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Refuge, as the resort imaginatively called itself, turned out to be just as beautiful as its elaborate hologrammatic adverts. Just as dull, too. In quick succession, Avon grew bored with the meditation gardens, the flowering woods, the beach, the mud baths, the steam baths, the mineral baths, the tennis courts, the riding stables, and the zoo. The library and vidchip collection held nothing but featherbrained popular fiction. A computerised game in which a brave Federation space commander hunted down terrorists was amusing for almost seven hours; once Avon had achieved the new high score, he reprogrammed it so the terrorists would always get away. After that, there was nothing to do unless he fancied talking to his fellow tourists--doughy financiers and politicians from a dozen overprosperous neutral worlds, who wore concealing hats and sunglasses in the delusion that they might otherwise be the centre of attention.

Instead, Avon stayed in his sunny, airy room (that pleasure, at least, didn't pall), caught up on a year's worth of sleep, and started drawing up power-efficiency schemes for the Liberator. Being forced to choose between acceleration and the force shield was likely to be fatal someday.

He also began skipping the unofficially-mandatory dinners together with the others. Blake's hearty attempts at good management, or rather at jollying everyone along until he felt they'd rested sufficiently to be useful again, were enough to put Avon off some of the best cooking he'd ever tasted.

For two blissful days, he saw no one but the resort cleaners and waitstaff, who could be made silent and quick by a thirty-credit tip. But even this limited version of paradise was too good to last. On the afternoon of the third day, a particularly beautiful set of calculations was interrupted by a soft knock at the door. Avon ignored it, sliding a bit lower into his chaise longue. The knock came again, louder, after a few seconds. "Are you in there?" The voice, naturally, was Blake's. "It's me."

"I've gone out," Avon said. "Try again later. Perhaps next week."

"I need to talk to you." He sounded odd somehow--constrained, anxious. It might be nothing, but ignoring what might be nothing made for a short life. "Avon?" called Blake again. Perhaps the planet had suddenly gone over to the Federation. Perhaps Travis, with the cunning that was paranoia's poisoned gift, had tracked them down.

Avon rolled to his feet, strapped on his gunbelt, and walked, shoeless, over the plush carpet to the door.

Whipping the door open, he pointed the gun at Blake's startled face. There was no Travis holding him prisoner, no Servalan, no holiday-making Federation bureaucrat or pragmatic local eager for the reward. Only Blake, looking dishevelled in tan linen and sandals. He grasped the end of Avon's gun and pushed it aside. "So you were in after all," he said, with a smile as prefabricated and rickety as a block of Delta flats.

Avon's hands were shaking. Too much adrenaline. This life was conditioning him into overreaction and fear. "Before you ask, the answer is no," he said, holstering the gun and crossing his arms. "I don't care who needs rescuing or what juicy bit of political gossip you've heard. I don't care if Central Control is hidden in a sub-basement under the massage room. You and your muddle-headed plans will not interrupt my holiday." The point of holidays--the only point, as far as Avon had ever been able to see--was having a span of time no one else could claim. "And if you so much as think about trying to give me an order, I'll put your precious ideal of freedom into practice and go on strike."

"Avon, do you suppose I could come in while you finish your tantrum?"

"This is not a tantrum, it's merely the refusal of abject servility. How like you to confuse them."

Blake didn't answer. Avon was about to shut the door in his face when Blake frowned and started chewing nervously on the edge of his thumbnail. Perhaps it really was important. Avon let him in, locked the door, and switched on the room's sound baffles and anti-surveillance firewalls. Boring it might be, but Refuge had a deserved reputation as discreet. "Well?" he said.

That deflated Blake, as blunt questions often did. Jamming his hands into his pockets, he crossed the room to the balcony door and stood with his nose almost touching the insect screen, looking out at the sea. "Beautiful sunset tonight."

"They always are," Avon said. "The Tourism Conglomerate has a weather satellite that pumps refractive particles into the air. Or so the brochure claims." He stowed his gunbelt on the bedside table and stretched out on the chaise again. No reason to let Blake reduce his comfort during this inane small talk. Reluctantly, he put aside the handheld dataport with his calculations. It was going to take ages to think himself back into them.

Staring heavenward as though he hoped to spot the satellite, Blake asked, "Are you enjoying yourself here?"

"Oh, yes. I especially like the privacy." That had all the impact of a leaf dropped off a cliff. Blake didn't even glance at him. "I'm fond of solitude. Perhaps you've noticed."

"Good, good." It was, Avon recalled from too many unavoidable corporate parties, the kind of answer the boss made when he hadn't been listening. "Rest works wonders. I'm feeling better than I have in months. More energetic, more alive." Blake's head turned a few centimetres, and Avon heard his sudden deep breath. "My libido's even perked up. Got rather difficult to ignore." He laughed, too loudly.

"How nice for you." Trust Blake, who never revealed a plan until he was dragging you to the teleport room, to be grotesquely informative about the one thing Avon least wanted to know. "And how fortunate that the resort staff includes highly trained, and, I imagine, enthusiastic professionals."

Blake turned, as jerkily as something mechanical, and looked at him. "I don't want a professional. Paying someone to . . . it's disgusting. It must disgust them."

Money, Avon thought, was a highly effective anti-nausea treatment. But Blake was the sort to go around inventing moral restrictions. One of these days he was going to ask Blake to define freedom fighter, because so far there'd been damn little actual freedom.

"I rather doubt it," Avon said, pushing himself upright in the chaise. Blake's eyes followed his movement, then locked on to Avon's face. He stood very still, except for the jump of his throat when he swallowed.

That earlier laugh hadn't been boastfulness. No, the opposite, a betraying sign of something secret and afraid. The heel on Blake's jury-rigged Achilles.

"I see." It ought to have been shocking. Instead, it came to Avon with the self-evident truth of natural law. Friction producing heat, the most elementary physics. He asked his question anyway, to make Blake admit it. "Why are you making this offer - I presume it is an offer?"

A silence stretched thin and fragile, then Blake nodded.

Something jittered through Avon, as though he echoed Blake's fear. "This rather unexpected offer," he continued, "to me?" Calm voice, perfectly calm, as calm as the day he went into work, greeted his colleagues, and settled down in his cubicle to steal a fortune. And underneath, the same shuddering sense of irrevocability. "Why not to Jenna? I don't think you need fear a rejection. She's half in love with you."

"I know." Blake sounded, of all things, ashamed. "I wish she weren't."

"How unexpectedly scrupulous. You'll sacrifice our lives for your obsessions--for your whims--but breaking a heart is beyond you." He smiled, and Blake flinched. "I, of course, have no heart to break. And so here you are."

"Avon." Blake sat precariously on the end of the chaise longue, not touching him. Wanting to, though. Leaning forward, the picture of yearning and hesitation. "That's not the reason." As though reasons were solid things, separable, reducible to taxonomies. As though a million reasons couldn't dance on the head of a pin. Even the smallest act, trivial as Avon's own impulse to brush Blake's thigh with his toes (Blake caught his breath and blinked) defied analysis.

Avon drew his foot back from the warm span of Blake's leg. "What's in it for me? I may not be a professional, but I'm no altruist either."

Blake hesitated, then said, "Pleasure."

Simple-minded Blake, always ready with the simple-minded answer to complex questions. "I see your arrogance extends beyond politics."

"Not arrogance. Optimism." Blake leaned in a little more and laid his fingers along the inside of Avon's wrist. Lightly, they traced the margin of the loose cuff, stroking skin Avon had never thought of, until this moment, as bare. "And a good deal of determination."

This was the moment to say no. To refuse Blake and have the power of it. Power to thwart and frustrate, to entice, and quite possibly to rule. To lead Blake by the leash of his own desire. All it would take was an act of will.

His will was dissolving under the scant pressure of Blake's fingers, now drawing swirls on his palm.

"Stop talking," Avon said. He shoved forward, caught Blake by the collar, and kissed him. Dry lips were motionless under his in a moment's frozen surprise before opening. Blake tasted of mint and alcohol, and his mouth was soft inside. He kissed back just enough, his tongue cushiony and deft against Avon's, his hands clasping the back of Avon's neck encouragingly. He likes kissing, Avon thought. He forgets to breathe. Things he might need to know about Blake were here for him, all the data undefended and free for the taking. He bathed before coming here, I can smell the soap.

That was exciting, the thought of Blake washing and dressing and worrying, his mind on Avon all the while. Making himself appealing, making himself good enough. Avon shoved his hands into Blake's rough hair and fell back, forcing Blake down in a clumsy sprawl. Blake's weight drove the breath out of him. An ocean's worth of pressure on him, Blake's body and his slippery, yielding mouth, his big hand sliding under Avon's shirt, his erection already firm against the inside of Avon's leg. Avon wrenched his head away and gasped, but Blake followed him, kissing his jaw, whispering in his ear. "Avon, you - "

"Stop talking." Blake was telling him enough without language, speaking in patterns on his skin. Avon kissed him hard, gnawing his lip, and Blake hushed except for little murmurs and groans. Avon imagined kissing him on the flight deck, reducing him to this hot wordless urgency in front of all his followers. Breathless again, he tipped his head back to let Blake lick his throat.

He wanted. He thought he'd reduced desire to a nuisance, manageable by masturbation. But someone else's touch--Blake's touch, opening Avon's shirt and stroking his nipples--undid everything, disordered all his fine-tuned systems. A formless ache spread down his neck and chest, rippling out from Blake's searching mouth. Then Blake's fingers scrabbled devastatingly below his waist, working buttons. He grabbed for Blake's shirt, wanting to hold him still or push him onward, anything to take a little control, but Blake wriggled away. Escape and surprise, Blake's genius, and Blake's hands were suddenly on his hips, pulling his trousers down.

And then nothing. Cold spots on his thighs where Blake's hands had been, and Blake pushing himself up, red-faced and wide-eyed. "You look - " Blake's voice was sex-thickened, rougher than his touch. "I finally get to see you. I never thought - "

Like a virus, Blake's desire swarmed and multiplied in Avon' body, hurting him, weakening him. He shoved Blake's head down. "Suck me." But something in Blake's mood had changed, and he was in no hurry now. Stubbornly, he rubbed the crease of Avon's thigh and kissed his hip, drew his tongue up Avon's ribs to his nipple, worked his lips over it, pressed his face into Avon's armpit and kissed him there. And then all of it in reverse, a long wandering descent. When his mouth found the tip of Avon's prick he circled it in kisses, trailing down the shaft and up again, slow and relentless. The teasing swelled almost to agony when Blake licked the head, took it gently into his mouth, released it to lick some more. Avon curled his fists around the edges of the chaise until his fingers hurt, until that pain went silent as Blake commandeered every nerve of his body for pleasure.

Avon lay helpless, and without warning, wet heat swallowed him up. Somewhere, miles from his voracious body, he wondered if this was strategy, if Blake had planned his overthrow like some Federation outpost. He tried to thrust into it, to keep the penetration--counterattack or perhaps collaboration--but Blake pulled away and held him down. Held him down and smiled, the imperious bastard, held him down and fondled his balls, licked his navel and nuzzled in his pubic hair, and finally, finally returned to his prick, mouthing at it sideways.

Determination, yes. Blake's endless capacity for single-minded persistence, all directed at Avon. Blake was crouched between his legs, downturned face rolling in his crotch, and now sucking him again with the zeal of a man who'd never dreamt of anything else.

Coming off now, spilling right down Blake's throat, that would be . . . Avon moved, trying to get deeper. Poor tactics, counterproductive, since Blake choked and backed off again. His focus shifted to Avon's balls, slurping each in turn into his wide mouth. When Avon arched up, Blake deftly slid a hand under his arse. Blake's other arm was thrown across his belly, so he had no way to move at all. Imprisonment, it felt like, and some deranged kind of worship.

Blake insinuated a finger between his buttocks, just above his hole. Barely touching him. "Kerr," Blake said hoarsely, "I want to - that is - let's - let's fuck." Words he'd never heard Blake say, Kerr and fuck, and they sounded like the same word, the same lust.

Too late to say no, or at least, too late to say no and mean it. Far too late, years too late. Avon closed his eyes. "All right. But on the bed, not here." Good thing they didn't start on the bed, or he might have had to demand a move to the floor, on pure principle.

"Of course." Blake clambered over him and kissed each of his eyelids, then his mouth. Not until Blake stood up did Avon open his eyes. He'd made an undignified mess of Blake; the man's hair stuck out in electrified clumps and his erection distended the front of his thin trousers. A sort of hopeful nervousness sharpened his face. The sight was, for some jostling multitude of reasons, consoling.

Blake held out a hand, which Avon ignored. He managed to climb out of the chair without tripping over his trousers or his own uncooperative limbs. There wasn't a scrap on him but an unbuttoned shirt, and he'd have felt stupid but for the way Blake was staring. He let the shirt fall back off his shoulders to the floor.

"Yes," Blake said. "Yes." And looked, a long, memorizing kind of look from head to toe and back again.

You should have seen me ten years ago, Avon thought. Gold may not rust, but golden boys do. "Take off your clothes," he said.

"Whatever you say, Avon." Blake smiled, with a fierce complicity that was almost better than submission.

The day's last light was red-gold and flattering, just the kind of heroic glow Blake probably liked, but he didn't seem to notice as he stripped unselfconsciously. A bit of awkwardness would have been natural; he wasn't exactly a sculptor's dream, or a pornographer's either. He was built like a farmer or a well-fed Gamma labourer, barrel-shaped, broad from his shoulders to his soft belly. Big muscles, padded with fat; strong hairy legs. The prick was nice, and still as hard as it has been when Blake was on top of him. Blake had felt good on top of him, his heaviness erotic. It was a body for touching, not for looking at. And Avon had hardly touched him yet, not really. Not his skin.

"Come here," Avon said, and Blake did. Nearly. He stopped some ten or fifteen centimetres away, within reach but requiring to be reached for. Only when Avon lifted a hand and laid it on his chest did he take the last half step.

A kiss, Blake cupping Avon's face, Avon's fingers digging into Blake's shoulders. A shuffle towards the bed. As Blake was easing him back onto the mattress, Avon shrugged and twisted and landed on top, straddling Blake's hips. Blake's prick jutted up against his balls, and he rocked a little, until Blake's eyes closed and his mouth worked silently, drowningly. When Avon went still, so did Blake, gasping. "Do that again."

"Since you ask so nicely." Avon tilted his hips so that Blake's prick slid along the crack of his arse. And again, and again, enjoying Blake's twitch at every movement. Wonderful to have an effect for once, to undo Blake's immovable-object solidity and make him quiver. He pushed back a little to kiss Blake properly, systematically, starting with his mouth and spiralling out to all his unknown regions. Avon had always liked experimentation, each what if entwined with another, a chain to draw knowledge out of nothingness. Blakeology. Knowing the enemy.

Blake's hands fell away from Avon's waist to twist in the bedclothes. It hardly mattered. His every moan and shudder resonated, almost undiminished, in Avon's own body. More physics. He and Blake was as close as two clockwork gears, as two ends of a circuit. Abruptly, his spine went soft and he half-fell forward into a wet and painful kiss, trying to push himself closer as Blake's arms locked around his back.

He let Blake ease him onto his side, let Blake curl in behind him and nibble the rim of his ear. One of Blake's legs was hitched across his thigh; Blake's wide-splayed hand travelled over him from neck to belly. He was as comprehensively caressed, as surrounded, as the human body allowed. Blake, it seemed, liked sex in three elaborate dimensions. What must he be like when the edge was off? Probably he could spend all day unfolding one slow pleasure after another.

Avon burned for a while at the centre of Blake's intent exploration. Then Blake touched his prick again, making him arch and groan, and Blake groaned too and unexpectedly let him go. The bed shifted as Blake heaved himself over and rummaged among the clothes on the floor. "Lubricant," Blake said, "I know I - ah, here." He really had been planning this. Had he tried the stuff out, making sure of its consistency and its inoffensive smell? Masturbated with it, imagining this moment?

Avon heard the soft rip of the sachet being opened. Blake's slick fingers spread his buttocks and touched him, very slowly, very carefully. Very by-the-book, as though Blake had been studying one of the discreetly-packaged sex manuals available in the resort shops. The gentleness began to blunt the edge of Avon's desire and soften his prick. He grasped it, working it stiff again. Blake slid a finger inside him. Good. In bed, at least, Blake the solipsist was capable of paying attention.

Oh. Very good. The feel of Blake's big finger inside him shot along some hidden path from his arse to his prick. Just enough to make him need more, need to have Blake properly. "Come on," Avon said, suddenly missing Blake's usual headlong impatience.

"Isn't it too soon?"

Damn him. Damn him, who was he to have scruples about a bloody triviality? Avon had a wild impulse to slap him. "Now. Don't try to be considerate with me."

A hesitation before Blake's finger withdrew, unnecessarily slowly, leaving Avon hollowed out, a cold brittle shell. Then he heard a plop of lubricant and some wet, squishy, oddly exciting sounds. At last the tip of Blake's prick pushed against him, and Avon canted his arse sharply back, gritting his teeth at the dull, sweet pain. The real thing at last, no more mucking about. He squirmed, taking the last fraction, and Blake made a choked sound and bit his shoulder. The pain ramified along Avon's nerves, a glass-edged, somehow melting pain, startling him into a moan.

"So that's what you like," Blake grunted into Avon's ear. He bit again, too hard.

Avon jerked away, losing all but the head of Blake's prick. "I'm not a masochist."

"What are you, then?" Blake's fingers curved around the bone of Avon's hip, holding him still to push slightly in again. Then he withdrew far enough that the head's width began to stretch Avon's internal muscles. An odd, marginal pleasure, sharpened by its very instability. "What do you like?" Back and forth, a little farther each time, like the first perfect moment of fucking repeated and expanded. Blake seemed to know quite well already what he liked. "What do you want, Kerr? What do you want from me?" He pulled Avon's leg up and back, giving himself access, and slid in until their bodies were moulded together.

The question vibrated down Avon's spine and under his skin, amplified by the sounding-board of his body and Blake's, of this fuck that he hadn't known he wanted until Blake offered it. It rang in his head, insistently loud. He twisted, seized a handful of Blake's hair, kissed him. Shut him up. "Fuck me," he said.

That was Blake's kind of answer, entirely too obvious. But it started Blake moving, putting his spine and his weight into it. Caught close against him, Avon could feel the sweat forming on Blake's skin, wetting his own wherever they touched. Maybe they should've done this in the shower and stayed clean. Or maybe he should be under Blake, taking all his sweat and all his force. He reached for his prick, bobbing in empty air, and rubbed.

Blake's mouth was roaming the nape of Avon's neck, sucking at his skin and hair, forming sounds that never evolved to words. Rapt in this full-body immersion fuck, he had one hand still travelling greedily over Avon's torso and the other arm around Avon's neck, half stifling him. He tugged Avon's hand away from his prick and started sucking on his fingers. His own hand replaced it, slippery with sweat and lubricant, less precise than masturbation and vastly better. The thrust and slide, not quite synchronised, ratcheted Avon higher into this urgency, Blake's urgency which was his too, now. The ache of it, cramping and spreading until he could barely breathe, barely move. He managed to rock a little, deeper onto Blake's cock and harder into his hand, just to do something.

Blake groaned around his fingers, then released them. "Yes," he muttered. "Yes - yes - that's -" Fast and frantic movements, a hard determined grip on Avon's prick. "Come on, come on - I - please." Like a trigger, an override, the words sent reaction cascading through Avon's body, a confusion of desperate hot reaching sweetness. He shattered into orgasm.

Blake whimpered, sounding pained and ecstatic. After maybe half a minute of ragged thrusts and low, primitive grunts, he came too, noisily. Hearing it raised a tremor in Avon's softening prick, which Blake was still clutching. All Avon wanted, for a dazed and absurd moment, was to do it all again.

Blake pulled out with excessive care and instead of getting up, rolled in even closer. After a quick wipe of his hand on the sheets, his arm fell around Avon's waist. His chest pushed against Avon's back with every breath. Of course Blake would like touching, afterwards. Avon should have expected it. But it wasn't unpleasant, lying here in the enveloping warmth, appreciating his body's satisfaction.

After a while, Blake said, "That was good."

"Yes, it was." It wouldn't be fair to deny Blake a compliment when he'd actually earned one.

Blake's soft laugh condensed on Avon's already-damp neck. "Glad to hear it." Lightly, almost covertly, he started stroking Avon's hair. He did it with flattering thoroughness, ruffling and then smoothing, drawing strand after strand between his apparently fascinated fingertips. Ridiculous, that Blake could ignore Avon's most carefully thought-out ideas but pay such doting attention to his hair. Still more ridiculous that he wanted it to continue.

The body craved touch, he knew, craved it as much as sex, rewarded it with its own form of pleasure. The hazy peace that lapped him came from a potent mix of neurotransmitters and hormones. He could buy the same thing in capsules from the pharmacy off the main lobby, if he cared to.

Still, it felt good. Comfortable. If he wanted to be comfortable with Blake, all this would probably make him happy. He would probably turn and wrap his arms around Blake, kiss him, smile at him, doze off here in this sweaty muddle.

"It's been a long time for me," Blake said. "Long enough that I'm not entirely sure how long. Back on earth I . . . well. Then, later, things got a bit busy." He mouthed a spatter of kisses across Avon's shoulder. "And I didn't really know how to ask you."

If these confessions of hopeless ineptitude were a habit, small wonder he'd gone without. Sex was the easiest thing in the world to find, if you wanted it. If you thought it was worth the bother, the mess and weariness and confusion.

How Blake must have wanted him, to finally get over his inhibitions and ask. Must still want him, to cling like this, to stroke and kiss him, to talk in a soft, confiding voice that hadn't been copied from a vidcast hero. Avon drew his fingers along Blake's wrist, the same spot where Blake had first touched him.

"That's nice," Blake muttered indistinctly. Somehow, he pressed himself closer. "You know, I think we've learned the secret of being in the same room for more than ten minutes without quarrelling."

He sounded pleased--with life, with himself, with the fond belief that his little secret was true and valuable. It cut through the mindless daze that had lulled Avon's better judgment to sleep. "Blake. Don't imagine that fucking me gives you power. I am not, in any conceivable way, yours."

Blake's hand, which had wandered to Avon's cheek, paused for a second before settling. "I don't imagine anything," he said, neutral-voiced and quiet. But the curl of his body around Avon's, the press of his lips to Avon's neck--what was that but some kind of fantasy?

Avon rolled over, out of the dangerous magnetic field of Blake's body, and tried to read his face in the darkness. Blake took it as a cue to kiss him, and Avon let it happen, taking one last deep gulp of enjoyment before he had to put the cap back on the bottle. With the taste of Blake's mouth still on his tongue, he said, "You'd better go. I want a shower."

Unexpectedly, Blake kissed him again, closed-mouthed but lingering. "All right." Blake slid unhastily out of bed and started fumbling on the floor for his clothes. The last sunlight had gone while they were fucking, and Blake was a grey shape in slightly paler grey nothingness, stripped of three-dimensionality, of bulk and blood.

Avon pressed a button on the environmental control unit. The light caught Blake mercilessly, with one sock on and his underwear around his knees. But he said only, "That's better, thanks." He didn't seem to care that Avon watched him from a much more dignified vantage point under a white linen sheet.

Once his clothes were on, Blake looked the same as always. A little rumpled, nothing more. Sex left the fewest visible signs of any natural disaster. Only memories, invisible, radioactive. Blake would remember this, every day and always. And so would he. There'd never be a moment, from now until doomsday, when they hadn't fucked, when this wasn't real.

Avon wanted his shower very badly. If only Blake would hurry up and leave.

Blake tugged uncomfortably at his collar and fiddled with his buttons, then straightened up with a half-audible sigh and looked at him. Avon noticed the damp splotches--his own semen, where Blake had wiped it off his hand--on the sheet covering him, and the feeling of dignified distance flickered out like the illusion it was.

"May I come back tomorrow?" Blake asked, without the smugness Avon had expected. Asking a favour, not claiming a victory.

And offering Avon more of this pleasure as heavy and satiating as a Calendar Day dinner. Maybe if he gorged on it, he'd sicken. "I'll consider it."

"I like it the other way 'round too, you know. If you do."

"I said I'd consider it." He was considering it already. Blake on his hands and knees, on his belly, on his back, whimpering as Avon took him. And yes, fucking wasn't power, but it was power's simulacrum, identical to sight and touch. Convincing, for a little while. And afterwards, there was the simulacrum of fondness, too, of company, safety, trust, understanding.

"Goodnight, then," Blake said. He took a half step forward, as though he was going to touch Avon, but didn't. He turned sharply and hurried out the door.

Once Avon was sure Blake wasn't coming back, he rang housekeeping to get the sheets changed, then started the shower. It hadn't even been especially vigorous sex, but he ached with phantom bruises, as though Blake had savaged him.

It had felt good at the time.

It would feel good tomorrow. If, of course, he gave in to Blake's fantasies again.

For now, he had hot water and reality.