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A Christmas Canto

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A Christmas Canto

Blake was dead, to begin with.

Probably.

He'd heard it on the highest - if not the most reliable - authority, hadn't he? And it wasn't as if the Supreme Commander/Empress/ whatever she had been at the time (he had a problem remembering every time her self-bestowed titles changed) had had any reason to lie. At least not about that.

So Blake was dead.

Probably.

He dragged his thoughts away from that fraying circle again, and back to the confused tangle of outer world affairs, and the niceties of using a pack of violent, treacherous, vainglorious warlords while keeping them from cutting each others throats and his...

To fight the Federation - to fight Blake's fight - he would have to deal with these creatures. A thin thread of mockery twisted through his thoughts - that he, of all people, was playing politics and dancing with diplomacy - but he pushed it aside and tried to concentrate. Concentration wouldn't come, and finally he pushed the papers aside and left for the upper levels where the others were.

The lower corridors were badly and unevenly lit. None of them liked the lower levels of Xenon, some even lower than that room, but they could be used for storage, and for the times he preferred to be alone.

"And you prefer it too often now." A soft breath of thought, almost like Cally...

He stopped, forced that thought away with practiced ease, and went on again, through the oddly winding, oddly shadowed pathways that veered off uncomfortably into darker passages leading downwards again or nowhere at all, always cold and strangely awry, like the madman Dorian's mind. Avon paused, unthinking for half a minute, feeling... for a moment, almost feeling someone there. Someone who...

No. It was gone and he turned away towards the stairwell and the light.

The illumination in the crew lounge was warm, almost flickering, as soft as firelight. Vila had obviously been describing something to the other three, waving a glass of something probably as virulent tasting as it looked. Soolin, curled up on the nearest chair, watched the weaving glass with expressionless caution and moved out of the way of splashes; Dayna sat on the carpet, fiddling with something that might have been decorative or deadly, or both; Tarrant was sprawled on a couch, long legs propped on a table, gazing down into his jade-green drink with limpid eyes and the look, somewhere between indulgent and condescending, that he kept for Vila's more creative flights of fancy.

"Well," he looked up at Avon's arrival and smiled a little too graciously, "welcome back, Avon. We were beginning to wonder if you'd sealed yourself down there."

"Horrible place." Vila shuddered. "Don't know why we have to keep those levels open anyway."

"No one is making you go down there, Vila." Dayna spoke with abstracted good humour, still twisting glittering filaments around her long fingers. "Afraid of ghosts?"

"'Course I am, the last one we met was nasty."

"Well, there are no ghosts on Xenon," Tarrant said lazily. "Even Dorian wouldn't bother haunting somewhere as dull as this."

"I don't mind dull."

"We know. But I do. Come on, Avon." Tarrant waved a hand at the empty seats opposite. "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow, we... oh," his voice took on innocence like an insult, "I forgot. None of us know what we're doing tomorrow, do we Avon? Except you. Maybe. And you're not about to tell us - again."

"So we're doing it ourselves," Vila said with hard-edged cheer. "Christmas."

"Chris- oh, one more of your self-proclaimed holidays. No, Vila."

"Yes, Vila. Tomorrow's going to be Christmas, whether you like it or not."

"As I recall, from that over-enthusiastic but refreshingly fact-free study you undertook, Christmas was annual. Not just held whenever people felt like eating too much and getting drunk."

Vila grinned crookedly. "You say that as if it's something bad."

"And it is no more than an empty name now, a meaningless word. You do not even know what date it should be held on."

"Neither does anyone else."

"So tomorrow's as good as any other day," Dayna said.

"Well," Soolin added, "it's actually the present High Admiral of the Galactic Fleets' birthday, and the anniversary of the Benevolent Annexation of the Inner Worlds. Oh yes, and on Earth it's a compulsory Day of Thanksgiving for the many joys of life under Federation rule. But for some reason, we don't feel like celebrating those."

Tarrant nodded. "Since you're not about to suggest anything more interesting - are you?" and his eyes glittered with something not quite hostile, "the rest of us will do our best to bring some of these fine old traditions to life for Vila."

"Will you." Not a question. "As you wish. Just remember that to Vila, a tradition is anything he talked - us - into more than twice."

"Us..? Careful, Avon," Vila crooned. "You nearly said his name again."

"Him," Tarrant added, "being your late and loudly unlamented leader, correct?"

"Unlamented by some, perhaps." Vila's mood changed suddenly, and he turned his face away. "Leave it, Tarrant, you wouldn't understand."

"It would be hard for me to do so, if I had to depend on Avon to explain. But cheer up, Vila," holding out the bottle, "at least you still have us."

"I have," Vila lifted his eyes, and stared straight at Avon without expression, "haven't I?"

Avon was silent for a moment, then shrugged. "Just ensure that you are all fully recovered within two - oh," with a sweet, feral smile, "very well, three days. And don't expect me to become involved."

Vila shrugged. "Never noticed that you did by choice. Let me guess, you have work to do."

"If we are to survive, we must have allies. Five against the galaxy..." He stopped, seeing the look in the thief's eyes. "It did not work for him, Vila, it will not work for us. I do not intend to follow that path." He inclined his head slightly, coldly mocking. "But don't let me interrupt your festivities."

He turned and walked out.

"Can anyone think of a way we can make him join in?" Tarrant said after a moment. "Short of at gunpoint, that is."

"Or a reason to want him to?" Soolin crooked an eyebrow at him.

"The spectre at the feast he may be, but he is our spectre." Tarrant shrugged. "And I've never seen him drunk, but the mental picture is appealing."

"Have you, Vila?" Dayna spoke idly.

"Once or twice, yeah."

"Must have been a sight. When?"

"First time we did this Christmas bit. And," Vila frowned, "possibly the second. Don't recall any other time... he's got a harder head for it than you'd think."

"And my bet is he's a mean drunk." Soolin sat down opposite him.

"No... pretty good, actually. Not exactly a happy drunk -"

"That I can believe."

"But sort of mellow. It worked, you see," he went on mournfully. "Christmas. The first time. The six of us... probably 'cause Blake and Ca-Cally," he gulped, and avoided everyone's eyes, "and Gan, they all loved giving. And Jenna, and me, and Avon, we all loved getting." He looked up at Tarrant's crack of laughter. "S'true. Avon always joined in for that part of it. Probably wanted Blake to give him the Liberator."

"Which he did in the end."

"But Avon never knocked back any other stuff. Blake always had the knack of knowing what he'd - what we'd all - like..."

"You do miss him," Soolin said almost gently. "Blake."

"Yeah. I do. I miss Blake, I miss Cally and I miss Blake's and Cally's Avon."

"I see." Tarrant looked at him curiously, then held out the bottle. "And sometimes I wish I'd even met Blake's and Cally's Avon. Have another drink."


Avon had taken over Dorian's huge bedroom when they first took the base, for all of three nights, but for some reason he didn't care to think about, sleeping there proved impossible; it was now used for storing anything they never used but that Vila didn't want to discard. Avon had moved into a smaller, very bare room that - by no coincidence - was closer to the outer doors than the others' rooms and - by even less than no coincidence - did not have a communication screen. Just a small, barred window, through which he could see black sky and two palely glittering stars.

He turned down the lights and sat on the bed, staring down at his hands. Christmas... damn Vila. Damn Vila to every perdition he could think of. Had he thought straight and soberly for a month, he could hardly have come up with something less convenient and more awkward. And too close to uncomfortably painful.

"Presents," he muttered, as much to break the silence as for any other purpose. "And drink. Simple pleasure for simple minds, and all just now because -" He broke off, unwilling to think past that 'because', unable not to.

He realised that he was rubbing his hands together, slowly but with a fierce pressure, as if trying to rub the skin away.

None of it mattered now.

None of it matters.

He pushed away the question of what did matter. Pulling off his jacket and tossing it on a chair, he picked up Orac's key and crossed to the little computer sitting idly on the desk.

"Well, Orac?"

The familiar hum broke the silence. "How many times must I remind you -"

"That 'well' is not a question. At least a few more times before this is over. Has you heard any more from Zukan yet?"

"Unfortunately, all too much." The warlord of Betafarl, the most important - and irritating - of those they had decided to approach about an alliance, had proved both slow to respond and inclined to suspicion. His stream of questions and conditions had taken up rather more of Orac's time and patience than expected, even by Avon. "And in far more words than at all necessary. How long must I waste my time on this?"

"For as long as it takes. What was his answer?"

"He is considering the proposal but wants more details, more proof, more names. He wants to come here."

"No." The word was jerked out of Avon, in animal instinct. For a hairsbreadth moment, he felt someone at his back - no. No one there. Just shadows that pooled in the corners and gathered at the doorway.

"Do you want me to relay that to him?" Orac said with something uncannily like a sniff.

"What? No. No, I'll have to consider..." He sighed. "Give me the worst, then - no. First, what of the other matter?"

"You mean Vila's instructions on tomorrow's frivol -"

"No. I do not. As you know full well."

"Very well, what of it?"

"Orac..."

"There is nothing new to tell or I would have done so. I have traced him from Jevron -"

"So he was there. That much was true."

"To Despal Minor. There the trail ends again. And given that you are demanding an inordinate amount of my attention for the petty details of the conference, I would suggest that there are better uses of what little is left than -"

"No, Orac." He laid one hand on the smooth casing. "You will keep searching as instructed. And anything about him takes absolute priority."

"It will not always be possible to ensure the others do not learn of this."

"It will. You will see to it. It is nothing to do with them."

"They may disagree."

"They will not disagree, because you will not discuss it with them. Is that clear?" Without waiting for an answer, he pulled out the key and half-dropped, half-threw it into a corner, the clatter hollow in the silence, oddly echoing like light, cold laughter. He tensed... forced himself to relax...

And then recalled that he had asked for the details of Zukan's message.

Stop it. He closed his eyes, one part of his mind blankly confused, the other as skittish as the local felines. Something in the air tonight - worse than usual - and there'd be nightmares as payment, or memories as bad as nightmares. Vila and his damned Christmas, of course. I should stop it. Order it stopped. Make them...

And then they'd ask why. Or he would. Not that I have to answer.

Not that there's anything to answer.

Opening his eyes again, he looked around for the key, and stilled, breath catching.

The darkness by the door seemed to contract and swirl and form into the slender blue-clad shape of a woman. A woman whose face he hadn't thought of in years.

Avon smiled. Somehow, he wasn't even surprised.

"Jenna."

"Hello, Avon," she said in a light, attenuated voice, like a sigh. "You look quite well."

"I'm sorry, I can't say the same. You look..." He paused, gazing at her. The golden hair was as pale as winter sunlight, the skin marble white, the hazel eyes deep and hollow.

"Dead?" She smiled slightly, coolly, as he inclined his head. "I am dead, Avon. Ten weeks dead, as I understand it."

"What is it like?"

"It could be worse."

"That is not precisely reassuring."

"Why, are you planning to die soon?"

"Planning, no. But I have to admit that it becomes increasingly likely."

"I don't think you'll care for it, no. Nor will Vila." She sat opposite him, though there was no chair.

"How did it happen?"

"Does it matter? I took one too many risks," with a flickering smile, "and took the only way out. What else do you want to know?"

"It doesn't matter, does it?" Avon looked away from her.

"Make up your mind, Avon," Jenna said coolly. "If this is a dream, I will say the words you want to hear. If it's a nightmare, I'll say those you're afraid to hear. But which is which?" She paused, staring at him, then went on deliberately. "He's alive, of course."

Avon froze. "He -"

"- Survived Star One, more by luck than anything else. Has survived the years since. Has survived me."

"And has been..."

"As Orac will find out for you. In a lot of places, doing what he could, what he should and what he thought he had to... and now on he is on Gauda Prime."

He closed his eyes, letting go a breath he didn't know he'd held.

"And now you will tell me you have no interest in knowing."

"I will not deny - interest."

"Or that you don't care."

"Ah. That - I see no point in discussing with a figment of my own imagination. Forgive me, Jenna," he inclined his head, "but if talking to myself is a sign of madness, arguing the finer points of my own emotions or lack thereof would come under the heading of embarrassingly insane."

"You don't believe in ghosts. Of course. Even after -"

"Even after - that." He thought back to a tomb in space and a dead alien, and rejected the thought at once. "It had an explanation."

"A distinctly strange one."

"Granted."

"Oh, Avon," she laughed, a dry rustle that still woke memories of her rich, bright laughter, "at times I almost missed you."

"Did you? I'm sure you managed to control the feeling." He bit down on the next question.

"And yes, he misses you too."

"I was not going to ask."

"But you wanted to know."

"I don't know that I believe -"

"He did try to contact you, once or twice, but with no reply."

"I received no contact." Voice too hard, almost hurt.

"I know that, now. It's a big galaxy, after all... and he didn't have Orac or Zen."

"He could have -"

"He tried. And failed. And thought that was what you wanted." She looked up at him with a trace of mischief in her shadowed eyes. "No, you shouldn't have been quite so brutal that last day, should you?"

"Touché." He held up a hand. "Had I known..."

"But this is beside the point."

"Yes." Avon leaned against the edge of the table, looking down at her through half-closed eyes. "If you are neither a dream, a nightmare or a sign of incipient insanity... why are you here?"

"To talk to you. To give you something. A message."

"From -?"

"To be honest, I haven't the faintest idea."

He raised his brows and spoke blandly. "That is very helpful."

"I knew you'd appreciate it," she said. "No, truly, I don't. After all, I don't even know how I'm here... just why."

"Why?"

Jenna stood, the shadows swirling around her. "You're going to have a long night, Avon. Three visitors... spirits, ghosts... whatever." She shrugged. "Don't ask me to explain it. I'm still trying to understand it myself."

"Surprising as it is, Jenna," he said, with a throat suddenly dry, "I find the prospect less than thrilling. Assuming that I believe in either you or them..."

"Which of course you don't. I know." Again, that flickering smile. "But it's needed.

"You are heading for a fall, Avon." She rose and glided towards him and the light, which shone on skin turning sere and translucent over the bones, and on eyes hollowing into emptiness. "And that may be your right, as you have always made painfully clear when I knew you. But it is not your right to take so many with you."

He stiffened, annoyed in spite of himself. "I am not doing anything without their -"

"Vila at least doesn't deserve this, Avon." Her voice was now colder than space. "The others, you can decide better than I, but Vila was one of us and we all did ill enough by him then. I may not understand what is happening to you and yours, but I do know that I want it to stop."

"I've no objection to stopping, thank you," he shot back, "if you have any suggestions on how it can be done. But what is it to do with you?"

"We can't undo what we've done, my - friend. If I could... but no. Regret, as you said, is part of being alive."

"A small part."

"But you have no idea what it is to be dead and still regret." Her voice seemed to come from a long way off. "They don't deserve this, Avon. He doesn't deserve this and," a pause, a twist of thinning lips, "neither do you, I suppose. Enough. You will hear from the first soon.

"Oh, and Avon," she was very close to him now, a skeletal mockery of herself. "Dream or no, it is going to hurt. A lot. Which is only fair, I suppose..."

Shockingly afraid for the first time, he pulled away as one gaunt hand reached out and brushed against his throat, with a touch like ice. Jenna smiled, a ghastly, deathshead smile, grasped his face in her hands and kissed him on the lips. Pain as cold as wildfire shot through him.

Pain - in a dream? Not possib - His thoughts shattered, and he stumbled and fell back against the bed.


The intercom chimed once, twice. Lying against the bed, fighting off the odd, harsh shivers that racked him, he ignored it at first. It chimed again, and Dayna, never willing to wait, called over the noise. "Avon, are you all right?"

He look up - and froze. A small, fat little man was now sitting cross-legged on the bed, watching him with round, gooseberry pale eyes.

"Avon!"

"You'd best answer her," the little man said in a mild, high voice. "If she turns that screen on, you might find me rather difficult to explain."

"Who are you?" he whispered.

"You have forgotten?"

A brief, sharp memory scrabbled at the back of his mind. "Freedom City," he said faintly. "Speed chess. You were -"

"The one your friend took to a draw, yes." The Klute nodded. "Or rather, no."

"Wonderful," Avon muttered, one hand going to his bruised, cold lips. "Well, at least my memory is not going, even if my mind is. Let us get on with it. What is it you -?"

"Avon?" Dayna's voice interrupted again, growing impatient.

Still staring at the man on his bed, Avon reached over to the intercom. "It's all right, Dayna. A slight accident."

"Do you need anything?"

"To be left alone, if you must -" He bit back the words. "No. Thank you. Go to bed, Dayna. Vila's festival nonsense tomorrow will be hard enough to stay awake through, as it is."

"Oh, but it sounds -"

"Yes. It always did, when Vila said it. Good night, Dayna." He flicked the intercom off. "Now," with deliberate, poisonously polite reason, "you were explaining that you are not who you quite obviously are. Do go on."

"I just took the image from your mind," the - man? he was so solid and mildly, unblinkingly imperturbable - said. "I don't have to be him, Avon, there are more than enough other possibilities." The body seemed to contract and dissolve into one taller and more slender, pretty and dreadfully familiar...

"NO!" Avon jerked away, flinging up a hand to hide his eyes, hearing his own cry almost from a distance.

There was a silence, then that sweet, almost fragile voice. "Why not, Avon?"

"Go. Away."

"Is there someone else, then?"

"The other will do."

There was a silence, brief and as cold as the grave, and then it was blessedly the Klute's voice again. "Very well."

Slowly, Avon lowered his hand and stared at the little man. "Better," he said, no emotion in his voice. "All right, this is a dream. A very - detailed - bad - dream. What part of it do you play?"

"I am just a guide. Ghost, apparition, part of yourself, even," with a high, humourless laugh, "the result of your pilot's rather strange attempt at Betafarl cuisine. Call me what you like."

"I would like to wake up, preferably before this goes any further." Avon pulled himself up to sit on the bed. "But I've had enough nightmares to know that I won't. A guide to what?"

"Time past. A spirit of the past."

"How interesting. And the purpose of all this?"

The Klute smiled suddenly, not-quite-humanly. "If I'm a dream, Kerr Avon, then you should answer that."

"True."

"And you can't. Not yet. Makes it uncomfortable for you, doesn't it?" The Klute's smile broadened at the silence. "You don't like this at all."

Avon shrugged. "I'm sure I'll have had worse than you can provide. At least I know this is not real."

"Yes..? Then," with a clap of fat little hands, "let us get on with it, shall we?"

Darkness swept over them, a moment before Avon felt those little hands grab his firmly. He tried to pull back, but the hands were surprisingly strong, and he was pulled off his feet and fell again...

Into nothingness, stung by a wind as cold as the Albian polar winds. Vaguely aware that the hands were holding him up, Avon dimly heard a voice - high, childish - singing.

"All fall down... all fall down..."

A flash of light, his sight fracturing and coming together, as revellers crowded into an astroturf park, swarming around artificial trees with garlands and sparkling plastic baubles, and tables filled with brilliantly coloured food and flowers. Some sort of festival in the Domes of Earth, just as he'd watched long ago, from a safe distance, from a high, narrow window in a pale, cool room.

A small, mousy man darted in and out of the crowd - even fleetingly, Avon could see his busy, greedy hands. He looked up, winked, and tossed a bauble into the air.

And Soolin coolly shot it, the pieces falling slowly into Cally's hands and turning into tinselly streamers that Tarrant scooped up and held out to Gan, who threw them with a laugh over Vila's head, as Jenna and Dayna lit candles that threw burnished gold lights across them all, the colour of Zen's lights, brighter and more golden and harsher and colder and blinding...

There was a screech of sound in his mind, like rusted metal being forced. The black-edged glittering blur again, and everyone was gone.

He was staring down at one bloodied, beaten man, strapped into a machine, staring into space with deadened horror in his burnt-honey eyes as electrodes were placed by impersonally uncruel hands to his head.

As from a distance, Avon heard his own soft, caught sound of pain.

"Time to die, Blake," a muted voice, almost gentle. "At least in mind. Was it worth it?"

The bruised lips twisted, but no sound came out.

"No, probably not," the voice went on. "Do you know what day it is? You have to know, we chose it especially for you." The hands rested lightly, fleetingly on his temples, then moved up to the machine above him and hovered over a switch.

Blake's eyes closed.

"It's Remembrance Day..."

A click, a hiss - and the darkness swallowed them as Blake screamed.


He was standing at the doorway to the flight deck, gazing down...

It was the Liberator. The flight deck of the Liberator.

Sprawled lazily on the couch, one arm flung back, Blake had that familiar half-smile on his lips as he listened to the others. It took a moment for the others to register, till Avon could hear Vila's lively chatter, Jenna's retorts, Gan's laughter, till the sounds formed into words.

And Vila's words came to him slowly at first. "... Straight out of my dreams, came to me in a flash of inspiration. What better present for tired rebels than a month - all right," at Blake's raised eyebrow, "fortnight - week? - at a rest centre?"

"Vila, even you would be bored in a month," Jenna said.

"Impossible. Not a chance. Absolutely not. In any case, it'd be a better way to get bored than sitting here on the flight deck watching Zen try out new patterns and Avon try out new insults. Blake?"

"I agree, Vila."

"You do?"

"Oh, yes." The laughter deepened in Blake's voice. "We wouldn't get bored within a month. We'd get arrested within five days."

"Oh, but if you've got the money, and you know we have -! "

"Vila, even to finally see whether you can overdose on pleasure, we are not going to bankrupt the treasure room in one day."

"But it's Christmas!"

"Only because you talked us into it," Gan said. "Yes, we heard Orac. Season of peace and goodwill and charity to all, especially the less fortunate like yourself."

"Said everything you told him," Jenna added. "And we'd like to know how you talked him into it."

"Now that's not fair -"

"Vila," Blake interrupted. "I'll make a deal with you. Find some way to spread those feelings of peace and goodwill through Space Command, and I'll think about it. Otherwise..." He stood and half-turned - to face the door where Avon and the Klute were.

Avon stepped back a pace involuntarily, as Blake stared straight at him.

"He can't see you," the Klute said calmly.

"I gathered that."

"Otherwise," Blake went on lightly, "you'll have to make do with what's in the treasure room or what you've already squirreled away. Oh, and by the way, no, you cannot have a bonfire on board. Before you ask."

"I wasn't going to!" Vila spoke with the round-eyed, virtuous indignation of someone lying through their teeth.

"My apologies."

"But it is part of the tradition."

"Tell Zen that."

"Zen doesn't understand the concept of having fun." Vila grinned. "Understands it better than Avon, of course. But that isn't difficult."

"That's true," Jenna purred. "How are you going to get him to agree to this, Blake?"

Something glittered in Blake's eyes and was gone. "He'll agree," he said quietly.

"Only if he thinks it'll be worth it." She shook his head. "It'll need to be worth a great deal. What are you planning to give him then, the ship or just the treasure room?"

"Neither. The treasure's not mine to give, in any case." Blake watched the thief through half-closed eyes and waited ten seconds before blandly going on. "But I could give him Vila's share, if Vila likes."

Vila choked. Before he could retort, the intercom chimed and Blake crossed to the console.

"Blake." The voice was like an ice-water shock, cool and precise, but with less of the cut-glass tension that Avon knew radiated from him nowadays. "I need your help with those calibrations you asked for. That is, unless I'm interrupting the vital plans for your latest idiocy."

"Not Blake's," Vila said cheerfully. "Mine."

"That will make all the difference."

Jenna spoke sweetly. "Looking forward to this, aren't you, Avon?"

"Actually, yes," the voice went on drily. "At least if we're celebrating an archaic and incomprehensible festival, we're not performing one of Blake's over-elaborate suicide rituals for the great and glorious cause of freedom. Blake, are you coming or not?"

"Yes, yes, I'm coming." Blake flicked off the intercom, flashed a twisted grin at the others and set off towards the teleport.

"Well, he's going to be a bundle of cheer," Vila muttered. "Can't we drop him off at an asteroid first?"

"We could," Jenna leaned back against her console, "but I think Blake might get annoyed."

Gan stretched comfortably. "Avon will be all right."

"Oh, yeah, he'll be wonderful. Maybe we can get him drunk and decorate him with the sugar missel-doo things. Then the girls have to kiss him. They'll love..." Vila paused, glancing with blatantly false alarm at Jenna's blatantly false glower, then grinned. "Or maybe we should get me drunk and decorated. Have to think about it. I'd better go and see how Zen's doing with the - oh, hi, Cally - just going to see a computer about some stuff..."

Cally stared after him for a moment, then turned and raised her eyebrows at the others. "Was that meant to make sense?"

"Probably not." Jenna shrugged. "It's his party."

"That is part of what worries me."

"Part?" Gan was looking straight at Cally. "What's the matter?"

She hesitated, then sat beside him with a half-laugh, half-sigh. "Humans. I know you are one of them, Gan, but I have to admit, understanding them -"

"Some of them."

"All of them, actually," she said seriously. "It is very much easier choosing presents for someone whose mind you can read."

Gan's laughter was rumbling, comfortable. "Let me guess, you can't think what to give our computer genius."

"Avon, yes - or Vila."

"Oh, Vila will give you something nice and pretty and probably absolutely useless," Gan said cheerfully, "and will like anything you give him, anything at all. A bottle of Lindorian sherry will do fine, especially if you give him a kiss to go with it."

"Do you think so? After all," with a spark of mischief, "there's this miss'll-doo story, whatever it means. He has the food processing units trying to create it."

"He read somewhere that you use it to get kisses. I'm not sure exactly how it is supposed to work or how it will taste, though." Gan laughed. "And Avon is probably having more problems than you; he's an Alpha, and Alphas don't give presents."

"Not at all?" Cally looked at Jenna in surprise.

"Not at all," the pilot said coolly. "Higher grades on Earth give presents of cold cash, carefully calculated so that everyone knows just how valued they are." She grimaced. "It's what I'm used to as well."

"So what will you do?"

Jenna shrugged, a touch of colour on her face. "The best I can, of course, and probably get it not - quite - right. Avon -?" She shrugged again.

Gan interrupted, giving her a moment to recover. "I have no idea either, to tell the truth. Computer tools he particularly wants himself, maybe." He paused and his voice changed. "Blake will give us each something of his own, something he cares about. I'm sure of it. And Avon will probably mock him for it."

But I didn't, Avon shook his head as if to stop thinking. If this was a dream, it was an annoyingly detailed one.

He remembered that morning too well. The flight deck had been softened and warmed by dancing, brightly coloured laser light - Blake's surprise, a holographic bonfire he'd ordered Orac to program - and they'd all been oddly self-conscious in their giving. Jenna had given him a heavy, sweet-smelling and exorbitantly costly brandy from one of the tropical worlds - not quite my taste, no. She was right there - and Vila had dug up the gaudiest studded belt in the wardrobe room and wrapped it around one of the silliest, most addictive board games he'd ever come across. From Gan, some engineering tools the man had found in one of the holds and that no one ever learned how to use. And from Cally, a strangely pointless - if attractive - piece of artwork she'd found in her own search of the ship. He couldn't recall what he'd given them all, and didn't much care.

Vila and Jenna had been leading the massed argument with Zen over the need for less ornate and 'dismal' music than Orac had stipulated, when Blake had strolled over to him, quietly dropping the tiny package onto his console with a wry "Try not to take this too personally, my friend."

Too personally? Avon's hand now went to his throat, and a finger twisted around a thin silver chain, brushed against a small, badly worn medallion. I didn't know how to.

As if on cue, the scene changed subtly, the warm light of the flight deck sparkling and glowing with the laser-light bonfire, dancing over the remains of the startling array of foodstuffs that Vila and Gan had come up with. In spite of himself, Avon felt his lips twitch at the memory - the visually off-putting but delicious something that was Zen's attempt at roast boar's head, real - if rather strange - vegetables and fruit, eggs made of faux-chocolate candy, and sugar in so many disguises that even Gan had ended up feeling sick.

And a hot soma and cream mixture that Vila had called wassail. It had tasted extremely strange, but they'd drunk it anyway and spent three days recovering. He could see the bowl, empty of drink and filled with pseudo-plastic-crystal cups. Next to it was one of the sugary concoctions, a rainbow coloured sweet in the shape of a star.

Blake was alone, standing over Orac and gripping the edges of the translucent casing with such force that his fingers were white.

"Are you - sure -?" he said finally. His voice was quite steady, unslurred by Vila's vile concoction. Avon suddenly realised, without knowing why, that Blake had not been drinking that day - and that they hadn't even noticed.

"Of course I am certain," Orac said testily.

"Then we can do it. Go for Central Control." Blake's voice softened, his tired eyes gleaming. "Get this damn thing over with."

"You can. You will need assistance from an Earth faction, of course, which will take some time to arrange."

"You'd better get started on finding one, then. Contact Avalon, she may be able -"

"That will not be possible," Orac interrupted blandly.

"Why not?"

"Information from Sector Three has been received. Avalon was killed three days ago."

"Killed -"

"That is what I said."

"But - how?"

Orac almost seemed to hesitate. "It was, apparently, an accident. The planet she was currently on is a neutral world and they were indulging in some sort of celebration. There was a fire." Blake was silent, eyes closing; his fingers tightened on the casing until a thin stain of blood appeared. "The local authorities made a positive identification."

"No." The barest whisper. "No. Not when we... it isn't fair."

"Fairness is hardly a rational concept. You of all people should know that."

"Shut up, Orac."

Blake pulled the key, and stood staring at it for a long moment, and spoke gently, as if reciting. "Too many of my friends are dead, Cally..."

"Somethin' wrong, Blake?" Another voice broke the stillness, as Vila weaved onto the flight deck, clutching an ornate and half-empty bottle.

That's right. I gave him my second-best starwine. What a waste.

"Hasn't you - sorry. Haven't you," Vila went on carefully, "had a good day? Wanted you to have a good day, I really did."

Avon watched as Blake visibly pulled everything inside, and fixed a slight, almost natural smile to his lips. "Oh, it was good, Vila. We'll do it again sometime."

"Yeah? How soon?"

"Try and recover from this one, and then ask me. How are the others?"

"Jenna's s'sleep. So's Cally... Gan..." Vila thought about it, then nodded slightly as he fell onto the couch. "Let me - think. Oh yes, Gan's s'sleep too."

"And Avon?"

"Avon's... s'working in the computer room. Pretending he's not falling 'sleep too."

The smile softened a little, touched with real humour. "Not admitting he's drunk? How surprising... I'd better go and talk to him."

"Wan' me to stay and watch?"

Blake looked down at him. "Orac and Zen can manage. They are the only one of us in any condition to do so. Did you have the Christmas you wanted, Vila?"

"Ohhhh yeah," Vila slid down a little, cradling the bottle. "What's not to want? Presents, lots of presents and drink and good - well, pretty good food. An' presents." His eyelids drooped and he began to mumble. "Thanks for the thing'majig, Blake - all of the thing'majigses - an' I'll thank you prop'ly when I'm sober 'nough to remember what they were."

"I'll wait."

"'Tisn't really Christmas, of course," Vila went on sleepily. "Might be, I s'pose. But there's no fun to be had in things like Rem'brance Day, is there? So I -"

Blake froze. "What?"

"Rem...membrance Day. You know, officially. Approved by his bloody Presidential Highness. Was the nearest real holiday but I didn't..." His voice faded as he stared at Blake, seeing the man's sudden, shocking pallor. "Blake? Whass wrong? I din' mean to upset -"

"Nothing." Blake shook his head. "I'm not sure, just that name - no. Nothing. I don't remember." He turned back and slid the key into Orac's casing again. "Orac, get on with what I asked for, and keep watch till someone sober comes on to the flight deck."

"And how long will that be?"

"Hours, probably. Oh, and delete all the recipes you've collected for Vila's wassail."

"This is after I spent days following his trivial instructions, days far better spent -"

"Just do it." The edge of the deep voice shut Orac up, and Blake turned and left.

Vila watched him go, eyes half-closed. Slowly he lifted the bottle, in wavering salute. "To you, then, Blake..."

Again, that dark-edged haze, and a voice through the darkness. "Avon, for what it is worth, I have always trusted you... for what it is worth... for what it cost... for what it could be sold for..."

He pressed his hands to his ears and the voice died into silence.

When the darkness cleared, Vila was still there, sitting in the same place, the same bottle in his hand - but alone. Somehow, Avon knew that this was later, much later - after the War.

"To Avon," Vila said, the weary bitterness in his voice like a curse. "And to Cally and Dayna and Space Captain Tarrant. To President Servalan, may she get gangrene in that lump of dead meat she calls a heart. To Sula-bloody-Chesku-bloody-Anna-Grant, may she rot in an afterlife full of snakes and scorpions like herself. And to you, Blake, wherever you damn well are, when we damn well need you here."

He put it to his lips, drank the dregs in one swallow and lay back against the pillows.

Avon walked across, staring down at him, really looking at him for the first time in over a year. He vaguely recalled this, recalled walking in and finding the man almost dead drunk and the empty bottle clutched in one hand.

From a distance, like a bad recording, Avon heard other voices, Jenna's hard, angry tone, and a man he didn't know...

"Will Blake be all right?"

"No, Deva, but what difference does that make? He'll do what he has to if it kills him."

"It nearly did."

In the back of his mind, like an equally warped memory of something he had never seen, a strange, darkened flight deck. Blake was slumped at the controls, unconscious, face half-turned towards them and blood pouring from a long gash from his eye to the corner of his mouth.

"What -?" Avon took a half-step, and realised he was still on the Liberator as the memory-picture faded. "Of course. A dream within a dream, and dreams can change..."

"It is your dream, Avon, or so you say," the Klute said from behind him. "But no, it hasn't changed. Since you seem to be interested, it is now eight months since Star One was destroyed, and three since you chose to believe him gone for good."

"It was the only reasonable conclusion."

The Klute smiled, his lips stretching over sharp little teeth. "And Blake has just received the gift of another betrayal. He is learning distrust rather fast these days, I'm afraid."

"Afraid? Why?" Avon said coldly. "It was high time something taught him more caution."

"Perhaps."

Avon shook his head. "This is pointless, even for a dream. His welfare is no longer my concern, it ceased from the time he left the Liberator. So why..."

"Come, Avon, this is also your post-parting bequest to him."

"What do you mean?"

"Think back, Avon." The pop-eyed gaze slid away from him. "President Servalan has just escaped from the plot to depose her for a People's Council, led by Sula Chesku. Escaped with some assistance."

He could hear those voices again, the unknown man and Jenna, from somewhere behind or above or below, echoing in his mind.

"... But Jenna, we've heard rumours that the Liberator was seen..."

"He won't believe that of them, and never of Avon. He gave Avon more trust than he'll ever give either of us."

"Pity your Avon never knew the value of it. Blake may have to believe."

"He won't."

"You know the story," the Klute went on. "You helped write the story. Blake nearly made it to Earth this time, but when the coup failed, Jenna's 'friend', whom she'd persuaded him to trust, tried to turn him in to save himself. Not unheard of."

"No. Not unheard of."

"Blake and Jenna escaped - more or less, as you can see. Others, new and good friends, didn't. Oh," putting up one pudgy hand, "he never learned that you had been at the Presidential Palace that day. Jenna and the man Deva kept it to themselves. But it helped to convince him not to trust again. To be as cautious as you had always wanted him to be."

Avon looked at Vila again, then turned away, eyes closing in spite of himself, that other picture haunting him. "Blake did need to learn that. I would rather not have it done like this, but he did need it."

"Jenna, he has to disappear again, even more so."

"I know, I know. We'll find somewhere safe, I'll talk to him." A pause. "I'll make him listen. He has a problem with trust, Deva."

"I know, he still tries to give it."

"And he can't afford to any more."

Opening his eyes again, Avon found himself staring at Vila's limp, miserable, drunken face.

"He started drinking more after this, didn't he?" the Klute asked blandly. "Not dangerously so. Not yet. But more."

"Yes," Avon held up a hand, "and I did nothing to stop it. I was not, am not, his keeper."

"If you say so."

"Nor Blake's."

"If you say so."

"As you said, my dream. And I have had enough..."

"I agree. For now." The Klute clapped his hands again, and they were back in Avon's bedroom, the little man again sitting cross-legged on the bed. "You were lucky, Avon."

"Lucky -?"

"They were good people, each of them, every one. Unusually good, for this time and place. As you knew quite well."

Avon shrugged, relaxing with something of an effort. "They were sentimental idiots. Proven by the way they let themselves be led by a ruthless and sentimental idiot. Who," he half-turned, staring at Orac balefully, "seems to have known about Avalon long before he chose to tell the rest of us."

"Except that this is just a dream. But talk to Orac in the morning, Avon. Maybe he can tell you how well your dream tallies with the facts. Unless," with a sudden, high laugh, "Orac is dreaming too. Can you even believe that, before you believe in us?" A silence. "Think about it..."

And with another laugh, the little man was gone.


"Come on, my friend. There's no time for sleeping tonight."

The voice was even less familiar, elderly but almost spry. Avon opened his eyes and stared up at the old man for a moment. "Nebrox."

"That's me." The old man nodded cheerfully. "Or rather, it's -"

"Not you. I know." Avon sat up, trying to recall when he had lain down in the first place. "I must have Orac change my sleeping draught, if this is the result." Nebrox turned his head and stared pointedly at the untouched glass beside the bed. "Nevertheless, since I doubt I can rid myself of you any other way, what do you want?"

"I'm just a spirit guide, Avon. A spirit of times present, can I say?"

"You can, if it will get this finished any faster."

"Ah, cooperation. I do like that, it's rare enough in these times. Speaking of which," putting out one hand and capturing Avon's wrist, "your crew have had quite a busy evening..."

The crew lounge again, with the light sparkling and dancing off what looked like hand-made garlands, and gleaming from glittering ribbons draped in untidy piles. Avon hesitated at the threshold, aware of Nebrox's hand holding him still, preventing him from stepping into the room.

Vila was stirring a steaming, malevolent mixture in a bowl, talking to Soolin, who was peeling some of the local fruit and eating as many as she put aside; Tarrant, again on the couch, was rummaging through piles of what passed for Xenon greenery and throwing half-serious orders at Dayna, who seemed to be threatening him with some of her garlands.

Soolin's voice came from a distance. "What on earth are you concocting there, Vila?"

"S'called wassail - well, as near as I can get to wassail. I fancy getting drunk and decorated with candy missel-doo leaves."

"Never heard of it."

"That's what I was counting on."

"What have you put in there?"

"Umm... Dorian's not-so-good brandy, mostly. And eggs, cream, sugar, a few other things, some of the spices Dayna and Tarrant brought back from Tarl, the less lethal ones."

"And -?" Soolin prompted.

"All right," lowering his voice and glancing across at the pilot, who was untangling the sparkling ribbons Dayna had dropped on his head, "I borrowed that bottle of what Tarrant swore was real earth brandy. Which it wasn't anyway, if you ask me -"

"Actually, I wasn't going to ask. Neither did Tarrant, as I recall."

"No, but who ever does?" There was a flash of bitterness in Vila's voice.

"Listen," Tarrant spoke up before Soolin could answer. "I have an idea for - Dayna," his voice changed, "what are those things?"

Dayna was casually juggling several brightly coloured, oval objects in her hands. "Baubles for the tree we still haven't found."

"They look like -"

"Explosive casings. Yes, that's right." She gave him a wide, almost guileless smile. "Clever, isn't it?"

"What?" Vila had jumped a little and now went pale. "Dayna, this is about fun, remember? Blowing up our own base is not what I think of as fun."

"Shut up, Vila. They're empty, I think they're pretty, and don't any of you ask about the gold and silver streamers either. It's all perfectly safe."

"Can we watch you tell Avon that?" Tarrant asked blandly.

She gave him a warning look. "I wonder how many of your teeth... never mind, you had an idea."

"Yes. Vila, this business of presents."

Vila nodded, still watching Dayna, still a little wary. "Whole point of the exercise."

"Of course," Tarrant agreed, a touch too readily. "But given the amount of time we've had to buy anything -"

"And the total lack of markets on Xenon -" Soolin added.

"I'm assuming that we make do with what we have. So I had this idea: why don't you give each of us something you want, we'll all do the same, then we can all trade afterwards." Tarrant leaned back, smiling, almost as if awaiting applause. "That way, we all get what we want."

Vila frowned slightly. "I give you things of mine that I want, then you give them back?"

"Well, not quite..."

"Yes, quite," Soolin said, a trace of impatience in her voice. "Tarrant, your subtlety underwhelms us."

Tarrant grinned at her. "No, really, didn't Orac say it was the thought that counted?"

"Yes, and that means you have to do some thinking. You do this properly or not at all."

"No, it isn't a bad idea, Soolin," Vila sat down beside her. "We can do it. But I'll give Tarrant something of his that I want, then he can give it back. I like that idea."

Dayna sputtered with laughter. "Oh, yes, please!"

"Vila. That is not -"

"Should we take a vote?" Soolin murmured. "Tarrant, you can be the one to give Avon something of his, then ask for it back."

"All right, all right, you win." The pilot paled a little at the idea. "But don't complain if you don't like what you get."

Vila shook his head with mock sorrow. "Alphas. You have no idea how these things work, do you?"

"Probably not. Do you?"

"More than you for once. Tarrant, my friend," with a grin, "you'll like what I give you. Trust me."

"Never," Tarrant said fervently.

"You will. You have to, whether you do or not. It's traditional. Just ask Orac."

"You mean we pretend to like it."

"Just as we pretend a lot of things these days." There was a slight, sour note to Soolin's voice. "Come on, Tarrant, you at least could use the practice."

"Thank you," he glanced at her sharply, "I think."

Avon had been watching in silence; he now turned to Nebrox. "Is there a point to this?"

"Not much." The old man seemed to be enjoying the scene. "That's what makes it all fun. When was the last time you did something pointless, Avon?"

"Probably less than two weeks ago. However, I doubt I enjoyed it. That appears to be Vila's task in our lives."

Vila had turned back to the bowl of wassail, stirring it enthusiastically. After a moment, Soolin picked up a spoon and dipped it into the bowl.

"Well, Dayna seems to have forgiven him for what happened on Virn," she said softly. "Do you think we should?"

Vila shrugged. "Venial sin. Pretty loathsome one, but what the hell... we're hardly in a position to pick and choose, are we?"

"True." She lifted the spoon to her lips, sipping cautiously; a curious expression, that brought to Avon's mind the expression stunned mullet, crossed her face.

"Time of goodwill, this Christmas is supposed to be. S'what Orac called it, anyway."

"Did it?" Soolin spoke blandly, swirling a finger around the spoon and licking it. "And are you going to forgive Avon for whatever it is you won't tell us about?"

Vila flinched slightly. "Don't -"

"You don't have to tell us, Vila. In fact," popping another golden fruit into her mouth, "it's probably best if you don't. But are you going to forgive him?"

"I'd much rather hate him forever. And live forever so I could."

"But think of it as a perfect Christmas gift for him." Soolin smiled, a sweet, creamy, slightly malicious smile. "And so very inexpensive."

"Oh, they're none of them expensive, Soolin -"

"That's because they're none of them your legal property in any case. Except your forgiveness, which costs so little."

"Maybe costs more than anything." Vila shrugged. "I'll think about it. But not too hard. Maybe this isn't such a good idea, Soolin. Maybe..."

"Maybe not. Tarrant is not your Cally and I am definitely not your Blake." Soolin glanced back at the younger pair; Tarrant had left the lounge and was trying to balance as he fastened iridescent leaves, like huge butterflies, over the video monitor, and Dayna was pinning her streamers to the walls in a gaudy if less than artistic profusion. "But we do our best."

"So why did you agree?"

"You mean, apart from the chance to annoy Avon?" She smiled suddenly, a hint of mischief chasing the old-young hardness from her eyes. "It sounded like fun. And I doubt that there will be much of fun in the near future, or the far future for that matter."

"If we live that long."

"So we may as well have this."

"Do you really think this alliance plan is going to work?"

Soolin shrugged. "Do you?"

"When I'm sober, I can think as positively as the best of you. When I've had a drink, I keep wondering if even Avon believes we can do this. Or..." He spooned up some more of the mixture and swallowed it before continuing, "... if he's just doing all this so that if there is a hell, and we run into Blake and Gan and Cally there, he can at least tell them 'I tried'."

He dipped again. "Which is all very well and nice for him, and for Blake and Gan and Cally, but not nice enough for the rest of us to die for."

Avon was very still for a moment, then relaxed with a visible effort. "Interesting," he said with a creditably detached drawl, "I had no idea Vila had such an imagination."

"He has known you a long time."

"And apparently, he has learned nothing. Now," turning a glare on the old man, "fascinating as this is, I still fail to see its purpose, even as a bad dream. I suppose I now learn what has - I apologise, what is - happening elsewhere at this minute."

"You did not deny interest."

"I do not deny anything. Why should I? This is, after all, a product of my own mind."

"Which begs the question of why you are so interested in his welfare."

"Did I say I was? Let us say, rather, that I am always interested in being proven right. Some people needed to be brought back to reality." Avon folded his arms, and stared at the lounge - at Vila - with carefully judged boredom. "So let me see, spirit, what reality has done for him now."

"Or to him?"

Avon stared at the old man for a moment. "Either."

Nebrox seemed to hesitate. "You won't like it, Avon."

"I rarely expect to like -"

The high crack of a gun sounded behind him. He whirled around - and stared, not into the Xenon corridor, but into a darkened, vault-like room, sparsely furnished. A bed, a bench littered with papers, a row of computer banks. And two men standing on each side of a small table.

As he watched, the bigger of the two swayed and crumpled forward, falling against the table and sliding down onto the floor.

Startled, he half-turned his head, glancing back at the crew room and Dayna now pestering Vila for a taste, then back into the strange room.

And at the man still standing, a powerfully built, shabbily dressed bounty hunter, grimy and heavily armed, with an unshaven, scarred face, a projectile gun hanging loosely from his hand.

Blake.

Avon stared at him in shock, trying to see the man he remembered. The golden-brown eyes were colder than he had ever seen them, the left one dragged down by the scar reaching to the corner of his mouth, and the full lips were unsmiling, harshly pressed. There was an air of casual, almost detached menace around him, a mixture of harshness, anger and distant grief.

"This is - not - real," he said softly. "This is -"

"That - is what mistrust and betrayal can do." Nebrox spoke softly. "And terrible loneliness. He had not given Jenna his trust in over a year, and she is now dead. He blames himself for that."

Blake now turned his head and spoke casually to the little man who had appeared at the door, with two guards behind him. "Well, Deva?"

The little man sighed. "Getting untidy again, Blake. Was that necessary?"

"Yes." Short, sharp... then Blake sighed and sank back into the seat. "Deva, I may be more used to wading in blood than I used to be, but I don't have to enjoy it."

"What did he do?"

"Nothing much." Blake indicated the dead man's gun with one boot. "He was giving me the details of an off-world bounty he was very interested in. For one supposedly dead, dubiously famous political criminal pretending to be a bounty hunter." He paused. "He knew Jenna, and guessed the rest."

He gestured to the body. "Get him out of here."

The two guards obeyed with casual efficiency, slinging the body up without comment or obvious interest. Deva stepped out of the way and watched with wry distaste. "Not that Jago is a loss to the galaxy at large, but... very well," at the look Blake gave him, "one less stumbling block in the great gallop to respectability."

Blake's lips twisted a little, in something not quite like humour, and Avon felt a slight, sharp stab at the ghostly image of the man's smile.

"Is that what you'll tell Headquarters?"

"Yes, but more sincerely. You do realise, of course, that as stumbling blocks go you are becoming rather too noticeable." Deva glanced back to where the guards had gone out. "I'll put him down on your claims record, shall I?"

"Do you have to?" Blake spoke wearily.

Deva gazed at him with mild apology. "You chose to use this cover, after all."

"I'm aware of that."

"And it's worked so far, I grant you, you've made some... interesting recruits. But bounty hunters are generally assumed to be in it for bounties, and it's getting difficult to cover the ones you don't turn in. You didn't recruit me for my imagination, you know."

"Sorry." Blake closed his eyes for a moment. "Sometimes the grime just sticks in my throat. Go ahead, it's not as if anyone would care whether I..."

His voice trailed off; he shook some thought away and spoke again. "What did you mean, 'rather too noticeable'?"

"You were right, as usual. Someone is looking for you," the man threw down a sheaf of papers, "and appears to have tracked you from Despal. You may have to run again."

"Any ideas on who?"

"None. Just traces of the search in the sigma program. Whoever it is, they're very good."

"And bloody persistent. You'd almost think," with a curl of the lips, "I mattered any more."

"You do matter and you know it."

"As a trophy, maybe." Blake's voice was threaded with a weary despair that hurt. "I've no mind to be a step on the way up for someone like that Sleer creature. I would literally," with a glance at the door, "rather die here. Which is fortunate, since it seems I will."

"Sorry, my friend." Deva sat down and held out a bottle. "But your options no longer include dying, not even for the cause of freedom. You're all that holds the underground on this planet together."

"Which is why I won't run." Blake took the bottle and stared at the plum-purple contents. "Where'd you get this?"

"From Klyn's friends on the supply line. We can get anything if we have the money - and thanks to your -" he paused, and Blake lifted an eyebrow, "- odd roadkill, shall we say? - such as Jago, along with Jenna's profits, we do have the money."

"Jenna..." Blake murmured.

Deva glanced at him through the fallen lock of hair. "It wasn't your fault, Blake. You did agree with me on that, remember?"

"Did I?"

"She knew the risks."

"And she took them in a bid to prove herself to me. Deva," Blake held up a hand, "it's no good. It isn't that she's dead, and one more ghost to deal with. It's just -"

He stopped, and Deva said nothing.

"She was the last." Blake spoke very softly, turning the bottle in his hands. "Now they're all dead, all five. Gan, Vila, Cally... Avon..." the names whispered like a litany. "And I would have given what is left of my soul for a chance to tell just one of them goodbye."

Avon felt the blood drain from his own face; he turned on the man at his side. "What the hell does he mean?"

"Terminal, my friend," Nebrox said quietly.

"But -"

"As you were told that he died, so he learned that the Liberator was destroyed over a dead planet. And believed that you, and Vila and Cally, were destroyed with it."

"Something," he heard the snarl in his own voice, "that Jenna omitted to tell me. She must have known."

Nebrox shrugged. "And what difference does it make? You have not seen him for two years. He believes that you wanted him gone, and that you were content to have it that way when you died. After all, what difference did it make to you if he was lost - or dead?"

"All the difference -" Avon bit down on the words.

"He learned of your death third-hand, through strangers."

"I didn't -" Again that clamping down. "What did Jenna do to him?"

"She hurt him. That is all you need to know."

Avon shook his head, glancing back into the softly lit Xenon lounge, then at the bleak cavern that was Blake's room, watching Deva go out and leave Blake alone in the dim light, gazing at the papers left on the table. Then back at Vila, who was now tasting the wassail, eyes narrowing.

"Think this needs something?"

"Well..." Soolin let her voice drift away meaningfully.

"More spice?"

"No. Definitely not more spice, Vila. Anything else, but no more spice."

"I dunno." Vila filled a cup, and crossed to where Tarrant was still wrestling with a less than beautiful wreath of red leaves and green berries. "Tarrant, give this a try."

Tarrant looked suspicious, running a hand over his leaf-and-thorn entangled curls. "What is it?"

"Does it matter?"

"Oddly enough, yes."

"Afraid, Tarrant?" Dayna taunted, coming over to dip a finger in the cup.

As you told Avon," Soolin purred, "eat, drink and be merry. At least while we can."

Tarrant lifted bright, unshadowed eyes and gave them a stiletto-sharp smile. "And then straight to hell with all of us, every one."

Vila winced. "I wish you hadn't said that."

Avon turned away again, to the darkness behind him.

The bounty hunter lifted the bottle and stared at it for a moment. "To you, Vila, wherever you ended up," he spoke very softly. "To your Christmases, whenever they were, are or will be. And Avon, Avon, I wish..."

"Blake." Deva was at the door again, speaking quietly.

Blake turned that bleak gaze to him.

"I've got a present for you."

"A present? I gave up birthdays years ago, Deva."

"So pretend it's some sort of festival and read this." He dropped a sheet of paper on the table. "We think we may have discovered who's searching for you. It's fifth-hand, it's patchy, but it's the best I can give you. Kerr Avon has been seen - alive - on Betafarl."


He was back in his own room, staring blankly at the wall, feeling the shock of Blake's shock as though it was his own.

Nebrox was gone, but he was not alone. He half-turned his head, to look at the figure beside him. Like a shadow in a nightmare, it was hazed at the edges, hard to see if you looked straight at it; what he could make out of the face was dark and hidden by a hood pulled well forward. One gloved hand extended towards him.

"And which sorry memory are you?" Avon spoke with dry-mouthed sarcasm. "I'm almost surprised that Space Commander Travis hasn't made an appearance to gloat." There was a slow shake of the covered head. "I see. Well, I cannot say I'd be glad to see that face again."

The hand closed on his wrist.

"No. Dream or no, I have had enough." He twisted away, stumbling against the bed, and falling to the ground.

It was silent, standing over him and waiting.

"I do not want..." He stopped and sighed. "Of course. What I might want has been immaterial for a long time, hasn't it?"

More silence.

"I did not want to be dragged into Blake's fight. I did not want to then be left in sole possession of his crew. I did want possession of the ship, but not at the cost we had to pay. I did not want to be dragged into Servalan's political schemes and battles, or to fight her for possession of my ship. I did not want Blake to vanish, Cally to die, Zen to be destroyed. I did not want to have to choose between Vila's life and mine." He stopped for a moment, staring at the hand that had again closed on his. "I do not want... to be here, in this place, at this time, in this present."

It spoke in a dry whisper, a rustle like wind on parchment. "You have regrets?"

"I do not want them either," Avon spoke very softly, to himself. "There is no point. Nothing and nobody would be changed by regret. So you waste your time.

"Let me guess." He was tired now, tired beyond belief. "Past, present, future. Whoever you seem, you will claim to be -"

"A spirit of time to come." The hand tightened. "And you... will... come."

The darkness around them dissolved into pale sunlight. As from a great height, he saw Scorpio, spinning out of control over a woodland he didn't know. As he watched, the ship shuddered and pitched downwards, ploughing a blackened streak through the trees as it crashed.

"Where are we?" He felt dizzy, as if he were spinning and crashing to the ground, and knew the answer without words. Gauda Prime.

The ground rushed up and suddenly they were in a tracking gallery, surrounded by provincials in uniforms. The small man from the previous dream - Deva - was there, earnest and unsmiling, talking to a small, mouse-faced woman in uniform.

He turned as two men appeared at the doorway. One was Tarrant, battered and bruised, eyes overbright, lips half-touched by an uncertain, almost frightened sneer. And the other, the bounty hunter that had been - no, that still was - Blake.

"This. Is. Not. Real," Avon said softly, watching as Blake shouldered his way past the officials and led Tarrant into the inner room. "This cannot be real."

Through the door, they saw Blake holding a gun on Tarrant, heard the younger man's bitter words. "What on earth happened to you?"

"Oh, most of it wasn't on Earth, Tarrant. Not what happened to me."

Avon flinched, closing his eyes and mind against that, against what he knew had happened on Earth and afterwards. He can't do this. He can't be doing this. He can't be - this... It was less than a moment, but as he opened his eyes again, Tarrant bolted, and Blake held back the woman who would have killed him.

"He passed the test, then," she said.

"I'm satisfied," Blake answered, turning away.

Deva's voice was thin with a frustration he knew too well. "These stupid games you insist on playing, Blake, will get someone killed eventually."

"I have to test each one myself."

The bleakness in the deep voice tore at something inside Avon. And I thought him immune to pain. Thought that I knew so much more about it... but I wasn't there. I could have stopped it. I could have.

"No, you don't have to!"

Deva was going on and on. Blake wasn't listening, and neither was Avon; now barely aware of the figure at his side, he stepped forward and sat on his heels in front of Blake, so that he could stare up into the scarred face and the eyes edged with black nightmare. His hand came up; bemused, as if it were not a part of him, he watched it still above the grubby shirt, just over the heart.

Blake was looking straight through him as he answered the man. "I find it difficult to trust... "

Suddenly, inexplicably angry, Avon stood and wheeled to face the hooded figure. "Enough," he grated. "Dream or no dream, I believe I can take your point well enough. Others taught him what I wasted far too much time trying to tell him. And yes, the result of that lesson is... it was a mistake. I will admit that. It was a mistake."

The figure didn't move, and nothing could be seen of its face.

"We tried to find him. If you know anything, you must know that we did try to find him. Vila and Cally and I... we failed. We had our own problems to deal with. He isn't the only one who - damn." He closed his eyes. "Damn you. He didn't deserve any of this. He doesn't deserve any more." He watched as Blake, stood and headed for the door. "Please." He was barely aware that he spoke again. "No more."

Blake's voice reached him again. "Relax, Deva. Nobody's indispensable."

Dark-edged shadows swirled once, twice, and they were all here now. Soolin, Dayna, Vila - and himself - clustered around Tarrant, who was trying to rise. The woman at the desk spoke - something, he didn't understand what, a warning. He saw himself wheel and shoot her.

Blake was at the other door then, watching with those cold and wounded eyes. Someone was behind him. That other woman. Not important.

Slowly, Blake came down the stairs and towards them. And everything was wrong. Avon, watching himself, saw his own broken, confused expression, the first pale flash of delight in his own eyes, and he found it hard to breath.

"No." He mouthed the word, suddenly desperate to wake. No dream this, but a worse nightmare than he could ever have imagined. The light around them was turning misty, blood-red. An alarm wailed somewhere outside.

Tarrant's voice, cold and bitter. "He sold us, Avon. All of us. Even you."

He saw his own face twist. Something like pain, ice-white and savage, lanced through him. Something like what he'd felt in that cellar - and what he'd felt on that shuttle - mixing into a lightning sheet of grief and betrayal and fear and - and - he was standing in that body, staring at the ravaged man in front of him, desperately trying to remember - deny - think -

The words. He just had to hear the words and everything would be righted -

"Is it true?" He had to hear the words from Blake. No one else. The truth. From Blake.

"Avon, it's me, Blake."

Wrong words. "Stand still!" Somewhere at the back of his mind, someone was screaming to stop, but the pain was too close. Blake was too close. "Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed... me?"

"Tarrant doesn't understand!"

"Neither do I, Blake!"

"I set all this up!"

Words like another blow.

"Yes..."

"Avon." Coming closer again. Stop it. The pain, the words, the man. Stop it. "I was waiting for YOU."

And he fired.

Blake staggered, eyes wide with shock, stumbled forward again.

And he fired again.

Felt his own finger pull on the trigger, felt the recoil of the gun, the backlash of the pain. But Blake was still there, the blood - so much blood - spattering from throat to groin, and that someone at the back of his mind was crying, in broken, voiceless anguish to stop, stop.

And he fired once more.

Blake stopped at last, swaying, with Avon's gun at his head. He reached out, hands stained with his own blood, and pushed it away. He grasped Avon's arms and began to fall, to crumple into death. And the words Avon needed were in his eyes.

He slipped, hands loosening, and fell.

"Oh, Avon..." Breathed like a prayer, or a curse, or a last plea for - what? Avon watched him fall, and there was nothing and nobody else, as the ice-fire of grief blinded him to everything but Blake...


He was an outsider again, on his knees, gasping for breath. He was staring at himself, bathed in bloodied light and standing over Blake's body, and he still didn't understand how it had happened.

"Why?" His throat felt raw.

That whisper again. "What do you mean?"

"You - one of you - said there was a reason for all this. Or Jenna said it."

No answer.

"So that I could look forward to this? Isn't it enough that I might do it?"

"Might? You will kill him."

"No. No. I. Will. Not." The words, more words, ground out.

Jenna's voice, as light as a breeze across dead ground, came back to him. "You are heading for a fall, my friend... but it is not your right to take so many with you."

The scene in front of him was blurring, but he could see the woman, hear her disjointed words, something about arrest. A spy...

"Another betrayal? He is - was - even worse at distrust than at trust, it seems." This felt more like dream now, remote and oddly unreal, as he watched Dayna shot, then Vila and Soolin. Tarrant trying to bolt a second time and failing... and himself, frozen, not even noticing. Then the Federation guards surrounding him and the body at his feet.

"I will not do it to him," he said. "If I stop looking, if I leave him -"

"There will still be a betrayal."

"But not by me."

"He will die in any case. Though you and your own will not."

"Mine?" Avon laughed, the sound harsh and mocking in his own ears. "Blake - is also mine, more than they could ever be." He stared up at the guide, suddenly angry. "I will not kill him. I will not let them kill him. I don't want him to die like this -"

Surging to his feet, he grasped the figure by the shoulders, fingers digging into flesh. "It doesn't have to be like this, does it?" When there was no answer, he shook again, feeling the small, thin, almost familiar body sway in his grasp. "It does not have to happen like this. Dream or no, you cannot make me kill!"

"Oh, no, Avon." The voice gained depth, a soft, throaty tone he knew. The hood fell back; Cally stared into his eyes, and gripped his arms in hands that seemed to burn. "Whatever you did, whatever you will do, you will do for your own reasons. As he knew. As we, all of us, always knew..."

The fiery touch of the hands hurt, as hot as Jenna's lips had been cold. The ground gave way and darkness crashed over him. He fell, his own hands loosing their hold, and over the sirens, from a long way away, he heard someone cry out his name.


"Avon!"

His head thudded into the side of the table.

For a moment, Avon lay still, the only sound in the room his own gasping for breath. He could feel heavy fabric under his hands; he opened his eyes and stared at the corner of the blanket twisted in his fingers. Most of the covers were piled on the floor, but otherwise the room was as austerely neat as ever. There was no sign that anything had happened, but that he'd had a bad dream and fallen out of bed. The room was bright with the onset of day.

His lips twisted. I had better have Orac change that sleeping draught. One hand went to the back of his head, feeling the tender spot. Or put railings on the bed.

Just a dream. His arms felt sore but he pushed that thought away and shakily got to his feet

As he turned towards the bathroom, the intercom chimed again. "Yes, Dayna."

"Wrong," Vila, cool but not hostile, answered. "Are you planning to come out of there? Not that we miss your sparkling presence or anything but -"

"Vila, stop it." Dayna's voice overrode the thief. "Avon, breakfast is in twenty minutes. Christmas, for everyone who wants it, starts straight after that. Tarrant says a message from Betafarl came in three hours ago, quite promising, and he wants to draft a reply before we get down to serious silliness."

"What d'you mean, silliness?" He heard Vila grumble in the background.

"Vila, a bonfire in the middle of Xenon summer is silly."

"But fun." That was Tarrant. "I had no idea there was so much junk in this place. Of course, whether Avon agrees that it's junk -" His voice died away in a muffled gurgle.

"I'll inspect it before Vila sets it alight," Avon said absently. "Anything else?"

"Well," Dayna again, "there is the small matter of -"

"Presents," Vila interrupted.

"Vila!"

"It's traditional and Avon knows it. As he said, I talked them into it twice. So we're giving presents, Avon - to you and all."

"Vila, whatever it is you don't want, I don't think I will want, either..." He stopped.

He was staring at the mirror. His reflection stared back, pale and heavy-eyed, still in the black shirt from last night. And there were dark, blue-black bruises on his mouth.

He pulled one sleeve up, and gazed at scarlet burns, roughly hand-shaped, on his arm.

"You don't have to like presents, so Vila tells us. It's equally traditional to pretend." Soolin's dry voice broke into his shock. "Or not, as you please. Are you coming, Avon?"

He was still staring at the marks on his arm as he spoke. "In a minute."

Vila again. "Does that mean you're going to give us something, Avon? Other than heartburn, that is."

"Possibly..."

"Vila, leave him -"

Avon ignored the voices, crossing to pick up Orac's key and slide it into place. "Orac, I have a job for you."

"And I have information for you." The testy little voice sounded smug. "I have done it. Despite the difficulties, I have traced one line through the pattern of infinity, and I have found him. Roj Blake is on -"

"Gauda Prime."

"Gauda - what did you say?"

"Gauda Prime."

"You could not possibly have known that! How -?"

Avon stared down at the computer, mildly bemused. "Don't ask, Orac. You would not like the answer. But he is on Gauda Prime."

"Working as a bounty hunter."

"Posing as a bounty hunter," Avon corrected.

"My sources are quite definite."

"Avon?" Dayna called from the intercom, clearly getting impatient. "Avon, are you coming out? You really don't need to talk to Orac at this moment."

"Avon!" Vila, startlingly sharp. "Avon, did I hear Orac just say the word I think I heard Orac say?"

"As I don't know which... on second thoughts, Vila," Avon reached for his jacket, "yes. Yes, you heard correctly. I may have something to give you as well." He flicked off the intercom over Vila's stuttered squawk of alarm.

"Orac," he stood, stretching, and stared out at a tiny patch of blue sky, "I want you to send a message to Gauda Prime."

"I am not a -"

"You will be if you keep arguing. Send him a message, Orac. Tell him I am coming. Now. Alone. That no - tests - are necessary, for either of us. And tell him..." He paused, rubbing the place where he had felt those hands touch him.

He won't know. He won't understand, but I - we - won't care. With luck, for once what I want will make a difference.

"For what it is worth, Avon, I have always trusted you..."

With a half-sigh, half-laugh, he picked up the medallion from the side of his bed, running the chain through his fingers. "Tell him that I still have the gifts he gave me, every - well, no, nearly every one... and I am coming to return them."

- the end -