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DELINQUENT

By Nova
The teleport twanged and Vila Restal shimmered into existence, with Gan steady behind him. "Bloody hell, that was worse than I expected," he groaned, staggering out of the bay. "Those people are maniacs, Blake. Really frightening."

"What did they do to you?" Cally asked with a look of concern.

Vila hugged himself and shivered. "They talked ," he whispered. "Gan and me had our blasters pointed at them the whole time but they didn't even seem to notice, except for this one bloke who asked whether the guns made us more secure. The rest of them just kept going on about how they understood and how they only wanted to help and how we'd feel much better if we sat down in a nice comfy chair and relaxed and let it all out. I nearly did, too. Force of habit, I suppose. I was halfway towards sticking my blaster back in its holster when Gan told you to bring us up."

Blake glanced across at Gan, raising a quizzical eyebrow. "Was it really that bad?" he asked.

Gan shrugged. "They're pretty persuasive, Blake. All those kind, caring faces and gentle, even voices. It gets to you in the end. Luckily, I haven't been exposed to that sort of thing as much as Vila, so I realised we'd better escape before they talked us right around."

"And Avon?" Blake prompted.

"Yeah, he's there, all right," Vila confirmed. "We got that much out of them, at any rate. The chief headshrinker told us straight off. “The same antisocial pattern of behaviour as your friend,” he said when I pulled out my blaster. Not that Avon'd thank the bloke for calling him a friend of mine but at least we know we're on the right track."

Blake caressed his jaw thoughtfully for a few seconds and then gave a decisive nod. "Time for a change of plan, then. Wait here, will you, Cally? I'll be back in a minute."

As he hurried off down the corridor, Cally turned luminous brown eyes on Vila. "I don't understand," she said plaintively. "Those people did nothing to you. Why are you so upset?"

Vila spread his hands wide. "Listen, I can cope with thugs in full body armour trying to kill me. I don't like it but - oh well, they're just doing their job. The headshrinkers, though, they're true believers, which is a whole lot more dangerous." He thought for a moment and added, "Mind you, it never really takes on me. I had my head adjusted three times before they packed me off to Cygnus Alpha, except somehow it wouldn't stay adjusted. But I can't help getting edgy, all the same, whenever anyone says, “We're only doing this for your own good”."

"He's got a point there," Gan agreed. "The headshrinkers made me edgy and I haven't ever been adjusted, because they gave me a limiter instead. Still, there's no need to worry about Avon, Cally. He's an Alpha, so he's used to that fancy way of talking. Besides, he's good at arguing back - look at the way he and Blake keep going at each other. He'll be all right. Won't he?"

"I'm sure he will," Cally said, a little too quickly. Then her eyes flicked across to the doorway as Vila let out a strangled squawk. Blake was standing there, hands on hips, in the uniform of a Federation officer.

"You shouldn't creep up on people, not when you're dressed like that," he said reproachfully. "Gave me a nasty turn, you did. My nerves aren't the best, after what I've just been through."

Blake laughed and strode into the teleport bay. "Put me down somewhere in the city, Cally," he ordered. "If I'm to play the part properly, I'd better arrive at the rehabilitation centre by shuttle, rather than materialising in the grounds."

Cally adjusted the teleport co-ordinates and reached for the levers. The last thing Blake heard before he disappeared was Vila, saying in a confiding voice, "Y'know, Cally, I could really use a dose of soma right now ..."

Dr Wexler's office was a friendly, welcoming place. Soft, pastel-coloured chairs, pastel sunlight seeping through the window screens, pastel flowers at the corner of the big desk on which the doctor leaned, fingertips pressed together to frame his friendly, welcoming smile.

"I'm sorry to miss the chance of working with Kerr Avon," he murmured. "An interesting case and I feel we were starting to make some progress. Rehabilitation is always better than punishment, Commander Coleridge, especially for such a gifted subject who could contribute so much to the Federation. I know that Supreme Commander Servalan hoped - but then, the man was an associate of that rebel Blake, which presumably explains why she's decided to make an example of him. Ah, here he is."

The door opened. Blake swung round and saw two burly guards - no, nurses - crowd in, flanking a third man. The precaution seemed unnecessary. In his loose grey coveralls Avon looked small and quenched and ordinary, an unexpected reminder of their first meeting on the London. He had thought Avon plain then, until the other man glanced up at him and Blake had seen those eyes: that mouth. (And had fallen hopelessly in love, although he was only prepared to admit it once every few months, when drunk or sleepless.)

"Well, Kerr," Dr Wexler was saying with practised warmth, "so you're leaving us. That's a shame but I hope you'll go on thinking about the issues that emerged in our discussions. You have a fine mind. I'm sure you can continue to work on your conflictual relationship to authority, even without my assistance."

Avon's shoulders angled in the arrested half-shrug that he used to dismiss anything he did not wish to hear. Blake almost smiled at the familiar sight but, just in time, he turned the smile on the doctor instead. "Thank you, Dr Wexler," he said. "You've done a good job. It sounds as though prisoner Avon should be more tractable now. I'll pass on your advice about rehabilitation to the Supreme Commander and perhaps the prisoner can be returned here after his trial."

Dr Wexler's eyes lit up and he rubbed dry palms together with a whispering sound. "Excellent," he breathed. "We'd like that, wouldn't we, Kerr?"

Blake tensed, hand shifting to the hilt of his blaster. "We" and "Kerr" were both taboo words, although Dr Wexler didn't appear to have realised this. He waited for the inevitable reaction but Avon just stared straight through the doctor, who flushed slightly.

"Resistant," he muttered, as if he were making notes. "Very fascinating. All that intelligence ... and absolutely no ability to apply it to any useful social purpose. You're a challenge, Kerr. I look forward to seeing you again."

"The feeling is not mutual," Avon replied, so formally that it took Dr Wexler a few seconds to register the insult. He clicked his tongue in tolerant disapproval and rose to usher them out.

Blake's shuttle unit was waiting at the front gates. As they stepped into the perspex box and settled themselves on the padded seat, Dr Wexler shot a last greedy look at Avon. "Au revoir, Kerr," he said, almost flirtatiously, and then the shuttle slid off smoothly down its antigrav track.

The minute the doctor's gaunt figure dwindled into the distance, Avon leapt up and started pacing around the box. Blake swung his feet onto the bench, to give him more room, and watched indulgently. Another of Avon's sudden mood changes, from the sullen nonentity of the doctor's office to a caged panther. His eyes were bright now: with rage, Blake suspected. Two slashes of red branded his cheek bones and he moved with barely controlled menace.

While Blake studied him, Avon prowled in a wider circle that brought him up against the wall. His lips twitched in a snarl; his hand lifted and clenched and slammed into the perspex, so hard that Blake winced in sympathy. For a split second Avon stared down at his bruised fist, lips parted, eyes blank with surprise, and then his elbow jerked back and his hand rose again. Blake let out an inarticulate yell of protest and hurtled across the shuttle to grab Avon's wrist.

They strained against each other, breathing fast. Then Avon forced his arm down, broke the hold and whirled round. "Stop it," Blake commanded, staring into wildcat eyes. "I'm on your side, Avon. I'm not the enemy."

The eyes hazed and became human again. "Thank you for the reminder," Avon said courteously. "You collude so well that I had almost forgotten. That was a very convincing performance, Commander Coleridge."

"It was meant to be," Blake said mildly, returning to the bench. "After Vila and Gan failed to rescue you, I thought we ought to try the indirect approach. One of my father's friends - my godfather, in fact - was a Federation psychiatrist, so I know how to talk to the breed."

Avon tipped back his head and laughed, a harsh grating sound edged with hysteria. "You sent Vila down there? I imagine he enjoyed the experience as much as I."

"He did seem rather shaken," Blake admitted. "More than I would've predicted. But then, so do you."

"And for the same reason," Avon said, beginning to prowl again.

Blake contemplated that for a while, thumb rubbing thoughtfully at his lower lip. Eventually he lifted his head and said, "All right, I can see why Vila wouldn't love the headshrinkers, as he calls them. As a Delta, he's seen the down side of their profession. But you're an Alpha, Avon. One bout with the interrogators after you were caught for embezzling isn't enough to send you this far off balance."

"No," Avon agreed and kept pacing.

Blake sighed. "You're not going to tell me anything, are you? Very well then, I'll have to work it out for myself. You were captured on our last raid but you're physically unharmed. You spent three days in a rather luxurious private rehabilitation centre before Orac was able to locate you. And yet, even though I would've said you'd had a lucky break, you're so disturbed that for once you can't hide it. Why, Avon? Is it something to do with Dr Wexler? Had you met him before?"

Avon halted abruptly, slouched against the perspex wall and applauded. "Oh, very good," he mocked. "A little more practice and you might almost approximate logical deduction. You are halfway there, Blake. I was not previously acquainted with Dr Wexler but I know his type well."

"How?" Blake asked and Avon gave him a glittering smile.

"Deltas who misbehave are sent to state institutions. Alphas who misbehave are sent to - ah, luxurious private rehabilitation centres where they receive incessant attention from devoted professionals."

"You, Avon?" Blake said, startled. "What did you - no, I'm sorry. It's none of my business."

"You want a catalogue of my crimes?" Avon asked with a lift of one eyebrow. "I'd be happy to oblige, although I can't guarantee to remember the full quota. As I recall, it began with a lamentable inability to anticipate my father's wishes and progressed through insolence and undesirable associates to some reasonably sophisticated computer hacking."

"So that's when they packed you off to the headshrinkers? You were probably fortunate, you know. A Delta in your position would have found himself in a Juvenile Resocialisation Unit."

Avon's hands flexed into fists. He frowned down at them and slid them behind his back. "Spare me the class analysis, Blake," he snapped. "As a matter of fact, I was first sent to Dr Sorensen's establishment for disaffected Alpha youth at the age of ten. By the time I was old enough to leave home, I had spent more time with the headshrinkers than with my family. And that is why I become ... disturbed when I am forced into the proximity of the caring profession."

Another of Avon's charming, inappropriate smiles, smoothing away the frown lines until he looked as serene as a choir boy. Blake gazed hungrily, fired by the transient beauty. He wanted to reach out and comfort the child inside the man but an insistent pressure against the fabric of his Federation uniform reminded him that he wanted the man even more. So instead he lounged back on the padded seat, ostentatiously casual, and said, "That can't have been easy, Avon. Is there anything I can do to help? You must've felt -"

And Avon's suppressed fury erupted. "Enough!" he spat, surging forward to stand over Blake. "I have no interest in discussing my feelings, with you or anyone else. It is unpleasant enough to be locked in here after a session with the headshrinkers, without being subjected to another inquisition. I wish I could ..."

His voice trailed away and his eyes stared blindly at the blurred landscape rushing past them. "Yes?" Blake prompted. "How did you usually let off steam after a session with the headshrinkers?"

The smile flashed out again. "Oh, just the usual boyish pranks. Smashing my father's crystal collection. Sampling a range of recreational drugs. Stealing ground flyers. Changing the codes on Federation data banks. Going to bars and picking up undesirable associates." He glanced down, focussing on Blake for the first time, and his smile broadened. "Well now, there's an idea. You certainly qualify as an undesirable associate. Since you are so anxious to help, you will presumably have no objection to this ."

He sank down onto the seat and bent over Blake, laying a proprietorial hand on his throat and forcing his head back. Blake twisted away, lost balance and slid down the wall. Avon moved with him, straddling his thighs and wrenching at the buttons on the Federation uniform. He slid sinuously across the bared chest, nipped at Blake's neck and, as he gasped, thrust the hard point of a tongue between his lips. Blake sprawled across the narrow bench, dangled and helpless, blood rushing to his head, blood rushing to his cock. He couldn't think. Could only groan and open to Avon's mouth, sucking the invasive tongue deeper.

Avon bore down hard and ground his hips against Blake's erection, urgent and ruthless. Blake cried out, half in protest, half in encouragement. He flung an arm up and latched onto Avon's shoulder, locking them together. They writhed and grunted and struggled, every movement tipping Blake further into a frenzy of desire. Then Avon arched slightly and slid his hand between them. Cool air tickled Blake's groin and knowledgeable fingers circled his cock, gripped tight and moved steady up the shaft, squeezing every throb of sensation from eager flesh. Blake's mind reeled. He whimpered and clung to the edge of the bench, while his hips jerked and hammered. Above him, Avon chuckled: a small sinister sound, without any vestige of enjoyment.

Blake's eyes flicked open. As he stared into an agate-hard gaze, his body chilled and his cock went limp in Avon's hand. "No," he said hoarsely. "I told you before, I'm not the enemy. Don't do this."

"Why not?" Avon asked, choirboy innocent. "You want it, Blake."

He shook his head and felt thought return. "True," he said honestly, "but it would be a mistake, all the same. You're not yourself, Avon. If I had to guess, I'd say that right now you're an angry ten year old boy."

"Ah!" Avon said with an exaggerated air of discovery. "So that is why you responded so enthusiastically."

The air stilled. There was a roar of sound in Blake's ears, like a chorus of voices shouting, "Kill kill kill." He brought his knee up sharply, fending Avon off, heaved himself into a sitting position and started to fasten his uniform with hands that, he was proud to notice, barely shook. Once that was done, he turned his face to the perspex wall and went away: into a place deep inside his head where no one had ever been able to find or hurt him, not even the Federation mindwipers.

I will survive. I can survive anything. Even this.

He was so far away that the voice took several minutes to reach him. A ragged, shaking voice, frayed breathless with alarm. Blake came back reluctantly to find Avon crouched beside him, fingers knotted in his sleeve and tugging tentatively. It was, apparently, a day for firsts. At any rate, it was the first time he had ever heard that note of panic from Avon.

"Blake, please," he was whispering. "Blake, I forgot. I never credited the Federation's propaganda about your propensity for child molestation. Believe me, I would not use that against you."

"Why say it, then?" he asked, still distant.

Avon rose and turned away. He walked to the far side of the shuttle and stood there, head bent, arms braced against the wall. "Yes, I suppose I owe you an explanation," he said finally. "You are not sexually interested in children, Blake. But Dr Sorensen was."

Blake's remote calm shattered. Before he had time to consider, he was standing behind Avon, arms wrapped tight around him. "Oh, Christ," he said in a low voice. "You poor bastard."

Avon turned in his arms with a bright, fixed smile. "Wrong again," he said. "I knew it and I played on it. I was the one who made the first approach. Dr Sorensen was the one who killed himself afterwards."

Blake swallowed hard. This is important. I have to get it right. But he couldn't seem to think properly. One minute he was trying to choose the most appropriate words; next minute he was snarling in outrage, "And how old were you then, Avon?"

"Thirteen," Avon said, politely puzzled.

"And Dr Sorensen?"

"How would I know? In his forties, I suppose."

"In his forties and your psychiatrist. Be logical, man. Which of you was responsible for the situation?"

Avon made a small inarticulate sound and fell forward. Blake caught him and held him. He could feel Avon's chest heaving, as though from some violent exertion. Could feel his own heart hammering violently in response.

"He betrayed your trust," he said finally. "You do see that, don't you?"

"Perhaps," Avon said into his shoulder. "Or did I betray him? I have always found it hard to recognise the difference."

"Thirteen," Blake repeated. "How much power did you have?"

"More than you think," Avon answered with a quiver of amusement but he didn't move away. They stood there for a timeless moment, Blake's hands resting feather-light on Avon's back, although eventually one hand lifted under the pressure of an irresistible compulsion to touch and, greatly daring, stroke Avon's hair. That broke the spell. Avon leant back and looked up at him, eyes glossy and impenetrable as polished stone.

And the door of the shuttle slid open.

The noise of the city rushed in. Buskers playing the latest synthoharp melody; street vendors offering news plaques and kaff and protein snacks; spruikers from the cathouses advertising nice clean boys and girls; the rumble of groundcars in the background. Blake took a deep breath, stepped out of the shuttle and went striding across the platform.

"Where are you going?" Avon asked, catching up with him.

"To the nearest wine shop," he answered without breaking stride. "Judging by what you've told me, I'd say you still need to let off steam. Since I'd prefer that you didn't smash or steal anything on the Liberator, I suggest we all get drunk tonight to celebrate your escape."

A quick gasp of laughter from behind him and then Avon said in his usual laconic drawl, "Wait for me, Blake. I doubt if I can rely on you to select an appropriate vintage."

As he fell into step, Blake let out a silent sigh. A day for firsts, indeed. The first time Avon had trusted him enough to reveal anything significant about his past. The first time he'd actually accepted one of Blake's offers of friendship. The first time Blake had ever felt so close to his difficult, demanding and tantalisingly attractive crew mate.

It was just a pity that, in order to deserve Avon's trust, he would clearly have to sacrifice those vague, wistful fantasies of some day getting Avon into bed with him.

Several hours later Blake was swirling the wine in his glass and beaming muzzily at his companions. Cally and Jenna and Gan had retired, one by one, but Avon and Vila were still competing to top each other's stories of their encounters with the headshrinkers. It was an entertaining sight. Vila unabashedly drunk by now, nudging Avon in the ribs and gesturing expansively. Avon neat and self-contained as ever, no visible signs of intoxication, except that his diction was even more precise than usual - and that he was letting Vila elbow him.

"Then, of course, there's the way they test you by being all sympathetic, so they can lure you into saying stuff that'll incriminate you even more," Vila continued with a random flourish of his glass.

Avon arched an eyebrow and wiped a drop of wine from his sleeve. "So you fell for that?" he asked.

"Nah," Vila said quickly. "Not after the first half dozen times, at any rate. How about you? I s'pose you didn't believe a word of it."

"Naturally," Avon replied. "Not after the first half dozen times."

Blake smiled to himself and rubbed the back of his head: a futile attempt to scratch the itch inside his brain. For some reason, the conversation seemed to be stirring up some of the memories suppressed by the Federation's mindwipe. Images flickered across a screen in his brain, too fast to focus on, too blurred to make sense. He shrugged and reached for the bottle again.

"Always knew we had something in common, despite appearances," Vila was telling Avon earnestly. "A pair of juvenile delinquents, right? Although I bet you Alpha brats never actually ended up in Resoc, the way us Deltas did."

"Oh, you'd be surprised," Blake slurred, surprising himself when the words echoed back at him. While he wondered what on earth he had meant, he heard another echo and realised that Avon must have started to speak at the same moment, their voices colliding and cancelling each other out. "Go on," he urged, to cover his confusion, and received a dazzling smile in reply.

"After you, Blake, I insist," Avon said with feral politeness. "Apparently, you are about to tell us some tales of your own youthful delinquencies. I am sure Vila and I will be fascinated."

Blake gulped more wine. "Nothing so interesting," he said, suddenly morose. "I'm afraid I was a tediously virtuous young man, up to a certain point. It's just that - well, there's something I've been trying to remember. Something rather important but ... no, I can't quite grasp it."

"Keep talking," Vila suggested, looking intrigued. "Maybe it'll all come back, once you get going."

"All right, I'll try," Blake agreed. He turned his gaze inward and watched the flickering images coalesce and sharpen. Frowned, snapped his fingers and said, "Yes, of course. My eighteenth birthday. I was just starting to question the Federation's control and my parents were worried, so they called my godfather in. He took me to one of the Juvenile Resocialisation Units, where he was a consulting psychiatrist, and marched me through room after room of sullen, resentful Deltas. But the more he lectured me about the consequences of disobedience, the more I lectured him about the inequities of the Federation class system."

"As pompous then as you are now," Avon said, amused. "How did your headshrinking godfather respond?"

"He laughed. Then he led me down to the maximum security section, opened a peephole into one of the cells and said, “This is why I brought you here, Roj. Take a look and see what happens to Alphas who fancy themselves as rebels. This young lad thought he could fight the system but the system always wins.” "

"Bloody hell," Vila breathed. "That must've been the famous Alpha who started the Dome City Resoc rebellion. So you actually saw him, Blake. What was he like?"

Blake pressed his thumb hard against his lower lip and stared straight through Vila, focussing on his returning memories. "I suspect my godfather meant to show me somebody who'd been completely defeated," he said slowly. "But I thought he looked more defiant and - well, heroic than anyone I'd ever seen before."

He blinked and focussed on his companions again: Vila perched on the edge of his seat, Avon leaning back, shuttered and remote. Blake smiled and said, "You've changed a lot since then, Avon. It's taken me quite a while to make the connection."

Vila was impressed. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen anyone silence Avon. But when he glanced across at Blake to see how he'd done it, Blake had gone silent too. The two of them sat there, gazes locked, so still that they hardly even seemed to be breathing. He whistled softly to himself. Well, well. Maybe Gan had been right when he reckoned Blake and Avon fancied each other. Vila hadn't believed it at the time - after all, if they were both keen, they'd be having it off, wouldn't they? But then, as Gan had also pointed out, Alphas could be funny about things like that. He'd better listen to the big lunk more carefully in future.

Right now, though, he needed to make sense of what was going on. He dredged up Blake's last statement, examined it from a couple of different angles and squeaked in surprise.

"Bloody hell," he said, blinking at Avon. "Who would've thought it? They still talk about you, y'know. One of my little cousins finished a stint in Resoc, just before I was packed off to the prison colony, and he was raving on about the famous Alpha who -"

"Shut up, Vila," Avon cut in. Then he swung round, snarling, "And you can stop staring at me like that."

"I'm sorry, Avon," Blake said, still staring. "It's not every day I get to meet one of my childhood heroes. You do realise I might never have become a revolutionary, if I hadn't been inspired by your example?"

"Hoist with my own petard," Avon muttered incomprehensibly. "Blake, I achieved nothing - nothing at all. I relied on other people and, predictably, they let me down. So please don't romanticise me."

Blake's broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "Too late for that," he said. "Truth is, I fell in love with you the minute I looked into that cell. I even went to a psi-artist next day and asked her to sketch the image in my mind, before it blurred." He grinned suddenly and added, "I had your picture on the wall above my bed for years."

That silenced Avon again. He sat hunched and wary, frowning down into his empty glass, while Blake watched him intently. After a while, Vila began to feel irrelevant. He rose and tiptoed quietly to the exit, changed his mind and scuttled back to collect the half-full bottle. The two Alphas were still locked into their intense, charged silence. He whisked the wine from under their noses and scooted off again, without either of them noticing.

As he dodged round one of the consoles, a choked voice said, "Avon?" When he glanced over his shoulder, Vila saw Blake stand and hold a hand out, his heart in his eyes. One minute turning away with a look of incandescent triumph, next minute swinging back in sudden doubt. And Avon, all troubled beauty, hesitating and then choosing to follow.

Vila sighed. Wish I could be a fly on that wall. But, oh well, at least I scored the bottle. He hugged it close and went scampering down the corridor, to get out of their way.

The door of Blake's cabin swished shut, a barely audible sound but Avon heard it. He whirled round, fast and savage as a trapped animal.

"It's all right," Blake told him. "You can leave at any time - although I hope you'll stay. This is one of the more remarkable experiences of my life. I'd like to prolong it a little, if I can."

The set of Avon's back relaxed slightly. He shrugged and said, "Apparently, unfeigned admiration from you is more effective than any of the drugs I ever sampled. I'll stay, even though it is against my better judgment. After all, we might as well do what we came here to do."

He glanced across at the monitor and added briskly, "Lights down, level three." As the room dimmed, he tensed in anticipation and Blake, senses heightened by longing, saw years of squalid bars and undesirable associates take shape in the gloom behind Avon's studded-leather shoulder. He sighed - good boys always envy the bad boys - and reached out like a child grabbing for a tinsel-tied parcel. Avon brushed his hand aside and swept him into a piratical kiss, his tongue raiding Blake's mouth while his hands attacked shirt and vest in a display of focussed expertise that had Blake naked to the waist within seconds.

Then the hands propelled him across the cabin and pushed him down onto the bed. Blake sprawled there, graceless and adoring, and watched Avon strip with his usual theatrical efficiency. The first sight of space-pale skin hit him like a blow. Avon's outfits generally managed to be both provocative and severe, stressing the outline of rounded buttocks but rarely revealing anything more than the shadowy hollow at the base of his throat: if that. Now, staring in breathless succession at unexpectedly muscular arms, streamlined chest, long thighs and the dark grape-bunch of genitals, Blake felt as terrified and elated as if he had broken some enticing taboo.

"Ah, my dear," he breathed and agate eyes swivelled towards him, impatient and censorious. Blake glanced down, following the direction of their gaze, and realised that he was still half-dressed. He fumbled with his trousers, which snagged on the jut of his erection, grimaced at his clumsiness and freed his swollen cock. Avon paused on his way to the bed, eyes widening fractionally: one of those infinitesimal shifts that somehow conveyed more than other people's stares or leers.

"Oh yes, very nice," he approved and pounced, straddling Blake's thighs and wrapping both hands around the base of his cock.

Clearly, Avon had learned a lot from his undesirable associates. Having measured Blake's erection with his eyes, he nodded appreciatively and took its full length in one flamboyant swallow. Blake shuddered. His eyes closed reflexively and flicked open again to absorb the almost unbelievable image of Avon bent over him, a white arc in the cabin's dusky half-light, sucking on his cock. Teeth grazed the shaft and an adept tongue lapped and sipped, squeezing a groan from the bottom of Blake's lungs. He thrust once into the welcoming wetness, then clenched his hands on the sheets and fought for control.

"No," he rasped. "Together."

Seizing Avon by the shoulders, he tipped him backwards and rolled onto him. Avon growled like a tiger cub, teeth sinking into Blake's neck. His hips bucked with reckless haste but Blake laughed and prised him away. He stared down into dark, dangerous eyes, pinned Avon to the mattress with one hand and let the other hand travel in slow motion down the black whorls of hair on his chest to the deeper shadows at his groin.

"I've always loved you," he said matter-of-factly, as his fist closed on Avon's cock. A momentary hesitation, to allow time for a shiver of delight, and then his hand moved up the shaft with relentless control, thumb tracking the sensitive ridge. Avon's hawk-gaze softened. He stared up, dreamy and puzzled, chest heaving rhythmically.

"You," he whispered, as though he had only just noticed that Blake was there. "You, Blake. You."

Blake smiled and increased the tempo until his hand was moving fast enough to traverse the shaft in a second, although not so fast that he lost the ability to relish everything he touched. Skin succulent as magnolia petals, stretched over muscle hard as bone. Corded veins and sleek cap, already sheened with moisture. He teased and tested and worshipped, his eyes never leaving Avon's face. Watching the faint frown-pucker between feathery brows, dark halfmoons of eyelashes against white skin, lips parted in a soundless sigh.

Avon shifted and stretched, languid and unbearably graceful. He opened his eyes and looked steadily at Blake. A small gasp escaped from his lungs, only to be caught and stopped at the back of his throat: the same plaintive sound he had made when wounded by Saymon's humanoid. Blake's heart swelled painfully and he reached down to gather Avon into his arms.

As their bodies fitted and fused together, the boundaries between them blurred. There were two hearts pounding violently, two mouths searching and scalding, two cocks thrusting with symmetrical force, two voices crying out in sudden desperation: but it seemed impossible to distinguish one from the other. Blake whispered, "Avon?" and then, "Avon ." He groaned and stilled, thrust one last time and dissolved into a cloud of whirling atoms.

By the time he had pieced himself together again, his arms were empty. He struggled onto one elbow, scanned the room and focussed on Avon's naked back.

"Where are you going?" he demanded and Avon glanced round, arching his eyebrows.

"Back to my cabin," he explained, provocatively patient. "I am not in the habit of sharing a bed with my undesirable associates ... and you did say I could leave at any time."

"Yes, but that was before -" Blake began involuntarily and then broke off, stalled by Avon's look of wounded triumph.

"So you didn't mean it?" he spat. "Ah well, I can't say I am surprised. I thought your sudden conversion to democracy was too good to be true. I hope you are not under the impression that sleeping with you means I will now play follower to your leader. This changes nothing, Blake."

He reached for his shirt, frowning down at a scarlet mark emblazoned on pale skin. My mark, Blake thought. He settled back and smiled.

"You're wrong," he said, content and certain. "It changes everything."

Avon pulled on the silk shirt and fastened black leather trousers before he spun round, armoured again. "Oh, I see," he said with an elaborate affectation of surprise. "So you are about to make good on your promises and hand Liberator over?"

"Not exactly," Blake told him and then, as the wounded triumph deepened, "But you're close. I was thinking more along the lines of joint command."

A strange expression flared behind Avon's eyes: something that Blake had never seen there before. He was tentatively identifying it as hope when Avon went rigid, quenched the flare and crossed the room in two strides to stare down at him.

"There are times when I hate you more than anyone I have ever met," he said conversationally. "More than the unfortunate Dr Sorensen, certainly. Perhaps even more than the tyrant my father. I made a mistake tonight but I can assure you I shan't repeat it. Goodnight, Blake."

For a moment Blake floundered, swamped by a backwash of despair. Illogical, Avon would call that. Why should he be so devastated by losing a dream that he'd only held for two minutes? He glanced up, expecting to watch his computer expert disappear through the door, and discovered to his surprise that Avon was still poised beside the bed, hands folded in front of him, waiting for an answer. There was a subtle tremor in the stubby, competent fingers: another first.

"Sit down, Avon," he commanded, dragging together every scrap of authority that he possessed. It worked. Avon settled on the edge of the mattress, looking startled at his own compliance. Blake suppressed a sigh of relief and snapped, "What brought that on? I made a genuine offer and -"

Avon laughed: a discordant, jarring sound in the small room. "Genuine?" he echoed. "As genuine as your performance in Dr Wexler's office this afternoon, I suppose. Tell me, Blake, what would you have done, had I been gullible enough to accept?"

Blake sat up in a flurry of sheets. "So you're not completely opposed to the idea?" he asked, brightening. "That's wonderful, Avon. But why are you looking so doomstruck?"

As he reached out impulsively, Avon ducked and averted his face. "Don't manipulate me, Blake," he said in a voice that tried for cold and detached but only achieved lost and hurt. "I know what you are doing. This is one of the headshrinkers" techniques. You pretend sympathy, I admit that my designs on your leadership go beyond half-joking threats and then, having confessed, I am punished."

He lifted his head and stared at Blake without seeing him. Blake scowled and thumped a fist into his palm.

"I've told you twice before, I'm not the enemy," he grumbled. "You have a poor opinion of me, don't you, Avon? I'll have to see what I can do about that."

His hand clamped onto a silken shoulder but Avon jerked away and gripped him by the arms, fingers digging in deep, mouth tugged down at the corners like a mask of tragedy.

"Blake," he said. "Blake, listen to me. Are you serious? Do you really intend to stand by that offer?"

Blake slumped back on the bed, pulling Avon with him. He sighed and said, "To state the blindingly obvious, I have just as many problems with authority as you do. That makes me a good rebel but a rather reluctant leader. I fantasise, on a more or less daily basis, about leaving all of this and going off on my own - but it never occurred to me before today that I could actually share the leadership. Would you do that, Avon?"

Avon froze and frowned, sat up and contemplated an invisible horizon, remembered the need to breathe and said tersely, "Yes. I accept." Then he stretched, cat-like, and added, "With some qualifications, of course. Your current problem, Blake, is that you have no overall strategy. There are, in my estimation, three potentially viable methods of overthrowing the Federation that we ought to consider."

He talked on at machine gun speed for the next ten minutes, outlining alternatives and then analysing them with remorseless logic, while his hands dissected the air in staccato gestures. Blake chewed on a knuckle and stared. Although he had, of course, dreamed about winning Avon over to his cause, he had always envisaged a long and hard-fought campaign, not a split-second switch. It was, he found, more than a little unnerving.

"Slow down, Avon," he interrupted. "Just tell me one thing, before you reorganise the entire galaxy. Is this another way of testing me or do you actually mean it?"

Amber eyes clouded. Avon stared down at his hands, looking as unnerved as Blake had felt. "I believe I do," he admitted reluctantly, "although I confess I am puzzled by this sudden resurgence of revolutionary zeal. After the Resoc rebellion failed, I settled for making myself so safe that no one could touch me ... but now I find myself back where I started, with no more guarantee of success than before."

Blake leaned back with a satisfied grin. "Oh, we'll muddle through," he said, cheerfully and deliberately obtuse.

He had picked the right word. Avon stiffened and turned an arrogant profile towards him. "Muddle, Blake?" he repeated distastefully. "With my undoubted skills and your dubious charisma, we can certainly do better than that."

"You'll have to give up your detached cynic pose, if you want to make a go of this," Blake warned. "Not to mention your schemes for embezzling Federation funds and the Liberator. Do you think it would be worthwhile?"

Avon glanced sidelong through a veil of lashes. "Well, you see, I love you," he explained apologetically. "Not one of my brighter ideas, I know, but there it is."

Then he shrugged off that lapse into sentiment and returned to his plans. Blake listened, one part of his brain noting and assessing the tactics that Avon favoured, while another part studied the contrast between Avon's ardent, expressive eyes and Avon's perfectly-shaped, carefully-controlled mouth. A poignantly evocative disjunction, as though the defiant young rebel from the maximum security cell in Resoc was gazing out at him from behind the cynical mask.

Dr Wexler was more right than he knew. If Avon's decided to apply his intelligence to a socially useful purpose - for example, fomenting revolution - the Federation won't know what's hit them.

He slid a hand up his lover's thigh, to get his attention. "Avon, do you remember that quote about armies from the Symposium ?" he asked. "Phaedrus's words, I think, one of the young men in Plato's circle."

A shutter-swift blink of Avon's eyelids as he accessed his photographic memory. "An army of lovers cannot fail," he said automatically and then he recognised the implication and smiled.

"Well now, I may have to reclassify you," he murmured, shifting to accommodate Blake's hand, "According to Phaedrus, you seem to count as a desirable associate, after all."


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