The program I am working on has some kind of glitch in it; I am preoccupied, but I hear his distinctive tread when he comes in behind me. I always do.
"Avon, you should have been off shift hours ago. Leave that now and get some sleep."
I flinch from the kind words, the hand on my shoulder. I open my mouth to say "I wish I'd never hurt you", and say "I'm all right. Don't fuss."
His tone hardens a little. "You're no use to me exhausted. Do as I ask for once, can't you?" I can hear the other words, the unspoken "you owe me that much at least". And I do, of course. So I go, in silence. He calls after me "And get some food down you. You look as if you haven't eaten in a week."
In my room, I try to comply, nibble a piece of fruit and am sick almost at once. My body seems not to want to obey me these days; I can't keep anything down. Or the other things inside me leave no room for food. All the things I must keep down, keep back.
I wasn't going to do this again, but I need it. I push the sleeve of my shirt up above the elbow. Most of the scars are healing; I have managed not to succumb to temptation for a few days. I find unbroken skin, lay the cold edge of the fruit knife against it and pull sharply. The dark blood wells out, and with it a great sense of release. True, it only lasts a moment, but it's better than nothing.
Someone opens the door, without knocking. I panic momentarily, turning half away to hide my arm, seeing out of the corner of my eye that it is Soolin. "What do you want?"
She throws something down on the table. "If you can't use your own words to him, for fuck's sake use someone else's. Dorian used to read this a lot, when he was feeling guilty about his partner."
It is indeed a book, an ancient thing and small enough to fit in a pocket. She slams out, leaving me to digest the fact that all this time, she has kept a memento of the man who tried to kill her. If I weren't preoccupied with my own feelings, that might interest me. I pick it up and open it at random.
It seems to be about a revolution, which is almost enough to make me put it down again. I only persevere because a couple of the characters arouse my involuntary interest. Pierre is your typical revolutionary, hotheaded, idealistic, full of indignation at the sufferings of the people and never considering how much a civil war is liable to add to them. I could kick him. His friend Jaffeir is far more intriguing; divided motives always are. He doesn't really want to overthrow the state; when he's alone, common sense repeatedly intervenes to point out that he would be far better keeping his head down. But there's Pierre, who only need turn up for Jaffeir to forget he has a mind of his own... I have a lot of sympathy for Jaffeir and I need to know what happens to him.
The cut is still bleeding. I went deeper than I meant to. I wrap some cloth around it and read on. Jaffeir has seen sense and is going to tip off the senate about the plot. And then my stomach clenches and goes cold, because he's got them to promise immunity for the conspirators. "You fool", I want to scream at him, "can't you see they'll renege on it?" But he can't, doesn't, not until he sees Pierre in chains...
I don't want to read any more, and I can't stop. The words sear into me, sharp as any blade, but they bring no release. I read them over and over; I don't think I will ever forget them.
What feels like hours later, I decide I can't sleep and might as well go back to the faulty program. Vila is on shift and gives me a quizzical look. "What've you got there?" He nods at my shirt and I realise I have the book in my breast pocket. I fancy I can still feel the words pulsing through it, and am annoyed at my own sentimentality.
"Nothing." But his eyes have shifted to my arm, and he's looking alarmed. I know at once what it is. I haven't put anything on over the shirt, and the blood has soaked through the bandage. How could I have been so stupid? I mutter something about having an accident.
"Yeah", he murmurs and pushes the sleeve up before I can stop him. "Several, by the look of it. How long've you been doing this?"
"He wouldn't want you to, you know. If he wants you to suffer, he hides it very well." I still can't speak, and Vila laughs softly. "That's the trouble, isn't it? He won't do it, so you have to?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes you do. It'd be easier on you if he'd done what I did a few months back, wouldn't it? Screamed abuse, called you every kind of bastard in the universe, hit you? I wondered at the time why you just stood there and took it, but I can see now. But him, he just forgives you... and as long as he does, you can't forgive yourself. I swear it'd be a great revenge, if that was what he'd meant it for."
"Spare me the amateur psychoanalysis." The comlink crackles into life and I hear his deep rumble. "Vila, did I leave a list in there, on Avon's desk?"
"Dunno. Can you see it, Avon?"
"Avon?" The voice on the link sounds exasperated. "Avon, are you still there? I thought I told you to rest. I want to see you, now. You can bring that list if it's there." The link cuts before I can reply.
I look helplessly at my arm. At all costs, I do not want him to see that. Vila sighs, takes off his jacket and puts it on me. It fits.
"Funny", he murmurs, "I always thought you were taller than me." His hand rests on my shoulder a bit longer than necessary. "Poor Avon, eh," he says softly as I go.
I have become an object of pity to Vila. I wonder if that would once have bothered me.
At his door, I knock and wait until told to come in. I hand him the list.
"Thanks." He smiles warmly. I open my mouth and whisper "Why was I sent for, to be used thus kindly?"
"Eh? What are you on about?" But I can't tell him; I can't do anything but echo the words that have been swirling around my head for hours, that are still burning in my breast pocket. "Call, call me villain as I am; describe
The foul complexion of my hateful deeds..."
I am feeling dizzy and I think I sway a little, because he catches hold of me, keeping me upright. I break free and collapse at his feet. He kneels and tries to tilt my chin up, but I shake my head. "How shall I look up to thy injured face
That always used to smile with friendship on me?
It darts an air of so much manly virtue
That I, methinks, look little in thy sight,
And stripes are fitter for me than embraces."
"Manly virtue?" He almost laughs. "God, you are in a state." He is holding my arms and I see the concern in his face before the pain makes me pass out.
When I come to, I am in a bed. There is a clean bandage on the arm, and some sort of drip attached to the other one. And him, sitting on the bed holding Dorian's - Soolin's - my book. I make some sort of sound and he hears. He lays down the book and says softly "Dear to my arms, though thou'st undone my fame,
I cannot forget to love thee...."
He lifts me, very gently, in his arms and kisses me. I do not know if I can live with forgiveness, but if it is what he wants me to do, I suppose I owe it to him to try. I whisper "Then by that hell I merit, I will not leave thee". I pick up the book and lay it next to my heart, where I can feel it burn. For as long as I live, I will need that pain.