Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen. – Epictetus
In which events take Epictetus somewhat literally.
Yse was a large planet, and its ruling Duchess the most powerful woman in the sector. Her guests were a mixed bunch: lords and warlords, scientists and politicians, most from the planets of the neighbouring systems. Somewhere among them were delegations from Bryllinat One and New Auron, but apart from them, Blake and his people were the only representatives from their part of the galaxy—unsurprising, really, when one landed oneself with an empire that spanned thousands of planets.
Blake had known that taking down the Federation would leave a power vacuum, but he’d just assumed that winning the resistance would be akin to winning mass independence. He hadn’t been prepared to deal with the complicated and detailed work involved in granting self-governance to tens of billions of people, in part because he hadn’t thought he’d be involved.
When it proved impossible to demolish the Federation’s system of centralised government in one fell swoop, he’d attempted to set up a governing council. Avalon was young but popular, and had a good head for politics. Inga had proved herself to be a talented leader and strategist. Ro had rallied his people and fought the Federation off his planet. All three were logical choices.
All three had refused. Ro wanted to stay with his people, as did Inga, though both offered to advise him—in his position as president of the whole mess. When Blake had tried to persuade Avalon into the job, she had answered simply that she would be happy to take a position in his government if he wished it, but that the presidency would be his, and that was that. Avon had laughed at his dumbstruck expression and said, “If you weren’t expecting this, Blake, you weren’t thinking at all.”
Which had left Blake in the uncomfortable position of dealing with both power and problems he didn’t particularly want. A year and a half later he was still chipping away at the Federation—it had been gifted a new name, ‘Republic,’ but on his bleakest days he had trouble seeing the difference between one empire and another. Progress was slow. Some worlds wanted independence, some didn’t, and most seemed content to follow his word whatever happened. Thus far Blake had managed to split only one small group of planets away, and the process had taken long enough that he didn’t imagine the rest would follow easily.
A week after the first elections of the New Government of the Bryllinat Sector had taken place, Blake had received an invitation to travel to Yse and join negotiations for a multi-planet, galaxy-wide treaty and alliance. It meant putting the entire liberation project on hold, but as cooperation across multiple groups was what Blake was striving for, he'd accepted immediately.
His answer was sent against a chorus of horrified protests from most members of the presidential and government staff. Yse was a forty-eight hour journey at standard by ten, the talks would last five days, and they'd received the invitation only a week in advance. Even normally mild-tempered Deva had looked near to throttling him, and had been even more horrified when Blake had told him he'd be coming along to the talks, rather than staying behind to "keep everything from burning to the ground," as he'd put it.
He was looking less homicidal now, though not entirely at ease, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot and tugging every now and then at the collar of his tunic.
"Negotiations have gone well here, no major crises have developed back on Earth, and tomorrow we head home," Blake told him, smiling. "Deva, relax."
"I'll be more comfortable when I can see that for myself, thank you," Deva answered. He raised his chin and stared nervously down his nose at the rest of the room, then tugged at the cuffs of his sleeves. "This isn't my kind of party, Blake, you know."
The venue for the evening was a ballroom in the Duchess's palatial home, sparkling with light and crowded with buffet tables. Jenna, Deva and Soolin had stayed at Blake's side, while Avon had wandered off the moment they'd arrived.
"Have a drink," Jenna suggested, as a young man in red and silver livery offered a tray of what was probably wine. She took two and handed one to Deva, who blinked and then accepted it, though he didn't raise it to his lips.
“You’re doing better than Avon,” Blake said, keeping his voice light. “He vanished immediately.”
“Is it the end of the world if you lose sight of him for five minutes?” Jenna asked.
Blake ignored her, eyes searching the crowd absently, and after an uncomfortable pause Deva muttered, “It’s been two years, Blake.”
“I invited him for his advice,” Blake answered. “He’s not a great deal of use to me if he’s not here to give it.”
“He and Avon have had this argument about a dozen times over the past week, Jenna,” Soolin said. “Do you really want to start it up again?”
Jenna replied, though Blake didn’t hear what she said. He had finally caught sight of Avon across the room, hands clasped behind his back and nodding politely at something an older gentleman was saying. He was the only one in the room wearing black—because Blake had been unable to persuade him into anything else—and he looked elegant and slim.
Their relationship had changed since the days of the Liberator. Gone was the easy banter, the sense of camaraderie, the magnetic pull that had always existed between them. Avon had agreed to join Blake’s government when Blake had asked him to. He had taken two full-time posts: pulling down and putting up a new financial system, and heading the science and technology division with Orac. But over the years that had followed, he’d avoided Blake as much as possible, and when he couldn’t avoid Blake, he kept silent, except to deliver the occasional barb.
He hadn’t wanted to join the diplomatic party, but Blake had insisted, and over the time it had taken to prepare for the trip, and the subsequent travel to Yse, the argument had bubbled up and subsided over and over again, never resolving itself. The ongoing row marked the most they’d spoken to each other since Blake had left the Liberator, and all it had done was drive home the realisation that he and Avon seemed to be completely, irrevocably ruined.
The knowledge was devastating. Vila had told Blake once, looking haunted and tired, that Avon had begun to lose his grip on reality long before he’d brought his crew to Gauda Prime. But even during the tense silence that had existed between them since GP, Blake had held out hope that he and Avon might yet work through it. That if they could only bring themselves to talk, Blake might be able to apologise and be forgiven. That they might be able to patch together some kind of future for themselves—even if it wasn’t the future Blake had often wished for them.
But though he had left the conversation deliberately open to it on numerous occasions, Avon had refused to discuss Gauda Prime, not even in order to blame Blake for orchestrating the whole disaster. And if Avon didn’t want to blame him for it, Blake thought tiredly, he really wasn’t sure what could be left. Other than Vila’s certainty that Avon had gone round the twist.
Jenna cleared her throat, and Blake came back to himself with a start. His small group were all watching him, their expressions knowing, and the server was waiting patiently at Blake’s side with the tray of goblets extended. Blake apologised and waved the man off, and Jenna smiled a quick, lopsided smile at him.
“Nervous too?” she asked.
“I’m representing half a galaxy of people,” Blake answered, as steadily as he could. “On top of worrying I’ll say the wrong thing and offend someone politically, I’d rather not take the chance of getting drunk and embarrassing myself personally.”
"On the other hand, Blake, if you refuse refreshments offered to you, you'll run the risk of offending our hosts." As a group they turned to face Avon, who'd managed somehow to disengage himself from his conversation and cross the room in the space of about five seconds. He smiled tightly at Blake. "I would have expected you'd find that a greater evil than risk to your self-image."
"Because I behave foolishly on a regular basis, is that it?" Blake asked mildly, over a wave of irritation, and Avon's smile grew sharper.
"How well we've come to know each other."
"Avon," Soolin said pointedly, and Avon glanced over Blake's shoulder and straightened, face going smooth and polite. Blake felt a slender arm loop through his and bit back a nasty retort just in time, turning to face their hostess instead.
"I know this is the first opportunity we've had to speak together," the Duchess of Yse said, smiling up at him. "I do apologise, My Lord President."
“I’m not a lord,” Blake corrected her hastily, and as politely as he could. “Merely a politician.”
“Surely you are a lord among men,” she answered matter-of-factly. Out of the corner of his eye, Blake saw Jenna’s lips twitch before she pressed them together and schooled her expression into neutrality. He couldn’t see Avon’s face, a fact which he imagined was a blessing. “News of your many adventures, as well as your accomplishments, has reached us here,” she continued. “You are my planet’s honoured guest. And may I say, My Lord President—oh! I do beg your pardon but you mustn't drink that!”
Jenna, who had lifted her goblet halfway to her lips, paused and raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Looking flustered at her abrupt warning, the Duchess continued, "We make it from a local plant, you see. It is perfectly fine for us, but for humans the effect is…intense." She signalled to a passing server, light glittering off the bangles on her wrist. "I am very sorry, I did not think to tell you sooner. I shall pass the word among my staff. Try this instead—it has a very delicate flavour, and will cause you no ill effects."
The server presented them with a tray of crystal tumblers, which their hostess traded for the goblets of wine. Avon managed to catch Blake’s eye, and Blake took a glass wordlessly and sipped. It was pleasant, fizzy and light, and tasted of almonds and fruit and slightly of steel. “Very nice indeed,” he said truthfully, and the Duchess smiled at him again. She was shorter than the average human, as most of her people were, but very lovely, with silvery eyes and hair red enough to rival Deva’s piled on her head in ringlets.
“We were very grateful you could join us on such short notice,” she said. “I do apologise for sending the invitation so late.”
“It was no trouble,” Blake answered. He could almost feel Deva’s long-suffering sigh, and turned his smile hastily from amusement to something more polite. “And we were most honoured to be asked.”
“Come, have some food,” she said, guiding him toward the nearest buffet table. “We do not eat meat, but I hope you will find all our dishes to your liking, even so. And our chefs are famous throughout the quadrant for their desserts—you must try them, they have their own place of honour, there.” She gestured elegantly to a table further down the line, released Blake’s arm, and inclined her head. “If you’ll excuse me for a few minutes, My Lord President, I see the Third Caliph of Morodor is trying to gain my attention. Do enjoy yourselves.”
She nodded to Blake’s crew, who had trailed after them, smiled once more at Blake, and disappeared.
"Vila will be sorry he missed this," Jenna said into the silence.
"I could hardly bring half my cabinet," Blake answered, though it was true. Excellent food, valuables in abundance, a beautiful hostess and a friendly audience—Vila would have been in heaven, and Blake felt a moment's pang at having left him behind. But he'd chosen his party with an eye to practicality, not potential enjoyment. "Someone had to stay behind to look after things."
"Ah, yes," Avon drawled sardonically. "Brave, wise, fair-minded Vila. What better man to leave in charge of a galaxy?"
"Tarrant's in charge, as you well know," Blake told him, and Avon grinned.
"Even better," he said, the mirth colouring his voice turning it sharp. "What could possibly go wrong?"
"I trust Tarrant," Blake snapped, patience wearing thin, "and what's more, Avon, so do you."
The words carried more weight than, for once, he'd intended. Blake and Avon had both trusted Tarrant. Blake had let Tarrant run, Tarrant had warned Avon they'd been betrayed, Avon had swung his gun round, Avon had shot Blake. The blood had soaked through Blake's shirt, seeming to weigh him down as he'd tried to reach Avon, as though by closing the distance between them he might erase the damage.
The memory hung in the air between them, and Avon held Blake's gaze but mercifully didn't answer. Finally his eyes narrowed, and his smile turned wry at the edges and he looked away. Blake realised he'd been holding his breath and released it in a quiet rush. He raised his glass of champagne and knocked it back in one go.
"And Orac's there to keep an eye on both of them," he added, setting the empty class on the table.
"I think you have an admirer in the Duchess," Deva said, in an obvious attempt to change the conversation.
"I don’t think so, Deva," Blake answered, as quellingly as he could.
"She called you a lord among men," Jenna's pointed out.
Blake frowned at her. "I'm president of half a galaxy and she was being polite."
"Lord president, even," Avon murmured.
"I'm not a lord and you all know it." It had come out far too caustically, and Blake sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry. Avon, could I have a word? In private."
“As My Lord President wishes.”
Blake glared at him, catching the edge of Avon’s smirk as he turned away.
"Blake," Jenna said softly, putting her hand on Blake's arm as he moved to follow Avon. "Try not to do something you'll regret."
Blake pulled carefully away from her. "Too late for that, isn't it?" he said.
"Well?" Avon asked, when they'd reached the far end of the dessert table, far enough away from the rest of the guests to speak unheard. Blake started in immediately, before he could lose his nerve.
"Whatever you may believe, Avon, I didn't ask you to accompany me on a diplomatic mission of galactic importance so that you could fire off shots at me between meals."
Avon's face went white, and Blake swore under his breath at his terribly chosen metaphor.
"Why did you ask me, then?" Avon asked, voice very even.
"Dammit, Avon, you know perfectly well why—"
"I don't, in fact. Jenna is your pilot, Soolin is your bodyguard, and Deva's here whenever you want a second opinion. Should such an event ever come to pass."
"When have you ever held back your opinion just because others were weighing in with theirs?"
"You have Deva as advisor, Blake. My presence is redundant."
Blake blinked, momentarily surprised into silence. "Advice is never redundant!" he protested at last, and Avon bared his teeth in something only faintly resembling a smile.
"A good joke, coming from you."
"Ah, My Lord President!"
Blake and Avon turned to face the elderly gentleman Avon had been speaking with earlier. He held out his hand and Blake took it, and was thrown quite off-balance when, instead of shaking it, the man clasped it in his hands and bowed over it.
"President Blake, may I present the First Admiral of the Atlyan Colony Oceans," Avon murmured. "Admiral Katu, President Blake of the New Terran Republic and the Republican Outlying Provinces."
"The pleasure is all mine, my lord," the admiral said happily, as Blake scrambled for a polite, diplomatic mask. In the year and a half since he'd taken the presidency, he'd never heard his title from Avon's lips.
"I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Admiral Katu," he said. "Please do just call me Blake."
"Ah," the admiral replied, smile growing. "News of your humble nature and good will has reached us even here."
Er, surely not, Blake thought, and managed to change it in time to a rather dazed-sounding, "Indeed?" Behind the admiral's back, Avon had adopted one of the more sarcastic expressions in his repertoire, and Blake hoped the admiral would not turn and see it.
"Indeed, the Vice Chancellor of Bryllinat, with whom I was just conversing, has nothing but praise for you and your efforts during the recent separation."
"That's very kind," Blake answered. "It was a complicated endeavour, but everyone involved worked tirelessly on it, and I have great faith in the New Government of Bryllinat." It felt like he was reading the words off a card, but the admiral didn't seem to notice. Instead he nodded enthusiastically as Jenna and Soolin drifted over to join them. "I hope more systems will want to follow their example," Blake added, shifting to make room for them. "Admiral Katu, may I present Admiral Stannis of the New Terran Space Fleet, and this is Soolin, from the Department for Justice and Public Security."
"A great pleasure," Admiral Katu said, bowing over both their hands as he had Blake's.
"I understand your fleet use hovercraft, Admiral Katu," Jenna said. "I would love to ask you a few questions, if you have the time…"
"I'd be delighted," the admiral answered, and she steered him smoothly from the circle and away, in the direction of the appetisers. Blake glanced at Avon in time to see him exchange a significantly blank look with Soolin, who turned silently and followed Jenna.
When Avon met Blake's eyes again, Blake raised his eyebrows pointedly.
"We've been skirting this conversation for two weeks—" Avon said, as if steeling himself.
"Avon, we've been skirting this conversation for two years." Blake sighed. Avon hadn’t mentioned Deva before in any of their conversations, but something in his face when he’d talked about advice had made Blake suspicious. Following the hunch, Blake fixed his eyes on Avon’s and said, "Deva holds the title of Chief Advisor for a number of reasons, one of which is that he's good at it, another of which is that you made it fairly clear you weren't interested in the job yourself. Was I wrong?"
"Not at all," Avon answered, with a smoothness that made Blake even more suspicious. "Which brings us back to the question of why you dragged me along in the guise of advising you."
"And fat lot of good it's done me," Blake said. "Whenever I've asked for your advice, I've gotten an argument instead. No, look, Avon," he said, holding up a hand as Avon snarled and opened his mouth to reply. "I'm not going to be distracted from this—you said Deva's presence made you redundant."
"And?" Avon snapped, but his expression flickered briefly into wariness, and Blake felt another flash of inspiration, and leapt after it.
"I asked you to stay with me and help hold the government together because I needed help, qualified help, and what's more, qualified help I could trust. Are you annoyed because in the years after you left me, I met Deva? Or are you annoyed because after you came back, I asked him to stay?"
Avon's expression had grown deadly. "What are you implying, Blake?"
"What do you want to hear, Avon? I have faith in both your brains and your abilities—anyone in their right mind would have taken the posts as a compliment, not a snub!"
"How magnanimous of you."
"I was sentenced to Cygnus Alpha for attempting to steal five million credits from the Federation banking system, Blake, only a fool would make me Secretary for Finance, so you'll forgive me if I do not take that as a compliment."
"Only a fool wouldn't! If there's anyone who knows his way around money and financial security, Avon, it's you. Who else could I possibly have wanted for the job?"
"Someone you trust, perhaps?" It felt like a slap in the face, and Blake saw Avon wince before continuing. "You've been throwing the word around liberally enough. If you want me to run the Department of Finance, which I must assume you do as you've given me the job, why drag me off my post and across the galaxy to twiddle my thumbs during diplomatic negotiations?"
"Because," Blake answered, with heavy irony, "I wanted people with me I could trust. Good god, Avon." They glared at each other a moment, and then Blake swore and turned away. "It was two years ago."
"And two years later I still can't understand how you could possibly trust a man who shot you three times and left you on the floor for dead." Avon's voice was harsher than Blake had ever heard it, poisonous at the middle and shaking round the edges. “If you insist that you trust me, that makes you either a liar or a fool. Which is it?”
"Neither, Avon," Blake answered softly, and took a deep breath to keep his throat from closing. "But if that’s the way you feel about me, I can't understand why you agreed to stay when I did ask you to." He took a silver cake spatula and cut a small piece of the nearest cake, slathered with what looked like chocolate glaze and scattered over with sugar crystals and bright purple flowers. He dumped it onto a small plate, more for something to do than because he had any appetite. "I never wanted you to help out of charity, Avon. You can always leave if you want to."
"Oh, not that one again, Blake," Avon scoffed.
"You've been tossing that at me like a dare since the day we met."
Blake had picked up a fork and the plate, but he set both back down now, rather than risk breaking the plate into shards in his hand. Or throwing it at Avon's face.
"I 'tossed' that at you whenever you flung your own intention of leaving at me," he argued, furious. "Or whenever you accused me of being dictatorial, or tried to convince the rest of the crew to abandon me to my cause and make off with the ship."
"I do apologise for interrupting," said their hostess's soft voice, and Blake had to shut his eyes and take yet another deep breath before he could turn to face her. "I'm sorry to have neglected you this evening," she continued. Her expression was innocently open, and Blake smiled her, feeling suddenly desperately sad.
"Not at all," he said. "You've been very busy, arranging the conferences and receptions. They have been a great success."
"I think so as well," she answered, beaming, and Blake realised for the first time how very young she was—Avalon’s age, perhaps, or younger.
"Oh yes, I agree," Deva said, appearing on her other side like a magician. "And the room looks beautiful, Your Grace."
"I'm pleased you think so, Vice Chancellor." She really did look pleased, and Blake saw Deva's expression soften a moment into real warmth. He took her hand and brought it to his lips, and then tucked it into his elbow.
"Excuse me for dragging you away, Your Grace, but I remember you mentioned the desserts particularly. Would you be willing to advise me?"
"Oh, very happy to. Excuse me, My Lord President, Chancellor Avon." Blake nodded. Avon had his eyes fixed on the floor, but he bowed as Deva led her off.
"My apologies," Avon said softly, when they were out of earshot. "I—took that a bit far."
Blake sighed and retrieved his plate, taking a small bite of the cake. The glaze was chocolate, but the crystals he'd taken for sugar were salt. The combination was delicious, and the bright purple petal that had pulled free from the flower and accompanied it added a sweet tang. "That's quite good," Blake said, and set it back down. "Deva is qualified,” he said, “he's trustworthy, and he's very smart, but he isn't you. He doesn’t have as wide a skill set as you do, and within his skillset he lacks your creativity. But I was fighting a war, and then I was ruling a galaxy, and I needed you both. And I'm going to continue to need you both if I'm ever to succeed in bringing down the Federation."
"You've already brought down the Federation, Blake,” Avon said, rolling his eyes. “You ought to know, you were there."
"Oh have I?" Blake snapped, his own personal worries overwhelming him abruptly. "When did that happen? The last time I looked, Avon, I was running the damn thing."
Avon blinked, and Blake realised that for the first time, he'd taken Avon by surprise.
"You're not," Avon said shortly. "The Republic—"
"Oh what's the difference? Call it what you like—"
"You're not Servalan, Blake."
It was astonishing that after hurling insults at him in a ballroom full of people, Avon could look at Blake and cut straight to the heart of his insecurities. "Aren't I?" he asked, and rubbed a hand over his face, feeling suddenly exhausted. "Nothing's changed at all—"
"Self-pity, My Lord President?"
"Oh give it a rest, Avon—"
"The difference is you."
"What has changed, Blake, is that you are now president—and that has changed everything."
His tone was serious and starkly honest, and Blake blinked at him, surprised at the sudden change. And, though he tried not to be, touched by it. "Has it?" he asked.
Avon watched him a moment, expression wary. "Defeatism is unlike you."
"I don't feel all that well," Blake answered, and then found it was more true than he'd realised. His shoulders were tight and aching, and, as he took a breath, his stomach cramped and then eased. "In fact, I don't feel well at all." He put out a hand to lean against the table, and it seemed to jump away from him. He stumbled and Avon stepped forward and caught him, looking surprised.
"The room's gone…very bright," Blake said, teeth clenched as his stomach cramped again.
"Are you all right?"
"No, I don't think so. I feel—ill."
"Ill. What did you eat?"
Blake blinked as the floor faded out of focus and then back in again. "Hmm?"
"What have you eaten?" Avon asked again, shaking him slightly, and Blake winced.
"Ow, Avon. Don't."
Avon manoeuvred him gently to the table and Blake leaned against it gratefully. The cramping had subsided, but the room was still swimming and he felt nauseous. Avon was listing his meagre dinner under his breath, hands still wrapped around Blake's shoulders, steadying. "There was the champagne, and the cake—but I had both earlier and I feel fine. Unless someone slipped something into your glass deliberately—You! Boy!"
Blake looked up to see a young man in the Duchess's red and silver livery scurry over.
"The President has been taken unwell, very suddenly. Is there anything in the food here he should not have eaten?"
"No, sir, it's all perfectly fine for humans, we made absolutely sure. Nothing except for the wine, that is."
"We were warned about the wine," Blake told him. The room swam back into focus and the nausea vanished. He took a careful breath, and another, and then it returned.
"There must be something," Avon insisted, and the server's gaze swept over the table and then paused on Blake's plate.
"You didn’t—did you—eat any of that flower?" the server asked nervously. Avon and Blake looked down at the flower still draped elegantly over the slice of cake, albeit missing a petal now.
"He did," Avon rapped out, and the server swallowed, looking abruptly very pale. Avon's fingers tightened in Blake’s shoulders, seemingly involuntarily. "Is it poisonous?"
"Not—poisonous, precisely…" the boy answered faintly.
"Precisely?" Avon echoed.
"Poison tends to be fairly precise," Blake agreed, feeling grim.
"Well?" Avon prompted, when no answer was immediately forthcoming.
"It's—no, we make our wine from this flower. It's only wine! But humans...react strangely..."
His voice trailed off, and Blake, remembering the Duchess's warning earlier, said succinctly, "Hell."
"I'm so sorry, My Lord President!" The boy wailed.
Blake sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm—not a lord," he muttered, for what seemed the tenth time, and struggled to get his thoughts in order. "All right, tell me what exactly this drug will do to me, how long it will last, and what we have to do to get rid of it. Or will it wear off on its own?"
"I think it'll wear off," the server assured him. "Er, eventually."
"And the effects?" Avon asked. The boy continued to look miserable, and Avon prompted again, "Well?" He released one of Blake's shoulders but kept his grip on the other, and his fingers flexed. The pressure felt surprisingly good, easing the tension there, and Blake let his eyes flutter briefly shut.
"For us, wine is a depressant," the server said. "You know. A relaxant. Humans have the...opposite reaction."
"A stimulant," Avon offered.
"Well," the boy said, meeting their eyes wretchedly, "yes."
There was a moment of silence while his meaning sank in, and another as Blake hoped fervently that he'd misunderstood. In the next second a quick, brief wave of chemically-induced adrenaline, just hinting at arousal, swept through him. "Hell," he said again quietly, and raised a hand to rub at his temples. His hand was shaking.
The server, Blake saw when he'd regained control and looked back up, was still looking horrified. Avon was staring at the boy, his face blank with shock, and then he met Blake's eyes and his expression went suddenly, terribly vulnerable—ironic, Blake thought, considering which of them would soon be at the mercy of an aphrodisiac the Duchess of Yse had described as 'intense.'
"Well," he said, pushing himself away from the table and straightening his jacket. He swallowed against another flare of adrenaline, keeping his voice cool with effort. "I think I'd better retire then."
"Wait a moment, not yet," Avon said swiftly.
"We need to know more."
"You don't need to be involved at all, Avon," Blake pointed out. "I can weather this alone."
"You are not roaming the palace in a drugged stupor, Blake. I'll escort you to your rooms." His expression was challenging.
"I will. And in the meantime, I'd like to know more." He swung back to face the server. "You said the effects wear off on their own?"
"Yes," the young man said timidly. "I think so."
"You think so."
"I don't really know…"
"Find me someone who does, and send them to the president's quarters. Go. And be very, very discreet."
The server vanished gratefully into the crowd, and Avon slid his hand from Blake's shoulder to his elbow and pulled gently, leading him toward the exit.
"How are you feeling?" he asked, more quietly.
"I'm all right, Avon. You don't have to do this."
"You've been drugged and neither of us knows how badly. This is not the time to be stoic."
"This is exactly the time to be stoic." Avon's touch on his elbow was light, but the heat from his hand was bleeding through Blake's sleeve and sending shivers of want through him. He grit his teeth and bore down on them.
"Perhaps the reason I seemed uninterested in the job,” Avon snapped, “was due to the three years I spent in your company, in which you consistently refused to listen to anyone but yourself.”
"Don't be absurd. I often took your advice."
"That is a lie, Blake, at times you asked for my advice, and always invariably ignored it."
Blake laughed, a little breathlessly, and hoped Avon hadn't notice. "That's a lie. Avon, perhaps it would be better—" He stopped, and Avon stopped as well and looked at him questioningly. "Better," Blake repeated, and was unable to keep his voice steady this time, "if you didn't touch me."
Avon blinked, and then looked down at his hand on Blake's elbow as if seeing it for the first time. Avon released him and Blake breathed a sigh equal parts regret and relief. Then Avon's hand trailed down his arm, fingers curving in to knead gently, and the breath caught in Blake's throat.
"That bad already?"
"Yes," Blake ground out.
Avon's hand dropped back to his side. "Come along, then."
They started back down the hallway, but even without the contact, Blake couldn't quite manage to catch his breath. His arm tingled where Avon had touched him, and Avon's body heat seemed to tug at him as they walked side by side, and it was becoming difficult to take steady, even steps. Blake caught himself halfway through a fantasy in which he pulled Avon into an empty room and tore off all his clothes and took him up against the back of the door, and had to pause, a hand against the wall for support. His heart was racing.
Avon's voice sounded concerned, and so Blake started to straighten, to continue on, to open his mouth to say something, anything, to reassure him. But Avon's hands closed around his shoulders again, his eyes, looking worriedly into Blake's, inches away, and in the next moment Blake had caught him round the waist and pulled him up against the wall, pinning him there and kissing him.
Avon gasped, and Blake took the opportunity and took his mouth, and Avon made a muffled, helpless sound that went straight to Blake's groin. He slid a hand down Avon's back and pressed their hips closer and felt Avon scrabbling at his shoulders.
Up from somewhere under the firestorm of lust came the knowledge that after years, years, of struggling to maintain what was at best a strained acquaintance, Blake was kissing Avon. Was kissing Avon where anyone might come upon them, and when he was in a position of legal authority, was in the wake of the worst argument he'd had in years, and was drugged, and therefore was quite probably ruining any chance he might ever have had with the man he'd been in love with since their days on the Liberator.
The thought was enough to break him away, and he retreated to the opposite wall, gasping for breath and trembling while every fibre of his being demanded he go back and pick up where he'd left off.
"I'm sorry. God, I'm sorry Avon."
"You're—not yourself," Avon answered after a moment. He sounded equally breathless, and Blake felt a pang at having thrown him against the wall hard enough, apparently, to knock the air out of his lungs.
"That's no excuse." A particularly strong wave of desire shook him, and Blake couldn't quite bite back a moan. "You'd—better leave me."
"You'll," Avon cleared his throat and started again. "You'll ravage the next person who comes upon you," he joked. The waver in his voice ruined the effect somewhat. "Which would be rather embarrassing, wouldn't you think? Politically and personally."
"This is already embarrassing, Avon—very—"
"Come on," Avon said, and his voice was steadier. "Not much farther to go, now."
Blake gathered his strength and pushed away from the wall. He was unsteady but not quite as badly off as he'd been seconds earlier. His vision sharpened and grew brighter, and he felt briefly nauseous again, but he set off down the hall after Avon, who kept in front and just out of reach. Blake kept his eyes on the floor, and off temptation, as much as possible.
The nausea passed ten feet from the door to his suite, and he experienced a sudden, perfectly lucid moment before the arousal was back full-force. He bit down on a knuckle as Avon paused before the door and looked back at him.
"It'll want your palm print, Blake."
"Yours will do."
Avon's eyebrows rose abruptly, and he pressed a palm to the reader beside the door. It glowed gold around his hand and the door slid open, and he stepped back, gesturing Blake in first.
"Thank you," Blake said shakily. "I'll be fine from here, Avon, you can leave—"
"We still know nothing about this—"
"We know quite enough to know you should get out before I lose control again." Blake stumbled into the room and propped himself against the wall, arms crossed tightly over his chest. He'd managed to keep from touching himself all the way here, but he didn't imagine he'd be able to contain himself much longer. He was beginning to feel he'd go out of his mind if he didn't get relief. "The boy said it would wear off."
"He said he thought it would wear off. That is not enough of a guarantee for me. In case you've forgotten I ordered him to send someone more knowledgeable about the situation to your rooms, and you're hardly in a fit state to receive guests, are you?"
"What was your plan, Avon, to tidy me into a cupboard when they arrive, until they go away again? I need—" He shuddered. "I need privacy, just go."
"No, that was not my plan." Blake's eyes flew open. Avon had approached silently and was now standing close enough that his breath played on Blake's cheek. Blake reached out for him before he knew what he was doing, clenching his fingers in the fabric of Avon's shirt. "I'd imagine we have a little time before company arrives. And you need to take the edge off, I think."
Avon's voice was soft. Blake's heart felt as though it were about to beat through his ribs. The nausea was back, but it had nothing on the arousal.
"I can take care—" of myself was lost as Avon leaned in and kissed him, open mouthed and inviting. The sensation was shattering, and Blake wrapped his arms around Avon and they stumbled toward the bed. Avon's arms were warm and heavy across Blake's shoulders, his velvet tunic soft under Blake's hands, and he was making quiet, agreeable noises around the kisses and Blake's chest hurt with it. Everything hurt—he'd been aroused too long and he wasn't sure at this point if orgasm would be more pleasurable than painful, but he knew it was close either way. Their legs hit the bed and Avon bent his knees, dragging Blake down on top of him and tugging him close. His hands cupped Blake's buttocks, pressing their groins together. He was aroused as well and Blake was hit with a wave elation and relief, that Avon was at least enjoying himself, not bored or disgusted, even if he were doing this out of a sense of obligation.
"Avon," he gasped. "Avon. Do you know how long I’ve wanted—?" And then he couldn't stop kissing Avon long enough to draw breath, but it didn’t seem particularly important, not when his tongue was in Avon's mouth, and Avon's fingers were digging into his backside and Avon's hips were rising to meet his on every thrust. He didn't break away until orgasm hit, and then he pressed his forehead to Avon's shoulder and shook his way through it.
He came down from it rapidly, in time to realise two things: that he hadn't managed to remove even a stitch of clothing—in fact the thought hadn't even occurred to him in the heat of the moment—and that he was still aroused.
He rolled off Avon to lie next to him, trying to suppress a jumble of emotions—panic at the thought that this might not wear off, quickly followed by desperation. A thread of pleasure from the orgasm still threaded through his veins, but the need was building up again, shunting it aside.
"Any better?" Avon asked, sounding dazed.
"I'm afraid not," Blake answered, rubbing a hand through his hair. His forehead was sweaty, and the sweat was clinging to his curls and drying them in salt. "Temporary relief, but—it's getting as bad as it ever was."
"Mmm." Avon propped himself up on an elbow and Blake shut his eyes rather than look at him and imagine removing the velvet tunic, the knee-high boots, the tight trousers. So the light, chaste kiss Avon placed on his lips was a surprise. "If at first you don't succeed," he whispered, and then couldn't say anything for a long moment as Blake caught Avon's head in his hands and kissed him until they were both breathless again. "Would you like," Avon managed finally, between kisses, "to fuck me?"
The offer registered through the haze of want and Blake opened his eyes and looked up at him, somehow shocked. And then even the lust faded slightly as a revelation swam slowly, ominously, into his consciousness. Avon's dark eyes were darker than ever, his hair dishevelled, his lips red and slightly swollen from kissing. His body was pressed to Blake's side and his erection to Blake's leg, and a small smile played around his mouth. But under the vision of debauchery was tension—a fear, Blake realised, not that he would say yes, but that he would say no.
The revelation was too much, for the moment, to process, so he ignored it. "Yes," he breathed, "but I can't. I don’t have the control, Avon, not—not now. But you—if you would." He swallowed and added, as politely as he could, “Please.”
Avon stilled, eyes searching Blake's face as if his feelings might be written there. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Blake answered. He tugged Avon onto him, wrapping his knees around Avon's hips and bucking up into him and wondering vaguely whether he could manage to wait until they got their clothes off this time. "Please," he whispered, as he felt Avon still hesitating. "I want you. Please."
“All right,” Avon said at last, and kissed him once more and then, incomprehensibly, pulled away. Blake reached out for him blindly, catching a handful of Avon’s sleeve.
“Clothes, Blake. And—”
“—lubricant, we can’t—”
There was a brief flurry, and try as he did to get hold of the situation, only pieces came through: mounting lust, mounting panic, his hands tugging at Avon’s jacket, trying to pull him closer, and Avon resisting and tugging, in turn, at his trousers—and then Avon’s hand was on him and Blake arched into it and became lost in the tightness of Avon’s grip and the roughness of his fingers, until he found himself gasping for breath in the wake of another orgasm. Avon tugged again at his trousers and Blake lifted his hips automatically, blinking into the light and struggling to determine which way was up.
“I’ll be back in a moment.”
It was whispered into his ear, and by the time Blake had lifted a hand to touch Avon’s face, he’d gone. The bed heaved slightly, and Blake heard his footsteps fading. Up was in front of him, he told himself. Right above him. He was lying on his back in bed and Avon had agreed to sleep with him, had agreed to do more than just provide a willing body, had kissed him and had offered—and then agreed—
Blake screwed his eyes shut and twisted his fingers into the bedclothes. The desire was growing once again, and the lucidity diminishing. He turned his head and watched Avon return from the bathroom, a vial in hand, watched him pause to close the shutters and dim the lights. Blake shut his eyes and whispered Avon’s name, half to himself, and felt as much as heard Avon breathe, “I’m here,” against his lips.
He wasn’t sure how Avon got him out of his clothing, only that it was heaven, and then almost immediately torture, as he lay with the sheets against his bare skin and Avon, somewhere above him and remaining determinedly out of reach, removing his own clothes. He shut his eyes, knowing somehow that to watch would be madness, and listened to the soft sound of the velvet moving across Avon’s skin and the soft sound of the velvet hitting the floor, and he pressed his feet into the sheets and seemed to feel each thread against his soles and he writhed, aware that he was beginning to lose his mind and needing more all the same. And then Avon scooted forward and the tops of his thighs pressed gently against the back of Blake’s, and Blake nearly sobbed with it.
“How do you feel?” Avon asked softly, and Blake coughed out a laugh and answered, shakily,
Avon leaned in to kiss him again, pushing Blake’s legs wider apart and making Blake’s head spin. “Is this all right?”
“It’s all all right, it’s fine, more than fine, more—”
Avon pushed a slick finger into him, with delicate, painful care, feeling for his prostate and then pressing at it gently, again and again, until Blake felt himself unravelling a third time. He breathed into the moment of limp, clear relief, felt Avon add another finger and tried to say something appreciative, which failed completely to reach articulacy, and then trembled and whined as Avon added a third. He heard his name and answered with Avon’s, and then Avon was pushing in and Blake bucked up into him and Avon swore, hands scrambling at the sheets.
“Wait,” he gasped.
“No, Avon, please, please—”
“Blake, stop, just give me a moment—”
Blake ran his hands down Avon chest, feeling the hair and the skin beneath it and the muscle beneath that, all brushing across his fingertips. Then, as Avon was still keeping himself absolutely still above Blake, eyes closed and lip caught between his teeth, he slid a hand around Avon’s cheek to cradle his head and whispered, “Avon.”
Emotion welled up in a rising tide, sweeping through the lust and turning it into something impossible. “I love you.”
Avon choked. “Blake,” he said. Blake opened his mouth to answer and Avon leaned forward, pressing his lips briefly to Blake’s chest. “Don’t. You’re drugged—”
“It was only ever you, Avon. Always. Only you.”
“Blake, please, I won’t—I won’t last. Please. Give me a moment, just a moment.”
Blake took a deep breath and tried to force himself still, though he could feel himself trembling in the sheets, in Avon’s arms. Avon brushed a hand lightly across his shoulder, down his chest, and stopped inches above the scar tissue that mottled Blake’s stomach. His fingers twisted in on themselves, and his knuckles pressed briefly into Blake’s ribs. Blake caught his hand and laced their fingers together and saw white crescents where Avon's nails had dug into his palms.
“Don’t,” he echoed, and sighed. “Not now.” And, as Avon remained motionless, added, “Just believe me, Avon. Now come on.” He shifted suggestively and tightened his muscles around Avon, and Avon’s hips rocked forward and his shoulders spasmed.
Avon laughed, sounding strained, and cleared his throat. "Still that bad?”
“Yes,” Blake said, “now come on.”
“I should have eaten some of that flower myself, to keep up with you," Avon joked.
But Blake caught a glimpse of his face, and saw his teeth clench and his eyes shut tight, saw Avon drop his face to rest his forehead against Blake’s chest, as if he’d broken.
They’d worked through the worst of the intensity and the drug was on the decline when the knock came. Avon extracted himself from the bedclothes with a groan and went to answer the door, and Blake gratefully let himself drift back down into a state of semi-consciousness.
“He’s fine,” he heard Avon say softly. “He’ll be fine.” Avon sounded far surer on the subject than Blake felt.
He was better, yes, but he was hardly fine. Ghostly waves of lust had continued to sweep over him during the night, coming and going seemingly randomly and leaving him drained. They woke him from half-dreams and made him toss and turn, until Avon gathered him up and stroked him and kissed his neck and the orgasms, weaker each time, chased them away again. It was possible Blake had had more sex in the past night than he had in all his life together. It had left his body exhausted and his mind scattered.
He felt nothing but relief when the door finally shut against their visitor and Avon returned to bed. Blake rolled onto his stomach and reached out, and felt Avon's chest rising and falling under his arm as he fell asleep.
He woke to empty space beside him, and the disappointment was as strong as it was brief. Then he pushed it away and rolled onto his back, wincing at stiff muscles, to stare up at the ceiling. His throat was sore, as was most of his body, and he imagined he might have a colourful bruise here and there.
The door to the bath opened and Avon emerged, in a sky blue robe and towelling water from his hair. He'd looked sweaty and mussed and desirable last night, Blake remembered, and he looked equally desirable now, though the thought of yet more sex was off-putting to the point of painful.
"You're still here," Blake said, surprised, and considered too late how tactless it might sound. Avon's slight smile said it hadn't been lost on him.
"I am. I thought I'd probably better stay until we were sure you were—" He hesitated a long moment, and then finished, "all right."
Blake laughed shortly, pushing himself slowly up to sitting, and wincing as his body protested. "I'm all right."
"You don't need further—"
"No, definitely not. I'm exhausted." He smiled slightly at Avon, who nodded, looking serious.
"And I thought we ought to discuss last night."
Blake had wanted the two of them to have this conversation for months, and now that the opportunity was here, he wanted nothing more than to send Avon out the door and slide back under the blankets and hide. He rubbed a hand over his face and tried to pull himself together.
"Perhaps I should wash and dress first."
Emotion flashed across Avon's face too quickly for Blake to catch it, and then he was nodding. "We've been called to breakfast in two hours," he said, turning away and tossing the towel in his hands over the back of a nearby chair.
Blake steeled himself, threw aside the covers, and attempted to stand. He managed it, with a slight wobble, and looked up to see Avon watching him, as if wondering whether he'd need assistance to the bathroom.
"I'm fine, really," he said, and Avon nodded again.
"I'll get dressed, although I want to stop by my rooms for fresh clothes. Don't take too long."
The shower was heavenly. Blake leaned against the tiled wall and let the hot water beat down on him like a rainstorm and wondered what last night would mean for them this morning.
Yes, he'd assumed it was only a sense of duty that had prompted Avon to ask after Blake's health, to hurry Blake away from the party, to offer to help Blake 'take the edge off.' He'd assumed that, right up until Avon had offered more and Blake realised he'd been entirely wrong. The look in Avon's eyes had been hope and fear. It had been the look of a man laying all his cards on the table.
Blake took a deep breath and ran a hand through his wet hair, pushing it back off his forehead. Looking back on the evening now, the truth was painfully obvious. The way Avon had abandoned their argument the moment Blake had become unwell, his insistence on escorting Blake back to his rooms, touching Blake's arm in the hallway, keening into Blake's mouth as Blake had pinned him against the wall. The catch in his voice when he'd suggested Blake might end up in bed with someone else.
The way he’d looked when Blake had told him he loved him.
Against it all were the constant tension, the strained arguments, the regret and bitterness he knew they both still felt at the mistakes they'd made on Gauda Prime. If Avon cared for Blake as much as Blake cared for Avon, why in hell hadn’t he said so? Blake had been suppressing his feelings for Avon for years, on the assumption that they were hopeless. How long had Avon been trying to hide his own? On the Liberator, he’d never been adept at disguising his emotions—which might explain the overt hostility he’d deliberately wedged between them during the past two years, when he’d found himself unable to avoid Blake’s company.
Still, Blake reminded himself, he couldn’t reasonably assign all the blame away. Avon might be a terrible actor, but Blake was good enough, too good, for the both of them.
Avon was mostly dressed when Blake returned to the bedroom, in his slacks and shirt from the evening before. His jacket was draped over the arm of a chair, in which he was sitting, pulling on his second boot. He glanced up as Blake entered. His hair was still damp and curling a bit at the edges, his shirt was only half buttoned and gaped open over his collar bones and chest. Blake wanted to go to him, to fasten the remaining buttons and lean down and press a kiss to Avon’s lips. He suppressed the impulse and went instead to his wardrobe.
"You can borrow something if you like," he said casually over his shoulder, pulling on pants and trousers.
"And in what way do you imagine that would be less obvious than wearing the clothes I left the party in last night?"
Blake inclined his head in acknowledgement and tugged at the first shirt he saw, discovered once he had it in his hand that it was a nightshirt, and shoved it back in.
"Green is always a good choice," Avon suggested, voice overly-mild.
"I wore green last night."
"Yes, you did."
Blake turned to see Avon staring into space, a slightly wistful smile on his face. He caught Blake watching and his face went immediately blank, and then he blinked and his lips twisted into something self-deprecating and he looked away.
Blake chose something in a dark steel blue, dragged it over his head without paying much attention, and walked back across the room to sit deliberately in the chair opposite Avon. He rested an ankle across his knee and laced his fingers together and then—waited, testing the feel of the room. Avon met his eyes with purpose, but said nothing, and after a moment Blake said softly,
He watched Avon's chest rise and fall once, slowly, and then Avon said, "You're welcome."
"Now? I believe breakfast—"
"Don't, Avon. You wanted to talk."
"Not especially," Avon said. "But I think we ought to, even so."
The trouble was where to begin. Blake struggled a moment, and then decided to circle back to the beginning.
"Are you jealous of Deva?" Avon's eyes narrowed, and Blake cursed. "Dammit, Avon. Are you?"
"No. I'm not."
Blake took a breath. "All right. Then what is the problem between you two?"
Avon considered the question, and then said, "You."
Blake considered arguing that, and then let it drop. "Me."
"I see. What happens now, Avon?"
Avon looked away for the first time, but not quickly enough to keep Blake from seeing the flash of pain that crossed his face. "Now that you know how I feel?"
"You know how I feel, now," Blake pointed out.
"I told you last night—"
"You were drugged, Blake."
He remembered thinking the same, wondering whether Avon would take the aphrodisiac as an excuse. It seemed he would.
"True. But I'm not drugged now and I feel the same way about you. It's the same way I felt the day before yesterday, incidentally, and the day before that. It's the way I've felt for the last seven years."
Avon turned and met his eyes again.
"My question," Blake continued, "is whether that means anything to you, now."
"I'm not sure," Avon said, at last.
Outside the window was a faint flurry of activity and voices, crossing the courtyard and soon fading away. The two of them would be late for breakfast if they kept at this much longer, but that was a chance Blake didn't mind taking.
"Do you believe me?" he asked.
Avon hesitated. "I wouldn't have," he replied, "except—you programmed my palm print into your door."
"Well," Blake said, trying to lighten the weight in the room with humour. "You might have wanted to come argue more, one night."
Avon favoured him with a wry smile. "I think we've argued enough, don't you?"
"Yes." Another group of people passed by, and Blake waited until the room was silent again before continuing. "Are you still angry with me, Avon?"
Avon tensed—his eyelids flickered, and his fingers twitched briefly against the arm of the chair before he stilled them.
"Yes," he answered, finally. "I'm sorry." He fixed his eyes on Blake, expression sober. "Are you still angry with me?"
He wasn't, really. He'd ceased to be angry long ago, but the hurt had remained—that Avon hadn't trusted him, that Avon hadn't trusted him. He still hurt, even now. Filled with a childlike sense of the injustice of it, that Avon, the one man who should have known him…hadn't believed him.
It wasn't an answer he could give, though. To deny that he was angry with Avon would imply that Avon's anger with him was petty. And it wasn't as though Blake wasn't angry, not really. He was angry with himself.
"I don’t know," he said at last. "It's been so long. I think at this point I'm just—tired."
Avon hesitated, and then nodded.
"I'm sorry," Blake said. "I'm sorry I didn't give you more—or anything at all—to go on. I assumed you would believe me, Avon. I assumed everything would be fine. I took you for granted." He took a deep breath. Avon was absolutely still. "I remember thinking—'Now everything will be right.' I kept thinking that, right up until it wasn't."
"Until I shot you."
"I love you, too," Avon said. It was completely unexpected, but then he continued, "You know that." And Blake did.
"Yes,” he breathed, and it felt like freedom and it felt like the end. “But does that help?” he asked. “At all?"
“It helps," Avon said.
"But it doesn't fix this."
"Did you expect it to?" Avon laughed shortly. "I've known love, Blake. It doesn't fix anything." He stood. "I need to go to my rooms to change."
Blake stood as well. "Avon."
Avon stilled, his back facing Blake. "It doesn't fix anything.”
"No," Blake agreed, "that's true. But it's a start, isn't it?"
Avon turned, and walked slowly back and looked the half-inch up into Blake's eyes.
"Yes," he said, and his hand rested on Blake's shoulder, and his lips touched Blake's cheek. "It is."