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Careless Whispers

By S. Lewis
Page 4 of 31

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.


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