Bluescale rendered Blake poorly. The shadows of his face plunged deeper under it—the contrast lied, and told other truths. The recording didn’t show what Blake actually looked like, but in failing to do so, it made Blake’s physical condition more obvious than it was when you interacted with the confident, assured man in the flesh. Under the camera’s unsympathetic eye, Blake looked every inch as tired as he must have been. There again, though the viztape diary entries Blake had dutifully recorded allowed him movement (when they were on—Avon had paused the playback on the first), they caught little of the energy of Blake’s gestures, and captured almost nothing of the crackling atmosphere of his company.
Avon knew this sense of Blake’s charismatic presence wasn’t just some fantasy on his part. On various planets, rebels had come up to Blake and talked of having heard him speak on Earth. They’d complimented Blake’s eloquence. At times, people had even thanked him personally for being the reason they’d become involved in the movement, or for having helped them find the courage to commit themselves fully to it. At such times, it was clear that more even than whatever Blake had said, what had moved these converts was Blake’s conviction, and the force he brought to bear simply by occupying a room. You could see it in the way they leaned in towards Blake when he spoke, shook his hand emphatically and clasped it long. The way they looked at Blake like he was a long-lost brother or lover or son.
Avon had always found these displays embarrassing. He thought sentimentality distasteful. He’d hoped to god he didn’t look at Blake like that. He'd hoped continual exposure had given him greater poise. He’d looked at Blake every day, then, after all, and had had him most nights too: surely that must have mitigated the effect somewhat.
But Blake had been missing for almost a month now, having never made it back to the ship after the battle at Star One. After a string of failed attempts to recover him, all of which had led to dead ends, Avon had no idea where to seek him next—not the slightest idea at all. He’d no idea how he’d look at Blake, now—if he ever saw him again. He suspected that if it happened, his own expression would be the last thing on his mind.
In Blake’s absence, Avon was dedicating himself to learning about the ship. He knew he needed to know more, because what he’d learned about Liberator’s computers in the past years, Blake had learned about its physical capacities—but now Blake was not here to offer that knowledge if they ran into trouble. The interdependence that had resulted from this sensible division of labor was now a liability.
More than he needed access to Blake’s knowledge, Avon needed to know Blake’s plans. The looming threats and opportunities Blake had foreseen and not chosen to share with the rest of them until these were almost upon them. Avon needed to know how Blake had ever managed to cajole his recalcitrant crew into following him. And he needed to know where the hell Blake might have gone.
The answers to these questions lay in Blake himself, and, if anywhere else, perhaps here in the tapes Blake had made to ground himself in the events of his life: to remind himself of who he was and what they were doing.
So Avon let Tarrant posture at leadership, because he could hardly have imagined less of a threat. The real problem was that Blake was missing, and that doing Blake’s work (and doing it in addition to his own, besides) was, as it turned out, difficult to the point of impossibility. So Avon dedicated himself to discovering everything the viztapes could tell him that he didn’t already know. Any scraps of additional information about who Blake had been and how he’d managed to do what he’d done, and, of course—where he might have gone.
Bluescale, Avon thought absently, as he stared at the paused image of Blake, would catch him all right. Avon knew himself to be a chiaroscuro sort of person, well-suited to thin, unembodied portraiture in light and dark and shadows. Generally he thought he looked better in still photographs than in vizes—better in black and white than in color. A tape like this probably would present an image that was recognizably like him. Such an image would likely capture everything important about him, and might even flatter him. (There was one tape amongst these recordings, just one, that held an image of him—one entry that could bear that supposition out. But Avon wasn’t sure that he wanted to watch it to confirm his hypothesis.)
He pressed play, and Blake, visibly exhausted but determined to keep this account, started to narrate the events of this initial day: the discovery and capture of the Liberator.
There were a multitude of rational arguments for watching the tapes. But Avon knew, even as he justified his actions to himself, that those rational arguments weren’t what was motivating him. He could spin out alibis that would convince anyone—could do so until he almost convinced himself. But they would never actually become or amount to the reason he was going over the breadth of Blake’s personal vizlog.
The first day, lulled by exhaustion and the seductive litany of Blake’s saying his name, again and again, in the course of his account, Avon let himself do something exceptionally weak and stupid. He’d formed a suspicion, and knew it wouldn’t let him go until he choked it off. So he gave in to it.
He asked Zen to process the data as text, and ran a search for how many times his own name occurred in the recordings. He raised an eyebrow at the return frequency. It looked high, but he had nothing to compare it against. Vila, then. He ran the search.
Vila came up less.
Jenna. Cally. Gan. Less, less and less. And less by—quite a significant margin.
It was idiotic, Avon knew, but he was surprised and… pleased. He knew he was—why not admit as much to himself? But then he’d been more in conflict with Blake, and more important to the functioning of the ship, than most of the others. Thus some degree of discrepancy made sense. Still, he was irrationally pleased.
In fact in general, Avon was extremely irrational about the recordings. Since he privately knew this was not a straight-forward information gathering exercise, he also had to privately admit that he ought to pace himself. But Avon gorged on the entries, consuming several a night—unable to help himself.
It seemed Blake had indeed managed to make a tape almost every day. The diary had been a recipient of the discipline and dedication Avon had known Blake to be capable of.
Avon took them chronologically, capable still of that much self-control. When the time came, he pushed the disc for the first day he and Blake had slept together into the reader with a flourish. Avon told himself to expect nothing, but he was tense nonetheless.
As usual, the image showed Blake in focus, sitting at his desk in his living area. Avon had selected a single chamber for himself, but Blake had kept a small suite. Blake’s rooms had always had about them more of a sense of expansion and possibility than Avon’s utilitarian choice. One could pass from space to space. It seemed fitting that they'd started sleeping together there.
In the background of the image, the bed, visible through the doorless hexagonal aperture, was still disordered. The sight of the curl of the covers where he himself had lain sent a strange pulse of heat through Avon. The lingering disorder suggested that at any moment he might come back—that Blake might rejoin him there.
In the image, Blake was smiling to himself, more with pleasure than with conquest. He rattled off an account of the day’s non-sexual occurrences as though rushing through the unimportant administrative procedures of a meeting before raising some dear issue.
“I hadn’t planned it,” Blake began, when he came to what Avon considered the event of the day.
That surprised Avon actually. Hadn’t he? But Blake glanced away from the camera, frowning, and Avon could see he was working out whether this was the sort of thing he felt he could say, here—whether what had happened was enough his that he could speak of it, given that it was also Avon’s. Blake’s face smoothed as he came to his decision and looked back at the camera. He continued with more authority. “But I suppose it was a while in coming.”
Blake wasn’t detailed about the events. Avon resented his circumspection almost as much as he appreciated it. But Blake did note that Avon had raised the possibility of this being the start of an arrangement, rather than a random occurrence.
“He said some bizarrely stupid thing about my being homosexual, and thus having no choice but him. As though I needed sex to live,” Blake said with a roll of his eyes and a flash of annoyance. All of which threw Avon. Hadn’t that been broadly right? Avon had thought that he’d at least understood what had brought them together clearly, without allowing any failures of objectivity to cloud the issue.
“Obviously I’d rather enjoy my own company than literally anyone’s,” Blake continued acerbically. “Well, give him credit, anyone with appropriate genitalia, I suppose.” Again, Avon was surprised—that was how he viewed the matter, preferring solitude to companionship he disliked. But he’d assumed sociable Blake needed someone, or that he’d viewed sex as a utility.
“I’m not sure why he’s hedging,” Blake muttered, bringing his knuckle to his mouth and looking thoughtful, dropping it only to start tapping a finger against the lips that had sucked Avon off perfectly satisfactorily not long before he’d made this recording. “I’m not sure he knows,” Blake admitted. “He did suggest a regular liaison. But that was bounded by terms. I said something innocuous, I think, about not wanting this to affect our ability to work together, and he took it one further and said he saw no reason to ever acknowledge it outside these occasions. Maybe,” Blake wryly addressed his future self, “you can make something of all that. Because I certainly can’t. Perhaps it’s more settled, when you are,” he finished, not sounding particularly hopeful. “The whole mess of it is—well. Very Avon.”
Blake frowned in the image, and Avon mirrored the expression without thinking about it.
Why was this his fault? Why were the contradictions Blake apparently saw in the arrangement Avon's personal property? Avon had wanted to keep things as simple as possible. He’d wanted not to want, and certainly not to ask for, anything he couldn’t have. Surely that was reasonable enough.
“He was—reticent may be the word I want,” Blake continued thoughtfully. “I’m not sure. I didn’t expect warmth—I didn’t expect anything, to tell the truth—but it’s obvious he has no intention of telling me what he likes or wants or thinks about any of this. If he does think anything of it.” Blake exhaled. “I suppose I’ll have to guess.”
But what do you think? Avon wondered, noticing that Blake was as circumspect about that as he was about the physical details of what they’d done. Perhaps he didn’t think his feelings worth discussing. Perhaps he thought he’d remember how to interpret this without the aid of a prompt. Perhaps he didn’t know what he thought about what they’d done. Perhaps, even here, Blake acted under the impulse of his erratic but demonstrable native caution—the same caution that caused him to wield his trust, or the appearance of it, so idiosyncratically. Blake had always seemed open and inviting, and yet had nonetheless possessed a remote, untouchable core. Or at least Avon had never reached or touched it.
For his part, Avon felt strangely exposed by Blake’s having known he’d been holding back. He didn’t know quite why that should be.
Avon took to locking himself away in his room whenever he could, and playing the recordings whenever he was alone there. He sought excuses to work in his cabin, and half listened to the tapes while he made calculations and repaired components. His skin crawled with anxious irritation when he had to surface for air and return to the flight deck and the rest of the crew, because he wanted to be alone. With Blake, or what was left of him. He listened for so long that, at times, Blake seemed to narrate his life: to be the voice inside his head, even as he’d sometimes been the voice of Avon’s erratic, irrational conscience.
Blake’s voice was inimitable, but as Avon had thought from the first, the recording didn’t catch the richness and fullness of it. Even as that galled Avon, Avon found this half-presence more tolerable than Blake’s sudden, total absence.
Odd, that it was so unbearable. Odd that it only seemed to grow more so with time. He almost wanted to ask Cally and Vila if they found the ship strangely empty now—the texture and feeling of the recycled, standardized air somehow unmistakably different. He almost wanted to ask whether Dayna and Tarrant sensed some lacunae, as though the place, though unknown to them, were unwholesome or uncanny—as though troubled with a ghost. Or perhaps with the lack of one.
Avon muttered as he worked, answering back to Blake without considering it strange. He remembered doing something similar with the message Blake had recorded for them all after Gan’s death—he recalled having been unable to help himself.
Now he absent-mindedly argued with Blake about Blake’s interpretations of events. He inserted comments where Blake seemed almost to pause for him to do so, and was once caught out by Blake’s dry ‘of course Avon would say’ just what he’d just said. He’d smiled to himself in response. Well now. Point to Blake.
Often Blake’s fuller rationale for doing something was more ambivalent than the one he’d presented to Avon and the others, or his hopes and expectations less sanguine. But his reasons often still struck Avon as inadequate. What could be enough to justify risks to their lives, and the behavior that had brought about Blake’s current absence, possibly his death? Once, fumingly angry with Blake’s over-optimistic summary of how beneficial it had been to restore Sarkoff to Lindor, Avon slammed the pause button down and headed to the galley to fetch something to drink. It felt good to be able to stop Blake talking—good to storm out on him without looking weak. Pleasures he could only enjoy in the absence of a man too strong for Avon to take such pleasures from in the flesh.
In the hall outside his room, Avon almost smacked into Vila, who held up his hands in a nonverbal apology. Avon glared at him dully.
“Thought I heard— Were you shouting at someone in there?” Vila said, voice neutral.
Avon wondered whether he had imagined Vila’s slight hesitation before ‘someone’.
“You didn’t hear anything,” he told Vila, and walked on to galley.
A sound-filter kept the Liberator from being swamped with the stress-moans of tones and tones of steel moving at faster-than-light speeds. Without that filter, they couldn’t have heard each other speak for the ship’s howling like the damned. The din would have reverberated through every oxygenated compartment. Avon simply asked Zen to set that sound-filter a few degrees higher around his quarters. There. A bit of privacy.
Though he hadn’t thought to do that when he was with Blake, in either of their quarters. He wondered if Vila or Cally had ever heard murmuring voices as they walked through the corridor—heard a name, or a low laugh, or half a gasp. He wondered whether the others knew. In part the prospect embarrassed him, but he found it increasingly difficult to care. He didn’t need their approval, he needed privacy—and things he couldn’t have.
At some point Avon acquired a habit of playing entries back after listening through them for content. Avon told himself he was simply being attentive, even as the words blurred to him with repetition. Enough cycles and they became a background rhythm, like Blake’s breathing had been when Blake had fallen asleep in his own bed after sex—before Avon had forced himself to slip out of Blake’s bed and down chill corridors, into his own cold sheets.
The worn words spilled and lapped over him. Avon and I went down to the planet and naturally there weren’t any crystals to be found and of course there were natives and obviously they were none too pleased to see us. A long sigh from Blake. Avon turned over in bed, attempting to drift off. He’d had little sleep of late. Perhaps this would help. He was willing to try anything.
Blake had a pleasant voice—rousing and soothing in turns. It was the sort of voice that had made people give up safe homes to follow him. Now, detached from the man, Avon could commodify and enjoy Blake’s voice as he’d never been able to before. He could afford to be wrapped up in Blake—shamelessly so, in his stretching absence. He found he needed to be.
And why should they be, given the courtesy extended by your typical Federation visiting party? You might have thought cultivating cautious coldness as a means of avoiding exposing oneself to danger would have appealed to Avon, but he didn’t seem to empathize with their position.
Blake had told Avon that he’d recorded the tapes to help him stitch himself back together when he woke up in the middle of the night disoriented, unable tell dream from reality—to help him remember who he was and what was important to him.
Apparently, judging by his position in this narrative of Blake's life, Avon had been, to some extent, important to him.
Sometimes Avon managed to find that reassuring. But at at other times, Avon worried about what was happening right now. After all, he had Blake’s tapes and Blake didn’t. Without the tapes, perhaps Blake would forget all about him. Avon knew that was irrational: Blake suffered from nightmares that frightened and temporarily befuddled him, but in general his memory seemed to hold together about as well as the next man’s. But then Avon himself, the Next Man, had, after all, had plenty of co-workers, and even some lovers, who he could now hardly recall the faces and names of together. Perhaps he’d meet Blake again, after the passage of years, and see only dim recognition on his face. That should have been ridiculous paranoia, but perhaps it wasn’t. Blake would frown in consternation, trying to remember what Avon’s first name had been. He could only have heard it a very few times, and it hadn’t come up often between them. They hadn’t been that sort of lovers. Avon had made himself unremarkable, in that capacity. It was, perhaps, just a question of how many years it would take such an erosion to set in.
Avon knew he’d recognize that look if he saw it on Blake’s face. And he knew he’d want, then, to die. A part of him would want to be nothing, if he wasn’t anything to Blake.
Avon wondered if perhaps the tapes appealed to him so much because, in certain capacities, he hadn’t much imagination. He could rewind Blake again and again, but the tapes played forward just the same. Blake was as implacable and inevitable as ever, and Avon’s own recall worked in like fashion. All Avon had of Blake was memory, because he lacked the capacity to make projections he could credit. Avon couldn’t picture what the past year might have been like if, for example, he’d felt able to tell Blake that he cared for him more than their brusque and businesslike sexual encounters and his own cultivated nonchalance might have implied. What their time together might have been like if he’d been able to say every tawdry, embarrassing thing he’d wanted Blake to do to him, and that he’d wanted to do to Blake. Much less what it would have been like if Blake had—loved him. In return.
Avon couldn’t imagine their having met in another time or place—couldn’t imagine how it would play out, how he’d manage to keep Blake, if they did leave rebellion behind. He certainly couldn’t imagine how he would have kept Blake if, as Avon had almost expected he might at Central Control, Blake had succeeded in his quest, and their situation had altered accordingly. It was part of why Avon had angled for control of the Liberator, then. With Blake looking forward, looking to leave Avon behind him, Avon had wanted something. Some sop to his pride.
Avon couldn’t imagine where Blake had gone, or (in Blake’s absence) what larger course he ought to direct the crew towards. A project he could execute, but given the Liberator and the run of the galaxy, Avon felt stifled. (And what would Blake think of what he’d done?)
If Blake managed to make contact, if they managed to find and rescue Blake from wherever he’d gotten to, then what would Avon say to him? It couldn’t go on as it had, not if this was how he dealt with Blake’s absence. It was intolerable. He needed Blake, for help running the ship and for everything else. If he had to say as much to ensure that nothing like this ever happened again, if that would help, then—that was what he would have to do. Somehow.
In the absence of imagination, Avon was tormented with memories of working Blake open—of sinking and twisting his fingers deep into Blake. The way Blake’s body had clutched him, seemed to need him. The way Blake had asked (asked!) for more, for Avon to touch him more before he fucked him with his cock. He remembered, and loved and hated remembering, how Blake had asked to be fucked with Avon’s whole fist (asked Avon to work into him up to the wrist—wanted Avon to possess him that entirely, if only for a short while). After that, Avon had come to view these requests for longer sessions of fingering not as proofs that he couldn’t satisfy Blake with more conventional pleasures, but as evidence that Blake liked his hands, his touch; evidence that Blake so enjoyed the act that even Avon’s rendition of it satisfied him deeply.
On an early tape (well before they’d started to fuck), Blake had recounted Avon’s having saved a capsule containing himself and Jenna by using the Liberator’s manual controls. He’d repeated Vila’s praise of Avon’s steady hands with a slightly furtive look. Avon had allowed himself a smug grin, and a quiet ‘Liked that, did you?’ He bet Blake had.
Avon got himself off to the memory of the way Blake had noisily appreciated having Avon’s hand in him at the start. Avon came remembering the ragged breaths that had succeeded Blake’s words when his pleasure had crested, becoming too great and still and total to bear speaking.
Blake had possessed more than enough imagination for any man. During these sessions of self-gratification, Avon indulged himself by allowing himself to believe that Blake had imagined and yearned for Avon’s whole hand every time Avon had slid a finger inside him, before and after that night—that Blake had wanted him that much.
Avon keenly missed touching and being touched. The ache of absence settled in him, lining his bones under the muscles. Blake’s voice was like a caress on his body, but it wasn’t deep enough or hard enough. It didn’t grip and push and wrench him, didn’t flatten him smooth, didn’t warm him. It couldn’t hold him tightly enough that, for a while, he felt absolutely safe. Avon missed being fucked regularly, his body wound tight and released, put to rights at decent intervals. He didn’t feel inclined to masturbate as often as he’d been getting sex from Blake.
Avon was both excruciatingly embarrassed and charmed when Blake made mention of things Avon had seemed to like in bed (Blake had grown less circumspect about their sex life as time went on). Blake made a few missteps, but mostly he was right. Blake had been paying attention, and, from the little Avon had given him, had constructed quite a good idea of Avon’s preferences. He speculated as to what Avon would like, not content with Avon’s own information. Presumptuous of him. Avon liked it.
“That habit he has of running his fingers over each other—there might be something in that. There often is, in habits. Maybe he has a thing about hands,” a bluescale-Blake said to himself ruminatively, tapping his own mouth with a finger as though he didn’t get the joke. Avon laughed fondly.
Blake was furious when Avon’s life was threatened by the IMIPAK affair—he mentioned that, rather than the equal threat to his own life, and Gan’s. Blake joked that Orac might make a nice pet for Avon—and there was the warmth Avon had wanted from Blake, given to this intermediary, rather than to Avon’s face. Blake worried about convincing Avon to join him on the Central Control raid—as much about whether Avon would see the logic of the idea as about securing his complicity. He tried strategies to convince Avon out on the diary, winnowing down his arguments. Avon watched the systematic accuracy with which Blake cornered him with something like anger and something like fear and something like hot lust at being so tracked and stalked and pursued and beaten and won.
Their bitter disagreements rankled in Blake—they bothered him. Days later he’d mention them again in another tape. Blake brooded. He was tired and angry after Albion. “Why wouldn’t he tell me?” A long sigh. “I suppose it doesn’t matter,” delivered in a petulant, bitter tone that indicated it certainly did. Casually, Blake admitted to not having teleported back up within the allotted time—said it as though it were obvious, rather than a piece of astounding stupidity that left Avon shocked and incensed, longing to shake Vila (since he couldn’t smack Blake), all the while knowing he’d no business admitting to his inexplicable sudden knowledge.
The diary ran on. Blake was getting frustrated, now. He’d begun the search for Star One in earnest. It had been difficult to watch Blake cry after their failure at Control, even though Blake had stopped the recording after the first heaving, wracking sob. He’d come back, red-eyed, after some undetermined interval, and outlined his decision to go down to the planet that had almost been his grave. The disjointed way Blake had described this absurd plan, the way he apparently believed his own theatre—and a theatre of power it was, even if it was also done in earnest (and was, perhaps, all the more potent for its earnestness)—disturbed Avon immensely.
Avon felt he might have handled the situation better. Whatever he’d wanted to do after the raid—alter Blake’s course and shake sense into him, push forward, comfort Blake, express his own fear and frustration or secure greater power for himself—he hadn’t managed it, had he? He had simply preyed on Blake’s vulnerability, his own confused motives rendering him irrational and his responses to Blake erratic. It had, evidently, been hard on Blake, to no purpose. He had always admired Blake’s willingness to accept the consequences of his actions, but Avon was finding watching him do so difficult to bear.
Blake’s increasing frustration wasn’t just due to the struggle to locate the Federation’s central computer control. Avon was becoming uncomfortably aware that he had been weighing on Blake. That the tensions of their ‘relationship’, in the bedroom and on ship’s business, were bleeding into one another for Blake, even as they had done for him. He didn’t like to think of having drained Blake: having sucked strength out of the man when Blake had most needed his strength. It was cold comfort now, in Blake’s absence, but it did seem that Blake had not been objective about what they did together.
“I’d love to try rimming him,” Blake said, chewing on his knuckle, “but he’d hate it—”
“What,” Avon said distinctly, looking up from his calculations and putting his stylus down.
“He’s fastidious. Pristine,” Blake said, half-mocking, half-fond. Not bothering to specify who ‘he’ was. “He barely tolerates a long kiss.” Blake snorted. “Imagine his face if I suggested rimming.”
“That isn’t what I meant,” Avon insisted to no one as he connected the comment to the relevant incident. There had been one occasion he could remember when he’d said anything that indicated reticence about kissing—he’d been trying not to come apart under the lightest touch of Blake’s hand as Blake breathed, shuddering, into his mouth. Avon had found it humiliating to be so susceptible. He’d pushed Blake back and said something cutting, just to keep a clinging-fingernail-edge of control over the situation. To avoid coming on a brush of Blake’s fingers and a kiss. Surely that had been an obvious ruse.
Avon had thought it equally obvious that the longer they were together, the more impossible it became for him to ever leave Blake. It had been like an enchantment—as though each hour in Blake’s presence and every swallow of Blake’s essence had bound him more totally to the man.
Apparently it hadn’t been. “I don’t think he appreciates it when I draw it out,” Blake said slowly on the tape. “I used to think it was just responsiveness. That he enjoyed what we did together that much. And I—loved that. God, it unmade me.” Blake swallowed. “But perhaps that was stupid of me. As Avon would say, I let myself get carried away by my imagination.”
“He seems to want to come as efficiently as possible,” Blake said with an edge of hard sarcasm. “Get the business over and done with. Thank you and good night. I don’t know why he bothers with me. He has hands.”
“You idiot,” Avon hissed, wanting to kiss Blake until he bruised and to break something.
Avon knew he was fast approaching the tape in which he’d have to look at himself—to watch Blake having him. Keen anticipation and something like dread vied in him. But he still had weeks to go (Blake's, not his), so he waited.
Avon sometimes twisted the disc, labeled with his name, between his fingers, then returned it to its slot. He wondered how many times Blake had played it back, torn between hoping it had been never and hoping the disc had seen a great deal of use. Increasingly, Avon wanted it to have been the latter. Perhaps Blake would tell him.
“I’d like a recording of one of our nights together”—that was how Blake had put it to Avon. As though their fucking was some important facet of his life. As though Blake had valued the way that, even after awful disagreements, Avon still came to him, still expected him. The very phrase was somewhat romantic—‘one of our nights together.’
“I’ve had an idea,” Blake announced to the camera one day. “I don’t know whether he’ll like it, but I don’t imagine I’ll be able to get it out of my head, so there isn’t much point saying it here.” And there Blake should have stopped, but after a moment, he pushed on, as though he couldn’t help himself. “Why shouldn’t he like it? He seems to appreciate the preparation almost as much as I do. No one loves a grand gesture more than he does. And I want it. I’ve come to want it quite a lot.”
Avon abandoned even the pretext of work and leaned back in his chair. Closed his eyes. “Replay from time index mark 5-30,” he murmured, exhaling slowly.
Part of him wanted to rush on to the scene itself, but no—this was wonderful, and should be fully enjoyed in its own right.
“I’ve had an idea.”
Avon’s breathing grew shaky.
“And I want it. I’ve come to want it quite a lot.”
“Oh, that is good,” Avon admitted.
“Is that a command?” the computer’s verbal interface system queried.
“No.” Avon smiled lazily. “This is. Repeat.”
The machine obliged, and Avon snaked a hand down the planes of his silk shirt. He took his time—Blake had wanted that of him. But he knew, when he began to properly touch himself, that he couldn’t last long.
The tone of Avon’s thoughts grew more at once tender and more vicious—he let it. Blake had wanted to be so full of him he could barely breathe, so full he hurt himself, had wanted it hard—Avon’s boned and muscled hand was harder and more substantial than any cock could ever be. And Blake had wanted to be hard for him while it happened, the whole time—had wanted to be kept desperate for so long that it must have ached. He’d wanted Avon’s hand wrapped around him, wringing him out, even as Avon stretched and possessed him brutally.
“Again,” Avon gasped when he needed to, and “Again,” once more, more weakly, his breath ragged and his mouth open.
“Blake,” he managed when he reached the crisis, because Blake had wanted to hear Avon say his name as he came. Just the once. He’d mentioned wanting it here, in a regular entry in his aide-memoire, as well as to Avon during their recorded encounter. And Avon could do that for Blake—once and every time, if Blake wanted it. He’d learn.
Avon, rapt, watched himself smiling back at him in the recording. He studied Blake’s nails digging into his hip, Blake’s face tucked into his neck, Blake’s hair brushing his cheek. The two of them grinned at one another in the recording, and Avon’s heart tightened with longing and with jealousy and hatred of the version of himself on the screen. God, he’d been blind.
In Blake’s well-rigged image, Avon could see everything. He could see that he could have everything. Because the hand on his hip was not the hand of a man who didn’t care for him—its grip was too desperately tight. That was not the voice—pleading and wry and knowing—of a man who was anything like objective about him. Those were certainly the eyes of a man who loved him desperately—Blake tilted up his head and the camera caught what Avon, too distracted by coming, hadn’t seen. Oh, Blake couldn’t have loved him more if he’d tried. How had Blake come to love him? And with such a deficit of encouragement? He couldn’t imagine, but what did it matter, so long as he had. No. Did.
Avon had thought himself blatant. Obvious. But the man on the screen was a stranger, who smiled cruelly at nothing in particular. Avon knew that he’d smiled like that because he hadn’t known what else to do. But for an instant, in the interval before he remembered this, Avon saw himself perhaps something like Blake must have seen him—strange and inscrutable.
His thoughts then were equally inscrutable to him now. What had he meant, precisely, when he’d thought what they did together in bed unremarkable? The frequency was commendable in men of their age, if nothing else. True the act itself was usually quick—he’d been so desperate for Blake that lasting a quarter of an hour might be accounted a miracle. But he watched Blake enjoying his too easy, too total surrender, and remembered Blake’s smugness in post-coital recordings, and thought—no, Blake had loved his responsiveness. He’d unmade Blake. He’d unmade Blake.
Or he had done. Until Blake had come to see Avon’s motivations as just as utilitarian as Avon had believed Blake’s to be. Then Avon’s lust had seemed to Blake to be just an itch Avon scratched by way of him, rather than something Blake himself had anything to do with.
‘Unremarkable.’ Could you evaluate sex like that—remarkable, less so, etcetera, against some external standard? Perhaps, but Avon began to think he’d been deluding himself. He’d lasted longer with other people and performed better because he’d wanted them less. He’d coursed with lust for Blake, and come violently for him. To deny the potency of that was idiotic. True, he’d held himself back from confessing everything he might have liked to try, but he’d never been left wanting.
And if he thought about it, when had he ever managed to combine shamelessness and intimacy? Brazen sexual confidence with caring about the person it was addressed to? Care had always undone Avon. He hadn’t had much for Tynus, and the idea that what he and Tynus had done together had been better than the comparatively simpler pleasures he’d shared with Anna was comic. Because he’d loved Anna. Coming easily in her hand had pleased him better than a baroque exchange with someone he liked less, he knew it had.
And sex with Blake—well, that sex had been remarkable because nothing he did with Blake could be otherwise to him. And it had been good. Not just the fisting (though he couldn’t remember a sweeter consummation in his life), all of it.
Their fucking might have been better still if Avon had been able to see it as it was, rather than worrying constantly about what he was revealing and what he felt he hadn’t had of Blake. If he’d been able to give and to ask for more.
It could still be better. When Blake returned (and he would, he must), what wouldn’t Avon do for him?
Blake hadn’t done this before, Avon thought as he watched the tape of the two of them together, watching Blake take Avon deeper and deeper into him, Blake’s breath catching. No wonder he couldn’t relax further—why hadn’t Avon seen that at the time? He’d never been able to envision Blake taking time out of his life to do a thing like this because Blake hadn’t. Blake’s shoulders hitched with tension, and Avon felt a touch of satisfaction and relief as, automatically, his past-self squeezed Blake’s hip, reassuring him. He exhaled as Blake’s posture eased in answer.
Blake had never done this before, but Blake had done this for him. Blake had come to want it with him, from him. Him and only him.
“He said some awful thing about not remembering what I’d done for a living,” Blake said the following day, recounting the previous night’s events. Avon winced. “But then, perhaps a minute later, he remembered a conversation we had even earlier than that with perfect clarity. So, was he goading me? Why would he do that to me? I never know with him.”
Blake looked hurt, and Avon’s fingers curled and uncurled, frustrated by their inability to touch him.
“He played at not wanting to fist me, too—who knows whether he meant that. Though come to think of it, I didn’t actually have to persuade him. And he put so much work into it—I couldn't have expected him to go that long, to be that careful. He was good as I'd thought he'd be. Better, actually. And he fell asleep, afterwards.” Blake paused. “I’ve never seen him asleep before.”
“I think he did like it,” Blake told his diary, sounding almost shy. His face was suddenly illuminated by the flash of a wicked smile Avon hadn’t seen in the flesh above twice—he wanted to lick it off Blake’s lips. “I know I did.”
Of course I did, my love, Avon thought, allowing an endearment (even in the soundless privacy of his mind) for the first time. If a thing could feel at once strange and lush and natural, this tenderness did. It felt like his hand inside Blake: frightening and ludicrous and incredible. Like holding and like being held at once.
But for all that intimacy, Avon had begun to harbor the awful, unthinkable suspicion that Blake might well have left because of him. Perhaps he hadn’t planned it (Avon had seen no indication he had), but he might have seen an opportunity to disappear and seized it on a whim. His mood was growing that erratic, and his frustration with Avon that severe.
“Given that Avon despises me—” Blake rumbled on one of the final tapes, his eyes lit with some internal anger, “he can have little issue with commanding the ship to his own purposes after the attack on Star One, should we succeed. Oh, he’ll take me to Earth, all right. He’d consider himself to have broken his word if he didn’t. And in some respects, I trust him absolutely. He can be a good man and hate me—that’s never been the question.”
Blake’s voice was muffled now, his head in his hands. Long tiredness, sharp as that initial prison-ship fatigue, robbed his features of some of the little vitality the bluescale had left him.
“I’m no good at him. I don’t know what he wants, I don’t know how to give it to him, I don’t know why he does half of what he does. I’m probably no good for him, either. He sees it that way, anyway. I suppose I’d better stick to what I am good at. ‘Action’, as Avon would put it. God he must think I’m a fool. If I had an ounce of self-respect, I’d—Recording off.”
And then Blake was gone. In turning off the recording, he’d taken himself where Avon couldn’t reach him. And perhaps, in having left Epheron by the time Avon had arrived there, he’d done the same again—because he couldn't stand being in Avon’s company any longer. He’d gone, and left no real clue as to whether, after they’d been separated, he had ever intended to come home.
Angry and frustrated and despairing, Avon wrenched himself away from the recordings for a time. They were running out, now. They needed to be husbanded, prolonged.
Easily, casually (perhaps Blake had rubbed off on him, a little—his voice was still threaded through Avon’s thoughts, after all), Avon assumed full control of the ship. He brushed Tarrant aside with a breath. He had business. If he couldn’t find Blake, even to avenge him, there was, at least, another vengeance he could exact. He had, after all, loved Anna, too.
It went rather poorly.
So, Avon thought afterwards in the dark of his cabin, the single room un-illuminated even by the vizplayer. It was only Blake he could trust, then, was it? Only Blake who’d cared about him enough to ruin himself over it. Only Blake who’d merited Avon’s need and his madness. Perhaps Blake was the only thing in the world worth the finding and the having. That didn’t really surprise him.
“Avon. I imagine you’ll pick up this disc if anything, because it’s the last chip, and you’ll want to know why what went wrong did. And of course you know all about the tapes, which is why I assume it’s you and not one of the others watching this now.”
Judging by Blake’s outfit and haggard look, this recording had been made just before they’d hit Star One. Blake had made provision for the potentiality of his own death—Avon had half-suspected he might.
Blake rattled off some logistical information he thought might be of use to Avon, most of which Avon had figured out on his own or as Blake discovered it. This final chip had sat a little back from the others in the rack—Avon hadn’t realized its importance. He wondered if Blake had made several of these—recorded over the old ones as necessary. How many would there have been? For how long had Blake's last words been addressed to him?
“If I should die—” the phrase snagged at Blake, and he smiled ruefully. “‘Before I wake’, as the old prayer has it, then know that however it happened, I don’t want your guilt. I expect I’ll have it anyway. I know you, in some respects, perhaps better than you allow yourself to know yourself. I hope you take care of everyone left better than I did. I hope you take care of yourself. I did what I thought was necessary, I’m sure. There. That reminder of my stupidity should make you angry enough to dispel some of the gloom.”
It decidedly did not. Or at least the anger it provoked didn’t drown out Avon’s feelings of helplessness and shame. He hadn’t really taken care of the others, or even, given his recent adventures on Earth, himself. Blake had his guilt—the one thing, it seemed, he’d never asked of Avon. He had failed and was even now failing Blake, perhaps as thoroughly as he’d failed Anna. More so, given that Anna had been a lie, whereas Blake was (or had been) terribly real: Avon had hundreds of diary entries’ worth of proof of that.
“It was never ‘even from you’,” Blake said—and for the first time, through the bluescale image, Avon felt in the intensity of the words a whisper of Blake’s presence. “I’d have taken nothing, over a choice made in adversity. I hope I’ve managed to make you understand that—I did intend to try, if worst looked likely to come to worst. But if I haven’t, then you should know that I chose you. I expect I’d always have chosen you, in any circumstance or situation. I count myself lucky that you allowed that choice to come to anything at all.”
Avon paused the image and sat in silence for a long while, gathering himself. Eventually he decided he was ready, and he let the very last of Blake’s messages—the only one intended for him—finish speaking to him.
“You’re welcome to the dubious insights contained in the rest of these tapes. I imagine you wondered what the hell I was thinking on numerous occasions. They might provide some answers. Besides, I can’t care much for privacy, now—though I won’t blame you for not listening, either. Rambling and maudlin, the lot of them. But you were always welcome to anything of mine, provided you wanted to share it.
“Well.” Blake looked out at him, clear-eyed and determined. “Goodbye, Avon. And thank you. For everything.”
The disc subsided to crackling spackles and white noise. Avon let the sound and sight of nothing, of absence, wash over him.
Sometimes he was angry with Blake—boilingly, toxically angry.
If Blake was injured, then it was probably his own fault. Avon accordingly hated Blake for getting himself hurt, for putting himself in a situation (or more likely a whole series of them) that had caused him to be hurt without a thought for his own survival—but in that case, he hated Blake no more than usual. Blake seriously injured was an awful prospect, but not a betrayal.
But if Blake was deliberately staying away, without so much as letting them all (letting Avon) know he was all right, then Avon hoped he suffered for it. If that were true, he wished Blake agonized on the rack of his own ribs. He hoped Blake’s heart tortured him—hoped absence made Blake ache for him (in time with him). He hoped Blake’s cock twitched needily at the memory of him, and that Blake’s bed felt cold and his mind duller and his entire world less real and full without him. If Blake had meant to do this to them both, then Blake deserved to have his heart cut out in turn.
If the situation had seemed irreparable to Blake, then why couldn’t Blake have been content as they were? It was so like him, to want everything of Avon. Never to be capable of accepting anything. Avon hated Blake’s brutal, unkillable hunger for a good world. His capacity for destroying what he had because it wasn’t enough.
He’d had Blake four or five times a week for more than a year, and thought the nights he didn’t touch Blake enraging. He’d spent his own night-watches seething. Now Avon wanted and wanted, and his hunger was never satisfied and sated. Poisonous longing ate a hole through his stomach.
He tried to imagine telling Blake he loved him—that he could never leave him, that he would readily die for him.
He couldn’t, at first. It seemed impossible, but he had done plenty of impossible things for Blake. He made himself see the scene: made himself hear how each word of such a declaration would fall. In his mind, the image was as grainy and flat as one of Blake’s recordings. It was a start. The more Avon forced himself to try, the clearer the conversation became. He started to finesse the scene, choosing better words and allowing Blake more complicated reactions, which he would, of course, have to respond to. When it went perfectly, and when the conversation felt almost like a memory, Avon undertook the more difficult task of imagining a life for the two of them. He started, naturally, with sex—that was what their romantic relationship had consisted of thus far, and so Avon had material to work with.
Avon practiced when he masturbated, now. He made careful lists in his mind of other extreme things he’d do to and for Blake. Blake could of course tongue him to oblivion, as he had wanted to—if only he would. But Avon forced himself to articulate, in his own mind, not a tenth of the things he’d wanted, but everything, and then to come up with more specific and elaborate requests. What did Blake want, exactly? He could have anything he wanted.
When Avon had taken Blake with his hand, he’d been surprised at how difficult it had been to resist pushing further, faster. He’d wanted to twist his fingers, twist his whole hand into Blake hard and make him cry out in shock and agony, or to just slide his cock in and move inside Blake until Blake was delirious with pleasure. Now Avon turned his thoughts to drawing out that painful span of preparation and anticipation—to making Blake wait forever, to claiming every kind of submission from Blake and offering his own. He painstakingly imagined taking enough vitadrenaline that he could fuck Blake until Blake was begging for him to stop and to continue, until Blake didn’t know what he wanted, only that he wanted. He imagined fucking Blake with excruciating slowness and infinite tenderness. He could make sure Blake was mad with desire—could find out how and do whatever it took to get and keep him there, accepting no substitute or equivocation or excuse. He could make himself relentless and inevitable to Blake.
Avon considered the logistics. He planned the details. By stages and with practice he taught himself to dream, for Blake.
And when the strange, far-fetched message came through, bearing the sound of Blake’s voice (which was by now ingrained in Avon), saying that Blake had only been delayed by injury and misadventure, that he needed to be rescued, that he was ready to come home, Avon was even prepared to forgive Blake for offering him a bribe in exchange for the assistance. After all, Blake didn’t yet understand that everything was different, now. That Avon would have done almost anything to be reunited with him. No. Not almost. He would do anything at all.
He was prepared to believe Blake’s message without question: to act in perfect faith. What had his obsessive cautions and his paranoia ever done but so derange his judgment that he’d accepted Anna totally and driven Blake away? If Blake said he was held on a planet called Terminal and somehow getting this message out, then he was.
Avon knew that even now, it would take him hours and days to work his way to some confession of his actual state of affairs. But he would do it. He would.
On Terminal, Avon lost Cally and the Liberator. He didn’t lose Blake, because Blake had never been on Terminal in the first place. He did, however, lose the recordings, which he had neatly returned to their box and put back on the table where found them. They’d been there, safely and discreetly housed in Blake’s rooms, when the rooms, and the entire ship with them, had disintegrated.
After this series of disasters, Avon tried not to examine his feelings too carefully. After all, it didn’t look as though he’d be called on to account for his actions and sentiments in the near future after all. But he acknowledged, with bitter amusement and far more than a little self-disgust, that he regretted one of these losses more keenly and personally than the others.
The half-measure, the crutch of the recordings, had been torn from him. And it was terribly possible that, for once in her life, Servalan had been telling the truth. It was terribly possible that Blake himself was gone from the world (only now did Avon realize he’d never allowed himself to actually entertain the suspicion). Avon found little consolation in his newly-developed capacity to imagine alternatives. It betrayed him now, forcing him to see things he never wanted to, and even its pleasant and controlled uses felt grotesque if there was no real object they applied to. It was obscene and pathetic to use Blake like that, if, after all, he was gone. In the midst of loud, brash, people he was responsible for and to, Avon began to feel totally alone.