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Solstice

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Solstice

21st December in the Old Calendar, Winter Solstice

It's hot. It's hot and it's dry outside. And inside this house, this safe house of Blake's, it's also dry. Not a drop of liquor in the place, except soma, and they're keeping that for the sick and the wounded. I'm as sober as a judge, not that I ever knew a sober judge. The ones I saw on the Delta Courts always seemed to need liquid relief when they saw me coming.

I wish I wasn't sober. I'd go looking for the medical unit, and try the thinking-about-dying routine that never worked on Cally, but I don't know anything about this place that they've brought us to, and I don't want to run into him. I don't know where he is now, and I'm not going to ask. I just don't want to see him. Not after what he did. To everyone, really, me and the others, but mostly me... and Blake.


"It's a safe house," one of the others, Blake's new people, told me while we were being flown here. I was rather taken with the idea of 'safe', you couldn't call Xenon safe even before we blew it up, what with the people I was stuck with there. "We have twelve of them on Gauda Prime, and a few more on nearby worlds; no, I'm sorry, we can't tell you where it is. Not until Blake gives you the nod." I nodded quickly, maybe too quickly, even though I hadn't been about to ask anything like that. 'Safe' was more than enough direction for me. And it wasn't as important. What was important was -

"Blake's still alive?" That was when I felt something unfreeze inside me. Not all of it, of course - there were odd still bits of ice carved with the words Soolin, Tarrant, and Dayna, and all the older bits with older names - but some of it.

"Well, in stasis. Not - dead," she said with a slight wobble on the last word. She was small and dark and rather mean-looking, what with the miniature bounty hunter's kit she wore and the size of the flame-thrower she had slung over one shoulder. Nice legs, what you can see of them. "Not dead, but our doctors aren't calling it alive either, yet. Not till they've operated." Her eyes were huge and bleak, and for all her toughness, I think she was scared. So was I.

I wish I had enough soma to drown in, drown the misery and the pictures in my head.

I wish it wasn't so hot.

I wish...

I don't know what I wish, but I do wish.


Not that I'm complaining, not now, but couldn't they build their safe houses somewhere nice? It's like a fusion drive outside, you can almost see the heat rising off the ground. The air's so still and heavy with it that breathing hurts, and all you can see is dead grass, dead trees, baked earth and baking, empty, blindingly blue sky.

Just another of Blake's garden paradises, we should have known it. Noell says it's the hottest day of the year in this southern corner of Gauda Prime, and the longest. That makes sense, it seems to have lasted forever already.

It's ten hours now since we met up with Blake again - in a manner of speaking - in this brilliant reunion that we didn't get asked about. And bloody brilliant it was too, if I do say so. Now the Scorpio's in pieces all over that forest up north, and Slave's gone the way of Zen. Dayna, pretty, deadly Dayna, is definitely dead. Soolin and Tarrant, we don't know, we don't know, they couldn't find them after it all ended, and anyway I don't know if I want to know. I'm alive, which surprised even me. And he is, of course. Avon. And Blake...

They think he'll live. They want him to live. They just can't promise he'll live. And none of them know - yet - how he got shot in the first place.

"Did you see what happened?" the dark woman - Noell, her name is, I think, mean-looking but really rather nice - asked on the way. That's when I - we - I found it out, that no one knew that Avon was the one who shot Blake. No one except me and him.

"Sort of..." I hedged, looking over at him, sitting on the other side of the flyer. He didn't appear to hear her, he was staring at his hands, as he had been for ages.

Noell handed me a small flask of something sweet and dark brown and foul-tasting, probably good for me. She held another out to him, but he didn't seem to see it. They were fussing a bit over him, and it annoyed me. He didn't looked that much paler than normal, but then they didn't know what normal was for him, did they? Just that he was three shades whiter than white. And that his eyes had gone all dark and cold and shiny, and that he wasn't talking much. And that there was still dried blood on the jacket he wore, and his fingers kept touching the dried patches, lightly, too lightly to rub it off, more like... like... I don't know, and I know I don't want to.

Actually, now I think of it, he wasn't talking at all. I just didn't think of it then.

"We found the one who shot Blake," the other woman - a big, broad-shouldered Gamma type, looked a bit like Gan of all things - said, in a deep voice like a friendly bloodhound.

I promptly choked; Noell thumped me on the back. "You what?"

"The projectile gun was in his hand; he was dead, of course, all of the troopers were," the Gamma lady frowned a little. "Pity, that. But at least you're both all right, and we got Blake out in time."

"Perhaps," Noell added.

"You mean there isn't anyone else - or any tape, or -?"

"No, Deva rigged the security vistape so that Blake was never picked up on it. In case anyone had too long a memory. And Deva -"

"Deva?" A vague memory of a small, gingerbread-coloured man running in and getting shot.

"The insider on the vigilante station," Noell supplied. "Blake's second, a computer genius, really." Ah, I saw that get a slight, flinching movement out of Avon. "And his closest friend."

"And now dead," the Gamma lady added.

So there it is. Avon was found slumped over Blake's body - he'd been hit by half a dozen stun bolts - and some stupid uniformed nobody took the gun and got shot holding it. So they all think that nobody did it. I know better, but hey, I'm not stupid enough to tell anyone, in case they shoot both of us for good measure.

Just our luck, isn't it? I wish I could work out if it's good or bad.

"We do know who you are," the Gamma lady said then, and her voice went all soft and sympathetic, like the same bloodhound trying to comfort a lost wolf-cub. Or something. I shook my head - the picture of him as a lost wolf-cub was something I didn't need even at the end of a good day - and she looked at me. "You're Vila Restal, aren't you?"

I gulped, and shrugged.

"He told us bits about you," Noell said. "Just bits." Not sure if this was a good thing, I tried to look innocent and respectable and harmless.

The Gamma lady was still watching Avon. "You saw it, didn't you?" she said.

A pause, then he gave a quick, sharp nod without lifting his gaze from his hands.

"You are Kerr Avon, aren't you?" she went on, and this time he looked up, briefly, eyes almost as black and twice as cold as the night sky outside the ship. It wasn't only me that shivered - Noell, who looked so hard, did too - but then he looked back down without answering, or not in words.

They left him alone after that, and so did I.

***

I don't think I'll bother with the dying routine, just to get a drink. Not now. Not when Blake might be dead tomorrow.

I remember what Noell said about it being the longest day. Odd that, because on Earth, at least where I was born, it's the other way round, this same day was supposed to be the shortest. Solstice, people called it. Old Mum Chrisemasse, the boss of the thieves' kitchen I grew up in below the Delta domes, she had these strange ideas about solstices. Old traditions, she called them; things like giving presents, though they only were given only to her and she never gave anything back. Things like all going out and begging - or what was it, she called it? asking for alms - the bigger kids singing until someone paid us to shut up, and the little ones picking pockets in the crowds we didn't get. Things like special cakes and meat puddings and sweets, all of which were pretty horrible, but we ate because we were hungry. Things you never heard about in the Domes, or in prison, or with the motley, mostly-Alpha set of freedom fighters I got tangled up with.

I'm sitting by one of the windows, looking out at the heat and stillness of the dying day, and I'm cold.


22nd December in the Old Calendar

Morning, and it's still hot outside. They've said we can see Blake soon.

Not that he's awake, or anything. The doctors, all three of them, look like they spent most of the night trying to put him back together, and they aren't saying much at all. Which could be good or bad, I guess. Probably bad. When Avon does something stupid, he does it well.

Funny, isn't it? I've needed something to help me sleep for months now, and you'd think after that business yesterday I'd have needed a double dose of whatever they give out here. Though since they aren't giving, maybe it's a good thing I didn't need it. I fell asleep soon after midnight and slept the sleep of the saved (for now) and the definitely thankful (for a while).

No nightmares, either, even after the bloodied mess that was yesterday, but then I don't have them, not real nightmares, not like the others did. Just odd, illogical dreams that seem to mean something and never do. I had one of those all right: Servalan, looking just like Old Mum Chrisemasse when she's been drinking, and me, stuck in the old Delta North Cemetery, and if I didn't unlock a crypt that was the image of Zen's treasure room, something awful was going to happen to Blake, something really awful, even more awful than all the awful things that had really happened to him. And I can't get it to open, because my fingers are all covered in uncooked pudding, and keep getting stuck.

I woke up before I got it, and for some reason I feel guilty. I keep remembering that when Avon shot him, I just stood there and did nothing. None of Blake's people know that, and they're not going to, I hope. But I still feel guilty.

Sometimes I almost wish I had real proper nightmares... no I don't, that's stupid. I've seen the others with their nightmares, and I didn't like it. Not all of the others, of course. Not Dayna, for instance, she just had nice, happy dreams of shooting Servalan and stabbing Servalan and strangling Servalan and keelhauling Servalan - whatever that means, sounds horrible - and dismembering Servalan. And from what I gather, Soolin, when she dreamed at all, simply dreamed of target practice and new guns.

But then there was Cally, with her weird, terrifying Auronar dreams, all in black and white that gradually went a dirty grey, and of blood-red water. Avon had nightmares, too, especially after Terminal, but he never spoke of them, so we don't know what they were about. Maybe Cally, or his brother. Maybe that Anna Grant woman. Maybe even Blake.

Blake's dreams were something we never, ever talked about.

And there was Tarrant - now he surprised me - he had a few really bad ones in the last few months, woke up screaming sometimes. He told me, "They're always the same. I don't exist. I never existed. And I know it and I can see and hear everything happening as if I never existed."

"And it's all worse than it really is?" I said, handing him the bottle; it was one of those odd times we were sort of friend-ish, he was sort of tolerable and maybe he thought I was too, so we were having a drink together.

"No."

"Better than it really is?" That was something to think about, though to be fair I wouldn't have thought of it. Not then.

"Not even that. Worse," and he stared at me with those neon-blue eyes, slightly blurred with the wine, "much worse. There's no difference, Vila. I don't make a difference. I never lived, and it doesn't make any bloody difference at all..."

Which could be true of all of us, I guess, even Blake.

I wish I hadn't thought of that, thought of Tarrant at all, because that reminds me that Blake's people haven't found him and Soolin yet, or know what happened to them. Maybe they escaped during the whole thing, when there were troopers and rebels and crims and all sorts shooting away at each other and we were in the middle of it, or maybe they were killed and buried in one of those pits we saw being dug, because no one recognised them. Maybe we'll never know.

Blake's people are still looking, however. The big Gamma lady - a nice lady, name of Yevsha, part-time pilot and part-time cook for the safe house - tells me. "But there's a problem."

"What?" We're in the room they use for a kitchen here, with a few food processor units, a huge ice-safe, and a computerised cooker. I'm sitting on a stool, watching her and eating what passes for sugar lumps, but is too purple for sugar lumps, from a bowl.

"All of the searchers are locals in our group. And they're all posing as bounty hunters too."

Terrific. If Soolin's alive, she'll probably get killed killing Blake's own hand-picked killers.

"They're good people, however, and they'll keep looking," Yevsha goes on, handing me a plate of what she thinks is a light breakfast. Large slabs of unidentified cold alien meat, several sorts of unidentified raw alien leaves and something that turns out to taste uncannily like Zen's lesser attempt at chocolate the one time I talked Blake into some old festival called Misrule. Oh, and a tall cold glass of promisingly bubbly stuff that turns out to taste nearly as healthy as the one Noell gave me yesterday.

I mumble something about where all the real drinks might be, and she looks at me, small eyes narrowed in her friendly slab of a face.

"We keep it for the sick and the wounded, Vila. Or for cooking, of course."

Cooking? That's an insult to bad booze, let alone good! I then forget to be miserable for ten whole minutes while I try and wheedle a bottle or four out of her. I think I've nearly done it - I can see she's softening - when the door slides open and Avon walks in.

Damn. This I don't need.

First thing I notice is that he doesn't look that much worse than last night. His face is blank and expressionless, and his mouth pressed so tight you can hardly see his lips; his eyes are still cold and shuttered, and now that I think of it they look bigger than normal, but then he also looks smaller than normal. Maybe it's because the leather armour's gone. Oh, he's still all in black, but it looks loose, soft like cotton, and plain, no silver bits, no studs.

"Avon?" Yevsha asks, "Avon, did you get any rest last night?"

He glances across at her, shakes his head sharply, but doesn't say anything. Great, so he's still not talking.

"You have to rest before you can see him." Her voice gets that motherly bloodhound tone again. He does have that effect on some women, don't know why, wish I did know why, I could use a bit of it myself at times. She holds out a glass of the same drink she gave me. Avon stares at it blankly, but takes it when it's clear she can stand there longer than he can. "Do you want anything to eat?"

He doesn't even seem to hear that. After a minute, he turns and walks out again, still holding the glass but without drinking it.

Yevsha stares after him. "He hasn't slept since we left the vigilante station," she says. "Nicolas, one of the doctors, says he was sitting outside the medical unit all the time they were operating, but he didn't even ask them how it went. Can he talk, Vila? Or is there something wrong with him?"

"Oh yes, he can talk all right," I hear myself say. Then I bite my tongue before I can add that the number of somethings that are wrong with him would take a Gaudan year to list. I have to be careful, because Yevsha doesn't know that he shot Blake, only he and I know that, only he and I need to know that -


And Blake. I suddenly remember that. Blake might die, and I don't want that, but if he lives, if he wakes up, he'll know. He'll know that Avon shot him, and that I let Avon shoot him.

Oh god, I wish this all hadn't happened.

I wish we'd never left Xenon, we'd never lost the Liberator, I'd stayed with Kerrill, I'd gone with Blake after Star One, we'd not lost Blake after Star One, we hadn't gone to Star One, we hadn't lost Gan, we hadn't tried to find Control, we hadn't started fighting at all, I hadn't been on the London, I was still the best petty thief on Earth, I'd never got mixed up in crime in the first place...

I wish these non-sugar lumps were soaked in something that would make me forget how I got here.

I wish one of the others were here, Soolin, even Tarrant. Not just Avon. I don't want to go and see Blake with Avon and no one else. I just don't want him to be there with Blake.

"I'm sorry for him," Yevsha says, and I don't know if she means Avon or Blake.

I'm not hungry any more. I sit and watch her throw stuff into a bowl - dried fruit, flour, another type of non-sugar, and what I suspect is a local version of ice-cream - and mix it together. When she turns away, I hook a bit of the mixture out with a finger. It's sweet and spicy and cold, and I'm sure there's some sort of liquor in there as well; for a minute, it hooks a memory, a faint, fleeting something from somewhere in the past. Something from one of those traditions of Mum Chrisemasse's...

No. It's gone.


23rd December in the Old Calendar

They found Orac today. It's broken.

They haven't found Tarrant or Soolin, and they're not sure where to keep looking.

And Blake's heart stopped last night, so I didn't get to see him at all. I think they think he's going to die as well, that they can't save him.

Been a hell of a night.

Blake's people are all keeping busy today, so busy they've got no time for us, for me and Avon. They're nice enough, in their way - they're all right, for a bunch of scruffy, menacing, criminally-minded rebel idealists - but I can see they're trying to work so they don't have to worry. I don't want to worry either, and I'm trying to think of something reasonably easy that I can volunteer to help with as I wander down to the medical unit on the lower floors. It's cool there, very cool and very quiet.


Dr Nicolas - Blake's head doctor, who seems to be in charge of the safe house - comes out of the medical unit as I get there, along with a fruitbat-faced man I don't know. He looks so tired and hopeless that I feel sick. If he's going to say - say -

"Blake?" I don't like to ask, but I have to.

I think again of that dream of Tarrant's. It isn't true, damn it, it isn't. Some of us made a difference - some of us tried to. All right, all right, one of us tried to. And look where it got him in the end. Look where it got all of us.

"He's on life-support now, he's holding his own." Dr Nicolas sits down, absolutely exhausted by the look of it. He's an odd-looking creature, with dead-straight hair and a kindly, cadaverous face, and his eyes are so pale they look white. "He's tough, Vila."

"Always was," I mumble. I hear a faint swish of the door behind me, know without looking who it is.

"That bastard who shot him did a good job, though," Dr Nicolas went on, and I'm even more aware of who's behind me. "One of the bullets grazed the heart. A fraction to one side and he would have been well and truly dead before we got him into stasis, and the others made a bloody mess of the lower organs." He strips off the sterile gloves, tosses them away, not looking at or behind me. "The bastard shot to kill, all right. I'm just glad he's not alive to know what a good job he did."

"S'pose," I say, trying to work out which of the muddled feelings roiling in my gut is the most important, and afraid it's really the hideous embarrassment, "but then, wouldn't it be better if he was alive so he'd know he failed?"

"There is that. If you believe he'd care." Dr Nicolas looks past me. "You're good with computers, I'm told."

Hell, now he's speaking to Avon, so I have to stop ignoring the fact that he's there listening to this. I half-turn to see that same brusque, silent nod, but too late for whatever was in his eyes when Dr Nicolas was talking.

He's too calm, I think. I know him better than anyone - well, I thought I did up to that little shuttle trip, and if the other two are dead and Blake does die, there'll be no one else but me that does know him. I try to look at him without looking like I'm looking at him, without him noticing, and I don't really like it - the way he keeps rubbing his hands together, slowly, slowly, so slowly; the tightness of his mouth, the something I never want to understand in his eyes, and the shadows under them - he probably didn't sleep last night, either.

Damn. I don't want to think about him, worry about him. Maybe he's all I've got left now, maybe sometimes anyone's better than no one, but this isn't one of those times.

If shooting Blake was going to hurt him so much, why the hell did he have to do it?

"We could use some help, if you feel up to it," Dr Nicolas goes on, voice light and friendly, just right for someone who only knows us as Blake's other people, the original and supposedly best, the legends. "You may have heard our expert died in the Federation attack. He had safeguards on the system, so that they couldn't be traced from one base to another, but we need to make sure they're all working properly. Could you help?"

Avon's eyes go past him to the door of the medical unit.

"Not yet. I will let you know when I can let you in." Dr Nicolas hesitates. "You don't want to yet, I promise you."

He's wrong, and I know it, but I'm not going to say it for Avon. He has to do it for himself, and right now, it seems that he won't. I have no idea what Avon's trying to prove by the silence, or if he's trying to prove anything at all, but he isn't going to break it yet.

"Thank you. Darien," Dr Nicolas says to the fruitbat-faced man, "would you show Avon to the computer rooms?"

"And me?" I hear myself say, and kick myself mentally.

"Do you want to help them?" The big white eyes turn to me. I shake my head, quickly, too quickly, and catch a spark of something in Avon's cold eyes. "Well, Noell could use an extra hand with her flyer. She's going back this afternoon to help look for your friends."

"You don't think -" and I keep mentally kicking even as I hear myself say this, "- one of us should go with them? Tarrant and Soolin know us." Gulping down any more idiocies, I think faster. "Avon should go," and I can almost feel his slight, jerking movement of protest but no, even this doesn't get a word out of him, and I don't seem to be able to stop, "he'd be better, since it was his idea to -"

"No," Dr Nicolas interrupts. "No, not a good idea." His eyes are on Avon, assessing, and I don't think he likes what he's seeing, then come back to me. "You don't know the northern woods as our people do, and I don't want to have to tell Blake we lost you."

That's about as weak an explanation as I've heard in all the time since leaving Earth in the first place. I can't believe he thinks Avon's going to fall for it, but of course Avon doesn't want to go anywhere and this way he doesn't have to. And I don't want to either, so we both ignore the fact that the doctor's a worse liar than either of us, and we stay.

***

So here it is. As always, Avon gets the comfortable, indoors job playing computer genius, and I spend the rest of the morning out in the blazing heat helping strip down an engine that's older than I am - but still a step up from Scorpio, in my opinion.

The air's so hot it shimmers in the distance, and the colours - of the sky, the red-brown earth, the white, leafless trees - are so bright they hurt if you stare at them. There's a bit of a wind today, unlike the stillness yesterday, but it's even hotter, so by the time we've finished, I feel like I've been char-grilled and melted at the same time. I guess it kept my mind off other things.

I keep waiting for the call from the doctors. Part of me desperately wants to hear it, to know that Blake's going to be all right, and part of me is desperately afraid to hear it, in case it's to say he's gone.

When we finish, I watch as Noell and two others leave to look for two people they don't even know. They've got pictures, of course. Lot of help that'll be if Soolin starts shooting while they're checking the pictures, but I'm not brave enough to point this out, in case Dr Nicolas changes his mind. I just don't want to go back there, wouldn't even want to for - for -

And I realise that there really isn't anyone I'd want to do it for now. None of them seem to matter enough any more. Gan and Cally might have, and they're dead. Kerrill might have, but I didn't have her long enough to find out. Blake did, once, I'm sure of that, but I don't know if I know him any more. And Avon did, and we both know where that's gone. Soolin and Tarrant and Dayna never did, not quite, not - quite.

For a minute, I feel sorry for myself, even if I don't know why.


Back to the kitchen. I'm hungry, and I'm thirsty, and I'm going to have another go at getting a bottle from Yevsha. Sure, I could steal it easily, but I don't like to do that to her. She's a nice lady. She's one of Blake's people, and if I want to stay, I want to be friends with Blake's people. She'll make a pretty good friend, and I don't really believe in stealing from friends, not unless they're the only people around to steal from.

And besides, she could flatten me with one hand if she found out.

She's making that fruit mixture again - she looks up and smiles a little. "Here," she says, and hands me the bowl. "Mix that for me. I'll get you something to drink, you look a little hot."

"Just a little." I take the bowl and look down at the brown, creamy, fruity mixture, and the spoon, and then it comes to me. A harsh, long-nosed, old-witch's face - old Mum Chrisemasse - fussing around the kitchen, doling out the real fruit and sugar and other foods she'd got us to steal for solstice with a miser's hand. And her harsh, cheese-grater, old-witch's voice, saying, "You stir three times, sun-wise, and make three wishes. Only one will come true."

Three wishes.

Stupid. No such thing as wishes, but on the other hand, I've been wishing enough these last two days for a hundred, a thousand puddings. Stupid, maybe, but who could it hurt?

If I could, I'd wish myself back on Homeworld with Kerrill, sure enough. And - and - and I'd wish Cally and Gan and the Liberator - Zen - back. And those thousand virgins in red fur, or at least the money to buy them for me.

I'd wish all that stolen gold that Servalan stole stolen back. I'd wish the bloody Federation to perdition. I'd wish Servalan to perdition. I'd wish Avon to a different perdition - or maybe not, but just far enough away so he couldn't hurt us anymore. I'd wish myself all the riches and safety and peace I've never had, and the biggest and best wine cellar in the galaxy.

I'd wish I was happy and - but that's more than three. And I only get one.

"Is that ready yet?" Yevsha asks, and I jump and start stirring busily - not sun-wise, maybe it's silly, but I don't want to waste it. It doesn't hurt to pretend that wishes come true, just for a short while, just until they don't...

"Vila Restal?" And it's a different voice, someone I don't know. "Vila, Dr Nicolas says you can go down to the medical unit."

"Blake -?" My voice cracks a little.

"A little better," the man says hollowly, without much hope but withholding despair. "Not much. Dr Nicolas says if you want to see him, now might the time."


I slow down before I get there, try to be calm, try to decide what it is I want to hear. The news turns out to be pretty mixed. He's breathing again, on his own, he's out of the medical capsule - and Avon's already there. I still don't want to be there with him, so I creep into the little viewing annexe to wait my turn.

It's a dull, dark room, with the one bed in the centre, the banks of equipment at its head. Blake is lying there, covered with a white protective sheeting that hides the bandages and trails wires and sensors into the machinery - some sort of medical diagnosis apparatus sewn into a blanket, I guess.

They're on the other side of the glass, I don't even know if Avon could see me if he looked up, but I get the feeling he isn't going to look up, so I drop down into a chair and watch. It isn't as if I have anything better to do anyway, is it? And I'm not leaving until he does. I know he's not going to do anything to Blake now - even if he wanted to, and I can see he doesn't - but I'm not going to get it wrong this time.

He's just standing by the side of Blake's bed, staring down, and there's nothing to read on his face. Not pain, not anger, not satisfaction... nothing.

There ought to be something, shouldn't there? I know he liked Blake once, more than any of the rest of us, even Cally. Even if he hated Blake too, and I always thought he hated him too, sometimes, there ought to be a little of that left, or why shoot? Three times. Not once, but three times. There must have been something...

Time passes, slowly. I don't know how long he stands there looking at Blake, and I sit here watching him. I can feel myself getting drowsy at one point, but it doesn't seem to occur to me to go in there and ask when he'll be finished, when he's going to leave. I haven't got my watch - I left it outside, it's probably ruined - so I don't know how long he just stands there, but it feels like hours.

Then, as I sleepily blink and keep watching, he moves closer, just a little, just a step. He reaches out, one finger only, and almost touches the scar on Blake's face; traces the length of it without actually touching the skin, to Blake's ruined eye, then down again to the mouth. Pauses a minute there, then slowly, almost carefully, he brushes the back of a finger against Blake's lips, holds it there as if feeling him breathing. And his face doesn't change, and I can't see his eyes.

I don't need this. I mean, I really, really don't need this.


24th December in the Old Calendar, Christmas Eve

Must have fallen asleep watching Avon watching Blake.

I don't know what time it is by the time I wake (from a dream of building soma-flavoured cream castles in the air, whatever that means), but it must be hours later, maybe even early morning, very very early morning. I'm chilled, I've got a crick in my neck, and my foot's gone to sleep, and Avon's gone. Two of the doctors are now in with Blake, which is probably why Avon's gone.

This doesn't seem fair, does it? I was one of Blake's originals - if not best - as well. So I go down to the unit, trying to look properly concerned instead of scared sick. The doctors both look up, the first one smiles and indicates that I can stay if I want.

All of a sudden, I'm not all that sure that I do want. I'm looking down at Blake's face, and it's not the same as our - my - Blake, but someone all twisted and strange. A not-quite-stranger, which is somehow worse than a real one. He scared me in that base, that's why I stood there while Avon shot him, and even lying there unconscious, he sort of scares me now. And I don't want him to die, I don't, but I'm also sort of scared of what he'll do when he wakes. When he knows.

The scar's horrible, looks fairly old; I'm not Avon, and I don't want to even pretend to touch it. We all got our scars, too, I guess, but they were on the inside. Avon and Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin, they had bits chipped off this last year, but you can't see much from the outside - they all still looked pretty, all of them. It was just when you noticed the harder eyes and the harder faces, the harsher voices and harsher words. It was always cold at Xenon, even when it wasn't.

I look away from Blake's face, and down at his hands instead, big, strong, familiar hands, clean but calloused. Not so familiar, though. Like the face, they're all wrong. On the left one, there's more scars, a pale, jagged tear down the palm running towards the wrist. And - oh god, I didn't notice before - the third finger's gone, there's a space as if it was torn away.

Then I'm shivering and I can feel those bits of carved ice inside me again. And oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Blake. Sorry we didn't find you, sorry we stopped looking, even sorry Avon didn't stop looking, sorry I forgot why I liked you and why I stayed with you. And I don't want to stay and look any more.

I feel myself take two steps back, then another. And then I'm out of the door and heading for the upper levels, for the door outside, for the blazing heat of the new day that might warm me up inside.

I need a drink more than ever, but I need the heat first. I stand and bake, and watch the most beautiful sunrise I've ever seen, all rose and gold and blue, and after a while the chill goes away.

***

I won't go back down to Blake again, not today. I find Dr Nicolas and volunteer - deliberately, this time - for any work they've got for me. Turns out they've got lots. Turns out that I really can work and think too much at the same time. But I don't see Avon either, not for hours, which is one thing.


"You stir three times, sun-wise, and make three wishes. Only one will come true." I keep hearing old Mum Chrisemasse say.

After the midday meal - more of that unidentified meat, this time with a cold mixture of vegetables I don't ask about, just eat and quite like, and more of that cold bubbly stuff - I decide I ought to ask about the search for Tarrant and Soolin.

Yevsha's sister, a smaller version of her who's still bigger than me, is in the computer room monitoring. No news yet, and there's too many Federation and 'legal' Gaudan patrols, whatever they are, in the area for their people to do much.

But there's other news. Seems that the pitched battle that was our re-entry into Blake's life spilled over into the other nearby stations, then several towns, and now there's at least one city of supposedly respectable citizens in semi-scale revolt. And by sheer coincidence, the High Council observers that were sent to see how nicely the clean-up was going got shot down into the middle of it.

Scratch one re-entry into the Federation, at least for a while.

Rum coincidence, isn't it? I'd almost forgotten the war for a day or so. Oh, it's still there, it'll always be there, but it's - how can I put it - there, when what Avon did to Blake, and what happened to the others, is - here.

The war can wait, we've got our own problems.

I spend the afternoon helping Yevsha clean out one of the planes, then her sister and what's-his-name, Darien, repair the weapons they used in the fight. I'm good at that, and I know it, even if a small part of me isn't happy that I learned to be so good at it. Then they go to check communications again, for news of the fighting, for news from their other bases, for queries from the other bases on Blake, for news about the search for Tarrant and Soolin. I'm not allowed to help with that - they don't make a big deal about it, but until Blake gives us the nod, if he ever does, Avon and I are kept away from anything they call 'sensitive' and I call 'dangerous' - so I wander around for a while, try to find something to do other than go back down to the medical unit again, then go back down to the medical unit again.

And guess what? Avon's there again.

He's back by Blake's bedside, sitting and working on one of those odd, hand-held machines of his. Now that they've found Orac - typical, the people are lost and might be dead, and one of them is dead, but Orac always lands on the feet it hasn't got - they're going to bring it here for Avon to work on.

Wonder if he'll give it back to Blake? I s'pose it's one way to say "sorry I tried to kill you," especially if Avon's still not talking and can't say it himself.

He doesn't look up, I'm not sure if he knows I'm here. He looks a bit of a mess, his hair mussed, eyes heavy, but there's still that nothing on his face, and his hands - smooth, pale-skinned, unmarked, all of those blunt fingers accounted for - are steady and unhurried.

Blake lies still, so still you can hardly see him breathing.

"Avon," I try to sound casual, friend-ish or at least crewmate-ish, and I think I've got it right, but he stiffens and doesn't turn around, "Avon, what are you going to do when he wakes up?"

I almost expect him to snap back at me, "If he wakes up," but he doesn't, of course, doesn't even look around.

I'm getting angry, and I'm not sure why - oh, I am sure why, but not why now.

"Are you going to tell them who really shot him, Avon, or wait for him to do it? I won't - you know that, you've known that all along, haven't you? - just like I didn't tell about Malodaar. I'm not stupid enough to push you out of this airlock, not when I don't know if these people will want to throw me out with you. But someone has to."

His hands falter.

"Is that why you aren't talking? So you don't have to actually say what you did? You shot him, Avon."

And they stop.

"Three times, like the doctor said. You heard him. What are you going to do when he wakes, if he asks you why. Won't you talk to him either?"

And they are still. But he doesn't look at me. I don't know what's going on inside him, maybe I never did, but whatever it is, I hate it.

"Avon," I hear myself say finally, "what are we going to do?"

He doesn't move for a minute, then he raises his head and looks, not at me, but at Blake. He still says nothing. What he's thinking I don't know, but all of a sudden I do know he's in some private hell that's no better for being of his own making.

He always did care too much about Blake, the silly bastard. That's why. That's the only 'why' he's got.

And he'll speak it aloud when there are ice-carnivals in that private hell of his.

Damn. I want that drink I haven't had for days. I turn to leave, because I don't know the right words and there are too many wrong ones. But as I go out of the door, I look back. He's still sitting there, both hands tightened on the little machine until the knuckles are white.

***

When I finally get to the kitchen, I really, really need a drink. Seriously, this time.

Darien tells me that Noell - who's looking for our flyboy and our lady gun-fighter - hasn't called in, and no one knows where she is or what's happened to her.

Dr Nicolas had an accident in the medical unit, and cut his hand and arm, quite badly. He'll be all right, but if Blake's heart fails again, the other doctors will need to see to him, and they're pretty good, but not as good as him. After all their work, Blake could really die.

Someone's got to tell Avon this, and that someone is probably going to be me.

Yevsha's run out of the liquor she uses for cooking.

Dinner is set out on the big table, and I see those ice cream puddings she was making at one end, several bowls of it, each with a serving spoon. The last one is darker, the colour of Mum Chrisemasse's prune pudding, and smells of real spices rather than the ersatz stuff I'm used to. I pick it up, hook some out, and lick it off my finger - it's rich and strong and heady, I think the hand that held the bottle must have slipped. I'm not all usually keen on rich flavours - Blake always was, and funnily enough so was Avon - but this one's sweet enough to be all right.

If wishes were credits, I'd be rich.

But then if good intentions were solstice presents, we would have had them all the time on the Liberator, all of us, even me, even Avon. I always got out of giving presents to Mum Chrisemasse - or anyone else then - and I've mostly got out of it since, I'm better at getting than giving. Anyway, solstice was two days ago, too late to give anyone anything now, even if I had something to give. Just empty wishes really, and most of them about me.

I think about Dayna, dead and buried in the north Gaudan forest, just as Cally was buried in that bunker on Terminal.

I think about Tarrant and Soolin, lost - or dead - and think I'll probably never know which.

I think about Blake... Avon...

I think...

I think I wish...

And all of a sudden I realise that I'm slowly turning the spoon in the thick, dark mixture. Sun-wise. At least three times. And I didn't make a wish that I can remember.

Oh well, no such thing as wishes anyway. I put the bowl down and go to join Yevsha and her sister for dinner. Afterwards, we finish off the puddings, they're really rather good, even the rich, heady one. Blake would have liked it, I think.


25th December in the Old Calendar, Christmas Day

Just before dawn, I wake up, and can't seem to go back to sleep.

Funny, isn't it? Everything that's happened over the last couple of weeks - months - hell, all the years since that one-way ticket from Earth on the London - all the pain and the fright and the blood and the misery, and yes maybe the odd laugh here and there, and the fighting - some of it even with other people - and it still gets to me that it's dark and quiet and I can't get back to sleep. Of course, that's because not being able to sleep leaves you too much time to try not to think. The nights are very long on Gauda Prime. This one feels like it's going to last forever.

I was dreaming again, I think, it must have been something I ate. More of those castles in the air - this time made of air and emptiness and regrets and those wishes I didn't make - and I was trying to give the castles away and no one would take them. Dr Nicolas and Yevsha had their own, Dayna and Gan didn't need them where they were going, Tarrant and Soolin and Jenna and Kerrill weren't there at all. Cally kept telling me that thoughts weren't enough - she should know, she knew more about other people's thoughts than the rest of us - and Noell came in with Blake, who was our Blake again, and he said that they would do. And I thought I had a headache. When I wake up, I do.

After some time spent trying to convince myself that I was going to drop back off any minute, and some more time counting plastic sheep that seemed to all turn into Orac anyway, I give up, get up, and go looking for company.

Yevsha is at one of the doors, staring out at the first hints of greyness in the sky.

"Vila," she turns to me, "it looks like we're going to have a storm today."

I peek out, decide that the lowering clouds look nasty and aren't about to make it any cooler anyway, and duck back inside.

"How's Blake?" I mumble, wanting to know but not wanting to at the same time.

Her eyes are troubled. "Still alive."

Will I have to tell them what really happened, if Blake dies and can't tell them, and Avon won't? I look at her again at her broad, trouble-worn face and those small, kind eyes, and know that I can't. I just can't. And not just for me.

So help me, Avon, I feel like I screwed up those wishes. Not that it meant anything, I know that, you'd know that if you knew about it. Just a stupid old story, but it feels like I screwed up anyway. Even if they're fake wishes, even if they're more just wishful thoughts, you need them more than me right now, don't you? You and Blake, both of you.

Well, you sure need something.

The light is greyer now, has been for some time.


"Vila!"

It's Darien. In the half-light, his eyes are glowing like the stars we can't see for the bad weather outside. "Vila, we've heard from Noell."

"Noell?"

"We've just heard from Noell," he repeats. "She's found them. They're alive."

"Found -? Them - who?" Stupid, but I can't even think straight for a minute.

"Noell found your friends. The young man's in a bad way, which is why they surrendered, because they didn't know who she was. But he'll live, they both will. She's bringing them here. They'll be here in seven hours."

I sit down very suddenly. Hell, I didn't even think I was missing them, but I must have been, mustn't I? A large slab of the carved ice inside me cracks and begins to melt, still cold but not hard and not hurting so much. I have a horrible urge to cry for a minute. We're not alone, Avon.

All of a sudden, I want to tell him. I duck past Darien, who seems to understand and lets me pass, and head straight for where I know he'll be, the medical unit.

I fly though the door, yelling, "Avon! Avon, they're found them, they're okay, they're coming here, they -" and I stop like I've hit a wall.

The room's totally still, the five people clustered around Blake's bed like carvings of white and grey and black stone. Or ice - more ice.

No!

No. Dr Nicolas looks up, and puts a finger to his lips, and I almost collapse at the look on his face, because he's smiling, a big, glowing smile that stretches his lipless mouth and makes him look like a cheerful cadaver now, and I know it isn't what I thought for a second. He's by Blake's side, and holding him up with his good arm. Blake's eyes - well, eye, the undamaged one - is flickering open. From where I'm watching, it seems he looks straight at...

Couldn't have been me for that second, could it? Could it?

He's already looking for someone else, anyway. Someone who's standing apart, back against a wall, hands clasped behind him, so still he doesn't even seem to be breathing, his face blanched, cleared of pain and harshness, his eyes huge and near-black and fixed on Blake.

Blake sees him, and his lips move; I can't hear it, but I know what he's saying, or what name.

"Avon..."

Avon doesn't move, doesn't speak.

"Avon," again almost soundlessly, "you're... all right?" Avon nods, still silent; Blake stares back with his misshapen gaze, what he can see is anyone's guess, but then it always was. There is, however, the memory of what happened in that other place. "Avon?"

Avon swallows, steps forward, and answers him in a dry, uninflected voice, almost calm. "Vila and I are all right, Blake." Everyone looks up at him, startled.

"Good. I was afraid..." The effort hurts, you can see that, his voice fades and his head drops back, the good eye closing. Dr Nicolas is lying him back down again, when he draws another breath, sudden and shocking in the silence, and tries again. "Avon...?"

"What?" Avon still doesn't move, and I wouldn't dare.

"Waiting... s'hard." A pause. "Will you...?"

"Yes."

"Here...?"

"Where else?"

"Thank you." This time he goes limp and quiet, and we know he's not going to wake again, well, not for a while, at least, a long while. But I have to sit down again or fall down, because I know it's going to be all right. Not all all right - we've still got a war to lose out there - but a little bit all right, just here.

The doctors crowd round him, but not like they did before, not with the battle pose that they had when they thought he would die. Darien comes up to me and hands me a glass - and glory be, I know what it is before I even taste it. Soma and adrenalin, from the medical stocks.

"Just for today, Vila," he says, in a voice that would be ringing if he wasn't trying to be silent. "Call it a special occasion."

I make a note that these people need more special occasions, and watch the doctors as they work on Blake. I don't look at Avon for a while, but when I do, he's also sitting down, with a glass in his hands and Yevsha beside him. Slowly, he puts it down beside him. Slowly, he bows his head, slumps down and slides to the floor in what looks like a dead faint, and turns out - when they rush over to pick him up and check him out - to be such sheer exhaustion that they can't wake him up to put him to bed.

I think I'll tell him Yevsha put him to bed.

Someone says it's raining outside, and it'll be cooler tomorrow. And that some of Blake's other people are coming over tomorrow to talk about serious things, real things. The battle. The Federation. The whole damn rebellion. But that's for tomorrow.

I'll just sit here for now, and nurse my drink - green and sparkling in a bright, star-and-bauble-decorated glass - and wonder what I'd have wished for if I had wished. And - for today, for a little while - be a little bit happy.

- the end -