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Things That Happen in the Dark

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Hunger and thirst are really the least of Blake's current problems, but that doesn't make them easier to ignore. It was all right earlier, when he was busy. But now, with nothing to do but wait until dawn, they poke at him as insistently as the knot in the tree branch he's leaning on.

He's not exactly going to be fighting fit tomorrow.

"Blake, stop making that noise," says Avon, a sneering blur on a neighbouring branch.

"I wasn't - "

"You were sighing."

"I - "

"Here you are on the eve of the martyrdom you so obviously crave, and you're still not content. You ought to be singing. Go on, give us a rabble-rousing chorus."

There's so much to object to that Blake hardly knows where to start. "I'm no happier about this than you are."

"Really? Your heart doesn't beat a little faster at the thought of once again displaying your moral superiority to Travis? By dying, I imagine. He's bound to kill you. He's so much better at killing than you are."

"Thank you."

"It wasn't a compliment."

Blake had meant the thanks ironically, more or less. But Avon seems to view irony as something that happens to other people.

"If you'd killed him when you should have done," Avon continues, "you wouldn't be here. And neither, more importantly, would I."

Which is indisputably true. Blake could explain why he won't cold-bloodedly execute a man who might later be a threat. Those are Federation tactics, and resistance to the Federation has nothing to offer except different tactics. Nothing except moral superiority. But saying so is bound to seem pompous, and Avon's not exactly in a listening mood anyway. "Sorry about that."

"An apology from the great Roj Blake--I feel much better now about tomorrow's opportunity to illustrate the death of a friend."

"I am sorry."

"If your two madwomen had bothered to ask, I could have explained that, as I am not by any conceivable definitional looseness your friend, I am unqualified to be murdered."

It would be nice to be sure that Avon had meant that to wound. That it hadn't been, much more woundingly, a mere statement of fact. "Perhaps what matters isn't your affection for me," Blake says, trying to wrap himself in a bit of concealing dignity, "but mine for you."

The effect isn't quite what Blake was hoping for. "Your affection is bait that lures fools to follow you. To die for you. Kindly restrain yourself from - "

"Leave it, Avon!" If Travis is anywhere nearby, he heard that. Blake wrestles his temper down and adds, more quietly, "Don't be bloody to me over something that isn't even my fault."

"Of course it's your fault. If it weren't for you I'd - "

"Have been chucked out of the London's airlock like all the other prisoners. Or at best you'd be on Cygnus Alpha, bowing and scraping to a lot of self-appointed priests of a god you're too intelligent to believe in."

"Do you imagine I'm helpless without your heroic leadership? I can assure you . . ."

Blake stops listening. He's been angry at Avon before, hurt by him, but this is the first time he's ever been bored. It's not like Avon to go on and on. His usual style is fast, cool, and precise, the verbal equivalent of a nuclear strike from space. Something's got him rattled, and it's not just Travis. It's something immediate. Something Avon doesn't want to admit, or he'd have included it in his highly comprehensive list of things that are Blake's fault. Something . . .

"Avon," Blake says, interrupting, "you're afraid of the dark, aren't you?"

There's a pause of four whole seconds--Blake counts--then Avon says savagely, "Don't be ridiculous."

"Of course you are. It's natural. You grew up in the domes. I reckon this is the first time you've ever been outside at night."

Avon is silent, but Blake knows he's furious. He can almost see it, the cold impenetrable rage between them like a force field. It might have been better to let him rant. Blake tries what he should have said in the first place. "I was thirteen or fourteen, the first time I left the domes. My parents sent me to visit an uncle on - on a fairly primitive planet. I hardly slept for days because I couldn't stop thinking of what might be out there in all that darkness, creeping up on us and licking its chops. Finally my uncle caught on and talked to me. As it turned out, the planet's largest predator is about twenty centimetres long and eats insects." He doesn't mention the less rational part, the nameless fears of nameless things, which he never entirely got over.

"As helpful as your childhood reminiscences were undoubtedly meant to be," Avon says, "we have no such assurance about this planet's predators."

"Travis and I are meant to fight each other. We can't do that if something's already killed us."

"So we're relying on the judgment of our captors? Blake, how the hell did you live this long?"

Ever since the uprising on the London, Blake has been sure that he'll die at the end of a gun. Or, worse, inside a prison. He'd stopped worrying about lesser possibilities, until this moment. Every rustle and dry-branch crack from the forest floor is charged with threat. "You've got me scared now, too. Thanks."

"Good," Avon says. "I should hate to be terrified alone."

Under the smug drawl of a man who's pleased by his own joke, Blake thinks he hears a dissonant note of honesty. Avon can only be sincere by accident, when his mind's on something else or he's taken by surprise. Bombs and dark nights bring it out. It's almost an inducement to lead him into danger. Poor Avon. More irony happens to him than he seems to realise.

Blake reaches towards him, scrapes a knuckle on a branch, and eventually finds Avon's hand. He squeezes it, not saying a word. Maybe it's to take him by surprise again, or maybe it's to stop the damned endless quibbling Avon's capable of. If he said I'm here, Avon would just mock.

In silence, Avon turns his hand so they're palm to palm, and grips hard. It can only happen in silence, Blake thinks. It can only happen in the dark, when definitions come loose.

They're never going to talk about it. It's not going to make Avon any easier to deal with, later, if they live.

And Blake is still afraid. He's still hungry and thirsty. He still might die tomorrow.

Holding Avon's hand, he waits for daylight.