The brown-haired woman on Jenna's comm screen was deceptively small and had the appearance of refinement that characterized a citizen of the Alpha grades. Jenna knew that it was just a façade. Avalon may have been born privileged - something that had instantly connected them - but she was as tough as they came.
This refugee of the upper grades was a hardened resistance leader who spread the Cause with icy resolve and started rebel movements in some of the roughest corners of the Federation. Mining posts mostly and other resource-rich worlds that required heavy manual labour, often little more than glorified penal colonies.
Though at the moment she looked more like a mild-mannered schoolteacher with her hair long and tied up in a severe bun. Every inch an Alpha, closed and remote, but clearly one of the down-on-her-luck variety.
Avalon asked with barely disguised eagerness, "Do you have him?"
Even though this was a secured comm channel, they both avoided mentioning names.
Jenna said without ceremony, "There's been a delay."
"Nothing wrong, I hope?"
Once Jenna had found her, teaching children by day and raising funds in dark corners by night, Avalon had readily agreed to help. She still had a reputation second only to Blake's in the resistance and she felt she owed him a great debt for saving her life.
Jenna said offhandedly, "Nothing like that. Just a timing problem."
Avalon's personal experience with treachery had made her question everything that was unexpected. She leaned forward. "How much of a timing problem?"
"I'll know in a few days." Just long enough for Avon to show if he was useful in finding the antidote or not. If he was, then her plans could wait until Rane was cured. If not… Jenna smiled to herself, then the time for his final judgement and her revenge was near. "But don't worry, I will bring him in."
Avalon said, "No problems with...our friend?"
Jenna knew that she had nearly mentioned Argus but had stopped herself in time. She replied, "None of them know. They won't until I have the traitor and by then it'll be too late."
Avalon said regretfully, "I wished we didn't have to work around him. He's a good man. He's done a great deal for us."
Jenna sighed sadly, "I know. I just hope he'll understand."
"If what you told me is correct, he may not."
"I wish I knew what hold the traitor has over him."
"You plan to ask him?"
"I'll have to do it carefully. If we can get him back on our side, it would be worth it."
Avalon nodded thoughtfully. "It would be. I've contacted most of the leaders. The majority of them are on their way here or are sending representatives."
"You really plan to make this big?"
"It's an opportunity we can't pass up. B's name is still a draw for all the factions, regardless of which side of the political spectrum they fall on. No one else can do that."
Jenna had wanted this to be big, a fitting legacy for Blake's name, but she had not expected it to be a rallying point. Even if she couldn't use the Shade organization to build Blake an army, being able to unite the alliance would be an even greater triumph for his legend. Her heart beat with excitement. This was better than she had hoped. Avon's fall would be Blake's rise. The only other thing that would give her greater joy would be to hear him scream in agony, as Blake must have when the traitor shot him.
Jenna said, "I’m looking forward to it."
"Will you have any problems making him confess?"
Jenna smiled. It was an expression that would send a shiver up even the stiffest of spines. "Leave that to me."
"Are you sure? From what you've told me and the little I remember, he's a hard case."
"There are people who specialize in breaking hard cases."
Avalon was someone who had seen it all. This was no surprise to her. "You don't mean…"
"I do. B used them before."
There was a severe expression on Avalon's face. "Some of us did, including me." Her lips thinned in distaste, she might be ruthless but she didn't have to like everything she had to do. But you couldn't have a rebellion without some compromises. "It's a dirty business. I never liked it."
Jenna said, "It's what he deserves."
"I want it understood that I have full custody of him until he comes to trial. I have some very special hospitality arranged and I wouldn't want him to waste any of it."
"Very well." They were both ruthless women and they understood each other perfectly. "We'd better not make contact again until you're ready to bring him in."
The inn looked just as Cally remembered it, even though she'd only been here once. It was a bustling place, full of heady aromas of enticing foods and the sharp smell of ale.
Things weren't the same though. It was as packed as ever and there was no lack of smiles or animated chatter, but underneath, there was something missing. She wondered if anyone knew why Lelea had gone, or if they all thought she was taking a well-deserved break on some pleasure planet.
For old time's sake, she ordered a cup of plain water and a bowl of hearty stew. As the server set the items down on the table, there was a sense of melancholy and sadness as her eyes looked at the empty chair across from her. Soon it would no longer be empty, but Cally wondered if it would only be in a literal sense.
She knew that Avon thought he could handle Jenna. He was supremely confident in his own abilities and survival instinct. In a way, it had made her glad because it meant that Avon was growing stronger and the healing was reaching deeper levels. But it also concerned her because he may no longer be as susceptible to being helped.
Cally knew that some of his current vulnerability was only because of the weakened physical and mental condition that had been forced on him. How much of it would remain by choice once he was fully restored? It was something no one knew. She doubted if Avon had thought about it, or even if he recognized it as a choice he could make.
The way he had lived his life had always been in response to conditions outside of his control. Avon had never had a true choice before, despite his efforts to make his own decisions and to have his own life.
He had a chance now. There were no pressures on him except what he wished. No one to make demands. Avon could walk away or he could stay, and he would be loved and accepted either way. And she would stay with him, regardless of his decision.
For the first time in his life, Avon had the security of people who valued him for himself and not what he could do for them or in his potential to be made into someone else's image of what he should be.
What kind of man would he chose to be? In some ways, though others would find it strange to think of him as this, he was an innocent. Not in the treacherous ways of man, but in his need to have everything make sense. But life was rarely ordered and rational and because of that, Avon would always be seeking for something that did not exist and be disappointed and disillusioned.
She enjoyed the Avon he was now, a man rediscovering who he was; one struggling with the sins of the past and the flaws in himself and trying to find something better. He was trying very hard.
Cally's thoughts were interrupted as she spotted Jenna entering the inn and pushing her way past the crowds.
Would Avon continue to have this chance or would it be sacrificed to the demands of others again? Had his past caught up to him? Was there no redemption for those who had been lost?
They all had innocent blood on their hands. Would there be a reckoning for all of them one day?
Jenna sat down and gestured the server to bring her a pint of the local brew. "Sorry, I'm late. I had something to do."
Cally said, "I wasn't sure you would come."
"I like to think that we're still friends." The server dropped down a mug on the table with a preoccupied smile and rushed off.
"So would I."
Jenna studied her former crewmate as she brought the frosted ale up to her lips and took a deep drink. She put it down again. "If this is about Avon then I'm not interested. There is nothing you could say that could change my opinions about him."
Cally frowned. This conversation was ending before it began. "What happened to you, Jenna?"
Jenna snorted and covered up a scowl with another deep drink. "What didn't happen?"
What words could explain what she had lived through in the days after Blake found her again? Hopes of a life lived in peace dashed in the frenetic obsession of a man who needed to destroy those who had taken away his life, his family, and his friends. How could she convey the brokenness and frustration of a man who saw the devil rise again from what he thought were the ashes of the damned?
The days of endless blood and violence. Blake's desperation driving him beyond all reason and to even greater compromises. And no one dared resist him, how could you deny someone who was in such pain, who wanted such great things? He was like a juggernaut, destroying anyone who would stand in his way, whether friend or foe. But it had never achieved anything. What little successes he had were temporary. Anything larger usually ended in disaster, and they barely escaped with their lives.
Blake's luck seemed to have run out and nothing he did, no chances he took would bring it back. He would be haunted by nightmares of Gan reaching out to him, all covered in blood and dirt, asking if they had finally won, if it had all been worth it. Jenna would hold her broken warrior as he dreamt and the tears flowed down his face as he whispered Gan's name.
The emptiness in his eyes scared her at times and in the end, sick of the death and the pointlessness of it all, she had abandoned him. Left him so that the only thing he had left was to scratch out a bare existence in the middle of nowhere, trying to recruit from the dregs of humanity on a planet begging to be let back into the Federation. He must have reached his last legs then and she had not been there to hold him up. And she had not been there to stop Avon from killing him.
If she could not be there for him when he died, at least she could do this one last thing for him in his death. Avon had to die.
Jenna's thoughts returned to the present and the embarrassed realization that she was holding her mug to her lips and was not drinking. How long had she frozen in that position as Cally watched her? "Sorry, I was thinking. Did you say something?"
"It must have been something serious."
"The past, but it doesn't matter now."
"It's the past that's brought us here." Cally wished she could read human minds. The emotions that had played across Jenna's consciousness as she held the mug to her lips, frozen in thought, had been strong and revealing, but not enough to tell her what she had been thinking of.
What she did know now was that Jenna's passion to destroy Avon was deep and full of complex emotions. Most important of all, the hatred and anger were not the primary reasons she wanted Avon dead; they were the end result.
Cally said, "Killing Avon might give you what you want, but will it really give you what you need?"
"Don’t use your Auron logic on me," said Jenna.
"I think you and Avon both need something. You both have debts to pay but you can't pay yours by killing him."
"Just watch me."
"It will be an empty victory, Jenna. If you kill Avon, in the end, he will have peace but I doubt that you will ever find yours again."
"I think this conversation is over." Jenna stood up stiffly and walked away.
Cally looked after her with sadness. She had intended to tell Jenna about Avon, to show her that he had changed. To tell her that he had already suffered enough. To try to bring some sense into the tragedy that had occurred on Gauda Prime. But Jenna was beyond reach. She would not rest until Avon was dead.
The only thing they could trust in now, was that as long as Jenna needed Avon to save Rane, he would be safe.
“Is this a private game or can anyone join in?” Corinne's voice came from the doorway.
Vila gave a guilty start as his conscious mind belatedly reminded him that he had agreed to have dinner with her. It was now just past 9 pm. Perhaps the offer of a shared supper might mollify her?
“Corinne I was just going to look for you.” Vila smiled weakly, his fingers automatically gathering up the cards as his mouth rattled on. “I...uh...lost track of the time.”
“So I see.” Corinne crossed the room to the table. She glanced at Lt Dain, Harley and Kenner. They looked from her to Vila. It was clearly an awkward social moment, something none of their military training manuals had prepared them for.
Vila began to shuffle the pack as his fingers sought to release some of his nervous energy. Until now, he had been scrupulous about not neglecting Corinne while he got to know the rest of the Athol soldiers on the Justice. Those whose families were based on Athol Prime were making trips homes when they weren't busy protecting the labs but some, like the three around the table, had to stay onboard.
“Would it be all right if I joined in?” Corinne asked trying to defuse the tension her arrival had created. The four men were acting like guilty school boys caught in some sort of mischief.
“You want to play?” Vila blinked, surprised.
“Yes, if you don't mind. I think I know the rules.” Corinne sat next to him and smiled brightly at the other players. Her smiles always had an uplifting effect and the tension eased.
“They play poker on Chandar?” Dain asked curiously. He had spent a lot of time doing surveillance among the Chandarans and hadn't seen any evidence of card games.
“Do they allow the women to play on Chandar?” Kenner asked at the same time and blushed scarlet to the roots of his ash blonde hair. Next to Baxter, he was the next youngest of the Atholians onboard.
“Not usually with the men of course.”Corinne smiled slightly.
“Of course.” Harley laughed, his teeth flashing white in his dark face. “Wouldn't do for a woman to win, might make them feel inferior.”
“Not an attitude we have," Lt. Dain assured her. “You are welcome to join us, isn't she Vila.”
“What? Yes, of course.” Vila smiled riffling the deck. “I'd be delighted.”
“Mother did explain that some of the rules were different on Tellar.” Corinne frowned thoughtfully.
“Different how?” the young Kenner asked.
“Queens on Chandar are considered the lowest ranking card.”
“Ah of course, which would make the king the highest.” Harley nodded. “Macho image and all that.”
“Well it's usually called the Champion's card.” Corinne laughed. “But yes.”
“Well according to standard rules, Aces are high.” Dain explained.
“High? Do they go to the top of the deck?" Corinne asked innocently. Vila hid a smile. He recognised that tone but wasn't about to spoil her fun. If Corinne wanted to play the total novice he wasn't about to put his friends on their guard.
“Er, no it means that they are the highest card,” Kenner explained smiling at her, evidently taken in.
“Oh yes of course!” She had a delightful laugh. “Well I'll try to remember that.” Vila had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself from laughing too.
“Are we playing cards or not?” Harley asked glancing at the younger man who flushed again, his eyes had never left Corinne's face. Vila suddenly realised that Kenner was rather attracted to her. He frowned slightly; he wasn't sure what to do about that. A worm of jealousy warred with a genuine wish not to see Kenner hurt. Perhaps if he asked Corinne not to encourage Kenner? Though he might have to explain it to her. He could almost imagine the conversation.
"Uh…Corinne. Can you not encourage Kenner?"
"I don't understand. Shouldn't people be supported?"
"Yes, but, there are some kinds of support that…well…convey a different message."
"What kind of message?"
"I think Kenner likes you."
"I like him too."
If Vila didn't know her, he would have a twinge of jealousy. "Yes, but, he likes you in a different way."
Corinne would look puzzled. She looked adorable when she had that expression. "What way is that?"
Vila knew he would most likely be embarrassed and end up whispering the way in her ear. Then her mouth would form a shocked, "Oh. I didn't mean it that way."
For now, he was looking forward to Corinne's version of card playing. He wondered how much she would win and how confused the soldiers would be by the end of the night. It was a good thing they were playing for single credit stakes. He knew she wouldn't be able to keep it up. She had too good a heart and would never fool them for long.