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Unfinished Business

By Nova
Page 2 of 4

2. A shadow stretched across the ground and overlapped the toes of Avon's boots. He could feel an intense gaze scanning every centimetre of his body but he refused to look up. After a while a familiar voice rumbled, 'Vila says you're planning to leave us. Would you mind telling me why?'

'Why not?' he said, bleak and toneless. 'I am not needed here.'

'Oh yes, you are,' Blake said warmly. 'I'm sorry, Avon. I should've spoken to you sooner but ... well, I've been busy. If you're feeling guilty about that wretched business in the tracking gallery, then forget it. You were operating under considerable stress. I really don't intend to hold it against you.'

There was nothing Avon wanted to say to that, so he said nothing. As he stared into the vortex of his thoughts, the shadow at his feet reached out further, shrouding and smothering him. He squeezed his eyes shut and endured the pressure of Blake's presence, grinding his nails into his palms as a form of distraction. In all their years together Avon had never willingly admitted any weakness to Blake. He did not intend to start now.

Some time later the shadow shifted abruptly, exposing him to the light. 'Avon,' Blake said, low and compelling. 'Avon, look at me.'

Voices jabbered inside Avon's skull. **'If you had access to the computers, could you open the doors?' 'Of course. Why?' 'Just wondered how good you really were ...'** Ever since their initial encounter on the London, he had done whatever Blake asked him, even when it went against his better judgment. Evidently, his judgment remained faulty, because he groaned inaudibly, lifted his head and locked onto accusing hazel eyes.

The sight hurt but he couldn't look away. Avon stared and went on staring, as if the gaze were a lifeline. A long minute later the hazel eyes softened and Blake's mouth blossomed into a smile. He bent forward, seized Avon's hands and hoisted him to his feet.

'I've always wanted to do this,' he confided, pulling Avon into a bear-hug. 'Stupid of me to hold back for so long. But I could never show anyone how I felt, till Nic came along and helped me. He's an amazing man, Avon. Truly amazing. I hope you'll get to know him better now.'

Avon ducked his head and wrenched himself out of Blake's grip. 'No, thank you,' he said politely, turning away to face the hangar. 'I'm afraid I can't pretend to have any consuming interest in your friend Carnell.'

A brief charged silence followed. 'Homophobia, Avon?' Blake rasped finally. 'I wouldn't have expected that from you.'

'Justifiably,' Avon confirmed and heard Blake's breath rush out in a sigh.

'That's a relief,' he said, a little too heartily. 'Nic changed my life, you know. The Federation mindwipers did a good job of suppressing my sexuality. I suspect only a renegade psychostrategist like Nic could've unravelled their conditioning.'

'As intelligent as he is altruistic,' Avon commented. 'How nice for you.'

Blake laughed. 'Hardly altruistic, considering that he benefited from it. But yes, in his own field he's as talented as you. As a matter of fact, the two of you are remarkably similar. Nic's one of your greatest admirers, Avon. You'll have a lot to discuss together, always supposing you decide to stay.'

He settled a hand on Avon's shoulder and waited for an answer, absentmindedly massaging the muscles that had tensed under his palm. 'But I shan't be staying,' Avon replied, once he had brought his breathing under control. 'Look around, Blake. Fen is heading this way, which suggests that the cruiser will be departing as soon as it is loaded. I believe it is time for us to say goodbye.'

When he risked a backward glance, Blake was waving the pilot away with a peremptory flourish. 'No goodbyes,' he announced. 'You can leave on the next cruiser, if you insist, but I want to hear a more convincing reason first. Not here, though. You'd better come to my room, where we can talk without being interrupted.'

His hand tightened, spinning Avon round and steering him past the loading bay. Avon glanced fleetingly at the small bag of his possessions stowed beside the packing cases, then let Blake lead him into the base. As they made their way through the warren of corridors, an assortment of rebels paused and turned to look back at him. Hardly surprising, given that this was their first real chance to examine the man who had shot their leader - although in general their reactions came closer to curiosity than rejection or revenge, which appeared to indicate that Blake had indeed elected to forgive and forget. Avon eased out an inconspicuous sigh. It would have been so easy to hate Blake's endless optimism and generosity, if the same qualities hadn't made it depressingly easy to love him.

For a while there, Avon had almost convinced himself that he had cauterised that old wound, somewhere around the time when he had woken in the base's medical unit and looked across to see Blake's head pillowed on Carnell's chest, their hands twisted together in a Gordian knot. But apparently, sixty seconds' eye contact with Blake was enough to reactivate his ridiculous obsession. He scowled resentfully at Blake's back and followed him through the mess hall, taking care to avert his eyes from the doorway into the tracking gallery.

Blake was quartered in a quiet corridor at the rear of the building, clearly a fringe benefit of leadership. He palmed the lock and ushered Avon in, then stretched across to thump the light panel on the far side of the door. The room, windowless like the rest of the base, was as dark as early evening, shading into night blackness when the door swung shut behind them.

'Damn,' Blake grumbled. 'That blasted light's shortcircuiting again.'

He groped towards the panel and tripped, presumably on one of the piles of clothes or printouts that had always littered the floor of his Liberator cabin. Adrift in the darkness, Avon reached out to steady him. Blake latched onto his shoulder. Avon hooked a supporting arm round Blake's waist. Blake swayed towards him. He was breathing Blake's breath, soaking up the reliable warmth of Blake's body, inhaling that characteristic Blake-smell, like cut grass and sunshine. It seemed somehow inevitable that they should move even closer, leaning into each other, cheek to cheek, mouth to mouth.

The first touch of their lips was tentative and awestruck. Then, as Avon ran an exploratory finger along the line of Blake's jaw, Blake groaned and opened to him. His mouth was hot and wet and urgent and engulfing. Avon sent his tongue plunging past neat slick teeth: and after that, his usual grasp of detail deserted him. His hands were searching for Blake in the dark, frantic and reckless. His tongue was fucking Blake's mouth. He was drinking Blake in. And each time they paused for breath, Blake went on chanting, 'Avon, Avon, Avon,' as though his name were a mantra, a perfect sequence of sounds leading to enlightenment.

The darkness made it easy to forget everything, except for the soft curls tickling his palms and the hard cock pressed snugly against his own erection. Pleasure coursed through Avon's body, faster than a double shot of soma and adrenaline. He staggered, giddy with lust, and Blake's arms enveloped him, holding him steady and safe. His heart knocked against his ribcage, so loudly that it took him half a minute to separate and identify the knocking at the door.

'Blake,' he said shakily, 'you have a visitor.'

'Take no notice,' Blake mumbled and at the same moment an anxious voice called, 'Roj? Roj, are you there? Answer me, please.'

As Blake went still, Avon slid out of his arms. Even before Blake thumped the light panel again, he was making his way through the darkness to the opposite end of the long narrow room. Blake muttered, 'Got it this time.' The room blazed. The door swung open. Avon glanced back and saw Carnell stumble across the threshold, with a suddenness that proved he must have been trying to force the door.

He watched for half a second longer, then decided that he was not obliged to torture himself with images of Blake and his lover, cheek to cheek, mouth to mouth. Instead, he swung away to study the nearest picture at eye level. One of Rice's meticulous abstract holograms, as it happened - a reproduction of the one that had hung on the wall of his own cabin, until it and the Liberator imploded. For a minute or two, Avon was able to lose himself in memories of a long-ago conversation. **'I can't see why you like that thing so much, Avon.' 'Well now, perhaps you have to live with it to understand it.'** Then Carnell's voice, pitched deliberately low but carrying, overrode the past.

'Pardon the intrusion, lover,' he was saying. 'Deva told me you were meeting with Avon alone. After your last encounter, that struck me as being a little risky, so I had to make sure you were all right.'

'Are you satisfied now?' Blake asked and Carnell lilted, 'Almost.'

Footsteps marked out the length of the room, halting behind Avon. When he turned, Carnell's hands shot out and began to pat the fabric of his jacket in a swift efficient body search. As the hands moved lower, Carnell's pale eyes lifted and fixed him with a laser-bright stare. Avon stared back, blandly expressionless, admitting a private relief that the bulge at his groin seemed to have subsided before the hands could discover it. He clenched his jaw and repeated the maxim that had sustained him during three months in a Federation prison.

**An action may be considered symbolically degrading by its perpetrator but if one rejects the symbolism, one refuses the degradation.**

Carnell completed his search, then flashed him a streetkid's grin. 'Sorry, Avon,' he said with blatant insincerity. 'But you'll understand why I needed to know you weren't carrying any concealed weapons.'

Avon smiled back at him. 'As a matter of fact, I understand very little about the way you conduct your affairs,' he said, stressing the last word slightly. 'But then, it is none of my business.'

'No, it isn't,' Carnell agreed, while a flicker of his black lashes underscored the warning. 'My best wishes for your trip with Fen to Space City, Avon. Roj, I'll see you later tonight.'

He strolled over to Blake, looped a possessive arm round his neck and drew him into a swift wrenching kiss. Then he departed, leaving an uncomfortable silence behind him. Avon returned to his study of the hologram, resisting the urge to brush Carnell's touch off his clothes. It occurred to him, somewhat belatedly, that he would have expected the door lock to be keyed to Carnell's palm print but, despite their apparent symbiosis, it seemed that Carnell was not sharing Blake's room. That hypothesis elated Avon but his elation depressed him. He was staring blindly at the hologram, damning his futile four-year passion, when Blake coughed apologetically beside him.

'Nic shouldn't have done that,' he said. 'If I'd realised what he intended, I would've stopped him. But I'm afraid he's under the impression that - well, that you're in love with me.'

'And he is quite correct,' Avon said resignedly.

He folded his hands and gazed at a mark on the wall to the left of Blake's shoulder, regretting his ineradicable impulse to tell the truth. Regretting it even more urgently when Blake gasped and said, 'Avon' and reached for him. Instinctively Avon flung his arms up and out, warding Blake off, in a gesture that immediately reminded both men of their confrontation in the tracking gallery. They stood there, frozen in place, while Blake's face slowly contorted into a scowl and Avon relived, in agonising detail, the moment when Blake had clutched him and whispered his name and collapsed at his feet.

His eyes blurred and the room seemed to fill with strobing red light. He wanted to say something, anything, to defuse the situation but he could not speak. Finally Blake broke the deadlock, pacing over to his desk and flinging himself into a chair.

'All right, Avon,' he said, brisk and furious. 'I brought you here to talk, so that's what we'd better do. I thought we could forget about the past and get on with our lives but apparently I was wrong. Perhaps you should start by explaining why you shot me.'

'Joy' was not a commonly occurring word in Avon's vocabulary but he felt uncompromisingly joyful then. The tension that had held him rigid for five months dissolved in an instant and he smiled gratefully across at Blake.

'Oh, yes,' he breathed. 'At last. Thank you for that.'

Blake's head jerked back, as though the smile had been a slap. 'You want to explain?' he said, startled. 'Very well then, go ahead.'

Avon located an armchair opposite the desk and sank into it. 'When you contacted me five months ago -' he began and Blake said, 'I did what?'

He blinked, surprised by Blake's vehemence. 'We will not make a great deal of progress, if you insist on interrupting at every half-sentence,' he pointed out. 'Suppose you allow me to tell the story in my own way.'

'By all means,' Blake said, relaxing with an effort. 'Why don't you tell me **everything**, Avon, just as if I knew nothing about it?'

'An excellent idea,' Avon said cordially. 'I shall do precisely that.'

He leaned back, hooded his eyes and gazed into the past, recalling the events that had brought him to Gauda Prime. Blake's initial message to Orac, establishing a coded frequency on which they could communicate. The revelation that Servalan had found and subverted the Clonemasters' surviving Blake-clone and planned to assassinate Blake, then substitute the clone as leader of the Gauda Prime base. Avon had offered to come straight to Gauda Prime but Blake insisted that he needed an outside contact, someone who could reclaim the base and avenge him, if Servalan succeeded.

So Avon had waited, although the waiting had been ... difficult. Blake promised to keep sending weekly messages, as an assurance that he was still alive. If at any point the messages ceased, Avon was to go to Gauda Prime, test the Blake he met there with a prearranged signal and kill him, supposing he failed to give the countersignal.

'As you will undoubtedly remember, your suggested question was, "Have I betrayed you?" ' Avon said, clipped and steady. 'It occurred to me afterwards that "you" can be either singular or plural, so I asked both whether you had betrayed us and whether you had betrayed me. Instead of replying, "The man who trusts can never be betrayed", you talked about Tarrant and said, "I set all this up." Consequently, I shot you. But when you caught hold of my arms as you fell, I knew.'

The words wedged in his throat. He swallowed convulsively, bent forward and said into his cupped hands, 'Knew it was you, Blake, and not the clone. Since then, I have been waiting for you to tell me what went wrong but you said nothing. Not even an attempt at explanation. Why, Blake?'

He raised his head and looked directly at the man sitting opposite him. Blake's eyes were shadowed and his full mouth quivered slightly but his voice remained level, as he said, 'One thing puzzles me, Avon. You've never been particularly trusting and yet you seem to have accepted this whole story at face value, without any guarantees.'

'Hardly,' Avon said tetchily. 'I hadn't realised that you wished me to repeat every minor detail of our discussions. Since you appear to be in a pedantic mood, let me remind you that I asked two questions to establish your identity, questions to which only you and I could know the answer. True, there was a break in transmission at that point but communication was resumed within fifteen minutes, scarcely long enough for a Federation interrogator to have extracted the information by drugs or torture. So, when you told me that you hid Saymon's flutonic power cells in a bed of ferns and that your parting words to me on the Liberator were, "For what it's worth, I have always trusted you, from the very beginning," I knew that I had indeed found Roj Blake again.'

He caught himself lingering over Blake's name and turned his head away, troubled by the display of sentiment. Blake had, after all, set up an elaborate trap, then left him alone with the memory of shooting a man he loved, until finally he had abandoned the struggle to preserve his sanity and settled for taking a cruiser to Space City and certain death. It was unforgivable and yet, despite everything, Avon admitted he was still hoping for some justification of Blake's bizarre actions. Without conscious volition, his eyes shifted sideways to focus on Blake's desk.

The chair was empty. When Avon scanned the room, he found Blake braced against the far wall, shoulders taut, head bowed. His fist lifted and slammed into the rough plaster: once, twice, three times.

'He was always asking about you,' he said in a drained dead voice. 'Fascinated by my past, he told me. Convinced that you and I would've become lovers, if my Federation conditioning hadn't prevented it. I remember the day he asked those questions, because he made it a test of my commitment to sharing everything with him. It sounded quite plausible at the time but then, I suppose plausibility is a puppeteer's stock in trade.'

Avon flinched. Although he had loved Anna Grant far more than he considered prudent, he would have been unequivocally pleased to pass on any information that might have caused her to leave her husband. It was more than a little unnerving to realise that, if he had guessed where this was leading, he would have opted to preserve Blake's faith in Carnell by remaining silent.

Driven by a familiar compound of reluctant empathy and allegiance, he rose and went straight to Blake's side. His hand lifted automatically, then dropped back against his thigh. It was not the right moment to offer comfort or, perhaps, he was not the right person.

'Well, Blake,' he said, striving for detachment. 'What now?'

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