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Leaving Party

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After five hours pouring over the data, Blake had decided, at last, on the most promising location for Avon’s retirement from the rebellion. NV95. He would scope out the research station personally, of course, to make sure it didn’t just look good on paper.

He’d been working for nearly fifteen hours without pause, a headache building relentlessly behind his eyes as he examined a parade of neutral cities, asteroids, and research stations. His clothes felt unclean and like they didn’t fit as they should. He’d tried a few times to sleep, but hadn’t managed it yet. The image of Avon strapped into that machine simply wouldn’t let him rest.

Federation torture could mean a lot of different things, depending on who you were, where you were, and what they wanted from you. In Avon’s case, he’d been on the expensively equipped Federation base of Mavran, and he hadn’t had the information they’d wanted. Blake had. Blake knew the location of every rebel cell in the galaxy, which was information that could mean the death of a hundred rebels at least. Increasingly unconfident in the abilities of her subordinates to capture and hold Blake for any length of time, Servalan had specified that Blake should be interrogated immediately upon capture. The psycho-strategy reports on file stated that Blake was highly skilled in resisting truth drugs and physical pain, and that he generally did not share non-essential information about rebel plans and movements with his followers. The protocol they’d therefore decided on was to torture Avon to death while Blake watched. They hadn’t tried to draw it out: the point had been to try to break Blake as efficiently as possible. If it had taken Cally and Gan more than an hour to get them out, Avon wouldn’t have survived at all. He’d barely withstood the teleport shock as it was.

Blake drew a breath in, and was surprised when it sounded more like a sob to his own ears. He rubbed a hand across his face. Avon would live. He was in a stable condition, drifting in drugged oblivion as the medical unit worked its magic. It would do no one any good to dwell on what had happened, beyond determining what it meant for the future. And that was what he was doing.

He commed the flight deck.

“Jenna, can you set a course for NV95? I want to arrive at least a day before Avon is recovered. I haven’t done the speed calculations, but I’m sure it’s possible without a significant energy drain. Probably standard by five. Oh, and I’ll be wanting to use the shuttle in the hangar to go down, so if you could also make sure that’s ready.”

“All right, Blake. You should get some rest.”

“I’m going to.”

“You seem very certain Avon will want to leave when he has recovered,” Cally said into the comm. He imagined her and Jenna standing close around it, exchanging a glance. “Perhaps you are leaping to unwarranted conclusions, Blake.”

“No, I don’t think so, Cally. You didn’t hear what he said to me, when he was--when we were down there. If he’s feeling particularly forgiving, he might just find it in himself to say a civil goodbye.” Blake would probably have got the message without any words at all--Avon’s face had been a picture of agonized hatred, one Blake couldn’t seem to forget—but Avon had continued cursing Blake until his voice gave out. Damn you, Blake, tell them what they want to know, you bastard. Did you think I wouldn’t mind dying? Go to hell. I hope you rot.

Yes, Avon was finished with him.

“People say all sorts of things when things get bad, Blake,” Vila said. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve said. I don’t see why Avon wouldn’t be the same.”

“Set course and speed, Jenna,” Blake said, and closed the connection.

**

“Mondris Leffell, Chevron’s assistant,” Blake said, introducing himself to the woman who’d come to greet him as he disembarked from the shuttle. Alis Fron was a blonde woman in her late thirties, the head of the research team. “Chevron is completing some very sensitive work on Callisto, but he’ll be along shortly, assuming I give a favorable report. From what I’ve heard of your work here, I’m optimistic that will be the case.”

“You seem optimistic that we’ll want him.”

“Yes. You won’t find anyone better. He’s a difficult man, but if you want to achieve anything, you won’t turn him away.”

Fron looked a little taken aback at his intensity. Blake supposed he was still off kilter. He had shaved, slept, and changed his clothes, but everything still had a sense of unreality about it.

Blake interviewed every person on the staff, including the man who cleaned the station. From him, Blake collected impressions of the others, as well as a sense of the man’s own political sympathies. People who would have belonged to the labor grades in the Federation were often much more aware of who sympathized with the Federation’s social policies and who didn’t. No one on the base, as far as Blake could tell, would pry too far if they suspected one of their colleagues of former rebel involvement.

He distracted the station’s standard issue seventeen-year-old maths genius, Henk Famor, from his work, which the young man talked him through with enthusiasm. Next, the three computer experts, Brannan, Rellor, and Pri, explained their three different approaches to the problem they were currently working on. When they spoke about each other, the tone was rather competitive and occasionally exasperated, but there seemed to be no real hostility. Luckily for Avon, there also seemed to be no insistence on excessive respect or civility.

NV95 also had a design specialist and four engineers, all of whom Blake talked to. They were all good at what they did, but the design specialist struck him as particularly excellent—practical, good humored, and gifted in lateral thinking. He would probably get on well with Avon.

The living quarters seemed perfectly comfortable, if not spacious or opulent. Avon would probably find them acceptable. He didn’t have a particular taste for luxury, that Blake could discern, despite his recent clothing choices and his constant references to wanting incredible wealth.

Blake found he had little to no appetite, but the food in the cafeteria seemed perfectly decent, from what he could tell. Avon liked fruit concentrate cubes, which they had for dessert.

Most importantly, the technology was promising. Blake detailed all of the equipment, making copious notes. Avon would be interested. Unfortunately, thoughts about the mission the two of them had just returned from kept intruding as Blake tried to write. There hadn’t been unnecessary risks. They’d simply had bad luck. He couldn’t have given the information. There was nothing he would have changed or revised in his behavior.

After seven full hours, he returned to the Liberator and fell into a fitful sleep in his chair. When he woke, he completed his briefing on the station.

**
Loud laughter, mostly Avon’s, was drifting out from the medical unit. Avon was at last largely recovered, physically, but the drugs Cally had given him earlier had apparently left Avon euphoric and silly. When Blake glanced inside the room, he saw that Vila had decided that Avon in this state was as good as a legitimate drinking companion, and, soma in hand, was telling Avon one of his worst jokes. Avon looked young and happy. An apparently sober Cally supervised, though she, too, seemed to be enjoying herself.

Blake simply couldn’t find it in himself join in. Avon’s happiness was, after all, entirely artificial. A tranquilized dream. He caught Cally’s eye and watched her smile fade a little. He beckoned her into the hallway.

“Tell me when he’s entirely himself, Cally,” Blake said, voice low. “I won’t speak to him before.”

**

“Avon,” Blake said, giving him a curt nod. Avon looked a little pale, but otherwise fine. He was fully dressed, and reclining in his usual chair in the rest room.

“Blake,” Avon replied tersely. Cally had done as instructed. There was certainly no evidence of any happy drugs in Avon’s system now.

“What do you think?” Blake asked. He handed Avon the datareader, which contained Blake’s best assessment of NV95: the potential of their research, the quality of their equipment, and profiles on each of the scientists. He’d also included a section comparing the station against other neutral research facilities.

Avon took it. “Who compiled this?” he asked.

Blake noticed that Avon’s hands were a little unsteady on the datareader. He hoped that lingering effect would fade shortly. Avon needed his hands.

“I did,” Blake said, and Avon’s eyebrows rose.

“They’re doing top line work here, of course,” Avon said. “There’s a good chance they’ll be the first to develop an alternative to tarriel-based computing. But why should that matter to you? There seems to be no reason to disrupt their work, and we have no use for it ourselves. As you say yourself in this report, it will probably be five years at least before they make any real progress. Then it will take five further years for the alternative to so much as start to replace the tarriel cell en mass. Ten years is more than enough time for you to make use of Orac to defeat the Federation or to die trying.”

“It doesn’t matter to me. I rather thought it would matter to you. Of course it’s up to you where you go when you leave Liberator, but I thought I might as well help, since I want to be getting on with other things as soon as possible. So I began exploring options while you were recovering. A way to hurry things along without rushing. We’re above the station now, if you want to have a look.”

“Where did you get the idea I’d be leaving the Liberator?”

“Aren’t you?”

“To put it tactfully--no. ”

“You’re joking.”

“It is rather unfortunate that you wasted your time with this research. Since you went to the trouble to write all of this, I’ll endeavor to use it as my light bedtime reading tonight. You may now, however, resume your regular efforts to unleash death, destruction, terror and anarchy upon the galaxy.”

The violence of Blake’s anger shocked him. It felt as though someone had slammed an injector full of adrenaline into him. He could feel the rage flushing his skin. For a moment, he was too angry for coherent thought, let alone words, but eventually, the fury took shape into the next thing he would say to Avon.

“You are leaving, Avon. It isn’t negotiable. I’ve already sent a coded message to Avalon asking to be put in touch with another computer expert. I informed her that you had been tortured brutally and that you were dying. Our next stop after leaving you will be to an as-yet-unspecified planet to pick up your replacement.”

“What?” Avon said, eyes widening in shock.

"Death, destruction, terror and anarchy. A flattering description, and that isn’t the worst of what you think of me and my work by half. You cursed me to hell and back on Mavran. It’s obvious that you haven't accepted the consequences of staying with me. You can take responsibility for your own actions and agree to support me, or you can get out of my sight."

Blake turned and strode furiously out of the room before Avon could say another word. He nearly knocked Vila flat on his way past him.

“My turn for a visit with Avon, then?” Vila said weakly, as Blake stormed past him. Blake didn’t say anything in response to that.

He wouldn’t go back to his room. The thought of more time in there made him feel cramped and ill.

**

NV95 rotated, white and tidy, on the viewscreen as Blake paced around the flight deck.

“What happened?” Jenna asked, after a look at him.

“He wanted to pretend as though nothing had happened.”

“So what’s the problem?”

Blake let out a tense sigh. “It seems I don’t want him to stay. Not unless he accepts the risks. I won’t have his blood on my hands. I told him to commit to the revolution or leave for good.”

“If you shout Avon off this ship, you won’t be happy in the long run,” Jenna said.

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” Blake said.

Jenna laughed. Blake didn’t.

“Avon claims to be a rational man,” Jenna said. “There are rational reasons for him to leave. Why not see if you can talk him around to leaving, if it matters so much to you that he go?”

“Avon has never for a moment wanted to sit down with me and have a reasonable conversation about what we each want and how we might mutually satisfy those aims. That isn’t how to get through to him, of that I’m sure.”

“Well, what do you think he wants?”

What did Avon want? The question made him angry—well, angrier, since he was still simmering with fury---yet it somehow seemed like an indulgence to entertain. Somehow he found he wanted to linger over it. There was an easy answer, though, one that didn’t require any thought, and that was what he would give.

“Oh, the Liberator probably. I can’t let him have that of course. Well,” Blake amended, “not yet.”

“What do you mean, not yet?”

“I’m planning something big, Jenna. Once it’s over, it’s quite likely that I won’t be able to do the most good with Liberator anymore. I’ll need to be on Earth itself.”

Blake could hear the excitement in his own voice. Even his fight with Avon couldn’t dull the edge of that enthusiasm. He didn’t have enough on Central Control for a firm plan, but he was getting close. Their earlier attacks on power stations had been in part a way to build up a reputation, in part a way to practice, and in part to research and understand how the Federation’s computerized control worked, what compromising it in various ways would do. It still wasn’t clear to Blake what precisely was controlled by Central Control, but the computer seemed to be vital to Federation ship traffic, and perhaps functioned as an over-ride to individual planetary weather systems. It would be a blow at the heart of the Federation, one best followed up with work on Earth.

“Really?” Jenna asked, intrigued.

He sketched the barest outline of his plan for her.

“The aftermath would be a free trader’s dream,” Jenna said. “There would be a lot of profitable work to be had redistributing resources, keeping planets supplied. Blake, I could do us both a lot of good with Liberator, if you left her with me.”

“Well, what about Avon? I thought we were trying to figure out what to do with him.”

“The work I have in mind wouldn’t be entirely without risk, but if I know Avon, he doesn’t want to live entirely risk free anyway. Especially not if the risk could earn him a profit. He could stay on NV95 until we were ready for that phase of the plan, and then he could return to my ship.” Blake was surprised to hear her say it—after all, Avon frequently stated that he wanted to be entirely safe--yet he saw what she meant. Avon seemed excited by possibility, opportunity—something he wouldn’t have if he simply locked himself away somewhere. “Tell him that I’ll come for him as soon as the Liberator’s mine.” Jenna smiled. “He could be quite useful.”

Blake felt a sharp twist in his gut. The thought of Jenna cruising around the galaxy with Avon hurt. Of course Jenna would want Avon with her. He was capable, useful, handsome, clever, daring. He thought about the glance he and Avon had shared, nearly a year ago now, as they stepped together into the transfer tube that led from the London to the Liberator. Blake had felt a moment of affinity, of shared excitement and hope. Now, it felt like someone was standing with a boot pressed hard to his chest.

“You tell him, then. It’s your choice, and his. Perhaps you’ll have better luck being reasonable with him than I would,” he said, half rueful and half still furious.

**

With Orac’s assistance, Blake decoded the message that had just come in from Avalon.

“My sincerest condolences, Blake. Every line of your message speaks to me of how deeply you are already grieving for him. What can I say to console you, except that his death will not be in vain? Someone will be waiting for you on Arcos in two day’s time. I will transmit the passphrase he will use on a different frequency and with a different code.”

That was odd. He wondered what he had said to Avalon that had indicated to her that he was grieving. His memory of the exact wording was fuzzy. He had sent the message having been awake for nearly two days. He looked back over the message he had sent. I am bereft of Avon, probably forever. Had he really said that? Why would he have said that? He hadn’t intended to lie so melodramatically. Some deception seemed necessary, but that had been uncalled for. Blake had intended simply to inform Avalon that his computer expert would probably be incapacitated for some time (an exaggeration) as a result of terrible injuries and was likely to die (an outright lie, by the time he’d told her, unfortunately). He’d asked her if he could have someone else with computer skills to help him, told her that he needed someone immediately, since Avon’s abilities were essential not only to Blake’s next mission, but to the continued functioning of the Liberator. That, at least, was entirely true. Blake simply couldn’t afford to delay replacing—or trying to replace--Avon. He needed Avon, needed him desperately but the idea of bullying Avon into suffering for his cause was utterly repugnant. There was no choice. He couldn’t sacrifice his own morals to that extent.

Blake’s comm chimed, and he hit it. “Blake,” he said into it.

“Jenna here. Perhaps you were right not to try to negotiate. He turned me down flat. He said we were getting a little ahead of ourselves. He wasn’t going to trade present advantages for future hopes.”

“I see,” Blake said. He was somehow unsurprised to hear it, he realized, though Avon’s stated reason for refusing didn’t make sense. What present advantages? From Avon’s point of view, how could there be any? Avon was so damnably perverse and complicated. It ought to be an incredibly simple thing to persuade a man that he shouldn’t be where he didn’t want to be, yet somehow it was proving to be difficult. “Could you tell him to come see me in my quarters?”

“Of course,” Jenna said.

**

“This all seems like an over-reaction, Blake,” Avon said, standing over him, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Can you honestly tell me you didn’t mean what you said to me?” Blake asked.

Avon’s face was unreadable. He could plainly see that Avon was experiencing emotion of some kind, but he simply had no idea what that emotion might be.

“No,” Blake said, after a minute. “You can’t, can you?”

"In the moment, I meant every word I said. I was in terrible pain, and I hated you for it. I do not hate you now. I apologize for making it more difficult to withhold the information they wanted. I understand that it was necessary for you to act as you did.”

"Not good enough, Avon. Perhaps it would be if I didn’t believe that you really do despise me and everything I stand for, that you didn’t give a damn how many people would have died, and that you wanted me to tell them everything. You held me responsible.”

“The truth is, Blake, that you needn’t feel any excessive guilt if I die,” Avon snapped. “I know the risks, and I accept them. I would appreciate it if you would take the ship out of here, inform Avalon you do not need another computer technician after all, and spare your righteous anger for the Administration and the upper echelons of Space Command.”

“So you’re truly committed to fighting the Federation?” Blake said, making sure to allow all of his skepticism into his voice.

“I understand the risks, and I will continue to take them.” Avon still stood rigidly in front of Blake, his back straight. He didn’t turn aside, or pace. Actually, he looked rather like a soldier addressing a commanding officer, which Blake found quite distasteful and frustrating. At least Blake himself wasn’t contributing to the image, slumped back as he was in his chair.

“Tell me why. Why do it?”

“Do I need a reason?” Avon’s eyes flicked around the room, pausing where Blake sat, then shifting to the bed in the corner—perhaps he was considering sitting down. He still looked tired.

“Yes.”

“Why? Does it matter, Blake?”

“I know why I fight. If I didn’t, I couldn’t go on. The next time it hurts, when you’re alone, and terrified, when you believe you’re about to die, what will you tell yourself, Avon? Hating me won’t keep you warm at night.”

“That isn’t your concern, Blake. If I die, it will not be your responsibility. It will be mine. You may continue as you were with a clear conscience.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Blake said, his voice cold with fury. He couldn’t understand why Avon wouldn’t admit to what Blake knew was true, which was that Avon did not want to be fighting Blake’s battles. Even Avon’s voice as he’d told Blake he accepted the risks, so deliberately, precisely passionless, spoke of how little of the truth he was really speaking. And yet by insisting that Blake’s objection was untrue, he’d left Blake no argument to make in response. Blake pushed himself up out of his chair so that he was looking Avon straight in the eye. “I can’t force you to leave. I can only ask. And I am asking.”

It seemed Avon had nothing to say to that. Blake still couldn’t read the expression on his face. Blake wondered if Avon would finally agree. It would be best for both of them if Avon put his talents to more profitable use.

If Avon left now, it was unlikely that they’d meet again. He’d known that to be true from the moment he’d first realized that Avon might want to leave, but somehow the thought felt sharp and jagged, like it had never struck him before. They wouldn’t argue on the flight deck any more, which meant there would be no more vicious smiles that still somehow touched Avon’s eyes. He wouldn’t find out whether Avon’s clothes were going to keep getting increasingly hideous. He wouldn’t ever again get to see Avon come through in an emergency, fixing the computer in record time, thinking of some clever idea and surprising even himself with what he could do. The next time they went down to a planet, Avon wouldn’t be there to draw his gun faster than Blake as they stood in the teleport chamber, keeping the smirk off his face but radiating superiority. The silence lengthened.

“I don’t want to leave you, Blake,” Avon said quietly.

Blake laughed a little in shock. “You – what?” he asked. “Don’t want to leave me?”

Avon’s expression flickered, and this time Blake could read it perfectly. Longing.

“Avon,” he murmured. Blake found his right hand tracing Avon’s cheek. He felt an answering pang, an answering desire as clear and strong as what he saw on Avon’s face. It wasn’t new. He simply hadn’t been able to recognize it as anything other than anger and hurt. But now he knew. He loved Avon. Blake found himself questioning his own motives and behavior, wondering if he’d been so angry, so insistent on Avon committing to his cause because Avon’s words had hurt him personally. It occurred to him, too, that perhaps he’d been so angry because he hated the idea of any harm coming to Avon, whoever caused it. He did believe that it was important for Avon to consent to the risks involved in working to bring down the Federation, but he was far from dispassionate about the matter.

Blake pulled Avon to him in an awkward embrace. The contact wasn’t quite chaste, although it might have been between two other people, and in different circumstances. Avon simply wasn’t a man you hugged fraternally.

“Do you want me?” Avon whispered.

“Yes,” Blake murmured.

“Then take me.”

Blake laughed. “Avon, I’m still extremely confused.”

“I find that surprising. This all seems quite unambiguous to me. However, we can talk about whatever it is you want to know while we fuck. I find it much easier to make intimate confessions while in the throes of passion.”

Blake looked at him, bemused, but after a moment he did as Avon asked, stroking a hand down Avon’s back and then bringing it up to begin undressing him.

“Avon, are you willing to risk your life because that is the price of staying with me? I’m not certain I could accept--”

“Of course not,” Avon said. “That would be far too high a price for anyone’s company--even yours. Keep touching me, Blake, and I’ll explain.” They were doing things in the wrong order, or rather, doing things in no order. He supposed, though, that he could see the benefit. Making declarations of any kind before they’d been intimate would have been difficult for him as well, if he was honest, and talking after seemed to Blake to be too reckless by far. Avon mattered far too much to him to fuck him without knowing it was all right. The compromise of doing it all at once would have to do. He started working at the cold metal studs that would undo Avon’s clothing, unsnapping them one by one. Each time he touched a new snap, Avon twitched slightly. He slid his hand into the opening he’d made and let his thumb trace the hot, slightly damp skin. Avon, he realized, had been sweating beneath his clothes, even though Blake always kept his quarters cool.

“Blake, what are you doing?” Avon asked, and Blake frowned, confused again. Avon could be so difficult.

“Undressing you.”

“Despite appearances, not yet.” Avon said, his voice rasping. “The studs you’ve undone aren’t functional.”

Blake examined Avon and found himself laughing. That did seem to be the case. Blake had created an opening in the leather, but it didn’t seem to serve any purpose. Blake took his hand away.

“Don’t stop now,” Avon said, looking at Blake with an intensity that shocked him. Blake smiled a little and undid another snap, one that would eventually let Blake strip him.

“You were telling me something important.”

“You make me want to take the risks, Blake.” Another snap, and this time it wasn’t a twitch, it was a shudder. “I didn’t want to admit that, not even to myself. I let myself blame you for everything—for getting me into that mess, for refusing to give up the information that would have saved me, even—“ he hesitated, “for not reciprocating what I feel for you. You seem to think it would be impossible for hatred to get me through a long, dark night. Well, at the time it seemed preferable to any of the alternatives. After you told me I had to leave, I finally had no choice but to admit to myself that I wanted to be just where I was, that I was, as you put it, committed to supporting you.”

“That’s one thing you don’t need to worry about any longer. I don’t want you to leave. In fact, I’ll ask you to please stay,” Blake said, and watched Avon’s face twist in an expression that was somewhere between relief and displeasure. Though Blake had tried to avoid sounding like he was doing Avon some great favor by allowing him to remain with him, it couldn’t be pleasant to have to be granted permission to do something one had felt deeply ambivalent and frustrated about.

“Thank you, Blake. I plan to,” Avon said, with just a hint of an edge to his voice. “Actually, I—reasoned you would say that, if I could just bring myself to make an account of myself.” Then he kissed Blake deeply, passionately, pulling on his hair and biting at Blake’s lips.

Blake closed his eyes and tried to let himself surrender to the moment—so much was happening so fast. Desire and relief and a terrible fear that somehow he’d forgotten something, that it still wouldn’t come out right warred in him.

Once they’d stripped properly, they pressed close together, still standing. The warm, almost accidental slide of Avon’s legs and his cock against Blake’s body made him wild for something more definitive. He slid his hand down Avon’s body and closed it around Avon’s cock. The shock of doing it, of touching Avon there, so hot and hard and intimate made his whole body rigid with need. He stroked Avon firmly. Avon reached out and began to reciprocate. Blake groaned and Avon drew an audible, choking breath. For a moment, Blake was lost in simple pleasure.

“Not yet, not yet,” Avon said under his breath, and let out a sudden, helpless groan. Blake realized Avon was closer to the edge than he wanted to be. Avon wanted it to be slow, so Blake ought to stop, he ought to get on his knees and suck Avon off sweetly and with finesse, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t think of any pleasure but this present one. He wanted nothing to exist but the feel and sight of Avon, just like this. Because, he thought, his hand tightening, if he stopped for a moment, it could all cease to be real. That was irrational, wasn’t it? Or was it.

Avon arched into Blake a final time, his body going rigid with orgasm and slamming him hard against Blake. They staggered together awkwardly, and Blake flashed with amusement on a time that they’d ended up with their arms around each other while the ship was going through an asteroid field. Then Avon, sweaty and mussed, eyes blazing with a strange fire Blake couldn’t quite read, dragged Blake to the bed, lay himself down close against Blake’s body, kissed Blake and ran his fingers feverishly over his chest and thighs until Blake thought he might come simply from the feel of Avon’s warm, unsteady breath against his collarbone. Avon finished him with a few hard strokes, then wrapped his arms around him and held him for a long time. Blake couldn’t see his face.

“What are you thinking, Blake?” Avon asked, finally. “I couldn’t hope to guess.”

“Actually, among other things, I was trying to guess what you might be thinking,” Blake said.

“I’d be interested to hear your best effort at reading my mind.”

“Oh, I think that’s already got me in enough trouble,” Blake said. “Two days ago, I had no doubt you were going to leave the Liberator the moment you could stand without falling over. You probably ought to tell me yourself. But first I’ll tell you something.” It seemed Avon had spoken so much more than him, offered up so much more than he had. Blake had always been good at responding and adapting quickly to new situations, new information, but it often took him a while to take those events inside himself, to understand them fully and make them part of who he was. There were things he ought to say to Avon that required that deeper understanding, he knew, but he could do his best now. Blake stroked Avon’s hair up off his brow, then leaned forward and began tracing the line where Avon’s forehead met his hair, first with his fingers, and then with his lips. “The report I compiled on NV95 was actually a rather poorly expressed love letter to you, you know.”

Avon smiled at him. “If that is the case, I ought to tell you I would prefer poetry. And I can’t stand poetry.”

Well, he supposed some mockery for his behavior was well earned. Blake must have looked visibly chagrinned, because Avon continued, “If you look back on the past few months, you will probably be able to identify similar behavior on my part. My desire to kill Travis comes to mind. I simply never imagined that you could be as foolish. It makes me feel much better.” Avon let his eyes slip closed, an action Blake found almost unbearably appealing and surprisingly novel. He was fairly certain he had never seen Avon do that before. He brushed his lips across Avon’s eyelids. “Now I’d like to inform NV95 at last that I will not be joining them,” Avon said. “And perhaps you ought to contact Avalon as well.”

**

“I regret to say that I have made other arrangements,” Avon told Alis Fron over the short range communicator. Blake had already sent a transmission to Avalon, explaining that Avon had recovered miraculously. He still felt rather guilty about all of that, but as luck would have it, Avalon’s man hadn’t yet begun his journey to Arcos. “I can only hope the presence of my assistant in your facility didn’t disrupt your work too badly. I am aware he’s not an unobtrusive man.”

“Actually, we were quite impressed with him. He asked us all some very good questions. I assume you can’t spare him.”

Avon raised his eyebrows theatrically. “No,” Avon said, grinning at Blake. “I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly. As a rule, I never spare him anything. Good luck with your research.”

“Thank you, Chevron. The same to you.”

“Avon, you’re grinning ear to ear,” Blake said.

“I was just thinking how fortunate I am to have such an able assistant.”

“How remarkable,” Blake said with exaggerated shock, “I was thinking the same thing about myself.”

Avon stopped smiling. The question, really, was whether Avon would be angry or furious. Blake regretted the joke intensely. He couldn’t believe he’d trampled so carelessly over such treacherous ground. He hadn’t meant it seriously, but he ought to have thought about what he was saying. Avon had told Blake he wanted to support him, a huge admission, and now Blake seemed to be gloating about it and exaggerating the situation in his own favor. It was almost as though he wanted Avon to cut him brutally down to size—wanted his worst fears that it was too good to be true confirmed.

“Avon—“

Avon threw back his head and laughed, loud and long and genuine.

“Don’t presume too much, Blake,” he said at last, but the smile was back, and it was warm and fond.

Blake felt the air rush out of his lungs. His life was going to be very different now. At last, he knew it to be true. Blake had always believed in a better world, but he was aware that belief always implied doubt. For a moment, he didn’t have to believe any longer. For a moment, all he had to do was pull Avon into his arms again.