“All right,” Blake says, “now concentrate.”
He can hear his own voice through the gas mask, sounding thick and mechanical. The exasperation and power that he meant to put into that imperative are still there but muffled. He sounds, Avon told him last time, like a cross robot, more his sort of thing really, than Blake’s. Then Avon had laughed for about five minutes at that joke until Blake had, in exasperation, pulled the mask off and shoved it over Avon’s head instead.
“This is the way we’ve come so far,” he tells Avon now, indicating the long trail on the map of Del 10’s northern continent. “We still have another ten minutes or so on this one, and then we turn right at the foot of the mountain and walk on for another ten minutes. Have you got that, Avon? Avon.” He claps his hands to attract Avon’s attention away from what looks like a perfectly ordinary rock. “Avon.”
“Yes,” Avon says. “What?”
“What did I say?” Blake asks.
“Ten minutes, then right at the mountain,” Avon says, sounding bored. “Can we go now?”
Blake nods in relief. His own memory has proven to be incredibly poor while outside in the beta particles. However flighty Avon seems to him now, the truth is that Avon is much better at holding himself together here than Blake is. Remembering two simple instructions is almost beyond Blake. He certainly can’t concentrate enough to read a map.
If only, he thinks now, they’d brought enough oxygen to see the two of them through this entire mission, but Avon had rejected that idea immediately. Del 10 is a holiday planet, a pleasure world. Everyone else here has arrived with the intention of losing themselves in the beta particles, an experience (the adverts claim) that is like being simultaneously drunk and Shadow-high in a solid-gold jacuzzi. It’s all completely legal and, apparently, completely natural. Those who are not holidaymakers are members of staff, all of whom have developed immunity to the betas' effects, and any one of whom may be working for the Federation. Nobody else is wearing gas masks. If the Liberator crew want to go unrecognised then they have to look like everyone else. Even these short breaks are unwise, but it’s the only way Blake can imagine getting anything done.
He’s been breathing through the mask for just over a minute now. That’s almost a fifth of the remaining supply, which means he has to switch it off soon. It's a small cylinder – only intended for short space walks. He needs to preserve enough that, if they find Docholli, he will be able to conduct a civilised conversation with him.
The thought of returning to the beta particle-filled air is horrifying, but it is the only way they are going to find Star One.
Blake switches off the oxygen, and pulls the mask off his face and stows it back in his pack. For as long as possible, he holds his breath, feeling his anxiety growing with each passing second as his brain becomes more oxygen-deprived. Then he jumps as Avon claps him on the shoulder.
“Are you all right? You’re turning blue, Blake.”
The alliteration strikes Avon as funny too.
Blake takes in a lungful of Del 10's air, and feels himself relaxing. Avon’s laugh is something he’s always enjoyed, just as he’s always enjoyed Avon’s sense of humour. The laugh happens too rarely, but it sets Avon's whole face alight. For a moment, Blake is lost in the sparkle of Avon's eyes, his breath taken away by the curve of Avon’s lips. These are things he knows he has noticed before, but which he has taken pains not to think about. It’s a distraction he can’t afford – at least, that’s what he used to think. He doesn't think it now.
“Better,” Avon says, smiling at what must be Blake’s renewed colour. “Ten minutes, then right at the mountain, then ten minutes.” He offers the information to Blake now almost as a gift – I remembered this for you.
"And how long if we run?” Blake asks.
Avon frowns. He seems to actually be trying to work it out. “That depends. The gravity is around sixty percent––”
“Race you,” Blake says, and tears off down the trail.
As Vila had promised earlier, the gravity is so low he can almost fly. It’s exhilarating. It feels like freedom. No wonder Del 10 is such a popular holiday destination. It’s everything Blake has ever wanted for the people of the universe.
He turns back to see if Avon is following him, and has to step back to avoid being knocked over as Avon sprints past, the back of his loose white shirt flapping in the breeze. He has an amusing run, Blake notes. Even after years as a fugitive, dodging out of the way of Federation guards, Avon’s run is still the run of a computer technician who stays slim by eating mainly coffee, rather than through exercise. He doesn't seem to know how to hold his limbs. It’s endearing. And it’s going to make him very easy to beat.
Blake grins and starts to run again. He overtakes Avon easily, and then a man pulling a cart, and then loops back around Avon again. Avon sticks out a foot, and Blake grabs at him as he falls, pulling Avon tumbling down on top of him. Ordinarily Avon's weight would be enough to knock the breath out of him, but here it is a gentle friendly pressure, like that of a small cat.
“Cheater,” Blake says with false outrage as Avon rolls off him.
“I was arrested for it,” Avon agrees with amusement. He clambers to his feet and starts running again. He almost beats Blake to the turning, but trips over his own feet at the last moment. Blake overtakes and, victorious, throws himself onto the gently sloping side of the mountain. The grass is soft under his back, and it smells bright and fresh. Children are laughing somewhere close by, and nobody is screaming.
“What now?” Blake says as Avon joins him.
“Ten minutes that way,” Avon says pointing at the track that takes them round the base of the mountain. “After that I don’t know.”
“Does it matter?” Blake says, letting his eyes flicker shut. The sun is warm on his face, and he considers taking a nap. Would Avon watch over him while he slept? Or watch him? They’re here to do something, but he can’t remember exactly what it is. Enjoy each other’s company perhaps.
“Avon,” a voice says from nowhere. “You’ve missed another check-in. Are you able to give me a report on your position?”
“Who’s that?” Blake says.
“You may need to find the oxygen mask,” the voice continues. “Find it – and put it on so that it covers your nose and mouth.”
He hears Avon rooting around in the pack, and then the hiss of the oxygen canister. When he cracks an eye open, he can see Avon breathing through the black mask over his mouth. As he watches, Avon raises one of his wrists to his mouth, and with difficulty (one hand is still holding the mask in place) presses a button on the side of the bracelet around his wrist.
“Cally, this is Avon. Where are you?”
“We’re about to enter the main town. And you?” the voice says again – this time it seems to be coming from the bracelet.
“Still several miles away from our destination,” Avon says through the gas-mask filter. “As anticipated, Blake is a dead weight. He can’t concentrate for more than ten seconds at a time. He should be sent back.”
“No,” Blake protests absently without opening his eyes, though he has little idea of where Avon might be sending him. Away from here, presumably. Away from Avon. That would be terrible. He reaches absently out to play with one of the laces of Avon’s boot.
“You shouldn’t be out here alone,” the bracelet reminds Avon. “Blake is a constant reminder of who you are, Avon. He is supporting you, even if you don’t realise it.”
“I’m sure Vila’s being just as useful,” Avon says sourly.
"I'm having a great time!" the bracelet says in a different voice.
“Vila has convinced three sets of Federation guards that we are just holiday makers,” the bracelet says. “His mind is remarkable strong, and he is holding up well, supported by my telepathy. Call in again in an hour, or if you find Docholli. Cally out.”
There is a rustling of paper, accompanied by the sound of Avon muttering and then swearing as the shoelace in Blake’s hand jerks taught and Avon nearly falls over. Then a shadow falls across Blake’s face, and someone shakes his arm.
“Time to go, Blake,” Avon says as Blake squints up at him, “although you should take a quick breath of sense before we move on.” He pulls the mask away from his own face, and holds it out to Blake.
“Your eyes are so beautiful,” Blake says.
Avon blinks and his mouth twists briefly. “Take the mask, Blake,” he says, and to oblige him because he looks sad Blake takes it. He holds it over his mouth and nose. He closes his eyes as he breathes in and out, letting the oxygen gradually fill his lungs and root round to his brain.
Reality creeps over him gradually, and with it a looming sense of horror.
Blake sits up quickly, shielding the mask from the men passing by turning back towards the mountain side. They have to find Docholli, reach Star One, and destroy the Federation. He can't afford this delay.
Avon has enough pure oxygen still in his bloodstream that, when Blake looks at him, the man who looks back is the one he knows – grim, determined, irritated and, yes, indefinably sad.
"Thank you," Blake says, indicating the mask, and sees his Avon melt away into the drunk, dizzy version of this place as Avon smiles.
Almost the worst thing about this place is that, with only one gas mask between them, only one of them can be sober at once.
"Anything for you," Avon says.
In his right mind Avon would have said that sarcastically. This Avon sounds like he means it, though Blake suspects the other one would have meant it too without wanting to show it. It is an invasion of privacy Blake never wanted, though. If Avon wants to pretend to hate him, then he should be allowed to do so.
"We should go soon," Avon reminds him, and Blake nods. They have to find Docholli before the oxygen runs out, and before the Federation find them on this planet, and before Docholli hears that people have come looking for him and runs for it.
But Blake isn't yet ready to leave the artificial bubble of lucidity. Avon is right to consider sending him back to the Liberator. He feels paralysed in both states – useless while under the influence, and terrified, while sober, of becoming useless again. It is so tempting to call back up to the ship and see if Jenna will swap places with him. But he knows Jenna is the best choice to remain with Liberator. If Federation pursuit ships appear suddenly over Del 10 it is Jenna, rather than Blake, who will be able to give them the slip, swing back around the planet and pick up the crew.
Cally has also intimated that Jenna has had a hard few days recently, and her mental shields are likely to be weak as a result. Cally did not say this was because Jenna had recently been required to undergo dual therapy with Blake to help remove the Federation's most recent wave of conditioning over him. The whole crew have been curiously silent about the Atlay affair. Blake wonders who would have cracked and told him, if he hadn't noticed he'd lost almost ten hours and demanded the truth from Orac himself. Perhaps none of them would have. They are all stubborn in their own ways, and they were all trying to protect him.
That conditioning is almost certainly to blame for Blake's incapacity now. The same kind of continual tampering that has made Vila's mind strong has made Blake weak. His mind has been opened by so many sessions in Federation alteration machines that now almost anyone can walk in; any stimulant or depressant overwhelms him. It's as though his unconscious mind wants to submit to outside control as much as his conscious mind wants to resist it. He has not touched a drop of alcohol since boarding the London, and he avoids Cally's soma as much as possible. Better sleepless nights than drugged oblivion, or this.
He could go back – but Cally is right that Avon shouldn't go on alone, and she is right not to expose Jenna to this experience, and it's not as though Cally or Vila or Avon want to find Docholli as much as Blake does. It is his mission, and he hates sending others to do things he's unwilling to do himself.
For something to do, he fetches the map from the pack again and studies the route to Docholli's last known address. It should be just another ten minutes' walk. When they get there it should be the only white house in a line of blue – indicative, Orac says, of a doctor’s residence. The area is too busy to be sure that they wouldn’t materialise right in front of someone, and Zen had deemed it a risk to teleport directly onto the uneven mountain terrain anyway. They might have materialised half inside a rock-face or on an outcrop unable to support the weight of a man. On the map the walk had seemed easy. It is easy – physically.
Avon is already on his feet, turning slowly on the spot. Like ripping off a plaster, Blake pulls the mask from his face. He returns it to the pack.
"Need a hand?" Avon asks, and Blake looks up to see Avon's arm stretched towards him, palm out in invitation. That’s something else that would never happen anywhere else but here. He lets himself accept the offer, feeling Avon's hand, strong and dry, in his for a moment before Avon tugs him slightly too hard to his feet.
Although they have been here nearly an hour, they are both not yet used to the gravity here. Avon's tug sends Blake careering into him as though they are both standing on the Liberator's flight deck and a blaster bolt has struck the side of the ship. The gravity keeps the force of impact low, though, as though they are part of a dream where actions have no real consequences.
Avon laughs and says “Steady", and Blake laughs, and Avon manages to stay upright, and Blake just about manages not to kiss him. He still has enough pure oxygen in his lungs to know that, despite appearances, there would be consequences to that one. Negative consequences? Already he can't be sure. Kissing Avon would almost certainly lead to skimming his hand inside Avon's shirt, and perhaps Avon making a small, quiet noise and relaxing against him and opening his mouth for Blake’s tongue. Surely those would both be good consequences.
"Ten minutes that way," Avon says now, distracting him. Avon indicates the way ahead, and Blake begins to run again for the joy of running, as much as for anything else. He only realises a few paces away that he still has hold of Avon's hand. He is tugging Avon along with him, past another couple who are dancing in the street, and a child who is trying to make a snow angel in the grass without much success. Avon is laughing, and it helps even out their velocity – Blake slower, and Avon faster. The feeling of flying is lessened, but perhaps this is better. What is freedom if you are alone? Simply an absence of good or bad: a vacuum. This is worth having.
He lets go of Avon's hand as the white cabin comes into view. Even though it looks like almost all the simple, rustic dwellings on Del 10, even though Blake can barely remember what he did twenty minutes ago, he knows this is what they have come for. Some part of him remembers gripping the map tightly between his fingers, remembers knowing what finding Docholli would mean for them, though most of him is still thinking about the warmth of the sun, and how it felt to hold Avon's hand.
"But is anyone home?" Avon says.
"Only one way to find out," Blake says with a grin, and they both start towards the cabin. Both he and Avon break into a run at about the same point and both of them reach the narrow door at the same time. It is obvious to Blake that he should enter first, but Avon finds the opposite just as obvious. They end up pressed together again, Avon's elbow in Blake's face, as they both try and squeeze through the doorway at once. Blake breathes in, and pulls forward, and manages to stagger inside, triumphantly, first.
Inside there is one room, and it is empty. Avon whistles.
"Not quite as bad as your quarters, but not good either."
"You've never seen my quarters," Blake protests, though Avon is right – both about Blake’s own room (from what he remembers) and the one they’re looking at now. There are papers strewn all over the floor and surfaces. The man who lives here also seems to have an unconventional taste in furnishings. Rather than standing his chairs upright in the traditional manner, he's left most of the upside down or lying on the floor. It creates an interesting and exciting effect. It feels as though the owner of the chairs cares nothing for society's expectations. Blake is already absentmindedly planning a reorganisation of his own quarters.
"I've imagined them," Avon says. "Often." He grins, and Blake sticks his tongue out at him. "During the night," Avon says.
Blake opens Docholli’s only internal door. It leads to a cupboard. He shuts it again. "There's nobody here." He's already bored with the hut, and anxious to be outside again.
"Were you expecting anyone?" Avon asks.
It's a good question. Blake opens his mouth to say that he must have been because otherwise they wouldn't have come – but he isn’t sure. They may have come on different business. Perhaps they are supposed to pick up an object, or perhaps they are on holiday.
Avon is crouching, studying a set of framed photographs arranged artistically over the floor. He is holding several of the attractively shattered Perspex-frames in his hands.
"There's one man who is in almost all of these pictures," he says as Blake crosses to him. "It could be his house." As he stands, he points down at the photographs, which depict a family group, a husband and wife, and a doctoral graduation ceremony. The man in question is elderly in the family group – he has a white beard and strong features. Blake has only the faintest memory of his mission here, but he knows as he looks at the photographs that Avon is right. This is the man they came to find. They only had descriptions of him before.
"Yes!" he says with excitement. "That's him. Well done, Avon. You found a clue!"
"It was––” Avon says, breaking off as Blake sweeps him into his arms and whirls Avon around. He wouldn't be able to do this usually – Avon is a slim man, though only slightly shorter than Blake and he probably weighs at least seventy kilos – but the low gravity makes it easy.
"Blake," Avon protests, laughing. "Put me down. Put me––” He breaks off again as Blake puts him down as asked, and kisses him without asking, in celebration of how wonderful he is.
Avon's hands, still holding the photographs, are caught between them. The hard corners of the frames press into Blake's chest and Avon's fingers flutter slightly as though he is unsure of what to do with them. As Blake presses further kisses against Avon's lips, taking Avon's lack of protest for encouragement, Avon pulls his hands free and drops the photographs behind him. They crash to the floor, slower than Blake might have expected, and Avon's arms come round Blake's face, dragging him in, as Avon's lips opens beneath his and Avon's tongue pushes into his mouth. Blake lets Avon ravish the inside of his mouth for as long as it takes him to acclimatise to it, and then bites back against Avon's lower lip. Avon retreats in surprised laughter, and Blake has him. He pushes his own tongue past Avon's teeth to stroke the roof of his mouth. He can feel himself hardening, arousal singing in his veins, and reaches down to Avon's crotch to find whether he is similarly affected.
Avon gasps and presses into Blake's hand. His cock is hard and straining against the thin cotton trousers he wore down on Zondar, and is wearing again today. Blake strokes Avon again, to see if he will make a similar noise and a similar movement, and instead Avon tilts back his head away from Blake.
"Bad idea,” he says hectically, even as he clutches Blake's arse and his throat shudders against Blake's lips as Blake lays further kisses down his exposed neck. "Bad idea bad idea bad idea."
He smells incredible against his pulsepoint, like the fresh grass they fell into earlier and clean sweat. Blake aches for him, but he knows he should stop because Avon thinks it is a bad idea. Why Blake doesn’t know – he wants Avon, has always wanted Avon, and Avon clearly wants him, and they have just found … something or other that he was excited about. It's so difficult to concentrate, but Avon must be right.
He gives Avon's neck a long lick, tasting the salt of his skin, and pulls back – only to have Avon's hands come back round his face and drag him into another kiss with the same desperation Blake might expect if Avon were drowning and needed air.
"Bed?" Avon suggests breathlessly in another break between their lips. "Is there a bed?"
Blake remembers the answer to this one, and is pleased to have done so where Avon has not. There is a bed behind them, probably only a meters away. That also answers that nagging question – it was a bad idea to try and make love to Avon while standing up. Lying down will be all right. Lying down will be wonderful.
He tugs Avon back with him, trusting to the gravity of the place to soften the landing if he's made a mistake, but the bed catches him. Avon lands on top of him, steadies himself and rips Blake's shirt open in the same movement. He rubs his hands up Blake's chest, and leans down to kiss him again. Blake uses this to catch and roll him onto his back, as though Avon has just tripped him again the race, and he needs to be on top so he can take off again along the path. But he knows, as he grips the top of Avon's waistband and tugs, and Avon's lifts his hips, that this is where he needs and wants to be. There is nothing else he could be doing that would be more important.
"Oh god," Avon whispers as Blake pulls his trousers and underwear down together past Avon's knees. "Oh god."
His cock is flushed – hot and hard, and straining towards Blake, clearly desperate for his attention. Blake is entranced. When he buries his face in the thatch of Avon's groin and breathes in, he can smell something similar to the scent of Avon's throat but stronger, and muskier, and more like sex.
"Oh god," Avon says again, covering his face with a hand while the other moves to thread through Blake's hair. "Oh god, oh––” he says as Blake stops nuzzling him and instead licks his way up Avon's cock, the way he licked up Avon's neck. “Oh," Avon says wretchedly as Blake tongues his foreskin, and then opens his mouth and takes the head of Avon's cock between his lips. Avon's hand tightens in his hair as Blake lets himself slide down until he has almost all of Avon inside himself. "Oh, Blake," Avon breathes as Blake pulls back, his tongue flicking the captured flesh in his mouth. "Oh god, Blake, I love you. Oh god. Oh god, I love you," he says, and repeats it over and over again as Blake sucks him off, glorying in the feeling and the smell and the sound of Avon's pleasure.
It doesn't last long – for either of them. By the time Blake returns to the head of the bed to kiss Avon, who is flushed and panting for breath, he's already taken care of his own arousal. It had seemed so easy at the time to stroke himself while he sucked Avon, but he almost regrets it now as Avon's fingers slide inside his trousers and find only a softening cock and a mess of semen.
"Too late," he tells Avon apologetically.
Avon withdraw his fingers, and sucks each one delicately clean in a way that makes it very clear what they could have done if Blake had been less impetuous.
“Cheater," he says, and laughs delightedly. Blake laughs too, to be companionable, though he isn't sure why. He kisses Avon again, slowly and leisurely this time, vaguely wondering how long it will take his body to recover sufficiently for Avon to fuck him properly – then something chimes against Avon's wrist.
"Avon?" a voice says. "Cally and I think we've found Docholli – or rather we didn't, but he's gone so there wasn't much to find. Are you two ready to come up?"
"Who's that?” Blake says, though he has some vague memory of having heard the voice before. But not when or where. It must be a long time ago, as he doesn't remember it well.
"I think – a friend,” Avon says. "I can't concentrate. I think ... yes, get off me." He pushes Blake's chest slightly, and Blake slides off him, letting Avon stand and pull up his trousers. This seems a shame, but Blake still enjoys watching him as Avon starts pulling items from the pack. The hair at the back of Avon's neck curls charmingly, and of course, whatever he wears – he is Avon. It's good to be able to look at him simply because it means he is there. But Blake is more trusting than that. He lets his eyes flicker shuts, and listens to the sounds of Avon moving around, working with some metallic object or other, stretching some elastic. Even that is a pleasure. Blake lies back in bed that still smells of Avon, hearing the sounds of Avon living, and is completely at peace.
"Avon?" the strange voice says.
There is a mechanical hiss of air, and then Avon takes a deep, pained shudder of breath. Then he takes another breath, and then another, and another, each accompanied by the same heave in his throat. It's an unusual sound, and Blake opens his eyes curiously to see Avon turned away from him, his fingers clenched tightly on the edge of the doorframe.
"Avon?" he says, sitting up. "Are you all right?"
"Avon?" the voice says. "Are you there? Is Blake with you?"
"Yes," Avon says harshly. "I'm fine. Blake's fine. And we're both ready to come up. When you're ready." Everything he says is jerky, and he has to fashion each sentence to fit around his awkward breathing.
"Coming up to what?" Blake says, stretching and standing. He inspects his watch, pulling his hand down from the stretch so the watch is at eye level. “It's coming up to six o’clock–"
"What?" Avon says, half turning, his expression behind the gas-mask irritable. Clearly he has lost track of the conversation. Blake is about to explain it to him, when the voice says,
"Teleporting now, then."
There is a strange but familiar ringing sound. Avon crouches to pick something up from the floor, and then seems to freeze, his image shuddering as though Blake has stepped in a puddle Avon was reflected in. It seems painful, but Blake is unable to move either. His vision wavers, and then, rather than the unusually furnished cabin on Del 10, he's looking out into another room completely. This one has grey, crenelated walls, and two desks, one of which has a familiar-ish looking man sitting behind it, and an equally familiar woman standing just behind him.
"Best mission ever, am I right?" the man says with a grin.
Avon pulls the mask away from his face. “Rarely," he says, scowling.
"You didn't have fun?" Vila says, looking incredulous. “You really didn’t have fun? How? How is that possible? I always knew you were a killjoy, Avon, but you must have tried really hard this time."
"Blake, are you all right?" Cally asks Blake, who knows her now, and knows what he has done and who he is, and who is trying not to be sick in the teleport bay. How could he have done it? Surely his will is stronger than this.
It's not the physical act, of course. He’s given blowjobs before to men he liked a lot less than Avon. And it's not that it was Avon – though the fact it was him is certainly part of what makes this so awful. What makes Blake feel dizzy and ill is the totality of his loss of control, and the fact that he violated someone else who could not consent, and the fact that he remembers it all and there's no way he can convince himself it wasn't him. It was, he did it, and he enjoyed it.
The fact that it is possible Avon meant what he'd said in drugged, high passion, that he might have wanted to sleep with Blake does not make it better. Blake knows that Avon would not have chosen to reveal those feelings, if he has them, under normal circumstances. The atmosphere of Del 10 lowered his inhibitions, and Blake is the reason Avon was on Del 10. It feels to Blake like he drugged Avon, made him confess undying love, and then used that as an excuse to fuck him. No wonder Avon started hyperventilating as soon as he remembered who he was. Blake would probably be doing the same if Cally and Vila weren't here, and if he thought he could afford to be weak in front of any of them.
The fact that Blake likes Avon more than he has ever told him, that he has occasionally thought about what it might be like to kiss Avon and suck his cock also does not make it better. It feels like motive.
He brushes off Cally's question. He is not fine, and Avon is not fine, but neither of those things are as important as finding Star One.
"You say Doccholi's gone?” he asks Cally.
"Yes," Cally says seriously. "At least we believe so. The alias Orac gave us, Conan Raal – there is significant evidence that he caught a flight out of the main space port about a month ago."
"Well, that's good," Blake says, rubbing his jaw, trying to keep his voice steady. "That means he was gone before the Federation searched his cabin. We found it in a bad state." Strange how he can remember not knowing what the scene meant and yet draw the correct conclusion now, based on that same memory. Somebody was very angry, so angry that they trashed everything even after it must have been obvious Docholli had abandoned the place.
"And guess where he's gone," Vila says, beaming.
"From your sickening expression of glee, it must be somewhere even more disreputable than Del 10," Avon says darkly.
"Freedom City," Vila says. "I have to hand it to our man, Doccholi. He knows how to pick a holiday."
"More likely he wants to disappear inside a crowd," Cally says.
"And an ever-changing crowd at that," Blake agrees. "Nobody's likely to notice another new face in Freedom City when the bars are full of them. Same logic as Del 10 – though he’ll probably try not to stay as long this time.”
"At least," Avon says, “now we know what he looks like.”
He holds out the photographs he collected at the last second from Docholli's floor. For a moment, Blake is overwhelmed by the knowledge that, even in shock, even with every reason to want to ruin this for Blake, Avon still carried out the mission. It is not his cause and, having seen the fury with which the Federation trashed an obviously empty house, he would be well within his rights to make the search for Docholli more difficult, rather than easier. For a moment, Blake wants to tell Avon that he loves him, though he has never thought of it in those words before.
Then he gets himself under control. Now is really not the time.
“Indeed," he says, taking the photographs from Avon and striding past him towards the wall-comm. in the same movement, so he doesn't have to stop and look at Avon's expression. "I doubt he has a permanent address." He activates the comm. "Jenna? Set a course for Freedom City."
"Vila's choice again," Jenna's voice says wryly, and Blake forces a chuckle and disconnects the call.
He excuses himself and walks back to his cabin, almost breaking into a run once he's sure he's out of sight of the others. Inside, he turns the shower in the en suite onto hot, pulls off the loose holiday clothes that are disgustingly stiff with come and throws them into the laundry chute. Then he stands under the shower, gripping the hot water pipes in his hands until they burn him. He is not sure if he weeps – the water from the shower washes away any other moisture, but when he turns the shower off his throat feels tight and raw.
He knows he has to apologise to Avon as soon as possible, and beg his forgiveness. They have to talk about this, and what it means for both of them that they had sex, that it was not consensual, and that Avon said he loved Blake out loud, and that Blake didn’t – though he didn’t know what he was doing. Blake has to offer Avon the chance to leave if Avon wants it, and he has to accept that decision this time, because this time Avon wouldn’t be leaving for wealth or safety or whatever other tawdry thing he’s convinced himself he wants. This time, he would be leaving because Blake deserves it.
Blake towels himself dry, and dresses again in clothes that cover as much of him as possible, rather than in the open-necked shirts he sometimes favours. The high-collar of the leather jerkin feels like protective armour, and it feels like he needs it today.
In the end, he is only just in time. The door buzzer sounds just as he's finished fastening the final button. It's Avon, of course – wearing a similarly high-necked jacket, his hair damp from a similar shower. He glances over Blake’s shoulder through the open doorway at what, Blake realises, is a terribly untidy room. The chairs are upright, but otherwise it could be the twin of Docholli’s. Papers and maps are strewn across the floor with Blake’s shirts and a broken Liberator handgun. For a moment, it looks like Avon might even smile, and then his eyes return to Blake’s face. They are hard and unforgiving.
"I trust we agree that none of that ever happened," Avon says.
This is not a good idea. Blake knows the only healthy thing they can do is talk, apologise, forgive or leave. He should tell Avon how he feels – wretched, and like he’s spoiled something he never tried to have. But Avon demonstrably does not want this. Forcing Avon to talk about his feelings would be much the same crime as the one Blake is currently berating himself for. It is the right thing to do, he’s sure of it – and it is completely unacceptable in the current situation. If Avon wants never to talk of this, to pretend nothing happened, then Blake must defer to his wishes. And, he thinks with some embarrassing relief, if nothing happened, then surely Avon will stay – and he needs Avon to stay, at least until they take Star One.
"None of what?" Blake says.
Avon smiles – a curious smile that is unique to him. It stretches his mouth wide for a moment and then curls in on itself with bitterness.
"That's what I thought," Avon says, and turns and walks away down the corridor.