stare at the ceiling, only then realizing that the other half of the bed was empty, and feeling, somehow, that it should not have been. Then he remembered. The pain and the grief crashed down upon him like a tidal wave, and he moaned aloud.

Avon was missing.

Missing. And what the hell did that mean, anyway?

Avon was gone. Not here. If Blake had ever thought or believed that he possessed such a thing as a soul, then he now felt as if half of it had been ripped from him. The bloody, gaping wound was not going to heal, he knew that already, not ever.

After a few more moments, Blake got up from the bed and went into the bathroom. It seemed important that he should keep to the usual routine, although he was not sure why that was so. He stepped into the shower and let the hot water cascade over him.

And with the water came the memories.

The morning Avon left for Tandor, they rose and showered together. Now he was alone. Except for the ghosts.

Avon dragged him under the steaming spray, "Regal Highness, your loyal followers await. There is no more time for your sentimental nonsense."

Blake ignored his words, continuing to nuzzle whatever portions of Avon's anatomy he could reach. "I think you like my sentimental nonsense," he whispered. One hand trailed down Avon's spine, coming to rest on his hip.

Avon gave a low chuckle. "I tolerate it. " he said. "That is all."

Blake suddenly pulled back, taking two steps away, not touching Avon at all. "Very well," he said, crossing his arms and glaring. "I will subject you to no more of it."

Avon proceeded to plunge his head under the spray. When his hair was clean, he looked at Blake again. "Roj," he said.

Blake just stood there.

After another moment, Avon sighed. He stepped forward and tried to press himself against Blake's unyielding body. "Roj," he said again. "A little sentimental nonsense is fine."

"Oh, I wouldn't want to annoy you," Blake said.

Avon rested his head on Blake's shoulder, not saying any more, just standing there, his breath a soft whisper against Blake's cheek.

Blake held out for only a few moments. Then, his arms opened and he pulled Avon into a tight embrace. "Hurry back,"  he whispered. "Please."

"I will," Avon breathed into his ear.

They stood there for a long time.

Blake raised his head and let the hot water run over his face. In here, it felt safe to let go just a little, and so he made no effort to hold back the tears.

But finally, he turned off the water and stepped out of the shower.

Now, he had to face the rest of the world.

When Blake walked into the dining room a few minutes later, he found the crew waiting for him. Dayna and Soolin, both red-eyed and pale, were sitting at the table, untouched plates of food in front of them. They watched him enter, then looked away quickly.

Tarrant, unshaven and obviously still wearing the same uniform as he had the previous day, stood at the sideboard, eyeing the offerings. When Blake came in, he grabbed a slice of bread, then just held onto it as if he had forgotten what it was.

And Vila.

The former thief was leaning against the wall, staring at the floor. He looked quite like the victim of a bomb blast who didn't fully understand what had happened.

No one spoke, seeming to wait for a cue from Blake.

He walked to the sideboard and stared down at the food.

"Would you like me to fix you a plate?" Dayna, now standing at his shoulder, asked him softly.

"I'm not hungry," he said, wondering at the hoarseness of his voice. It was as if the silent screaming he was doing had actually affected his throat.

"Some kaf, at least?"

He shrugged. "I suppose."

She poured a cup for him and led the way to the table. "Sit," she ordered. "You look like a man about to fall over."

"Do I?" He obeyed her, taking his usual place at the table. As he sat, his gaze, accidentally, fell on the empty chair at his right. A pain stabbed his heart, and he gave a soft gasp.

Everyone pretended not to hear.

Dayna patted his shoulder and moved the cup closer. "Drink this and you'll feel better."

He lifted the cup and took a gulp of the hot liquid. It burned the roof of his mouth. The pain was strangely welcome. Then he looked up. "Tarrant?" he said. The single word was a curious blend of presidential request and desperate plea.

Tarrant had finally just tossed the bread back onto the tray. "I only wish there were something solid I could tell you, Blake. The shuttle never entered the Tandorian system, we know that much for sure. In fact, all contact with the ship ended as soon as they left this system." He frowned. "We should have been informed immediately of that fact, of course."

"And why weren't we?" Blake asked very quietly.

"Apparently, everyone just assumed that this trip was another one of Avon's damned secret missions." He shrugged. "It was a foul-up, that's all I can tell you."

"A foul-up," Blake repeated. "I see."

"As far as anyone can tell, the ship just vanished."

Blake nodded. "Any sign of debris? Or unexplained radiation levels?" He kept asking these perfectly logical, perfectly rational questions, when what he really wanted to do was throw something. Or yell. Or just run away from it all.

"No debris. No unusual radiation. Nothing. The search is proceeding," Tarrant finished.

Blake could sense Soolin's gaze on him, and he turned to look at her, inquiry on his face.

She bit her lower lip for a time, then asked, "Did something happen? Between the two of you, I mean?"

Blake blinked at her. "What do you mean?" he asked, genuinely puzzled.

"Soolin," Dayna whispered.

She glanced at Dayna, then went on stubbornly. "I was only wondering...maybe Avon just wanted to get away. If your...new relationship wasn't working. Or if you'd had an argument."

"Oh," Blake said. "Is that what you think?"

She looked fierce for a moment. "Well, that would be better than thinking he's...gone."

Vila spoke for the first time. "That's a bloody stupid thing to say, Soolin," he said. He pushed himself away from the wall and came to the table. "I know Avon better than anyone. Excepting him, of course," he added, with a nod at Blake. "Avon would never leave Blake. Never."

Soolin's tough facade seemed to crumble. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm just...so worried."

Dayna patted her hand. "S'okay. We're all a little crazy this morning."

Blake stared into the cup of kaf briefly, then stood. "Keep me informed, Tarrant," he said brusquely. "I'll be in my office." He walked to the doorway and stopped there. "Avon has not gone away by choice," he said to them. "I know that. Kerr would never leave me, no more than I would leave him." He paused, staring at nothing. "You see, neither one of us can go on alone," he said softly.

"I didn't mean what I said," Soolin told him.

Blake nodded and walked out.

He was climbing into the ground shuttle when Vila appeared. "Mind if I come along? I don't much feel like being on my own."

Blake slid over to make room. They rode in silence for a few minutesThen Blake glanced at him. "Thank you for what you said."

Vila shrugged. "It was only the truth. But don't be angry with her. Poor Soolin was just trying to make some sense out of this."

"If anybody can, I hope they'll let me in on it." Blake was staring at his hands.

"Crazy, ain't it?" Vila agreed. "All the death defying things we used to do. Specially Avon. And now, something as stupid as a shuttle flight...makes no sense to me, either."

They didn't talk anymore for the rest of the trip. Blake's guard cleared a path through the somewhat larger-than-usual crowd that was gathered on the steps. Word of what had happened to the Black Knight of the Revolution was spreading.

Blake and Vila were in the hallway when they heard someone calling for the President. They stopped and turned to see Senator Pol approaching.

Pol reached them and stopped. "President Blake, I know that we have had our differences, but let me express my sympathies on the death of Chief Advisor Avon."

Blake stared at him, remembering what Pol had said in their recent conversation. A terrible anger filled him, "Did you do this?" he whispered.

"What?"

"You hated him. Maybe this disappearance was no accident."

Pol looked shocked. "Surely you cannot believe..?"

Without conscious thought, Blake lunged forward, his hands going around the other man's neck. "You bastard," he said tightly. "I should kill you."

The guards just stood there; it was their duty to protect Blake from others, not the other way around. This confused them.

Vila, however, moved. He tried to pull Blake away. "Roj," he said. "Don't." With more strength than most would have thought possible, he separated Blake from Pol. "Roj," he said again.

Blake stepped back, breathing heavily

Pol was struggling to regain his balance and his dignity. "You're insane, he said, rubbing his neck. "I won't forget this."

Instead of responding, Blake just turned on his heel and walked on to his office. Vila followed silently. Once in the room, Blake dropped into his chair. He covered his face with both hands.

"Blake?" Vila said softly.

After a moment, Blake raised his head. "He said that Kerr is dead. Nobody had actually put that into words yet."

"We don't know that it's true," Vila pointed out.

"But maybe it is. Probably it is." He leaned back and sighed.

Vila stared down at him, seemingly frightened by what he saw. "Blake, what are we going to do?"

"I don't know." Blake chewed on his finger for a moment. "I'll finish out this term as President. After that..." His voice trailed off.

"What you said back at the house. About not being able to go on alone." Vila cleared his throat. "You wouldn't do something stupid, would you?" he asked urgently.

Blake looked at him. "Don't ask me to make any promises, Vila." After a moment, he realized that there were tears on the other man's face. He reached out to pat Vila's arm. "I'm sorry, Vila. I can't play the hero anymore. Not over this. It just hurts too much." His voice cracked a little.

Vila rubbed his eyes. "You were missing two years," he said. "And Avon didn't give up. Don't forget that."

Blake nodded. He slumped in the chair and closed his eyes.

Kerr!

The name was a shriek of naked pain in his mind.

Then it was a whimper: Kerr....

Chapter XXIV

The cave seemed to be a perfectly acceptable place in which to die. Avon was only beginning to wish that what he knew to be inevitable would arrive more quickly. He was so tired, and the searing pain in his side grew worse with each passing moment. Life seemed entirely pointless, as he had always suspected that it was anyway.

If he'd had the necessary strength, Avon thought that he might just have crawled to the edge of the cliff and thrown himself off.

But his body could not seem to translate thought into action, and so he just stayed where he was. The hard-packed dirt floor of the cave was dry and warm, at least. He stayed near enough to the entrance so that the sun gave him light.

There was even a small pool of stagnant water, which, so far, he had resisted, but which was becoming more tempting as the hours went by. It was the only thing that would keep him alive for a little while longer.

Of course, the question was did he really want to stay alive? It seemed a futile exercise, because the final result was going to be the same, and the agony was only going to get worse.

Still, he kept breathing.

His fingers idly explored the ground around where he lay and came upon a small, sharp rock. Perhaps he should make some gesture, no matter how feeble, toward posterity. Scooting closer to the wall of the cave, he used the point of the stone to scratch his name on the smooth surface.

KERR AVON

Just in case anyone ever found his bones and was driven to wonder who the poor sod was who had died all alone in this desolate place.

In truth, the only thing that surprised him about this whole episode was that he wasn't more surprised at finding himself in this position. It had always been his belief that some such ending would be the one he met. And if, in more recent days, he had been tempted to dream of a somewhat happier fate, well, this just seemed to prove that you could not deny your destiny, no matter what.

No matter who promised you differently.

 

Blake chuckled and whispered, "We'll live forever, my Kerr."

"More Blakian foolishness." Avon tried to speak sharply, but in the aftermath of sex with Blake his voice was always more inclined toward gentle humor that was heavily laced with...well, he supposed it might be termed affection.

A trail of damp kisses was planted along Avon's flesh. Then Blake rested his chin on Avon's chest and gazed into his eyes. "Ahh, my always practical computer tech."

"Rumor has always had it that you were trained as an engineer yourself, " Avon pointed out. "That fact implies a certain scientific approach to life."

"True," Blake agreed, smiling a little. "But I have managed to overcome it."

"And may I say that you sound indecently proud of yourself for that."

Blake laughed softly.

The sound moved across Avon like a gentle spring breeze.

"I am proud, actually. The scientific method leaves out too much." Blake licked Avon's left nipple, which responded immediately. He licked it again. "Like love."

"Surely you have not gone so far as to deny the inevitability of death," Avon said, working to keep his voice calm in the light of what Blake's tongue was doing to him. He also knew that the serious intent of what he was saying suffered from the fact that he could not resist wrapping his fingers in soft grey curls as he spoke. Such indulgence was a weakness, yes, but it was one he had no intention of attempting to overcome.

Blake sighed. "All right, you cynic. I will concede the point that death is, probably, inevitable." He nuzzled Avon's right nipple for a moment, then grinned. "But only on the condition that we die together, about fifty years from now. And most definitely wrapped in one another's arms. That would suit me, I think."

Avon gave up, shaking his head helplessly. "Roj, you make me laugh."

"Good." The exalted President of the Refederation sounded quite pleased with himself. "I imagine no one has ever done that before."

Avon gripped the handful of curls more tightly, tugging Blake up for a long, deep kiss. "You're right," he said when their mouths finally parted. "No one ever did that before."

Blake's eyes darkened. "There's a good reason for that. No one ever loved you the way I do. As much as I do."

Avon thought that a man might drown in the warm and tender depths of that gaze. Gladly. "True," he whispered. "And know that if it were possible, such a death would suit me as well."

Blake gave a small moan deep in his throat and leaned in for another kiss.

They made love again.

 

Avon had no idea how long he had been unconscious. When he woke, his fingers were still curled around the sharp rock, and he stirred himself to action again.

Under his name, he scratched what he thought was the date, although on that point he was, admittedly, a little fuzzy.

Thinking about the date made him pause to reflect on everything that had happened in just over two weeks. So much had been said (and too much left unsaid). He could not even count the number of times they had made love, although each individual moment of passion and joy was etched in his memory for eternity.

Two weeks of happiness.

He was so thirsty.

The water was just over a meter away. He dragged himself to it and put his mouth down close, trying not to gag at the putrid odor. Experimentally, he took a sip.

Immediately, his stomach rebelled, bringing the foul water right back up again.

Was just a few more hours, another day or two of life, really worth this?

At first thought, his answer was no. But then he thought of all the memories there were to sort through. Somehow, it didn't seem right to die without remembering everything.

So he took a deep breath and forced himself to swallow more water. This time, it stayed down, at least for the moment.

All right. One more small victory.

He made his way back to the wall, still clutching the rock. One more name needed to be scratched there.

ROJ BLAKE, PRESIDENT REFEDERATION.

Perhaps, if it wasn't a century before someone stumbled across his remains, Roj might still be alive. He might like to know what had happened to him.

Probably, if ten or fifteen years had passed, it wouldn't hurt Blake at all. It would simply be a piece of very old news. A sort of closing out of the past. The answer to an old mystery that might, occasionally, have crossed his mind over the years.

Avon wanted very much to convince himself of all that. Otherwise, he could not stand to envision Blake's pain. His own loneliness was nearly unbearable, but at least it was going to end soon. To have to go on for years and years missing Blake as much as he was right now...well, that could not have been borne. He was the lucky one.

A sharp sound that might have been a laugh broke the silence of the cave for a moment. Only a pathetic being like Kerr Avon could view death as a stroke of luck.

He turned the rock over in his fingers thoughtfully. Perhaps there was one more message to be put on the wall. Only strangers would ever see it, which he hated to think about, but by that point, he would be long past caring. And, if a miracle happened and word somehow reached Blake, it might be a comfort.

TELL HIM I----

But his stomach lurched up suddenly and he vomited again and again. The rock rolled away as he collapsed in the dirt, still gagging even though there was nothing left to come up.

He lay still for a very long time.

But he didn't die.

Pretty soon, he knew, his stubbornness would force him back to the stagnant pool again. He would drink more water and try to stay alive.

If for no other reason than to remember for just a little longer.

And maybe, just maybe, if he remembered well enough, some kind of connection could be made across the spacials. If there really were such a thing as souls---and he did not really believe they existed, except, perhaps, in the singular case of one Roj Blake---perhaps one soul could be touched by another. If only to say goodbye.

It was ridiculous, of course, but he did not want to die without saying goodbye to Roj.

His stomach lurched and he was seized by another bout of dry heaves. The convulsions made the blaster in his side worse as well.

Tears filled his eyes, but did not spill over.

When the worst of the moment had passed, he dug damaged fingers into the dirt and dragged himself toward the water again.

Chapter XXV

On the third day after word of the shuttle's disappearance, the vidnews spokesperson decided that the ship had somehow malfunctioned and selfdestructed. This was also the theory being put forth by various governmental sources. Some of them, in fact, seemed quite pleased by the notion.

Tarrant ranted and raved that there was no hard evidence from which to draw that conclusion, but his objections were more or less lost in the noise.

The public, of course, was fascinated by all the stories of the disappearance and presumed death of the infamous Black Knight. Details of his life, from the disastrous bank robbery that had landed him on the LONDON to the rumors of Gauda Prime through his elevation to a position of power in the new government were recounted over and over.

In fact, there seemed to be, in the entire capital, only one person who had not commented on the incident.

That one person was the President.

Blake knew very well that everyone was waiting for him to say something, but he had no words. He was afraid, in fact, that if he dared to open his mouth all that might come out would be a wordless shriek of anguish. Better to move through the days in dignified silence. Each hour that passed seemed to mean the death of a little more of his heart. At moments, he was almost intellectually interested in just how much of a man's being could die before he was allowed to be dead. To stop hurting.

He did go to the office and actually managed to accomplish a few things, surprising himself. But finally the pictures on the vidnews---including explicit graphics showing just what a shuttle self-destruct would look like and what, precisely, would have been the fate of the unfortunate occupants of such a doomed vehicle---and the constant flow of words from everyone in the building drove him away.

He went back to the official residence. To the place that for such a brief time had been a home, but was now only, once again, the place in which he lived.

Once there, he chased the solicitous staff away with a display of temper and settled into the library to drink.

Vila was the first to arrive.

Blake raised no objection when he came into the library, helped himself to a drink, and settled on the sofa as well. Blake himself was on his fourth - or maybe it was his fifth - drink.

Neither man seemed inclined to conversation. Blake certainly wasn't; all he wanted to do, all he felt capable of doing, was drowning in the misery of his emotions. He hated himself for his weakness, while at the same time, he welcomed the release it allowed him. He could not be held accountable. Anybody in this much pain was not responsible for anything he said or did.

He was free.

His eyes settled on the darkened computer in the corner. Had anyone asked, he would have replied quite honestly that he was seriously considering smashing the damned thing into several million pieces.

Why should it - nothing but a hunk of machinery - be allowed to survive when its owner was gone?

Finally, Vila spoke. "Rumor had you dead any number of times in the past," he said. "Just because some fool on the vidnews says something doesn't make it necessarily true."

Blake did not respond to that.

Several more minutes of silence followed.

They both looked toward the doorway as Tarrant entered, followed by Dayna and Soolin. "The search is continuing," the young military attache said in his best Academy-trained voice. Then he relaxed, softened, seemed to grieve a little as he added, "I'm doing everything I can, Roj"

"Yes, I'm sure you are," Blake replied absently.

Tarrant ran a hand across his eyes wearily. "It's just...there's nothing else to do. If Avon is out there somewhere, I have no way of finding out. Not without some luck."

"If," Blake said heavily. Then, with something very like amusement, he glanced at Tarrant. "I can only imagine what Avon's response would be to the idea of luck being our only hope. He has never held much respect for the notion." He closed his eyes briefly. "Of course, he never had much good luck, did he?"

Vila suddenly became sociable and began to play host, pouring drinks for everyone, urging them to sit. He fetched himself a fresh drink and one for Blake as well. Then he sat again and silence descended on the room.

When after some time it became obvious that no one else was going to speak, Blake did. "I suppose the only reasonable thing to do is accept this," he said.

Vila looked at him. "Now, Blake, remember what I said before? You went missing for two years and ---"

"That was different," Blake interrupted in a sharp tone he rarely used with Vila. "There was a revolution going on. We were all fugitives. Life was...uncertain. This is peacetime. They were not out exploring an unknown corner of the galaxy. The trip was over an established commercial route. Dozens of ships pass that way everyday." He swallowed brandy and shook his head. "Avon frequently accused me of being a fool, and he was often right in that. As in all things. But I shouldn't continue the role now."

There was another long silence. Blake sensed that each one of the others was reaching for acceptance in his or her own way. He was glad for that. The pain would heal and they could get on with their lives.

Restless, he stood and walked over to where the computer sat. He let his hands play drunkenly across the keyboard where Avon's agile fmgers had moved so often. "I blamed him, you know."

"What?" That was Soolin.

Blake shifted his gaze to her, fleetingly, then returned it to the keyboard. It was almost possible to imagine that some warmth lingered in the plastic, some part of the spirit of the man who belonged here. Blake realized that he was very drunk, probably more so than he had ever been in his life. Strange, then, how lucid his thoughts remained. Strange and annoying: lucidity was not what he sought this night.

"Kerr," he said. "When I first heard the news, I blamed him for dying, for leaving me alone."

"You're not alone," Dayna put in. "We're here. You know how much we care."

"Yes, I know that." Blake slid open a desk drawer. Inside there was a pile of computer hardcopy printouts. A few notes had been jotted on the top page in a script that was small, precise, achingly familiar. He slammed the drawer closed.

"Oh, he knows we care," Vila said. "But it's not the same, is it?"

Blake shook his head. "No. It's not the same." Realizing that his glass was empty, he lifted it toward Vila.

He did not miss the glance that passed between Vila and Tarrant, nor Tarrant's shrug. Vila picked up the brandy bottle and brought it over to Blake. "You want to be careful, old man," he said, pouring carefully. "Wouldn't do for the President to be falling down drunk like any ordinary sod."

Blake simply pretended not to hear him, as he took another gulp of the sweet, warming liquid. "Every time I walk into a room," he said, "I expect to see him there." Again, he was glad to be so drunk that he could say anything he wanted to and not be blamed.

"We all miss him," Soolin said.

Abruptly, Blake laughed, frightening even himself by the sound, which was harsh, unpleasant, and very unlike the Blake he usually showed to the rest of the galaxy. "You miss him?" he said in a scorn-filled voice. "Miss him?" He walked to the window and stared out into the night. "Good gods, you have no idea at all, do you?"

He wondered how long it would take him to drive these people---his only true friends---away. He didn't want to be comforted, damn them. He wanted to rage. He wanted to grieve. He wanted to die.

"Roj, we're trying," Tarrant said. "We want to help."

He turned to glare at them. "You-have-no-idea."

Dayna's face hardened. "We know you're hurting, Blake, but so are we. After all, we loved Avon, too."

Blake did not mean to shout, but that was how the words came out. "Kerr Avon is my life!" He stumbled his way back to the bar and picked up the bottle.

"Nobody understands." This time the words were a whisper.

Vila looked at the others, then at him. "Blake, we want to understand," he said quietly. "Why don't you tell us?"

Cradling the bottle to his chest, Blake went to the window seat and sat, drawing his legs up. This place felt safe. He patted the cushion.

"We do have a perfectly good bed right upstairs, you know," Avon said as Blake squeezed in beside him on the window seat. His voice was stern, but on his face was the smile he only ever showed to Blake.

Blake grinned in return, his hands busily working on the fasteners of Avon's trousers. "I can't wait," he said. "Besides, I used to sit right here and daydream about you."

"Did you now?"

"Oh, yes. Endlessly."

"Indeed." Avon captured both of Blake's hands in his and held on. "I realize that you are the reigning hero of the galaxy, but just as a matter of curiosity, do you have any idea of how many times we've had sex in the last seven days?"

"Yes," Blake said promptly. "We have made love twenty-one times."

Avon's expression became one of amazement and he dropped his hold on Blake's hands. "You don't mean to say that you've been counting?"

"Of course not," Blake replied. "Not deliberately, at any rate. I just remember." His gaze slid to Avon's face. "Don't you?"

Avon blinked at him. "Well," he said.

Blake's gaze turned dangerous. "Kerr?"

After a moment, Avon bent his head and rested it against Blake's chest. "I remember every moment of every time," he said.

Blake smiled. "Good. So we'll make another memory right now." He used one hand to lift Avon's face upwards. Two mouths opened and two tongues joined in tender battle.

"Blake?" Vila's voice broke into his reverie. "You all right?"

Blake turned his head and looked blearily at Vila. "What?"

"You seemed...far away."

"No. I was right here." He took a swallow of the brandy. "He is so beautiful," was what he said then. Just foolishness. But he was drunk, so foolishness was what people expected him to say. "The first time I saw him, I thought he was so beautiful."

"Me, too," Dayna said with a smile.

Blake ignored her. "He pretends to hate it when I tell him that, but he really doesn't mind." He could feel a shaky smile touch his lips. "Avon indulges me in my sentimental nonsense."

"Imagine having the nerve to tell Avon he was beautiful," Vila said with a snicker. "At least when he was fully conscious."

Everyone chuckled.

Except Blake.

"The amazing thing is," he said, knowing how ridiculous he sounded, but not caring. "The amazing thing is, Avon likes the way I look, too. 'Quite perfect' is what he said. Can you believe it?"

"Well, love is blind," Soolin said.

Blake didn't want to talk anymore. "You don't understand," he mumbled. Then he just turned away from them and stared out into the walled garden.

Behind him, there was a brief silence.

Then they started talking again, softly, but insistently. He could hear them, but only an occasional word broke through his shield.

"Remember..."

"And remember..."

"And then Avon said...- They were reminiscing. They were consigning Avon to memory. This had become, somehow, a wake.

Avon's wake.

He lurched forward to his feet. "I have to go," he said in a choked voice. "I don't want to listen anymore."

Before anyone could speak, he pushed open the side door and went out into the garden, walking until he could barely see the lights of the house. Until he could no longer hear the voices that seemed to be declaring Avon dead and gone forever.

He dropped into the grass, clutching the bottle. "Well, my Kerr, everybody seems to think you're dead. So maybe you are." He took a drink and stared at the stars. "Kerr? Have you left me behind?"

It was Vila who came out after him; that was no surprise, of course. Even within the tightly-knit group of six there had always been a difference. Blake, Avon, Vila. Together since the beginning.

All the way to the end.

Vila sat in the grass beside him. "We were worried," he said.

Blake glanced at him, then back at the sky. "I look up there," he said, "and it seems to me that Avon must be out there somewhere. Alive."

"Avon wouldn't go easy," Vila said. "If anybody's a survivor, it's him. Believe me, I know."

"A survivor, yes." Blake caressed the bottle. "I would know if he died. I'd feel it. Wouldn't I?"

"Maybe."

"Maybe." Blake frowned. "I've heard people say, in other circumstances that death was a relief. A release from suffering. From pain. And it can seem a kindness sometimes, death can. Better to die than go on suffering. Haven't you heard people say that?"

"I have."

"Well, Vila, do you want to know what kind of bastard I am? Blake, the noted humanitarian? The hero of the people? I'll tell you." He took a deep breath. "If Avon could somehow come back to me, I don't really care what he has to go through. Gods, how selfish can I be?" He raised the bottle toward the stars. "Suffer, Kerr, suffer whatever it takes just so I can have you back." He lowered the bottle and shook his head. "I hate myself for feeling that way, but I miss him so much."

Vila didn't speak right away, and when he did, his voice was soft. "I know Avon," he said. "And would you like to hear what I think?"

"What?"

"I think he would feel the same way. Whatever it took, whatever he had to go through, he would, and gladly, if it meant he could come back." Vila shrugged. "After all, he's gone through hell for you before. More than once."

"Yes," Blake agreed. "He has." He sighed. "Do you know what Avon said the night before he left? Before I sent him off?"

"No"

Blake was glad again for the alcohol in his system and for the shadows that hid his face. "He said that when I made love to him, he felt safe. Safer than he ever had before."

"You made him happy. Never forget that."

Blake looked at Vila, stricken. "You think he's dead, too, don't you?"

Instead of answering, Vila stood. "Time for you to go to bed, Roj. It's very late, and you still have to be president in the morning."

"Oh, yes, I still have to be president." He accepted Vila's help in getting to his feet and leaned on the smaller man all the way back to the house.

The others were still in the library.

Blake stopped in the middle of the room, waving Vila aside. "You all seem to have turned this into a wake," he said. "And I understand why. I understand the feelings you have. But if this is to be our...farewell to Avon, I would like to say something." He thought for a moment. "I remember a poem. It's very old and I memorized it long before I really understood the meaning of the words. Now I do." He gave a small smile. "This poem survived everything the Federation did to my memory. Perhaps I knew that one day I would need it."

He stared at the floor for a long moment, then took a deep, shuddering breath. He was determined that his voice would be firm.

"I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.

So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind;

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

Crowned with lilies and laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers into the earth with you.

Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.

A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew, A formula, a phrase remains-but the best is lost.'

He paused for a moment, lost in memories, then sighed, and resumed.

"The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love---

They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses.

Elegant and curled

Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know.

But I do not approve.

More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world."

Again he stopped. One hand lifted to touch his temple lightly as he took another steadying breath.

"Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave.

Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

I know. But I do not approve.

And I am not resigned."

The room was perfectly silent.

"And I am not resigned," Blake repeated in a whisper. Then he turned and left the room. Vila followed him up the stairs. The second floor landing was bathed in silver-white moonlight, and Blake paused there, his breath catching painfully.

"What?" Vila asked.

Blake just shook his head. "Damned memory is all, Vila. Just damned memory. And possibly a precursor to madness." He didn't say anymore.

In the bedroom, he took off his shirt and boots but left his trousers on. Vila stood by quietly as Blake stretched out on the bed. He inhaled, imagining that he could still smell the familiar scent. "Would you mind staying a little while, Vila?" he asked.

"I'm here," Vila said. "Go to sleep, Roj."

And finally, without even really wanting to, Blake did sleep. His last thought might have been a prayer, had he believed in that sort of thing.

Please...

Chapter XXVI

He awoke into complete and utter blackness and wondered, briefly, what had happened to the moon. Then he ceased to think about that and wondered if he might be about to die.

Strangely enough, he was in very little pain. His body simply felt numb. Fever had drenched his body in sweat. And made him thirsty. He turned on his side and sought the stagnant water with his mouth. After swallowing two gulps, he rested against the dirt again.

"Why can't I just die?" he whispered. "Let me go, Roj. I'm so tired."

"Why, Kerr, you disappoint me yet again. My son was not raised to be a quitter."

He opened his eyes. Somehow, even in the darkness, he could see his father standing in the corner. This seemed odd, yes, but no more strange than any number of other things that had happened in his life, so Avon was not unduly startled. "Come to gloat, have you, sir?" he said. "It was always your opinion that I would come to a bad end, so this must be very satisfying for you."

The Old Man shook his head. "I take no pleasure in being proved correct in my assessment of your character. On the contrary, I feel only sadness when I think of all the promise you threw away."

Avon became aware of the pain returning to his side. He massaged the injury gently with one hand. "I assume you mean the promise of having a life like yours?" His chuckle was a rusty, bitter sound. "I have not a single regret about throwing that away, thank you very much."

"You might have had power, money, respect, if only your choices had been better."

"Indeed?"

His father stared at him coldly. A familiar look. "Come now, you cannot be unaware of what you were being groomed for."

"Ahh, the Presidency itself, I imagine, knowing as I do the boundless ambition of your ego."

"The Presidency, yes. Mock me if you must, but there were forces in place that could have assured your rise to a position of great power in the government."

Avon wiped at the clammy sweat that was trickling into his eyes. "Actually, Father, I did rise to a position of power in the government." He cleared his throat. "I am the Chief Advisor to the President." There was a note of pride in his voice that surprised him completely.

His father snorted. "Hah. You are merely the chief lackey of a rebel. Advisor to a charlatan and pretender."

He frowned and managed to raise himself onto one elbow. "You will not speak of Roj Blake that way."

"I will speak of him as I wish. The man has no business being President of anything. He is a convicted criminal. A child raper."

"Shut up," Avon said tightly.

His father's laugh was as unpleasant as ever. "You do not appreciate hearing the truth about your master, I see."

"I have always hated you," Avon said conversationally. "Now I see how right I was to do so."

"You are here, dying like this, because of that man, yet still you defend him."

"Blake loves me," Avon replied. "Which is more than can be said of you."

The Old Man gave him a look that dripped scorn. "Are you quite satisfied for that to be your only epitaph, then? 'Blake loved me'?"

After a moment, Avon nodded. "In fact, I am satisfied, yes."

"How pathetic you are."

"Well, now, you have always thought so."

"But never more so than at this moment. You have lived and will die as a complete failure. Apparently, your chief accomplishment in life has been to attract a convicted sex offender to your bed."

Avon closed his eyes. "Go away," he said. "Let me die in peace."

"You have found precisely the death you deserve," his father said.

Then there was only silence.

After a few moments, Avon decided that now was the time to make his way out to the edge of the cliff. What was the point of carrying on with this charade any longer?

Surely Roj would forgive him.

He fixed Blake's image in his mind, wanting that to be the last thing he thought of.

His entire body rebelled against the effort involved in moving, but he managed to make it to the entrance of the cave after only an hour or so of bloody, painful effort.

Only to discover that a thunderstorm had begun outside and he hadn't even noticed.

Oh, hell and damnation, he thought. I don't mind dying, but I really don't feel like getting wet.

So he simply curled into a tight ball and went to sleep.

When he awoke again, surprised and a little dismayed to realize that he was going to have to live even longer, a pink dawn was edging into the cave. He was hot and clammy at the same time. He uncurled his cramped limbs as best he could, and decided to start the day with a drink of stagnant water. Which meant, of course, crawling back to the pool.

He started the journey.

Anna Grant was standing in the corner.

Of course, he knew that she really wasn't there. Was she?

Unless all the dead of his life were going to appear, one by one, in this damned cave. That was not a pleasant thought.

He decided to ignore her.

It was not until he reached the water, drank, threw up, and then drank again, that she spoke. "It could have been so good for us, Kerr."

"Yes, isn't it pretty to think so," he snapped, forgetting his intention to pretend she wasn't there.

Which, of course, she wasn't.

"You mustn't think that I enjoyed the way things went between us," she said. "I did weep as I betrayed you."

"I'm sure. And no doubt you would have done even more weeping had you succeeded in killing me when you tried."

She looked rueful. "Except that you moved slightly more quickly than did I.  And did you weep over that fact?"

"No," he lied.

She smiled a little. "I did love you, Kerr. In my way."

"I suppose you thought so."

"Did you love me?"

"I suppose I thought so." He swallowed more water and struggled to keep it down. Then his glance flickered her way again. "I was mistaken."

"Ahh, well. You were young. And so very desperate."

He lost the battle to keep the water down and spent the next minute vomiting. "Desperate?" he said at last.

"My, yes. Hungry for affection. Starved for love. You made it so easy."

He said nothing in response to that. Instead, gazing at some point over her head, he murmured, "I was ignorant of what love was, that is true. I have learned."

She laughed softly. "So I have heard." Her eyes became quizzical. "Frankly, I never thought that Kerr Avon was the sort who would jump into any man's bed."

He was momentarily preoccupied with a new symptom, a tightness in his lungs that promised to bring death along in fairly short order. Finally, he glanced back at Anna. "In point of fact, Anna, I did not `jump into any man's bed', as you put it. I chose to get into Roj Blake's bed."

"A distinction that is important to you, apparently."

"Yes," he said.

Again, she laughed. "It is amusing, don't you think? The master criminal and the master rebel. A match made in heaven, as the old romantics used to say."

Avon felt that remark to be unworthy of any reply at all.

"Tell me, Kerr, if you truly did not love me, why did you mourn my death? And I know that you did mourn."

He shifted a little in the dirt. "Well, if I did, there was a simple reason for it."

"Share that reason with me."

It was a question that he had long since resolved within his own mind. He rubbed his chest again, frightened by the increasing tightness in his lungs. "Simply that I saw in you the possibility of escape."

"Escape from what?"

The dead were curious, weren't they?

He sighed. "Had you lived, had we...resumed our alliance, from an obsession that seemed hopeless."

Anna took two steps closer, and for a moment, he imagined that he could smell the heavy floral scent she had always favored. "And just what obsession might that have been?"

"That seems patently obvious," he replied, as crisply as possible under the circumstances.

"Of course it is, but I would like to hear you say it anyway. Out loud."

"Another of your little mind games, Anna?" he said with a sneer. "Death hasn't changed you much."

"Your obsession, Kerr?" she said patiently.

He sighed. "Roj Blake, of course. When I saw you again, he had been missing for a very long time. It seemed he might be dead. I needed desperately to free myself of his ghost. To free myself of the obsession with him."

"So you were planning merely to use me." She smiled.

"In fact, I was. As you had used me." Wearily, he said, "Leave me alone please."

"All you had to do was ask, my dear."

Avon looked and she was gone. Not that she had ever been there, of course. His chest spasmed, and he began to cough, a rattling, phelgmy sound. His lungs were going, so death would not be far off now.

Thank the gods.

Roj would forgive him.

He closed his eyes and tried to think about nothing.

It didn't work.

Sunlight washed across the mattress.

He woke slowly, lazily, wondering why this dawn seemed so golden. He opened his eyes fully, and saw Blake watching him. Avon smiled. "Good morning, " he whispered.

Blake lowered his head for a moment, and when he looked up again there were tears in his eyes. "Good morning," he said. His palm came up to move slowly around on the slightly damp skin of Avon's chest. "I woke up," he said in a tone of utter awe, "and found you in my bed."

"So it seems, "Avon said drily. His thumb moved to capture the moisture leaking from Blake's eyes.

"I found you in my bed." Blake repeated. "Can you possibly know what this means to me?"

 

 

Avon sighed deeply. "As much, I hope, as it means to me." The sweetness of the gaze led him to say more. "Which is, approximately, everything."

"Ahh," Blake said. "Approximately." Then, very carefully, he bent to rest his head on Avon's stomach. "Just before I woke, I was terrified that last night had all been a dream."

"Oh, it's true." Avon lifted a hand and began a gentle stroking of Blake's hair.

"Kerr," Blake said. "Kerr..."

"Kerr." It was his father's voice again.

"Go 'way."

"Kerr," Anna Grant said.

Avon rolled himself into a tight ball, trying cover his ears and his eyes, trying to shut them out and bring back the warmth of the golden sunlight that formed a halo around Blake's curls.

"That my son should turn out to be such a pathetic failure."

"You are quite ridiculous, Kerr, still believing in love. Everyone betrays you, sooner or later."

"Not him. Not him." Avon sucked air desperately. "Please...leave me alone."

"You had such promise."

"If he had not betrayed you, you would not be here now. What a shame you just didn't kill him when you had the chance."

Avon felt hot tears over-flowing his eyes and running down his cheeks. "Please," he whispered. "Please...Roj, help me."

His father and Anna started to laugh and he did not blame them. He was pathetic. The sound of their ridicule filled the cave.

Avon pressed his hands to his ears and tried to drown out the sound.

"Roj," he screamed, or maybe the sound was only within his own head. "Roj," he whimpered.

He willed himself to die. That didn't work either.

Chapter XXVII

Vila was pleased.

Blake could tell from the expression on the other man's face that Vila thought everything was going to be all right now.

This morning, as on every other day since Avon's disappearance, Vila had accompanied him to the office. There was little conversation between the two of them; primarily, Vila just sat in a corner and watched. Today, he apparently liked what he saw: Blake being President.

And on the surface, probably, it did seem as if life were returning to normal. Blake signed the daily communiques, talked with several Senators, even had a holo-op for the press as he announced the formation of a new educational program.

Vila watched all of that and gradually relaxed, the stress slowly draining from his face.

Blake was glad that his friend was feeling better.

It was all a lie, of course. An empty charade.

Blake was going through the motions; he even smiled for the holo and gave a soft chuckle at a joke one of the Senators made.

Inside, he felt dead.

Six months. That was how long he had left to serve as President. All idea of running for re-election was gone now. He just hoped to have the strength to get from one day to the next.

When he and Vila were alone in the office again, Blake leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. The silence and the darkness inside his own head were comforting.

A feeling of great happiness washed over him as he found himself back in the vast field offlowers. The perfume of the blossoms nearly over-whelmed him as he walked slowly over the soft carpet. "Kerr?" he called. "Kerr?"

"Over here." The quiet voice came from behind him.

Blake turned around and found his life. Avon was again wearing the white trousers and shirt; his feet were bare. "Hello," Blake said.

Avon, sitting in a patch of pale blue flowers, smiled up at him. "I've been waiting for you," he said. "For such a long time."

"Have you been? I'm sorry. Ididn't know."

"Come here."

Blake moved closer and then knelt in the flowers beside Avon. "I didn't know you were waiting for me," he repeated.

Avon was watching him with a slightly bemused expression. "I've been waiting all my life."

"Me, too."

"I thought that if you didn't show up soon, I would probably die," Avon said simply.

"I wouldn't let that happen." Blake wanted so much to touch Avon, to embrace him, to love him in all the ways he knew Avon liked best. But one part of his mind seemed to realize that this was only a dream, and knew that if he tried to hold Avon everything would vanish.

He couldn't bear to lose Avon again.

"Roj?"

"Hmm?" he said, his eyes soaking up the sight.

"Love me, please." Avon's gaze now was filled with smoldering passion.

Blake shook his head. "I can't," he whispered. "If I try, you'll go away."

"I won 't, "Avon promised.

Blake knew what was going to happen, but he reached out anyway, unable to resist the entreaty on Avon 'sface. He grabbed the other man, gathering him close. "My life," he murmured.

Warm, living flesh filled his arms. Avon didn't vanish, and Blake moaned in happiness. "Kerr," he sighed.

"Roj?'

"Hmm?' Blake tightened the embrace.

"Roj, wake up." The voice was sharp now, not the tender tone of a lover. It wasn't Avon's voice.

Blake opened his eyes quickly.

Vila was crouched next to the chair, looking discomfitted. Blake dropped his arms and Vila moved back a little. "Sorry," Blake muttered.

"You were talking in your sleep."

"I was...dreaming."

Vila frowned at him. "You're not really all right, are you?" he asked.

Blake shook his head. "No, Vila," he said honestly. "I'm not all right. I don't think I ever will be." He thought for a moment and managed a smile. "But it doesn't matter."

Sadness filled Vila's face. "It matters to a lot of us."

"I know. But not to me."

"I'm so sorry."

Before Blake could say anything else, the door of the office flew open. He sat up, startled.

Tarrant came in, breathing heavily, his face flushed. "Blake," he said. "The shuttle is coming in."

Blake just stared at him, not understanding.

"What?" Vila said, his voice sharp again.

Tarrant took a deep breath and tried to speak calmly; the effort it took showed. "We just made corn contact with the shuttle. Avon's shuttle. They requested permission to land."

"Where the hell have they been?" Vila said hoarsely.

"Who knows?" Tarrant replied. "We'll find out when they get here." He returned his gaze to Blake, who still hadn't moved. "Roj?"

Then he jumped to his feet and broke for the door, followed by Vila and Tarrant.

The three of them didn't stop until they had arrived at the landing bay, trailed by anxious guards and curious office staff. As word of what was happening spread, an excited buzz arose from the crowd.

Blake ignored them all, his eyes gazing upwards, watching the sky. It was only a few more moments before the shuttle appeared and began its landing maneuvers, but to Blake it seemed to take an eternity. He was scarcely breathing as his mind raced with a jumble of thoughts.

Avon was back. Nothing else mattered.

He stared hungrily at the shuttle hatch as the ramp descended. First, the pilot appeared, looking grim. The aide - Lore was his name, Blake suddenly remembered - was next.

Blake could feel a welcoming smile begin to form on his lips. In a moment, he'd be holding Avon. Holding him tightly, the crowd be damned.

The smile faded when no one else emerged from the ship. He looked at Tarrant. "Well?" he said.

Tarrant frowned and moved quickly across the tarmac to intercept the pilot. "Where's Chief Advisor Avon?" he asked sharply.

"Talk to him," the pilot replied, nodding in Lore's direction. "I'm not saying a word until I've obtained legal representation."

Tarrant raised a hand, as if to strike the man, then, instead, turned him over to the guards.

Blake could feel his heart beating much too rapidly. "Tarrant?" he said. Now Tarrant stopped Lore with a gesture. "What's going on here?"

The aide looked nervous, but his voice was firm when he spoke. "I will report only to President Blake. Privately."

Blake was trying to keep himself from running up the ramp to search the damned ship himself. "I want to know where Avon is," he said tightly. "Now."

Tarrant looked at him and shrugged. "Then I guess you better talk to Lore."

"Fine. Back in my office."

Tarrant signalled more troopers for an escort, then headed for the ship himself.

Blake walked just ahead of the escort that surrounded Lore. When they reached the office, the troopers stayed in the hallway,while he and Lore went inside, closing the door.

He turned on Lore furiously. "All right," he said in a deceptively soft voice. "You wanted me alone; you've got me. Now I want to know where Kerr Avon is and I want to know immediately."

Lore seemed somewhat ataken back by the anger on Blake's face, but then he straightened his shoulders. "I did just as you wanted, sir."

Blake shook his head. "What are you talking about? Just tell me where Avon is."

Lore frowned a little. "I heard you that day in the Council room. You wanted someone to shoot Avon so your life would be happy."

Blake only stared at him. "What are you telling me, Lore?" he finally said.

The other man met Blake's gaze. "I killed him for you, sir. Just like you wanted."

It took another few seconds for total realization to course through Blake. As it did, horror rose in him. "Kerr..." he whispered helplessly.

Lore turned chatty all of a sudden. "I shot him. He wanted to know why, of course, so I told him that you wanted him dead."

The room was turning black around Blake. "You told him..?"

"That you wanted him dead, yessir." Lore almost smiled, as if they shared some momentous secret. "He tried to fool me, sir. Told me that you needed him. He even told me that you loved him, but I knew the truth. So I shot him."

"Oh, no," Blake whispered.

An instant later, he lurched into the bathroom that adjoined his office. Falling to his knees beside the toilet, he threw up, heaving again and again and again, until nothing came up but bloody bile.

Finally, exhausted, he sank down to rest his hot face against the cool metal surface. His body shook helplessly.

"Roj?" The quiet voice in the doorway belonged to Tarrant. Blake didn't say anything.

"Roj, the pilot finally broke down and told me what happened. He claims not to have known what Lore was planning until it was over."

Blake closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around his chest, wishing that Tarrant would just go away and leave him alone. Leave him in peace.

But he didn't.

"The pilot will be investigated. And Lore is still talking. He seems to think that there's a medal in his future."

At last, Blake found some words. "I killed him," he said in a raspy voice. "I killed Kerr."

Tarrant was beside him instantly. "No, Roj, you didn't do a damned thing. It was that madman Lore."

Blake shuddered. "Lore told Kerr I wanted him dead. He died thinking I had him killed." The horror of it swept over him again and he muffled a sob against his knees.

Tarrant gripped his shoulder and gave him a small shake. "You don't imagine that Avon believed him, do you? Avon knew better than that. He knew how much you care."

"Did he?" Blake wiped his mouth with the back of one hand. "Kerr is dead," he whispered. "I never really thought he was. I thought I'd know."

"Maybe he's not." Tarrant gave Blake another shake. "Roj, are you listening to me? There's no time to waste."

Blake looked up and struggled to focus on Tarrant's face. "I'm listening."

"Lore shot Avon, yes. But he didn't actually kill him, as far as he knows. Avon was wounded, but he managed to run away. What Lore did was abandon him on an empty planet."

Blake slowly took in what Tarrant was saying and at last the words made sense. Avon might not be dead. "What planet?"

"It doesn't even have a name, but I got all the coordinates from the pilot. We have to move now. It took them four days to get back here, but in my ship we can make the trip in two." He pulled back and stared at Blake evenly. "It could be too late already, but there's a chance Avon might still be alive."

"A chance." Blake cleared his throat and spit once more into the toilet. "I'm going with you."

"I assumed you would be. Vila went to the house to pack some things for you. The doctor is getting ready. We'll take three troopers, too"

Blake just nodded.

"We lift off in an hour."

"All right. I'll be ready."

"Good." Tarrant stood. "I have to get back out there now. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

When he was alone, Blake pushed himself to his feet slowly. He bent over the sink and splashed cold water into his face, rinsing his mouth as well. That done he straightened again and looked in the mirror.

It was funny, really.

All he saw in the reflection was a middle-aged man with reddened eyes and too many lines in his face. Very ordinary looking.

He certainly didn't look like a man who might have killed the person he loved.

As anguish ripped at his heart, he wondered if this was how Avon had felt after Gauda Prime. Gods, he hoped not. He couldn't bear to think of Avon hurting this much. He couldn't bear to think of Avon feeling so alone. So...desperately lonely. And so very, very guilty.

But maybe Avon was alive.

Maybe.

He tested that thought inside his heart and found out that he believed it.

The office was empty when he walked back in. Someone, probably Tarrant, had deposited a carry-all on the desk, and Blake recognized it as being the one Avon had taken on the journey.

He swallowed hard and moved to open it.

Inside, everything was arranged with painful precision which meant that Avon had repacked it himself.

Something was tucked beneath the clothes. Blake reached a hand in and pulled out a holo of himself. It was one he hadn't even known existed. The fact that Avon had so carefully hidden it away made Blake's heart ache even more.

After a moment, he replaced the holo just as it had been, and smoothed the clothes over it. Every man was entitled to a secret.

He closed the carry-all again. His fist clenched on top of the case. "I'm coming, Avon," he whispered. "Please wait for me. Please."

Chapter XXVIII

It was the screaming that woke him.

Avon knew, of course, that it was just more of the same old thing: silent shrieks inside his own mind. Everytime he slept now, he dreamed of Gauda Prime, and each time he was jolted back into consciousness by the sound of his own anguish.

That one instant, the moment when he shot Roj Blake down in cold blood was the over-riding sin of all the sins he had ever committed. This punishment was no more than what he deserved.

Whimpering a little, he rolled over and swallowed more water. It scarcely made him gag at all by this time: no doubt his body was adjusting to the various bacteria that floated in the foul pool. Also undoubtedly, the water was spreading several varieties of infection throughout his system.

Infections that would kill him. If the congestion in his lungs didn't do the trick first. Or the internal damage from the blaster wound in his side.

Had Vila been on the scene, he would probably be taking wagers on just what the actual cause of death would be.

He rather missed Vila. And Dayna. Soolin. Even, the gods forbid, Tarrant. That hapless group of reprobates and crooks was the closest thing to a family that Kerr Avon had ever known, loathe as he would have been to admit that fact to anyone. Even himself,

At least, thinking about them kept his thoughts from Blake for a time.

Ahh, but the moment that realization struck, he was thinking about Blake again.

Avon closed his eyes and shook his head slightly. There was nothing to be done for it apparently. This obsession was obviously going to be with him until he drew his final breath.

And, given his wretched luck, probably beyond.

Had he possessed the strength, it might have been an interesting question to ponder. Just what was it about Roj Blake, dreamer, idealist, fool, that had worked its way into the very core of Avon's being? Why? What they had together defied all logic. Love made no sense.

But his mind was much too weary to contemplate such deep mysteries.

He opened his eyes just in time to see the object of his obsession walk into the cave. Not until that very moment did Avon admit to himself that this was what he had been expecting all along. This was why he had not simply given up and died long ago.

Blake would come for him. Blake would save him.

Roj would not let him die.

He smiled.

It wasn't the President who walked into the cave. Not the Greatest Man In History, who belonged to the galaxy. No, this was his Blake: baggy clothes, needing a shave, curls all atumble. This was Roj.

Except that he should have been grinning and he wasn't. Instead, there was an expression of unspeakable sorrow on his face.

Relief flowed through Avon. "You came," he said. "I knew you would find me.

Blake moved closer, dropping to his knees just beyond Avon's reach. "I love you, Kerr," he said.

The music of the deep, familiar voice brought tears to Avon's eyes. "Hold me, Roj," he said. "Dying hurts so much."

"Do you love me?" Blake asked.

"You know I do."

"Say the words. You never said the words."

Avon was confused. Why was Blake acting this way? He used one hand to wipe away the trail of wetness from his cheeks. "Roj," he said. "I need you. Please."

"Tell me," Blake said in a hard voice that Avon had never heard him use before. "Say the words, Avon."

Well, he tried. He wanted to say the words. But, suddenly, his mouth would not work. Kerr Avon had never tried so hard in his life. But the words just wouldn't come.

Blake shook his head sadly. "I love you, Kerr," he repeated.

Avon could feel more tears on his face, but now he was too tired, too weak, to hold them back. He flung one hand out toward Blake. "Roj," he whispered.

But Blake was vanishing, fading away.

"Don't go." Avon begged, for the first time in his life. "Please, don't go."

Finally, all that remained was the voice. "It's your fault, Kerr. You wouldn't say the words. I loved you so much, but you didn't care enough to say the words."

"I do," Avon whispered.

He was alone again.

He lost whatever bit of hope might still have lingered in his heart. Blake hadn't really been there, of course. Blake wasn't coming. This was just the way fate was. He would die, and far away Blake would grieve, and the rest of the galaxy would go on as before.

In the end, nothing mattered. Not even love.

Avon curled into himself, his face still damp from the tears, although his eyes were dry now, and waited to die.

And, finally, he slept.

Only to dream, of course.

Blake was wearing his stubborn look.

In all the galaxy, Avon decided wearily, there was no creature of any species who could be more obstinate than one Roj Blake. He sighed. The circumstances were not advantageous to his side of the argument, anyway.

Bed, for them, was a bad place in which to discuss important issues. He frowned, stretched in the languid way he did after sex with Blake,

and glanced at the wall chrono. "It's late," he said. "Perhaps I should return to my own rooms now."

"This is absurd," Blake said, continuing the argument. "Every night you leave here and walk back to those damned rooms." He leaned over to place feather-light kisses around Avon's mouth. "I miss you."

Avon snorted. "Now that is absurd. In only five hours, we'll be together in the Council room." He was enjoying the way Blake's hands stroked him. "I'll come and have breakfast with you first, if you like." In actual point of fact, he looked forward to their breakfasts himself.

Blake shrugged. "I miss you. Five hours is a very long time when you miss someone."

Avon gave a soft laugh.

Which was, it seemed, a mistake. Obstinacy was replaced by injury on Blake's open face. "I'm glad you're amused," he said in a low voice, moving as far away as the bed would allow.

"I wasn't laughing at you, "Avon said quickly. "Just at the situation."

Blake looked only slightly mollified by that apology, but he did settle down next to him again. "I want you to move in with me," he said firmly. Avon put a hand on Blake's shoulder to prevent him from moving away again. "So you have said. Repeatedly over the last three days. And I have told you, repeatedly why I do not think that is a very wise step for us to take."

"Politics," Blake spate out.

"You are a politician, "Avon reminded him.

Blake glared at the ceiling. "Then perhaps it is time I quit being one," he said. "Shall I resign the Presidency?"

Startled, Avon sat up. "You're not serious, I hope."

"Probably not," Blake admitted. His hand idly rubbed Avon's arm. "But then again...if you refuse to stay with me..."

"Don't be such an idiot."

"Or perhaps I shall simply follow you back to those three rooms you are so fond of and sleep with you each night."

"A truly ridiculous suggestion." Avon stretched out again, this time propped on Blake's chest. "I'm not simply trying to be difficult, you know," he said.

"This time," Blake put in.

Avon forced himself not to smile. "This time, yes. I only want to do what is best."

"For whom?"

He squirmed a little under the all-knowing gaze. "For everyone. For the Presidency."

Blake just gazed at him for a moment, then cupped Avon's face in a tender hand. "You are what is best for the President," he said softly. "Never forget that."

Avon was quiet for several moments. He knew all too well what he wanted to do. But he was a past master at denying his own wishes. It was so much more difficult to deny Blake.

"Just tell me one thing."

"What?"

Blake stared into his eyes. "Do you want to stay with me?" He could do nothing but be honest with this man. "Yes," he said. "Well, then?"

Avon let his fingers trail along the scar on Blake's chest. The guilt was no longer as sharp. "Ahh, Roj," he said. "It would not be simple."

"When has anything been simple for us?"

"Many in the government will not approve."

"To hell with them." Blake pulled Avon up until they were close enough to kiss, but their lips did not touch. "I need you here. I want you here. I love you."

Avon sighed, signalling his surrender. "Very well," he said. "Under protest."

The grin on Blake's face was almost enough to vanquish all of Avon's doubts. They kissed.

"And now that we have finally resolved that issue, " Avon said, "I shall leave."

"But---"

Avon hushed Blake with a finger to his lips. "Tomorrow I shall move in. Tonight, I am returning to my rooms."

Still grinning, Blake shook his head. "You always have to get the last word in, don't you? My stubborn Kerr." Then, as Avon started to get up, Blake held him more tightly. "Stay a little longer, won't you? Just until I'm asleep."

Avon nodded and rested against him again. He didn't mind.

It was only moments before His Highness was snoring softly. Avon slid carefully from the loose embrace. Quietly, he dressed for the trip to his rooms.

Ready to go, finally, he paused for one more moment at the bedside, looking down at Blake. At times like this, his heart ached most absurdly.

He bent down and kissed Blake's hair, silently mouthing the words that could not be said aloud even now. Blake stirred and smiled, but did not awaken.

Avon turned and left the bedroom.

He awoke just as the first light of dawn began edging into the cave.

Absurdly, given the fact that he was so near death, his cock ached with desire. He swore softly. Using one hand, he rubbed himself until he came, whispering Blake's name as always.

For truth: this was an obsession that was never going to end.

Chapter XXIX

Blake paced the small flight deck incessantly, in the manner of an ancient caged tiger. He made a nuisance of himself, leaning across the console to stare at the viewscreen, hanging over Tarrant's shoulder to check their speed, muttering imprecations.

At last, Tarrant, also tense and preoccupied with making this flight as quickly as possible, exploded. Quite forgetting their respective roles in the grand scheme of things, he shouted at Blake to get the Jovian hell off of his flight deck, and forbade him to return.

Blake glowered and went.

Some restless meandering through the corridors brought him, in time, to the galley. Vila was there, drinking one more in an endless series of kafs. He was sober, but definitely over-stimulated.

Blake fetched himself a cup of the rather horrid ship's brew and joined Vila at the table. "Can't this damned ship move any faster?" Blake muttered -which was the exact remark that had caused his ejection from the flight deck.

"Only six more hours," Vila said.

"Only six?" Blake grimaced. "Perhaps that is one hour too long, have you thought of that? Maybe Avon only has five hours left."

Vila frowned at him. "A man could go crazy thinking like that."

"Indeed," Blake agreed. "A man could." He lifted the cup to take a swallow and promptly spilled hot kaf all over his trousers. "Damnit," he said, not so much in anger or pain, but in despair. He knew full well that a grown man could not cry over something as foolish as spilling a cup of kaf, but that didn't stop him from wanting to.

Vila grabbed several napkins and shoved them at him. "It's going to be all right, Roj," he said. "I know it will."

Blake was dabbing rather ineffectively at the mess. "I wonder if Avon might not hate me now," he said, not looking at Vila. "I did this to him, after all. Perhaps he might not forgive me."

"Ahh, Blake," Vila said. "Stop inventing things to worry about. I believe that we'll find Avon in time. And as long as he lives, he will love you. I don't think he has any real choice, if you want to know the truth. After all, you didn't stop loving him after he shot you down."

Now Blake looked at him. "I sometimes forget how well you know the both of us."

"Well, after all these years, I ought to, don't you think? Go change your pants, President Blake.

That sounded like a good idea.

Back in his small cabin, Blake pulled off the damp, kaf-stained trousers and shirt. Instead of dressing again, he stretched out on the narrow bed, weary beyond belief, but knowing that he would not sleep. He had not slept since the shuttle's return.

In less than six hours now, they would be arriving at the nameless planet where Avon had been shot and abandoned. Of course, even with the landing coordinates, there was a lot of territory to cover. Avon could be any one of a thousand places.

Blake had tried to prepare himself mentally and emotionally for the worst: finding Avon's body.

But every time he tried to imagine it, tried to picture the moment in his mind, his entire being simply shut down. With a feeling of sick certainty, he realized that once he had actually looked upon Avon's corpse, there would be no going on. Duty and everything else be damned.

Death was not always the worst option.

He closed his eyes and was not really aware of falling asleep.

It was different this time.

He was the one sitting in the flowers, waiting for Avon. There was no sense of impatience in him, merely a sort of peaceful expectation.

Avon would come, he knew.

And then he did. Dressed in the familiar white, Avon moved quickly through the field, crushing countless blossoms beneath his bare feet. When he arrived at the place where Blake awaited, Avon dropped to his knees. His expression was one of ironic detachment, blended improbably with humor and smoldering passion.

"Kerr," Blake said happily.

"Roj, "Avon replied, sounding amused.

"Can I touch you?"

The smile grew. "I should be rather bothered if you don't." Blake frowned. "I mean ...you won't vanish, will you?"

"Probably not. Vanishing has never been one of my talents." Blake hesitated for a moment longer, then clamped both hands onto

Avon's shoulders and pulled him into a deep kiss. Their mouths stayed joined for a very long time, parting at last only because each man needed, finally, to breath.

When they separated, Blake was surprised to find that the field of flowers had transformed itself into the garden of the presidential mansion.

Dream had somehow become memory.

Moonlight leaked into the private place they had discovered beneath the over-hanging branches of the huge weeping willow. Avon was indeed wearing white - his silk sleeping trousers and an open shirt. He leaned back against the tree trunk and eyed Blake. "Having already explored the possibilities of sex on the stairs and sex in the shower - not to mention sex in my former cheap rented rooms, do you now propose to indulge your carnal desires here in the garden? I'm not necessarily objecting, understand, just inquiring."

Blake thought about it for a moment, then nodded. "I thought we ought to celebrate."

"What, pray tell?" Avon used his thumb to create a design in the sweat on Blake's chest.

"The fact that we have been living together for, ahh, nearly thirteen hours now, and we haven't murdered one another yet."

Avon's eyes twinkled - Avon's eyes twinkled - and it occurred to Blake that he was probably the only being in the galaxy to have seen that particular sight. "Well, now, perhaps such a significant milestone is worthy of some notice."

"That's what I thought."

"And undoubtedly, seeing as you are the President, and this is the Presidential garden, and I am the President's Chief Advisor--."

Blake grinned. "Exactly so. With one small, but Vital, addendum."

"That being?"

Blake leaned closer and whispered into Avon's ear. "You are also the President's lover. And the President's life."

Surprisingly, Avon did not seem to have a chilly retort with which to respond to such blatant sentimentality. Instead, he turned his head and pressed his mouth to Blake's again.

Blake moaned deep in his throat, as his body responded in the way it always did to having Kerr Avon so close.

"Sex in the garden, "Avon whispered. "Regal Highness, you are quite mad."

Blake only chuckled and wrapped his arms around Avon tightly. They sank to the grass as one.

"Quite mad, "Avon murmured again.

Still mostly asleep, he rubbed his body against the rough surface of the military blanket, slowly at first, then more quickly as the need inside him grew.

"Kerr," he gasped out as his traitorous flesh heated and then spasmed in a hot release that brought no pleasure at all, but only pain that seared his very being.

"Oh, Kerr," he repeated, wanting to weep, or rage, or something.

But finally, all he did was get up from the bed and clean himself. Then he dressed in the roughspun trousers and loose shirt that Vila had packed for him.

Then he left the cabin and headed back to the flight deck.

Chapter XXX

A distant sound woke Avon.

For one moment, he imagined that it was the noise of a ship landing not far from the cave that he'd heard. But, of course, that was quite impossible. He held his breath, listening carefully, but there was nothing else to hear.

Well, he'd gone mad some days ago, or years ago, so the fact that he was now hearing non-existent ships should not have come as a surprise.

He blinked a couple of times and decided that today would probably be the day he died. And why not? It was certainly past time.

Not even Blake could expect him to go on any longer.

"Ahh, Roj," he said in a creaky whisper. "It was so good. I was so happy." He thought for a moment. "Not just for those last two weeks, either...all the time we spent together. I was so happy," he repeated.

That was something, anyway. Who in the galaxy would have predicted that Kerr Avon would go to his death remembering such happiness?

No one. Especially the cynic Avon himself. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply.

It was sometime later that he heard the new sounds outside the cave. At first, he thought that this was simply more evidence of his insanity. But slowly, disbelievingly, he realized that what he was hearing might, in fact, be real.

Someone was climbing the rocky hill.

Well, how interesting. Strange, yes; unlikely, definitely, but certainly interesting. It seemed to require some action on his part.

Avon opened his mouth to respond, but nothing emerged save a small, rusty croak

.

"A-V-O-N! KERR AVON!"

This was really absurd. He was mad. What the Jovian hell would the President of the whole damned galaxy be doing scrambling around the rocks of this gods-forsaken planet, calling for a dead man? The putrid water he'd been drinking must surely have affected his brain.

Still, poor Blake sounded so desperate that it did seem as if he ought to answer him. Even if it wasn't really Blake, which, of course, it wasn't. It couldn't be. But Avon didn't want to disappoint even a dream image of Blake. Not again. A make-believe companion for death was better than none at all.

But he still couldn't seem to make any sound above a whisper.

He smiled anyway, just from the exquisite pleasure of hearing Blake's voice again. That seemed almost to be enough.

It wasn't until the voice, still calling his name, started to fade away rather than grow louder, that Avon panicked. Blake was going to miss finding him. To have him come so close and then pass right by...it could simply not be borne.

Avon forced his body to roll over. By using his swollen, stiff fingers and strength he didn't know he still had, Avon dragged himself across the dirt, back to the cave's entrance. The voice was still moving away, sounding more hopeless as it went.

Blake was going.

Avon reached the entrance and finally, desperately, forced his voice to work. "Roj!"

It wasn't loud enough really, but the single word echoed off the surrounding hills, and he decided that if Blake didn't hear him, the idiot deserved to have his heart broken into a million pieces.

Avon waited, face pressed against the ground as a century or so passed in silence. "Roj," he whispered.

At last, the voice came again, but its tone had changed. Now it was eager, hopeful. "Kerr?"

"Up here," Avon called as loudly as he could. He only hoped that it was sufficient, because he didn't think there was another shout in him, no matter what.

Then he could hear rocks tumbling and the frantic sound of heavy breathing. Someone was coming up the hill very quickly. It must have been only moments, but to Avon, it seemed like hours, days, still another century before he could see the figure on the ledge.

Ahh, Avon thought.

This bedraggled, dirty, sweating creature with the tangled curls could not have been the most important man in the galaxy. But he was quite definitely the most important being in Kerr Avon's universe.

Roj was here again.

They simply stared at one another for one frozen moment. Then Blake moved, throwing himself forward and falling next to Avon. Immediately, his arms reached out, gathering Avon to his chest, and holding on so tightly that it was painful.

Not that Avon mattered. The grip was real. The sound of Blake's harsh breathing was real. The smell of Blake's sweat was real.

He sighed as Blake finally loosened his hold a little, and Avon could stare up into his dirty, wonderful face. "My battered rebel," he whispered. "And not before time."

Blake lowered Avon to rest in his lap, one hand stroking his face lightly, insistently. "I didn't know where you were," he said brokenly. "I've been looking and looking."

"And you found me." Avon tried and failed, then tried again to lift his hand. The second time he succeeded and touched Blake's cheek. "Now I don't have to die alone." He traced Blake's lips with a grimy fingertip. "You cannot imagine how I have been dreading that solitary death." He got the words out before a coughing fit seized him.

Blake pressed him close until the coughing passed. "No," he whispered against Avon's hair. "You can't die."

Avon wanted to comfort him. Blake sounded so sad. "It's all right," he said. "I don't mind so much. Now that you're here."

"Well, I mind. You will not die. I forbid it."

Avon felt his lips twitch as he tried to smile. "Still believe you can command fate, Regal Highness?" He gave a shudder as another wave of pain washed over him. "Oh, damn, it hurts. Hold me, Roj."

"I'm holding you," Blake replied in his fiercest voice, the voice that had tumbled an empire. "And I'm never going to let you go." He leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on Avon's mouth. "I was so frightened, love."

Abruptly, he straightened and touched the corn box on his belt. "Tarrant, Vila, I found him. Get the doctor to these coordinates. Run, damnit. Got the fix?"

"I've got it," Tarrant's voice replied. "Is Avon---?"

Blake flashed a brilliant smile downwards at Avon. "He's alive. He's...wonderful."

The com clicked off.

Avon shook his head a little. "Roj," he began, feeling as if there were something important to be said.

"Yes?"

But the blackness was slipping over him again. As he fell into the void this time, though, he was aware of two strong, yet gentle arms enfolding him. "Thank you," he whispered, although that wasn't what he had meant to say.

"Thank you for waiting," was the quiet reply.

Then Avon was lost in the darkness.

For a moment, Blake panicked.

But then he realized that Avon's chest was still rising and falling regularly, so he relaxed again.

Avon was alive. Unashamed tears filled Blake's eyes as he gazed down into the unconscious man's face.

Avon looked terrible. His skin was deathly white, both eyes were surrounded by deep black circles, his lips were dry and swollen. Dank strands of hair fell onto his forehead, and he stank of vomit and urine.

Blake thought that he had never seen a more beautiful sight in his life. Gently, he pushed the strands of hair back from Avon's face, and then bent to press a kiss onto the clammy skin.

After a few seconds, he raised his eyes and surveyed the cave. A terrible, lonely place in which to die, he judged. His gaze paused as it landed on some shaky printing scratched in one wall.

KERR AVON, followed by a date.

So it seemed that not even Avon, that scorner of sentiment and debunker of ritual, wanted his death to go unremarked upon. Blake's fingers were still caressing Avon's face. He then read his own name and knew immediately why Avon had struggled to leave a message. Not so much to insure that someone would know who had died in this desolate place, but so that Blake might, somehow, learn of his fate.

The painstaking marks on the wall had been meant as one final act of love.

He read the rest of the message: TELL HIM I...

That was all there was, but it was enough. He lowered his eyes to Avon again. "I know," he whispered. "I already know."

At last, he could hear the others coming up the hill. "In here," he yelled, to hurry them along.

Vila was the first one into the cave. He ignored Blake briefly, his eyes fixed on Avon's limp form. Then he looked up questioningly.

Blake smiled reassuringly. "He's alive, Vila."

Tarrant rushed in, followed by the doctor.

A cursory examination was conducted with Avon still resting in Blake's lap. The doctor ran a medscan over him quickly. "We need to get him back to the ship as quickly as possible," she said briskly. "He has severe internal damage from the blaster fire, pneumonia, and several parasitic infections." As she pressed a needle into Avon's arm, the doctor glanced at the stinking pool of water nearby. "He's undoubtedly been drinking that, knowing that he needed water to stay alive, while at the same time, the poisons in the water were slowly killing him."

"Which he undoubtedly knew as well," Tarrant put in.

"Indeed." The doctor shook her head. "I give the man credit for having a tremendous will to live"

Blake's fingers were woven in Avon's hair, displaying affection and possession in equal parts. "He was waiting for me," he said, speaking mostly to Vila. "That's what kept him alive. His faith that I would find him."

Vila smiled. "And so you did."

The doctor made a gesture of impatience.

Blake rose effortlessly, lifting Avon into his arms. Tarrant stepped forward to help, but Blake shook his head. "I'll do it, Del," he said gently.

Tarrant, his face reflecting understanding, stepped back. "Let's get the hell out of here."

Vila dogged Blake's steps all the way down the hill and back to the ship, ready to help with the burden, if help were needed. It was not. Avon had lost some weight over the last eight or so days, but that had little to do with why Blake carried him so easily. Avon's head was pressed against Blake's chest as they moved swiftly towards the ship.

Within moments after their arrival, the doctor had Avon on the med-table and was hooking him up to various monitors and life supports. Tarrant returned to the flight deck to prepare for take-off, while Vila announced to one and all that he, personally, had not been worried at all about Avon. "Too mean to die, he is," Vila said. "I need a drink."

And so he left.

Blake, however, would not be driven from the sickbay.

He stood beside the med-table, one hand always on Avon, shifting his position with each muttered complaint of the doctor, but never moving away. Now he touched Avon's cheek, now his hair, now a hand.

As yet again the doctor tried to get around him, she sighed. "Mr. President, it might be better if you waited outside until I'm finished."

Blake frowned. He started to take a step back from the table, but was stopped suddenly by a weak, yet determined grip on his hand. He glanced down to see Avon's fingers closed around his. Amazed, he simply stared at their joined hands for a moment. Then, with some degree of smugness, he looked at the doctor.

She shrugged.

Blake leaned over until his lips were touching Avon's ear. "Don't worry, Kerr," he whispered. "I'm the bloody President. She can't make me leave."

Still apparently unconscious, Avon, nevertheless, seemed to smile.

The sickbay was quiet now. Lighting had been dimmed to its night-time level, and the single machine left hooked to Avon merely beeped softly every few moments. Avon was clean, wearing a medical gown, and had a little color slowly returning to his face.

Blake, in a chair at bedside, looked up as the door slid open.

Vila came in, carrying a tray. "Doctor's orders," he said in a quiet voice. "You're supposed to eat every bite."

Absently, Blake nodded and reached for the food.

Vila lingered next to the bed, looking down at Avon. The black circles were fading from around his eyes, and he looked less brutalized. "Well," Vila said. "Quite an adventure."

He seemed to be talking to Avon, and not to him, so Blake didn't reply.

"You really should take better care of yourself, you bastard," Vila went on. "Some of us would miss you."

Blake chewed and swallowed. "This was my fault, not his. I should have taken better care of him." His brow creased. "And I will."

Vila walked back to him. "Don't go crazy over this," he said. "Avon doesn't want taking care of."

"I know," Blake said with a sigh. "He'd hate it."

Vila smiled and rested a hand on his shoulder. "The pair of you always have to do things the hard way."

"So it seems."

Briskly, Vila moved to the door. "You ought to get some sleep," he said.

Blake just nodded.

The door slid closed.

Blake pushed the tray aside and leaned back in chair again. He watched Avon sleep.

Doing his taking care of him while he could.

Chapter XXXI

When Avon awoke, he was lying on a soft bed, and there was a heavy weight across his chest. He opened his eyes curiously.

The bed, surprisingly, was in the sickbay of Tarrant's ship. He had not really expected to awaken at all, and supposed that if he did so, it would only be to find himself still in that damned cave.

That was not the end of the surprises he found.

The weight on his chest was Blake's arm.

His Regal Highness, fully clothed and sound asleep, was stretched out rather precariously on the edge of the bed.

So.

It had not been a dream, then.

Against all reason, it seemed, Blake had indeed launched some kind of insane rescue mission. And had, improbably enough, rescued him.

Once a White Knight, always a White Knight, apparently.

Avon turned his head a little and looked at Blake's face resting next to his on the pillow. A faint smile touched Avon's lips. My dragon-slaying hero, he thought, excusing the excessive sentimentality on the grounds of temporary invalidism.

He tested his arm and found that he could lift it. His fingers lightly touched soft grey curls and pure happiness flowed through him at the sensation. After a moment, he reluctantly pulled his hand away, not wanting to wake the sleeping man.

His dry and scratchy throat tickled suddenly and he coughed harshly. Instantly, Blake's eyes flew open. "Kerr?'

"Thirsty," Avon managed to say.

Blake got up and poured him a glass of water. Returning to the bed, he sat, and then helped Avon into a sitting position as well, bracing him with one strong arm. "Sip," he ordered. "Or you'll be sick."

Obediently, Avon sipped. The cool water, fresh and clean tasting, felt wonderful on his tortured throat. "Thank you," he said, his voice sounding more like itself again.

Blake set the glass aside, but remained where he was, holding Avon. "We'll be home in a few hours," he said. "You've been asleep for a long time."

Avon, his head resting on Blake's shoulder, didn't say anything.

Blake used his free hand to turn Avon's face toward him. He pressed his lips to Avon's forehead lightly, then pulled back. "Kerr, can you ever forgive me?"

As he stared at Blake, it occurred to Avon that the pain shining so nakedly in the gentle brown eyes must have been not unlike the agony that Blake had watched on his face since Gauda Prime. Gods, how had the man lived with it for all those years?

Avon couldn't bear to see the anguish. His heart aching for Blake, he closed his eyes briefly, then opened them and said, "You forgave me something much worse."

To cover the hurting, he added lightly, "In any event, I never seriously believed you wanted Lore to kill me. Not for more than five seconds or so, anyway."

Blake frowned. "Five seconds? You believed it for that long?"

"Well," Avon drawled, "I can be an aggravating son of a bitch on occasion, as you yourself have pointed out."

Blake glared at him, until Avon smiled.

"Besides," he said softly. "You did come for me."

"Ahh, yes. I had to, you see," Blake murmured, his fmgers gently stroking Avon's face. "Once I discovered that I couldn't get along without you."

"Did that come as a surprise?"

"You're also a smug bastard, Kerr Avon." Blake gave a soft laugh. "I am rather afraid that my popular image as a hero suffered greatly during your absence."

Avon cast him a glance of gentle amazement.

"Oh, yes, it's quite true. There were several drunken and sentimental scenes of the sort you despise the most. Not to mention the fact that I nearly strangled a Senator to death."

"Someone detestable, I hope?"

Blake grinned. "Pol."

"Truly? Well, if one is going to strangle a Senator, Pol is an excellent choice."

"Glad you approve. He himself was rather put out. My sanity was questioned. Probably quite rightly. I certainly felt as if I had lost my mind. Not that I cared greatly." He paused, letting his fingers trail lightly down Avon's cheek. "Things deteriorated to the point where Vila was keeping a suicide watch on me."

At that, Avon lifted his head. "You idiot," he said sharply. "I would have been extremely put out to return and find that you had done yourself in."

"Would you have?" Blake shrugged. "Well, I wouldn't have done it unless I were sure..." His voice dwindled off.

"Idiot," Avon said again, less sharply this time. His head returned to its place on Blake's shoulder. "It occurs to me that this relationship occasionally borders on the unhealthy."

"Possibly." Blake gnawed his lower lip briefly, then shrugged. "I don't care."

"As it happens, neither do I," Avon said.

They were both quiet for a moment, then Blake kissed Avon's forehead again. "All in all, it seems safe to say that Roj Blake fell off his pedestal with a very loud crash."

"No fear. I imagine it will not take long to restore you to your former glory," Avon said placidly.

Blake tried and failed to stifle a yawn. "Perhaps I shouldn't bother," he said. "Might make life easier."

"Nonsense. The galaxy needs a hero." Avon smiled. "And you seem to be the only one who fits the mold."

Blake returned the smile. "I shall remind you of those words the next time we argue in Council."

"Ha. I will merely plead momentary incompetence on account of my weakened condition. I can hardly be held responsible for what I might say now."

"Well," Blake said glumly. "I doubt that anyone would believe it anyway. Kerr Avon speaking well of the President? An unlikely occurrence."

"True." Abruptly, Avon lifted his head and pressed his mouth to Blake's, catching the other man by surprise. His tongue poked and probed until it collided with Blake's. The kiss went on for several moments, until Blake pulled away.

"Sneaky bastard," he muttered a little breathlessly.

"Felt good, didn't it?"

Blake lifted Avon's hand and nuzzled the palm. "It felt wonderful," he murmured. "It felt...I missed you so much."

Avon smiled again and leaned forward for another kiss.

Again, Blake pulled back. "You need to sleep," he said firmly.

Avon frowned, but did not argue; truthfully, he could barely keep his eyes open.

Blake started to get up from the bed.

"Don't leave," Avon said quickly, rather contemptuous of his emotional need to have Blake near, but allowing it for the moment.

"Do you think I would?" Blake responded. "There's a chair right here."

"No fear. I imagine it will not take long to restore you to your former glory," Avon said placidly.

Blake tried and failed to stifle a yawn. "Perhaps I shouldn't bother," he said. "Might make life easier."

"Nonsense. The galaxy needs a hero." Avon smiled. "And you seem to be the only one who fits the mold."

"Stay with me," Avon insisted, scooting over a little to make more room in the bed.

"All right," Blake said. They stretched out side by side again, with Blake's arm once more sheltering Avon. "I love you," he whispered. "So very much."

Avon gave a soft sigh against Blake's shoulder, but before he could speak, sleep snatched him away.

Blake was awake longer.

He listened to Avon's steady, even breathing, rejoicing in the sound.

After a time, he put a hand on Avon's chest and felt the strong heartbeat. His own pulse seemed to throb in concert with Avon's heart.

Finally, he lowered his head and placed a feather light kiss on Avon's lips. Then, at last, he slept as well.

Chapter XXXII

Avon began to dress carefully.

Had he been, like Vila, the sort of man who would whistle a happy tune to indicate good spirits, he would have done so at this moment. But he was most definitely not that kind of man so instead, he merely allowed a faint smile to linger upon his face as he shed the hospital pajamas and donned his own clothes.

A week in this establishment was quite long enough, thank you very much, and he was leaving now, even if the damned doctor thought that he should stay for another few days.

He felt fine. All the tests showed that he was fully recovered. The doctor just wanted to watch him for delayed reactions or some such foolishness. The only reactions she was liable to see by watching him any longer were revulsion at the food, irritation with the terminally cheerful staff, and loneliness that was driving him slowly mad.

Not that he hadn't had a plentitude of company over the past week. Vila was in and out at all hours, whenever he could slip past the front desk without being seen. Dayna, Soolin, and Tarrant alternated visiting hours.

And there was Blake, of course.

Avon paused in the act of puffing on a boot and smiled again. Blake showed up at least three times a day, tending to hang about in the evenings until the ogre in charge threatened to call the guard and have him forcibly ejected. President or not, it seemed hospital rules were hospital rules.

So he had company.

What he didn't have was privacy.

He was irritated by the fact that Blake seemed uncharacteristically well-behaved of late, despite Avon's fervent efforts to lead him astray.

And how Avon tried.

 

"This is a government hospital, is it not?"

 

Blake, sitting in the Guest Chair, with his feet propped on the edge of the bed (a gross violation of the rules about which he had been warned more than once), gazed at Avon and seemed to consider the question. "Of course it is," he finally answered. "You know that."

"And you are the President of that government, correct?"

Poor naive Blake, seeming to have absolutely no idea where the conversation was leading, just nodded.

"I am still the President's Chief Advisor? Or was I replaced in that capacity during my recent absence?"

"Of course you're still my Chief Advisor." Blake gnawed a finger for a moment, then, at long last, understood what was happening. He glanced at the closed door, then back at Avon. "Are you suggesting what I think you are?"

Avon gave a sigh of relief. "At last! I was beginning to fear that this was going to require diagrams."

Blake just shook his head.

"Roj, "Avon stage-whispered. "Come here."

"Better if! don't," Blake said.

"Please?"

After a moment, Blake got to his feet and took two steps to Avon's side, his face wary. His hand slowly lifted and brushed Avon's cheek. "We can't," he said softly. "Not here." He tried to smile and very nearly succeeded. "You know how noisy I get." His voice dropped into an even lower tone. "And especially now. It's been so long." He shook his head firmly. "No. We cannot."

A von frowned. "I want you," he said flatly.

Blake leaned down and brushed his lips across Avon's lightly. "Gods," he whispered. "Just hearing you say that makes me so damned happy. And I want you, too. So much it hurts. But you'll be home soon."

Avon gripped Blake's hair and tugged him into a longer, deeper kiss. Blake let it go on almost too long, then broke away.

"I better go," he said breathlessly. His eyes were glazed. And then the bastard actually left

 

That had happened last night.

This morning, he was going home.

Blake didn't even know it yet.

When the petty details of checking himself out had been taken care of, Avon fled the front lobby with alacrity. Vila was waiting at the appointed place, with a hired ground shuttle. He opened the door and grinned at Avon. "This is fun," he said. "I haven't done anything really sneaky since we won the revolution."

Avon glared at him. "Yes, well, you are not employed in any official capacity by the government, are you? I'd like to get in, if you don't mind."

Vila scooted over to make room. "You're perfectly healthy again, aren't you?" he said glumly. "I can tell because you're grouchy again."

Avon settled himself in the seat. "I want to go home," he said. A stray thought amused him, as he realized what he'd said. "I want to go home," he repeated more softly.

Vila, understanding in his eyes, nodded. "As you wish, m'lord."

It was a short journey to the Presidential house, a trip that was filled with Vila's cheerfully inane gossip about who was doing what to whom in the city. Avon leaned back, closed his eyes, and just let the foolishness flow across him.

When the shuttle stopped at the front door, Avon climbed out immediately.

"I could come in," Vila suggested. "Your homecoming deserves a drink, don't you think?"

Avon paused, looking at him quizzically. "Tell me, Vila, do you honestly think that the reason I wanted to come home was so that I could have a drink with you?"

Vila shrugged, then grinned again. "Well, probably not."

At that, Avon flickered him a smile and turned around to climb the stairs to the door.

The household staff were surprised to see him, but he thought they seemed pleased. Not, he reasoned, from any sense of affection for him, but because they realized that his return would cause a marked improvement in the mood of their revered President.

Avon toyed with the notion briefly that his was a position of infinite power. Blake ran the galaxy, true, but he, in some sense, ran Blake. Not politically or administratively, but emotionally. And for a creature like Blake, so often ruled by his emotions, that was crucial.

It was easy to understand why so many people hated and feared Kerr Avon.

He climbed the stairs to the bedroom slowly.

At this hour of the day, of course, Blake was in his office, but that was fine. Avon was just glad to be home.

Finally.

At any rate, he knew that very soon Blake would be calling in for his morning visit at the hospital. Once he found out about the discharge, Avon did not imagine that he would be long in returning home.

And he was not.

Avon scarcely had time to unpack, and was just thinking about ringing for some tea, when the bedroom door was flung open.

"Here you are!" Blake roared in his most Blakian roar.

Avon just glanced at him. "Where else would I be?" he said mildly.

In three steps, Blake was across the room. He wrapped Avon in a bone-crushing hug. "I've missed you so much," he said, his voice cracking a little.

Avon relaxed into the embrace, both hands rubbing slow circles on Blake's broad back. "Does His Regal Highness have a meeting or some other Vilal matter to claim his attention for the moment?" he whispered.

"No. I cancelled everything for the rest of the day." Blake chuckled into Avon's hair. "After all, what's the use of being President if I can't do what I want to occasionally?"

"Good," Avon said thickly.

He extricated himself from the hug with some little difficulty and went to lock the door. Then he touched the sensor that closed the window shutters. He adjusted the lighting to its evening illumination, and turned to face Blake, who was watching him in a bemused way, chewing his lower lip.

"I want to make love with you," Avon said, a little surprised at the raw edge of hunger in his voice. Usually, he had better control.

"Not just have sex?" Blake teased lightly. Then, as he stared into Avon's face, he sobered. "All right," he said softly. "We'll make love." He reached to unfasten his shirt.

Quickly, Avon moved to stop him. "No," he said. "Let me."

Blake just nodded.

Avon undressed Blake as if he were unwrapping a precious, long-desired gift. His hands journeyed over each area of bared flesh, followed closely by lips, tongue, teeth. He did not hurry. Neither of them spoke as he removed Blake's shirt, boots, trousers, undergarments.

It took him nearly twenty minutes to complete the task.

By the time Blake was completely naked, his erection was already impatient; his breathing had become rapid and harsh. Avon, still dressed, dropped to his knees and slowly, carefully, licked the eager cock from base to tip and back again, over and over. He sucked the taut balls and used his fingers to send tactile messages on sensitive, burning flesh.

Blake was thrusting helplessly, moaning with each touch of the gentle fingers, groaning with each swipe of the hot, wet tongue.

But instead of bringing him off, Avon stood and started to undress as well. Blake reached out to help him, but Avon shook his head. "Sit down and wait," he said.

Blake perched on the edge of the bed, staring as Avon methodically, almost absently, stripped off each garment. When he was finally naked, it was evident that his own body was ready as well. A thoughtful look on his face, he moved to stand in front of Blake.

Blake lifted his hand and touched Avon's flushed cock lightly. "Shall I suck you?" he said hoarsely.

"No." Avon took Blake's flushed, sweaty face between his hands and gazed into his eyes. "I want to be inside you. Is that all right?"

Blake didn't speak for a moment. He swallowed hard and blinked.

"Roj?" Avon said tenderly but insistently. "I want to be inside of you."

With a groan, Blake threw his arms around Avon and pulled him down onto the bed beside him. His mouth collided with Avon's wetly, needfully, for a breathless time. "Is it all right?" Blake finally said. "Oh, yes. I want it so much."

Avon just looked at him. "Are you sure?"

Blake made a sound that was half-laugh, half-sob. "Avon, I've always wanted it. Practically from the instant we met. All these years." He took Avon's cock in one hand and squeezed it lightly. "I want you to fuck me, Kerr."

Now Avon smiled. "And so I will. Lie down."

Blake did as ordered, resting on his stomach. Avon took the cream from the bedside table, squeezed some into his hands, and began a slow massage that soon had Blake writhing mindlessly beneath his hands. He paused frequently to kiss and nibble the increasingly heated flesh. He was being careful, because he did not Blake to come too soon. He wanted them to arrive at that glorious moment together. He diligently worked creamy fingers into Blake's ass, greasing the passage thoroughly. Several times, just the touch of his fingers nearly sent Blake over the edge, but Avon always pulled back just in time.

At last, he stopped. "Would you put the cream on me?" he asked, barely breathing the words into Blake's ear.

Blake's only response was a groan, as he rolled over and held his hands out to receive the cream Avon squeezed out of the tube. He used both hands to rub Avon's cock. By the time he quit, both men were glassyeyed and burning.

Avon pressed his body against Blake's. "I want this to be the best for you," he said. "I want to make you happy."

"You do," Blake said in a strangled voice. "Every day."

"But this is going to be special," Avon promised.

Now Blake gasped out something that Avon couldn't understand.

He only laughed softly.

Blake started to roll over again, but Avon stopped him. "I'd like to see your face," he said. "Please?"

"No secrets?" Blake asked.

Avon sighed. "No secrets, Roj."

Blake smiled.

Avon leaned forward and kissed him quickly. Then he settled himself between Blake's spread legs, lifting them to his shoulders. For just a moment, he looked at Blake, amazed even now by the intensity of the wanting he could see in the soft brown eyes.

Infinite power, indeed.

And all he wanted to do with that power was make Roj Blake happy.

At last, he scooted forward until the head of his cock was poised at the entrance of Blake's body. He tried to take it slowly, carefully, but Blake was having none of that. He thrust upwards fiercely, at the same time, pulling Avon closer.

Both men shuddered and whimpered.

Then, as Avon readied himself to push again, Blake thrust upwards once more and took Avon fully inside. Avon's cock was held tightly by the burning passage. Avon nearly cried out at the suddeness of the joining. Blake gave a soft grunt and then relaxed.

Avon stared down into Blake's enraptured face, knowing that Blake was seeing the same ecstasy reflected in his features. For a long moment, they were both perfectly still, just looking at one another.

Then, at last, Avon began to move, slowly at first, then faster and faster and faster yet, until he lost the sense of everything but movement and heat and liquid passion. With one hand, he managed to grip Blake's cock, rubbing it with the same fevered rhythm. He was fully supported only by Blake's trembling arms. Both men were mumbling frantically, but Avon could not even understand what he himself was saying, much the less Blake.

He could feel his body racing toward the precipice. "Yes," he gasped. "Yesyesyesyes..."

"Oh," Blake said. "Oh, yes." Then he threw his head back and roared, "Kerr!"

"Roj," Avon echoed.

Avon figured that the household staff three floors below probably heard their twin bellows, as they exploded at the same moment.

He cared not at all.

Nothing mattered at all to him but the powerful contractions of his cock inside Blake's writhing body, and those of Blake's cock in his hand. The feel of Blake's hot cum on his skin. He could taste blood, but ignored it. The glory lasted forever and was over in a nano-second.

When it finally ended, he was shaking helplessly, still held up only by Blake's hands on his arms. Then Blake let go suddenly and Avon collapsed on top of him. They rolled apart, then immediately came together again, side by side, clinging to one another as their trembling finally slowed.

Avon licked his lips, tasting more blood and Blake's cum. The taste made him dizzy all over again.

Blake was simply staring at him, wide-eyed and amazed.

Avon fought desperately for breath. When he thought himself capable of speech once again, he leaned to Blake and kissed his lips lightly, sweetly, as if it were the first kiss ever between them.

Then he pulled back just slightly and gazed into Blake's face. He spoke, setting aside all the fears and doubts of the past, risking his heart without concern for the consequences.

Telling the whole, pure truth for the first time in his life.

"I love you," Avon whispered carelessly.

 

the end

 

THE DREAM

Love, if I weep it will not matter.
And if you laugh I shall not care;
Foolish am I to think about it.
But it is good to feel you there.

Love, in my sleep I dreamed of waking--
White and awful the moonlight reached
Over the floor, and somewhere, somewhere
There was a shutter loose, it screeched!

Swung in the wind!-and no wind blowing!
I was afraid, and turned to you,
Put out my hand to you for comfort,
And you were gone! Cold, cold as dew,

Under my hand the moonlight lay!
Love, if you laugh I shall not care
But if I weep it will not matter,
Ah, it is good to feel you there!

Edna St. Vincent Millay


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