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By Nell Howell
Page 1 of 5

The door slid open, letting in a spill of corridor light that framed a dark bulk.

"Oh, it's you." Vila couldn't summon anything but limp indifference, letting his eyes drift back to the bottle clasped in his lap. "I must have forgotten to lock the door."

"Perhaps you simply did not intend to keep me out."

"Or maybe I'd given up thinking you'd have the nerve to come. There's a thought for you. Been awhile, hasn't it?"

Avon moved forward to allow the door to slide shut behind him. Vila watched obliquely as shadowed eyes probed the room in a single, appraising sweep. A solitary light on low provided a dim, softened ambience, but it would take a less-acute observer than his visitor to mistake it for sultry. The dimness was that of a cave, a hideaway, a cocoon. A retreat from normality. An attitude summed up, Vila supposed, in his own rumpled and unprepossessing figure sitting cross-legged on the bunk that the mirror on the far wall reflected with unfeeling verity. His eyes caught disinterestedly on the reflection of the dark gaze that fixed on his own hunched figure as Avon moved a step further into the room. For a moment, he thought he glimpsed a subtle tension in the interloper, but Avon shifted and the impression was gone. Vila didn't care enough to wonder.

"You seem to have lost the nerve to come out," Avon rasped. "If it isn't an oxymoron to use the words 'nerve' and 'you' in the same breath."

"Oh, that's nice. Hiding, am I? Wondered what I was doing." He moved his shoulders inside the scratchiness of a tunic worn too long without being changed, then turned it into a shrug of dismissal. He lifted the fluted bottle to his mouth.

"The others are becoming concerned about your absence. Whilst undoubtedly only a passing lapse in judgement on their parts, it's becoming an irritatingly urgent theme nonetheless."

He lowered the bottle. "Really? Now, that's touching, that is. I really am touched, deep down. Honest. All het up about it, are they? Tarrant pulling his curls out? Dayna regretting all the things she's said to me? Life in our beloved Xenon Base grounding to a halt out of worry for poor old Vila? I can just see it. Gratifying, that's what it is."

The silence might have been awkward if he had allowed himself to attend to it. As it was, the quiet was simply there, endurable until it went away. Like so very much else in life these days.

"Vila, even you can't hide yourself away for ever. You have duties you're neglecting, for one thing."

"D'you know," he confided, settling his eyes on the dark, broad-shouldered shape standing straight and still in the centre of his room, "I reckon I can do what I want. I mean, I'm not really meant to be here at all, am I? It's a curious thing, when you think about it. What's the status of a dead man who's still alive? It takes a lot of pondering, I'll tell you, to get to the bottom of it."

The cultured voice was harsh now, as though Avon spoke through gritted teeth. "Do you intend to skulk in here indefinitely, guzzling that rot and spouting asinine rubbish?"

He paused in his restless smoothing of the cool, familiar bottle. He half-smiled towards his visitor as a frisson of melancholy skirled across his nerves. With more of an effort than he'd expected, he kept his voice light, even managing to inject a sweetness he knew would aggravate: "Have I ever mentioned how much I admire your wonderful vocabulary, Avon? It's an inspiration to the rest of us, no doubt about it."

Avon took an audible breath; when he spoke, his voice was a paradigm of control. "Vila. You can sulk in here for the rest of your miserable life for all I care, but you can't keep everyone else away. Dayna, for one, is raring to force her way in."

"Probably hoping to find my corpse," he commented to the two fingers of pale green liquid, which sloshed merrily in the bottle's fat belly in response. At least he could always count on one audience who appreciated his view on things. "Very bloodthirsty, our little Dayna. Been ages since she had a thrill like that. And Tarrant would enjoy burying me in space. Lovely chance to spout all that FSA rubbish he learnt. At the least, he'd enjoy shoving me out the airlock. Or--" he looked up, widening his eyes to their fullest "--maybe you'd prefer to do that, Avon?"

"Stop it, Vila."

The restrained violence in Avon's voice barely penetrated his preoccupation.

"Having failed the first time and all." He took another drawn-out swallow of liquid defence.

The silence persisted longer this time. He indulged a prolonged contemplation of the polished black leather boots planted apart on the grey synth-carpet. He'd found the rug rolled up in one of the storage bays whilst poking into all the locked areas early in their sojourn on Xenon Base. He'd appropriated it as thief's right, sneaking it into his room as a plain but somewhat warmer alternative to the metal floors everywhere. After all, he didn't always manage to make it all the way into bed. Much nicer waking up in the morning to discover he'd passed out on a bit of a cushioned surface, scratchy and dull as it was.

He noticed Avon's boots were in their usual immaculate condition. Avon was an amazing man, in some ways. In other ways, of course....

"Not that it was for lack of trying." He smiled at the broad back as Avon whipped around and headed for the door. "Not going already, are you? After it took you so long to come and all." He broke off to grin at the stiffening of the already straight shoulders. "How long's it been, anyway? Since you last...came."

Avon paused. He remained facing the door as he spoke. "You've been in hiding for thirteen days."

"That long? Well. I really didn't think you'd hold out for that long, Avon. See how you keep managing to surprise me, even after all these years."

Avon swung around in a flurry of silver-studded leather and barely leashed violence. "Vila--"

"It's all right, though. You're here now, aren't you? Knew you'd break down sometime. Funny, when you think about it, you breaking before me. Bit of a laugh, that. When you think about it."

A muscle jumped in Avon's jaw as he ground his teeth. "I suppose you know what you're trying to say."

"Oh, I think you know what I'm talking about, Avon."

He left the bed and set the bottle on the table with care before advancing on the other man. He drew on the same languorous control he'd shown while drinking. He wasn't far gone, not yet, not tonight; he wanted that fact to be plain. He moved close to Avon, crowding into the slightly taller and broader man, hustling his body against Avon's.

"Got all those seething underground needs of yours to consider, haven't we? After all, I'm happy with a bottle--or two--of adrenaline and soma. But you're a far more complicated man, aren't you, Kerr Bleeding-Alpha Avon? There's so much more fire in you that a mere sedative can't quench it. It demands something more...immediate," and Vila closed his hand purposefully on the leather-encased groin.

As though freed from a restraint table, Avon's hands flew up and gripped Vila's shoulders in a bruising hold, like claws piercing him. He opened his mouth to squawk, but Avon's hard mouth silenced him, Avon's tongue forcing a more tangible penetration. For a moment, Vila's mouth softened in response, but then he shifted, took Avon's lower lip between his teeth and nipped. Avon reared back. Vila stood his ground, wiping the back of his hand across his lips.

"Want your needs seen to again, Avon? Knew you'd come, didn't I? Oh, yes, I knew you'd come. Knew you wouldn't be able to stay away. No one else here, is there? No one else who'll have you. Or should I say, put up with you--"

The slap wasn't hard, but it made him stagger, just a little, unexpected as it was. He fetched up against the table. He snatched up the bottle and retreated to the bed. He huddled against the wall, not drinking, feeding instead on his anger and a cold well of despair that had become familiar over the past long days.

"Don't try to pretend that it was all one-sided, Vila." Avon's voice was the icy, cutting one that indicated rage. "You are far more engrossed in sensuality than I am."

"What would you do if I were dead?" He breathed the words, not expecting an answer. He wasn't sure Avon would even hear him.

"I realise that it is a difficult concept to grasp, but you are not dead. Stop acting like a walking corpse and admit the truth: you want this as much as I do. You always did and you always will." The voice, as implacable and cold as the words, struck him with misery.

"I could have been dead. If you'd had your way. Then what'd you do, eh? Try it on with Tarrant?" The thought sparked a surge of primitive delight. "I could just see it--"

"If you were dead, you wouldn't see anything, fool. You are not dead. Start acting like you're alive."

"Alive when you want me to be, you mean." He tumbled headlong from elation back into desolation. He noticed a slight trembling of the green liquid, realising only after a moment it was from his hand. He studied this curious phenomenon with detached interest as he spoke. "You only lasted thirteen days. Not much, is it? Considering the pickle you'd have been in if things had happened as you'd planned. I could have held out a lot longer than you. Must be a come down, realising that. Doesn't it bother you?"

"What galls me is your refusal to grow up and use the half a brain you were born with. We are both alive. The past is done, the present is perilous enough, and we undoubtedly won't have much peace before Tarrant gets his next precipitous urge to fling us all off on some new quest. If you want to waste the privacy while it is here and we're both ready--"

"You're the one who flings us off on quests, though. The merest whisper about Blake having been seen and we're off across the galaxies--"

"Blake is dead. You are alive."

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