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Tarrant dropped Scorpio out of time distort a few hundred spacials short of Fargone's sun, keeping te transition from FTL to sublight as smooth as possible, considering the state of the ship's systems.

He had reason. If he woke the man sleeping in the aft bunk, then he might well be forced to converse with him. After a solid week of Avon's company, sans the leavening influence of the rest of the crew, he thought he could be excused for wanting to forgo any more of it than strictly necessary.

Steering toward the fourth planet in the system, Tarrant began the series of navigational checks, scowling wearily at the figures. Five days out of Laryn, and they still had three days ahead before reaching Xenon. With only failure to report when they reached the end of the journey.

And, if past experience were any guide, Avon would have Scorpio out again within days, on another mission of diplomacy--Tarrant grimaced at applying that word to his companion--that would only sour Avon's temper further. Well, Soolin or Vila or Dayna could tag along for the next trip out. For himself, he felt a bit of peace and rest would be in order. Preferably far away from Avon, for whom the concepts appeared to be foreign.

Feeling restless, Tarrant rose from his station and paced toward the stern, stretching his cramped muscles and trying to rub the grit out of his eyes. Five more minutes in sublight, to finish the checks, and then he could...

Abruptly, the deck tilted at a near seventy-degree angle, sending Tarrant stumbling a few steps toward the front of the flight deck before Scorpio shifted in the opposite direction. What the hell? The artificial gravity field flickered, caught, flickered, then finally died altogether, sending Tarrant clutching for the nearest console.

"What's happened?" Avon's voice rose sharply behind him, slightly groggy with sleep.

Tarrant glanced at the panel nearest him and found it dead, the usual phosphor readouts only a scramble of glowing figures. Was it just the readout itself or were computer systems failing? If the continued lurching of the ship were an indication, probably the latter. "I'm not sure yet. Stay where you are." He started pulling himself, hand over hand, toward the pilot's station. Getting around in zero gee could be tricky and he doubted Avon had done the drills.

Halfway there, the flight deck went black, and with a chilling little whine, the air circulation system shut down. It was a sound that immediately sent a cold shock through any spacer's guts. Remember, if you panic, you're dead. That's the first rule of surviving a systems breakdown. His instructor had always followed that with, of course, you might be dead, anyway.

"Tarrant?" Avon's voice sounded, as ever, cool and detached. Tarrant suddenly decided he was glad to have his least congenial shipmate with him. Whatever else happened, at least Avon would not panic. And if anyone could get computer systems up again, it would be the two of them, with their complementary areas of expertise. It was the kind of situation where neither gunfighting nor stealing would be terribly helpful; only their particular skills would do.

"I'm going toward my console." Tarrant carefully took stock of his bearings before pushing off again. In the total blackness of the flight deck, it would be easy to get turned around, and they had no time for him to be bumping into the bulkheads. "I don't suppose you'd gotten the auxiliary systems connected while I wasn't looking?" After the Mueller's robot business, they'd begun working on that, but Scorpio's antique systems had defied their efforts to tie the backups into the circuits.

"Unfortunately not. But I did put a torch under each of our consoles."

"That helps." Tarrant drifted over what seemed too wide a space before finally grabbing hold of a chair. If his sense of direction weren't completely off, that would be Avon's station. Using the seat as a lever, he pushed himself to what he hoped was his own station, and fumbled to open the latched cabinet under the console, sorting through the floating objects there by touch. A stylus, a leftover half-sandwich, some unidentified tool, then a long, smooth cylindrical shape.

He pushed the switch on the side, and a faint point of light pierced the heavy blackness around him. "Avon, do you think you can manage to get over here? Be careful. Don't try to go too fast or you could end up halfway across the flight deck." He started to ask if Avon were liable to space sickness, but there was no point. If so, they'd both just have to live with the results.

If they lived long enough to worry about it.

With the air circulator and Slave dead, the silence of the flight deck seemed total, and Avon's irregular progress toward him very loud. It took a few minutes before Avon, with uncharacteristic awkwardness, pulled himself into the small halo of light from the torch, his hair still mussed with sleep. He ducked under his own console, coming up with a second torch. "Any ideas what happened?"

Tarrant shone his torch on the panels in front of him. Every one showed either nonsensical readouts or none at all. "We're close to Fargone's sun," he said evenly. "I was doing a navigation adjustment, using Fargone as a reference point."

"A magnetic storm?" Avon's hands roamed over his own console, flicking a control here and there. From Tarrant's position, he could see Avon's readouts made no more sense than his own. "Very likely."

Solar flares could play hell with computer systems by triggering phantom commands, but only on older ships, before the manufacturers had conquered that glitch. Older ships like Scorpio. Like the auxiliary life support tie-in, it had defied his and Avon's effort to fix it, at least without tearing out half the systems, and replacing it with new. This particular phantom command had apparently induced Scorpio to wipe its own computer systems, which had in turn shut down stabilizers, life support, navigation...virtually everything except the drives.

Avon's hands were flicking over his controls again, but unless he went beyond computer expert to being computer god and actually raising the dead, there wasn't much he could do. The programs had been wiped, and no sleight-of-hand would bring them back. Finally, Avon leaned back and glanced over at him. "Suggestions?"

They had plenty of air, but without the circulation systems running, it wouldn't do them much good. Perhaps a few hours.

"Fargone is in range," he said carefully. "If I put the systems on manual, we could probably get Scorpio down." He didn't mention what an unpleasant and possibly fatal ride it could be, without any navigational coordinates whatsoever and flying practically blind. He hesitated another moment, then repeated the qualifier in the interests of complete truth in advertising. "Probably."

"You are always telling us what a fine pilot you are, Tarrant. I suppose it is time you proved it." Tarrant closed his eyes for a long moment, wondering if Avon had just pronounced their death sentence. "Has anyone ever told you, Avon...." He opened his eyes again and carefully reached for the controls that would put Scorpio under his control. "...How very unpleasant you are when your survival has been threatened?"

"Often." Out of the corner of his eye, Tarrant could see the edge of a sardonic twitch of Avon's lips. "But I never mind hearing it again."

*

"How long until we reach atmosphere?"

Tarrant's gaze flickered to the chronometer he'd propped against one of the useless monitors on his console. "Ten minutes exactly."

Avon nodded briefly, returning to the calculations he was hurriedly jotting on scraps of paper found jammed under his console. The notations looked as precise and neat as if Avon were sitting safely in the crew room on Xenon Base. Only the fine sheen of perspiration on his forehead and above his upper lip belied his apparent calm.

Tarrant felt a faint prickle of sweat, as well, despite the increasing chill of the flight deck. He'd done unaided landings before, using simulations at FSA...in fact, he'd gotten the highest marks in his class in that area, by far. He'd enjoyed the challenge.

But, even so, he'd gotten the simulated crafts down intact only sixty percent of the time. Even among far more experienced pilots, that figure had been considered to be exemplary. Most destroyed their crafts in eighty percent of the touchdowns.

Tarrant decided not to share that statistic with Avon. He felt nervous enough for both of them.

"Five minutes." He moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue, which felt dry as well. A ragged slip of paper slid into his field of vision and he glanced down at the figures. "Compensating." He adjusted the controls using the only gross landmark he could: the planet growing ever larger in the viewscreen. Compared to what he was doing now, old-fashioned celestial navigation would be considered precise.

"Thirty seconds."

Scorpio hit Fargone's atmosphere with all the grace of an elephant doing a bellyflop in shallow water. If he hadn't strapped in earlier, he would've been tossed halfway across the deck. From the corner of his field of vision, he could see Avon clinging to the edge of his own console, teeth slightly bared with the effort to stay upright.

"We're still alive," Tarrant commented. The controls tried to wrench themselves out of his hands; he pulled straight back on them, attempting to keep Scorpio on some semblance of a level course toward the planet.

"Good. Try to keep us in that happy condition."

As they neared the planet, Tarrant lost the first landmark he'd selected to navigate by, the upper rim of Fargone. Glancing at the figures Avon had provided, he selected another landmark he thought he could use: a peninsula jutting from the edge of the northernmost continent. "Avon, where do you project that we'll land?"

Avon's voice, a bit breathless from the jolting about, nonetheless held a note of mockery. "Somewhere in northern hemisphere."

Despite his sheer terror, Tarrant felt the shadow of his usual grin briefly pass over his face. "I've never known you to be so imprecise, Avon."

"My apologies. Even I have off days."

Then all thought of conversation died as Scorpio reached the inner layer of atmosphere. Without the stabilizers, Scorpio had all the grace and style of Vila on a three-day drunk, and Tarrant could barely keep the ship on any sort of course. The targeted continent seemed to rush upward at a terrifying pace. Tarrant lost, then acquired new landmarks to navigate by.

"Will we be able to level out to land?"

Tarrant had never known Avon to ask a rhetorical question before, either. Since he didn't think the reply "I haven't any idea" would have brought any great reassurance to his companion, he said nothing at all, putting all his concentration into keeping Scorpio from an outright nosedive.

The vague topography under them became more distinct, dapples of green resolving themselves into forests and roads and, incredibly, a long stretch of smooth field that beckoned to him like the gates of some fabled paradise. He pulled back on the controls, willing Scorpio's prow to come up.

Damnit, damnit, damnit.

Sluggishly, Scorpio began to respond to his urging, skimming just over the surface of the ground at a demented tilt, but just level enough to avoid a crash. Just a bit more. Just a bit more. Come on...

Then the underside of the ship came down with a thump that rattled Scorpio's hull and sent Avon's forehead thudding against the console, before the restraints snapped him back into his seat again. A moment later, the ship bounced up from the ground, hurtled forward twenty meters, then thumped down once more, sliding forward and plowing through a hectare of unripened grain.

Within a few minutes that seemed much longer, Scorpio slid to a halt, every centimeter of the metallic hull still seeming to tremble from the impact.

Down. Safe. Tarrant took one breath, then another. About ten heartbeats later, he lifted his hands from the controls. As from a distance, he watched himself place them flat against the console, trying to still their trembling. I can't believe we're alive.

Slowly, Avon released himself from his restraints, rubbing gingerly at his forehead. "Nice landing." For once, he sounded sincere, not sarcastic, despite a turn of phrase that made Tarrant want to break out into hysterical laughter. "Do you have any idea where we are?"

Tarrant turned his head to regard his companion. He spoke slowly and carefully. Now that he had his hands under control, he didn't want his voice to give him away.

"Somewhere," he said, "in the northern hemisphere."

"You see?" Avon gave him a smug half-smile. He looked as pale as Tarrant felt. "Just as I told you."

*

Tarrant completed his inspection of Scorpio's exterior and, with difficulty, managed to squeeze his long frame back through the partially-jammed hatch. His report was guaranteed not to brighten Avon's day. While Scorpio would indeed fly again, a fairly impressive list of repairs needed to be carried out before they could even consider lifting off for Xenon Base.

Seat-of-the-pants repairs wouldn't do the trick, not if they intended to subject Scorpio to the stress of time distort speeds. And twenty years alone with Avon in a tiny spacecraft was more than Tarrant could contemplate with any equanimity, so time distort would be required.

On the flight deck, he found Avon sitting back on his heels at the base of Slave's platform, a scattering of tools at his feet.

Tarrant looked down at the open access hatch. "Any progress?"

"I've persuaded Slave to talk to me. The problem is, it's saying nothing a sensible person would care to hear." He leaned forward, picking up tools and returning them to the small case he kept under his console. "You were right; the flare tripped a command that caused every system to wipe totally."

"But you could reprogram the systems, surely?"

"I'm flattered by your high opinion of my talents. But if I did the reprogramming myself, it could take months. To paraphrase Vila, buying the programs is easier."

"Using what? The account you set up for us on Laryn isn't going to do us much good here. We're not even in the same sector."

Avon rose gracefully from the deck, flexing his shoulders absently and tilting his head back to work the kinks out of his neck. "I imagine we might have something useful on hand." He strolled toward the rear of the flight deck.

"I don't think this quite the time for a nap, Avon." His sarcasm didn't hold quite the same edge it would've even a year ago, he noted. Perhaps advancing age had mellowed him, even if passing time hadn't produced any such improvement in his companion.

"No?" Avon perched on the edge of the bunk, reaching across the mattress to tuck his hand under the far edge, pressing down on the point where the coverlet met the bulkhead. A moment later, he pulled out a black chamois bag that, from the way he held it, weighed a lot for its size.

"No wonder you have such sweet dreams." Tarrant followed Avon to the front of the flight deck, to the flat counter running in front of the consoles. "What is it, pirate's treasure?"

"Something like that. Part of the unfortunately modest inheritance that Dorian left behind." Turning the bag upside down, he spilled out a quantity of cotton padding, then a jumbled assortment of items that could be used as negotiable currency, depending on the system: the gold coins from Syria Major that circulated freely on most non-Federated worlds, several dozen industrial-grade diamonds, a block of platinum, the ever-more-rare tyrium gems used for long-range communications, even a thick roll of the banknotes used on the more primitive Federation worlds. "I like to think ahead."

Tarrant grinned at the understatement. "This time, I won't complain."

"Just don't tell Vila or I'll have to find a new hiding place."

Tarrant solemnly drew an imaginary cross over his heart. "Now that we have these riches, finding a repair shop seems in order."

"That might present a problem." Avon leaned back against the console, idly poking a finger through the small pile of diamonds. "If we had Orac we could call up all the information we needed: find out where we are, the location of the nearest repair facility, the name of the owner, the brand of parts he stocks...."

"...And have him out here within the hour. Unfortunately, Orac is on Xenon Base and Scorpio's communications system is one of the casualties of the magnetic storm. Inconvenient, isn't it?" Tarrant hauled himself up to sit on top of one of the dead consoles, kicking his legs thoughtfully against the metal sides. "So, has your much-admired intellect come up with any solutions to the dilemma?"

Avon inclined his head as if acknowledging a compliment. "Perhaps. I have been in contact with some of Fargone's leadership, attempting to interest them in our Alliance. It's an agricultural planet that is apparently governed by a loose oligarchy of wealthy landowners...one in particular has become quite interested."

"So you know at least one person here?"

The corner of Avon's lips lifted sardonically. "Yes. But there may be a slight problem. He lives in the southern hemisphere."

"Ah. How convenient."

"Quite." Leaning back, Avon flipped one of the few switches at Dayna's usual station which still functioned, operating the viewscreen. The screen came to reluctant life, revealing two flyers cutting across the fields toward Scorpio at a smart pace. "But perhaps these people know my contact."

Tarrant slid off the console, starring at the screen. "How did you..."

"As I said, Fargone is an agricultural planet. By my estimate, Scorpio plowed under approximately two point five hectares of prime wheat from imported Earth seeds." He began gathering up the scattered currency and dropping it hurriedly into the bag. "Sooner or later, someone was bound to notice."

He looked up again, not quite smiling, holding a handful of gold coins. "I don't suppose you know the current price of wheat on Earth?"

*

The five men who emerged from the flyers looked more like successful cartel executives than farmers. Or perhaps, more accurately, one cartel chairman and his four lower-level, but still important, minions.

Avon spoke quietly as the men approached, his lips barely moving. "Apparently, you landed Scorpio on one of the larger corporate-owned plantations."

"Is that good or bad?" Tarrant didn't want to keep his hand too close to his clipgun, lest it be taken as a threatening gesture, but his fingers fairly itched to clasp metal.

Avon's shoulders lifted in the smallest of shrugs. "Since the owners came themselves rather than sending several large guards to reduce us into pulp, I expect it might be considered good." He tilted his head toward the flyers. "However, you'll notice that there are indeed guards, kept almost discreetly out of sight."

Tarrant had noticed that, thus the longing for flesh against gunmetal. With difficulty, he turned his attention from the lurking guards to the delegation approaching the ship.

They ranged in age from about forty, Tarrant judged, to some twenty years older than that. All seemed expensively dressed in variations of the Federation business garb popular about a decade before: A dark, close-fitting bodysuit, topped by variously-colored jackets, open at the front and ending just above the pelvis. Tarrant had always supposed the reason the suits had dropped out of favor in Earth society was that they clearly displayed any defects of the wearer's physique. Several of the men in the group demonstrated that principle to a painful extent.

Self-consciously, Tarrant sucked in his practically non-existent stomach.

The men came within speaking distance, and Avon nodded to them with a sort of regal courtesy, like a king greeting the potentate of a neighboring, but somewhat inferior, province.

The one Tarrant had pegged as the highest-ranked halted a few meters from them and nodded in turn. He appeared to be just at the half-century mark in age, but trim and still powerful in build, with close-cropped platinum-blond hair and fierce, intelligent eyes as blue as Tarrant's own. "Kerr Avon?"

Without changing expression or stance, Avon abruptly radiated a nimbus of danger so palpable that even Tarrant had to fight the urge to take a step backward. "Pity. I'd intended this to be a surprise visit."

The man started to put out a placating hand, then seemed to think better of the idea. "Scorpio is well-known to the Federation," he agreed, "and worth quite a tidy sum of credits. But I'm in the business of harvesting wheat, not people."

"How fortunate for us." If Avon's personal force field lessened in intensity, it was by an increment too small to actually measure.

"I had a scan done of your ship after you...um, landed? I identified it--true, using the Federation bulletins--but then contacted a colleague, Grav Enderor. He told me you were a possible...shall we say, ally?"

Avon's contact. Tarrant let go a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

Some of the tension eased from Avon's shoulders, as well. "Yes, I have been in touch with Enderor on several occasions. And your name is..?"

"Lieesb Rowan." He held out a hand that looked as powerfully-built as the rest of him. To Tarrant's relief, Avon did not stare at it incredulously, but shook it like any other civilized person would do.

Avon tilted his head in Tarrant's direction. "My pilot and associate, Del Tarrant."

Tarrant contented himself with a brief nod and a dazzling smile. The second line troops hadn't offered to shake hands, and he supposed himself to fall in that category.

Rowan glanced at him for what appeared to be the first time, and the platinum eyebrows rose. "He looks very young."

Avon didn't even glance at Tarrant. "Looks tend to be deceiving."

The other man smiled. "True enough." He nodded over Avon's shoulder at the shattered Scorpio. "For example, your ship looks thoroughly unflyable."

"Ah." Avon's face relaxed into a not-quite-smile. "I should add that the rule is not infallible. As in this case. I don't suppose you have a repair shop to hand?"

"As a matter of fact, I do have a small facility that works on the freighters we use for shipping grain. But if there's anything very elaborate that needs done, we may have to send out for parts. What's the damage?"

Avon turned his head slightly. "Tarrant?"

"Two smashed stabilizers that will have to be replaced. And a couple of hull breaches--those can be patched, I think. Then all the flight computers need reprogramming. Along with replacement star maps and navigational coordinates. That should do it, until we can get back to base."

Rowan glanced back at one of his minions, who hurried over to whisper in his ear. After a moment, he nodded. "The hull patches can be done at once, but the stabilizers and the software will have to be special ordered."

"We do have sufficient currency to--"

The other man waved away Avon's half-finished sentence. "I'm hoping we might come to be allies. I personally have no desire to pay Federation taxes, which would seem to be in Fargone's future otherwise."

Avon inclined his head in acknowledgement. "An understandable motivation."

"It'll take a few days, perhaps a week, to get the parts and make all the repairs. If you and your associate would consent to be my guests, I would be pleased. And I'm certain we could spend the time profitably, discussing a possible alliance."

Avon hesitated only a moment. No doubt the same thoughts were going through his mind as Tarrant's own: If Rowan were going to betray them to the Federation, there was no reason not to shoot them or take them at gunpoint right now. Very likely they were safe. It wasn't cause for trust, precisely, but it seemed close enough to dance to. Especially under the circumstances.

"Thank you," said Avon, and prepared to follow Rowan to the flyer.

With a last look at his battered ship, Tarrant followed. He wouldn't mind a few days rest, away from base...if not, unfortunately, away from Avon.

*

Avon prowled the boundaries of their assigned room like a caged panther searching for a hidden cache of fresh meat.

Will you please sit down? Tarrant willed silently. Before you drive me out of what's left of my mind. What ailed the man, anyway? Here was the perfect chance to get a bit of peace and quiet, and all Avon did was pace. Unlike him, who...

Tarrant looked down as his half-clenched hands, at his long body perched on the edge of the easy chair, stiff with tension. Hmm. He had to admit that perhaps relaxing sounded easier than it was actually proving to be.

On Xenon, it seemed there was always an urgent task that needed attention, from Scorpio's perpetually cranky systems to the mundane chore of making certain the group had sufficient to eat. All this jammed between the increas-ingly-frantic push to find some method, any method, of keeping the Federation at bay, or at least delaying their inexorable drive to recover the outer systems. It left none of them time to rest or to think.

Truth was, Tarrant realized belatedly, none of them wanted time to think.

Too many losses, too many failures, made introspection a painful activity. Too many friend, lovers, parents, siblings--Tarrant flinched at that last--had been sacrificed in their fight against and flight from the Federation. Most recent and most painfully, Cally--and that a crewmate could be closer than a lover in many ways, Tarrant had already known. And Liberator, for so long their only home.

Too much loss to bear dwelling upon. And too much fear of more loss to come.

Tarrant found himself on his feet, ready to flee the direction his thoughts had taken, and forced himself with difficulty into the cushioned armchair again. Yes, he understood Avon's restlessness quite well, but if he emulated it, he and Avon would end up butting heads in more than one sense.

Deliberately, he relaxed, tilting his head against the winged back of the upholstered chair. Avon had come to a momentary halt in front of the windows that ran across one entire wall, stretching from floor to ceiling. "Anything interesting?" Tarrant asked.

"Hmm?" The other man's shoulders twitched, an aborted gesture of what would have signaled startlement in another. He'd been a thousand spacials away, obviously; even perpetual motion was no certain guarantee of distraction.

"The view. With windows like that, I'd expect a spectacular view."

"Oh." Avon tilted his head, as if seeing the outside world for the first time. "Only if you're transfixed by the sight of stalks of wheat. Areas suitable for agricultural use tend to be flat and boring to the average person."

True. On the way in to the sprawling central complex, Tarrant had seen nothing but stretches of planted or plowed fields, occasionally broken by a ditch or fence, with the only moving object other than their flyers the odd automatic reaper. "Perhaps it's scenic to other farmers."

"Probably," Avon agreed absently. "Or at least they like to look at the income it represents."

Avon prowled onward. The room was huge--rather like a suite without any walled divisions--and furnished with what had been, again, the height of Federation fashion a few years before, mingled with objects which Tarrant assumed represented more local tastes. One of the older colonies, Fargone had been out of the Federation cultural mainstream for many years, according to the brief historical precis provided by Rowan. It would be interesting to see what differences showed up in the way of manners and mores.

Back in the Federation fleet, he'd have had a cultural briefing prior to arriving on Fargone. Among rebels and renegades, he'd become accustomed to winging it, but had that had led to some--so far--humorous mistakes.

He had to wonder if he'd eventually run into a situation that wouldn't be such a joke. Orac helped in that area on most occasions, but not even the supercomputer had data for every occasion. And he was certainly of no help now, incommunicado on Xenon Base.

"Tarrant, what do you make of this?"

Levering himself out of the deep armchair, Tarrant crossed the room to join Avon at what Tarrant had mentally dubbed the "master bed," as opposed to the rather less expansive model tucked into an alcove near the loo. The latter, he suspected was intended for the associate-cum-minion, himself. Unfair, that, since Tarrant was clearly the taller and the bed clearly the shorter of the two. But he knew damned well who'd end up there.

Avon pointed to an arrangement of metal parts above the headboard that Tarrant had taken for a piece of abstract art or perhaps a particularly convoluted form of reading lamp. It wasn't.

"It looks like a surveillance device," Tarrant said cautiously.

"Yes. That's what I thought. But why is it just there?"

Tarrant followed the line of sight of the main lens...to the bed. A fairly wide lens, it would just take in the entire surface. "Ah, Avon..."

"That's what I thought."

They exchanged glances, eyebrows raised in a mirror image of one another.

Avon returned his gaze to the camera arrangement. "Unless they send someone to seduce the location of Xenon Base from us, I doubt we should worry." His lips curved upward. "No offense, Tarrant, but I have no intentions of whispering rebel secrets in your ear."

"No offense taken," Tarrant assured him. He examined the arrangement again. "Besides, this wasn't put in for our benefit...it's been in place for some time."

"You're right." Avon delicately rotated the lens, as if to adjust the focus. "Besides which, if they intended to spy upon us, I trust they'd be a trifle more subtle about it."

"There's that," Tarrant agreed. "Still, I can't help wonder what it could possibly be used for... I mean..." His mind raced over a score of possibilities, each more obscene than the last. But, really, for all he knew it might've been used to monitor an invalid who'd used this room. Probably someone long dead.

Yes, that was surely the answer. But he gave the equipment another doubtful glance.

"Just don't bring up the question at the dinner table," Avon advised him. "It might be an awkward subject."

"I'll try not to commit a faux pas over the fish course," he assured Avon sardonically.

"Yes, you might as well wait for dessert. Speaking of that..." Avon tilted his head toward the bathroom, furnished with a marble tub that even Tarrant could've swam in. "Shall I get cleaned up for dinner first or shall you?"

Remembering a bit of crew gossip from before he left, Tarrant grinned. "Surely you jest. Soolin told me that when you two visited Lysator, she didn't even get to wash her hair, you spent so much time in the bath. I'm first."

For a moment, Avon seemed taken aback. Tarrant suddenly realized that no one, after Terminal, bothered to tease Avon, or dared try to pierce the invisible repulse field that surrounded him. Avon stared at him a few seconds longer still, then his face relaxed slightly. "A gross libel," he said softly, "but as you are so eager..." He made an expansive gesture toward the bath. "You have fifteen minutes for your ablutions."

"Fifteen minutes? But we have well over an hour until..."

The ghost of a smile on Avon's lips halted him mid-sentence. Tarrant laughed.

"All right, Avon. You win. Fifteen minutes, then you can splash to your heart's content."

*

At the dinner table, Tarrant noted that the few moments Avon had relaxed in their quarters upstairs had been but a brief respite, soon over and forgotten. Every tilt of Avon's head, every elegant gesture, every cryptic, terse sentence spoke to Tarrant of the tension that had become a spectral companion to the life they'd been forced to lead since he met Avon above Sarran.

Tarrant himself felt the strain, but in this different setting, he recognized it more clearly in Avon, who looked remarkably like a candidate for the leading role in an advertisement for tranquilizing drugs. In the initial segment, before the happy consumer found for himself the virtues of TranqEase or HappyDaze. But at least the fish course had indeed passed without a faux pas, from Tarrant or anyone else.

Though, truthfully, Tarrant wasn't positive there had been a fish course. But the white slivers of meat-like substance in a spicy red sauce could well have been fish and had indeed appeared at the proper point in the culinary lineup.

All the food, Tarrant noted, tasted incredible. At least, to someone accustomed to the food preparation skills displayed by one thief, two weaponry experts, and a computer specialist. Not to mention himself, unanimously acclaimed by the rest as the worst cook in seven star systems.

So he might as well take advantage of decent food when he could. After all, as Dayna often told him, he was a growing lad, and there appeared to be little he could add to the low-voiced conversation between Avon and Rowan.

Unobtrusively, Tarrant induced one of the hovering servants to dispense more of a dish that involved pasta, a strongly-flavored meat, and an unidentifiable but intriguing group of spices. The servant was young and male, as were all the staff Tarrant had noticed. The ten or so people seated around the table were also male, but all older. He wondered if women were kept in some form of purdah here or if the male/female ratios had somehow become unbalanced. Not an unheard-of situation.

Rowan had apparently concluded his conversation with Avon. Now, he looked around and raised his voice slightly, as if including the rest of the table in a less sensitive conversational gambit.

"Though it obviously wasn't deliberate, Avon, you did arrive at a fortuitous moment. Two days from now is my fiftieth birthday. Achieving fifty is the second of two significant natal days in a man's life, and we're planning a rather extensive celebration." Rowan touched the rim of his glass, and a servant hurried over to refill it with amber-colored wine. "I suspect several of those attending are men you'll be interested in meeting.

Avon shook his head slightly as the servant attempted to refill his half-empty glass. "We'll be delighted." He looked more like a man making a valiant attempt to appear delighted, and who'd actually rather walk through burning embers barefoot. The social requirements of diplomacy tried Avon's patience, which was in short stock to begin with.

Tarrant decided a distraction might be in order. "What is the first significant birthday?"

Rowan seemed surprised that Tarrant needed to ask. "The twenty-fifth."

"Really?" At least he could carry the small talk a little further and give Avon the chance to fake eagerness a bit more convincingly. I'm due to have my twenty-fifth birthday in..." Tarrant frowned in concentration; it was easy to lose track of standard time, shuttling back and fourth between star systems. "...Ah, yes, exactly three months."

He'd opened his mouth again to ask about the significance of the birthday, when he noticed everyone in the room had frozen in place, even the servants. Avon's sharp kick to the ankle wasn't needed to alert him to trouble. He'd become the cynosure of all eyes and clearly not because of his good looks.

For a few moments, the tableau remained in absolute stillness, the only sound the stressed breathing of the room's inhabitants and the soft purr of a automatic reaper in the far distance.

Then Rowan began speaking again, talking brightly and much too quickly about preparations for the upcoming festivities, merely confirming Tarrant's deduction that he'd said something very wrong indeed. The rest of the meal seemed to stretch on forever and the subsequent courses tasted like dust to Tarrant's suddenly dead palate.

Rising from the table after what seemed be an eternal dessert, Rowan invited Avon to join him in his study, pointedly not including Tarrant in the summons. But he managed to slip unobtrusively into the hall just as the two men went through the third door down from the dining room. Rapidly, Tarrant ducked into the fourth door down, a room that looked as if it would share a wall with the study.

Avon would doubtless give him the bad news presently, in scathing and uncomplimentary detail, but he found himself unwilling to wait for the results in impatient ignorance.

Glancing around, Tarrant saw a promising connecting door for passing through refreshments, one panel conveniently ajar. He put an eye to the narrow opening and strained to hear the two men's voices.

What the hell could he possibly have said?

*

Rowan paced the elegant parquet floor of the study, crossing and recrossing Tarrant's narrow field of vision, hands clenched tightly behind his back. From his agitation, it was obvious that whatever taboo he'd inadvertently tripped over had to be major.

I hope you can talk our way out of this one, Avon.

In contrast, Avon stood quietly beside the desk that dominated the room, no emotion save cool interest evident in his expression. After several moments passed without any cessation of Rowan's movements, he said mildly, "Perhaps if you told me the problem."

Rowan halted, and after a momentary hesitation, circled the desk and sat down. He folded his hands in front of him on the desk top and, even at this distance, Tarrant could see that his knuckles were white from the convulsive clenching of his fists. "You told me that Tarrant was your associate."

"That's correct."

"But he's not--a man." Rowan blurted out the statement in an embarrassed rush, with an odd sort of emphasis, not as if he were talking about age or gender, but as if separating animals from sentient species.

"Perhaps you had better explain." Avon might not qualify as a social person, but in situations such as this, when a persistent quest for information was called for, he could show an almost unnatural patience. "Unfortunately, we're not familiar with your customs."

And calling that "unfortunate," Tarrant reflected, probably qualified as one of Avon's more outstanding understatements.

"He's not a man," Rowan said again. Like a person who enunciated clearly and loudly in a vain attempt to communicate with someone who didn't speak his language, he appeared to be hoping that mere repetition would get his meaning across.

"Can you be more specific?" If Rowan had been one of the crew, Avon's voice would've dipped into the danger zone by now, but as it was, he kept it admirably even, nearly without inflection.

With what seemed a major effort, Rowan regained a semblance of composure. "Young males are violent, at the mercy of their hormones, dangerous to society."

"Possibly true." Avon looked thoughtful and Tarrant wondered uneasily what incident his crewmate was calling up from memory. "So?"

"They must be kept under control." Rowan resembled an Old Calendar minister, ready to mount a pulpit and declaim the holy write.

"Tarrant is under my control," Avon said calmly.

The young male in question found himself clenching his teeth. Avon had to say that, of course, but...

"I do not believe we mean the same thing by that, Avon." Rowan halted his pacing temporarily and looked at Avon as if in sudden hope. "Unless you are having--" He seemed to be searching for a suitable term that foreigners could understand. "--sexual relations with your young male?"

For a space of seconds, the mask of impassivity dropped from Avon's face. "No, I am not," he snapped. Then a moment later, apparently realized his mistake.

Not that Tarrant could blame him. He'd have said the same, and twice as emphatically.

"I thought not." But Rowan clearly was disappointed. "I am not ignorant of Federation custom, Avon, but this is how we handle these matters here. Certainly, we could not let young males near women until they're properly socialized."

Tarrant had the feeling Avon might actually agree with that statement, considering caustic commentary he'd made in the past.

"So you use," Avon appeared to be choosing his words carefully, "sexual intercourse as a means of control?"

"It's the best method," Rowan said seriously. "It allows an outlet for their overactive hormonal urges and demonstrates in the clearest possible way who is in command."

To Tarrant, it sounded like, We fuck them into obedience. Remembering the mysterious bruises on a few of the young male servants, he wondered if that didn't include beating them into compliance, as well. It probably depended on the taste of the one doing the commanding.

"But we are not from Fargone." Avon sounded like he didn't expect to be heeded. They both knew that every society was convinced their own mores were universal--a visceral conviction that had little to do with reality or logic. "What if I sent Tarrant back to the ship for the remainder of our stay?"

Tarrant was certainly willing.

"No, Avon. As long as he is on Fargone, our laws are quite clear. Your young male must be..." he trailed off delicately.

Screwed is the word you're looking for. Which was precisely how Tarrant felt, too.

"If you don't wish," Rowan cleared his throat. "That is, I can always assign one of my own men to act as his temporary warder."

No. Tarrant fought down panic. Given this choice, what would Avon do? But, come to think of it, handing him to a Fargonean would probably be the best idea...he'd rather deal with a "master" he'd never have to see again after the fact. He didn't really need to be giving Avon a reason to think of him as less than an equal, a dangerous idea if ever Tarrant had heard one.

"Tarrant is mine." A suggestion of a snarl colored Avon's voice. Tarrant wasn't entirely certain he liked hearing himself referenced in the tones Avon generally reserved for Orac, Scorpio, and other inanimate objects he claimed as his own.

Avon continued in a more even tone, "If the appearance will suffice..."

Rowan shook his head, and suddenly Tarrant remembered the surveillance equipment in their room, equipment apparently a permanent fixture. Fargone didn't leave the fulfillment of civic duty to chance or whim, it seemed. From the expression on Avon's face, he'd drawn an identical conclusion.

"Perhaps you'd like to think about it," Rowan suggested. He glanced out the window, where the sun had sunk only about halfway toward the horizon. Dinner had been served in early afternoon and several hours of daylight remained.

Avon nodded slowly. "I should consult Tarrant about his wishes."

Rowan looked taken aback at the concept, then quickly recovered. "Of course. Perhaps you would meet here before supper and let me know what you've decided? If you truly are set against this, Avon, one of my own men will be happy to oblige."

Avon's voice was curt. "I'll let you know."

Clearly, the discussion was over. Tarrant scrambled for the door, wishing to reach their quarters before Avon for appearances sake, if no other reason. On the way, he prepared himself for what was bound to be an unpleasant conversation.

*

Avon took his time returning to their quarters, as if he'd suspected Tarrant's eavesdropping and was providing time for him to regain his composure. Or perhaps Avon needed that time, himself.

Tarrant spent the time standing at the bank of windows, staring sightlessly at the monotonously regular view. When the door finally opened, he turned with what he hoped was an ironically inquiring expression. "Well?"

"You listened." Avon went over to the desk positioned a few meters away from the windows, and began sorting through some papers one of the minions had left dealing with Scorpio's parts. "I thought you would."

Tarrant took a step forward, then halted again, aware that physical proximity now had new connotations. "I--Avon--" How was he going to word this? "You needn't trouble yourself, Avon. I'd rather be screwed by almost anyone else but you."

The other man looked up then, with an expression that was an odd combination of determination and wry resignation. "There are practical considerations, of course." Somehow, it sounded like the continuation rather than the beginning of a conversation. "I cannot tell you how difficult it would be to locate a proctologist near to Xenon Base."

From the tone, it was obvious Avon had decided to take the job himself. No, not a good idea. They'd been irritating each other enough recently, without taking their jockeying for position to bed. "It is a problem," Tarrant said carefully. A hell of a time for Avon to start taking responsibility for his crewmates, when his crewmate had decided otherwise. "But Avon." He decided to abandon tact which never worked all that well with the older man anyway. "If I have to play the part of a slave, I'd really rather it not be with you. I wouldn't want to give you ideas."

Avon gave him one of his patented are you stupid or do you just prefer not to use your brain glances. "That may be the least of our problems. Did you happen to notice the bruises on some of those young men?"

"Yes, but they were hardly anything serious." Did Avon think he'd be afraid of a few bruises? He'd gotten worse in casual workouts with Dayna.

Avon sighed, a touch theatrically for Tarrant's taste. "Presumably, that's what happens when you break the rules. You, Tarrant, don't even know the rules in the first place. So you'll get hit."

His expression suggested that since Avon himself was frequently tempted to punch Tarrant, he doubted any Fargonean warder would fail to find him in need of correction.

"So? I have been struck before, Avon, and trust me, I survived the experience without any difficulty." From the look on Avon's face, Tarrant deduced he'd just walked into a verbal trap, though he couldn't identify where the steel jaws lay.

"And what did you do when you were struck, Tarrant? And what do you think a young man in this culture would do?"

Tarrant opened his mouth, then closed it again without uttering a sound.

"Neither of us know how to react appropriately in this culture, but I'll wager that you very likely would react like a Federation-trained killer dealing with an enemy. And I suspect that's not the correct procedure here."

This time, Tarrant didn't even open his lips.

"And what do you suppose would happen then, even if you didn't actually separate your warder from his head?"

The answer obviously was "a major diplomatic incident that would get us thrown off-planet, with or without our ship." And Tarrant couldn't guarantee that he wouldn't react in the manner Avon predicted. The Federation had spent considerable resources training him to the point that violent and often fatal self-defense had become an instinct not easily circumvented.

"All right," he said stiffly. "You've made your point." He didn't know whether to be angry, embarrassed, horrified, or relieved; he'd think about that later. Along with the fact that Avon seldom had only one reason for any action, and the other was likely a manifestation of that possessive streak. He could almost hear Avon saying, "if anyone fucks with my pilot, it's damn well going to be me."

Aloud he added, "So. We'll start this civic duty tonight?"

"So it appears." Avon's gaze, normally so direct, readjusted itself to a position just aft of Tarrant's left shoulder blade. He'd abruptly lost the blistering sarcasm, seeming just as uncomfortable as Tarrant felt. Which perhaps he was. "Do you know anything about the procedure?" There was no condemnation in his voice, simply a quest for the best source of the required expertise.

"Theory only, I'm afraid."

Avon tilted his head, as if in surprise. "Apparently, the military academy is a less interesting institution than rumored."

Tarrant cleared his throat and found his own gaze wandering away into mercifully empty space. "More...um, fumbling about." He cleared his throat again. "I hate to dispel any particularly fascinating speculations, but most of us were rather fixated on girls. The other was...relieving frustration."

"I suspect that took place in all the public schools."

Tarrant couldn't help a startled, inquiring glance.

"No. I'm afraid even then the possibility of repercussions...concerned me. Disappointed?"

"Not really."

They exchanged tight, mirthless smiles. Avon shuffled the papers in his hands, then held the sheaf out to Tarrant. "You had better mark which parts we'll need for the repairs. I'll give the list to Rowan when I meet with him before supper."

No turning back now. It was decided.

*

After Avon left for supper, Tarrant amused himself by pacing, first the length, then the circumference of the room. He went counter-clockwise for ten minutes, then switched to clockwise.

Occasionally, he took a break from pacing to stare, faintly nauseated, at the tray of food delivered via dumbwaiter shortly before Avon had departed, the silent message being that young males weren't invited to eat with the sentients.

Objectively speaking, the food looked just as appetizing as that he'd happily consumed at dinner, and had been provided in a quantity obviously geared to a youthful male appetite. But the thought of eating right now... Tarrant folded his lips tightly and averted his eyes.

He had poured himself a glass of the excellent wine provided and swallowed it with a haste that owed more to nerves than to appreciation of the vintage. For several minutes, he seriously considered the advantages of bolting a goodly portion of the bottle for the traditional dutch courage.

However, it took very little consideration to come to the conclusion that the disadvantages of that course greatly outweighed any possible benefits.

Not only would it decrease his already doubtful chances at being able to, er, rise to the occasion--though he supposed that was mostly Avon's job--but also he had a shrewd idea that finding his pilot-cum-unwelcome sexual partner half-drunk was exceedingly unlikely to improve Avon's mood. And this in a situation where Avon's bad temper could have physically painful consequences involving the proctologist Avon had mentioned previously.

No, Tarrant decided, sobriety in this case definitely qualified as the better part of valor.

As Tarrant paced, the last remnants of daylight faded into a brilliant sunset that reflected gold and crimson on the vast carpet of wheat just beyond the windows. The glow disappeared into twilight and then darkness broken only by the scattered lamps that lit the way between the main house and various outbuildings.

Tarrant looked around for curtains to close or an opaquing field to flip on, but found neither. Probably the outbuildings were only sparsely used at night, thus negating the need for window coverings to ensure privacy. Not to mention--he carefully avoided looking at the surveillance equipment above the bed--that the observers were in a sense inside the room already. No need for peering through the windows.

Glancing at the wall chronometer, Tarrant saw that almost two hours had passed since Avon had left for the evening meal. Supper was a less elaborate meal, he'd been told, so Avon should return soon. Very soon.

Once more, he looked over at the bottle of wine, sorely tempted to have just one more glass. Don't be stupid. Tarrant noted wryly that his internal voice sounded remarkably like Avon. Resolutely, he turned his back on the temptation of the open bottle, and continued to pace.

*

Another half hour passed before Avon returned. Just inside the door, he paused, closing his eyes momentarily like an actor coming offstage after a particularly difficult performance. Then he opened them again and continued across the room in a straight line, seeming to have to concentrate a bit too hard on the mere mechanics of physical movement.

"How was supper?" Tarrant offered the social inanity wryly, as a distraction from the minor ordeal that lay behind Avon, and the major one that lay ahead for both of them.

"Lengthy." Avon paused beside the table that held Tarrant's untouched meal. "I lost my appetite, as well." He lifted the opened wine bottle, scanning the label. "May I?"

Tarrant made a "help yourself" gesture.

Avon found a clean glass in the nearby sideboard and filled it halfway, his hand steadier than Tarrant feared his own would've proven under the circumstances. He regarded Tarrant over the rim with a hint of a smile. "Incidentally, I applaud your abstinence."

"It was a temptation," Tarrant admitted.

"Don't be so honest." Avon walked over to the bank of windows, glass in hand. It was a mark of his abstraction that he apparently didn't consider how his face reflected in the darkened panes. Not that the expression actually revealed anything but a tension thinly layered behind Avon's usual mask.

"I asked Rowan for further details on the requirements." Avon paused to take a sip of wine, his movements abrupt, a step removed from his usual grace. He sounded even more remote than usual, as if he were trying to imitate a computer's dispassionate delivery. "These are: Penetration by the older man of the younger, and orgasms from both parties involved. Other activities are permitted, even encouraged, but only these are absolutely mandatory."

Tarrant found himself clenching and unclenching his fingers nervously during this recital and forced himself to stop. "All right." Whether it was acknowledgement or permission he himself couldn't have said.

Avon nodded and tilted his glass to capture the last drops of wine, then looked down at the glass blankly for a long moment. "Well, then." Turning as precisely as if he were on a parade ground, he walked to the bed, placing the wine glass on the bedside table. He sat on the very edge of the mattress, a bit at an angle, so that his back was partially to Tarrant, his expression hidden.

A moment of silence passed. Tarrant crossed that difficult ground after Avon, sitting just behind him, but far enough back so they didn't yet touch. All that Tarrant could hear was Avon's stressed breathing and his own.

One of them had to make the first move. And though Avon had been the one to insist on this course, Tarrant had the feeling he wasn't the one who'd make it. Tentatively, he put his hand on Avon's shoulder and felt the muscles tighten under his fingers.

"This might prove...difficult, Tarrant."

"It's not exactly the easiest thing I've done, either, Avon." He drew the other man back against him, so that the leather-covered back rested against his chest. Even through the double layer of their clothing, he felt the tension that pulled Avon as taut as a steel thread.

But perhaps life itself--their constant headlong flight from the most persistent of all enemies, death--had produced that, rather than this specific situation. He bent his head to whisper in the other man's ear, "Relax."

At the mere touch of breath against bare skin, Avon shuddered, and Tarrant felt a reciprocal tremor pass through his own body. How long had Avon gone without the simplest of human contacts?

How long had he himself felt that lack?

On impulse, he bent his head once more, this time brushing his lips over the nape of Avon's neck. He registered the faint, not unpleasant tang of sweat, and caught a faint whiff of well-worn leather and some citrus-and-musk scent he hadn't previously connected with Avon.

Another brief, abruptly controlled, tremor passed through Avon's contained body, as fleeting as a summer breeze. "This isn't necessary," Avon said quietly.

"Unless you want me to be handed over to someone else and thus cause that major diplomatic incident you predicted, Avon, we must perform convincingly." He brushed his lips over Avon's neck again, this time at the sensitive skin just below his ear. "To be convincing, we must both be aroused. Unless you can think of an alternative?"

Tarrant held his breath during long moment of silence that followed, realizing...realizing...

"No." Avon's voice held no inflection. "I see no alternative."

...Realizing he wanted this. Despite his doubts on how it would effect their already touchy relationship. Had, perhaps, wanted it for a very long time indeed, a desire hidden under antagonism and denial, layer after layer of barbed-wire words surrounding a thorny patch of truth. But he had never wanted a man before, much less such a difficult man as this. And yet...

"No alternative," he repeated, comforting himself with the fact. "So relax. For once, let me take the responsibility."

And, surprisingly, Avon did relax minutely, easing back into Tarrant's light, undemanding grasp. Or was it surprising? Had any of the crew ever offered to shoulder the burden of ensuring the crew's survival save Avon? He himself, of course, had wanted--even demanded--a leadership role. But had he truly accepted all that went with that?

A ghost of a smile touched Tarrant's lips. This, at least, could be considered a start on responsibility. Of a sort.

Leaning forward so that his face was pressed against the other man's hair--surprisingly thick and soft, and smelling faintly of the same shampoo Tarrant had used scant hours before--he reached around to unfasten the heavy leather and fabric vest and slide it down over Avon's arms.

Despite the realization of a few moments before, he felt more than a bit uncomfortable undressing another man. And more than a bit uncomfortable contemplating what he was about to do.

No choice, he reassured himself again. He might as well enjoy it.

Avon cooperated with the disrobing as obediently as a child being prepared for bed, but with the tension still evident in every move and every muscle of his tightly-coiled form. He'd go along with this, but obviously his lack of options hadn't given Avon the desire for enjoyment that Tarrant felt.

He should feel discouraged by that, Tarrant reflected, but instead he felt a stab of excitement at the challenge, the same mixture of trepidation and elation that filled him when performing some particularly dangerous aerial maneuver. As if he were gliding on the narrow ledge between ecstasy and disaster.

Stripping off Avon's shirt, he brushed both hands down the sides of the lightly furred chest, the seductive slide of skin against skin sending a deep, aching jolt of pure sensation through Tarrant's body and making the palms of his hands tingle so that he wanted to do it again. And again.

Avon arched his back slightly as Tarrant's long fingers brushed over his nipples. His head tilted back slightly with the movement, so that Tarrant saw his teeth clench together, as if to resist the torture of pleasure, more insidious than any of Shrinker's threats.

Oh, yes.

Tarrant stroked down Avon's chest yet again, more slowly, his fingers lingering in sensitive regions. On impulse, he dipped his head and started to nip at Avon's earlobe with his teeth. The older man jerked his head sharply away.

Oh, Avon. It's not like you to reveal yourself so plainly. But Tarrant didn't pursue the issue; he knew enough to push the limits of his craft so far and no more. For now.

He let one hand wander downward to the catch on Avon's trousers, inserting his fingers into the top and dragging the friction fastening apart. Avon's hands had wrapped themselves around the edges of the mattress and were holding it in a death grip. "Perhaps at this point, I should take off my boots or this could become awkward." The very precision of his enunciation was revealing.

Not as cool as you'd like to appear, Avon. "Good idea," Tarrant said aloud, and drew back his arms, giving the other man space.

Avon leaned forward slightly to release the catches along the side of the heavy boots--they must weigh a metric ton--then pulled them off with slightly jerky efficiency, placing them an arm's length from the bed with more exactitude than seemed strictly necessary. After a momentary hesitation, he stood to remove his trousers and briefs, walking a few steps away to deposit them neatly on a nearby chair.

Out of an obscure sense of courtesy, Tarrant kept his eyes turned away from the obvious area of Avon's body. But a brief glance had assured him that Avon, even if reluctant, was not completely unmoved.

"Tarrant, I hate to belabor the obvious, but you need to remove your clothing, as well."

He felt himself flush slightly, but stood and started to remove his clothes, if a bit reluctantly. Though he'd been enthusiastic enough about Avon stripping, he found himself not nearly as eager to dispose of his own clothing. He tugged at the fastening of his tunic clumsily.

"Tarrant, your modesty is a considerable change from the ordinary and quite becoming, but there really is no need." Avon crossed the short space separating them and brushed Tarrant's hands aside to accomplish the task himself. Removing the tunic to find a thin jumper beneath, Avon raised an eyebrow. "Are so many layers really necessary?"

"You should talk."

A genuine smile flashed across Avon's face. "True." He pulled off the jumper, tossing it onto the chair, then looked down pointedly. "Boots."

Tarrant started to balance on one leg to perform this feat, as he often did in the privacy of his room on Xenon, but then reflected that hopping around the room like a drunken stork would hardly be conducive to a seductive mood.

Instead, he sat sedately on the bed to tug off the boots. But something about the curve of Avon's lips suggested that his near-excursion into juvenile awkwardness had not gone unnoticed.

With all the dignity he could manage, Tarrant shucked boots and socks, propping them neatly beside Avon's, then stood again to remove his trousers. There was no way to avoid embarrassment now. He slid down the trousers, then the briefs, and deposited them atop Avon's garments, studiously avoiding the other man's gaze. In fact, he avoided looking at anything but the wall.

A moment later, he felt Avon's hand on his shoulder. "Your condition is desirable, Tarrant, if we're to complete this...regulated activity."

"Yes, but..." Tarrant raised his eyes and found Avon to be closer than he'd realized. And also found his gaze almost automatically focused on the other man's lips. Abruptly, he remembered Dayna once saying how beautifully-shaped Avon's lips were. At the time, he'd been piqued, but now he found himself agreeing, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the idea of kissing Avon.

"If we're doing everything else required by custom," Avon answered the unspoken question, "I do not see why we should cavil at that."

"No." Tarrant tried to keep his breathing regular.

Slowly, as if not to startle him, Avon moved closer, both hands on his shoulders now, moving Tarrant closer as he himself moved forward, so at last they stood lightly touching, chest to chest, thigh to thigh.

Tarrant almost flinched as Avon finally put their lips together, but held himself still by pure force of will. Avon moved his lips slowly and gently, as if giving them both time to become used to this at once new and familiar sensation. Gradually, Tarrant found himself leaning into the kiss, opening his own lips.

Then Avon drew back slightly, looking at Tarrant with an odd, serious expression for several seconds before leaning forward again. But, instead of the expected renewal of the kiss, Avon ran the tip of his tongue around the edges of Tarrant's lips, as if outlining them.

Tarrant jerked under Avon's hands and the already erect segment of his anatomy displayed even more clearly his enthusiasm.

"Yes," Avon said softly, then his hands tightened on Tarrant's shoulders, bringing him forward in a kiss nothing at all like the first. Tarrant had often noted Avon's intensity and now he felt it in a physical sense. It was as if Avon put his whole mind and his whole soul and, most of all, his total, undivided attention into kissing Tarrant.

Tarrant found his arms locked tightly around Avon's shoulder blades, pressing himself as closely to his body as possible. One part of his mind still cringed at the idea of kissing someone of his own gender, the other part had completely ceased to care. He wanted Avon to keep kissing him indefinitely.

At last, Avon pulled back, his breathing slightly ragged. "I think we should adjourn to the bed at this point."

"Good idea." Then Tarrant abruptly remembered the surveillance equipment focused on that area.

As if they were as together in mind as they were in proximity of body, Avon's eyes shifted in the direction of the camera.

"I wonder if it's turned on?" Tarrant asked quietly.

"It better be. I'd hate to be wasting effort." But Avon's cynical tone stood at wild variance to his obviously aroused body, and Tarrant found that contrast almost as exhilarating as Avon's skillful technique.

Without signaling his intentions, Tarrant quickly slid his hands around to the front of Avon's chest and pushed. Cynicism abruptly dissolved into a look of utter surprise as he fell backward onto the mattress.

Tarrant followed up his advantage by letting himself fall on top of Avon with a solid, flesh-on-flesh thump. But no sooner had he landed than he found himself rolled over by a body with technically less mass than his own, but obviously much stronger than it appeared. He ended up sprawled crosswise over the center of the bed, pinned down by Avon's solid bulk.

"I told Rowan that you are under my control. Surely you wouldn't want me to tell an untruth?" Placing his hands on either side of Tarrant's face, Avon held him still, kissing him again before he could answer. Tarrant hadn't thought it possible that Avon could put any more intensity into the exercise, but he did. It felt almost like a battle, an attack, a desperate bid for...what?

Between one harsh breath and the next, Tarrant's increasingly hazy mind grasped at the answer: control. The responsibility Avon had assumed came close to killing or at least turning him into a tense shadow of himself but, like a man astride a runaway beast, Avon dared not let go, lest he fall.

There must be a way, Tarrant told himself, a way to persuade Avon to share the burden, to ease back, if only a little. If only...

Just then Avon's thumbs stroked down the sides of Tarrant's face, so lightly as to waken a painful sensitivity. And again. He slid sideways a few centimeters, so that his thigh touched Tarrant's erect penis, and began rubbing rhythmically against it.

Tarrant lost any trace of a train of thought.

Instinctively, he seized Avon's hips, trying to put more pressure on that desirable area. In the process, Avon's body shifted slightly, so that his cock pressed against Tarrant's hip, physical testimony to Avon's arousal, exciting him still further.

Breathing raggedly, Tarrant pushed up against Avon again and again, going half-mad at the sensation of his erection rubbing against Avon's leg, of Avon's hard penis pushing against him. He hadn't forgotten Avon was a man--that would be difficult, under the circumstances--but he'd most certainly gone far beyond the point of caring.

Avon broke off the kiss, nipping the underside of Tarrant's jaw with a series of sharp, not-quite-bites, the hint of pain sending Tarrant several steps further beyond conscious thought. "Avon, please."

Raising his head, Avon gazed down at Tarrant with eyes that seemed much darker than Tarrant had ever seen them. "Are you ready?"

After a brief hesitation, Tarrant nodded. On a conscious level--what was left of it, which wasn't much--he didn't expect to get enjoyment from what Avon had to do. But his body loudly demanded a, perhaps symbolic, climax to what he was experiencing. And against all reason, that involved Avon being in him. It made no sense whatsoever; it simply was.

But Avon still hesitated. "Perhaps it will be easiest if you turn over."

Obediently, Tarrant rolled over onto his stomach, his faced pressed against the quilted coverlet, listening as Avon took from the bedside table the jar the management had thoughtfully sent up in the dumbwaiter with his supper. Apprehension might still be present somewhere at the back of his consciousness, but it'd been buried beneath the driving desire for completion.

Gritting his teeth, Tarrant rubbed his cock against the mattress. The silken material provided a poor imitation for the texture of Avon's body, but he was unable to resist that substitute stimulation. Avon. Hurry.

He gasped as a cold-as-space glop of something hit his buttocks.

"Sorry." Avon did actually sound somewhat contrite. "I'll warm it first." A moment passed, then he felt Avon's deft fingers between the cleft, spreading the warmed lubricant. Automatically, he tensed. But the sensation was not unpleasant, and he found himself pushing up as Avon's fingers brushed nerve endings he hadn't realized he owned.

"Is that pleasant?" Avon sounded a bit surprised, but then so was he.

"Yes." He hissed the word between clenched teeth, distracted by the contradictory impulses to press his penis down against the mattress and his backside up against Avon's probing fingers.

"And this?" Avon slipped a finger inside him.

It felt odd, unaccustomed, but not at all like being examined by the elderly and brusk physician back at Academy. "Yes."

Then Avon moved to straddle him and every sensation was doubled by the pressure of the other man's legs astride his thighs. Just barely, Tarrant prevented himself from thrusting sharply up against Avon's hand. The desire for contact, inside and out, was like a physical and unignorable ache, present throughout every centimeter of his flesh.

Another finger. Tarrant kept himself as still as possible, trying not to moan lest Avon take it as a sign of pain and withdraw.

"Are you all right?"

No. "Yes." He moved his legs a bit further apart, a gesture that might be interpreted as cooperation, but was in fact an attempt to bring his skin into closer contact with Avon's. He found his fingers clenching handfuls of coverlet.

Three fingers. Tarrant nodded before Avon could ask. The other man leaned in closer now and Tarrant could feel just the tip of Avon's cock brush the curve of his buttocks. It was driving him mad. If it continued for many more minutes, he'd be chewing on the bedspread. "Avon. Now."

A moment of silence passed. "You're certain?" But the fingers withdrew.

If he were any more certain, it would be from within the confines of a padded cell. "Yes." Damnit.

Another pause, but Tarrant could tell from Avon's movements that this was to put some of the lubricant upon himself. The mental picture this created in Tarrant's mind--Avon stroking himself with that deliberate and skillful touch--almost resulted in a fatality for the fabric under his fingers.

Then Avon slid down to lie full length on top of him, an exquisite melding of skin against skin, his penis nudging the cleft of Tarrant's buttocks. His labored breathing, now close to Tarrant's ear, belied any attempt at composure. "Now?"

For an instant, Tarrant felt torn by opposing emotion: gratitude for Avon's unaccustomed consideration fighting with his impatience at the man delaying what they both so plainly desired. Or was at least half this hesitation a form of fear at the leap into uncharted waters?

Never mind. Tarrant had gone well beyond philosophy into pure, unadulterated lust.

Releasing the hapless fabric under his fingers, Tarrant reached around awkwardly to curl both hands around Avon's hips while pushing up against his erect cock, trying to pull him into place. The attempt, while a clumsy and a dismal failure, did get Tarrant's point across.

Avon thrust in, gasping sharply. It was a kind of sound Tarrant had never expected to hear from Avon, that of purely astonished pleasure, as if he'd been surprised by joy.

That definitely made it all worthwhile.

"Are you...?"

"I'm fine." It felt odd and, yes, a trifle uncomfortable, to have Avon inside him, but not actually painful. And now even that slight discomfort had begun to recede. He pushed up and back experimentally.

Now Avon's fingers clutched at the bedcover on either side of Tarrant's head, as Tarrant himself had only moments before. Obviously, Avon kept himself from thrusting only by sheer force of will. While admittedly Avon had plenty of this commodity, Tarrant thought they needn't draw on it just now.

"Go ahead." Tarrant's voice had gone unexpectedly husky.

Avon let go the abused fabric and slid his arms around Tarrant's chest. Withdrawing most of the way, he slid in again slowly and carefully, his pelvis fitting snugly against Tarrant's backside.

Oh. That felt startlingly pleasant. "Do that again."

"With pleasure." Avon withdrew again, then thrust home more strongly this time. He paused, fists clenched against Tarrant's chest with the effort not to move.

But second time had felt even better. "I'm all right. Keep going." He wriggled his hips slightly for emphasis.

A sound came from between Avon's clenched teeth that seemed suspiciously like a moan. His hands flattened against Tarrant's chest, fingers making small stroking motions that were perhaps meant to calm him, but had an entirely different effect. "Very well."

Avon began to thrust in a slow, regular rhythm, but this time Tarrant felt it stemmed not so much from caution as to tantalize himself with a seldom-felt pleasure. If Tarrant had voiced any pain, Avon would've hastened to finish, Tarrant was sure.

But Tarrant voiced no pain. Felt no pain. The small discomfort had completely disappeared and every thrust brought an escalation of pleasure. He began to move to Avon's rhythm, pushing back onto Avon's cock, then forward into the mattress.

"Lift up a bit."

At first Avon's instructions made no sense, but then Tarrant realized that Avon's right hand had slid downward and was attempting to insinuate itself between Tarrant's pelvis and the mattress. Tarrant cooperated with the maneuver, inching his knees up slightly so that his hips angled up from the bed.

Given free rein, at first Avon's hand went no further than Tarrant's lower abdomen, pressing him more securely against Avon's pelvis. The minute change of angle pushed Avon more deeply into Tarrant's body and dragged forth a moan of pleasure.

"Good," Avon said softly. Then the hand slid lower, curling around Tarrant's penis. Helplessly, Tarrant thrust into the warm tunnel created by Avon's fingers. "Yes, that's right." Avon's voice dipped into that range that so often warned of danger. But any peril offered now seemed strictly of the erotic variety. "Now let's see if we can coordinate."

Again he began a steady thrusting, but now Tarrant was caught between the Charybdis of Avon's erection and the Scylla of his skillful fingers. He'd never felt anything quite like the sensation provided by Avon's hand. Dissatisfied with simply supplying a warm haven for Tarrant's penis, Avon sought out its most sensitive areas, fingers circling the glans, tracing a maddeningly thoughtful course up and down the ridge. Tarrant just barely prevented himself from a loud and undignified groan of pure pleasure.

But Avon had lost much of his diffidence, as well. His breathing had gone increasingly ragged, brushing along Tarrant's nape like an irregular caress, and his hips pushed forward harder and harder, as if he were unable to properly control his movements. Suddenly, he turned his head a few centimeters and nipped sharply at the tender skin at the back of Tarrant's neck.

"Ahh." Tarrant bucked wildly against the body pinning him to the mattress. He had to have more of Avon; he wanted it to be harder and deeper, with all the intensity that Avon possessed.

Then, as if Tarrant's thought had communicated itself or his involuntary reaction had ripped aside the last of his self-control, Avon speeded his movements, thrusting fiercely into Tarrant. His hand kept up a complementary rhythm on Tarrant's cock, his touch demanding now, rather than delicately seeking.

Tarrant felt surrounded by a multitude of sensation, a combination too intense to sustain: Avon's arm warm around his chest, Avon's hand stroking his penis with increasing urgency, the fine-grained skin touching him at back and leg and buttock, and most exquisitely, Avon within him. Every small change in awareness, every brush of skin against skin, threatened to push him over the edge.

"Avon." His voice made it a gasp rather than a coherent word.

"Yes." Avon's body trembled with effort, then he made one more deep thrust, uttering a strangled cry as he climaxed.

And it took no more than that for Tarrant to follow. He buried his face in the silk bedcover to muffle what threatened to be a shout. The orgasm rippled through him like the crest of a wave, leaving him limp and near insensate.

When he took stock of his surroundings again, Avon had rolled off of him and somehow pushed them both around so they lay in a roughly conventional direction on the bed, rather than crosswise. Tarrant wriggled up a bit, to get his head positioned on one of the pillows.

Avon turned his head, his expression again shuttered. The forehead and high cheekbones were beaded with perspiration, and the edges of his hair were damp, as well, curling at the temples and at the nape of his neck. "How are you?"

Utterly drained. Utterly ecstatic. "Fine. And you?"

Avon nodded, apparently considering that answer enough. "I--" he hesitated. "Rowan informed me that we are required to," he paused again, apparently to search for the proper word, "repeat this every day that we remain on Fargone."

Oh. Tarrant wondered how Avon expected him to react. After what had just passed, if Avon had told him they'd have to make it seven times a day to satisfy some obscure quirk of Fargonean numerology, Tarrant would've danced in the streets. He was sure he must've felt this good once or twice before, but at the moment he couldn't recall just when. For the first time, he found himself envying the late Anna Grant. And wondering how the hell she'd ever let Avon go, even if she'd been offered a place on the Federation council in return.

But Avon would not welcome wild enthusiasm. Instead, Tarrant nodded in a mirror image of Avon's earlier gesture.

"Now I suggest you get some sleep."

Tarrant had no argument with that, either. He felt sleep pull at him in a seductive undertow that dragged him into a velvet darkness. And peace. A peace he hadn't felt for a very long time.

*

For a moment, Tarrant didn't know what had awakened him, and he instinctively rolled to the far side of the bed, reaching for his clipgun. Belatedly, he registered the soft click of a door closing and turned his head to see a thin stream of light issuing from beneath the bathroom door.

Oh. He relaxed back against the pillow. Avon had gotten up to use the loo, that was all.

Then the implication of the thought hit him. Avon, sharing a bed with him. Avon, making love to him. A mental picture washed over him, made up from recent memories: Avon's hands on him, Avon's weight pinning him to the mattress, Avon's...

Tarrant found his penis rising to attention and hurriedly shifted away from that particular mental picture, trying to think soothing thoughts in the direction of his unruly cock. Shhh. No, just go down. Come on, now. Avon wouldn't be pleased to return to bed and find him in this condition.

The light from the bathroom went out just as he managed to dampen his body's enthusiasm, and he breathed a sigh of relief. A moment later the door swung open, but instead of returning to bed, Avon walked over to the bank of windows and stood gazing out into the night, as still and silent as if he were a statue sculpted of flesh instead of stone.

As silently as he could, Tarrant eased himself up on the pillows so as to see the other man more clearly. He'd never thought much about Avon's body, one way or any other, but now he found it extraordinarily attractive. Was that because of the pleasure that body had recently brought him, an objective assessment of a comrade now seen in a new light, or some mixture of both?

The question teased at him only for a moment, then he dismissed it and enjoyed the view. A faint illumination from the lamps outside painted Avon's body with irregular bands of light and darkness, highlighting the surprising broadness of Avon's shoulders, making a mystery of the small of his back, then focusing attention on the narrow hips and neat swell of buttocks. His body had the severe beauty of a sculpture from antiquity, the echo of some long-dead centurion struck down in his prime and immortalized in stone.

Tarrant found himself clenching his hands at the image, at some feeling that pierced through him that seemed close to being pain, close to...

Then Avon turned from the windows, and Tarrant slid down on the pillow, letting his eyelids half-close, so it would seem that he still slept.

Instead of climbing back into bed, however, Avon paused just by the side of the bed and looked down at Tarrant, his expression unreadable in the dim light. For a space of what seemed several minutes he stood that way, just gazing down, no more. Then his hand lifted slowly from his side, reaching out toward Tarrant in a gesture too tentative to belong to the man Tarrant knew.

And, for the space of a breath or two, it seemed Avon would actually touch him...caress him? But then with a slight gesture of negation, Avon drew back again and turned away from the bed, walking again to the window and staring out into the empty courtyard.

Tarrant eased up once more against the pillow. Avon stood limned in the lamps from outside as before, but seeming now less like a statue than some impossibly-beautiful but fortified castle, glittering in the moonlight, defying all who wished to invade or even simply to touch the lofty walls.

Despite that odd stab of pain he'd felt, Tarrant found himself smiling. He'd always fancied himself a white knight--or so Avon claimed--but now he pictured himself as not a rescuer but a besieger.

Or perhaps...both?

Avon sighed, shifting position slightly, and warned, Tarrant sank down into the pillows just as the other man turned from the windows to return to the bed.

Tarrant lay silent, breathing regularly to imitate sleep as Avon settled in, the older man's own breathing deepening into an even rhythm in a remarkably short time. It was common knowledge on Xenon that Avon slept badly, but perhaps a spaceship crash, a near-diplomatic incident, and a fairly vigorous session of hot sex was tiring enough to knock out even Avon. Tarrant himself would be sound asleep himself, if...

If he weren't so thoroughly, painfully aroused.

Tarrant propped himself on one elbow, studying his crewmate's face in the uncertain light, for several minutes content to simply gaze at the familiar face made abruptly strange by the events of the night. Then tentatively, he reached out to trace the line of one aristocratic cheekbone, brushing up against the improbably long eyelashes, then down again to the sweep of jaw.

For a moment, Avon seemed to stir and Tarrant froze, expecting to get his wandering fingers bitten off. But then the older man sighed in his sleep and settled back into immobility.

Tarrant let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd held, and let his fingers wander further. He brushed over the perfectly-shaped lips--his erection rose another notch as he imagined outlining them with his tongue, bestowing maddening, small nibbles at their edges--then down sent his fingers down to the strong neck and the vulnerable hollow just above the collarbone.

The sleeping man stirred, not as if awakening, but as if responding to his caresses. Encouraged, Tarrant ventured further, long fingers sliding down to rasp softly over one flat nipple, so that it budded beneath his fingers.

Yes. Gently, gently, he took the hardened nipple between two fingers and squeezed it slightly. It hardened further, and the unconscious man shifted and murmured in his sleep, the shapely lips turning upward, as if at a pleasant dream.

Irresistible. As if under a delicious compulsion, Tarrant's fingers sought the other nipple, affording it identical treatment as the first, then rolling the hardened nub between his fingers. Avon moved again, lifting his chest to press closer to his fingers.

Tarrant's breathing accelerated, and then his fingers were drawn downward by the magnetism of Avon's sleeping True North. Over the thatch of soft hair over the top of Avon's belly he went, detouring to trace the elegant ridge of hipbone, then over and down again to where his sex slept unsuspecting against one strong thigh.

So soft under his fingers. So unguarded. But not soft for long. Feeling Avon grow beneath his fingers gave Tarrant an odd feeling of power, to control a part of a man himself so controlled.

Shifting his hand slightly, he ran the pad of his thumb up the ridge of Avon's penis and rubbed delicately at the spot on the underside of the tip that he found particularly sensitive on his own body. The organ in his hand hardened further and the sleeping man's hips pushed a few centimeters upward.

Tarrant glanced at Avon's face and recognized that he'd come up from the deep sleep he'd been in initially to a state considerably closer to consciousness. Scarcely surprising, and Tarrant should definitely leave well enough alone now. The thought of stopping seemed intolerable, as impossible as refusing to breathe the air around him, but...

Regretfully, he let go of Avon's cock, really intending to push himself away. Instead he found himself sliding close to the other man, closer to the enticing flesh and skin and bone that enclosed the intelligence and spirit that was at once so irritating and compelling. His leg touched Avon's and the rasp of skin against skin felt so exquisite as to be nearly painful.

Then, without really intending it, he found himself atop Avon, chest against chest, hip gliding against hip, legs draped like human parentheses on either side of the muscular thighs. He had to grit his teeth; it felt almost too good for him to endure...or at least to endure quietly. Avon might well kill him for this, but the threat seemed distant and the pleasure pulsing through him more than intense enough to compensate for his eventual demise.

His hands slipped under Avon's shoulder blades and he lay his head beside Avon's, so the man's surprisingly soft hair brushed against his cheek, adding another tantalizing sensation to an already explosive mix. Without conscious volition, his hips began to thrust and slide against the other man's. Their bodies were slightly out of alignment, so that Avon's cock rubbed against his stomach, while Tarrant's own erection slipped between Avon's thighs.

Tarrant groaned.

The body beneath him tensed. "Tarrant... What..."

The younger man froze. Mostly. His hips seemed to want to keep moving despite his effort at enforcing his mind's directives, his cock longing to rub in and out of the warm enclosure of Avon's legs. He was too excited to feel trepidation.

Avon's voice, thick with sleep, held an unexpected note that finally pierced Tarrant's haze of arousal just slightly: humor. "Apparently, Rowan's correct about those overactive youthful hormones."

Raising his head slightly, Tarrant looked at the other man without speaking. Not only did he not know what to say, he'd very nearly forgotten how to articulate at all. And the fact that Avon had not lost his erection did not help Tarrant's coherence level; he wanted to ignore Avon's words and concentrate on his body.

"Tarrant, that isn't a good idea. It would be uncomfortable for you, so soon after..." Abruptly, Avon fell silent, seeming to read something in Tarrant's face that the younger man didn't even know was there.

A heartbeat later, and Tarrant realized what dangerous--desirable--area of Avon his erection nestled all too closely to. And knew what Avon had read in Tarrant before he had told himself what he wanted. Suddenly, he heard himself babbling, not knowing when he'd started talking and now unable to stop. "I won't hurt you, Avon. I'll be careful." Just before he blurted out, it'll be good for you, I promise, he managed to halt the torrent of words, with nothing to do but stare at Avon, the pleas barely damned behind his lips.

He wanted to be inside Avon. He wanted to be inside him so very badly. And that spoke louder than any reassurances on his lips.

Fully thirty seconds ticked by, feeling like thirty hours. Finally, Avon spoke, his tone carefully neutral, "There is no rule against it." He paused infinitesimally. "It is only fair."

Tarrant held his breath, not speaking, aware he had not yet received a final assent.

More endless moments passed, then Avon tilted his head slightly in the direction of the bedside table. "The jar is over there."

Yes. Tarrant suppressed the urge to offer further assurances, instead reaching out one thankfully long arm to grab the lubricant. Despite Avon's reluctant agreement, Tarrant didn't feel inclined to allow him much latitude of movement or time to change his mind.

He wanted this too much to take any kind of chance.

Scooping a generous amount from the jar, he cupped it in his palm for a moment to warm it, remembering the unpleasantly cold sensation against his backside from before, and not wanting to disturb whatever mood existed. But when he lifted up and reached between their bodies to apply it, the other man moved as if wanting to turn over. Without even thinking, Tarrant flattened one hand against Avon's shoulder to hold him down.

Avon's eyes flickered to Tarrant's face, his expression shuttered. "The position is...a bit awkward."

A bit intimate, you mean.

Faced away, Avon could perhaps at least pretend to withdraw himself, and Tarrant felt more than a bit selfish on this particular subject. More than a bit determined to enjoy every bit of what he might never possess again. I will have at least a chink in those walls, Avon, if it kills me.

"It's not as if anyone's taking our..." Tarrant halted mid-sentence. Actually, it was precisely like someone was taking their picture, and Avon's face mirrored that knowledge. "It's not as if it matters," he said instead. "Does it?"

As manipulation went, it wasn't terribly subtle, even by his own admittedly low standards, but Avon either didn't notice or refused to acknowledge noticing. He shook his head, drawing up his knees slightly.

This time, Tarrant successfully delivered the lubricant to the desired spot. A few short hours before, Tarrant would have considered this more a medical procedure than erotic foreplay. But the thought that he'd shortly be inside the man he desired made him long for a symbolic penetration immediately, and he had to struggle for control, reminding himself of his promise. One finger, just one, and carefully.

Avon had a curiously intent look on his face, as if bracing himself for a pain that, against all reason, kept delaying its arrival.

Tarrant added another. The feel of the tight muscles closing around his fingers drove him half-mad with the driving urge to substitute himself for his hand, to immerse himself in the other man. Just a moment now. Just a few more moments. Clenching his teeth over a moan, he worked his fingers back and forth gently, with determined patience. Not long.

Then he glanced at Avon's face. The other man breathed raggedly, but not as a result of passion, or only partially so. Tension had hardened the musculature along the clean line of Avon's jaw, making his face seem more stone-like than ever.

This isn't going to work, a voice whispered from within.

Stubbornly, he ignored the voice. If Avon would just relax, then it would be fine. Turning his head, he ran his lips over the curve of Avon's neck coaxingly, tongue tracing a tendon down to the spot where the pulse beat strongly...and far too rapidly.

Oh, yes, Captain Tarrant, it will be fine, it will be just wonderful. That's why his body feels as yielding as your average chunk of herculaneum, because he knows he'll enjoy it so very much. You said you wouldn't hurt him; what's your oath worth now, Captain?

Without knowing quite how it happened, Tarrant found himself beside the bed rather than on it, fists clenched and body half-bowed with the effort of will. He looked at the bed again to find that Avon had lifted his head from the pillow, his expression that of guarded...inquiry? relief?

"I'm going to..." Tarrant couldn't quite manage complicated sentence structure at the moment. "...take a shower." He felt rather than saw Avon glance at the camera at the top of the bed. "It doesn't matter; this wasn't in the rules. We've done our bit."

Stumbling blindly into the bathroom, he brought up the lights and found his way to the shower more by instinct than intention. Instead of turning on the water, though, he leaned against the far wall of the spacious enclosure, pressing his forehead against the cool tile.

He hadn't hurt so badly since adolescence. Hell, he couldn't remember being so painfully hard even during the first hot bloom of hormones. He must've done, though. And this would pass. Eventually.

The sensible thing to do at this point would be to take matters, so to speak, in hand. But his own fingers seemed cold and uninteresting next to the flashes he kept getting, even now, of Avon's raw silk skin against his, the feather-touch of Avon's dark hair, that elusive citrus-spice scent that...

Tarrant groaned, screwing his eyes shut against the persistent visions. This wasn't helping in the least.

The bathroom door snicked open, then closed with a sound just barely louder than Tarrant's harsh breathing. A moment later, the opaqued entry to the shower slid to one side. "A shower?" Avon's cool voice echoed against the tiled walls. "What a good idea. But it does help if you actually turn on the water."

Tarrant looked around to find Avon punching the buttons to raise the temperature from the lukewarm setting Tarrant had used before supper. "Cold would be better for me," Tarrant managed wryly.

One corner of the chiseled lips twitched upward. "But not for me." He turned on the water, then calmly reached for a bar of soap and sponge and began lathering himself.

Tarrant found himself turning so that his back was to the wall rather than his face--a move he knew he'd regret almost immediately--watching Avon's motions in a state suspended somewhere between horror and lust. Was this Avon's revenge for what he considered near-rape?

Dry-mouthed, he looked on as the sponge in Avon's hands wandered over the strongly-built chest to the flat belly and then to the still half-aroused sex, giving careful attention to each patch of skin, like a cat grooming each individual clump of fur. Tarrant followed each tiny movement, part of him convinced he'd been dispatched to perdition and the other half screaming that it was paradise.

Finally, Avon put down soap and sponge and rotated slowly under the spray, rinsing off, and incidentally giving Tarrant a leisurely look at every part of his body. And that was almost as bad. Or as good.

Avon shook his wet hair out of his face, regarding Tarrant with a slight, quizzical tilt of his head. "I hadn't realized that being your--" he halted on the edge of a word, as if looking for a detour around it.

For a instant, Tarrant thought he'd almost said "lover." But then he realized intuitively that Avon referred to a perhaps even more distasteful pair of syllables: leader.

"--Associate," Avon went on smoothly, "involved bathing you. However," he retrieved the soap and sponge discarded a few moments before, "if I must."

Pulling Tarrant forward firmly, he applied the soap to Tarrant's chest, fingers touching the skin around the edges of the slippery bar.

"Avon," he protested uncertainly. He wanted to push the older man away--well, half-wanted to do so--but his limbs had given up obeying him altogether.

Avon ignored him, a tiny crease appearing between his eyebrows as he concentrated on the job at hand. Exchanging the soap for a sponge, he began rubbing it over Tarrant's body as thoroughly and carefully as he'd cleaned his own. The combination of the soft scratch of the sponge with the brush of Avon's fingertips was excruciating. The sponge descended to Tarrant's stomach, circling downward lazily.

"You realize," Avon said conversationally, as if scrubbing down his pilot were something he did every day, "that you must learn to do this yourself. If I continue to bathe you on Xenon, everyone else might demand the same kind of service."

Oh, they would. Regardless of sex or previous orientation.

The maddening caress of the sponge reached his genitals and Tarrant very nearly whimpered. In fact, he feared he had actually done so, for just then Avon paused and murmured "patience," before resuming the methodical wielding of sponge and soap.

Avon sank to his haunches, starting to sponge Tarrant's legs, the slight movements of Avon's head making Tarrant constantly aware of how close his penis was to Avon's face. Avon's lips. So damned close.

Tarrant turned his head aside. Some things it was better not to contemplate. Or not to contemplate for more than a few seconds, anyway.

"Turn around." Numbly, he pivoted under Avon's hands, then the process began again, from the back. If the revolution went bust, Tarrant thought dazedly, Avon could get work in a bathhouse. Or a pleasure house.

When Avon reached Tarrant's buttocks, he hesitated for a fraction of a moment, then very carefully and gently used the sponge in the cleft. "Are you in any pain there?" he asked quietly.

"No. Yes. Maybe." Somehow, Tarrant stopped himself from uttering any further contradictions. "I don't know," he confessed.

A hint of laughter touched Avon's tone. "I'll ask again tomorrow." The sponge continued upward, with pauses for more water and soap, up his back and finally over the sensitive nape of his neck. He felt like a mass of tingling nerve endings. "All done," Avon said into his ear. "Now, rinse off."

Obediently, Tarrant rotated under the stream of water, wondering how quickly he could get Avon to leave so that he could take care of his increasingly frustrating condition in decent solitude. But when the soap had been washed away, he found himself pushed against the wall, just out of the stream of the shower, the water-beaded tiles cool against his back.

Avon stood motionless in front of him, something in his posture telling Tarrant his intentions.

"No, Avon. You don't have to..."

An almost rueful expression showed in Avon's eyes. "Rowan told me that I must control your unruly hormonal impulses. I must admit it's a more tiring job than I'd anticipated, but..." Gracefully, he sank to his knees, reaching out to take Tarrant's cock in one cool, slightly-damp hand. He contemplated it thoughtfully for a moment. "I am more accustomed to being on the receiving end of this, but I trust I can translate the principles into action."

Leaning forward, he parted his lips and lapped his tongue carefully over the tip of Tarrant's penis.

Tarrant jerked in Avon's grasp as though struck with a shock-stick.

Avon glanced up, as if to gauge Tarrant's reaction, then turned back to his main target, sliding his right hand back to anchor at the base of Tarrant's erection and resting his left hand lightly against Tarrant's thigh. It should have amused Tarrant to see Avon's face assume the same look of interested concentration as when he faced a mildly-challenging mathematical problem.

Should have. If he hadn't been too aroused to have space left for amusement.

Again Avon swayed forward, this time taking the head of Tarrant's cock and then, seconds later, part of the shaft into his mouth, surrounding it with damp and restless warmth. Tarrant balled his fists against the tiles, trying desperately not to thrust into that so-inviting haven. The consequences when he'd inadvertently tried that with a woman had not been enjoyable, and he didn't want to inspire Avon to homicide.

Avon's hand moved on his thigh, as if to sooth him, though it had an entirely opposite effect. Every cell of his body seemed separately aware of Avon, from the soft scrape of his palm against the rougher skin of Tarrant's leg to those oh-so-mobile lips and clever, teasing tongue.

For long moments, Avon seemed content to torment him, delicately seeking out the most sensitive areas on the underside of the glans. Then he glanced upward, as if to say, "now let's be serious," and began in earnest, taking Tarrant more fully into his mouth, working with lips, tongue, and hand.

Tarrant cried out, and the hand on his thigh tightened in encouragement. He heard himself saying Avon's name again and again as his fingers scrabbled for purchase against the damp wall. Then the warm, wet haven sucked at him harder, hand working faster, until the tension broke, like color dissolving in a kaleidoscope, into brilliance and splendor and chaos.

Some indeterminable time later, he found himself sitting on the floor of the shower, Avon still crouched beside him. "Better?" Avon asked the question seemingly without sarcasm.

"Much. Thank you."

Avon nodded and rose, bringing a problem of his own to Tarrant's eye level. He noticed the direction of Tarrant's gaze. "I wouldn't worry. I am much less...volatile."

Tarrant smiled. "But, Avon, I've heard that those older male hormonal urges are terribly dangerous." He rose to his knees, hands flat against the wall on either side of the other man.

"Are they?" Avon's voice dipped in pitch. He tried to step back, but the wall did not dissolve from Avon's mere presence, as he appeared to expect to happen. And, against its owner's obvious wishes, his cock came to a higher order of attention, as if seeking out Tarrant's mouth.

"Yes." Tarrant moved his hands until they lay flat against Avon's thighs, pinning Avon's eyes with his own as that usually direct gaze tried to slide away, to seek some corner of denial. "Avon, let me."

The older man lifted his chin, as if facing a firing squad, hesitated again, then said, "Very well."

Not wanting Avon to stop to reconsider, Tarrant quickly leaned forward and took Avon in his mouth, sliding one hand up to the base. Avon tasted not unpleasantly of the soap they'd just used and the clean dampness of the warm water. Tarrant moved his head away slowly, so that the tip was at his lips, then forward again to engulf it more than halfway, and Avon shivered once, sharply, before self-enforcing stillness.

This, Tarrant thought, is power. What Servalan wielded over whole systems was a mere shadow of what he held.

The younger man drew back for the space of a few breaths, looking up. The shower still ran unheeded, so that a haze of steam surrounded them, making Avon seem like an apparition from a half-remembered dream, the statue of that long-dead centurion he'd imagined brought to passion and life. Avon had flung his head back, his teeth set in a reluctance to display pleasure, as before he'd refused to show open pain or fear at Tarrant's attempted invasion.

Someday, Avon. Perhaps one day very soon.

But now he applied lips and tongue to his comrade's relief, reasoning that Avon's scientific mind would never have used techniques on Tarrant that he disliked for himself, and content in that imitation for now. He worked at it slowly at first, then faster and more intensely as the muscled thigh under his left hand began to tense.

Then he had the taste of Avon's climax on his tongue and in his throat. Not distasteful, as expected, but surprisingly natural. He drew back in time to slide Avon's body down to rest, half on the floor, half against the wall.

After several minutes had passed, Avon opened his eyes. "Tarrant."

"Yes?"

"Would you hand me a towel?"

Tarrant leaned back to snag a towel from the rack in the far corner of the shower stall, tossing it across to Avon, who took it without comment.

Slowly, Avon stood. He rinsed off under the shower--seeming to remember almost belatedly that he had a towel in his hand and holding it away from his body--then turned off the water, and hung the towel around his neck before crossing over to the opaqued sliding door. "Tarrant," he said again, without turning.

"Yes?"

"If you wake again during the night," his voice once again held Avon's typical hint of satire, "I noticed there are sleeping pills in the cabinet." He slid the door aside and stepped out.

Tarrant waited until he was halfway across the bathroom before calling out, "Avon."

"Yes?"

"You're entirely welcome."

The soft footsteps paused, then the bathroom door opened and closed with a decided click.

Tarrant leaned back against the tiles for several minutes, smiling to himself. Though he felt marvelous, he had to admit he was fairly tired, too. Dragging himself to his feet, he rinsed and toweled off rapidly, and returned to the main room, to find Avon already in bed, looking less like he'd fallen asleep than simply passed out...conveniently on the mattress, rather than off.

At least now he knew how to wear the bastard out.

But for once the thought was indulgent rather than irritated. Tarrant rolled into bed wearily and, because Avon was unconscious and thus unable to wither him with a few well-chosen words, flung one arm across Avon's chest before falling headlong himself into the blessed void of sleep.

*

Tarrant woke to sunshine streaming through the windows at an angle suggesting that the day had dawned some hours before.

Propping himself on one elbow, he contemplated his companion doubtfully. Avon looked amazingly appealing asleep, but Tarrant felt certain that this serene beauty would not persist into the waking state if Avon had missed any important meetings with Rowan's people by oversleeping. Well, the beauty might persist, but definitely not the serenity.

Moving a discreet distance from the other man's body, Tarrant said quietly, "Avon," then a little louder, "Avon." He'd really rather not try shaking Avon awake.

Just then, Avon's eyes opened at last. But, uncharacteristically, it seemed to take him several seconds to get his bearings. "Late, are we?" he said at last.

"I'm not sure," Tarrant admitted. He glanced at the chronometer on the bedside table which gave time in both local hours and Earth standard. "It's 1000 hours. Did you have a meeting with Rowan?"

"Not until 1100." Avon sat up, the sheets falling to his waist, exposing an expanse of chest that recalled some almost too-vivid memories to Tarrant's wayward mind. "I expect we have missed breakfast, however."

That would be a pity, Tarrant thought. He didn't know about Avon, but he felt absolutely ravenous, as if he could devour the whole of one of those rather ugly horned beasts Dayna occasionally lugged back from a hunting trip on Xenon.

"Or perhaps not." Avon swung his legs over the side of the bed and headed toward the dumbwaiter which had delivered supper the previous night. It stood open; probably the sound of its arrival was what had awoken Tarrant.

Avon leaned into the open hatch of the dumbwaiter, giving Tarrant an intriguing rear view of the other man. "Yes, breakfast and clean clothes." Unfortunately, for Tarrant's aesthetic appreciation, Avon turned about all too quickly, the tray in his hands and clothes draped over one arm obscuring the frontal scenery.

Elbowing aside Tarrant's abandoned meal from the previous evening, Avon deposited the tray on the table and flipped away the cloth covering the contents. "Hard rolls, cheese, several types of cold meat." He glanced at Tarrant, his tone sardonic. "It should keep you from fading away before dinner."

"But Avon," Tarrant replied innocently, "I don't want to eat your share."

Avon raised a hand, acknowledging the hit. "Don't hold back on my account. I'll make do with," he lifted an insulated pitcher, "ah, coffee." Pouring some into a cup, he took an experimental sip. His eyebrows rose. "Imported from Earth, I'd say. Or at least made from Earth-variety beans."

This propelled Tarrant into a vertical position even more surely than the promise of food. The small supply of genuine coffee in Dorian's larder had disappeared more rapidly than the best of the wine, and even Vila, who preferred depressants to stimulants, bitterly complained at the lack.

Hurriedly taking custody of the other cup, Tarrant filled it before Avon could make off with the pitcher. The other man turned his eyes away as Tarrant added generous amounts of sweetener and milk, a dilution of the essential brew that had brought forth acid commentary in the past gradually fading into eloquent silence.

Avon recaptured the pitcher and refilled his cup, then picked up one of the two bundles of clothes. Tarrant supposed that selecting the black pile was probably a good enough guess. "I'll--" he hesitated.

Leave and allow you to desecrate your coffee in peace.

"--bathe and dress while you eat."

Tarrant considered bathing to be redundant after the previous night's activities, but felt more interested in eating than arguing with Avon. He started to sit down at the table, then smothered an involuntary exclamation of pain.

Or, rather he'd intended to smother it. Avon paused, halfway across the room and glanced back. "Tarrant." He kept his voice neutral, as if inquiring about the weather, or the quality of the food.

"No, I'm fine." Determinedly, Tarrant forced himself to sit, wincing a bit when his backside hit the unpadded seat, but keeping any comment dammed behind his teeth. "Just a bit sore. No more than to be expected."

Avon hesitated another moment, his gaze still fixed on Tarrant's face, then nodded and proceeded to the bathroom, the door clicking closed behind him.

Alone, Tarrant shifted experimentally. Yes, definitely sore. Had any actual damage been done? Avon had been careful, at the first, but later--at Tarrant's urging--the activities had become considerably more, well, vigorous. No, he decided after a moment, he felt no worse than sore. He'd probably be all right.

But he'd probably be better for a pillow. He could always ditch it before Avon reappeared.

Swiping a cushion from the bed and a robe from what he presumed to be his own pile of clothing, he made himself comfortable and tucked into the food, which while simple as befitted a morning meal, was as well-prepared as that at dinner the day before.

Despite the obvious area of discomfort, Tarrant felt remarkably good. It had been so long since he'd made love that he'd forgotten how exuberant he always felt in its aftermath, how at peace with the galaxy, how mellow toward his fellow man. In the morning light after an active night before even Avon looked good.

Don't fool yourself, Tarrant.

Tarrant brushed aside an array of particularly vivid visions from the previous night and concentrated on his food.

Despite his prediction to Avon, Tarrant did not polish off the entire tray. He looked over the remains, then picked up the second plate and began to arrange the food in what appeared a moderately appetizing manner. Besides Avon's sleep habits, another piece of common knowledge on Xenon was Avon's tendency to substitute stimulants for food, and while--judging from the view last night--the diet had a positive effect on Avon's physique, some actual nutritive intake might be desirable.

Besides, he could always provide the exercise to offset Avon's caloric intake. Tarrant grinned at the thought. He'd be more than happy to be the personal director of the man's exercise program.

As the bathroom door began to open, Tarrant hurriedly pulled the cushion from beneath him, tossing it back onto the bed and wincing as his rear reconnected to the hard chair.

But the sight of Avon in the Fargonian business garb made Tarrant forget the pain. A year ago, the form-fitting bodysuit might've only emphasized the extra weight Avon had sometimes carried. As it stood, though, the way the black knit clung to Avon's hips and legs made Tarrant long for the further exercise of their civic duties. The jacket displayed only a modest amount of leather and silver decorative touches, but it was clear their host's minions had done their best.

Tarrant noticed Avon held himself in a way he expected he'd himself become familiar with as soon as he donned the garments set out for him. He cleared his throat. "You can't keep it sucked in indefinitely, Avon."

Avon glare turned into something more rueful almost immediately. "I suppose not. But it appears to be an involuntary reaction to the garment."

He turned to pick up a newsreader from the desk, carrying it to the table and propping it in front of him as he absently poured himself more coffee. "You might want to get dressed yourself. The meeting's in thirty minutes now."

"Only sentients will be invited, don't you think?"

"Get dressed anyway." Avon didn't lift his gaze from the reader's tiny screen.

Tarrant shrugged. He hadn't given up arguing with Avon, precisely, but he had to admit that over the past year or so he'd begun to let a few of the minor points slide. Even he had only so much energy for pointless bickering with an immovable object.

Picking up the clothes, he glanced at Avon again, then with the hint of a smile, nudged the full plate into Avon's general vicinity. Without seeming to notice, Avon picked up a fork and began to eat, not pausing in his perusal of the reading material.

Tarrant made his way to the bathroom, whistling under his breath. These days, he tended to take his small victories where he could get them.

Deciding against another shower--he'd dissolve or disappear into a mass of wrinkles--he shed the robe and disentangled the bodysuit from the pile of clothing. One glance showed him that he might as well forget retrieving his briefs from the next room; the material was thin enough for undergarments to show plainly and he remembered no such revealing lines among the Fargoneans he'd seen the day before. The navy blue garment seemed demure enough otherwise, though, and he quickly slipped it on.

The jacket, he discovered, was a whole different proposition. While in Avon's case, the minions had attempted to emulate the man's usual garb, for Tarrant, they'd apparently held themselves to no such limits. Unwary passersby could be blinded by the cobalt blue silk--thin silk--that made up the major part of the garment, the impact only slightly dampened by the bands of quilted navy velvet on the short, upstanding collar and running around the open front and hem.

Looking closer, Tarrant noted that the quality of the piece could be considered a compliment to Avon, if almost certainly not himself. The cobalt fabric was sprinkled randomly with silk stars in gold and navy, in a possible nod to Tarrant's chief skill, and the choke collar was set off with two small pins on either side of the opening, again star-shaped and of solid gold with small sapphires in the center of each.

All of which would be very attractive on some-- Tarrant veered away from that particular label. On someone else. Nonetheless, having little choice, he finished dressing and retired to the main room.

Avon glanced up from his reading and his eyebrows rose slightly. "Very..."

"Don't say it."

"Attractive. The color complements your eyes."

Tarrant felt sure his answering glare rivaled even Avon's best specimens.

The other man shrugged elegantly, obviously unaffected. "I hate to keep harping on footwear, but," he pointed to the place beside the bed where Tarrant's still reposed after the previous night's disrobing, "I suggest you put on your boots."

"Avon, I don't see the point in my going down--"

"Boots," Avon repeated inexorably.

Tarrant looked at Avon for a long moment. Right, stick to the major battles. Androids that want to enslave humanity and such. "Boots," he agreed, and crossed the room to retrieve them.

Sitting on the bed to don the footwear, Tarrant reflected that Avon's newly-perceived beauty and undoubted skills in lovemaking in no way diminished the impact of his also undeniable ability to be irritating as hell.

Then Tarrant ducked his head to hide a grin. On the other hand, these attractions did make Avon's less-engaging qualities a lot easier to tolerate.

*

At precisely 1100 hours the two of them stepped into the study where Rowan and several of his more important assistants had already gathered. An oval conference table had been set up on the opposite side of the room from the desk where Avon had received the ultimatum the preceding afternoon.

Rowan glanced up from the newsreader in his hand, looking far from welcoming when he caught sight of Tarrant. The pilot readied himself for a summary dismissal.

Apparently undisturbed by Rowan's disapproval, Avon moved to the end of the table, resting his fingertips on the polished surface. "As I'm sure you've observed for yourself, I--Tarrant and I--have fulfilled your directives, despite our own aversion to this idea."

You didn't look particularly averse in the shower last night. Dismissing that memory, Tarrant bit his lower lip and tried to look utterly repulsed by the thought of having sex with Avon.

Rowan nodded. "That's true, Avon, and we do appreciate your willingness to adapt to our customs."

Avon inclined his head. "And in return, I would ask you to bend your rules and include Tarrant in these talks. As a member of my group, he would be involved in fulfilling any agreement we reach here. It makes little sense to exclude him."

Rowan digested this for a few moments, then rose from his place at the head of the table. "If you will excuse me." Crossing over to his desk, he keyed in a number on the communications unit and engaged in a low-voiced discussion with whoever was on the other end.

Tarrant glanced at Avon, who nodded slightly in response. Obviously, Rowan was consulting someone at least one step up in the oligarchy's chain of command, perhaps even the top of the chain. It could be interesting--and probably even valuable--to find out who that someone was.

At last, Rowan cut the connection and returned to the head of the table. "Your request is granted, Avon." He motioned to a servant standing to one side of the sentients. "Bring Avon's...associate a chair."

Seating himself beside Avon at the foot of the table, Tarrant prepared to give the proceedings his full attention. He didn't fool himself; Avon had given away two or three bargaining points with his insistence on including him, and Tarrant was determined that it would be a worthwhile exchange for their side of the table.

From the beginning, it was apparent that persuading Fargone to oppose the Federation could well be their biggest success thus far. One of the problems in inducing planets to rebel is that they'd lose their trade with Federated worlds, and for many that included a portion of their food supplies. By allying with Fargone, they'd erase that liability almost completely. From what Rowan said--and Avon, who'd done the research, appeared to believe him--the agricultural output of Fargone equaled that of several Federation farm colonies. The problem was that though Tarrant saw quite plainly what they'd be getting from Fargone, he didn't feel nearly as certain as to what Fargone would be getting from them.

Clearly, Tarrant thought, he'd been spending too much time with Avon.

Pensively, Tarrant rubbed his fingertips over the smooth surface of the table. True, the Fargoneans would have to pay taxes to the Federation, but would that... Suddenly, Tarrant stopped and took a hard look at the substance under his fingers. It wasn't polished wood, as he'd first assumed, but some material paradoxically both harder and more malleable in texture.

Under the cover of a speech by one of Rowan's associates, Avon leaned closer to Tarrant. "What is it? A sudden fascination with interior decorating?"

Tarrant debated with himself briefly. It could be nothing, but on the other hand, the texture reminded him strongly of an experimental plastic the Federation military had tried with limited success. "Ask Rowan what the table is made from."

Avon looked at him a moment, as if considering the idea, then nodded and returned his attention to the speaker. At the next pause in the proceedings, Avon said casually, "Could I ask what the material in this table is? I don't believe I've seen it before."

The Fargonean looked startled, pleased, and a bit worried, all simultaneously. "That's very observant of you, Avon. It is new, something we've recently developed through genetic manipulation of certain plant stocks, which are then used in the manufacture of the basic material. It's a type of plastic, as strong as herculaneum, but lighter, easier to mold, and much cheaper to produce."

"Interesting." Avon rubbed his hand over the surface, as Tarrant had a moment before. "You haven't begun marketing it yet, I take it?"

"No," Rowan admitted cautiously. "At least not off-planet."

"And it wouldn't be to your advantage to have the Federation learn about it yet. Quite understandable. Nor would it be to my advantage."

Rowan relaxed visibly. "Understood. But I appreciate the reassurance."

And there is was. An excellent reason for Fargone to resist absorption by the Federation. The Federation would be delighted with the invention, so delighted that the manufacturing rights would probably be turned over within hours to one of the larger cartels--whichever was bribing the council most heavily that week--and the local oligarchy and economy would see little or none of the considerable profits.

Tarrant trusted the Fargoneans considerably more than he had just a few minutes previous. Perhaps Avon had a point about self-interest.

And if Fargone did cast its lot with the resistance, this new invention could in the long run prove more useful than those super-weapons, like Mueller's android, that Avon sometimes went haring off after. A lightweight, malleable material like this would be in demand not only for spaceships, but for all kinds of building and manufacturing. And only those worlds which opposed the Federation would have access.

Not that anything of the sort would prove decisive against the Federation, but it would give them an advantage in certain areas. Enough small advantages and they'd have some sort of chance.

Rowan glanced at his chronometer. "Why don't we adjourn for dinner and a short rest afterward before we resume?" He hesitated. "Of course, your associate is welcome to dine with us." The invitation, polite if not enthusiastic, could probably be considered a small sort of payback for Avon's promise of silence.

"We'd be delighted." Avon rose. "And if I could have a word with you before dinner?"

"Of course."

The two men moved to the other side of the room, just out of earshot, while Tarrant prepared himself to dine with a group of people who didn't even consider him to be human. Not an appetizing prospect.

Though, come to think of it, that might make it not much different from many of their happy group feasts on Xenon Base. Tarrant grinned and pushed himself away from the table, deciding that he was probably rather hungry, after all.

*

At dinner, conversation became more general and, without the intricacies of the bargaining table to distract him, Tarrant found his attention wandering to the state of his posterior,

People afraid of pain didn't get two months into officers' training, not in the Federation, but Tarrant couldn't help feeling that his credibility as a negotiator might well be compromised if he began walking like a duck.

Or not. Possibly it would have a positive effect on Avon's prestige. But just the same, he'd prefer not to make a spectacle of himself in just that manner.

Tarrant had begun to seriously consider whether the medicine cabinet in their room contained anything more useful than sleeping pills, when dinner ended without him having noticed eating. Or not eating, whichever had been the case.

Rowan rose from his place, and touched Avon's shoulder. "I've made the arrangements; if you'll follow him." He indicated one of the ever-present young male servants.

"Thank you." Avon motioned for Tarrant to follow, and they both trailed after the servant, first out the side door of the main house and then across the courtyard Tarrant had seen only from their window. He wondered about their destination and if his presence was really imperative. At this point, he'd rather be searching for some helpful medicinal ointment upstairs.

The servant opened a door to one of the outbuildings and they entered what appeared to be a small waiting room, mildly redolent of...antiseptic? A man appeared in an inner doorway, wearing a light green tunic and the sort of harried expression that usually meant "nurse" or "doctor's assistant" in Tarrant's experience, especially when combined with the antiseptic aroma.

Avon seated himself and took a newsreader out of his pocket. "I believe you're to follow that gentleman."

Under most circumstances, Tarrant would've made at least a pro forma protest, stating the glowing state of his health and his lack of desire or need for medical attention. But everything considered, he thought it'd be better on this occasion to simply follow the nurse, deposit his clothing where directed, and assume the ridiculous and embarrassing position required.

The doctor, a man a decade or so senior to Rowan, had hands as cold as Scorpio's outer hull on a deep space run and a touch not half as careful or delicate as Avon's had been on the previous night. In short, he was typical of physicians throughout the known galaxy.

After a few minutes of uncomfortable probing and prodding, with nothing more than several non-committal throat-clearings and tongue-clickings, the doctor withdrew his oversized hand, stripped off his glove, and disappeared into the outer realms of the office.

Assuming a more normal position, Tarrant gazed worriedly at the closed door. Was the damage so bad that the doctor didn't even want to tell him? Surely not; the pain didn't seem that bad to him.

But within a space of five minutes, the doctor reappeared, looking decidedly puzzled. "Your warder said I was to report to you directly."

Tarrant bit back a grin. Avon didn't care for paternalism, benign or otherwise. "And?"

"Oh, you'll be fine. Some amount of pain is to be expected, since you were a..." he cleared his throat in an embarrassed fashion, "virgin."

Tarrant got the distinct impression that he'd scandalized the doctor by remaining a virgin to such an advanced age, and felt an almost irresistible urge to protest that he wasn't a virgin with women. Except he had the feeling that might horrify the physician even more.

"As I said, nothing to worry about, but I did tell your, um, associate that it would be advisable if he were less enthusiastic for a day or two."

Oh, and Tarrant bet that had gone over like a load of herculaneum. He could just imagine the "do you want to die now or later" expression on Avon's face at being accused of enthusiasm for his required role.

As a matter of fact, the doctor did look a bit...uneasy. After aheming a couple more times, he turned around and rummaged in a drawer. "There's an ointment I want you to use several times a day. I'll just give it..." The doctor turned and paused, tube in hand, as if remembering something. "To you. I'll just leave it here and you can, um, take it with you. Um, get dressed now." He shuffled out.

Tarrant couldn't help smiling. Avon had obviously made an impression. Gratefully and swiftly, he donned his clothes and found his way back to the waiting room. As he approached, Avon stood, tucking the newsreader back into his pocket. "I suggest we go back and get some rest before the talks resume."

"Avon, thank you for--"

"I require a reasonably intact pilot, Tarrant, and I prefer to assure myself that our continued," he paused, "activities will not injure you." A slight chill crossed his features and, in the back of his consciousness, Tarrant heard an echo from the past: Sentiment breeds weakness.

Tarrant wanted say, Don't worry, Avon, your reputation as a heartless bastard is safe with me. But that wouldn't be entirely true and, besides, he thought Avon might possibly detect a hint of satire in the statement. Instead, he nodded, "Of course."

Avon started to turn away, then hesitated. "The doctor told me that you were..."

"Intact enough to sit down and pilot a spaceship. That's all that matters, isn't it?" Without waiting for a reply, Tarrant turned and led the way back to the main house, keeping his small internal smile strictly... internal.

*

That night, Avon showed considerable concern for Tarrant's continued usefulness as his pilot.

Before entering him, Avon's clever, skillful fingers aroused Tarrant so thoroughly that he would've willingly stood a far greater pain than that caused by Avon's careful penetration of his body. And once thrust home, Avon rode him gently, holding Tarrant's hips in place so that he could not impale himself further.

Tarrant thought, while he could still think, that it felt like rocking upon the crest of a wave, inexorable yet peaceful. And, then, very gradually, not so peaceful at all, but a blur of sensation--Avon's hands on his chest and his inner thighs and cock. Avon's lips stirring the fine hairs at the nape of his neck. Avon still gentle and shallow within him, but now thrusting more swiftly. And then it felt too good for thought or words, so that Tarrant uttered one harsh, senseless cry before going down through a burst of light into velvet darkness.

A few minutes later, Avon rolled off of him, and out of bed. Tarrant heard his bare feet on the floor, heading toward the loo. He didn't move, but stared at the crumpled sheet pressed up against his face.

Coming back with towels draped over his arm, Avon first helped Tarrant clean up, then arranged the rest in the proper strategic spots on the bedding. "Are you all right?"

"Fine." And he was. Physically.

"Good." Avon dropped into bed, going to sleep almost as swiftly as he had the night before. Tarrant rolled onto his side and watched him sleep, not touching him at all. Trying not to think at all.

It was some time later--maybe an hour, maybe two--when Tarrant, still carefully not touching his companion, at last closed his eyes and fell into an uneasy sleep.

*

About 0700 hours, Tarrant swam up from a morass of half-remembered dreams, propping himself up to regard his companion groggily.

"Avon?" He felt as if his skull were sloshing over with some viscous, half-coagulated mass rather than the usual complement of brain cells. "Do we have a meeting this morning?"

After a long pause, Avon opened his eyes. "No. Today is Rowan's birthday celebration, commencing in the south garden at 1300." He closed his eyes again. "I set the household computer to wake us in plenty of time." Without opening his eyes, he rolled half-over and pushed Tarrant down onto the mattress again. "Go back to sleep." He sighed and resumed a state of apparent unconsciousness.

Tarrant felt inexplicably cheered. At the very least, Avon was getting more and better quality of sleep than at any time Tarrant had known him. So their activities were producing some positive effect, besides placating the Fargoneans.

And Avon had, unawares, left his hand resting on Tarrant's shoulder.

For a fleeting moment, Tarrant covered the hand with his own long fingers, then--careful not to jostle the other man--settled back against the pillow and closed his eyes.

He didn't wake again until the computer's robotic voice had repeated, "this is your wake up call" three or four times in an increasingly irritating tone. Opening his eyes, he said, "acknowledged" and regretfully removed the warm hand still resting on his shoulder.

"Avon, it's 1130 hours. Wake up."

*

The dumbwaiter this time contained a modest repast of coffee and rolls, plus two packages of what Avon identified as formal wear for the celebration, one labeled "Avon" and the other, "Avon's Associate." Tarrant stared at the label speechlessly.

Avon shrugged. "I don't believe that young men are given names until their coming of age."

"Doesn't 'hey you' get rather tedious?"

For that remark, he got a it's none of our business, Tarrant look from Avon, who then poured himself a cup of coffee and retreated with it and his clothes to the bath.

Tarrant opened his own package cautiously, wondering if it contained a garment even gaudier than the cobalt blue jacket.

But the contents proved a pleasant surprise. The bronze gold of both jacket and bodysuit--the former a shade darker than the latter--seemed a world less obtrusive than yesterday's garb. And the short jacket had a faintly military feel to the padded shoulders, with the suggestion of an epaulet that made the clothing seem more like familiar territory.

Since he'd already showered, he slipped on the clothes and low boots provided, crossing to the desk to search for reading materials while he waited for Avon. Hearing the bathroom door open, he turned. And felt his mouth go dry and his heart accelerate its rhythm by a good many beats.

Several disgruntled members of Scorpio's crew regularly compared Avon to a prominent dark angel of outdated religious myth. Today, he did indeed look like Lucifer. But Lucifer before his Fall.

Instead of his usual black, the Fargoneans had clad Avon entirely in white, from the gleaming bodysuit--a scooped neck showing a discreet glimpse of collarbone--to ankle-high boots that allowed a clear view of his well-shaped calves. The short jacket of quilted velvet with touches of silver at neck and wrists added a touch of aristocratic elegance.

"What do you think?"

The only idea that came within shouting distance of Tarrant's brain involved pushing Avon onto the bed and not crawling out for several hours. But he managed to force saliva into his mouth and say, with assumed indifference, "You look fine."

"Good." Tarrant thought he saw a trace of disappointment in Avon's face and suspected the older man had hoped for a more effusive reaction.

Forget it, Avon. If rationed out properly, Avon's ego would even now be sufficient to feed a moderate-sized army for several weeks at a stretch. Tarrant didn't intend to fatten it further.

After eyeing Tarrant for a moment and pointedly not commenting on the younger man's appearance, Avon said, "Shall we go?"

"After you. You're the sentient here."

One corner of Avon's mouth lifted. "Never mind. In a few months you'll become a human being. Just as I am." He led the way to the door.

Now there was a truly horrifying concept. "Thank you." Tarrant told Avon's back. "I'll look forward to that no end." On the way down to the garden, though, he reflected that following Avon had one decided and major advantage.

He got an outstanding view of Avon's ass.

*

Avon paused at the entrance to the south garden, eyebrows half-lifted. "Practical, aren't they?"

"Very." The garden exemplified what seemed to be a peculiarly Fargonean brand of economic pragmatism, being devoted not to flowers but to exotic fruits of the type that sold as expensive luxuries on dozens of worlds Tarrant had visited. He recognized the fruit on several trees nearest to him as a particularly sweet orange known as honeybell; others were strange to him.

Despite the emphasis on utility, the brick-walled garden had a green and ordered beauty that contrasted pleasantly with the almost monotonous dull gold of the huge fields beyond the house.

Tarrant followed Avon through the gate, only to be immediately forced to one side by what seemed like a horde of servants carrying platters to tables set up in the middle of the garden in a buffet arrangement.

"Perhaps we're a bit early," Avon suggested, and gestured to a paved walk beside one high wall, well out of the way of the rampaging mob.

They strolled along the shaded walk, Tarrant reflecting how seldom they saw a genuine planetary outdoor scene. For whatever reason, on Xenon they rarely seemed to go outside the base, except for Dayna's occasional hunting expeditions or the less-than-pleasant outing when they'd laid the trap for Mueller's android. Just being out in the unrecycled air was pleasant.

Despite the impression given by the frenzied rushing back and forth of servants, the garden had begun to fill with guests, indicating that perhaps they hadn't arrived prematurely, after all. These functions never ran exactly to schedule.

Avon halted beside a spot on wall where, seemingly against the laws of nature, a young tree had been coaxed to grow flat against a sort of trellis arrangement, branches entwined with the wooden slats. Curiously, he touched one of the bulbous green fruits. "I've never seen this type before. Have you?"

"No, I--"

A voice came from behind them, "It's a fig tree. Very rare; I was lucky enough to secure about a half a dozen cuttings several years ago."

The sudden tension in Tarrant's body echoed itself in the ripple of motion that went through Avon, the defense reaction coming alive for the space of an instant before being swiftly repressed. Due to the commotion of the servants, neither had heard Rowan approach, and obviously the man had never been given helpful tips about safely approaching wanted men.

After a slight pause, Avon replied as calmly as if he hadn't been about to break his host's neck the moment before. "Yes, I believe I've run across references in pre-Atomic literature, but I've never seen one."

"I've also seen pictures of statuary where designs imitating the leaves covered parts of the anatomy. Though, to tell the truth, I've never been able to tell quite why. An historical curiosity." Rowan shrugged and, testing the ripeness of several of the figs, pulled one free and offered it to Avon. "Would you care to try one?"

"Thank you." Avon held the fruit between his fingers with the same delicate grace he used to handle a fragile computer component or... Tarrant shunted the memory swiftly aside. But he knew that just a few days before he would not have enjoyed the sight of Avon sinking his strong teeth into the ripe fruit half so much as he did now. A tenth as much. A...

Never mind.

"May I introduce you to some of my colleagues?" Rowan suggested as Avon finished the fruit.

"Of course." As Rowan turned away, Avon unobtrusively licked a trace of the fig juice off one finger, and Tarrant wanted to...

Never mind.

A cortege of five men crossed the close-clipped grass at Rowan's gesture, all more or less Rowan's age, all dressed expensively and formally in honor of the occasion. A few paces in the background hovered the same number of young men, ranging from about sixteen to near Tarrant's age. Most of them held wine glasses, he supposed for their sentient masters, but one stocky youth of perhaps seventeen carried what appeared to be a musical instrument.

Tarrant wondered if he should tactfully edge back to join the other non-sentients, but Avon caught his eye just then and shook his head slightly. He held his ground.

After the introductions, Avon nodded to Rowan. "Allow me to offer my congratulations on your birthday. But I'm afraid I've never learned why the fiftieth birthday is particularly significant here."

Watch out, Avon. I got in a lot of trouble from asking that kind of question.

But Rowan smiled genially. "The details are a bit tedious, but essentially I am released from certain family responsibilities, to allow me to devote more time to business and government. Or indeed any pursuit I might reasonably wish. You could call it a second coming of age."

Family responsibilities? Families generally involved women and children, and they'd seen no more sign of those than they had of Rowan's mysterious superiors.

At that point, one of the other Fargoneans, Lewitt--Tarrant had dutifully memorized names and faces--stepped a few paces forward. A slight man with a thatch of unruly blond hair, he had a face that appeared youthful despite lines and a slight puffiness around the eyes. "I understand you were unfamiliar with our customs when you arrived, Avon?" A suggestion of malice tinged his voice.

An alarm went off in Tarrant's brain. This man, for whatever reason, wanted to start a fight.

One glance at Avon confirmed that his hypothesis was shared by his crewmate. Avon inclined his head gravely, his expression neutral. "True."

"At least following our customs hasn't proven at all burden for you, from what I understand."

Tarrant's face heated at the insinuating tone, and he glanced at Avon. But the other man remained still and outwardly cool. At least, to those who didn't know the significance of the telltale tightening around the jawline.

"You're apparently quite...attached to him." Lewitt moved closer to Tarrant, looking him up and down with the trace of a smile. "Not a mark to be seen on him."

Avon tilted his head in a gesture of polite inquiry. "I find if I misuse a tool, it's blunted when I most need it. Don't you think that's true?"

A murmur of agreement came from several of the other men, and Rowan stepped forward to murmur into Lewitt's ear. Probably to the tune of, Don't embarrass us in front of the foreigners.

Lewitt shrugged impatiently, moving away from Rowan. "Oh, I keep my tools sharp enough," he told Avon. Turning his head, he gestured to the young man holding the instrument, who came forward, bowing slightly. Once he'd stepped nearer, Tarrant could see a path of fading bruises down the length of his jaw. "Sing a love song to entertain the gentlemen." He paused, smiling. "Sing a love song for me."

Tarrant clamped his teeth over an involuntary protest. Sing a love song for--to--a man who'd obviously abused him? It was obscene.

But the young man merely bowed again. "May I sit to play?"

Lewitt nodded, and another servant fetched a low stool from nearby.

The young man seated himself a little clumsily, presenting a vivid contrast to his warder--as big and stocky as Lewitt was slight, dark as Lewitt was blond, his features as mismatched as Lewitt's were regular. He looked an unlikely troubadour for an even more improbable court of love.

For a long moment, he merely rested his fingers on the strings of the instrument, perhaps contemplating his choice of song. Tarrant noticed that he wore gloves with part of the fingers cut out, past the first joint. An odd accessory for a musician, who could be expected to want as much flexibility in that area as possible. Not to mention the warmth of the day.

At last, with a hint of awkwardness, he drew his fingers across the strings and began to sing.

Though he was no musician, Tarrant had a keen appreciation of most musical forms. On Liberator, he'd acquired a fair collection of viscasts and recordings of well-known performances and performers, and had replaced as much as he'd been able to on Xenon. While not terribly knowledgeable about the technical aspects of producing music, he knew an outstanding performer when he heard one.

He was hearing one now.

Although he seemed not to raise his voice, the full baritone filled the garden with sound. But somehow his voice still seemed intimate, as if he were singing to just one, and yet everyone, all at the same moment. And he played equally as well as he sang, a rare combination in Tarrant's experience.

But the power of the performance went beyond that produced by talent alone.

Once he recovered from his initial surprise at the quality of the music, Tarrant began to listen to the lyrics, slowly realizing that these were not imports from Earth or any other world, but were distinctly Fargonean. The verses spoke of love between men of disparate ages and positions, of matches made by custom rather than desire, that transformed themselves into unintended passion. Passion destined to be cut short.

Tarrant had considered the Fargonean custom as mere slavery; he hadn't considered the possibility of love. But he saw it now, not only in the song, but in every gesture, every intonation of the singer. The young man looked only at Lewitt as he sang, as if they were the only two people in the garden.

If possible, Tarrant would have teleported away from both singer and audience right then. The love and pain being celebrated were too intimate, too deeply felt and personal, like watching a stranger being stripped naked, garment by garment. He felt a voyeur, but also as if he were the musician as well as the audience, sharing the same skin, filled with the same merging of desire and anguish.

Shaken, he turned his gaze away from the singer, wondering what Avon made of the performance.

But Avon wasn't looking at the musician. Instead, he watched Lewitt with an odd intensity, as if the music had fixed his attention on the object of the song rather than on the singer.

Glancing at Lewitt, Tarrant saw almost an echo of Avon's posture, that stillness characteristic of both hunter and hunted--the same half-closed eyes, the same hooded expression, making them dark and light images of one another. Then the song ended and, like a tableau breaking, the two men moved, dissolving the illusion.

"Well?" Lewitt uttered the word as a challenge, directed at Avon.

"He's very talented." From Avon, that was as good as a half-hour oration, praising the song, though Lewitt couldn't know that.

But he might have sensed it. An expression almost like pleasure slid across Lewitt's face, then disappeared. "Well, then. Why don't you have your...associate sing us a love song? Better yet, have him sing you a love song."

Tarrant felt sick. While he had a pleasant enough singing voice, any performance of his would be laughable beside that of the young musician. And to sing a love song... He would hardly call his feelings toward Avon love--clearly a ludicrous emotion to cherish for that particular object--but something had changed between them these past days, and he knew his powers of concealment were extremely limited. If he sang, some hint of feeling would show, and it would humiliate them both.

Well, him mostly. Avon would simply refuse to see it.

With such a public venue, it would be difficult for Avon to refuse, though, without either losing face to his opponent or offending their hosts. Tarrant set his teeth, glancing at Avon and wondering if the other man knew any relatively harmless ballads of the sort required.

But Avon's attention focused on Levitt, the familiar and dangerous stillness mixed with another element that Tarrant couldn't define. "Tarrant would kill for me." His lips quirked upward. "In fact, Tarrant has killed for me. I require no other proof of his...devotion."

The garden fell abruptly silent, and Lewitt took a hasty two paces back. Tarrant glanced past the Fargonean, and found that two of the others had physically retreated, as well. All of the men--and the boys hovering behind them--looked as stunned as if a solium bomb had fallen on them.

Hell. Had they tripped over another Fargonean taboo? Turning his head, he found Avon looking at him with more than a trace of amusement in his expression.

Then it hit him. The Fargoneans had never waged war and, in fact, stayed so far from violence in any real sense that they resorted to a ritualized form with their young males. He and Avon were the only ones present who had ever killed--or even attempted to kill--another human being.

Avon inclined his head slightly and allowed one side of his mouth to curl upward in acknowledgement.

Rowan recovered his voice first, "I'd say that's a useful skill, Avon, but we certainly don't require your associate to demonstrate it. Not during the celebration, at any rate." Drawing Avon to one side, he began a low-voiced conversation, which--judging from his expression--consisted mainly of small talk designed to distract his guest's mind from Lewitt's embarrassingly futile attempt at oneupmanship.

Tarrant could've told Lewitt that trying that technique on Avon--and succeeding--required more wit, gall, and sheer stamina than possessed by nine-tenths of the galaxy's population.

But Avon had taken a risk. With people unaccustomed to violence, it was an even bet as to whether his words resulted in the two of them being considered allies worthy of wary respect or homicidal lunatics who should be gotten rid of with all deliberate speed. But judging from Rowan's reaction, the gamble had indeed paid off.

Tarrant didn't realize how long he'd been looking at Avon until he glanced up and caught the young musician watching him. Watching him watch Avon, Tarrant realized, the expression on the slightly mismatched features that of understanding. Understanding and sympathy. He stared at the young musician across the few meters that separated them, feeling simultaneously exposed, vulnerable--and horrified.

Ludicrous, he thought. And then, But just because it's ludicrous doesn't mean it isn't true. He'd done stupider things in his life, he supposed, but at the moment he couldn't recall any of these to mind.

No, I won't do this. Physically separating himself from the idea, he crossed over to join Avon, resolutely turning his back on the musician.

But for the next several hours, as he and Avon mingled with the other guests, Tarrant failed to give the conversations, either social or political, as much attention as he'd planned. Instead, he concentrated almost wholly on ignoring a piece of self-knowledge he didn't want, while still following in the wake of a man that he most definitely did.

*

The afternoon shadows had lengthened considerably before the party broke up, leaving them free to seek their quarters, Rowan having ceremoniously departed on an overnight trip to some mysterious destination that everyone apparently knew about but them.

Despite the hours of socializing, a pursuit far from being to Avon's usual taste, he appeared to be in an atypically pleasant state of mind. Probably the result, Tarrant thought cynically, of terrifying every Fargonean at the party with his casual reference to homicide. Disconcerting those around him nearly always put Avon in a good mood.

Following Avon's lead, Tarrant shed the tight gold jacket and unsealed the front of his bodysuit. He sat down on the edge of the bed, contemplating a similar attack on his boots, which had demonstrated their newness by putting a squeeze on his long toes. "You took a chance there with Lewitt."

"A calculated risk." Avon sat beside Tarrant on the bed and began working off his own boots.

Tarrant tried to resist, for all of two or three seconds. "Calculated on what?" he drawled sarcastically. "Your fingers?"

Avon's head snapped up and for a moment he contemplated Tarrant speechlessly, seemingly astonished that anyone would dare turn his own insult against him. Then he moved. Tarrant thought he'd be pushed off onto the floor, but instead Avon insinuated his hands into the opening of Tarrant's bodysuit and ran his fingers lightly over Tarrant's ribs.

"Don't." Tarrant flinched back. He'd been afraid Avon had discovered his weakness, but hadn't been certain until now. "Avon, please!"

"At last. I have a weapon for our battles." Resisting Tarrant's efforts to push him away, he ran his fingers down the same path again, even more lightly.

"It would look a little strange," Tarrant said between gritted teeth, "if you tickled me on the flight deck." He managed to wriggle away from the tormenting fingers. "Besides, you win enough battles, as it is."

"Ah, but I demand complete victory." He studied Tarrant thoughtfully, as if contemplating a renewed attack.

"And expect to get it, since you have no weaknesses yourself?"

"Precisely." Avon looked entirely too smug for Tarrant's taste.

"That's odd. I could've sworn..." Tarrant leaned forward, gripping Avon's shoulders to keep him in place, and abruptly took Avon's earlobe between his teeth, tugging on it lightly.

"Ah." Then a bit breathlessly. "No, none at all."

Letting go just long enough to whisper, "Then you won't mind if I--" he ran his tongue around the edge of Avon's ear, then darted the tip inside, thrusting it teasingly in and out in a movement reminiscent of a different but somewhat related activity.

Avon made a low, strangled sound deep in his throat. "No. No objection."

"Good." Tarrant turned the word into a half-whisper, half-exhalation, caressing the shell of Avon's ear with his breath, and savoring the only half-repressed tremor that went through Avon's body. Leaning closer, he let his hands slide inward from Avon's shoulders to insinuate themselves under the collar of the bodysuit, easing the fabric down while his lips traveled in a leisurely manner down the strong throat.

Considering how closed-off Avon appeared ordinarily, Tarrant found it both surprising and highly gratifying that he was so physically responsive to the slightest touch. The raw silk skin seemed to have more than its fair share of nerve endings, making his progress to the hollow at the base of Avon's neck and the clean sweep of collarbone an intensely satisfying journey.

Through sheer perseverance--combined with a dash of distraction-- Tarrant had managed to work the bodysuit down Avon's arms and chest until it pooled about his waist. For several moments, Tarrant let the palms of his hands taste the thin covering of flesh over Avon's ribs and stir the dappling of hair on his chest, before sliding them upward to flatten against the other man's shoulders, pushing him gently backward onto the mattress.

Avon's eyes flickered open as his back hit the padded surface, as if he'd lost his sense of time and place and was only now wondering where he'd been for the last several minutes. The dark eyes held a hint of defiance.

"No weaknesses?" Tarrant queried softly.

Avon bared his teeth slightly, intensifying his resemblance to some elegant, dangerous beast, held barely at bay. The dark head--hair mussed by Tarrant's wandering fingers--turned infinitesimally from side to side. No.

"I'm so glad. Then I needn't worry." Tarrant lowered himself to the mattress beside Avon, propping himself on one elbow and trailing his hand down from Avon's collarbone to that intriguing dusting of hair. He'd been too distracted to take notes on the previous nights, but he rather thought he remembered... Watching the other man's face carefully, he skimmed his forefinger over one of the flat nipples. Avon inhaled sharply.

Ah. Tarrant sent the forefinger back, reinforced with his thumb, squeezing the target area between the two.

Avon shuddered once, and his lashes fell, as if to shield that portal of expression from his companion. "Tarrant, no."

Ignoring him, Tarrant squeezed again, gently, pulling delicately at the sensitive flesh. Tonight, he suddenly decided, it would be done his way, all his way. No reprieves, no avoidances. And, if he could manage it, no more stoic masks. That Tarrant, no was going to be turned into a Tarrant, yes and, eventually, Tarrant, please. "No mercy, Avon," he whispered.

This battle required unconditional surrender.

Tarrant lowered himself half onto Avon, replacing his fingers with his lips. His impression from their previous encounters had obviously been correct: Avon was not only sensitive in that particular area, he was exceedingly sensitive. It therefore behooved him to devote some serious attention to this weakness in the enemy's fortress.

In fact, it might be intriguing to see exactly how much sensation he could wring out of one area of Avon's body before proceeding to the next. And the next. As a scientist himself, Avon should approve of Tarrant's desire to answer this question by means of strictly empirical experimentation.

Perhaps he could even publish a paper. Tarrant suspected he wasn't the only person, of either sex, who wanted a step-by-step manual on how to drive Kerr Avon wild with passion. Of course, he doubted that he'd really care to share his results. He doubted it exceedingly.

Opening his lips, he ran his tongue lightly over the erect flesh, once, twice, in a soothing manner not intended to be soothing in the least. Then, before Avon could fully react, he took the nipple into his mouth, sucking on it almost, but not quite, hard enough to cause pain.

When Tarrant raised his head, Avon's back lifted from the bed to follow his mouth. The rush from that made Tarrant's cock, already half-erect, go almost painfully hard in an instant.

"Yes," he said huskily. And transferred his attention to the other nipple, first licking it gently, then drawing it into his mouth as he had the first. A light film of perspiration sprang up on the other man's skin, and Tarrant savored the salt-musk taste of his mouthful.

Avon made another of those delicious hoarse sounds, low in his throat, one hand coming up from his side to seize a handful of Tarrant's hair and hold him captive to his chest.

Without ceasing the work of mouth and lips, Tarrant wriggled closer to Avon, lifting himself a bit so he could press his cock against Avon's muscular thigh. Avon lifted his leg slightly, rocking back and forth to provide a pleasing friction, even through the double layers of cloth.

Tarrant hadn't lost all his self-consciousness about making love to a man, but found, oddly enough, that the slightly-forbidden quality of the experience only added to his arousal. And all his ambiguous history with Avon, all the bitter quarrels and barbed insults, only added an edge to the eroticism, the seesaw of emotions he'd been riding ever since he'd first met the man acting as an aphrodisiac.

Certainly their constant battles for dominance had taken an interesting turn here on Fargone.

Not ceasing to tease Avon's erect nipples, he slid one long-fingered hand down under the fabric to find Avon's penis, which was fully erect as his. He encircled it with his fingers, just holding on lightly for the moment, not yet ready to go further, to push Avon too far. Battles were never won by rushing enemy lines helter-skelter. Stealth and strategy counted in the drive for victory.

At the touch, Avon half-gasped and tried to thrust up into his hand.

None of that. Tarrant threw one leg over Avon's thighs, holding him down. He thought of making some clever quip about Avon having a few weaknesses, after all, but found he couldn't quite articulate. Putting his thoughts in a coherent order at all had become a major feat.

Avon apparently had lost his own ready tongue, but he attempted to precipitate matters without use of speech, by increasing the pressure of his thigh against Tarrant's penis, rubbing against it hard and rhythmically.

"No." Tarrant pulled back just enough to get his genitals out of the dangerous position, while still keeping a good portion of his leg pinning Avon's thighs. He dragged himself up until their faces were at a level. "Going..." He kissed the angle of Avon's jaw. "To do." Then the elegant sweep of cheekbone. "This." The brow over a deep-set eye. "Right."

"Tarrant." He'd dropped the no, at least, which counted as a step in the right direction. Probably he intended the tone to be commanding, but it didn't quite come out in the right timbre. "Tarrant."

Oh, yes. He wanted to hear Avon say his name again and again. He wanted to hear him moan it. He wanted to hear him shout it as he came. But in order to reach that goal, he'd have to exercise extreme caution, and more control than he had since a certain memorable year at FSA. The first step would be to get certain vital areas out of Avon's range, until he'd gotten Avon too aroused to retaliate. Retreat, then attack.

Ah, the advantages of a military education.

He slid downward again, brushing each nipple with his tongue, as a passing hail and farewell, stopping to briefly explore the navel and nuzzle the lower curve of the stomach, peeling back fabric as he went with his free hand, and finally coming to a halt by the appendage he still lightly clasped, his own equipment now firmly out of the reach of any of Avon's limbs.

Avon's head was flung back and his eyes closed, but he must've sensed Tarrant's arrival at this key position, for his hips pushed upward, cock blindly seeking Tarrant's mouth.

My pace, Avon. Not yours. He leaned sideways, using an arm and elbow as a weight to pin Avon's hip firmly to the mattress while he decided how to attack the matter at...hand. Too direct an assault could prove disastrous. But while he wasn't experienced in this particular brand of sexual warfare, he prided himself on his ingenuity in the heat of battle.

He'd simply improvise a strategy.

Sliding the hand clasping Avon's cock down to the base, he leaned closer and blew softly on the head. The body beneath him froze, as if in utter shock, so Tarrant did it again, this time down the length of the shaft and up again, lavishing the last of the exhaled breath on the very tip.

The hip under the entrapment of Tarrant's arm heaved, desperately seeking escape.

Very good, but I think it's time for a feint. He shifted his attention a few centimeters to the soft flesh of Avon's inner thigh, near the apex, where the most sensitive skin lay, first blowing on, then nibbling, and finally biting it gently. After all, Avon had bitten him, that first time, and turnabout was supposed to be fair play.

Not that he cared to be equitable, just at the moment. This, after all, constituted a battlefield, and all was rumored to be fair in... His mind shied away from the rest of that famous proverb.

Concentrate.

He bit his way gently up almost to Avon's cock, hesitated as if considering a direct assault, then skimmed over to mount a foray against the other thigh. The muscles below his mouth tightened, the leg pushing against the continued restraint of Tarrant's arm, which had shifted as he'd traveled back and forth over Avon's body. But Tarrant kept him pinned, nipping the tender skin in a silent admonishment. I'm in command here.

This time, as he transversed the area over Avon's genitals, he flicked his tongue briefly over the glans before turning his labors to the other thigh.

Avon made a sound halfway between a gasp and a groan.

"The enemy's resistance is weakening, commander. Shall we continue the assault?" "Carry on, Captain Tarrant." He mentally saluted and concentrated his fire on a spot lower on the inner thigh this time, stripping off the remainder of the hampering fabric, so he could start with the inside of the knee and work his way up, interspersing gentle bites and short, sharp nips.

When he crossed over again, he stayed a few seconds longer, running the point of his tongue swiftly up the underside of Avon's cock before going on to the other leg.

Avon flexed his body upward again, but Tarrant managed to keep control. It became awkward, as with each round Tarrant started a bit further down Avon's increasingly sensitized legs, but his long arms and determination stood him in good stead.

As Tarrant passed over next, he briefly paused and half-enclosed one of Avon's balls in his mouth, fondling it with his tongue for a few seconds. When he went on, he felt a fine trembling begin in Avon's legs. No, let's not do that quite yet. He paused and looked up to determine how close to the brink Avon had come, and discovered why he had heard no sound from that source for the last several minutes.

Freeing part of the sheet from the overlying coverlet, Avon had twisted one end of it between his teeth to prevent himself from crying out.

Tarrant froze as a surge of triumph threatened to carry him inexorably toward climax. Too soon, much too soon. Clenching his jaw almost painfully, he fought the urge until it subsided. He'd come too close to victory to sabotage himself now.

The urge past, Tarrant returned to the field of conflict. The trembling in Avon's legs had lessened and, judging the other man had eased back from the danger point, he resumed the siege, but increased the radius of the action to the soft skin just above the groin and the tender hollow where hip met thigh, always returning for swift but gradually lengthening sorties against Avon's rigid, silky sex--licking, briefly sucking, then departing again to attack yet another site.

Avon had ceased trying to escape, but his hips increasingly made small, sharp jerks in whichever direction Tarrant's lips and tongue wandered. And when Tarrant next paused at his penis, and looked up, he saw that Avon had raised his head, freeing his teeth from the restraining fabric. "Tarrant." Avon's eyes followed the movement as Tarrant half-lowered his head toward the goal and then hesitated. "Tarrant...yes."

Tarrant took a breath, holding perfectly still. This time, it took more than a few seconds to fight his way back to control. "You had only to ask," he said huskily.

When he immersed the other man in his mouth, he felt Avon's relief almost as if it were his own. Doing this to Avon seemed much less strange than that first time in the shower, and he savored the silken-hard taste on his tongue and even the slightly bitter flavor of the moisture on the tip.

But, again, he kept the stimulation as light as possible, not wanting this struggle to end before he'd gained an even more decisive victory.

"You're a ruthless bastard of a fighter, Captain Tarrant." "Damn right, sir."

Determined to preserve his merciless image, Tarrant ran his tongue with deliberate delicacy up and down the ridge of Avon's cock, and around the underside of the head in a manner designed to frustrate rather than satisfy. The compact hips under his hands twitched as if undecided whether to try thrust in or flinch away from this calculated assault on the senses.

But when he raised his head to momentarily catch his breath, he found Avon looking at him, some spark of his usual calm intelligence breaking through the blindness of frustrated arousal. He held Tarrant's gaze for a few seconds, then inclined his head, as if giving Tarrant a positive reply to a yet-unarticulated question.

Involuntarily, Tarrant's eyes went to the bedside table, where the jar of lubricant sat, then back again to Avon.

Again, Avon nodded, the silent message being, If that's what you want.

Oh, yes. That's what he wanted. Exactly what he wanted--among all those other tangled wants tied up in the complexity of his relationship with Avon.

He slid off the bed, intending to strip off his opened bodysuit with all convenient speed and crawl back between the sheets before Avon could change his mind. But a look on Avon's face--an expression he'd never expected to see on those patrician features--stopped him. A look of appreciation.

Though Tarrant knew he had what most considered an attractive face, he'd never thought his own body to be noteworthy, but rather too gawky to be sensual, a defect he kept hoping he might outgrow eventually. But Avon's gaze appeared to be admiring.

Slowly, experimentally, Tarrant pulled the bodysuit off one shoulder, then the other, easing the fabric down to his waist in stages, feeling somewhat the fool, but wanting to know if he'd get a reaction. One corner of Avon's shapely mouth twitched upward, but if he were amused at the impromptu floor show, it certainly didn't lower his level of arousal.

Quite the opposite.

And that made the latter stages of his striptease become more hurried. If certain tribulations in his past had gifted him with more control than usual for a male his age, the supply still wasn't inexhaustible.

With that thought, Tarrant stripped the bodysuit down his legs, kicked it aside, and made what he hoped would be an unobtrusive grab for the important jar. When he turned around, he found Avon had rearranged himself in a more central position on the bed, propping himself on one elbow, and watching him with an expression now void of anything as bland as amusement or intellectual detachment or even appreciation.

The word "smoldering" came to mind.

No sooner had Tarrant sat on the edge of the bed than he found himself pulled down and rolled onto his side, so that he and Avon lay face to face and very much body to body, Avon's skin furnace hot against chest and thighs, his erection prodding insistently into Tarrant's stomach.

Holding his chin prisoner in one of those strong, so-capable hands, Avon kissed him.

The intensity of Avon's kiss had not changed, but Tarrant sensed a subtle difference from the previous occasions. This electric contact of lips and tongues was neither a battle for control nor a display of expertise--this time, Avon simply kissed him, as fiercely and thoroughly as he could.

Tarrant decided that Avon's capabilities in that arena could be considered unmatched, at least in his experience.

Letting go of his chin, Avon slid both arms around him, pressing so close it felt like the older man was trying not just to embrace him, but meld into his flesh. Implicit in the restless lips and sinuous body was a message: Tarrant had pushed Avon further than the man had ever thought to go--past the point of coherent thought or action--and now Avon expected him to do something about it.

He intended to.

For several minutes, though, he simply enjoyed this uninhibited version of Avon, a passionate half-stranger, but a welcome one. Tarrant wanted to savor him to the full before he inevitably disappeared again behind a cynical or stoic or distant mask.

Tarrant skipped his fingertips over Avon's vertebrae, finding each of the now-sensitized nerve endings along the way, then abandoned that quest to explore Avon's muscular shoulders, moving his chest back and forth against Avon's as his fingers roamed, enjoying the slip and slide of skin against skin, Avon's slightly roughened by the dappling of hair. Avon's cock, caught between their bodies, rubbed against Tarrant's stomach in the same rhythm.

Gasping, Avon pulled back slightly. Damp tendrils of hair plastered his forehead and his chest heaved with rapid, rasping breaths. "Tarrant... please."

Tarrant cupped Avon's face with one hand, drinking in the moment, as if somehow he could enclose it in stasis and hoard it against all the frosts of future days. "Yes," he whispered. He rolled them both over, so that Avon lay on his back, pinned to the mattress by Tarrant's weight. There would be no turning away tonight; he wanted to taste every moment, see every nuance of expression.

Nor did Avon demur. Instead, at Tarrant's silent urging, he drew up his legs, bending and separating his knees so Tarrant lay between them. He found himself touched that Avon would assume such an awkward-looking and exposed--even ridiculous--position for his sake.

Not that he found Avon awkward in the least. Just achingly desirable. Groping one-handed for the errant jar of lubricant, Tarrant used his other to smooth over whatever contours of Avon's body he could reach, half-soothingly, half-teasingly, his lips questing over the closed eyes with their long, long lashes, the bridge of the nose, a curve of cheekbone. A bit clumsily, he managed to fumble open the lid of the jar, scooping out some of the thick gel and cupping it in his hand to warm for a few seconds.

Somewhere--perhaps in those midnight bull sessions at the FSA--he'd heard that penetration from this position was deepest and not really recommended for a first time. Never mind, he'd be very careful, very slow, watching Avon for the slightest hint of pain.

Watching Avon would be his pleasure.

He delivered the warmed lubricant to the area around Avon's anus, and this time no hint of tension showed in the other man's features, just a ripple of expression that must have been pleasure, because the next breath exhaled held the hint of a moan, and Avon pushed toward Tarrant's fingers.

But this time, Tarrant was determined not to rush and risk shattering Avon's pleasure. With excruciating care, he added more lubricant, a bit at a time, caressing the area just at the entrance until Avon had begun to push toward him in earnest, his breathing growing even harsher.

Then, cautiously, he pushed one finger forward. It slipped in easily, Avon's only reaction a slight shiver. A second finger went in just as smoothly, and he began to work them back and forth, having to clench his teeth against a moan when he found Avon's hips rising and falling with the movements of his hand. Don't hurry it, he had to remind himself sternly.

The other man's reaction, though, made his restraint an exquisite torture. Avon flung his head back, the dark hair disordered against the pillow as he shifted his head from side to side. His whole body moved to the rhythm Tarrant's fingers set, as if following in a dance.

But the sedate pace he'd set seemed as frustrating for Avon as himself, for after several minutes Avon raised his head to give him a glazed approximation of his will you please get on with it glare.

Though Avon's intimidation skills were greatly diminished under the circumstances, Tarrant saw fit to obey the silent command. Especially since it led to a consummation he, too, devoutly wished.

Sitting back on his heels, he reached for the jar again, and applied additional gel to his all-too-eager cock, watching Avon follow the movements of his fingers smoothing the lubricant on. And then he had to freeze again, hands still clasping his own flesh, almost ready to climax just from the expression of heat in Avon's eyes.

Then, the struggle won for the moment, Tarrant lowered himself onto Avon again, holding his weight slightly off of Avon on one bent arm while the other hand guided his cock into position. Tentatively, he pushed forward, a bit at a time, until the stretched muscle opened to enfold the head of his penis like the furled petals of a seductively warm and elastic flower.

Tarrant bit his lip almost hard enough to draw blood, hoping the pain would be enough to distract him from a near-irresistible urge to thrust.

He looked down. Avon breathed hard and shallow, but apparently not from pain, for his hips twitched upward in a way that made Tarrant's control very problematical indeed. After a few moments, his eyelids flickered open. "Go on."

Holding himself barely in check, Tarrant eased himself further into Avon centimeter by centimeter, wanting to moan from the sheer intensity of the pleasure centered on his cock. Avon's body gripped him in a tight but deliciously yielding manner and, despite his lavish use of lubricant, the passage stroked his sensitized sex with a delicious friction. Added to the thought that he was now actually inside this most enigmatic and infuriating of men...

Ah...ah. No, he had to avoid dwelling on that idea. Just for the moment, just for a little while. Gasping with effort, Tarrant slid almost completely in, still holding back some of his length, lest he hurt the other man.

"Tarrant." Avon reached up to grip his arms. The expression on his face reflected not pain, but astonishment, the surprise he himself had felt the first time Avon had entered him. "That's good." His hips pushed forward, so that Tarrant had to retreat slightly to keep Avon from impaling himself completely. "Tarrant."

Obligingly, Tarrant withdrew partially and thrust forward again, keeping his movements as smooth and slow as he could. Avon cried out and his fingers tightened painfully around Tarrant's arms. "Oh, Tarrant." Avon let out a long, ragged sigh. "Please. More."

At the words, some part of Tarrant melted that he hadn't even known to be cold. Detaching the other man's hands gently from his arms, Tarrant slid his own around Avon, gathering him up closer before he thrust again. Avon's head fell back, his lips slightly parted, all his concentration turned inward, focused on sensation rather than intellect. As Tarrant thrust back inside, Avon made a noise deep in his throat, and his hands lifted to Tarrant's shoulders, fingers digging into the flesh. "Yes...more."

Tarrant kept his thrusts slow still, not so much from fear of hurting Avon now as from the wish to make it last, to wring all that he could from this handful of moments so soon to become memory. This could be his only sojourn in this enchanted garden, allowed not only inside Avon's body, but into an even more secluded spot, an admission demanding more than the mere trust that Tarrant would not hurt him physically.

For these few moments, Avon had given up his most jealously-guarded possession into Tarrant's keeping. His control. And he knew he was seeing what few others--and perhaps even no others--had ever so much as glimpsed.

Avon appeared far beyond speech or thought now, in a state Tarrant had never even imagined seeing him--eyes fixed blindly upon Tarrant's face, hips reflexively pushing into Tarrant's thrusts, uncaring of the moans that he uttered in cadence to the movements of their joined bodies.

Though Tarrant still assuredly felt lust, he found it mingled in with a lush tangle of other emotions, foremost being tenderness and an odd sense of...protectiveness? Even through the haze of passion, Tarrant knew how little sense that made. Insane to consider a man like Avon in need of protection. Utterly...

Ludicrous. But just because it's ludicrous doesn't mean it isn't true.

And on the trail of that thought, the seductively warm undercurrent of layered emotion and physical sensation tugged at him, pulling him toward the brink of orgasm. He fought it back momentarily, but knew he couldn't last longer than a few more minutes now.

Reaching between their bodies, Tarrant enclosed Avon's cock with his hand, pumping it in the same rhythm as his own movements inside Avon's body. He caught Avon's gaze with his own and held it. "Avon." He paused for a few strokes, sensing Avon reaching a peak from the double stimulation of Tarrant's hand and cock. "Now."

Avon cried out, "Tarrant," and his whole body lifted one last time, his penis jerking in Tarrant's hand and covering both their chests with warm semen. So attuned had Tarrant become to Avon's responses that it took him several seconds to realize that he had not yet climaxed himself.

Somehow he managed to hold back the inevitable for a few more precious seconds, his free hand clenched desperately on a handful of sheet, his eyes fixed on the man beneath him.

At the moment of orgasm, Avon's face seemed that of a heart-rendingly familiar stranger. The lineaments were thoroughly known, but he'd never imagined how this melting, ecstatic softness could lend the usually austere features such an achingly poignant beauty.

A few seconds were all he could snatch before his body defied him, thrusting once, twice into the other man before demanding--receiving-- release. His whole body flared with a fierce pleasure that allowed neither sight nor any sound but his own voice in his ears, saying Avon's name again and again.

He found his arms had locked painfully tight around the other man, his body jerking in seemingly endless spasms. Avon.

*

Tarrant returned to reality gradually, in several stages.

I'm lying on someone, he thought. Then, after a long, hazy pause, I'm lying on Avon. He thought about that for a minute and decided that he might conceivably be too heavy to continue lying upon Avon, even though the sensation was remarkably pleasant.

Carefully, he withdrew from the other man and rolled over, but not very far, retaining the seductive feel of skin against skin on at least one side of his body. Avon sighed and shifted slightly as Tarrant's weight lifted off of him, but didn't return to anything near a state of awareness.

Tarrant felt barely conscious himself, but just enough so that he could enjoy the pleasant lassitude of utter satiation. Every separate cell in his body seemed awash with the remains of the overwhelming tide of pleasure making love to Avon had called forth.

After several more minutes, he turned onto his side, resting one hand on Avon's chest, moving his fingers idly back and forth, more for the sheer sensation of contact than with any amorous motive. It might be days--well, hours at the very least--until he felt energy enough for renewed desire.

No worry, either, about disturbing Avon with the caress. Avon might awaken if Dayna's entire arsenal of explosives were detonated within two meters of his left ear, but he felt little fear his own light touch would disturb his companion's sleep.

Satisfying, but perhaps a pity, too, with the implication that this intense lovemaking could never be done on Xenon Base, where they were in a state of virtually constant alert. Fargone, in spite of--well, partially because of--its odd customs, had begun to seem like a very desirable locale. Reasonable personal safety, lots of satisfying sex with a man who looked better to him by the moment, good food...

The thought of food finally roused Tarrant from his languor, as he abruptly recalled that they'd completely missed supper. Not that he regretted it, but just the same he felt more than a bit, well, famished. At the word, his stomach made a loud commentary on the subject.

He glanced over at the dumbwaiter hopefully and found that it indeed stood open, a shadowy shape inside suggesting a covered tray. It must have arrived while they were otherwise occupied, and they hadn't heard the slight thump that generally accompanied the mechanism coming to a halt.

Lucky it hadn't been a Federation death squad. Tarrant had the feeling they wouldn't have heard their arrival, either.

Bestowing a last caress on the warm flesh beneath his fingers, he slid out of bed to investigate the contents of the tray, carrying it over to a table where he could combine the important business of recruiting his strength with the aesthetic pleasure of looking at Avon.

The meal--cold meats and some kind of pasta and vegetable combination--looked even better than the other Fargonean meals he'd consumed, but he had a shrewd idea that even Vila's cooking, even his own cooking, might look irresistibly enticing after the vigorous exercise he'd just taken.

Putting aside a portion--he doubted Avon would wake before morning, but didn't want him to starve if he did--he ate the meal slowly, prolonging the doubly sensuous pleasures of savoring the food while watching Avon's relaxed slumber, his limbs sprawled carelessly. Sleep had come so quickly Avon had been without the strength to return to his usually reserved posture for sleep after their lovemaking.

Seeing Avon so vulnerable was both enticing and...well, uncomfortable.

Ever since meeting Avon, Tarrant had felt an odd combination of rivalry and respect, irritation and loyalty toward the other man. Now he felt no difference in the essential emotions, except that they'd been reshuffled completely in order and intensity these past few days and glazed over with a sheen of sexuality, so that every emotion he thought he'd known took on an entirely new appearance and configuration. Definitely uncomfortable.

Tarrant found that he didn't want to think about the subject any more tonight, and he especially didn't want to remember that searingly sympathetic expression he'd surprised in the musician's eyes that afternoon, a memory that abruptly wormed its way into his consciousness again and he fervently wished gone.

The word ludicrous had begun to lose all its bite and conviction.

Swiftly, he finished his portion of the meal, covered the rest, and returned to bed. As he rolled onto the mattress, Avon turned half over, as if instinctively seeking warmth, his head coming to a rest just at the join where Tarrant's shoulder and throat met, his arm flung over Tarrant's chest.

Ah, Avon. There were no words for how Tarrant felt at that moment; it was an enchantment that went beyond all layers of intellect straight to the core of an emotion he had neither wish nor ability to define. Carefully, he slid his arms around Avon and, gathering him close, took the feeling with him through a luxuriant eternity of drowsiness into a deep, contented sleep.

*

Tarrant awoke to find Avon watching him with an enigmatic expression that swiftly metamorphosed into to a quizzical one two seconds after Tarrant's eyes opened.

With more than a little reluctance, Tarrant disengaged from the embrace he still held in the other man in, but made no comment on their position. If Avon's didn't say anything, neither would he. What was the old admonition? Never apologize, never explain. It sounded like a suitable motto for the occasion.

Predictably enough, Avon said nothing, either. If you don't want to know the answer, don't ask the question, summed up Avon's own attitude admirably.

Instead, Avon propped himself on one elbow, the quizzical expression becoming more pronounced. "I had always accepted the adage that young men have little control in certain areas. It appears this assumption is incorrect."

Tarrant felt the hint of a flush edge his cheekbones. He attempted an nonchalant attitude. "Just something I picked up at the academy."

"The curriculum at FSA continues to astonish me with it's comprehensive nature."

Despite his embarrassment, Tarrant grinned. "It wasn't exactly part of the regular coursework."

Avon lifted his eyebrows inquiringly. He looked intrigued.

"During my first year in pilot's training, we were only allowed a couple hours a week on the flight simulators, and..."

"You wanted more?"

"A lot more," Tarrant agreed. "I was determined to be the best FSA had ever graduated out. Anyway, the woman in charge of doling out time on the simulators was about your age, I suppose, moderately attractive and..." Tarrant hesitated, not knowing quite how to word the next bit.

"I believe I can predict where this is headed. I take it she had what's sometimes referred to as an active libido?"

"Yes," Tarrant said gratefully, "that's it. She offered me a deal: for every minute I could, um, keep it up, I'd get a minute of simulator time, in addition to my regular student allowance. If I took three minutes to finish with her, I'd get exactly three minutes more on the simulator." Tarrant grinned. "Avon, I wanted a lot more than three minutes."

Avon laughed, a genuinely non-sarcastic, non-ironic laugh heard seldom on Xenon Base. "Motivation is all," he agreed. "And I would have done exactly the same if it involved time with a sufficiently advanced computer. At any rate, I can't quarrel with the results." He said the last perhaps not quite as lightly as he'd intended.

Without thinking, Tarrant put out his hand, then cursed himself a second later. Idiot.

Avon's gaze shifted aside. "It appears we missed supper last night."

Of course. Change the subject. Tarrant dropped the hand and said in a determinedly normal voice, "They sent up a tray on the dumbwaiter, and I had some, but I thought perhaps you'd rather sleep."

One side of Avon's mouth curled upward, if reluctantly. "I doubt you could have woken me." He assumed a more businesslike mien. "No matter if we missed the meal. We'd already been to the celebration and thereby done our social duty, so I suppose..." Abruptly, he turned his head to stare at Tarrant in consternation.

Tarrant had the same thought at exactly the same moment. They'd certainly had sex the previous night, as per custom, except that none of it had been performed in the prescribed manner.

"Oh, no," said Avon softly. The exclamation sounded like it wanted to be a good deal stronger. "Well, nothing to be done about it now."

We could do it twice tonight; I wouldn't mind, Tarrant thought, but had the sense not to say it aloud. Something must have shown in his expression, though, since Avon gave him a somewhat minatory look.

After a slight pause for the glare to sink in, Avon tilted his head toward the dumbwaiter. "Why don't you check on breakfast while I get dressed? I'm supposed to meet privately with Rowan this morning, which will give you some free time to check on the ship repairs."

Tarrant wondered if Rowan really wanted to meet privately or if Avon just wanted to prevent Tarrant from offering any helpful suggestions on how they could make up for their inadvertent gaffe. "Whatever you say, Avon," he replied demurely.

After giving Tarrant a sharp, that will be the day look, Avon picked up his clothes and started to disappear into the bathroom for his usual lengthy appointment with soap and steamy water. He paused at the door, as if debating with himself. "Where is that ointment the doctor gave you?"

Keeping his face perfectly expressionless, Tarrant replied, "Top shelf of the medical cabinet, to the right."

Avon nodded once and disappeared. After a moment of thought, Tarrant decided if Avon were in any real pain, he'd be a lot grumpier. Probably no more than discomfort and a disinclination to visit Rowan's doctor and reveal his own scandalous virginity.

Tarrant grinned to himself, and headed for the dumbwaiter, finding himself to be ravenously hungry again, and looking forward to more of the excellent local cuisine and a chance for exercise--if of a less pleasing sort than last night--after. The sunshine outside the windows proclaimed it be yet another warm and fair Fargonean day, perfect for a stroll to the repair facility to look over Scorpio.

Life, he thought suddenly, was very good.

*

Tarrant found himself whistling a half-remembered show tune as he made his way across the courtyard, a outward manifestation of lightheartedness that Tarrant couldn't remember having indulged in for...well, a very long time.

The barn-like building holding the plantation's repair shop lay on the very edge of the cluster of outbuildings, over a slight rise of land that probably passed for a hill on this part of Fargone. He noted with faint surprise another group of buildings a good distance away, but still within the area he had thought would be inside Rowan's holdings. The main house in that grouping appeared, as far as Tarrant could judge, even larger than Rowan's own.

Wasn't that the direction Rowan's flyer had taken off the previous evening for a mysterious destination having to do with that second coming of age? What had it been, a visit to his nearest neighbor? But surely the neighbor would've been at the celebration, himself.

Tarrant shrugged. Speculating on Fargonean customs and ceremonies in advance of concrete knowledge would be a good way to drive himself as mad as the proverbial hatter, but had no other utility that he could see.

He proceeded on his appointed task. Scorpio--and the bits of it that had been pulled apart--took up fully half of the cavernous structure. Surrounding the ship and pieces thereof seemed to be a small swarm of male workman, mostly under the age of sentience, supervised by an older man with a cup of coffee and a sharp eye for slackers, judging from the expressions of those nearest him.

Tarrant approached the foreman cautiously, aware of the possibility of a rebuff on the basis of sentience or lack thereof. But the man had apparently been briefed on Tarrant's special status and demonstrated his discomfort only by handing Tarrant over to an assistant with all possible speed rather than openly rejecting contact with the underaged.

His assistant appeared to be an apprentice about to graduate to journeyman's status, presumably on his twenty-fifth birthday. Tarrant found it comforting to realize that the non-sentients seemed to be educated for tasks aside from sex and waiting tables. That made sense, though. Starting from square one when the youths reached manhood seemed impractical, to put it mildly.

The young mechanic treated him with a cheerful camaraderie similar to what Tarrant had shared with his fellow cadets at FSA, that of young people forced to do incomprehensible things for inscrutable reasons, but who expected to be released from the idiocy of adult supervision in the fullness of time. Or at least when they themselves reached that desirable status. "I suppose you'd like a tour of the repairs?" he asked.

Tarrant nodded. "And there's a few checks I'd like to make inside Scorpio, too."

The mechanic grinned knowingly. "You want to make sure the security on your drive chamber's still intact? Don't worry--even I couldn't get in, and I consider myself rather good at jimmying those kind of super-secure systems."

Tarrant didn't raise an eyebrow; he remembered when he would've tried the same. Besides which, they appeared more accustomed to relatively harmless business secrets here, rather than the Scorpio crew's more lethal variety. He was just glad the young man hadn't gone beyond the first level of fail-safes or he'd have gotten the sort of surprise that could have permanently postponed his coming-of-age party. But little fear of that. "Vila tells me that even he couldn't break through the drive security on Scorpio--well, that is, if he hadn't designed and put it into place himself."

"Vila?"

"The, ah, security expert on our team." Well, more or less.

"He must be very good."

"So he keeps telling us," Tarrant agreed. Come to think of it, none of Scorpio's crew lacked much in the ego department, Avon being merely the master of a group of top experts in the art of self-confidence. Not a bad trait, either, considering the odds involved in their improbable goal of successfully opposing the Federation.

The mechanic looked on interestedly as Tarrant checked over the systems securing the chamber that housed Plaxton's legacy. "Must be one hell of a drive to rate that elaborate a setup."

"As you say."

The young man looked wildly curious, but said nothing further being, as Tarrant had noted, obviously familiar with business secrets of the valuable, if not actually deadly, variety. They proceeded to the flight deck, where Tarrant did a cursory check. Avon would, no doubt, supervise the re-programming himself and there was little else that could be done here. Slave stood mute and dark--Avon had put his own assurances into place to keep the computer safely inaccessible.

He then followed the mechanic around the rest of the ship, observing that the repairs were proceeding not only efficiently, but utilized a quality of replacement parts they could hardly have afforded on their own, even with Avon's stash to draw upon.

The group of workers were in the process of covering the hull--not just the breached areas, but the entire surface--with a thin coating of material which Tarrant identified as a liquid version of the herculanium-strength plastic. It wouldn't stop a plasma bolt, but might well help to repel space rubbish and increase general hull integrity.

Besides which, it was a good sign, indicating their hosts regarded them highly enough to spend both considerable effort and quality materials on their behalf.

"That's a nasty hole you got over on the starboard." The mechanic pointed to a mended breach. "Just judging from the damage, I'd say your warder must be a top pilot to have gotten her down at all, much less reasonably intact."

Without thinking, Tarrant protested, "I'm the pilot," then snapped his mouth shut. It seemed he shared in the general egotism level of Scorpio's crew.

The young man looked surprised and respectful. "He must think highly of you, to allow you to pilot his ship."

Tarrant clamped his teeth over a, it's our ship and if he'd been flying her, we'd both be dead right now. He had a feeling these were not the kinds of comments expected out of the non-sentient class.

"Anyway," thankfully, the other man changed the subject of his own accord, "he needn't worry--the repairs are going even faster than expected. We should have you off Fargone in a matter of days."

Tarrant might have thanked the young man for his trouble and his information, he might have asked for particulars on the repairs, he might even have given him the exact location of Xenon Base and the specs for the stardrive, for all he knew. He couldn't even hear his own voice. Instead, he heard that of the mechanic repeating, we should have you off Fargone in a matter of days, again and again.

If these days with Avon had constituted some bizarre and involuntarily idyll, it was an interlude destined very soon to end. Of course, he'd known that, but...

But. Tarrant was glad that his ethical convictions on the subject of deceiving his crewmates were strong and clear. Otherwise, he'd be back inside Scorpio right now, sabotaging some small but vital component so that even Avon couldn't detect his work, but would think it had failed naturally. It was really quite fortunate that his conscience prevented that action.

Oh, yes. Very fortunate indeed.

*

Instead of returning directly to the main house, Tarrant detoured to the walled garden the party had been held in the day before, feeling the need for some quiet reflection--and resuming of masks--before seeing Avon again.

Not that Avon would inquire as to why Tarrant departed in a state of good cheer and returned looking as if he'd just attended his own funeral, but he preferred for his own peace of mind not to reveal too much to a man so fond of disguises himself.

Choosing a bench close to the entrance, he sank down and leaned back against the sun-warmed brick wall, closing his eyes and trying not to think, but rather let the serenity of his surroundings bring some semblance of that desirable state to his own mind.

Gradually, he became aware of a soft sound in the background hardly louder than the hum of insects or the distant whir of reapers: that of a musical instrument being played, the melody as quiet and mellow as the sun radiating off the red brick at his back.

Opening his eyes, he looked around to find the young musician he'd heard perform the previous afternoon sitting on a bench not fifteen meters away, strumming softly on the lute-like instrument he'd played before. If they remained on Fargone much longer, Tarrant reflected ruefully, his reflexes would be undermined past repair--ignoring possible threats was not like him and not conducive generally to continued existence.

Swallowing his chagrin, he nodded to the musician, who had plainly been aware of Tarrant's presence, even if the reverse weren't true. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."

"Not at all." The musician smiled and raised his hands from the instrument to make a polite won't you join me gesture. He projected much the same camaraderie as the mechanic, but combined it with a more personal kind of fellow feeling that made Tarrant distinctly uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, Tarrant rose to join him, feeling that any sort of company would probably be preferable to his own at this point. Well, any sort but Avon's. He sat down in the close-clipped grass beside the bench, choosing not to chance getting nudged by the long neck of the instrument.

Smiling, the musician put the instrument carefully aside, out of the path of Tarrant's long arms and legs. He examined Tarrant's face silently for a moment, as if reading an only partially familiar piece of music. "Is it true your warder allows you to fly his ship?"

News spreads as fast here as back at Academy. But he'd just about had it with modesty, false or otherwise. "I'm a trained pilot, which Avon is not." He kept his voice carefully modulated. "I graduated at the top of my class at FSA, which means Avon isn't even in my league in that area."

With difficulty, Tarrant reined in his ego and refrained from detailing how many pieces of Scorpio would now be scattered over the Fargonean landscape if Avon had tried to make the unassisted landing.

"Doesn't that make problems between you?"

Tarrant stared at him blankly until he realized that older Fargoneans might indeed have a problem with talented non-sentients who would become competition once they reached their coming of age. The relationship between himself and Avon wasn't exactly devoid of competition, but it didn't extend to piloting duties.

"My skills help keep Avon alive; he's not likely to complain about that." His voice held a touch of wryness. Once Avon had considered his skills as a poor second to Vila's, but replacing Liberator with an antiquated junk heap of a spaceship had altered that equation considerably.

The musician's face reflected a kind of hungry intensity. "He needs you, then?"

"Yes, but it's mutual. I'm not in his league as far as computers are concerned, either. Probably no one is better than Avon in either practical or theoretical applications, at least not since Ensor died."

"You need each other, then." The musician's gaze turned inward, as if to transverse some marvelous and miraculous landscape. "That must be wonderful."

Tarrant felt the conversation slipping away from him, with the young man hearing only what he wanted to hear about the relationship with Avon. He remembered going through that stage, himself, and even so, had no idea how to combat it. "We depend on each other to survive, since a fair amount of rather unpleasant people want very much to kill us," he pointed out. "I wouldn't call that wonderful."

"But Avon says you've killed for him. He knows you would give your life for his...that makes for a bond between you, doesn't it?"

Tarrant couldn't deny that and objecting further to the boy's rosy picture of him and Avon seemed on the par with kicking a confiding puppy. "Of a sort."

"And you can stay together, even once you're of age," the young man added wistfully.

Tarrant hadn't considered what would happen at formal adulthood. "You mean that you can't stay together, even if you want to?"

The musician looked away. "No. I must marry into a different family than my warder once I become a man. Exceptions to that rule are almost nonexistent." He turned back, his expression more wistful than before. "But you can remain with Avon always."

Just a few days before, Tarrant would've made a joke about the cruelty of fate at such a prospect, but now he just felt a cold emptiness at the pit of his stomach. Stay with Avon, but not touch him? It sounded like one of the inner circles of hell.

As the younger man had done a moment before, Tarrant looked away. "Remain with, yes. Make love with, no, if that's what you mean. That part of our relationship will be over once we leave Fargone."

"But why?" The musician seemed both astounded and outraged that what he himself wanted so badly would be rejected by Tarrant and Avon.

Tarrant shrugged, at a loss for an answer. Puzzling out Avon's motives even partially and to his own satisfaction presented a never-ending challenge, despite all the time that had passed since they'd met over Sarron. Explaining them to someone else--especially to a young man so removed from the dangerous life he and Avon shared--seemed like a task somewhat comparable to describing a sunset to someone who'd been blind from birth and didn't even understand the meaning of color.

He made a stab at it. "Avon believes sentimentality about crewmates can lead to serious lapses of judgment. In our line of work, such lapses would be fatal."

The musician considered this. "And if he no longer makes love to you, then he'll stop taking your welfare into consideration?"

"Ah.." If Tarrant tried to clarify his statement by saying that Avon didn't care about him, anyway, whatever their degree of sexual contact, then that would probably lead them right back to the starting point.

He cast around for an alternate explanation and, somewhat to his own surprise, found one. "Besides that, the fight we're engaged in is against extremely long odds." Hmm, that wouldn't exactly be a helpful statement to their cause, if the boy chose to impart it to his elders, but probably they already knew the probabilities involved. "I have the feeling Avon would rather not be too involved with anyone he's likely to get killed."

Or worse, have to kill someone he cares for again. Tarrant remembered of a cellar on Earth and a dead woman lying in Avon's arms.

"But what if you aren't killed?" the younger man asked. "Then you'll both be miserable for no good reason. And, if you are killed," he added with grisly rationality, "he'll very likely be with you and be killed himself. Then it wouldn't matter to him at all."

The rebuttal had a certain distorted logic to it that reminded Tarrant of Avon in a bad mood. It might be interesting to run a competition to see if one could outdo the other in the category of "most sophist argument meant to be passed off as the voice of reason."

"But--" Tarrant broke off. He found it disorienting not to be able to call the young man by a name, any name. "Do you really not have a name until you come of age here?"

"Well, there are our family names, of course, but no one uses those except when transacting business between families or at certain official functions." He smiled. "Since there are only about sixty major family groupings, it could get confusing otherwise."

"I can see that." Again, Tarrant wished for a briefing from Orac, so he could get a better idea--or any idea--of what Fargonean families were like without making another major gaffe. He had a feeling that certain important information was still missing from his mental file.

"Occasionally, we take temporary--nicknames, I think you'd call them--for convenience, but our permanent given names are assumed at our coming of age celebration."

"Are they chosen for you by your, um, warders?" The last official act, perhaps, before handing him over to whoever he married.

"Oh, no." The younger man looked surprised at the notion of another person choosing his name. "It's the first of our independent decisions, I suppose you could say, and most start thinking about the choice years ahead of time." Suddenly he looked almost shy. "May I ask what your given name is, Tarrant?"

"Unfortunately, it's Del." At the other's questioning look, he explained, "As common as mud on Earth. Every class I attended at FSA had at least three other Dels. But, then, we have many more than sixty major families on Earth and mostly use our family names." Among the males of the Alpha class, anyway. No need to confuse him, though, by explaining the details of Terran society.

"Your name would be considered quite unusual here." The musician started to say something else, then hesitated, but the half-hopeful expression on the mismatched features made it clear to Tarrant what he wished to ask.

"If that's what you want." He couldn't imagine why the man should want the name, but since half the universe had it, in Tarrant's jaundiced eyes, he didn't see why the musician shouldn't, too.

The young man smiled faintly, a touch of sadness around the curve of the mouth. "I thought..."

That if by some miracle I manage to salvage something from my relationship with Avon, it would be a sign of hope for you. He clearly saw some connection between them, except that Tarrant' relationship with his "warder" seemed to him to be the more fortunate, even if Avon were the victim of strange and twisted logic. "I don't guarantee it as a talisman." Quite the opposite, in fact.

"Still," the boy said quietly. "I'd like to have it."

Tarrant smiled, if with an effort. "Then it's yours. But I hardly consider it the most generous of gifts."

His rueful smile faded as he turned back toward Del. Suddenly he noticed the musician's hands, which he flexed as to drive away stiffness or cramps, drawing Tarrant's attention to them. Yesterday, the hands had been concealed with half-gloves and now Tarrant saw why: the backs were covered with cuts and mottled bruises.

"What the hell--" Tarrant took two long strides to the bench and seized Del's hands gently. He'd been beaten on the hands with a semi-flexible rod, possibly one with hard edges, judging from the cuts. "Damn."

Turning the hands over, he found other, similarly vivid marks, across the palms and the lower section of the fingers. He cursed again, more softly. "Del, you have to let your warder know this is happening. Surely he wouldn't allow it." Or did that violate some Fargonean custom, for a young man to register a complaint against a sentient? Perhaps he should simply ask Avon to convey the information to Lewitt in a suitably subtle manner.

Del tried to pull his hands free. "No, Tarrant, it's my own fault. Really. And it's nothing."

"You didn't get marks like this from running into a door or tripping on a piece of uneven pavement." Not all the marks looked fresh--the bruises and cuts were at different stages of healing, a sign that the beatings were plural rather than singular.

"No, but I'm very clumsy and forgetful. I make so many mistakes," the boy's words poured out in a feverish rush. "I struck a wrong chord a few days ago in practice. Then, last week, I forgot to bring a cup of coffee to his study mid-morning."

Jerking his head up from the examination of the battered hands, Tarrant stared at Del in horrified realization. No need to ask Avon to inform Lewitt of the state of Del's hands. Unless the man blanked his own atrocities from his memory, he already knew.

Tarrant heard himself say, "I'm getting you off-planet."

Even as the words tumbled out, Tarrant knew he'd just bought himself a lot of trouble. If he succeeded--and probably even if he failed--life with Avon would be rendered acutely uncomfortable for some time to come. But if he didn't at least attempt it, he wouldn't be able to live with himself, and he saw no practical way of escaping residence in his own skin.

The musician disengaged his hands from Tarrant's light grip. "I am grateful for your concern, but no."

"What do you mean, no?" Tarrant winced at his own phrasing, hearing Avon's caustic voicing drawling, exactly what part of 'no' don't you understand, Tarrant? "I mean..."

Del held up one battered hand. "I know what you meant, Tarrant. And you know why I won't leave."

Yes, but it's a very bad reason. He decided to take a slightly different tack. "How old are you, Del?"

The boy's eyes shifted nervously, "Seventeen, almost eighteen."

Sure, eighteen in another six or seven months maybe. Tarrant remembered pulling that trick himself. Not that it mattered. "You will no longer be able to play an instrument by the time you're twenty-five. Do you realize that?"

The words came out harsher than he'd intended. But next to his reflexes, a pilot's hands were his most important asset. If he'd been beaten like this at Del's age...

"I can get through this, Tarrant. Don't worry."

"Like hell you can." Tarrant recognized pure bravado when he heard it, but knew it'd be difficult to combat, and that mere contradiction, no matter how forceful, wouldn't do the trick. At that age, males--and maybe even females, for all he knew--considered themselves immortal and indestructible until forcibly convinced otherwise.

He sank down in front of the younger man, sitting on his heels, so he could look at him eye-to-eye. "Del, I think you know you have a remarkable talent that would earn you a good living and considerable acclaim almost anywhere in the galaxy. If you stay here, believe me, a great deal of that talent, at least your skill with the instrument, will be ruined and wasted. I use my hands in my work, as well, and know some of the physiology involved."

Del looked down, turning his hands over one way, then the other, as if he'd never seen them before. "Since I have this talent, you believe I must preserve and use it, no matter the personal price?"

"Yes."

"Even if it means I leave this man who is so important to me?"

"Yes," Tarrant repeated inexorably. Perhaps he actually had a chance of convincing the boy of the necessity of leaving.

The musician raised his gaze to meet Tarrant's straight on. "And if Avon had no ship for you to fly, so you could not use your skill, you would then leave him?"

Tarrant jerked backward, as if he'd been struck, then clenched his jaw so hard it ached from the pressure. "Yes."

"You're lying, Del Tarrant." Tarrant's namesake looked away, to the line of fruit-laden trees that extended the length of the garden, studying them as if they held some arcane secret. "But I don't blame you. If I could lie to myself, I would, and perhaps save myself more pain." He brought his gaze back to his companion. "But does this self-deception prevent you from suffering, Tarrant?"

Not knowing what to reply, Tarrant said nothing, his silence more of an answer than he cared to admit. After a moment, he said, "Our best bet is a commercial carrier, probably a non-Fargonean freighter that takes a few passengers on the side. I'll check on the schedules when I return to the house, and get in touch with you again later."

Without waiting for a reply, Tarrant turned and left the garden. Not bad enough that he'd doubtless be forced to fight Avon on this--well, if Avon found out--but he also had a struggle ahead with the person he intended to rescue.

And the boy fought damned dirty.

*

As he re-entered the house, it occurred to Tarrant that he'd been arguing on the wrong grounds. If they lost Scorpio, Avon could provide Tarrant with another ship, as happened after the destruction of Liberator. But even with the most sophisticated medical techniques available, Lewitt couldn't provide Del with replacement fingers, at least not ones that would allow him to create his music.

Now, if Avon went for his eyes with a laser probe, that would be an entirely different matter. A direct, physical threat like that would be the end...in that case, Tarrant would leave and immediately, too.

Ah, I see, a mocking voice whispered from the back of his mind. Like--just as an example--if Avon rammed a gun in your stomach and threatened to kill you? You'd leave him immediately then, would you?

But that, of course, was another kind of case altogether. Avon had been under a lot of strain right before they arrived at Terminal, and even if he'd meant the threat, he hadn't carried it out. And...

Tarrant halted in the middle of the hallway, hands clenched painfully at his sides. And why do I sound like that boy making excuses?

After a moment, he forced himself on, shelving that particular internal debate for a more convenient moment. Right now, he had to get his hands on the information needed to detach the other Del from his own dangerous lover. That might be a problem.

Just then, one of Rowan's subordinates emerged from a room near the study, his presence providing a possible strategy. "Pardon me," Tarrant said pleasantly.

Being accosted directly by a sub-human startled the other man so severely that he physically drew back, at least momentarily, until he remembered his instructions to treat Tarrant like an honorary person. "Um, yes?"

"My associate Avon," better invoke an older man's name as quickly as possible, "wants me to do some research using your planetary net." He left what the research consisted of deliberately vague, doubting that the flunky would inquire closely. "Could you set me up on a computer? Avon's already using the terminal in our quarters."

"Uh, of course." The flunky led him into another room close to the study area, hurriedly turned on a terminal and logged Tarrant on, then edged toward the door. "If there's anything else you need...."

...Please bother some other sentient with your unsettling self. Tarrant presented the flunky with a blinding smile that seemed to disconcert him even further and then let him escape, while he turned his own attention to accessing the port locations and ship schedules.

After about a quarter hour of blind alleys, Tarrant found the schedules. The nearest commercial port appeared to be about thirty kilometers distant. That would mean borrowing a flyer, but after all, taking a vehicle without leave would probably be considered much the lesser crime compared to stealing an underaged male away from his warder. So no point in worrying about that.

Better concentrate on constructing a plan, one which involved not getting caught, by either the Fargoneans or Avon.

Taking a notebook out of his jacket pocket, he began keying in notes on spacecraft departure dates and times. With the progress being made on Scorpio, he'd only have a few more days. For making the rescue, for wringing the maximum pleasure out of his remaining time with Avon.

The two goals, he realized ruefully, might prove exceedingly incompatible.

*

When Tarrant let himself into their quarters a few minutes later, he found Avon standing by the bank of windows, staring down into the courtyard. He wore only the black bodysuit, his studded jacket hooked over the back of a chair pulled up to the still-activated terminal, as if he'd taken a momentary break from his work.

"I'm back," Tarrant announced and started toward an easy chair on the opposite side of the room where he could relax and study his schedules in relative privacy.

Avon's voice, laced with an arctic-like chill, halted him mid-step. "You're planning on smuggling that young musician off-world."

For a moment, Tarrant forgot to breathe. "How did you know?"

Avon turned slowly from the window. "You just told me."

Ah, that game. "All right, then." Tarrant injected some of the same coolness into his own tones. "How did you guess?"

Avon gestured to the terminal, and Tarrant crossed over to glance at the screen, finding the result of his search for spaceport schedules in glowing and incriminating letters.

"I make it a habit to check the record of downloads from my account--a routine precaution against fraud--and discovered this. I checked with the system operator and found you'd been logged onto my account. Somehow I found it difficult to believe the Scorpio repairs were going so badly that you'd decided to book alternate transportation off-world without consulting me."

With difficulty, Tarrant kept his mouth shut, fighting the urge to defend himself against the withering scorn in Avon's voice. Anything he said now could and would be used against him. Hold your fire until you can hit a target other than you own foot, cadet.

"So, given that this transportation was unlikely to be for yourself, I didn't find it extraordinarily difficult to deduce that some pathetic soul had aroused your famed chivalrous instincts." Avon seemed to pull himself back slightly, as if the lash of sarcasm had hurt him, as well as Tarrant. "The young musician appeared the obvious choice."

"But--"

Avon closed his eyes, shaking his head slightly. Tarrant had the sudden image of a professor of advanced mathematics attempting to teach a retarded toddler why two and two were supposed to add up to four. "The boy wore gloves on a warm day for a task that requires manual dexterity. Given the unlovely personality of his warder and the boy's more visible bruises elsewhere, the reason for the concealment of his hands seemed fairly obvious to me."

"And you--" Tarrant halted. What was the use? Of course, Avon had known yet done nothing. Compassion was not part of his basic programming. Tarrant felt a jagged edge of pain deep inside, as if someone had dragged a piece of broken glass through his gut. Avon would never understand why Tarrant insisted on defying him on this; he'd be speaking a language Avon had never understood and had no desire to learn.

Just as predicted, Avon ignored his aborted question so thoroughly that he might well not have even opened his mouth. "Is it necessary for me to explain why and how badly we need this alliance with Fargone?"

It's no use, Tarrant told himself. But he couldn't help himself, he had to reply. "At the expense of that boy's hands and the destruction of his talent?"

"If necessary, yes." Avon put one word atop the other as if constructing a glacial barrier against further argument. "There are bigger issues at stake than the welfare of one young man."

"The end justifies the means? The good of the many outweighs the lives of the few?" Tarrant smiled with deliberate and dazzling mockery. "Odd, that. Cally told me you questioned Blake at Star One over that very issue. 'You can wade up to your armpits in blood,' you told him. Isn't that true?"

Avon took a sharp breath, as if he'd been struck, and for an instant Tarrant thought the other man would physically attack him. Then, just as abruptly, the anger seemed to evaporate, leaving only emptiness in Avon's dark eyes. "Touche."

Turning away, he moved closer to the windows, leaning one hand against one of the clear panes, pressing hard against the glass, as if holding himself up, or perhaps holding off some undefined threat. "At Star One I told Blake that I wanted it to be finished. But now I realize it's unlikely ever to be over. All I can hope for are small successes to keep us safe, keep us fighting."

Tarrant felt his anger shred into small, inadequate pieces. I wonder if he even realizes that he said 'us' rather than 'me'?

Without thinking, Tarrant moved to stand behind Avon, putting one hand tentatively on his shoulder. But it didn't seem enough, somehow. So he bent to brush his lips over the bare skin just above the collar of the black bodysuit.

"I've cut off your access to my credit account here, so you won't be able to buy him passage." Avon's voice sounded unutterably weary. "Nor will you change my mind that way."

If he hadn't been so wrung out himself by the emotional turmoil they'd just lived through, Tarrant would have smiled. "No, I don't expect that I would. Nor could you change my mind that way." Besides which, I can still smuggle him out on Scorpio. He bent again, this time running his tongue up the nape of Avon's neck in small lapping motions, like a curious kitten.

"Then I see no purpose in this." But he straightened from his discouraged slump, leaning into Tarrant's touch.

"Because we haven't yet performed our civic duty today?" He shifted to the sensitive area just behind Avon's earlobe.

"It's still early in the day; we needn't worry about that yet," Avon observed. Despite his dispassionate tone, Tarrant noted that his breathing had accelerated ever so slightly.

"But we don't want to chance forgetting again." His hands circled around Avon's chest, palms seeking the nipples through the thin knit of the bodysuit.

Avon turned in the compass of his arms, a suggestion of humor returning to the dark eyes. "Might as well get over," he agreed. Grasping a handful of Tarrant's hair, he used it as a handle to bring his mouth within range, and silenced any possible reply.

*

Tarrant opened his eyes to find the chronometer staring at him from the bedside table, stating that it lacked just fifteen minutes until dinner, a formal affair welcoming Rowan back from wherever he'd been the night before. Hell.

He shook his companion's shoulder with more vigor than strictly necessary. "Avon, wake up. "

Rolling over, Avon looked first at the telltale digits then, coldly, at Tarrant's undressed and unready-for-dinner form. Not that he could exactly talk on that score. "I just realized: You didn't desert the Federation. They threw you out as a menace to sensible organization and rational behavior."

With that, Avon threw back the sheet and sprinted toward the bathroom, showering and dressing with impressive dispatch, considering his usual habits. Tarrant met him at the door and was rewarded with a scowl before they practically ran in tandem toward the dining room.

They made it with approximately two seconds to spare.

*

Fortunately, considering Avon's limited patience with social niceties, the entertainment scheduled for that evening appeared to be the final hurrah for Rowan's birthday festivities.

Tarrant surveyed the milieu with a sense of wry deja vu. The drawing room, crammed with a small forest of spindle-legged chairs facing a grouping of musical instruments, brought to mind all too vividly occasions made memorable chiefly by the cramping of long legs forced into unnatural positions by limited space and the challenge of juggling refreshments designed for people with three or four hands instead of his own meager allotment of two.

He turned to Avon, who wore the white bodysuit and jacket, together with an expression of resignation to the inevitable. Tarrant gestured to a pair of chairs "Shall we?" Perhaps if he snagged the one on the aisle, he could unobtrusively stretch his legs.

"We appear to have little choice." Avon slid into a chair, crossed his arms over his chest, and sat back with the air of a man waiting for the imminent arrival of a Federation interrogation unit.

Folding himself into the place beside Avon, Tarrant accepted a glass of wine offered by a waiter who instantly materialized beside them, but declined the plate of hors d'oeuvres, thus sidestepping the juggling of crockery. He noticed Avon passed on the food, as well; he'd probably been subjected to the same course of Alpha social ordeals on Earth as had Tarrant.

More guests arrived, seated themselves, and acquired food and drink. Eventually, the first group of performers took their places, a string quartet that neither offended nor particularly pleased Tarrant's aesthetic sense.

Folding his arms in an unconscious imitation of his companion's stance, Tarrant set his mind adrift from his surroundings to contemplate ways and means of getting Del on Scorpio and safely off planet before Avon discovered his unwanted passenger. Ordinarily, only the flight deck was pressured in space, but he could probably rig up...hm. Of course, he'd need materials.

A ripple of polite applause cut through Tarrant's meditations, as the quartet rose and two other musicians took its place: Del, with his instrument in hand and gloves back in place, and Lewitt, who seated himself at the nearby piano. Tarrant hadn't realized that Del's warder was also a musician.

Del appeared pale and uneasy, flexing his fingers nervously and looking everywhere but at Lewitt. It must be unusual, Tarrant thought, for an underaged male to perform at a formal function like this. If he weren't note-perfect, he'd probably pay for it later.

Tarrant glanced sideways at Avon. He seemed indifferent, bored, one forefinger tapping in silent impatience against his upper arm.

The performance began auspiciously, with a medley of folk songs that Tarrant had heard once before, at a concert in a Eastern European dome. Lewitt's accompaniment, while quite a bit more than competent, didn't have reach quite the level of Del's music, at least to Tarrant's admittedly-prejudiced ear.

But the second song, a Fargonean love song much like the one the boy had sung so beautifully the day before, went disastrously wrong, with Del repeatedly stumbling over the verses. As Lewitt's displeasure became more obvious with each blunder, Tarrant wondered unhappily how much his talk with Del earlier that day had caused this uncertain performance.

Finally, after Del struck a wrong chord that made Tarrant wince, Lewitt rose from the keyboard and took an object from his pocket that Tarrant knew must be what he'd beat Del's hands with before. An uneasy murmur went through the audience; probably this sort of thing wasn't generally done in public, but no one moved to stop it, either.

Tarrant clenched his own hands desperately into the fabric of his jacket as Lewitt moved toward Del. Leaping up and playing the white knight in this situation would prove disastrous for everyone concerned, but he didn't know if he could sit still and watch it, either.

Unexpectedly, he heard Avon's voice from beside him, cool as always, yet pitched so everyone in the room could hear him. "You wanted a demonstration of my control over Tarrant, I believe. I agree it would be excessive for him to kill someone, but shall I have him break that boy's fingers?"

A collective gasp seemed to issue from every throat in the room, including Lewitt's. All eyes turned to Avon, who looked around calmly, his eyebrows lifted in polite inquiry.

After a moment of stunned silence, Rowan half rose from his seat near the front of the room, turning toward the back where the two of them were seated. "Avon," he said carefully, "the boy will be a full member of our society in a few years; it's not considered acceptable to main him."

Avon's expression went from polite inquiry to polite confusion. "Oh, but I had thought..." He glanced pointedly at Lewitt, who still had the rod in his upraised hand. "I see. I must've gotten quite the wrong impression. I do apologize."

The silence took on a distinctly uncomfortably quality. Rowan seemed to take a deep breath, then straightened to his full height and turned his gaze to the dais at the front of the room. "Lewitt." Only one word, but the message was clear.

Turning pale, Lewitt dropped the rod with a clatter that could be heard throughout the room, then turned abruptly and left, the door slamming behind him.

Tarrant released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

Rowan spoke to Del. "You needn't finish the performance, but if you are able, I'd be very pleased to enjoy your talent further." It was the first time Tarrant had heard an adult male speak directly to a non-sentient, at least one not his own ward.

A touch of color returned to Del's face. He nodded and, after a slight hesitation, began to play again. Rowan reseated himself and the gathering appeared to return to normal, only the slight clink of crockery and the shifting of bodies interweaving with the instrument and Del's pure voice.

But a few minutes later a servant appeared to hand Avon a folded note, which he scanned and tucked away into his pocket. Leaning close to Tarrant, he murmured. "Rowan wishes to see us in his study after the concert." A slight smile pulled at his lips. "No need to look so worried; I believe he wishes to explain the situation to us, not remonstrate with me for my verbal misstep."

Under the cover of applause, he added, "But he would have done had I chosen to address the issue directly. Perhaps this will inspire you to approach such matters more subtly in future." He paused, as if to contemplate this statement further. "I wonder when I became such an incorrigible optimist?"

Leaning back into place, he redirected his attention to the front of the room, appearing to listen to the next part of the program, an implacably mediocre operatic performance, with patience, if not enjoyment.

Tarrant stared numbly ahead, hearing only snatches of the aria, wholly occupied with the question of why Avon, who'd proclaimed disinterest in Del's plight before with all appearance of sincerity, had suddenly decided to take what Tarrant recognized as a risky, if diplomatic, route to save the musician. Perhaps even to save him permanently, if Tarrant read the signs correctly.

One explanation did occur to him, almost instantly. But he wanted it to be true entirely too much for him to believe that it could, in fact, be the answer to the conundrum.

If only that were Avon's motivation. If only.

*

When a servant ushered them into the study a few minutes after the conclusion of the concert, they found Rowan already seated behind the desk. His hand rested on the communications unit, as if he'd just concluded a conversation, and he appeared faintly troubled.

At Rowan's gesture, Avon assumed the seat opposite the desk, with Tarrant standing just behind him, and immediately took the initiative. "Rowan, you need not explain your domestic arrangements to us. Rather, I should apologize again for my inadvertent faux pas."

"Inadvertent?" Rowan's face cleared slightly and he smiled. "I'll admit it took several minutes longer than it should've to spot your strategy, but you'll have to chalk that up to the strain of the moment." He raised one platinum eyebrow. "I've used similar techniques, myself, on occasion."

Avon inclined his head, seemingly unsurprised.

"Besides which," Rowan added, "if we're to be allies eventually, I prefer you would not depart Fargone under the impression that we habitually maim our young. The system often lends itself to rough usage, yes, as part of the socialization-- that's necessary and proper--but it should not include permanent damage." Nonetheless, he looked uncomfortably, very much like he'd rather not be having this conversation.

"I take it," Avon asked the question as if the answer were a matter of course, "that the young man was assigned to Lewitt because of their similar talents?"

"Yes." Rowan leaned back in the plush leather chair, relaxing slightly. "Lewitt's an amateur musician, and not quite at the boy's level, I'm afraid, but it was felt that he would be capable of understanding and nurturing his abilities. They thought it would be a suitable match up, despite the possible problems."

Who are 'they'? Tarrant glanced at Avon and saw, from the fleeting expression crossing the other man's face, that he wondered the same.

"Then perhaps jealousy is the problem?" Avon suggested. "I'm not an expert but, as you say, the boy appears to be the better musician of the two by an obvious, if not enormous, margin."

"That's true," Rowan acknowledged. "But, no, I don't believe that's the problem, or at least not it entirely. Perhaps there's a certain rivalry, but Lewitt seems to me truly pleased with the boy's ability."

Recalling Lewitt's expression after Avon had complimented Del at yesterday's garden party, Tarrant agreed. If there were envy involved--and there might well be--that still didn't account for Lewitt's violent behavior.

"But then--"

Rowan made a small helpless gesture with his hands. "This is difficult to explain, Avon, but I believe that Lewitt is perhaps--and not even consciously--trying to destroy the boy's affection for him, by causing him pain, and thus by denying that the affection even exists between them."

Involuntarily, Tarrant glanced at Avon. The older man had taken a stylus from the pocket of his jacket and was turning it over and over between his fingers, looking at it rather than at Rowan. His hand clenched convulsively over the stylus for a few seconds, then relaxed. "I take it these relationships inevitably end when the young man comes of age?"

"Almost always. And that did make those in charge doubtful about the assignment initially, even though the similarity of talents seemed make it a natural match. I'm afraid Lewitt became quite attached to one of his earlier wards--he was abnormally upset at that boy's coming of age."

In other words, Lewitt had initiated some sort of-- disturbance? scene? official objection?--that had made whomever wary of giving him another charge. As well they should've been. But he must possess some worth, even beyond musical talent, to have overcome the doubts. And he must have some merits, Tarrant thought, that prompted Del to love him, despite the physical and mental pain that it involved.

Rowan rose and took a step away from the desk as if wanting to pace, then seemed to recall himself and sat down again. "If only he'd kept his temper. We could have asked for an exception that to keep them together beyond the boy's adulthood." His voice trailed off and he seemed lost in unhappy thought.

Ask who? Who gives the exceptions and who makes the assignments? Who's running this place, anyway? The more Tarrant saw, the more certain he felt that neither Rowan nor anyone else they'd met so far were the final arbiters of what went on here on Fargone.

Rowan raised his gaze. "I'm afraid seeing you and your associate set him off, prompting him to excessive violence. Not that it was your fault, of course, but after all, you won't be forced to..." Rowan made a gesture miming separation.

That's what you think. Avon's internal rules were more immovable than codes set by any planetary government.

Tarrant spoke without thinking, "Couldn't you give them another chance?" Tarrant bit his lip, remembering too late that even in his "honorary sentient" position, the locals preferred that he be seen rather than heard.

But Rowan showed no sign of irritation. "I'm afraid not." He looked directly at Tarrant for the first time since he'd been discovered as a non-person. "As soon as the boy finished singing, I had him taken to our physician to have his hands examined. And...no. We cannot chance that kind of abuse happening again."

"But--" Tarrant wasn't sure what would comprise a happy ending to this particular tale, but he was all too aware of what Del wanted. And if wishes were horses, I know what I'd be begging for myself.

Avon turned in his seat to look at Tarrant. "It's better if the young man is removed from Lewitt's vicinity, for all parties involved." His eyes shifted to focus on a spot just left of Tarrant's shoulder, as if empty space had abruptly become interesting to the scientific mind. "After all, people don't change."

Did he speak from experience? And of himself or someone else?

Rowan spoke again. "You needn't worry about the boy's hands. Fargonean medicine is a bit more advanced, shall we say, than much of what you'll find within the Federation. We can take care of him; it's been stopped soon enough for that." He stood, the gesture obviously a dismissal.

Avon rose at the signal. "We appreciate the explanation... and the reassurance." Gathering Tarrant in his wake with a glance, Avon left the study, leading the way up the stairs toward the room that had begun to seem like a home.

Both men remained silent during the short walk to their quarters.

*

Peeling off his jacket as soon as he'd crossed the threshold, Tarrant tossed it on the nearest flat surface, wishing he could discard his unwieldy mental baggage as easily.

Avon crossed the room in the general direction of the bed but stopped halfway, as if he'd forgotten his destination or perhaps simply run out of energy to direct his steps any further.

Not surprising. Neither of them enjoyed many of the day's events, with the exception of the brief interlude of civic duty earlier on. "Avon."

The other man turned his head just slightly in response, the quality of the movement suggesting that even that much of a reply took almost more effort than he could readily spare.

"Thank you." Whatever obscure reason Avon had or believed he had for saving Del, he deserved a measure of gratitude for the action, whether he wanted it or not.

"Well." Avon turned in a sort of weary slow-motion, pulling off his own jacket in jerky stages. "I suspected that if I didn't take steps I'd find the young man in one of Scorpio's storage lockers or some other equally unlikely locale, and thus be forced into embarrassing explanations when I turned him back over to his people." He disentangled himself from one arm of the jacket, then the other and tossed it toward a chair; it was a measure of his fatigue that he missed by a good half-meter. "That's what you intended, wasn't it?"

Tarrant nodded. No point in denying it.

A trace of steel threaded through Avon's voice. "I would have stopped you."

Tarrant let his own voice harden slightly. "You could've tried."

Their gazes locked for a long moment, before Avon shook his head, closing his eyes fleetingly. "Fortunately, that theory needn't go to the testing stage."

"All's well that ends well," Tarrant agreed. But then the smile that accompanied the words faded. "But I wish..."

Avon turned away, stooping to pick up the jacket and deposit it neatly over the back of the chair. "Happy endings are few and far between in this imperfect universe, Tarrant."

And you wouldn't believe in one even if you could take it into your laboratory and analyze it for the next decade.

The older man rubbed his hands over his eyes, flexing his shoulders. "I haven't had a chance to try out that rather massive bathtub yet; I think I'll remedy that omission."

Tarrant suspected that Avon simply wanted a period of solitude. One way or another, the man had spent more time in company here than he generally did on Xenon or even in the tight quarters on Scorpio, where they at least took alternating shifts. He nodded. "I think I'll go on to bed."

After Avon disappeared into the bathroom, he briefly considered unpacking the loose trousers he generally slept in on Xenon from the gear he'd fetched from Scorpio. The demands of civic duty had made sleepwear seem an unnecessary encumbrance, but with the duty done for today, perhaps...well, perhaps he felt too damned tired to crawl across the room.

In the end, Tarrant just stripped and rolled onto the bed, draping himself in the sheet and, around the edges of a cavernous yawn, instructing the computer to dim the lights.

Once prone, though, Tarrant found the bone-deep weariness ebbing away, leaving him in a pleasantly drowsy state, floating somewhere in the netherland between full consciousness and sleep. He reflected, a bit muzzily, that the day, although strenuous in the emotional sense, had ultimately ended up on the positive side of the ledger; for whatever reason, Avon had secured Del's safety. He closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to drift.

Some unmeasured period of time later, Avon emerged from the bathroom, heralded by the soft click of the door and the soft whisper of bare feet on the floor. Tarrant opened his eyes to find him sitting on the edge of the bed, rubbing his damp hair with a towel, looking less tired and more relaxed.

"Still awake?"

"Ummm." He rolled closer to Avon and, without thinking, ran his fingers up Avon's back. His skin felt slightly damp still from the bath and exuded the faint, pleasant aroma of soap, plus another scent less definable, but unmistakably Avon. He could close his eyes now and pick him out from a crowd, using only his sense of smell.

"We've already completed the necessary activity for the day, Tarrant." He sounded more amused than annoyed.

Tarrant hadn't meant anything specific by the caress, but now that a specific activity had indeed been brought to his attention... "We didn't do it properly last night," he reminded Avon. "Ah, did anyone speak to you about that?"

Avon's face took on a half-barricaded, half-rueful expression, a mixture Tarrant would've hardly believed possible if he hadn't witnessed it for himself. "Rowan took me aside earlier and told me not to worry about it, that almost everyone does 'get carried away' from time to time and forget the letter of the law."

With difficulty, Tarrant swallowed a laugh at his mental picture of the look this remark must've gotten Rowan...or, would have, perhaps, if Avon weren't on his best behavior during the negotiations. "Nonetheless, I think it would be..." While he hunted for the right word, he pulled himself to a half-sitting position, so that he could slide his hands around to Avon's chest. "...Courteous to do it twice today. Just to demonstrate that we have the proper respect for Fargonean customs."

Avon drew in a sharp breath as Tarrant's hands stroked down over his stomach to a point just above his groin, only to lift back to the starting point, to repeat the motion. "You believe the Fargoneans would appreciate this kind of gesture?"

"Oh, absolutely." He ran his lips around the border of Avon's still-damp hair, then took the edge of his ear between his teeth and tugged on it lightly, before letting it go long enough to whisper, "I can't think of anything likely to impress them more."

Avon half-turned in the compass of his arms. "Tarrant." His voice blended resignation and passion in equal measure. Until that moment, Tarrant had never known how seductive the sound of his own name could be.

"That's me," he replied. And then pulled Avon down with him onto the bed, so they could continue impressing the Fargoneans in the most expeditious manner possible.

*

That morning Avon had another private meeting with Rowan scheduled, so Tarrant treated himself to a lie-in, watching Avon get dressed through half-closed eyes, then lapsing back into full unconsciousness once the door closed behind him.

An annoying beeping sound woke him up a little over an hour later, which he eventually identified as the communications unit on the desk. When he finally managed stumble over to the desk to open the channel, a cheerful male voice informed him that the repairs on their ship were nearly complete and they could plan to lift off the following morning, if they so desired.

Sitting down behind the desk a bit more abruptly than he'd planned, Tarrant forced himself to thank the voice calmly and politely. Then he cut the connection, and spent the next few minutes filling the air with as many curses as he could dredge up from a memory stocked both at FSA and in mercenary circles.

At length, running out of obscenities, he got up to don some clothes and get ready to face a day that looked a lot less promising than it had only an hour before.

*

Avon returned less than an hour later, looking preoccupied. "You're dressed. Good. Rowan's taking us on a short trip...the ruling trioka has decided to grant us an audience."

"Both of us?"

"Apparently they specifically asked for both of us to be present. That surprised me, as well." Moving to the desk, Avon slipped the newsreader with his notes into his jacket pocket, then twitched the garment into order.

Tarrant went to a mirror opposite the desk, attempting to discipline his unruly curls into a semblance of shape. "Avon." He moved so he could see the other man's reflection in the glass. "I just got a call. Scorpio will be ready for takeoff tomorrow."

One of Avon's hands, engaged in smoothing down the fabric of his jacket, paused for the space of a few seconds, then completed the motion almost jerkily. "Ah. Then, depending on how our meeting with the Fargonean leaders goes, we'll probably be able to leave in the morning." He walked to the door, expression blank of all emotion. "Are you ready to leave?"

"Of course." He followed Avon downstairs, keeping his own mind carefully away from their imminent departure. For the next few hours, both of them had to concentrate on business.

Ah. And that's why you brought it to Avon's attention just now? Tarrant shook his head at his own nagging inner voice. Nor would a bout of self-recrimination be particularly useful.

Another of the ubiquitous young males chauffeured the flyer while the three men took up a relatively small area of the spacious passenger compartment. The absence of Rowan's usual flunkies seemed to emphasize the importance of the occasion, as did Rowan whiling away the trip with a brief Fargonean civics lesson...though Tarrant still felt there were several significant gaps in the narrative.

"The heads of the major families form what you'd call the legislative branch of the government, and set policy, though most of the specifics are left to the trioka that make up the executive branch." While he spoke, Rowan kept an eye out the window of the flyer at the harvesting operation going forward in the surrounding fields. He reminded Tarrant of certain officers he'd served with who seemed always to know what was happening in every part of their ships.

"I take it, then, that our destination is the capitol city?" Avon gazed out the window, as well, but he looked as if he saw neither fields nor reapers. The fingers of one hand rubbed repeatedly over a particular spot on the armrest he leaned upon, though he seemed not to notice that, either.

"Oh, no. Fargone doesn't have a city devoted to government. It would be very inconvenient for the heads of families to leave their plantations and businesses constantly to attend legislative sessions. All sessions are carried on electronically; it's much more efficient."

Avon apparently noticed his own fiddling and stilled his hand. "And I presume you represent the Rowan family at these meetings?"

The platinum eyebrows rose in surprise. "No, of course not." He spread one hand in a gesture indicative of modesty of a mostly false variety. "I am, however, on several moderately-important committees, including one involving relations with the Federation or lack thereof. Which is why I'm particularly interested in your proposed alliance."

"I see, " Avon said politely.

Tarrant did not see. For example, why was Rowan "of course" not the head of his family? What disqualified him for that position so thoroughly and--to a Fargonean--obviously that he should express surprise at the very question?

Very probably Avon wondered the same, but he chose to pursue another line of questioning. "I take it, however, that we are meeting with the members of your executive branch in the flesh rather than electronically?"

Rowan smiled. "Oh, yes, they often get together in person and they've expressed particular interest in meeting you and your...associate. Also, it's customary for the trioka to delegate much of their business affairs to other members of their families, thus freeing their time for political affairs." The flyer began to slow and Rowan glanced out the window again. "Ah, here we are."

Wherever "here" turned out to be, it couldn't be far from Rowan's plantation, considering the length of the journey. Glancing out at the house, Tarrant recognized it from the distinctive cant of the roofline as the building he'd seen in the distance from Rowan's courtyard the previous day.

Compared to Rowan's home, this mansion seemed eerily quiet, though he sensed activity just outside his range of vision. But absent were the young male servants so evident at their host's residence. Rowan's chauffeur opened the door of the flyer once it had landed, but immediately got back into the vehicle, and the only servant they met going in was a decidedly older man who opened the front door.

Rowan ushered them to the entrance of a room in approximately the same position as the study in his own mansion and opened the door, by his stance obviously intending to remain outside.

A private audience, then.

Tarrant followed on Avon's heels, noting that he halted almost infinitesimally on the threshold before continuing smoothly into the center of the room. Curious, Tarrant looked past Avon's shoulder, wondering what had caused that quickly-hidden surprise, but saw nothing unusual in the room, which was occupied by three women ranging in age from mid-thirties to mid-forties.

Three...women?

After a few seconds, Tarrant remembered to start moving and again and close his mouth. But it felt odd to be with women again after so many days of staring at strictly masculine features and bodies.

"Avon, Tarrant, we're glad to meet you." One of the women, perched casually on the front edge of the desk, gestured to a pair of chairs arranged nearby, one set a little in advance of the other. "Please do sit down."

The facts of the matter--what logically seemed must be the facts of the matter--gradually filtered into Tarrant's consciousness as he sank into the indicated seat. These three must compose the trioka Rowan had referred to...and all three were women. Early on, he'd speculated that the Fargonean women were kept in purdah, but now it seemed the opposite was true, that underaged men were separated off from society, a purdah that perforce included their warders.

Avon settled into his own chair with more apparent ease than Tarrant felt. "It appears I've been cherishing several misconceptions about Fargonean society."

The woman perched on the desk--since no introductions seemed forthcoming, Tarrant dubbed her "Dark" in honor of her brunette bob--grinned at Avon in a friendly manner. "Very likely. We like to keep the private customs and traditions of Fargone...private."

"Yes. I can see why." Avon raised one eyebrow in delicate inquiry. "I imagine the former administration of the Federation was more friendly to Fargonean traditions than the present government would be likely to show itself."

Good point. Servalan would have no problem with a planet where women made the rules, but certain members of the present ruling council--including the president himself, no doubt--probably would find the idea considerably less endearing. The Fargoneans, or at least their leadership, had a better reason than taxes or breakthroughs in genetic engineering to want to stay from under Federation control.

The auburn-haired woman who sat behind the desk in an only slightly less casual pose than Dark--Tarrant named her "Red"-- threw up one hand as if acknowledging a hit. "True. Which is why we agreed to talk about a possible alliance." The slight emphasis on the words 'talk' and 'possible' did not appear to bode particularly well for their cause.

Red glanced at the third woman present, who nodded slightly in what could have been assent or encouragement. Like the other two, she wore what appeared to be a practical female modification of Fargonean garb, in which a hip-length tunic covered the bodysuit and any figure flaws of the wearer at the same time. But she wore it in more muted colors than the other women, as if blending into the background. She sat slightly apart in a somewhat more formal pose, but Tarrant got the feeling during the course of the audience that she influenced the discussion much more than appeared on the surface. He decided to call her Advisor.

"At any rate, we're pleased that you inadvertently came to Fargone and initiated these talks." A smile hovered around Red's lips that Tarrant found vaguely disturbing. "And whatever agreement we might reach, it seems your stay with us has done you some good. You look considerably more...relaxed than when you arrived. Rested even. You seemed so stressed and tired that first day."

The half-challenging, half-polite smile dropped from Avon's face so abruptly as to be comical, and for a full fifteen seconds afterward Tarrant wondered why.

Then he realized--neither of them had met the woman until five minutes ago. If Red had any knowledge of how Avon looked when he arrived on Fargone, it was either because Rowan or another male had told her or...or...

Dark leaned back on her splayed arms, and tilted her head in an expression of slightly-exasperated amusement. "Obviously, Avon, if the women make the rules here--and we most certainly do--we're also the ones who make sure the rules are being obeyed."

"Of course," Red added, with the air of someone determined on full disclosure, "we don't ordinarily do that ourselves, but you are our honored guests, so it seemed only courteous to take care of it personally."

"Not something we cared to delegate," Dark agreed.

Tarrant had never seen Avon completely speechless before and, even more unprecedented, with the faint suggestion of a blush edging the elegant cheekbones. He himself showed no such delicate color; he could feel the heat in his face suggesting a shade just short of absolute crimson.

After a short struggle, Avon regained a measure of composure, the hint of color receding to leave his skin in the neighborhood of its normal paleness, at least. "I hope you weren't bored," he said politely.

"Not in the least," Red replied with equal courtesy. "True, the entertainment tapes are generally edited, but that's what the fast forward control is for, after all. And except when actually asleep, you both were very...stimulating."

Entertainment tapes? Considering the Fargonean's fondness for turning every aspect of their surroundings to commercial use, it seemed almost frighteningly probable that surveillance tapes were indeed edited down and marketed as entertainment. But surely since they were, as Dark put it, honored guests, their images wouldn't be put on the sales racks.

He could just imagine how amused Vila would be to see a tape of him and Avon in this situation. And come to think of it, he didn't know much about Dayna and Soolin's taste in entertainment vids, either. At the thought, his jaw clenched so tightly his teeth actually hurt. But, no, the Fargoneans wouldn't pass them around. He didn't think.

Glancing at Avon's set face, Tarrant decided that not asking the question would indeed be the best policy in this case. Besides, since the women wanted to keep Fargonean peculiarities as quiet as possible, doubtless none of their entertainment media would be marketed off-world, at least.

Tarrant's gaze shifted away from Avon as he caught sight of Advisor watching Avon intently, her expression of alert and watchful intelligence naggingly familiar. Someone he'd seen, and seen repeatedly, watched people in just that way, but he couldn't quite remember who.

"Your associate is quite talented," Red added thoughtfully. "When he comes of age, I'm sure several of the major families would be interested in marrying him."

Avon's expression flickered, like a shutter opening and closing, then he smiled suddenly, with a show of teeth. "Now that you've disconcerted us both and thus given yourselves the psychological advantage, perhaps we could resume negotiations?"

Red and Dark laughed. Advisor smiled slightly, registering both amusement and a sense of...hmm, imputing information into some sort of internal database. Then it came to him who Advisor reminded him of: Servalan. Not in the sense of malevolence or beauty or certainly exotic taste in clothing, but in the more indefinable habits of intellect.

It worried him a bit. He had the feeling her decision would not be made on made on emotion--though she might well take emotion into account--but on the pure weight of facts. And the anti-Federation facts might not be substantial enough to tip the scales.

"I suppose we should get back to business." Dark's voice suggested that she'd been tending to business quite well, thank you, but if Avon chose to think otherwise, it was certainly his privilege. "You told Lieesb you'd furnish us with the formula for a Pylene-50 antitoxin. I take it that this offer isn't attached to any other agreement we might make?"

Lieesb. After a moment, Tarrant remembered that to be Rowan's first name. Just from the way she said it, he had a feeling they'd now met the head of Rowan's family, the Rowan.

"It would be difficult to negotiate with a planet of zombies," Avon said mildly. "Giving you the formula is in my best interest, as well as yours."

"True." Dark turned serious, if only momentarily. Unsurprising. Pylene-50 could hardly be considered a joke, even by the most frivolous of minds. Which under the surface mockery, none of the women seemed to be.

"And my proposal that Fargone distribute the formula or manufactured antitoxin to its nearest neighbors?"

"That might be more delicate," Red said frankly. "At this point, we're not interested in an open break with the Federation and Sleer is showing a certain amount of interest in this sector, more than we'd like. Any distribution would have to be very...discreet."

"And the possibility of an Alliance?" Avon looked perfectly collected, just as if this weren't one of the more important conversations he'd had in the past year. As if their future and their lives were perfectly unaffected by the outcome.

"Still a possibility." Dark glanced over to Advisor, as if seeking and receiving counsel, then continued, "You might have noticed that Fargone isn't exactly a military stronghold. We have no tradition of warfare and, to be blunt, want none. We have no intention of furnishing you with cannon fodder."

Tarrant wondered where the "possibility" of an alliance came in, in that case. A firmer no would be hard to imagine.

"But." Red circled the desk and leaned against the front edge beside Dark, subtly emphasizing their united front, perhaps. "If you can get your warm bodies elsewhere, then you'd be welcome to return and negotiate for supplies. Including that new material you expressed so much interest in."

Before he realized he intended to even open his mouth, Tarrant found himself saying, "Wonderful. You'll give us help as soon as we don't need as much. That's what I call courageous leadership."

Avon stiffened slightly, but didn't look wholly displeased by his impulsive entry into the conversation. More as if he were waiting for a reaction, which he probably supposed would be his ward being tossed from the room on his ear.

But the three women seemed amused and even indulgent, as if they thought his outburst was the most darling speech they'd heard for ages. He felt like a four-year-old who'd been lecturing a dinner party of adults in their table manners, with all the resultant chuckling and whispering among themselves that generally elicited. He found this worse--much worse--than being blasted where he sat.

Advisor spoke for the first time, her voice so soft he had to strain to catch the words. "We prefer to leave heroics to the heroes, Tarrant."

"You'll understand when you're older," Red added, with a smile. She looked as if she were tempted to come over and pinch his cheek, an impression that made Tarrant flinch back into his seat.

"I'm sure he will," Dark slid off the desk, signalling the end of the meeting. "In the meantime, I hope you enjoy your final evening on Fargone."

In other words, close the door behind you, and don't come back too soon.

Avon seemed inclined to take the dismissal in fairly good grace, though what else he could do under the circumstances would certainly be a question The snarls that worked moderately well on his crew could hardly be expected to impress the rulers of Fargone, especially since Avon was male and thus apparently a second-class citizen. "I'm sure we will," he said politely, and rose himself, following Dark to the door. Following his warder, Tarrant wondering idly if the personal escort was intended to demonstrate courtesy and respect, or simply to get them out faster.

Just at the door, Avon paused. "It take it you're the head of Lieesb Rowan's family?"

Dark inclined her head slightly. "I'm the Rowan, yes."

"Is Lieesb Rowan your husband?"

She looked confused for a moment. "Ah, I see. Yes, he's one of my husbands. Everyone in a Fargonean family is married to one another; I have quite a few husbands and a number of co-wives, for that matter."

Avon hesitated, as if weighing the benefits and possible costs of pursuing the conversation. "At the conclusion of Rowan's--that is, Lieesb's--birthday celebration he appeared to set out in this direction. Was that part of the ceremony?"

This seemed an odd time for idle curiosity. Surely he could question Rowan on the way back. Which meant Avon was almost certainly up to something.

Dark Rowan made an of course gesture and then, again, seemed to recollect that they were foreigners. "At a male's fiftieth birthday, he can start choosing his sexual partners for the first time. Up to age twenty-five, of course," she glanced at Tarrant, "he has sex with his warder and, for the twenty-five years following that, he's at the disposal of the women of his family or any family they might loan him to, for either procreation or recreation."

"So on his birthday night he makes a personal choice for the first time?" Definitely Avon had some goal in mind here.

"Yes. Of course, if his choice is one of the women, she isn't constrained to accept. But it is thought to be... courteous to do so."

"And could the choice be considered...symbolic of personal commitment and affection? Love, even?"

A veil seemed to drop over Dark's expression. "It could. Not necessarily so, of course, but at times, yes, it is considered significant."

Tarrant didn't have to speculate about who Rowan had selected, but he did wonder how Avon had detected the attachment. There had perhaps been a certain warmth in Dark's voice when she'd mentioned Rowan's name, but sensitivity wasn't exactly Avon's middle name under most circumstances.

"It must be difficult." Avon spoke in a voice that seemed almost musing, as if he were thinking over a purely philosophical question. "Difficult, I mean, to decide what's true affection and what's policy in such a situation. And I understand in families where the head is in the executive branch, much of the administration and presumably the power of the family is held by another. Perhaps even a male?"

Avon. Tarrant just barely kept himself from stepping out of what he feared would become the line of fire. "So you think my love life is entertaining?" Avon's expression said as plainly as a shout. "Well now, I can't let you go on believing that I'm vulnerable on that score and you're not." And the message got across, all right. But it seemed a damned risky method of communicating.

And, indeed, Dark's face hardened in a way that made Tarrant think calling the guards and having the hell beaten of Avon would be the next logical step. Then she smiled, a bit ruefully. "There's an old song I've always rather liked," she said conversationally, and Tarrant thought he recognized a somewhat different brand of danger in it than the one Avon usually peddled. "One of the lyrics goes, 'you want it, you take it, you pay the price.' That sums it up, doesn't it? Uncertainty is my price, and I'm not going to cavil particularly about paying it."

"I see," Avon nodded, as if satisfied with his demonstration, and turned to the door. Tarrant didn't think it would be that easy, somehow.

"Avon?"

No, not that easy. Avon paused, his hand half-reached toward the switch, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

"I understand you're trying a variation on my philosophy that's very interesting. You want it, you refuse to take it, and you still pay the price." Her smile looked a lot like a trap closing. "I wonder which of us is making the right decision?"

Tarrant winced. Obviously, when the Fargoneans checked on Del's hands, they'd also debriefed him about the off-worlders. Thoroughly. Avon froze for a second, hand still on the switch, then bowed his head as if to say, and I won't underestimate you again, either. They left the room without another word being exchanged.

On the way back, Avon conversed politely with Lieesb Rowan on a variety of topics. But even before they'd come to Fargone, Tarrant had generally been able to tell when Avon's mind wasn't involved in a conversation, and he wasn't fooled. He wondered if Avon, like himself, found his thoughts wandering forward to tonight.

Their last night on Fargone.

*

Tarrant found himself resenting every moment of the formal farewell supper the Fargoneans gave in their honor. The elegantly-prepared food tasted no better than Vila's vegetable stew, the graceful speeches resembled the sound of teeth grinding together.

He wanted to be alone with Avon.

But then when they were--finally--alone, he didn't know what to do or say. He stood awkwardly by the bed watching Avon watching nothingness out the window.

At length, Avon turned his head and said quietly. "Our last time at this."

"Yes." Did you think I didn't know that, Avon? And if you act like I should be happy and grateful, I'll strangle you with my bare hands and push the remains out an airlock without ceremony, I swear I will.

But Avon said nothing further, simply crossing the room to the bed and removing his clothing without either haste or flourish, not breaking the aching silence that had fallen between them like a palpable weight.

When he'd finished undressing, Avon lay on the bed and held out his hand.

They came together tentatively at first, as they had that first time. But within a space of seconds hesitance mutated into something very near to desperation, an embrace that seemed closer to a wrestling match than lovemaking, teeth clashing with the intensity of the kiss, fingers digging into skin and muscle, as if to establish a hold so tight it could not be torn asunder.

For the first time, Avon did not turn Tarrant over before he entered him, but pushed him onto his back, positioning him as he himself had lain under Tarrant a few nights previous. Avon's gaze never left his face, as if he felt looking away would cause Tarrant, and these last moments together, to disappear.

Tarrant felt the same. Always before, he'd closed his eyes during some point in their lovemaking, if just for a moment or two. Not this time. If he kept his eyes open, maybe it wouldn't end, said a superstitious, hopeful voice in his mind. Maybe.

But it ended all too soon, with desperation and agony the aphrodisiacs driving them prematurely to completion. Tarrant wrapped his legs around Avon's waist as they both cried out with despair and pleasure in the same breath, both faces contorted, both sets of hands clenching over pliant flesh to keep the moment, clutch it to them...

And then it was gone, with nothing left but a vast emptiness where there should have been satiated contentment.

After a long silence, Avon withdrew, rolling off of him. He lay still for another moment, eyes fixed on the ceiling, then said in the neutral voice reserved for funerals of distant acquaintances, "Go to sleep, Tarrant. You need to be fit to pilot in the morning."

And, since anything seemed better than awareness in this empty reality, he did.

*

Tarrant dreamed.

Dreamed that someone was stroking his face, pushing tendrils of hair off his forehead. The fingers felt deft, tender, sensuous.

Dreamed that he lifted his eyelashes ever so slightly to find Avon propped on one elbow, watching him sleep, his expression sad and remote as a death mask in a ancient cathedral.

Dreamed that he wanted to reach out and tell Avon that it would be all right, all right if only, if only...

Dreamed that his eyelids closed and he fell helplessly back into the abyss of sleep without being able to utter the words.

Dreamed...

*

He woke up again slowly, finding it still to be night, finding himself somehow on top of Avon, skin sliding sensuously against skin, the slight dappling of hair on Avon's chest rasping seductively against his nipples. Both of them were already erect, their cocks caught between their bodies in delicious torment.

The other man's eyes opened a moment after his own, dark and unreadable in the dim light.

"Avon?" He needn't say yes, probably wouldn't say yes, with no excuse to offer himself for yielding. But Tarrant thought he'd go mad if Avon didn't say...

"Yes."

This time Avon reached for the lubricant and put it on Tarrant's cock himself, his fingers fumbling a bit in his haste and their mutual desperation. And when Tarrant entered him, they both groaned as one and froze, trying to hold onto to the handful of moments, to hide in the darkness before the harsh dawn just a few hours distant now.

But again, it was too hard and too fast and too quickly over. And sleep sucked them down and wouldn't let them out again until daylight and reality had flooded the room.

*

The morning had a curious sense of unreality to it, as if this were just another dream, a nightmare from which Tarrant kept hoping he might wake.

Caught in the sense of numbness, Tarrant dressed, his own clothes feeling odd and a bit bulky after the days of wearing Fargonean bodysuits. As he dressed, he found bruises on his upper arms and shoulders and hips where Avon had clutched at him the night before, and knew that Avon'd body must bear similar marks from his own fingers.

At least those bruises were on the outside and produced very little pain, compared to the other marks he'd carry back with him from Fargone.

Tarrant ate breakfast without tasting the food, said farewell to Lieesb Rowan without hearing a word said to him or by him...and found himself on Scorpio, his surroundings seeming almost strange, as though they'd been away from the ship for months rather than merely days.

Avon took his place with the movements of an automation, going through his part of the pre-flight checks, his face as remote as that of a day-old corpse. The Fargoneans had moved Scorpio into takeoff position and fed the flight plan into the computers the afternoon before. "Ready?"

"Ready." Tarrant took his own position, hands roaming reflexively over the controls. He concentrated on his checks, trying not to look at Avon. Remember, from now on he's only a crewmate. No more than that. Remember. He'll be no more than a crewmate ever again.

"Lifting off." Tarrant's fingers tightened on the controls, and Scorpio began to rise as smoothly as if Tarrant wanted to leave, as if he wanted to see the fields of Fargone blur into a haze of green and gold, like an illusion fading back into the mist from which it had come.

Remember.