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Rumours With A View

By Alicia Ann Fox
Page 1 of 1

Roj Blake arrived at the Presidential Palace on Earth at 1400 hours precisely, the day after Sula Chesku's coup. Everything appeared to be well in hand; all of the rebels were dressed in captured Federation uniforms and seemed organized. The man Hob who met him ushered him into Sula's headquarters.

"Yesterday this was Servalan's office," Hob said. When Blake only nodded in response, he said, "Sula should be along soon. She's looking forward to meeting the man who helped to make this possible."

"I'm looking forward to meeting her as well," Blake replied, and sat in one of the chairs before the desk. Hob exited and Blake leaned back in the chair, hoping that at last all his work would pay off.

#

"I'm going alone," Avon insisted. "Call me in fifteen minutes if you must be foolish." He crossed to the teleport platform and drew his gun. "Put me down, Orac."

*Need I remind you that dusk would be--*

"Shut up, Orac. Put me down."

Avon's form shimmered and vanished, reappearing within the foyer of the Presidential Palace. He took a step or two forward and when a red-haired man in Federation uniform walked by, Avon grabbed him. Lifting his gun, he said, coldly, "Take me to your superior. I need to see her."

The trooper did not appear surprised, merely said, "Of course," and led Avon down several hallways. At last they came to a door. "Her office is in there, sir. She'll be along presently." Hob quickly made his escape, wondering why he hadn't heard that Kerr Avon was back with Blake.

Avon entered the office and holstered his gun, only to reach for it again when he realized someone was in one of the chairs. The figure stood up, turned; Avon let go of his gun butt as though it were hot. Two pairs of brown eyes met in utter confusion.

"Avon?!"

Very quietly Avon said, "Hello, Blake."

"Avon, how did you find me?" Blake was sounding pleased to see him. Impossible.

"Where have you been, Blake," Avon monotoned.

"Letting you have the Liberator," the other man answered as though it were perfectly obvious.

"Why?"

"It is your ship, Avon," Blake said reasonably.

Avon's fist contacted Blake's jaw just as the door opened behind him and someone dove in. A split second later Avon's arm was yanked sharply against his back and pinioned. Almost immediately, however, Blake's voice said, "Let him go, Sula. I'm assuming you are Sula."

Released, Avon stood there gasping and slowly rubbing his shoulder, preparing a scathing comment. He turned on his attacker--and stopped, for a moment unable to speak. When he recovered, his voice came hoarsely. "You're dead."

"Avon!" she breathed, hesitated, then flung her arms around him and pressed her face into his chest. "You escaped--"

Long pause. "How did you get away?" Avon asked harshly.

"I ran to Chesku--I--" she released him. "I married Chesku. He protected me--I needed to stay alive--"

"You certainly didn't inform Del." Avon seemed to be recovering from the initial shock. "Give me the truth Anna. What are you doing with him."

He obviously meant Blake, not Chesku; but Sula straightened and said, "Chesku's dead. I killed him."

Surprisingly, Avon smiled a small smile. "Yes, that would be like you. He wasn't any more use to you, was he?"

"I didn't love him. I've been working for the rebellion for nearly six years. Chesku was a tool, nothing more."

"And was I nothing more?"

"Oh, Avon," she breathed, and caressed his cheek. He drew back. "No. I was working for Federation Security to conceal my other activities and they assigned me to you, but...it wasn't what you think."

Avon bared his teeth. "A triple cross. Let me guess--your code name was Bartholomew."

Surprised, she asked, "How did you know?" When he didn't answer she continued, "Tell me why you're here, Avon my love."

"I came to ascertain the identity of Agent Bartholomew, who had killed Anna Grant. Revenge. It doesn't seem as if that will be necessary." They fell silent. Blake rubbed his jaw and made a face. Watching, Avon suddenly realized that his hand was throbbing quite painfully, and that he should have been more selective about his choice of targets. Very, very carefully he shook his fingers and decided they weren't much worse than the rest of him, at this moment. He looked up again and found himself the object of both Blake's and Anna's scrutiny.

"Why did you come here, specifically?" Blake asked.

Avon's teleport bracelet chimed and he lifted his arm slowly. "Avon here. Everything is--fine. I'll call in later."

Vila's voice answered before Avon could turn the comm unit off. "What the hell d'you mean, fine?! You're in the middle of the Presidential Palace and you say you're fine?!"

Avon had no idea how to communicate the enormity of what he had just experienced, so for a long moment he stared at his bracelet with his mouth hanging open. Suddenly he tore off the bracelet and shoved it into Blake's hand.

"Avon?" Vila's voice said. "Are you there?"

Blake clicked the bracelet closed and held it up. "He's here, Vila."

"Then let me--Blake?!"

"Yes, it's Blake. It's good to hear your voice, Vila."

"Where the hell have you--what are you doing there? You're not--no, you haven't been captured, have you?"

"No. There's been a coup, Vila, by Sula Chesku, who heads up the resistance on Earth these days. Servalan is safely locked away. Avon's fine. We'll call in again soon." He switched the bracelet off and proffered it to Avon. "Before we were interrupted," he prompted.

Avon refastened the bracelet with a decisive click and went behind Anna's desk to sit in the chair. "As I said, I wanted to find the identity of Agent Bartholomew. I intended to ask Servalan."

Anna perched on a corner of the desk. "Risky, Avon. Would you have killed her?" She sounded curious, nothing more.

"Not if she had given me the information that I needed. As Blake once said, better the enemy you know than the one you do not know."

"I--can't fault your logic," Blake said, his eyes smiling. "Will you stay, now, and help us?"

"We need to talk," Anna said softly, for Avon's ears only. He looked at her searchingly, then wearily pushed himself to his feet.

"I must consult with my crew. I'll let you know tomorrow." He lifted his arm. "Vila, this is Avon. We'll be staying for at least a day. Anna--is alive. Sula is Anna--I'll call for teleport in a moment."

Vila had always been good at masking surprise. "All right. Vila out."

"Out." He looked at the two rebels. "If you would, send us a report on the situation. Blake knows how to contact us." Blake winced. "Bring me up, Vila." He disappeared in the familiar white flash.

On the Liberator, Avon materialized and stood swaying uncertainly. Vila took his arm with one hand and gave him adrenaline and soma with the other. "Drink that," he said, steering him off the platform.

Avon looked at Vila. He looked at Cally, who was there also for some reason he could not fathom. He drained the glass in three quick swallows and coughed. Again he looked up and said, "I'll be in my cabin."

"I'll make sure you get there," said Vila. "Want to give me a hand, Cally?"

"I don't need--" One knee buckled. Vila caught him. Avon sighed. It had been a very long week. "If you insist, Vila."

"Oh, I do. Come on, Cally. He weighs a ton."

About a half-hour later Vila and Cally were in the relaxation room, talking.

"He certainly fell asleep quickly," murmured Cally. "I knew he hadn't slept but--he must have been totally exhausted. It's a wonder he stayed on his feet as long as he did, and was actually coherent...."

Vila smiled slyly. "Actually that adrenaline and soma was more soma than adrenaline. It doesn't make that much difference to the taste."

Cally looked up from studying her hands. "Good. He needed it. That his Anna was a triple agent, all along--it's difficult to believe." Absently she began drumming her fingers on the table, her eyes flickering from point to point in the room.

"Cally--"

"Yes, Vila."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing is wrong."

"Yes, there is. You're chewing on your lip and drumming your fingers. Does it have anything to do with Avon?"

"No...." Suddenly she got up and went to the drinks dispenser. "Do you want anything, Vila?"

"Just fruit juice--if it's not Avon, then it's Auron. Are you sure you're all right?"

Cally put a glass before him and sat down again. "I have accepted that Auron is gone, and that I--we--could not have saved it--but it will take time to grow used to the emptiness."

"I'm sorry, Cally. I didn't say before, did I?" She shook her head. "If you ever need--someone to talk to, or a spare shoulder...I've never been known to refuse."

She looked up from her mug, around which she had curled her fingers. "I'm fine. Really I am."

Vila deemed it wise not to say what he thought of that. Instead he took a sip of his fruit juice and simply watched her, until Dayna wandered in.

"So tell me, Vila," she said, choosing a seat between them at the round table, "What else did Avon say?"

"Not much of anything," Vila replied, dragging his eyes away from Cally with difficulty. "He did mumble something about us getting a message from Blake and Anna by way of Orac, to explain things."

"I hope so," said Dayna fervently. "This whole thing is too unbelievable for words." She stopped. "What's that you're drinking, Cally?"

"Cinnamon tea," Cally remarked absently, taking her first sip.

"I've never had that," remarked Dayna, getting up. "Sorry I can't stay and chat but--" she drew a mug of tea "--it's my watch in about five minutes."

As if in response, the comm unit on the wall crackled. "Are you coming, Dayna?" said Tarrant's voice. "I could really use some sleep."

"Coming, Tarrant. I'll see you two later." Dayna exited hurriedly, carrying her mug well away from her body. As if Dayna's words had been a cue, Cally rose also.

"I missed my last sleep period. Call me if anything happens." She left before Vila had time to say anything. With a sigh he tossed back the rest of his fruit juice and returned to the teleport room; Orac was still there and Vila wanted to wait for the message from Blake.

#

Vila wasn't sure how long he had been sitting at the teleport when Orac said, *The message you are awaiting is being sent.*

"About time--what does it say?"

*Sula Chesku requests teleport to deliver it personally.*

"Damn." Vila spent a long moment chewing his lip. He really had no basis to refuse her, so...why not? He snapped on a bracelet and tucked another into his jacket pocket. "Orac, put me down."

*There are other humans aboard this ship--*

"Just do it, unless you want to be rewired as a footwarmer for Tarrant."

Vila was unprepared for his first sight of Anna Grant. She was small and delicate, but otherwise unremarkable. He had to forcibly remind himself that she had, according to the little Avon had said, once worked for Central Security.

"I'm Vila Restal," he said, giving her the bracelet. "Where's Blake? Can I see him?"

She smiled. "He's reviewing the troops." After a moment had gone by, she said, "I'm ready to go."

Vila started. "Oh! Uh, Orac, teleport now."

Anna returned the bracelet as soon as they stepped off the teleport platform. "Where is Avon? I'd like to give it to him."

"Uh--you can't. Just give it to me and we'll listen to it on the flight deck."

"Why can't I give it to Avon?" She sounded vaguely puzzled as well as slightly irritated.

"He's--well, he's, uh--sleeping."

"Don't try to lie to me, Restal. The man's as near to chronic insomnia as makes no difference." She had come a step closer and although he was taller, Vila was feeling exceedingly intimidated.

"I'm not lying--he really is sleeping--look, I'd rather be called Vila, okay?"

"Restal. I know you're hiding something from me. Did he tell you he didn't want to see me?"

"No...."

"Then let me see him. Is he in his cabin?"

"He'll kill me!"

"I will kill you. Where is Avon's cabin?"

"If I show you, will you wait until he wakes up?"

The puzzled look crossed her face again. "You're serious, aren't you. He really is asleep."

"I told you--why would I lie? Come on. You won't let him kill me, will you?"

She smiled. "No, Vila. You have my word."

Neither Cally nor Vila had locked Avon's door when they had left him. Vila slipped inside first and turned on the fluoro lights in the deck. "Good luck," he murmured, and left.

The deck lights cast odd shadows, but in a moment her eyes adjusted and she could make out details. The cabin was roomier than she had expected; but the vast number of computer tapes were familiar, as were the profusion of delicate tools, all arranged neatly in a rack over his worktable.

The cabin's occupant slumbered obliviously, sleeping as deep a sleep as she'd ever seen him, sprawled and motionless, the blanket at chest-level. There was a chair nearby, more comfortable than the one at his worktable, so Anna placed the message tape on a shelf and settled down to wait. And wait. And wait.

She rose and paced restlessly for a moment, then went to sit on the edge of the bed, and reached out toward him--and his eyes slowly blinked open. He studied her in a somewhat unfocused manner for several seconds, then swallowed and murmured, "What time is it?"

"I have absolutely no idea," she said, smiling, switching on a bedside light.

He blinked again, more sharply this time, and suddenly seemed to remember where he was. Reflexively, he pulled the blanket up and clasped his fists beneath his chin. "How did you get in here?"

"Vila let me in."

"He knows I'll kill him for that."

"I made a similar threat."

"Ah. I see his dilemma, then...." There was a brief pause as he sat up, still concealed beneath the blanket.

"Avon, why are you hiding?"

"What?"

He was a trifle too offended by the simple question. "It's only me," she said, then grabbed a fistful of blanket and yanked. And found herself studying an all-too-familiar pattern of abrasions and bruises. Their eyes met. Avon looked down, then up again, and their eyes locked.

"Let me see your arms," she said, too calmly. Silently he extended them, palms up. She traced the needle marks gently with her fingertips. He looked down again and she laid her hand against his cheek. "How?"

He caught her wrist and drew her hand away, but did not resist when she clasped his fingers. "We went to Earth," he said softly, "and I went down with Dayna. Then I sent her back up with my teleport bracelet."

"You mean--you intended to be caught."

"I needed to find someone."

"Who could you possibly want from Interrogation Division?!" Then she stopped. "No...."

"Shrinker's dead."

Quietly she asked, "Did he tell you about Bartholomew?"

"Yes."

There was an extended pause. "How long?" Anna asked.

"They told me five days."

"Oh, Avon..." she said painfully. "I'm sorry...."

With a tiny flash of fire he replied, "How was I to know it would all be for nothing?"

"But it wasn't--if only I'd known!"

"Why didn't you tell me?" he burst out. "You had to have known I was alive."

"I meant to--as soon as it was safe. After the coup."

He smiled. "I have an excellent sense of timing, haven't I?"

She nodded dumbly, unable to see any humor in the situation. His smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared. "Avon," Anna said, her voice near breaking, "has anyone ever told you that you are an idiot?"

"Not recently."

"Someone should...." She looked into his eyes again, under control. "It still isn't safe for you to be here."

"I know."

"When it is safe...I will tell Del. Is he--are things going well for him? I had no excuse to read the reports, few as they were."

"I saw him a few months before the Andromedan invasion. His fees have increased a great deal."

Anna chuckled. "Naturally. And?"

"He was well. He no longer wants to kill me."

"That's good."

This time the silence was more companionable. At last Avon said, "You brought a report of some kind, I take it."

"Oh, yes. It's on your shelf. I thought you should have it first."

"I hadn't expected you to be quite so prompt." He yawned. "I think I shall have to see it later."

"You're relying on trust?"

"If you'd wanted to kill me, you've had ample opportunity."

"You have a point," Anna commented. She stood, released his hand and, smiling, brushed the hiar back from his forehead. "Get some sleep, Avon. I have to go back down for a while but--I'll be back. Call when you've all viewed the tape."

"Yes," he said, watching her leave before going back to sleep.

#

Anna reappeared in her office and tucked the teleport bracelet into one of the large pockets of the fatigue jacket she had acquired earlier in the day. Vila had not even suggested that he go down with her and retrieve the bracelet. When she had returned to the teleport room without the tape, he had actually been friendly.

She crossed the room and settled in her chair, noting that the odor of Servalan's perfume had finally dissipated. Hopefully the power Servalan embodied would fade in the same way...Anna pressed a button on the desk and was answered by one of her lieutenants.

"Where is Blake?" she asked.

"I just came on shift, Sula, but I was told he was heading for your office."

"Thank you, Darin." It was a matter of pride to her to know everyone's name in her group, as it had been with Kasabi before her; she believed it was one of the more important differences between the Federation and the rebellion. She sat up straighter to await Blake.

He was not long in coming. Anna rose to greet him and offered him a chair. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to be more cordial earlier, but the circumstances were unusual."

"For me as well," Blake said ruefully, gingerly touching the bruise on his jaw. "Avon was the last person I had expected to see. Though I suspect you were more surprised than I. You are Anna Grant, aren't you?"

"I see there's no point in denying it. However, it goes no farther than you, Roj Blake. Anna Grant has been dead for many years."

"Avon certainly thought so," Blake prodded, hoping for more information. He was disappointed.

"Don't try to manipulate me. If Avon wants to tell you anything, he will."

Blake nodded. "All right." He changed the topic smoothly. "I've had a look round. You're very efficient, Sula."

"Thank you."

"Everyone looks to be prepared for any retaliation from the Federation."

"Yes."

"And our space blockade is shaping up well."

"Yes."

Blake smiled slowly, then the smile vanished. "Then shall we have a chat with Servalan?"

#

Cally awoke and lay still for a moment, trying to will herself back to sleep, but knowing that it was a lost cause. She turned stiffly on her side and looked at the chronometer she kept on a shelf near her bunk.

She'd managed to sleep for two hours this time; perhaps she was recovering. The headaches had begun to fade, at least. She had been beginning to fear that psychic damage caused by Auron's death would be too great for her to overcome; luckily she could monitor herself with stray flashes from the crew, along with the steady "background noise" she could always feel. If anything, she was now stronger in her perception. It helped that she had grown attuned to her crewmates; she generally knew who was in a room before she entered it. She could dimly sense Avon, in the cabin next to her own, deep in sleep. That was good; she had not told him how much his own anxiety of late had distressed her. She concentrated, trying to enter the state of sleep as well, but her mind was too full of thoughts. With a disgusted sigh she threw off her blanket and dressed in a loose brown shirt and trousers. She paced about her cabin, touching the rifle which hung on her wall, the moon disc that "slumbered" in the cooler sands near the edge of its tray. She straightened the already-neat contents of her drawers. She tried again to move the tiny plastic ball in its maze with telekinesis.

Cally sighed again and sat in one of the chairs near her worktable, trying to reach a light trance. She could only fidget and finally, exasperated, leaped to her feet and headed for the flight deck.

Tarrant was there again, checking over their position in bare feet and pajamas. This was not odd; Jenna had often done the same thing; all of the pilots Cally knew were paranoid.

Tarrant finished his checks and went out, smiling at her as he passed. Dayna was at the weaponry console, eyes fixed on the scanners. Cally asked Zen for visual display and looked at the Earth for a few moments, then turned away restlessly.

"Cally? Were you listening?"

"No. What is it, Dayna?"

"Vila said Sula or Anna or whatever her name is brought up a report on the coup. We're going to watch it as soon as Avon wakes up."

"Has there been any word from Blake?"

"Not yet."

"Let me know if he calls," she said, though it was unlikely at this hour. She left the flight deck but stopped in the corridor just outside. Her head had begun to throb again. Fatigue, she decided, and stopped to massage her temples. Painkillers and then the manual back-ups at the communications station would perhaps take care of it. She quickened her step but as she reached her cabin, she slowed. No, it wasn't painkillers she wanted. What she wanted was some of Vila's adrenaline and soma. Soma would let her sleep...yet she stopped before his door. She had been rather impolite earlier. It would not be right for her to--no. Personal honor was not at issue here. The functioning of the crew, as a unit, was. She knocked.

"Hold on a minute--" The door slid open; Vila was in bare feet, a boot in one hand. "Oh, hullo Cally. We've got a report on the coup--"

"Dayna told me."

He focused on her more sharply, then stood the boot by its mate. "Have a seat."

She sat. Vila favored roomy chairs with lots of padding; Cally decided she needed one like this. It was exceedingly comfortable, just like Vila himself. "Vila-have you got any adrenaline and soma?"

He grinned. "Of course." He fetched two glasses from a hidden cabinet, held them in one hand. "You want some?" Cally nodded. He set the glasses on his worktable--there was no desk--and, producing a flask, poured about two centimeters for himself and more than half a glass for Cally. "I'd drink it slowly if I were you."

She stopped with the glass halfway lifted. "This is what you gave to Avon, isn't it?"

"I have high tolerance for soma."

"I do not."

"I know."

Cally watched him unwaveringly and took a long sip. He had improved the taste since the last time she'd had any, but it still burned in her throat. Vila drank his down in one swallow and reluctantly put his glass aside. "I've had enough for today," he sighed and, coming around behind her, began to massage her shoulders. Cally took another sip and leaned back. The world was slowly receding.

"You're wonderful, Vila," she murmured.

"Why, thank you. Feel free to call on me any time. Even Avon does, sometimes."

"Avon?"

"Mmmhmnh."

The silence stretched. Sometime later Vila said, very softly, "Cally?" No response. He shook his hands form the wrists, stepped around the chair, bent, and lifted. Then froze, to make sure she didn't wake. Weighs about as much as my kit, he thought ruefully, and every kilo trained to kill. He sighed and headed for the door.

#

Roj Blake and Anna Grant stood in the corridor outside of the room that had been utilized as a cell for Servalan. "Well," Blake said. "That was...unprofitable." They began walking towards Anna's office again. "I should have realized she would bounce back; it's one of the prerogatives of arrogance."

"She will have no choice but to do as we ask," Anna said. "She thinks she is safe because she believes you will not kill her."

"And I won't. I've given it up, since Star One; one can gain too much power that way. Power with a rotten base."

"I, however, can threaten. Tomorrow I'll have a chat with her alone."

"You're in charge." They had entered the office. "May I use your terminal? I'd like to add to the tape before I transmit it."

"I've already delivered it."

Blake looked up sharply. "You must have delivered it personally, then."

"Yes. They should view it in the morning."

"Perhaps I should make the addendum personally."

"Why not wait? They will--Avon will--have more perspective once they know the whole story."

"You're probably right." He bit the side of his finger, made a fist. "It's only that I've missed them."

"Tomorrow," Anna said. "I hope they missed you; Liberator would be an excellent threat to use against Servalan."

"I hadn't wanted to mention it, but that had occurred to me, as well...tomorrow, then."

#

It was the following morning on Liberator. Though he had successfully dissuaded Vila, Avon had been unable to escape from Dayna, who had locked herself in with him, brandishing a skin regenerator and a tube of liniment. Humiliating was not quite the word for it, Avon decided; he had (eventually) decided that to submit was the wiser course. Dayna had threatened to break a few bones and he knew she was capable of it. So, they began the tape a little later than expected, but it worked out in the end, as Cally was late.

The tape revealed that Blake had not, in fact, been the instigator of this coup. Anna Grant--they were warned to refer to her as Sula--had taken over a plan originally formulated by Kasabi. After Kasabi's death in the Central Control debacle, the leadership of the forces left on Earth had fallen to Anna, and she had begun the implementation. When Blake had contacted her, all that she lacked were sufficient weapons. Blake had innumerable contacts, and had much more freedom of movement than the wife of a High Council member. Blake managed to provide the guns, and the day after Anna's occupation of the Presidential Palace had been consolidated, he had arrived, to meet with Anna and make public his support. They hoped Servalan would publicly resign very soon.

Anna's face disappeared from the screen. Dayna spoke first. "They should kill Servalan."

"That's a Federation technique," Tarrant commented.

"She is Federation," said Dayna.

"We are not animals, Dayna," Cally said. Dayna subsided. It was an old argument between them. Cally returned to the question at hand. "I am impressed with Sula's methods so far."

"I'd like to stay for a while," said Vila. "We haven't seen Blake yet."

"Avon has," Tarrant reminded. "And he has more at stake than we do. What do you think, Avon?"

"I think you should mind your own business," Avon snarled.

"Don't mind him, Avon," said Dayna in a faintly exasperated tone. "He forgot to switch on his brain when he got up this morning."

Tarrant grinned at her sarcastically. Avon twisted his finger and appeared to be considering the question. At last he looked up, the faintest of smiles flickering at the corner of his mouth. "We stay," he said flatly.

"Then I stay," said Dayna.

"All right," said Tarrant. "At any rate, I'd like to meet Blake."

Avon glanced briefly at Cally. "You know what my decision is," she said.

"I already said," Vila put in.

Avon stood. "Where is Orac?"

"Still in the teleport room," said Tarrant.

"I will bring Anna," he said calmly, and left. Tarrant clasped his hands behind his neck and leaned back. Cally watched Vila, who was looking obscurely pleased. Dayna got up and paced around like a caged tiger. No-one said anything.

In the teleport room, after she had given him a brief account of the current situation, Avon watched Anna materialize. He stepped in front of the console and said, "Hello, there." The words were spoken quietly, without obvious inflection, but Anna knew all the shadings of his voice and smiled.

"Hello, Avon."

He studied her, not smiling but looking pleased all the same. "I don't doubt your ability to threaten, Anna, but from what you said a moment ago the Liberator possesses quite enough force to adequately meet your needs."

"Yes, I had thought of that. After Blake and I had spoken to Servalan."

"I thought you might have." They looked at each other for a long moment, then Avon said, "Let's go to the flight deck." He turned in that direction, Anna at his side. After a moment, without looking at her, he reached out his hand. Anna beamed and linked her fingers with his. Avon glanced at her sideways, under his lashes, and allowed a small smile.

#

Blake and Vila appeared in the teleport and stepped forward; Avon and Anna were waiting to go down, as Avon wanted more information. Blake and Avon passed each other with nothing more than a glance, but Blake's look translated as "We'll talk later" and Avon's as "If you really think it's necessary."

Cally operated the teleport, then looked up. Blake had slotted his bracelet into the rack with the ease of long familiarity but had not moved any farther; he simply stood and exuded presence, while Tarrant and Dayna sized him up. Vila was looking also; suddenly he said, "Been in a scuffle, Blake?"

"Not exactly." He did not comment further, but Cally immediately realized where Blake had acquired the bruise on his jaw.

"You're lucky it wasn't me," she said, not getting up. "Why haven't you contacted us?"

"Worried about me?" Blake asked, half-jokingly.

"Yes. Why, Blake?"

He gathered his thoughts for a moment. "At first--by the time I reached anywhere remotely safe, Liberator was out of range of my bracelet comm unit. Contacting Orac may have brought the dogs down on you. Then, later...I was needed to drum up support for Sula. I thought that after the coup, perhaps.... You--the Liberator and its crew--were--are--a symbol, with or without me. And without me you've proven that you can do quite well. I couldn't interfere because of my own personal desires, and...I had given the ship to Avon. If I'd come back--"

"Did you ever think that we might have wanted to see you?"

"Sometimes. I didn't dare hope it was true."

"Perhaps it was," Cally said. She rose. "We should talk on the flight deck."

"I've rather missed Zen," Blake said, as they walked in that direction. "And even Orac."

"Ha!" Vila exclaimed. "Pile of junk. At least Zen doesn't insult us."

"Some of us deserve to be insulted," Tarrant said, but his tone was jovial, so Vila responded mildly. The banter continued as the group entered the flight deck.

"Hullo, Zen," said Blake.

+Welcome, Roj Blake.+

Blake looked to Cally in surprise. "My voice print--"

"Why should we wipe your voice print?" she answered reasonably.

Blake paused. "Of course you're right. There's no reason you should have."

"We've been looking for you, you know," Vila said. "And it wasn't for the symbolic value."

Quietly Blake said, "Before Star One all of you told me that I was--taking too much on myself. Afterwards I realized you had been right. It seems that I was wrong this time as well."

Tarrant decided that he liked this man. "Have a seat," he offered. "I'd like to hear about the rebel blockade. We've picked up interesting things on the scanners."

"All right. But first, I'd like to hear what happened while I was gone."

#

"Impressive," Avon said, looking up from the computer screen. "You have made good use of Servalan's computers. I think Orac can extrapolate the current location of Space Command Headquarters from this data."

"That would be nice, but I'd been thinking of a smaller target."

Avon shrugged. "I think big." Then he grinned briefly but hugely at her. "Very well, what do you suggest?"

Anna sat on the desk next to the terminal. "I had been thinking of the research and development center in the eighth dome."

Avon looked at her darkly. "I once worked there. If it hadn't been for the teleport project...."

"I know. But I didn't think you'd be sentimental about the place."

"Ha. Ha. Some of the most stagnant minds in the Federation hide themselves there. It was living hell."

"Boring, you mean."

"Oh yes. Every idea filtered through years of bureaucracy and committees, and all for what? Weapons. The weapons they have kill quite efficiently. Arguing with Vila is more challenging."

"You don't think it a good target, then."

"I think you know something that I don't."

"You're right. In the past three months the research and development center has seen the installation of six new strategy computers."

"Space Command."

"Oh yes. The computers aren't irreplaceable, but they did cost a lot of credits. I'm sure their memory banks are not unique, but their loss could be troublesome. In short, a first warning."

"You're very good at this."

"Thank you. You'll do it?"

Avon switched off the terminal. "Of course. I'm sure there will be no argument from my crew. They were quite impressed by you."

"Really? After they'd had you?"

"Don't be foolish, Anna. I am neither a strategist nor a leader."

"I meant that you are just as stubborn as I am."

"Perhaps." Avon rose and Anna slid off the desk. "Let's have a talk."

"Before or after I see Servalan?"

"After. If she refuses your demands, I'll call Liberator and have the center destroyed."

Anna nodded slowly. "She will believe me, I think. But that doesn't mean she will accede. It is the Federation as a whole I hope to affect. She deserves to be exterminated--but I cannot do it. Even though I've had a thousand chances."

"If it makes you feel any better I've had a few dozen chances myself and done nothing about it."

"The observation center for her cell is just around the corner," Anna said. "Unless you'd prefer to be present. She'll associate you with Blake, not me."

"No, thank you," he replied. "This one belongs to you."

"All right. Shall we go, then?"

#

When Blake returned to Earth, he found Anna in the observation center with Avon, watching Servalan on a makeshift screen. "Well?" Blake said. "They've issued the evacuation warning and gone to blow up the complex."

"She believed me," Anna said, "and refused to resign. That's why Dome Eight is being destroyed."

"Space Command will be...unhappy," said Avon. "Especially after we've told them why we destroyed it."

"And if that doesn't pressure her enough?"

"Then we begin listing her crimes against the Federation," Anna said. "Of course she isn't the only guilty party, but she is the most visible. Space Command will apply the pressure for us."

"If there's an honest officer among them," Blake sighed.

Anna said, "Within their code, many of them are honorable. And I know a few who have taken honor a little farther and are honest. A very few, but they have some influence."

"I hope you're right," Blake said. "Logically I know that what you say is true, but my experience has been rather the opposite."

Avon was about to agree, then caught himself in time. He wasn't supposed to agree with Blake. "Anna has had closer contact with Space Command than you."

"That's true," Blake smiled. "That's why I've done none of the planning. My job is to rouse the rabble, as you're so fond of saying."

Avon could think of no appropriate answer, having fallen out of practice, so he rose; he and Anna had an early dinner date and he preferred not to share the evening with Blake. Anna noted his movement and said, "We should know the outcome by tomorrow. I'll inform you the instant there is any news."

"Thank you," Blake said, and left. Avon stared after him, an unfathomable expression on his face, then removed his teleport bracelet and, switching off the comm button, dropped it into his jacket pocket.

"Dinner, Anna?" He held out his arm; she took it.

"It won't be quite the same as the Trump and Unicorn," she warned. "And I thought you'd prefer the study to the dining room."

"You were right. The dining room is large enough for a games court." They turned a corner. "How are Servalan's wines?

"Predictably excellent. I'd like to send a few bottles to Vila--I did threaten him, after all."

"He would be your slave forever," Avon remarked dryly. "Perhaps you'd like to reconsider."

Anna laughed. They entered the Presidential study, which was beautifully paneled, and crowded with tapes and the obligatory leather-bound books; however it appeared never to have been used.

Because the kitchen had been captured along with the palace, and just prior to a major state dinner, the food was excellent. After a few moments, however, Avon said "Wait--" and rummaged in the drawers of a desk, the only furniture aside from the reading table which they were using as a dining table. The hasty search proved fruitful; he turned and held up a tiny chemical lamp, of the kind used for emergency power outages. He flicked it on and set it in the center of the table. "Now it's like the Trump and Unicorn."

"No burning your napkin," Anna warned, but she was smiling, remembering.

The rest of the meal passed in silence, but it was the silence that comes from long association. At last Avon set his wineglass aside and reached across the table to take her hand. The table was too wide to do this comfortably, so he scowled, moved his chair closer to hers, and repeated the gesture. Anna laughed briefly, then looked down at their hands, noticing something. "You've put your ring on," she said, turning her hand so the gold signet on his small finger gleamed in the lamplight. "You weren't wearing it a few minutes ago."

"Sleight of hand," he said. "I rarely wear it; it interferes with my work." He was abruptly silent.

"I remember when you bought that ring."

"Yes. Two days before--"

"Yes."

"It's been in my pocket since then," he said, staring at their joined hands. "Except for the time Vila tried to lift it." He looked up into her eyes. "I bought it for you," he said simply. "I was going to give it to you after--"

"Ssh." Briefly she brought his hand to her lips. "I didn't know that you wouldn't be able to come back. It was several days before I knew that you'd been caught."

"I'd been shot," he replied. "That's why I couldn't meet you." He paused. "You really intended to go with me, didn't you."

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I wanted to go with you. As far as Kasabi was concerned, I could do as I thought best. The Federation--I was giving up Central Security, anyway. And we would have had new identities. I was willing to take the risk."

Avon nodded, slowly. "Then this time I was right." He was absently stroking her hand with his thumb. "I wasn't sure whether I should believe you, yesterday."

"And now you do?"

"Oh yes."

"I'm glad you're just as cautious as ever." They stared into the flame of the tiny chemical lamp, which burned with a soft hissing. At last Anna softly said, "Do you remember--"

He smiled, a faint secret smile. "Yes." He looked at her, eyes twinkling. "And--"

She laughed and nodded. When her laughter had died away, he took the ring from his small finger and slipped it onto her hand. "It was a bit tight for me, anyway." Then he kissed her.

"Avon--"

"Yes?"

"Thank you for the ring."

"It has always been yours."

"You realize of course that Awill have to stand for Avon, not Anna. For a while, at least. I'm supposed to be Sula."

"Oh, yes. Sula would wear an S."

"No, Sula will wear an A. For Avon."

He sounded pleased when he answered. "All right." There was another long silence. Anna studied the ring on her finger with pleasure, then with a little shock remembered how long it had been since Avon had purchased it. How long it had been since Del had introduced her to a "computer whiz kid." How long since they had sat next to each other, with no need for words.

"Avon, tell me about the Liberator. About what you've been doing."

He stretched in his chair and yawned. "Sorry. Is the garden safe? I think a walk will keep me awake."

Anna switched off the lamp and, as they walked out, the wall-lights. "It had better be safe, or I'll have their heads."

"I should hate to be on your bad side...." He opened the glass doors which had miraculously escaped the fighting. They stepped out into darkness.

"Wait--there're path lights." Anna switched them on. A fountain began working at the same moment; they could hear it, but it was out of sight.

"How romantic," Avon chuckled. Anna hit him.

"You're no fun...go, tell me how you met up with Blake and the rest. We've been...too long apart."

"After I've done I'd like to hear about you."

"Of course," she said quietly, taking his arm. "We'll look for the fountain while you talk."

"I first met Vila...."

#

"There was no challenge in that," Dayna sighed, sighting down the shaft of the arrow she was making. Dissatisfied, she scraped off a few more minuscule shavings and peered at it again.

"Strategic bombing runs are rarely exciting," Tarrant commented from the pilot's station.

"It was quite exciting enough for me," Vila said. "What are you making those for, Dayna? There's nothing to shoot up here."

Dayna smiled ferally. "Maybe they're a protection against thieves?"

Vila reacted quickly. "Ah, come on, now, I haven't got anything of yours. And if I did, I always bring things back."

"It was a joke, Vila."

"Well I didn't think it was very funny." He sat down with a thump. "I have to keep in practice, you know."

"And so do I," Dayna said. "Which is why I'm making arrows."

"Oh."

The comm unit suddenly began to beep. Tarrant answered it. "This is Liberator."

"Tarrant, this is Avon. I'm ready to teleport."

"I'll be there in a moment--Tarrant out."

Avon was holding a fairly large wooden crate when he materialized. He carried it to the bench behind the console and set it down carefully, as though it were very heavy.

"Welcome back," said Tarrant. "What's in the box?"

"Something for Vila. Would you call him, please?"

Tarrant paged Vila, then asked, "Any new word?"

"Tomorrow, possibly." Avon rubbed his eyes. He looked, Tarrant noted, rather tousled. "She's expecting Space Command to side against Servalan."

Tarrant gave a low whistle. "That would be a coup."

"We'll see tomorrow. Ah, Vila--Anna sent these for you. As an apology."

Vila had immediately recognized the type of crate and the significance of the straw that poked from the top. "Wonderful. She can threaten me again if she likes."

"I take it you're pleased."

"Who am I to turn down good wine? Of course I am."

"Good. Then you can carry it yourself...goodnight, Tarrant. Vila."

Vila looked after him, puzzled. "What's he so happy about?"

"He didn't look all that pleased to me."

"That's because you don't know him like I do. It must have turned out well, with Anna."

"If you say so," said Tarrant. "Do you need any help with that?"

"Not to carry good alcohol." He hefted the crate easily. "Tell Dayna she ought to fix something special for dinner tomorrow, to go with it. It's her turn."

"Sounds good to me," Tarrant said, returning to the flight deck. Vila carried the crate to his cabin and stored it safely in a corner, checking all the bottles carefully. Then he wondered where Cally was. He hadn't seen her since they had blown up the research and development center in Dome Eight; perhaps she needed someone to talk to? Vila suddenly wanted company himself, and he couldn't go and bother Avon just now. And her cabin was nearby, after all...he went to knock. Then stopped. Cally might not want to be bothered...he was stalling. She would know he was here already. She always did. Vila knocked.

"Come in, Vila."

That's that, then, he thought. "Hullo, Cally...are you busy?"

She unfolded herself from a meditation pose that looked complex. "No."

"Avon's back."

"He stopped in."

"Oh...I just thought I'd stop by...do you want some company?"

Cally indicated a spot on the mat, and he sat down across from her, hugging his knees. "Thank you, yes. My meditation was not going well."

"Good. I mean, that isn't good, but it's good that you can...I mean...never mind."

Cally smiled. "I know what you mean."

"You always do." Then he regretted it. "You can sort of read our feelings, can't you?" Vila had often wondered.

"Sometimes. Only because I know all of you well. At first I could not, but since then I have had a lot of practice."

"Just feelings? No words?"

"Thoughts aren't words, Vila." He looked slightly baffled. "Look. I'll send you my name--not 'Cally' but my other name, my telepathic name." She did so. Vila's eyes popped wide open.

"That was--that was you."

"But not words."

"No...I see why you couldn't explain. But when you've sent to us before, it was words, wasn't it?"

She shrugged. "It was easier for you that way, though harder for me. There is always the chance that a thought will be disregarded. Clear words, in my voice, are safer."

"Oh. I've always wanted to ask." But the subject was getting to close to Auron. "All right. Your turn."

"To ask a question?"

"Yes."

"All right...." Her question, when it came, was totally unexpected. "Were you ever married, Vila?"

He had been studying her carefully. "Huh?"

"I said, were you ever married? You've never said."

"No-one's asked. I like it better that way." He smiled and blinked innocently at her.

"You told me to ask you something. I've asked. Tell me."

For a moment he was totally unreadable, then he began to speak in an almost offhand tone. "As a matter of fact I was. Her specialty was jewels. Stealing them, I mean."

"Naturally." Cally looked at him expectantly.

"Marga, her name was. She was blond and stac--er, sort of statuesque. You know?"

"Mmmhmn." Cally wore a tiny smile.

"No-one ever suspected her. She was very successful." He fell silent.

"Well?"

"Well what?"

"The rest of the story," Cally prompted. "I would like to hear it."

"There isn't any more. She ran off with a fence named Tavis Beckett and I never saw her again. Of course I hadn't expected her to stay around for long."

"Then why did you marry her?"

"I dunno. She was pretty. It was a long time ago."

"She wasn't a soul-mate, then. Not as I think Anna Grant is to Avon."

Vila sobered. "No. I think maybe Kerril...."

"You regret--"

"No. My place is here." He sat up straighter. "That's true. Why didn't I ever think of it before?"

"That your place is here?"

"Yeah--it is. So is yours. That's why you didn't go to Kaarn. Avon knew you wouldn't."

"Liberator is all the family I have, now. Had Zelda survived, it might have been different. I don't know."

"No second chances," Vila murmured, then fell to studying the tips of his boots.

"Vila?"

"Hmm? Oh, I'm sorry. I was thinking."

"You were unhappy." She offered the judgment sadly.

"I shouldn't be. I have a home--this is our home. I'm useful, sometimes. I mean, I'm a lot better off than most of the people in the Federation."

"But you are unhappy."

"What gives you the right to know?!" Then his eyes flew open, horrified at what he had said. You've blown it this time, Restal! "Oh no, no, I'm sorry, I didn't mean--" Cally put her face in her hands. "I'm such an idiot."

"I know you didn't mean it, Vila...but I can't...help but sense...it's so lonely...."

Vila had expected tears. There were none, but her eyes were hollow and, when he enfolded her in his arms, he could feel her trembling. "I shouldn't have said what I did, it's only that I was thinking I'd never even thought to ask Kerril if she wanted to come with us. So it's my own damn fault, and now I've gone and upset you; you can read my mind any time you want, Cally, really--"

"It's all right, Vila." **I know you didn't mean it,** she repeated, not bothering to explain that she hadn't read his mind.

Vila started. "That was a lot clearer than usual," he explained. "Not louder; sharper."

"It is the physical contact," Cally said softly, her voice muffled against his shoulder. "Right now, I can almost sense your thoughts."

"Really?" Vila could think of nothing else to say, having suddenly discovered that he was becoming very comfortable. Too comfortable. He thought about leaving before he made an unwise move.

**Don't go.** Cally was on her feet after him, her intent obvious from the look in her eyes.

He jumped, guiltily, and held her at arm's length. "Cally--Cally, no--"

"Why not?" she said quietly.

"Cally, it's the wrong reason...." He turned away and paced over to the moon disc, and made spirals in the sand.

"No," she said firmly. "No, if we had the wrong reason, this would have happened long ago."

"Long ago we hadn't been through what we've just been through."

"That is not the point."

"Yes, it is. I don't want to--to take advantage--"

"Vila. The loss of Auron is not the reason."

"Can you be sure of that? When I offered my support I meant--but I didn't mean--it doesn't have anything to do with you, but--"

"This has everything to do with me. You have to come up with a better argument, Vila." **Don't you want--** There was a long pause.

His shoulders slumped. "Yes. You know I do. But you're my friend, Cally--"

"That is why," she said. "I have chosen this because I want it. Do you understand?" He did not answer, or turn to face her. Cally wrapped her arms around his ribs and rested her cheek on his shoulder. She could feel his heartbeat. There was no sound but their breathing.

At last Vila said, slowly, "I think I do. Are you absolutely sure?" He spoke so quietly she would not have heard him had she not been as close as she was.

**Yes.**

"Then I've decided, as well." He turned and stroked her face, his fingers light as spiderwebs, then he smiled brightly. "Let's see if you can read my mind."

#

"Blake?"

Someone was pounding on his door. Half-awake, he rolled out of a bed he hadn't seen in far too long and was about to open the door when he awakened enough to remember caution. "Who's there?"

"Sula."

He yawned and opened the door. "Have I overslept?"

Anna laughed. "We've had a message from Space Command."

Blake was instantly fully awake. "Of course. Uh--first let me get some more clothes." Anna stepped back, chuckling, and he hastily shut the door. A few moments later he emerged, tousled but fully clothed. "Let's go."

The message was brief and to the point. The Supreme Commander, a man named Barrie, wanted to speak to the president. He gave the frequency on which he could be reached. That was all. However, Anna smiled triumphantly. Blake was more somber.

"It isn't much, Sula."

"It is all I had expected, at first," she said. "Barrie doesn't yet know who engineered the coup. He is expecting rabble-rousers."

"Like me?"

"Worse than you. I've been studying Supreme Commander Barrie, you see. He won't have been expecting a civilized coup, if that is what we have accomplished. He will think he understands me, and the bargaining will be that much easier. I am hoping to end negotiations with Barrie and the whole of Space Command against their former Supreme Commander. After that, the Administration will be simple."

Blake executed a sweeping bow. "Brilliant."

"Thank you, Blake. I shall call Barrie soon--why don't you go up to the Liberator and give them the news?"

#

It was Avon who operated the teleport this time, and he came to his feet as Blake materialized. Once again he said, "Hello, Blake." He was alone.

Warily Blake replied, "Hello, Avon." He stepped off the platform and advanced slowly. "Sula--Anna--had a call from Supreme Commander Barrie."

"Everything is going according to plan, then."

"She's told you already." Blake sounded surprised.

"Her plans? Last night. I had assumed that was why you had come."

Blake stopped in front of the teleport console. "Yes...but I needed to talk to you, as well."

"Cally has already given me your explanations."

"And they were satisfactory." It was a statement.

"What makes you think that?" Avon drawled.

"You haven't hit me again."

"Perhaps you're right."

"Am I forgiven, then?" Blake's eyes were smiling.

"Forgiven for what? You are hardly an errant child."

"That's kind of you."

"Is it?"

Blake looked at him, exasperated, and ran one hand through his curls. "Sometimes I wonder why I missed you so much." Avon did not comment. Blake caught his eyes and was unable to read their expression.

At last Avon said, "We've kept your things for you."

"Thank you. I may need to travel with you, once n a while. I don't think this will be completely over for a long, long time."

"Oh, I know. I've promised Liberator for much of the clean-up and consolidation work. It will take years." He paused. "You know how to contact us, Blake."

"Yes."

"Good." He changed the topic. "Dayna and Tarrant are on the flight deck. They would like to speak with you."

"I haven't anything pressing--" Blake started to remove his teleport bracelet. Avon's hand on his wrist stopped him.

"Keep it."

Blake fought down a smile. "I still have my other one."

"It won't work. I changed the codings, as I was sure Space Command had a crateful somewhere."

"Wise. We should have thought of that before."

"I did. I had to find the time."

Again Blake successfully controlled a smile. "Thank you, Avon."

"It saves sending someone down every time you want to come up."

"Of course." He finally smiled, knowing it would make Avon uncomfortable. "Flight deck, then."

#

Two weeks passed. Anna's negotiations with Barrie had progressed to the point at which he no longer referred to "The President" but to the bare name "Servalan." Once he was convinced of Servalan's multiple crimes, he rose to the occasion with vigor.

Barrie wanted Servalan turned over to Space Command for trial. Anna had no doubt this would lead to Servalan's execution, or at the very least imprisonment. This was as she had hoped; Servalan had to be far removed from power, but Anna refused to let the blood be on her own hands. It would not do for the new administration, called "The People's Council" though the majority of the population was not yet freed, to begin its existence with a blood bath in the manner of the government it replaced. So, Anna was prepared to give Servalan to Space Command; after, however, she arranged the concessions she wanted.

One of these concessions was amnesty for certain criminals who had become rebels against the Federation. Not surprisingly, the crew of the Liberator was one of the least of Barrie's worries at this point, and he granted it easily. So Anna was free to send Liberator to where it was most needed.

Avon walked in late to dinner on Liberator. We're going to Lindor," he said flatly.

"Lindor?!" Vila's expression was startled. "Lindor isn't a Federation planet--"

"We're taking Blake there."

"Lindor?" Dayna interrupted.

"We've been there before," Vila explained hurriedly. "We rescued their president once."

"Sarkoff," said Tarrant, as though he had suddenly remembered the name.

"Yes," Avon said. "Sarkoff--or, rather, one of his aides--will take charge of Blake once we have arrived at Lindor."

"This is rather sudden," Tarrant commented. "I thought we would have more notice--"

"Well, there's a reason for that," said Avon with the barest hint of a smile. "I only heard from Anna a few minutes ago."

"That isn't what he meant," Dayna said. "Why now, when we couldn't before?"

"It wasn't safe to leave, before."

Vila protested. "Safe? Safe! Are you serious?"

Cally was smiling as she nudged him to silence. "He means we've been granted amnesty." **Am I right?**

"Yes."

Dead silence fell. Finally, weakly, Tarrant said, "Oh."

"We leave the day after tomorrow," continued Avon. "I'm going down tonight. Blake will come up tomorrow night."

"Why so early?" Dayna asked.

"Blake requested it," Avon replied. "Does anyone else have any brilliant questions?"

"Do you want any dinner?" Vila asked, receiving in reply a withering look from Avon. However, the other man did join them.

Later that evening Avon rapped at Cally's door. "I need you to operate the teleport," he answered to her query. A moment later she came out and followed him to the teleport room in silence, though she raised an eyebrow at the small bag he carried.

He set the bag aside to set the coordinates, then picked it up again and took a bracelet from the rack. Cally slowly sat down on the bench and propped her chin in her hand, watching him. "Are you coming back?" she asked finally.

"Does it matter?" His tone was noncommittal.

She smiled slightly. "A bit."

"Who would keep this ship running? Of course I'm returning."

"Is it that simple?"

He didn't pretend to misunderstand her. "Of course it is. We will be returning soon enough."

"You're sure." You are the cat who walks by himself, she thought. Not "I'll miss her," but "I'm coming back."

"Of course I'm sure. Put me down."

Cally didn't move. "You'll be coming back tomorrow, I expect."

That brought a small crooked smile. "I'll be very discreet." He stepped backwards into the teleport bay and, with a much larger smile, continued, "Vila has taught me a great deal about discretion."

Cally threw the switches with a look of outrage, then suddenly laughed and swept out of the room. Still laughing, she began walking to the galley, until she crashed into Vila. He promptly spilled his milkshake on her.

"Ah, damn--" Giggling, Cally leaned against the bulkhead, as Vila ineffectually dabbed at her with a napkin. "I'm sorry, Cally; wait a minute--what's so funny?" It was rare to see Cally laugh.

"Avon," she said, taking the soggy napkin and sticking it in the neck of his shirt.

"I never thought he was particularly funny." The aggrieved Vila left the napkin where it was. "Go on, share the joke."

Cally repeated the end of the conversation. Vila's jaw dropped.

"He knows. The bastard knew all along, I bet."

"Knew what?" asked Tarrant, who was coming around the corner. He stopped and looked at the two of them, plucked the napkin from Vila's collar with a knowing expression, and sauntered on without waiting for an answer.

"Hell," said Vila, falling against the bulkhead with a thump. "Hell, Tarrant knows, too."

"So?"

"Yeah, so. Why does everybody think this is so funny?"

"Perhaps everyone is happy about it?"

"Including you?"

"Isn't it obvious?" She smiled mischievously. Vila found himself smiling back.

"After I get another milkshake, do you want to make it official?"

**You're a rake. Yes.**

"And let's call up Blake."

"I think that would be a good idea."

#

"Anna?"

"Mmm."

"Was that a yes or a no?"

"Hmn?"

"You're not even awake, are you."

"Mmn--no. Yes. Good morning, Avon."

"It's not morning. It's only 0200, love."

"Oh." She snuggled closer. "What is it?"

A sigh. "Nothing."

"There is something."

"Yes. I--this time I promise I'll be back."

"I will be waiting. Every time."

the end


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