“I don’t think testing Avon again is wise,” Deva said.
“Who said it was?” Blake replied with a smile, hitching up his belt, then swinging his axe once more.
Avon was glad that he hadn’t killed Blake. He was even glad Vila had slipped blanks into his gun while they were in the flyer, even if that little trick could easily have gotten him killed. But he did not regret trying to shoot Blake…
“What?” Avon hadn’t heard what Blake had said to him.
“A game?” Avon asked, incredulous, once Blake had repeated himself.
“Hear me out, Avon. I am going out hunting with a party of five—Deera, Benj, Sal, Dayna and Soolin. You will stay at the camp. Anything I get out on the hunt, I will give to you. Anything you get back here, you will give to me.”
“Why? I am unlikely to acquire anything at all here, and you will no doubt expect me to share any kill you give to me among everyone here—ah, I see. That is the point. You wish to show your followers that you trust me to treat them as you would.”
Blake’s own face remained impassive. “I do trust you, Avon. That hasn’t changed. So will you do it?”
The flies of the Gauda Prime marsh left Avon alone, for the most part, but they loved Blake. The only thing that kept them at bay was a thick, pale green paste, which he’d rubbed all over his scarred face and across the backs of his hands. To boot, he was filthy. Dirt and sweat stained his clothes—the same clothes he’d been wearing when Avon first saw him. It should have been enough to put anyone off.
“Why not?” Avon flashed Blake his worst smile.
“Good. Remember, anything you get, you give to me, too.”
“What is mine will be yours, Blake. You have my word,” Avon replied dryly.
Word got around, of course. The small group of rebels was so deep in the marshy wilderness, so far from anything, that they had little else to do but gossip. Fortunately, there was plenty of gossip to be had, even before Blake proposed that he and Avon play their little game. Avon’s people gossiped about Blake’s people, and Blake’s people gossiped about Avon’s.
Unfortunately, even the gossip, plentiful as it was, couldn’t distract them from the fact that they were rotting away, hiding pathetically, in a remote and firey marsh on Gauda Prime. The fires of the marsh masked the heat the rebels produced—with their bodies and with cooking fires—but they found the noxious flames oppressive, all the same, and tempers flared up as often as the marsh itself did.
Avon was standing staring into nothing when Klyn found him. Flies swarmed around him. He felt one—unusually greedy, unusually bold, or with unusual taste--land on his hand and crawl down to bite him on the knuckle. He didn’t bother to shake it off. Neither did he bother pulling his gaze to focus on Klyn.
“I make no apologies,” Avon said flatly.
There was nothing to say. He felt no need to explain to Klyn what he thought of apologies, or forgiveness.
“Well, I wasn’t going to ask for an apology. I was going to ask for a kiss. I’ve heard you’re free with them, and quite good.”
“No.” Who had told her that? Dayna, probably.
“Oh, go on. Kiss me. It’ll cheer you up, and me too---Oh!”
A whip crack of rage snapped him into motion. Avon pulled Klyn into a long, rough kiss. She squeaked.
“Satisfied?” he snarled.
“Oh, good,” she said, slightly breathless. “I thought maybe you’d said no to me because you didn’t want to kiss Blake.”
Avon was stunned. The expression on his face must have been a picture.
Klyn laughed. “The game, remember? You have to give him anything you get. Don’t you think a kiss qualifies?”
That night Blake presented Avon with the carcasses of six disconcertingly large and meaty lizards and four snakes, as well as an emergency ration store he’d buried a few months previous, in anticipation of a hasty departure from the base.
“Just what I always wanted. How did you know?” Avon drawled. But he helped Blake roast the meat and then distributed the rations evenly among the men.
They were nearly finished eating when Blake said, “Well, Avon? Do you have anything for me?”
“Yes. Stand up, Blake.”
Avon stalked forward and pulled Blake into a deep kiss. He thought he’d prepared himself for it, but nothing could have prepared him for Blake. Nothing. A few people whooped.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” Tarrant said. His voice was loud, but the exclamation barely registered.
Blake smiled, cracking the green paste on his chin. “Thank you Avon. Don’t rush to conclusions, everyone. Someone kissed Avon today, and as you know, he promised me he would give me anything he received. Let’s play again tomorrow, shall we, Avon?”
“Why not?” Avon said tightly, then he turned away and stalked back to the tent he shared with Vila and Tarrant.
No doubt there would be much speculation among the ranks. A pity there wasn’t more to keep them busy, but Avon cared less than he might have.
Nobody touched Avon that next day. He sat, mending a tattered tent, his every motion a warning for everyone to keep well away from him.
Blake’s haul was also poor. They were all hungry and irritable that night.
“I have nothing for you,” Avon said bleakly, before Blake could ask.
On the third day of their game, Deva approached Avon, interrupting his thoughts about whether he could bear kissing Blake again. Whether he could bear not kissing Blake again. Deva held out a cloth wrapped bundle.
“Here. Take it. I don’t think you want to give this to Blake, tonight. Better to wear it. And don’t take it off, not when you’re standing up in front of all of us, not if you value your life. It’s a shield vest—expensive stuff. If someone gets off a shot at you, you’ll survive it.”
“Ah, so someone wants me dead for firing on Blake.” Avon said, taking the bundle from him. “Reasonable, but I would prefer to remain alive.”
He would prefer to remain alive. Presenting the shield vest to Blake with his rabble looking on would be a poetic gesture indeed—a declaration that his word to Blake was worth more than his own life. And if the poetry of it alone wasn’t enough to put Avon off, there were several other good reasons for him not to do it. There had to be a way around all this, a way for him to honor his word without risking his life.
Blake’s luck seemed to have turned again. Eight of the lizards, this time, and a larger stash of food packs.
“And do you have anything for me, Avon?”
“Yes,” Avon said. “Stand up.”
He kissed Blake fiercely, three times.
“Thank you,” Blake said, breathless. “Anything else?”
“Yes,” Avon said. “But it is not something I can give you here, Blake.”
In Blake’s tent, Avon fell to his knees and reached up to undo the fastenings on Blake’s belt.
“May I?” Avon asked.
“Oh, yes. Yes, Avon. Of course.”
“So who did that for you?” Blake asked, when his breathing had evened out.
“Well now, who ever said I could give only what I received?” Avon replied, one side of his mouth quirking up.
Blake laughed and pulled Avon up and into his arms.
Blake undressed Avon slowly, stripped him of his armor, which had become stiff with marsh water, marred white with salt stains, torn at one shoulder. Avon hadn’t taken anything off for more than five minutes at a time in the past three weeks. He was shaking before Blake was half done.
When Blake trailed a finger over the vest, the last thing keeping Avon from total nakedness, letting the force-field hum against his finger, Avon spoke. “Ah, yes. Deva gave me this today. Once you have it off me, it is yours.”
“I did wonder when you would give it to me, or if you would at all. I admit, your solution hadn’t occurred to me.”
Avon’s expression went suddenly cold.
“You set it up—all of it, the kiss, the vest. Klyn and Deva helped you. Well, do you have the measure of me, Blake? Are you satisfied? Or are you disappointed I didn’t give you the show you were hoping for? That is the trouble with testing people, you see. They will usually disappoint you in some way or another.” Infuriatingly, the bitterness in Avon’s voice only seemed to make Blake draw closer to him.
“No, Avon,” Blake said softly. “It wasn’t a test because you could not have failed. You see, I never really knew what you wanted, or what you would and wouldn’t do for me. So I thought I’d let you show me. Whatever you chose to give me, whatever you chose to do, that would have been enough. I thought you solved the problem very neatly. You love your own life. Who can fault you for that? As it happens, I love your life, too. I do love you, you know, Avon.”
“Damnit, Blake,” Avon snapped. "Don't touch me."
“We won’t play this game again,” Blake said. Avon saw defeat in Blake’s eyes for the first time since their reunion in the tracking gallery.
“No,” said Avon, with sudden clairty, “No, we must play this game. Always. All that is mine will be yours, and all that is yours will be mine. It is what we should have done from the very beginning. It is the only way for us, Blake.”
Blake thought for a moment. Then he laughed, his eyes clearing. “It’s either the best idea you’ve had, or the worst, Avon. But there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?”