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Love's Illusions

By Willa Shakespeare
Page 1 of 10

"I've looked at love from both sides now

Both in and out

And still, somehow

It's love's illusions I recall

I really don't know love - at all."

(I would give credit for the song lyrics, but I don't know who wrote it.)

"That's it, I give up!" Jenna shrieked, echoes ringing off the metal walls of Liberator's residence corridor. She glared at Blake. "What's the matter with me?"

"Nothing, absolutely nothing," Blake said, in his most soothing voice. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Vila, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. That might have been because of the argument, but more likely it was Jenna's attire. Or lack thereof. She had been wearing progressively tighter and more revealing outfits on the flight deck lately, but this- well, if it was spray-painted on, it was only a primer coat. She also wasn't wearing any foundation garments, as was evident by the anger-peaked nipples showing rosy through the rainbow-colored, transparent fluff that almost covered her bosom. He couldn't really blame Vila for staring. Oh, hell. Or Avon. Avon, who showed up, like a cat attracted to mischief and the scent of scandal. The only ones who weren't here were Gan and Cally, who were sharing the flight deck watch. He fervently wished he wasn't here. Fighting the Federation didn't prepare him for this. He poured on the charm, hoping to calm his invaluable, and high-spirited, pilot before blood was shed. His.

That deep masculine burr wasn't working this time. Jenna stamped her foot, incidentally jiggling, and making Vila gasp in awe. Jenna didn't notice, as she had eyes only for Blake. She said, with venom, "If there's nothing wrong with me, it must be you."

"Jenna!" Surprisingly, that protest had come from Avon. Then again, maybe it oughtn't to come as such a surprise. Once Blake had gotten a little squiffed on one of Vila's potions and confessed to Avon how sick he felt thinking about the children who'd been abused to set him up. Avon had been sympathetic, in a quiet, don't-count-this-against-my-cold-bastard-image, sort of way.

Jenna flushed and put up a hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. It's just... well, dammit, Blake, I'm under a lot of stress here, too. Why can't we use the stress-reliever nature designed for the human race?"

"Here, here!" Vila said. When everyone looked at him, he defended his agreement, "Well, she's right. A little sex wouldn't hurt any of us. Too little sex is giving me brain-warp."

"That explains why you never were too bright," Avon retorted. Vila glared, and sputtered, but Jenna put him off his stride and he couldn't come up with a decent rejoinder.

"Ah, Jenna," Blake said quietly, "Don't you think we could discuss this in private?"

"Why? I already know your answer." Jenna shook her head. "I can't force you to want me. Any more than Vila could make me want him. But regardless of personal feelings, you have to take physical needs into account," she went on more calmly. "As the only experienced spacer on Liberator , I am advising her captain that the crew desperately requires a relief stop."

"Relief stop?" Blake asked, puzzled. "No Federation rest and recreation centre would take us in."

"More likely, they wouldn't let us out," Avon added. "Are you sure this enforced chastity hasn't given you brain-warp?" he asked Jenna.

"A free-trader rest station," Jenna emphasized. "No one but free-trader pilots know the coordinates. It's absolutely safe and secure."

"Of course," Avon drawled. "The famed and highly recognizable crew of the most-wanted ship in the Federation can frolic without any notice being taken. How dedicated are the employees of this mercenary rest stop?"

"Free-trader," Jenna insisted. "They don't have to be dedicated. They're conditioned."

Blake frowned. "Conditioned?"

"Only not to give up the coordinates, or anything about the clients to outsiders. It's a highly-paid job, well worth a session with the conditioner. It doesn't have to hurt," Jenna told Blake, seeing him wince. "It's not torture, just reinforcing what they agreed to. It's a clean, efficient, expensive place to go when your captain doesn't allow internal ship romances. You're not unique in that, Blake," Jenna said, sharply. "Sometimes it makes sense. And I'm willing to leave you alone, if you'll be a bit more understanding of my position."

"I take it that's an ultimatum?" Blake growled.

Jenna tossed her head. "No, just plain common sense. If you refuse, I'll still fly the ship, but I'm warning you, we need this."

Blake considered, hand on chin. Vila was practically begging, Jenna had been desperate enough to take her pride in hand in front of Avon, and Avon ... well, Avon wasn't saying anything, but there was a decidedly interested look in his eyes. If his ice-cold veneer needed warming, the rest of them must be in bad shape."How far is this station?" he asked.

Jenna grinned and flung her arms around him and kissed him in sheer gratitude. That Blake could accept. Behind him he heard Vila whooping in glee and dancing a reluctant Avon around in a quick circle.

"I'll go tell Cally and Gan," Vila volunteered, running for the flight deck before Blake could disentangle himself.

Avon cocked his head at Blake. "That's the fastest I've ever seen him move. Congratulations, Blake, you finally found the way to a Delta's heart."

"It couldn't be that he wanted to make certain I didn't change my mind?" Blake chuckled.

"You had better not," Jenna said sharply.

"No," Blake said ruefully. "You've convinced me. I can't fight the Federation and you."

Jenna grinned, and headed toward the flight deck. "I'll just go change the course now."

"Er, Jenna, don't you think you ought to change something else first?" Blake asked.

Jenna stopped, looked down at herself and laughed. "Well, maybe."

Blake lounged on the flight deck couch, eyes half shut while he nibbled thoughtfully on a knuckle. Behind him he could hear Vila's excited description of the entertainment he intended to seek on the rest station and Gan's polite attempts to change the subject. Blake smiled. He felt the couch shift beside him as another body settled on the cushions.

"Why are you so cheerful?" Avon asked. He sounded disgruntled. Possibly, Blake thought, because his sharpest conversational jabs failed to draw blood from a euphoric Vila, not with them less than twenty-two hours away from 'heaven', as Vila put it. "I would have thought you'd be fretting at the delay in your quest for galactic salvation."

"I'm human too, Avon. And so are you."

"That remains to be proven," Avon replied. He crossed his arms and his legs, in a silent putting up of emotional shields. "At any rate, I do not intend to set foot on this pornographer's paradise."

"If you feel that way about it, why didn't you object?" Blake sat up, annoyed. Trust Avon to spoil the warm, Father Christmas glow of generosity that he'd been feeling.

"Because even you, with your undeniable talent for mayhem, are unlikely to get us killed while fornicating."

"So you're going along with it simply to feel safe for a day or two? You sell your morals cheaply, I see."

Avon gave Blake a wicked grin. "Did I say I had morals? Perhaps it amuses me to watch your followers make total fools of themselves."

"While you stay on the ship, alone?" Avon wanted Liberator , had always wanted her. Blake didn't believe Avon would sell them to the Federation for her, or even strand them, but leaving them on a friendly station? That might be just within his limits. Especially if he warned Blake about it ahead of time.

"Oh, well, someone must stay behind to man the bastions." Avon's grin this time was blinding, and blatantly insincere.

"Orac can do that."

Avon shrugged. "Perhaps, but Orac is only a computer. What if unforeseen circumstances arose? Would you trust Orac?"

"As much as I trust you," Blake replied, coldly. He hated this posturing, and threat/ response game that Avon insisted they play. He supposed he should be honored that he was the only one Avon treated as a worthy opponent. He would have preferred to have been regarded as a friend, but he had yet to figure Avon out. Would a friendly overture be considered a sign of weakness? Blake sighed and went silent.

Avon sat there a while longer, having succeeded in spoiling Blake's good mood. Strangely enough, it didn't seem to please him. Abruptly, he stood and went over to the games cabinet, bringing back the 3-D chess set. He placed it on the table between them and began setting up the pieces.

"What's this?" Blake asked, "A peace offering?" Despite his annoyance, he couldn't help smiling when Avon tilted his head slightly to gaze at Blake through his fringe of bangs. Avon always reminded him of a mischievous child when he did that.

"Chess is a war game," Avon replied, his eyes crinkling at the corners into laughter lines. Blake would have paid a pretty penny to find out what had caused them. The present Avon used his smiles as weapons, and rarely laughed. Although he had a good, free, full laugh on the occasions he chose to use it.

"And are we at war?" Blake asked, even softer than before.

Again the sideways, sly, look. "Not at the moment. Choose."

Avon held his clenched hands out and for a moment Blake's heart skipped several beats, before he realized he was being offered a chance at white, and the first move. "This one," he said, tapping Avon's right hand. The hand uncurled, revealing the white King.

"Black suits me better, anyway," Avon remarked as he replaced the two kings on the board.

"Only because chessmen don't come in silver," Blake muttered, recalling a certain silver leather tunic that had Cally and Jenna exchanging appreciative glances. Funny, Avon had worn the plainest of technician's outfits on the London, but since arriving on Liberator , he'd been getting more and more flamboyant. Rather like Jenna. But who was he trying to seduce? He professed to distrust Cally, as an alien, and Jenna had made it quite plain that she distrusted him. Vila? Gan? Blake chuckled to himself. He must need a holiday rather badly himself to have such outrageous notions pop up. He settled down to play chess, glad that Avon was momentarily satisfied to cut his throat only metaphorically.

"That's it?" Vila asked, when they finally arrived, sounding disappointed.

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