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Who Isn't There

By Sally M
Page 1 of 1

She hesitates by the door, a ghostly figure of gold and shadows. Indecision does not become her, she is unused to the taste of it, but too much has happened too fast, even for her.

No one else knows what she is thinking, of course, but then no one knows what her leader - she grimaces a little, maybe leader is a bad word right now - is thinking, was thinking either. Maybe employer is a better word. Maybe someone I just worked with. Whichever is safer.

A rhyme echoes in her mind, over and over.

As I was going down the stairs,

I met a man who wasn't there,

He wasn't there again today,

I think that man has gone away...

"Poor Avon," she whispers to herself. "Poor bloody Avon."

The man he shot - the Blake, that Blake that neither Vila nor Avon talked about, who seems to have more lives than a Lindorian phoenix - survives, and now, two weeks after their bloody advent into his life, they say he'll make it. Deva, a small man, with the round, wary eyes of a very bright rabbit, told them, or rather told Vila. And Vila who had cried for Blake - something she had never known him do before, not even for himself - had told her to tell Avon. And gone to get drunk.

Which is at least more like him, and there'll be plenty of people to get drunk with him. But they don't seem to blame Avon; odd, that. Of course, he can do that perfectly well himself, with help from Vila. Lots of help from Vila.

I wonder how many of them even know? Deva - the doctor - not many, I'd bet a few lives on it. May be doing so by staying ... She pushes that thought away, and palms open the door.

Blake's room.

She probably shouldn't be here, but curiosity about the man overrides caution, and she, likes the others, seems to have free run of the base. Also odd.

Turning the lights up, she gazes around. Untidy, yes, but not overly so - a big, rumpled bed, a couple of chairs piled with clothes, all of which have seen better days. Papers semi-stacked in a corner, escaping into a muddle, covered with a large, round handwriting and surprisingly neat, precise drawings - engineering plans, none of which she understands. Several guns, and a knife more suited to gutting carnivores than any purpose she wants to think of. Old booktapes, older books. Scattered tools. On one shelf, a mangled bracelet rather different from the Scorpio ones, and a leatherette pouch spilling jewels, thrown down as carelessly as cheap toys.

A candy-pink scarf, a woman's, carefully folded ... when she unwraps it, a necklace of diamonds, sparkling coldly in the dim light, falls out. Somehow, it seems important. The pilot -? Jenna? Dead, he said ...

Several holographic crystals, as delicate as soap bubbles, of people she doesn't know, and among them, one of Avon. He looked younger then - the different hair, the silver tunic - what, no black then? - the look in the brown eyes. When she half-turns it, the lips seem to touch on a smile, a real smile, just for a moment.

I met a man who wasn't there, indeed.

A computer console, with two wall-screens, and a scattering of data cubes around it. She rifles through the cubes, notes the names, though most mean nothing to her. One catches her eye - AVALON - and stirs a faint memory that sounds too much like Vila's voice; another - ARISTO BASE, STUDY - makes her pause. And the last she picks up, she knows the names on it very well. LIBERATOR. VILA. CALLY. AVON.

She pauses, then drops it to one side, picks up the one on Aristo, and drops it into the slot. The screen comes to life, figures, facts, projections flashing across the screen, silently.

His computer doesn't answer back. That's one plus. I wonder if they've found Orac yet?

She keeps watching for a minute, not really taking much in, wondering how far the man had come with these plans. Sitting on the bed, she runs a light hand across the sheets - the faint, earthy scent is there where he slept, as on the old, loose cotton shirt draped across it. She likes it. She tries to recall his face, to pull it from the confusion of that day, but all she can see is fragments; the scar, the menace, and the pain in the large, light eyes.

"What are you doing here, Soolin?"

The voice startles her, quiet, dull and very, very tired. She looks up at Avon, a dark and very still figure in the doorway.

"Trying to learn a little," she says calmly, running her hand back again. "I've given up on understanding you, Avon, so I thought I'd work on him."

"I wouldn't. He was far more confusing than I could ever claim to be."

"That's encouraging." She watches him for a moment, noting the differences. Paler, yes, almost ashen, and still in black, but a black so plain it startled her. No gun, she notes. Deva isn't quite that forgiving - or guileless.

"What does Deva say?"

"He will be guided by Blake, I gather - when Blake finally wakes."

"But I thought he did -" Last night - no, this morning, just before dawn, when they had come for Avon. They said that Blake had asked ...

She swallows stupid questions at the look in his face.

"For ten, maybe fifteen minutes," he says finally. "Vila was there first, and spoke to him. I don't think he knew I was there."

"And when he does?"

"He decides." A faint, self-directed sneer touches his white lips. "I also will be guided by him."

"Even if he wants you dead?"

"He won't."

"You seem very sure of that."

"Revenge was never Blake's style. From Deva's stories, that at least has not changed. Which," he sighs, "is one comfort. Just about everything else has."

"Are you afraid?"

A silence. "Possibly. But not of Blake."

Avon crosses to the shelves, avoiding her gaze as he touches the pink scarf.

"Jenna?"

"Jenna. Yes."

"Dead, or so he said ..."

"Deva told us more. Or rather he told Vila." Avon hesitates, something that suits him even less than it does her. "It hurt Blake. A lot of things hurt him." His hands drift to the crystals, and stop as he sees the one of himself.

She pretends not to notice. "Yes. From what I've heard, he is hardly your tame idealist figurehead now, Avon. If he ever was."

He acknowledges the hit with one weary gesture, turning away from the crystals. She breifly wonders how many of those people were a part of his life, too.

"But," she goes on, a little disturbed by his lassitude, "there may be something to be salvaged, since they have salvaged him. He is a legend, after all, and still a living one." She pulls out the data cube and hands it to him. "And it looks like he was planning to leave Gauda Prime soon, so he has a chance at staying a living one."

"I remember the place."

"It says that Orac's creator hid out there for forty years. Better odds than Xenon, perhaps?"

"Perhaps."

"But," with a shade of malice, "if he was waiting for you, as he said he was ... how long do you think he would have waited, Avon?"

He flinches. "That is hardly something I would know. He should not have done it." His lips twist again. "You were right about not being found dead here."

"He was waiting," she goes on, curious at her own curiosity. "For you. And you - we were not worth the wait, were we?"

"No."

"How long were you going to search for him?"

Avon is silent for a moment, then shrugs, in something like surrender. "As long as it took."

"And now you owe him, and you have to stay with him as long as it takes to pay." She narrows her eyes. "Probably longer than either of you have in this life."

"I don't know," he answers, still quiet and dull. He notices the shirt, stares down at it as if looking for a stain. "But probably, at least that long."

"A job for life, then. Wherever he goes, you have to go too." Have to or want to. Which is it, Avon? "A mess, Avon."

"Quite. But mine alone. If you wish to leave," he pauses, with a look almost of helplessness that she never thought to see on his face, "Blake's people won't stop you."

"I'll think about it. Maybe," with deliberation, "I'll wait until I do understand - both of you - before I decide." The look on his face - confusion? gratitude? - is worth it. "From what they all say, Avon, he's dangerous now."

"And you and I are not?"

"Yes, but..." She shrugs. "All right. All right. Vila says that he will be worth it."

"Vila?" There's a flash of life, of the Avon she knows in his eyes. "He is hardly a source of reliable information. And he is - was - is emotionally attached to Blake."

"Which you are not. Of course."

"Which I am - don't, Soolin." He puts up a hand. "Don't. It has nothing to do with you."

"Except that it nearly got us all killed, Avon. That makes it something to do with us." She strokes the sheet again, fingers drifting to the shirt, catching in the worn cotton. For a moment she can see the man's worn, tired, strong face. "So we will do our best - for a while at least - to make sure that the living legend stays alive." Had he not seemed an enemy, she would have -

Would have -

"You will like Blake, I think," Avon says quietly.

"As Vila does, or - as you do?"

"No."

"Because you don't like anyone?"

"Because -" And there he stops. He picks up the bracelet, turning it in his blunt fingers, almost gently. He whispers, just to himself, but she hears it. "I don't know that I like him. I just don't want him to be dead." A pause, and even softer still. "I don't want him to be dead."

You love him, Soolin thinks, unsurprised at the thought. Obvious, really.

Poor Avon. Poor bloody, bloodied Avon.


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