“We may have a problem,” Blake said, as he closed the door to Avon’s room behind him.
Avon didn’t bother to ask why Blake hadn’t knocked. Blake had always been convinced he had the right to go wherever he wanted and now some geniuses had actually put him in charge of hundreds of planets. Not this one, but you could see how easy it would be for him to confuse the matter.
“You mean, besides me being sentenced to almost certain death in a primitive struggle for someone else’s planet?” he asked, without looking up from what he was doing. A few months ago Dayna had taught him how to sharpen the standard-issue sword with a whetstone. To his surprise, he found it quite soothing.
“Yes,” Blake said. The sofa creaked as he sat down. “Besides that.”
Avon smiled. “Oh good. I do hate it when everything is about me. That could be why I’m so glad you decided to spend most of my last evening alive avoiding me.”
“I haven’t been avoiding you, Avon.”
“No? Well, I’m sure you had other things on your mind. My probable death could hardly have been your top priority.”
“I wasn’t avoiding you,” Blake repeated, his patience clearly wearing thin. “I was arrested.”
Avon turned to look at him at last. “What do you mean? Arrested?”
“What do you think I mean?” Blake retorted.
It had been two years since they’d last seen each other and far longer since they’d last had a proper conversation. Avon had wondered, before, whether that would make a difference to the way he and Blake interacted, but apparently it didn’t. They still grated on each other in exactly the right ways.
“I’m just surprised,” he said, “that you seem to have achieved the impossible yet again. Congratulations, Blake. Neutral observers are supposed to be protected by both sides, and surely the point of being president is that you can get away with whatever you like.”
“Yes,” Blake said. “Well. That’s a debate for another time.” He sighed. “I don’t think they knew who I was when they pulled me in. But they did know the identity of the man I killed. By accident, incidentally. I did hit him, but he would have been fine if he hadn’t cracked his head against the bar. He was rather a celebrity. For a limited time, anyway.”
Avon’s eyes slid from Blake’s face to the sword resting against the sofa by Blake’s feet. It was identical to the sword he was currently sharpening – the sword Blake, in his role as neutral arbiter, had given Avon a few hours ago. One of the traditional ancient weapons of combat. Nobody else on the planet had such a sword, except the Vandor champion.
Avon laughed. “No,” he said. “Not even you could manage that.”
Blake grimaced until the laughter stopped.
“But you’re the neutral arbiter,” Avon said flatly.
“I was,” Blake corrected.
“You mean they’re working on a reassignment now you’re their champion.”
“No,” Blake said. “I resigned from the position earlier today. I was a free man in the eyes of the Convention when I killed the former champion, and that made me eligible.”
“That must have been why they delayed the fight.”
“I had wondered.”
“And now you know.”
“And you just forgot to mention that you’d resigned, did you?”
“Because you thought it would upset me.”
Blake nodded slowly.
“Well, you were right,” Avon told him viciously. “How could you do this to me? To me? The point of this whole thing was that you’d be on the arbitration committee.“ That was too honest so he amended it to: “That I’d have a friend who would make sure decisions would go my way.”
“That’s exactly why I couldn’t do it,” Blake protested. “I’m not exactly neutral where you’re concerned, and it wouldn’t take much digging to find that out.”
“Nobody else abides by those rules, Blake.”
“Well, I do,” Blake said firmly.
“Oh wonderful. And now, thanks to your ridiculous behaviour, we have to fight to the death tomorrow.”
“Wrong,” Avon snapped. “We do. There is no getting out of it. And do you know whose fault that is, Blake? Yours. It is entirely and completely your fault.”
“Now hang on a minute,” Blake protested, “I’m not the one-” He stopped, because Avon’s sword was at his throat, and held his hands up in surrender. “All right, Avon.”
“I’m so angry with you, I could almost kill you now,” Avon told him softly.
Blake stared him down. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
“I’m rigged up to the sensor net,” Blake said, not bothering to mention that Avon was, too. What he didn’t know was that Avon had already circumvented his own implants, which were currently running a fairly basic programme that Avon had designed himself. Anyone trying to eavesdrop on his thoughts would find him feeling disturbingly bloodthirsty at all times and little else. Not many people would be listening in today, of course, since neither Avon nor Blake were supposed to be doing anything interesting like killing anyone, but Blake’s point was that there would be enough dedicated voyeurs to get Avon sentenced.
“They’ll know who did it,” Blake said redundantly. “And not even you can fight to the death against yourself.” That was presumably supposed to lighten the mood, but it didn’t.
Avon pressed the sword closer to Blake’s throat, deriving both satisfaction and horror from the sight of Blake raising his chin to get away from it. Then he threw the sword away in disgust and stalked away from Blake as it clattered on the floor.
“Don’t you want to hear what I came here to say?” Blake asked, as Avon glared out of the window over the city.
“You came here to say you were an idiot, which is something I already knew. Now get out.”
He heard Blake sigh as he got to his feet, taking his own sword with him. The door opened and shut. Avon looked behind him to check Blake had gone and then leant his forehead against the glass, his eyes closed.
Two years since they’d last seen each other essentially meant that it had been two years since Avon had shot Blake and seen him fall.
Blake had refused to see him for the first three weeks of his recovery. After a while, the guilt and anger had became too much, and Avon had decided to hell with him. He’d stolen a ship from the rebels, taken Orac, and left without telling anyone he was going. Three weeks after that, he’d changed his mind and had tried to go back, but by then the base had been moved and Blake with it. Typically, Orac had refused to be of any use in finding Blake again. It maintained that it had completed the programme in question and if Avon had failed to act on the information to his satisfaction that was his fault. Orac had better things to do, apparently, and nothing Avon had threatened to do to it would make Orac change its ‘mind’.
That meant that the next time Avon had seen Blake, the man had been on a public viscast being sworn in as President of the Federation. That had been two months ago. Orac had still been sulking about Avon’s (largely successful) attempts to improve its processing power and had refused to send a message to the presidential strategy computer. Avon had tried to make an appointment through the official channels, under his own name and various aliases, but all attempts had been rebuffed while the new government was finding its feet. They were apparently knee-deep in ‘old friends of Blake’s’ and expected to have time to verify each of them some time in the next Terran year. He had managed to get invited to Blake’s first Presidential Question Time, but one of the early questions had been “Will you marry me?” from a giggling young woman and Avon had left feeling sick, his insightful question about the banking system (meant to attract Blake’s attention) left unasked.
Some would have called what he’d decided to do instead ‘insane’ – and they would, Avon thought, probably be right. But Blake, who was at least half insane himself, would probably understand. Or he might have done. It was all ruined now.
Belatedly, Avon knew he should have realised that any plan that involved Blake was bound to go wrong, but it had seemed foolproof. Become the Teal champion, wait for the war that Orac said was coming and which Avon knew would pull Blake inexorably across the cosmos to poke his nose in, and then try to stay alive in the death match. Avon knew he was ruthless and, thanks to Dayna, well trained, and that he had a good chance of survival against most opponents. Blake would not only be forced to see him again, he would see Avon in the role of heroic figurehead: one man fighting for a whole planetary system. That was the sort of thing Blake liked.
In what now seemed like a ludicrously optimistic past, Avon had even believed that Blake (who viewed everything as his business) would be unable to resist entering the sensor net on his side (Avon would have turned the implants back to their factory settings if everything had gone to plan). And then Blake would know how Avon felt without Avon having to embarrass himself by saying it badly, or somebody else saying it badly to Blake on his behalf, or either of them being distracted by some petty argument.
Instead (Avon knocked his forehead bitterly into the window), tomorrow he was going to have to let Blake kill him. Having shouted at him, threatened him, and called him an idiot.
Avon sighed. After more than two years apart, he’d forgotten that even the most foolproof plan was never going to be Blake-proof.
Back in his own room, Blake dropped the sword on his bed and tried not to think about what he was going to do tomorrow. As he’d told Avon earlier, thousands of people would be listening in on his thoughts right now and it was imperative that they not learn what he was planning. He thought briefly about Avon but that was dangerous, too, and made him feel wretched, so he concentrated instead on how tired he was.
That, at least, was easy. It had been a hard day by anyone’s standards. On retrospect he shouldn’t have tried to avoid the awkward questions of his advisors by sneaking out to the pub on the pretence of bonding with the local population. Nor should he have then punched a man for describing exactly how he was going to torture Avon: how Avon was going to scream and beg for mercy as his thumbs were broken and his eyelashes pulled out. But his action had been instinctive. And ultimately he was glad that Avon wasn’t going to have to fight anyone like that, even if Avon had chosen to be here. And he clearly had chosen to be here. He’d been smug this morning, as Blake had stared at him in horror over the arbiters’ table. Two years of being off the radar completely, only to appear again here, and like this. How much had Avon changed if he was willing to risk his life this stupidly? And if he had changed that much, then maybe Blake had misjudged the-
Blake yawned purposefully and thought about how tired he was. He pulled his tunic over his head and unzipped his shirt. There was a knock on his door as he threw it to one side. “Yes?”
“It’s me,” Avon’s voice said.
Letting him in would be a bad idea, Blake thought, even as he gathered the shirt back up and pulled it on. “What do you want, Avon?”
“To... say I’m sorry. For what I said earlier.”
Blake’s eyebrows were raised as he pulled the door open.
“Unlikely, I know,” Avon said, with a fleeting smile, “but I decided it would be in my interests if you didn’t hate me.”
“While I’ve got a sword in my hand.”
“Especially not then.”
“I don’t hate you,” Blake said gently. “I never have.”
Avon looked suddenly very young, almost exactly the way he’d looked as he’d fired the shots that Blake had spent three months recovering from.
“Thank you,” he said. “Would you believe it if I said, neither have I?”
Blake laughed, leaning against the doorframe. “No.”
“No, I didn’t think you would.”
“No. Believe what you like, Blake,” Avon said. “That is what you always do, after all.” He paused and then said, less harshly than before, “I should go. You look tired.”
“I know. So do you.”
“Yes. Well. I’m an insomniac.”
“Ah. I’m not.”
“How nice that must be for you. I’m not president either. Did you want to bring that up, too, or should I assume it’s implied?”
“No,” Blake said, opening the door all the way, “what I mean is– look, come in, for a moment.”
“Thank you. I’d rather not.”
“All right,” Blake told him, feeling a familiar mix of amusement and frustration, “stay in the corridor. But you can take one of these things away with you.”
He located the box of blue discs he’d been given earlier in the day and pulled one of them out. Each one was a potential link to his brain: anyone over the age of consent could put one on their forehead and would feel as he did, to the extent that they would be momentarily confused about their identities when they left the sensor net. The discs were a very bright shade of blue and Blake concentrated on that hard. All around Vandor, the thousands of other people linked up to their champion also concentrated hard on the colour blue, rather than whether it was a good idea to let Avon into his mind right now. He held the very bright blue disc out to Avon.
“I’ll be asleep a few minutes after you leave. You could be, too, if you used this.”
Avon’s eyes flicked to the disc and up to Blake again. “Sharing your dreams has never held much appeal for me,” he said, but it was a joke, rather than a vicious accusation.
“I don’t dream much at night any more.”
“That’s something else you have over me.”
“I used to,” Blake said, “but I think the final round of conditioning from Shivan and Ven Glynd broke that part of my brain. You’ll be quite safe.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“No, how could you? Now, are you going to take it?”
“No,” Avon said. “I’m going to die tomorrow, Blake. Under the circumstances, I should probably spend tonight being me.”
“There’s a good chance you’ll kill me.” Blake gestured at the sword. “I don’t even really know how to use that thing.”
Avon smiled, but it made him look sad. “Good night, Blake,” he said and turned down the corridor.
Blake shut the door behind him and breathed out. In Vandor, thousands of people thought briefly about how impossible Avon was, and how upsetting it was to be so affected by him under the circumstances, before Blake managed to get himself under control and began thinking about going to sleep again.
Avon changed his mind at about four in the morning. By then he’d had enough of thinking about dying, and Blake, and how Blake would feel after killing him. Pride could only carry you through so much.
Blake said nothing as he answered the door. He’d clearly only just woken up and his shirt was unzipped almost to his naval, which Avon tried not to obviously notice. The blue disc was still out on the bedside table and Avon thought irritably that it was typical of Blake to think he knew Avon better than he knew himself. And even more typical that he was right about it.
At any rate, Blake handed him the disc with the ghost of a smile, fell back into bed and back into sleep – or, at least, the appearance of it. Avon considered going back to his own room, but Blake hadn’t asked him to leave, so he thought he might as well push his luck.
There was a large, soft armchair a few meters away from the bed. He moved Blake’s sword, which had been resting against the chair, to one side and sat. For a moment, he paused with the disc in his hand, and then he pressed it to his forehead and closed his eyes.
Blake was definitely asleep. Avon felt the physical sensations of Blake’s pillow against one side of his face and a slight ache on the other side where the scar over his eye still gave him trouble, but Blake’s conscious mind was notably silent.
It was very strange to be awake and yet asleep. In other circumstances, Avon would have been fascinated by the sensation, but he was fighting against Blake’s unconsciousness and, as with so many fights he’d had with Blake in the past, he knew he was going to lose sooner or later and just gave into him. It was, as it had always been, a relief.
When he woke several hours later, he found the blue disc had fallen back into his lap. Blake was already awake and was in the process of fastening the buttons around the neck of the silver suit of Vandor’s champion. The outfit had looked ridiculous on Tarrant’s brother, who had been slimmer, unscarred and about ten years younger than Blake was now. Unfortunately, despite all this, all Avon could think when he looked at Blake was, He must have undressed while I was in the room.
“Did you sleep all right?” Blake asked.
“Yes,” Avon said awkwardly. “Thank you. That wasn’t a bad idea of yours.”
“Not all of them are.”
“Really? You surprise me.”
Blake huffed a laugh. “I’m going out,” he said.
“Yes, I can see that. If you’re willing to take some advice, perhaps you should stay away from any bars containing important members of the Confederacy, particularly those with loud voices and weak skulls.”
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Blake said. “I’m just going to set my affairs in order, and ensure my advisors know what to do if I lose.”
“Good of you to make sure the Federation doesn’t crumble in your absence. Most condemned men aren’t so selfless.”
Blake grimaced. “I’m hardly that important,” he said, reaching for the door handle and missing Avon’s expression, which was good because Avon knew it must be pathetic. “They’ll get on fine without me. Just as you did. Anyway, I’ll see you in the combat grounds, all right?”
“Your definition and mine of ‘all right’ differ in several important respects,” Avon told him, “but yes. I’ll see you there unless you manage to get yourself killed before then.”
“Don’t worry,” Blake said wryly. “I wouldn’t want to deny you the pleasure.” He shut the door behind him, having apparently forgotten that Avon didn’t actually belong in this room.
Avon sat where he was for a moment longer, gradually preparing himself to go outside where he would undoubtedly have to speak to other people. He turned Blake’s blue disc over in his hands and considered leaving it... or using it again now Blake was awake.
But what was the point? If he found that Blake felt nothing – or nothing more than irritation – for him then he’d have to go to his death with that knowledge, which was a rather unattractive thought. Meanwhile, if he found that Blake’s feelings for him were similar to his own for Blake, he’d have to die anyway, and it wouldn’t be enough of a consolation.
Eventually Avon dropped the blue disc into the pocket where he kept a stash of his own green discs. He stood. And then, in a moment of pointless sentiment, he took one of the green discs from his pocket and left it on Blake’s bedside table. It would be useless to Blake, of course. By the time he found it there, Avon would be dead. But hopefully Blake would know what it meant, even if Avon wasn’t quite sure himself what that was.
Dayna, Tarrant and Soolin were waiting for Avon in the antechamber, along with Max, who had been Deeta’s second and was now Avon’s.
Vila was notably absent, since he had chosen last night to support Blake. Tarrant had railed against this as an unforgivable betrayal, but Avon told him to shut up unless he was going to use his brain first. He had come to this planet knowing he might die and had therefore invited the closest thing to closest friends that he had. Blake, on the other hand, had fallen into this situation by accident and was therefore surrounded only by assistants and advisors. Avon hadn’t said anything to Vila after Vila had explained that he was defecting to Vandor, but he had shaken Vila’s hand and Vila had smiled sadly, and it was clear that it was one of those times when they understood one another perfectly.
“Now remember,” Dayna said, extra fiercely to stop herself looking upset, “you need to guard your right side as well as your left.”
“Yes, I remember,” Avon told her. “Is that everything?”
“I assume it’s pointless to tell you that you don’t have to do this,” Soolin said.
“I’m afraid he does,” Max said awkwardly. “It’s a legally binding-”
“What she means is that I could teleport out of here without a second thought,” Avon said, “and in that she is quite correct.” He smiled. “Except about the second thought. The problem is that Blake does not have a teleport bracelet and that, even if he did, he wouldn’t use it. I could disappear; Blake could not. If it’s not me walking into the combat grounds in ten minutes, it will be someone else and someone else will kill Blake.”
“And you want to kill Blake yourself?” Max asked.
“That isn’t what I said.”
“Then,” Max said slowly, “you don’t want to kill him?”
“Not particularly, no.”
“Should I be worried? You know if we lose, we’ll have to surrender three-”
“Oh Max, do shut up,” Dayna said. “I’m sure Avon will do his best.”
“And he has rather a talent for survival,” Tarrant added, grinning. Avon favoured him with his most sardonic stare and Tarrant’s grin relaxed into a less infuriating smile. “Good luck, Avon.”
“Not something I know much about,” Avon said sourly, and stepped through the door into the closed chamber that led to the combat grounds.
The door to the antechamber slid shut. Avon checked the locker next to the inner door, but, as he had expected, it was empty. Legend had it that there had once been a war in which the locker had contained an additional clue to the form the combat ground would take, but nobody knew when this was or what the environment had been.
Time passed – perhaps as little as two minutes, but it was difficult to tell in the featureless environment. Avon took Blake’s disc out of his pocket and turned it over in his hands. He wondered whether Blake was already inside the computer-generated environment within the grounds and fought the urge to find out. Then the inner door slid open. He pocketed the disc, unsheathed his sword and stepped out.
Behind the door was what looked like the top of a cliff. Beyond the cliff was a sheer drop, and beyond that was a rolling ocean. The grass felt real beneath his boots, providing a slight spring above the chalk of the cliff, and there was a substantial breeze due to their being so high up and close to the sea. Blake was already there, and was sitting with one knee up and the other leg dangling over the side of the cliff, as though on a beach holiday.
Avon walked over and stood looking down at him. “Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that you don’t understand how this works,” he said.
“Perhaps I do,” Blake said, “and that’s why I’m choosing to enjoy the less unpleasant parts of the experience.”
Avon made a face and stared out over the computer-generated ocean. “We once discussed a prediction rather like this,” he said, after a while. “About standing at the edge of a cliff. I don’t suppose you remember.”
“No, I remember.”
“You said you wouldn’t like me to be standing behind you in that scenario.”
“I’m not standing at the edge of a cliff,” Blake said. “I’m sitting.”
“That makes a difference, of course,” Avon said. Blake grinned and Avon accidentally grinned back and then shook his head. “Come on, get up. Let’s get this over with.”
He stepped away from the cliff edge so Blake wouldn’t worry he was going to push him or offer to help him up. Behind him he heard the whisper of metal that was Blake unsheathing his sword, and swung round to face him.
“Ready?” Blake asked.
“Naturally,” Avon said and swung his sword loosely round in his hand just like Dayna had told him not to. He grinned as Blake swung at him, and deflected the blow easily. “Is that the best you’ve got?”
“Possibly,” Blake said. “You’ll have to find out.” The metal rang again, and then hissed as Avon whisked his sword away and struck out at Blake instead. Blake was right, he realised. They might as well enjoy the less unpleasant parts of the experience. The two of them had never fought physically before, but clearly they should have done. The adrenalin rush from the exertion, the competition and Blake’s complete attention was incredible. If he had to die at least it was like this.
Blake was not as bad a swordsman as he had intimated, but he relied heavily on natural talent and strength, rather than training. Avon knew that under normal circumstances he would have Blake on his back in ten minutes (a distracting thought under normal circumstances), but these were not normal circumstances. Quickly, before he could change his mind, he loosened his grip on the sword and let Blake knock it from his hand. It span away into the grass, and the point of Blake’s sword touched his throat, and Avon tried not to tense as Blake pushed into his personal space.
“You did that on purpose,” Blake said quietly.
“You’ll find that difficult to prove,” Avon told him. “So will the Teal government.”
“That’s interesting, but this is not how this is going to end.”
“Pick up your sword, Avon.”
Avon raised an eyebrow.
“Pick up your sword,” Blake said firmly, “or I drop mine over the edge of the cliff. Now, Avon,” he said as Avon scowled at him, and reluctantly Avon bent to retrieve his sword from the grass.
So Blake was going to make it difficult. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it was still aggravating. That aggravation made him lash out at Blake, who only just managed to parry in time. Avon fought him back to the edge of the cliff and then gave Blake the opening he needed with a lunge that left his left side completely unprotected.
Blake missed it. Avon was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, to assume he was simply less astute than he’d seemed, but Blake chose not to take advantage of a stumble, and then an ill-advised feint, and eventually Avon’s patience snapped.
“What is wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with me?” Blake repeated, apparently also at the end of his tether. “I’m not the one trying to get myself killed.”
“So you have noticed.”
“I could hardly have missed it.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve missed something obvious.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“For a start, obviously, I don’t want to kill you.”
“What,” Blake retorted, “not again, you mean?”
“No, don’t you dare bring up Gauda Prime,” Avon said furiously. “I set all this up? That was the best you could think of to reassure me?”
“You shouldn’t have needed reassurance,” Blake growled.
“Oh, I see,” Avon retorted. “It’s all my fault. Naturally. Because I failed to understand- what, Blake?”
Blake paused. “You honestly don’t know? I thought you did. In fact, I was fairly sure-”
“What don’t I know?” Avon asked impatiently.
Blake looked briefly uncertain and then frowned, having apparently made a decision. “You still have the disc I gave you.”
Avon considered denying it, but eventually he scowled and pulled it out of his pocket. Blake took it and placed it gently on Avon’s forehead. Avon met his gaze, and then closed his eyes, and-
He was standing, holding a sword and looking at Avon. And he felt... frustration, anger, a deep weariness, some worry about whether everything would turn out right, some fear mostly for Avon, some resentment, some relief about what Avon had just said and because Avon was here. And underneath all of that was the deep ache of stupid and embarrassing desire – partly simply to continue to be with Avon for as long as possible whatever the cost, and talk to him and get his advice. The rest of it was simple lust. Less than usual, given what Avon was wearing and how irritating he was being, but-
Avon opened his eyes. “You’re in love with me.”
Blake gave an awkward facial shrug and Avon narrowed his eyes. “And you think I look ridiculous. Which is rich, considering that I’ve seen us both-”
“What about the other part, Avon?” Blake said in exasperation.
Avon considered telling him the truth, but he’d just proved to himself that he’d been right and he wouldn’t be able to convey the truth with any grace or tact.
“Did you go back to your room after I left?”
“Er - yes,” Blake said. “I realised I’d forgotten my sword-” Avon rolled his eyes and Blake sighed. “I did have a lot on my mind.”
“What there is of it,” Avon said. Before Blake could retort, he added, “If you went back to your room, you know you have a way of finding out what I think.”
“What, you mean this?” Blake asked, producing a green disc from a pocket.
“Either that or I mean the message I scratched into your sword during the night. Which do you think is more likely?”
“Is that a serious question?” Blake asked. “This is you we’re talking about.” And Avon took the disc from him in frustration and pressed it to his forehead.
Blake’s eyes were closed for hardly any time at all before they opened again. “I never realised,” he said and took an unconscious step back. “You really do hate me, don’t you?”
“What?” Avon said. Then he laughed, which seemed to confuse Blake even more. “No, it’s a programme. Wait a moment. I need to cancel it.”
Fortunately, the programme that had been feeding bloodthirsty thoughts through to the people of Teal could be cancelled easily using a set of code words. Unfortunately, the code words were “Roj Blake,” which was deeply embarrassing, but Blake would know everything soon anyway.
“Try again,” Avon suggested and, with an incredulous expression on his face, Blake closed his eyes.
Assuming Avon knew himself at all, Blake would now be feeling how fiercely and recklessly Avon loved him – despite his own better judgment and the stupid way Blake had handled basically everything about Gauda Prime and this tournament. He loved him for his goodness and determination, and his sense of humour, and how he was still so strong despite being broken, and he loved the way Blake bit his fingers when he thought, and his neck, and his voice, and the way he smelled, and the way he used to wear tight trousers around the Liberator, and for a hundred other reasons that were all just as valid and difficult to ignore.
It wasn’t a total surprise when Blake kissed him, but that didn’t meant Avon was prepared for how it would feel. He closed his eyes on instinct as Blake pulled him closer, and then he was Blake kissing him and feeling so relieved and pleased and adoring, and Blake had his eyes shut, too, and was him kissing Blake and feeling weak because Blake was kissing him and in an almost infinite recursion.
“Oh my god,” Avon muttered, feeling his knees buckling and pulling Blake down with him.
Blake laughed as they hit the ground. “Just Roj will do.”
“I hate you,” Avon told him.
“No, you don’t.”
“No, I don’t,” Avon agreed and shut his eyes as- as he kissed his way down Avon’s collarbone and began unzipping his suit with hands that trembled. Avon’s skin was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, and, to Blake’s mild bemusement, he still smelled incredible. Ever fastidious, Avon was wearing a thin shirt underneath his suit and Blake pushed his hand under the fabric and into the soft hair on Avon’s chest. He moved back to kiss Avon’s mouth again and closed his eyes, and then they were both dizzy with the recursion until Avon managed to open his eyes again.
Above him, Blake looked dazed and aroused: a clear reflection of what Avon was feeling right now. It was charming, but it wasn’t Blake, and Avon was pleased when this thought caused Blake to look at him, eyebrows raised.
“Yes, that’s more like it,” Avon told him.
“More like me.”
“Exactly,” Avon said, and squirmed as Blake pushed his hand lower into his suit. And then Blake’s hand was around his cock, and Avon gasped and arched as it began to move in slow, even strokes. He felt the rumble of Blake’s laugh across his chest and the huff of Blake’s breath against his neck. Then Blake must have closed his eyes, because the laugh became a series of gasps than echoed Avon’s own and Blake’s hips shoved rhythmically against him as though he was the one being jerked off. It was quite possible, Avon realised, that they could both come just from Blake touching him – but, since he’d spent most of the past six years wanting to touch Blake, this seemed like a pointless exercise.
There wasn’t much room between them any more but he managed to unzip Blake’s suit all the way down, and then push his hand over the scar on Blake’s midriff and under the edge of his underwear. Blake managed to look at him as Avon’s hand closed around him, and with an effort of will they maintained eye contact until Avon’s orgasm washed over him. At that point it was too difficult not to let his eyes flicker shut, and then he was Blake again in time for Blake’s orgasm, and he could feel his own body protesting that it was too soon even as the second wave of pleasure hit him. Everything hurt and was perfect.
Weakly Avon reached up and brushed the blue disc off his forehead. This seemed to rouse Blake, and he groaned and rolled away, the green disc slipping off into the grass.
“Ow,” Avon said to nobody in particular.
Blake turned his head to look at him. “I’ve had better post coital verdicts,” he said in amusement.
“Well, that’s the best you’re going to get from me.”
“Then I suppose it will have to do,” Blake said and Avon gripped the neck of his suit and pulled him into a kiss. It was a heady experience, even without the magnifying power of the sensor net.
“Max?” Blake said, as he pulled away.
Avon grimaced as his brain made the connection. “It seems churlish to point out that my name is-”
Blake put a hand over his mouth. “Find Bill,” he said, naming his own second, “and negotiate a peace that is equitable for both sides. Do it quickly.”
Avon raised his eyebrows and Blake obligingly removed his hand so Avon could talk. The endorphins and oxytocin were fighting to keep him docile while parts of his brain were loudly pointing out what he’d forgotten earlier in the thrill of the fight, the argument and the sex: that millions of people had just experienced sex with him and, worse, with Blake. Other active brain pathways added that Blake hadn’t ever forgotten that, he’d just deliberately chosen not to think about it until it was convenient.
“So this was all just part of one of your plans from the beginning?” Avon asked, his voice remarkably calm.
“No, not from the beginning,” Blake said. “But once I’d been made the other champion I admit, it did occur to me that we might be able to simultaneously resolve our differences and put Teal and Vandor in a position where they would be able to consider an alternative to an extremely disruptive change of government on three planets and a man’s death. So, before the sensors were implanted, I had a quiet word with your friend Max-”
“Max is not my friend.”
“Your associate, then.”
“Better, but it still suggests I’m not going to kill him when we get out of here.”
Blake sighed, his mouth twisting ruefully. “This wasn’t all just part of a plan, either. You know that.”
“Yes, I know that.”
“Do you forgive me? Or perhaps I should say – please will you forgive me? It’s not obligatory.”
“You know you have a way of finding out.”
“I thought I was using it. I ask a question, you answer it. Isn’t that how it works?”
Avon smiled slowly. At least the millions of people who’d been watching now knew how crazy Blake was about him. And how crazy Blake was. That would presumably thin the field of potential rivals. “All right, then. I forgive you.”
“What about Max?”
“Max had better not be around when I get out of here,” Avon said. Blake’s face wore a disgruntled expression that he probably knew Avon found irresistible, and Avon laughed. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Assuming your friend and my sometime associate Max remembered to unlock the doors to the antechamber before embarking on his mission of peace.”
Fortunately, the door slid open when they approached it. Max was absent, but Dayna, Tarrant, Soolin and Vila, who had apparently returned to this side of the combat grounds some time during the contest, all looked ‘round as they entered.
“Oh right, there you are,” Vila said hollowly from one of the sofas. He had a large drink in his hands. “Avon may forgive you, Blake, but I’m not sure I will. I can’t believe you. I’m there for you in your time of need, and you make me have sex with Avon.”
“If it helps, you enjoyed it,” Blake told him.
“It doesn’t,” Vila said. “In fact, that’s the worst part.”
“It really wasn’t,” Dayna said, with a wide grin at Blake. She had, presumably, been in Avon’s mind. “The neck kissing was lovely, and the way you-”
“Right,” Avon said briskly. “Let’s get out of here, Blake.”
“All right,” Blake said, with a chuckle. Trust him, Avon thought bitterly, to think this wasn’t completely mortifying.
Tarrant had to move out of the way so they could exit through the outside door. He met Avon’s eyes briefly and then looked away with a grimace. “Er, we don’t ever have to talk about this again.”
“That suits me,” Avon told him.
As the door slid open, he turned slowly towards Soolin, who was standing off to one side. The others were too easily traumatised or, in Dayna’s case, distracted, but Soolin had a gift for cuttingly accurate barbs that was second only to his own. If there was going to be mockery about how weak he was when it came to Blake, it was going to come from her.
She raised an eyebrow that matched his. “Don’t look at me. I’m not interested in being you, whether you’re killing someone, having sex or working on Orac. I watched the whole thing on the monitors, but only out of politeness.”
Avon narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but Blake tugged him out in the corridor before he could think of a good retort.
The peace was not as easily brokered as Blake might have wished and he spent the rest of the day in negotiations. Eventually, at about eleven at night, they reached a compromise over the trade routes that everyone was relatively happy with, and Blake let them all go.
He was half afraid that Avon would have left the planet in his absence, but when he let himself into Avon’s room he found Avon practising fencing forms without a shirt on.
The sensor net had been turned off now, and it was a relief to be able to look at him without having to stamp down on any thoughts that might have given the game away too early. Most of the thoughts Blake was allowing himself to have now would have been unsuitable – even the one about how thin Avon had become, because it made him feel awful for not being around to force Avon to look after himself.
“You’re very good at that,” he observed neutrally, as he moved into Avon’s range.
“Well, it’s remarkable how much you can achieve when you’re not trying to make a difference to the galaxy,” Avon said.
“Really? I wouldn’t know,” Blake said, sinking onto Avon’s sofa.
“I wouldn’t expect you to. How is the Confederacy, by the way?”
“Better. Do you care?”
“No,” Avon said. He lowered his sword. “Or rather – yes. But only if they want me to fight in any more of their wars.”
“I don’t think you’ll be needed again,” Blake said, with a smile.
“What a relief,” Avon said, coming to sit at the other end of the sofa to Blake. “In that case I can turn my attention back to soufflé making, symphony composing and translating the works of Shakespeare into something Vila can understand.”
Blake laughed incredulously. “That might take a while.”
After a moment, Avon smiled at him. “I have missed you.”
“No one to laugh at your jokes?”
“No, there were plenty of people for that.”
Blake raised his eyebrows. He’d thought Avon might smirk in reply, but instead he smiled ruefully and Blake was again hit, as though he was still connected to Avon’s mind, with the knowledge of how much he meant to Avon.
“Careful Avon,” he said gently, “your sentiment is showing.”
He’d meant it to be a light moment that Avon could parlay into a kiss or an innuendo if he wanted to, but Avon’s expression twisted into one of regret and loss.
“Are you all right?” Blake asked, wondering whether he should try and touch Avon or whether that would make it worse.
“Yes,” Avon said. He reconsidered. “No.” The silence lingered.
“It’s all right. You don’t have to tell me,” Blake said.
“No, it’s nothing. Just something Servalan made you say once.”
“Not the real you, you understand,” Avon said. “Has no one ever told you how we lost the Liberator? How... I lost the Liberator.”
“Vila said something about Servalan,” Blake said, “some sort of deal gone wrong and the planet Terminal, I think.”
“But not why we were there? How typical of Vila’s insufferable good nature. I must remember to thank him one of these days when I can bear it.”
“So, why were you there?”
Avon grimaced. “Servalan,” he explained, “had constructed an exact replica of you. Inside her computers.”
“What a horrible thought."
“She convinced Zen and me that it was the real you, and offered to trade you for the Liberator.”
“And you agreed?”
“No,” Avon said with the ghost of a smile. “But I might have done if it hadn’t been her. She took the ship anyway, of course, but she didn’t know we’d flown through an enzyme cloud to reach Terminal. The ship broke up as soon as she tried to move away. I thought she’d died, which was about what she deserved.”
Blake reached out so the tips of his fingers caressed Avon’s face. “Thank you.”
“What for?” Avon said, grimacing. “Losing the ship? Getting Cally killed in the aftermath?”
“For coming to rescue me.”
“Blake, you weren’t there.”
Blake shrugged. “I could have been.”
Avon rolled his eyes. “Thank you for your attempt to console me, but I’m afraid I will have to continue to regard the incident as an act of monumental and futile stupidity only equalled by the events that took place when I tried to rescue you from Gauda Prime.”
“I thought you said Gauda Prime was my fault.”
“That’s right,” Avon said, grinning slightly. “So you can see what I mean about Terminal.”
Blake laughed, which seemed to be the right thing to do as Avon continued to relax into mockery, shaking his head with a smile.
“For what it’s worth,” Blake told him, “I am sorry about what happened. I can see how you could have misinterpreted what I said on Gauda.”
“Can you, indeed?”
“If you’ll believe it, I actually thought that saying I’d been waiting for you was honest and... romantic.”
“I can believe it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t stupid.”
“Avon, I’m apologising for you shooting me. The least you could do is accept gracefully.”
“That’s true. And I do admit some fault,” Avon said. “Saying what we mean has never been something either of us were good at. I should have remembered that. To be fair, I haven’t forgotten it since, but my attempt to get around the problem using the Teal-Vandor sensor net was perhaps a bit extreme.
“All right, it was. But it forced us to accept and act positively on whatever it is we feel for each other. Attempting honesty has thus far only ever resulted in you getting shot.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Blake said. Avon laughed and Blake smiled. “What? I’m not saying either of us will be good at it right away, but,” he shrugged, “with practice.”
“Blake, you’re a politician,” Avon said, making it sound like being a mass-murderer, rather than what it was, which was a difficult and degrading task that Blake only put himself through so that things would be better for other people. He must have frowned without realising it, because Avon laughed again. “No, don’t make that face. Your plan today was to force millions of people to do what you wanted, for their own good, I’m sure, by subjecting them to your post-coital bliss. Not a plan that would have worked if you’d told them what you were doing. Or if you’d told me, not that we’ll mention that.”
“I thought you’d already forgiven me.”
“I did,” Avon said. “But I would forgive you for most things eventually. Frankly, you could strive for a higher standard.”
“So you don’t want me to tell you what I’m thinking?”
“I didn’t say that,” Avon said. “I’m just saying it won’t be easy for you.”
“Well, let’s try it, shall we?” Blake said. “You’re a git.”
“Yes,” Avon said with a laugh, “I’m sure that’s true.”
“And I love you,” Blake said, which Avon accepted with a slight tilt of his head. “And I’m desperate to kiss you right now.”
“Kiss me? Is that all?”
Blake smiled. “No, but it is a start.”
He leant forward and, when Avon didn’t pull away, kissed him gently. Avon seemed to relax into him briefly and then he pushed forwards, climbing onto Blake and pressing him back into the sofa. There was a brief interval in which Blake tried to touch as much of Avon as possible and Avon tried to get into Blake’s trousers and then Avon pulled back.
“Just so you know,” he said, “I will have to walk out now if what this kiss is the start of isn’t us making love for the next three hours-“
“This is your room,” Blake reminded him.
“I feel very strongly about the issue. Rest periods will be allowed, but are not included in the overall total.”
“All right,” Blake said. “Can I stay the night?”
“Of course. That is another of the conditions of my not walking out now. The other conditions are quite similar but for different nights.”
“Any in particular?”
“Most of them. Is that all right?”
“Are you saying you want to get married?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying.”
“All right. Do you want to get married?”
“Do you?” Avon retorted.
Blake hesitated awkwardly. “Yes,” he said, wishing Avon had been forced to say it first.
“I don’t particularly,” Avon said.
“But I would be willing to consider the idea,” Avon told him. He smiled. “You could try and convince me.”
“See,” Blake murmured, as Avon kissed him again, “I told you we didn’t need the sensor net.”
“You were right,” Avon told him. He drew back a second time. “That said, as one of the foremost computer experts in the galaxy, I’m fairly sure I could set up a private sensor net for the two of us. It would only take half an hour.”
Blake considered this idea briefly. The sex earlier had been weird but spectacular. And being directly connected to Avon’s mind would be an easy way of getting round the awkward period of not knowing whether what he was doing was working, but that was also the interesting part. And half an hour was half an hour and Avon was on top of him now, shirtless and with the beginnings of an erection. And Blake was relatively keen on being himself if he was going to be touching Avon.
“Perhaps," Avon said helpfully, "later?”
Blake smiled. "Yes," he said. "That's what I was thinking, too."