Avon was just getting comfortable when the knock sounded on his door. With a resigned sigh, he hung his jacket on the back of the chair and asked, "What is it?"
He was still angry with her, but he opened the door. It had gotten to be a habit, opening the door for Cally. Ever since that first time, no matter how angry or tired or harassed-- even knowing she was going to take him to task for something, he always opened the door. With one quick glance at his face, Cally sailed past him into his cabin saying, "We've got to talk."
When he turned, Cally was standing in the middle of the cabin, her back to him. She was wearing a long robe now; her hair was still pinned up with the satin ribbon, the marigolds and lavender, but it was damp around the edges. She must have just come from the shower, he thought, wishing she'd go away so he could bathe himself. But she didn't go. She just stood there, fidgeting.
He was still angry-- with himself for having lost control; with Cally for making him feel angry and foolish; with Georgie for-- he didn't know what. But he knew Cally wouldn't leave until she had had her say. She never did. He leaned his shoulders against the wall, crossed his arms and waited.
"I'm sorry I hit you."
"So am I." He touched the swelling lightly. It was still tender, but the stuff Rafe had given him was working.
"It was all my fault. I-- Georgie was right." She still had her back to him and her hands were playing nervously with each other.
"Right about what?" he prompted, curious and a bit suspicious. Damn Georgie.
"I feel like such a fool."
That makes two of us, he thought. His foot was throbbing now and he wished he had thought to put some of Rafe's stuff on it, too. He shifted his stance to take the weight off it, hoping Cally would get to the point soon and be done.
"I've got to tell you. I do owe you an explanation." Cally took a deep breath and then said in a rush, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have kissed you. I wasn't thinking. I-- I've been in love with you for a long time and I wouldn't even admit it to myself. I'm sorry."
"Fine, now you can-- What?"
"I didn't mean-- I know you could never-- I promise you no one will ever know-- what am I saying? Everyone knows-- they knew before I did. But I won't let it get in the way; I won't become an embarrassment to you. There. I've said it and now I'll deal with it." She gathered the robe tightly about her, hugging herself, drew another deep breath and said, "I'll go now. I won't bother you anymore." She turned, and headed resolutely towards the door, not looking at him. She hadn't looked at him once since she came in.
So that's what all this is about. Love. Well, my girl, I'll put a stop to that right now. He stretched his arm across the doorway and, seeing it, Cally halted. "Please let me go," she said softly.
"In a moment. You kissed me-- " he accused.
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"-- and then you hit me-- "
"I said I'm sorry." She was beginning to feel angry. She'd apologized, why couldn't he just drop it?
"-- because you love me."
"Yes!" She looked at him, truly angry now. "Yes! And I'm sorry! Now drop it!" She tried to push past him, but he wouldn't be moved.
"Now let's not be hasty. This situation has its possibilities," he said, leaning closer, deliberately crowding her. He ran a finger along her jaw, under her chin, and then turned her face to his saying, "There are times when a little-- companionship wouldn't come amiss."
That did it. She was blazing mad now.
"How dare you?"
"It seems an eminently practical arrangement to me," he said blandly. "You get what you want and I-- "
"You! You're no prize! And I'm not a toy or an amusement for you when you're bored. I'm a person! I have feelings!" This can't be happening, she thought. "Damn you, Avon, if you have any feelings, let me go!" But he wouldn't. She turned away abruptly to hide the tears. Damn him, damn him, damn him--
"You're right, of course. I have no feelings." Again he moved closer to her. She sensed his approach and stiffened. When he was standing close behind her he said, "Not since Anna. Oh, she made a complete fool of me; betrayed and humiliated me-- "
Enough! Cally rounded on Avon, her fist raised to strike, but he was ready and he caught her wrist, holding it tight saying, "Oh, no, you don't. Not again." His eyes held hers and his voice mocked her as he continued to recite his personal lament, the mantra he had used to punish himself for Anna's death: "...but I could never love anyone else. Behold Kerguelan: the Desolation. Heart turned to stone forever. Ask anyone. You were all there. Remember?" He let go of her wrist, but she couldn't move. Damn him. Damn Anna. What right had the treacherous Anna to such devotion? What right had she to poison his heart forever? Cally closed her eyes, trying to shut out the pain and the humiliation.
Avon watched her with satisfaction. Served her right. In love with him! How dare she think she was in love with him, anyway? Yesterday she was in love with Wes! What could she know about love? Cally? She didn't know the first thing about love-- she didn't even know the first thing about being a woman!
Yes, it served her right. She should have stayed away-- but not Cally. She was always barging in, making life uncomfortable, never giving one a moment's peace-- always so worried about Doing The Right Thing, paying her debts to people. Damn it, why did she have to be so damned managing? Why had he ever put up with her?
In love! And she knew he'd never love anyone but Anna-- she knew the pain he'd suffered--
As he watched, a tear ran down her cheek. Yes, she knew. And he knew that she hadn't been trying to hurt him; she hadn't meant to do anything but apologize for embarrassing him. And he knew he had deliberately hurt her-- again-- just because she had dared to care about him--
It was her own damned fault--
But suddenly he was ashamed of himself. He knew she didn't deserve to be hurt; she was his friend and he didn't want to hurt her--
"Cally?" She was standing as still as a statue, eyes tightly shut, trying so hard not to cry. Fierce, brave Cally. Very gently he touched her face, and the thought How beautiful she is flitted across his mind. "Cally... I-- I didn't... mean it. I didn't mean to... I didn't mean to hurt you... Cally?" Desperate to make her understand, he grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a shake. The movement made her look about wildly and she tried to push him away, but he couldn't let her go now-- he couldn't get away from the pain in himself or in her unless he could make her understand. She had to understand--
"Do you hear me?" he asked, holding her more tightly, trying to get her to look at him. She continued to struggle and he held her even more tightly.
"Did you hear me?" he demanded fiercely. She did look at him then, pain and confusion in her eyes. He had her attention, but he couldn't find any words to say. She was in pain and all he knew was that he had to take the pain away--
And the next thing he knew he was kissing her.
Cally? It was Cally. Only Cally. But it felt so... right. In wonder, he drew back to look at her. The stunned look on her face mirrored his own and they regarded each other warily, for what seemed a long time, until Avon decided to put it to the test. As he pulled her into his arms he watched her eyes to be sure she didn't object. Then, very gently, he kissed her again.
It felt so right. And he wanted her.
Cally felt the rightness of it, too. And the wanting. And something else: his need. "Damn you, Avon, damn you-- " she said, laughing through the tears. "Georgie was right: it will undoubtedly be a woman who kills you."
"I know. Probably you." Avon grinned wryly, but the grin faded as he looked at her. "Cally-- " he began, but he still couldn't find the words. He released her then, trying not to think, not to be afraid that in a moment she would vanish and he would find himself alone and in pain again.
"Shhh. It's all right," she said. Then, lightly touching his cheek below the black eye, she said, "You can close your eyes. I promise I won't hit you again." And she kissed him, making it very clear that she wasn't going to run away again, either.
Avon gave himself over to her kiss, tried to lose himself in it, but he couldn't banish his doubts and after a while he pushed Cally away, held her at arms length, just looking at her. With an almost imperceptible shake of his head, he released her and stepped back.
She didn't protest when he backed away, but let him go, calmly holding his eyes with hers, reading his heart with her own. And when she had read it, she went to him.
Standing before him, with a smile and a blush, she grasped his pullover and began to tug it free of his trousers.
And Avon, trapped in a spell of doubts between his heart and his mind, could only watch her as she slid the pullover upward, until it could go no higher without his cooperation.
He didn't think he could move, but when she raised her eyes to his in silent entreaty and smiled so compellingly, he lifted his arms to let her tug the garment up over his head and off.
For a moment she only looked at him, delighted by the sight of him, and then she reached out to touch him, to feel the texture of his skin. Tenderly she kissed the pulse at the base of his throat, tasting of him, breathing in his scent. And then she bent to plant kisses above his heart and on each hard breast. All the while her fingers caressed him, moving lightly across the smoothness of his shoulders, through the soft, crisp hair of his chest, moving ever lower until they reached the fastening of his trousers and--
The spell of his doubts loosened with his trousers. His body knew what he wanted, even if the rest of him denied it, and, in a moment Cally's robe was undone and his arms were around her, pulling her close, flesh to flesh, his lips upon hers, passionate and hungry, until, impatient at last to consummate their shared desire, he pushed the robe from her shoulders and swept her up onto his bunk and--
Cally's heart stood still as, poised above her, he hesitated--
Taking her will change everything, forever, he thought--
And she read the thought in his eyes. Wise and loving, Cally understood; fierce and brave, she would not let him go from her now. Her hands urged him forward and her body welcomed him--
And in that moment of welcome, as he slipped softly and satisfyingly into her, he knew what he wanted: he wanted this woman, wanted her to be his, wanted her wanting him, wanted her love--
And with a final joyous thrust, they became so deeply conjoined that electric shocks seemed to pulse from the conjunction, shocks that mounted so quickly in intensity that, without warning, they were both overtaken and possessed by uncontrollable shuddering spasms of exquisite pleasure.
An age later, breathless and giddy, surprised and delighted with each other and themselves, fears and doubts forgotten in the joy of love shared, they began to laugh.
And soon after, they began again to love.
* * * * *
When Avon awoke he found Cally asleep in his arms. He was lying on his side, she was snuggled against him, spoon fashion, clasping his hand to her breast, and he was holding her and breathing the earthy smell of marigolds and the sweet, nose-tickling smell of lavender and the deep satisfying smell of love. He lay staring for a long time, thinking about Cally, about what had happened. It had been a long time. Since Anna.
Anna. Surprisingly she was only a bittersweet memory now. Someone he knew and loved long ago and so differently. But Cally was here and now and-- he brushed his lips against the back of her neck, kissed her behind the ear. Freeing his hand he caressed her shoulder and, noticing the purpling bruise on her arm, he kissed it gently in apology while letting his hand continue to slide lightly over the soft skin of her side, her slender waist, her rounded hip, his desire for her reawakening. She turned onto her back, welcoming his touch, reaching to touch him, to draw him down to her, eager to begin again. He kissed her.
Cally made love seem so simple and joyful. And she made him laugh. And she made him feel-- she made him feel. If anything happened to her because of him--
A cold hand closed on his heart and all desire fled.
"This isn't going to work," he said, sitting up.
"What's wrong?" she asked, and sat up beside him.
"You know what I mean."
"It has already happened: it's patently not impossible."
"We can't go on."
"If they find out they'll use it-- use you, me..."
"Oh. Them. On the other hand, we could both be dead tomorrow. Then what would it matter?"
"You don't understand."
"Don't I? I understand this: I love you; I love the look of you; I love the feel of you, the smell of you and the taste of you; I love the way you make me feel; I love the way you feel inside me." And so saying she pushed him onto his back, holding him down as she began kissing him.
"Cally, don't. Let me up," he said.
And she had to let him up. Because love is like that; because she knew love couldn't be constrained. She watched him as he got up and found his own robe. Her whole being ached to hold him, to comfort him, but she knew there was nothing she could do. He wasn't looking at her; his thoughts were far away. Slowly she got up and put on her robe. "I'm sorry," she said. And she was sorry. Sorry that she had placed a burden on him, given pain where she had meant to give only joy.
She went over to him and touched him lightly on the arm, softly spoke his name. And he looked at her then. "I'm sorry," she said. And she smiled, pretending it didn't hurt. "There were no strings attached."
"No strings," he said bitterly. "Do you have the least idea of what it would mean to be connected with me? Do you have the least idea of what they could do to you because of me? Do you? If they killed you outright, you'd be lucky-- we'd both be lucky-- "
And he grabbed her arm and started pushing her towards the door. "You'd better leave. Now. You don't want anyone starting any rumors."
"I'll leave when I'm ready!" she said angrily, shaking off his hold. "How dare you make my decisions for me! I make my decisions; I decide who I want to be connected with and I decide what risks I'm willing to run. And I take full responsibility for whatever happens."
"Fine. Have it your way. But I don't want to be connected with you!"
"You conceited... overbearing... pompous ass! Do you think the universe revolves around you? Do you think anyone really cares about what you do or who you're involved with?"
"I know they do," he said with such conviction and pain that she was stopped by it.
"What do you mean?"
"Cally, every person I've ever cared about is dead. Dead. Dead because of me."
But she wasn't to be outdone by self-pity. "And how many people is that?" she demanded, angrily. "One? Two? You aren't so special. A whole planetful of people is dead because of me. But I didn't decide to stop living because of it. They wouldn't expect me to. You gave me some advice once. You said I should let regret be only a small part of life, and you were right. Now let me give you some advice: don't try to avoid pain by denying joy and love; they can't be separated. If you try to do it, you may as well be dead, too. And now I'll leave." And she left.
The door slid shut and Avon stood glaring at it. He had told her to go and she had. That was that and good riddance. Over and done with. The best thing to do now was to get some sleep. He went back to his bunk and angrily brushed away a marigold and some bits of lavender.
How could it have happened? he wondered, lying there.
It was obvious now that it was... a mistake. They had both been mistaken about their... feelings. They had gotten carried away-- Cally had gotten carried away, confused by her feelings for Wes and... it was all her fault.
And it was a mistake. Anna was the only woman he'd ever--
He did love Anna. He did. He'd grown up with her. They'd fought with each other and for each other and she'd been closer to him than his own skin sometimes...
All those years...
He had grieved for her and for himself when he thought she was dead because of him. And he had suffered both guilt and anger for thinking himself the cause of her death and then more guilt for feeling relieved that she was dead and no longer a burden and a responsibility to him.
And, at the last, he had felt betrayed by the Anna he didn't know, the one who was Bartolomew, the one who would have killed him, the one he had killed...
But once she had been Anna, the Anna he loved, the sister and companion, the only family he had left, the only woman he had ever truly known--
That was a long time ago. And the Anna he loved had been dead to him a long time.
To his surprise, he found his mourning for her was over.
And everything was so different.
Life was so different.
Cally was so different. And his feeling for her was so... different.
Oh, Anna, I did love you, but, did we have a choice? Or was it arranged for us? Did they push us together, keep others away? Did they make us dance to their piping?
I loved you, but you were my sister. And you should have stayed my sister; it never should have happened.
Choices, Anna. So many choices made for us without our knowing...
But this time he had a choice. His own choice. And he wanted Cally, fierce, brave, beautiful, provoking, Cally who would never give him a moment's peace.
And now it was too late. He had told her to go and she had gone.
He forced himself to close his eyes and think of nothing. He had nearly done it when--
"Avon!" she called, knocking lightly on the door.
"Go away." She had made her choice.
"Avon, open the door. I forgot something."
"I'll send it to you."
"Open the door."
He got up and went to the door. "What did you forget?" he demanded as the door slid open.
"I forgot what an idiot you can be," she said, shoving the carafe of Elixir into his hands. Then, smiling brightly, loaded tray in hands, she pushed past him into the cabin. "Come have something to eat."
Cally had chosen him.
He closed the door, and then, gathering up his dignity, he tried not to grin like an idiot.
* * * * *
They were sitting quietly together on the bunk finishing off the last of the elixir and the bowl of winterberries when Avon asked, "Cally... why?"
"Why?" She chose a berry and popped it in her mouth.
"Why did you come back? To Liberator. You didn't have to." Avon's voice was casual and he was studiously watching the elixir in his glass as he swirled it round and round.
"Didn't I?" she asked, eyeing him askance, remembering the fuss he'd made when she said she might stay on Barram. She had suspected at the time that he was exaggerating the danger and this confirmed it. She finished chewing before she answered. "Well, as it happens, I couldn't have stayed there any more than you could."
"But why not? You could have had a new life-- "
"Yes, I know," she said, helping herself to another berry. "I could have stayed with Wes. And I could have forgotten about the Federation. And I could have forgotten about everything I believe in, eventually, too. And I'd have been miserable and hated myself."
"Then you came back because you had to."
"No other reason?" he asked mildly, reaching for the bowl of berries.
"I didn't come back because of you, if that's what you're wondering," she said, watching him.
He looked over at her, a bit startled.
"You're the reason I nearly stayed on Barram," she said, grinning at him. "I didn't know how I was ever going to face you again-- "
"Am I... really... so bad?" he asked around a mouthful of winterberries.
"Yes," she said, with relish. "And what's more, you know you are and you enjoy it."
He smiled a bit at that. Somehow the answer pleased him, though it didn't satisfy him. "But-- "
"And I didn't want to add to my problems-- our problems. Didn't want to make everyone uncomfortable. But I knew running away wouldn't solve anything."
"But-- did you love Wes?"
She had asked the same question of herself before, and answered it, but she drank the last of her elixir, and thought about it again before she answered for the last time, "No."
"I don't know. He was very nice. He had everything a sensible woman could want."
"He loved you," Avon said, tipping the last winterberries into his mouth and setting the bowl on the ledge above the bunk.
"Yes." That was a wonderful and sad thing. Something to remember.
So that was it. "Why do I love you, you mean." Touched by his need to know, Cally put aside her glass and reached for his hand. "You must have been a dreadfully inquisitive child," she said, looking over at him. Avon, looking down at his hand in hers, smiled briefly, at which Cally nodded and said, "I thought so. Well, the answer is-- "
"If you knew, why'd you ask?"
He just shook his head.
"Why do you love me?" she asked, taking his glass from him and putting it aside.
Avon wasn't sure that he did love her; he wasn't even sure he knew what love was. All he knew was that he wanted her here, with him, now; wanted her to stay with him, now-- but, there weren't any reasons, except, "Because."
"I knew it," Cally said, happily, as she removed the satin ribbon from her hair, shaking it out and sending marigolds and lavender cascading over them both.
"What are you doing?" he asked watching in amusement as she deftly tied one end of the ribbon around his left thumb. Then, pushing him down onto the bunk, she raised his left arm over and behind his head and looped the ribbon around-- something-- he didn't see what because he was more interested in looking at her-- and then she raised his right arm over his head and tied his right thumb. "You may not break the ribbon or untie it," she said.
"I thought you said there were no strings."
"I don't remember mentioning ribbon, though. Now we'll try it my way." And she began loving him again amidst the smell of marigolds and lavender.
He started to protest, but within a very few moments he couldn't remember what objections he should have to it. And then there was nothing he could do anyway: his hands were tied.
* * * * *