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The Ballad of Reading Gaol

By Vanessa Mullen
Page 2 of 3

Six interminable hours later the battle was over. Two pursuit ships would never venture into space again, and one was badly damaged. The Liberator herself had not escaped unscathed. Blake watched Avon as he studied the damage reports, uncertain as to whether he was relieved or disappointed by the turn of events. Perhaps it was best this way. Avon would never have accepted him, and his reaction to being propositioned could easily have shattered their fragile working relationship.

      "Blake?'

      "What is it?"

      "There's a problem in Subcontrol Two. I could use some help."

      Why not? He was no longer needed on the flight deck. It was Jenna's watch now. He might as well make himself useful with the repairs. The autorepair systems were very methodical, a bit of human assistance in the right place could sometimes make a lot of difference.

      

      So it lay that every day

      Crawled like a weed clogged wave:

      And we forgot the bitter lot

      That waits for fool and knave,

      Till once, as we tramped in from work,

      We passed an open grave.

      

The subcontrol room always seemed more alien to Blake than the rest of the Liberator. Somehow the serried ranks of computer equipment and anonymous controls seemed to belong to some inhuman race that understood computers, lived with them as equals. Avon appeared totally unfazed by it all. He unclipped a low level access panel below a console whose sole controls appeared to consist of two slide bars of totally indeterminate purpose.

      "Down here," Avon indicated. "If you take the left hand side, I'll take the right. There's some wiring needs replacing." He stuck his head and shoulders under the console, stretched out on the floor and began working on something out of Blake's sight.

      Space was horribly limited, but they should both be able to work at once. Blake squeezed in beside Avon, all too aware of the other man's proximity. The damage seemed pretty minimal, Blake replaced a few wires, fixed some loose connections and wriggled around to face Avon. "You don't need me," Blake accused. "You could have fixed this on your own."

      Avon placed his tools carefully behind his head. "Let me be the judge of what I need," he said quietly. "I believed there was something you wished to discuss with me. Or had you forgotten?" Avon's tone was indifferent, but his voice stirred something deep within Blake. A hope, an uncertainty, a touch of fear. A step that if taken, could not be undone.

      This close to Avon, Blake could see every pore on the other man's face, every crease in his skin. He could smell Avon's sweat, feel the heat of his breath. Still Blake hesitated. In the dim light under the console, Avon's hair and eyes seemed black, his expression unreadable.

      You can't commit yourself, an inner voice screamed at Blake. He'll laugh at you. He'll use it against you. Go take a cold shower instead, forget anything ever happened. This is something you need to think about. And if the opportunity never arises again? he asked back. Then so be it, his inner self replied.

      Avon stirred beside him. "I'd better check the damage to the force wall generator."

      "No!" Blake hadn't meant to say it, but the word had come out anyway.

      "What do you want, then?"

      Blake faced stark reality in the form of the man next to him. A man of complex contradictions. A man who argued with him even as he saved his life. An underhanded, devious embezzler whom he'd slowly come to trust.

      "I want you." Blake's voice sounded unnaturally high.

      He waited for Avon's scathing comment, but it never came. Neither moved for a moment, then, by slow mutual consent, they came together, lips meeting in an exploratory kiss.

      

      

With yawning mouth the yellow hole

      Gaped for a living thing;

      The very mud cried out for blood

      To the thirsty asphalt ring:

      And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair

      Some prisoner had to swing.

      

Blake looked around his cabin. It wasn't as if Avon had never been here before, it was just that everything seemed different somehow now that he'd invited Avon here for a different reason. Blake was acutely aware that the place was in a mess. He'd meant to clear away the empty coffee cups, the abandoned chess game from three days ago, the piles of discarded computer printout. It was just that he never seemed to have the time to get around to it.

      Feeling vaguely embarrassed, Blake ran his fingers through his hair, aware as he did so of the sticky residue from the coffee. He still hadn't had a chance to change his clothes, and he suddenly felt acutely conscious about his appearance.

      "Avon, I need a shower. Do you mind? Help yourself to a drink. I won't be long."

      Avon looked at him with amusement. "Serves you right for taking so much sugar in your coffee. Go ahead - I can wait."

      Blake exited into the bathroom and undressed himself. He still wasn't sure how the rest of the evening was going to progress. It was a bit difficult to ask Avon outright how far he was prepared to go. But he was here, and that was what mattered. Blake turned on the shower and stepped in, feeling the harsh spray of the water against his skin; the hiss of the shower drowning out the ever present background noise of the Liberator's engines. He ducked his head to let the water run through his hair, and reached out for the shampoo. Squeezing an ample quantity onto his hand, he rubbed it into his hair, working it well into the roots. He could feel the froth under his fingers, turning his hair into white foam.

      Hands were on his shoulders, slippery with soap, kneading muscles fatigued from the tension of the battle. "I thought I'd join you," Avon's voice said in his ear.

      Blake relaxed back into the massage, letting his hands fall by his side, allowing the steady rain of the shower rinse out the shampoo. Avon's fingers slid up his neck, rubbing spots that he hadn't even realised were aching. Still, Blake didn't turn around, enjoying his present position, allowing himself the pleasure of anticipation. Feeling his hair teased out, and the curls untangled, he winced slightly as a knot was pulled out. Avon kissed the back of his neck gently by way of apology, and Blake could hold out no longer.

      Turning, he pulled Avon into a full embrace, feeling their bodies pressed against one another, the hot water streaming down his back. Avon's skin was warm against him, his body firm. Slicking his hands with soap, Blake caressed his companion's back, feeling the muscles under the skin, allowing his hands to slip down to squeeze Avon's buttocks for a moment. Avon pressed hard against him, then commenced his own exploration, allowing hands rather than eyes to reveal Blake to him.

      Slowly they discovered one another, the pretence of the wash allowing them intimacy without embarrassment. It was a relaxed encounter which Blake found he enjoyed: sexual, but not intensely so. The hair on Avon's chest seemed to beg for play. Blake used the shampoo to idly froth it into patterns, tracing designs there until Avon washed them out by readjusting the shower head. For a minute or so, they fought each other for control of the spray, water splashing in every direction, until laughing, Avon stepped out of the shower to avoid being squirted yet again.

      Blake turned off the shower with mild regret and looked at Avon, standing wet and waiting on the carpet. His pose seemed as old as mankind: weight on his right leg, the other slightly bent, right hand on hip, head held high. Blake felt the desire race through him, sending a jolt straight to his genitals. He knew Avon was teasing him, knew from Avon's quiet smile of triumph that he was enjoying Blake's clearly visible, physical reaction.

      "Just how badly do you want me, Blake?" he inquired softly. "How badly?"

      Sanity returned like a dash of cold water. The ground rules for this game had to be established now. "Very badly," Blake replied truthfully. "But not enough to change anything between us. If we do this, life will carry on as before. I'll still argue with you. I'll still expect you to follow my orders. Either you do this because you want to, or we don't do it at all."

      Avon looked regretful for a moment, then bowed his head a fraction in acknowledgement. "Honest at least." He pulled a towel off the rail and tossed it to Blake. "Dry me," he suggested.

      Blake knew an invitation when he saw one. It was going to be an interesting night after all.

      

      

Right in we went, with soul intent

      On Death and Dread and Doom:

      The hangman with his little bag,

      Went shuffling through the gloom:

      And I trembled as I groped my way

      Into my numbered tomb.

      

It hasn't seemed real until now. I always knew they would kill him, but somehow, deep down, I had always expected Avon to have a way out. Some plan so obvious that no one else had seen it. Avon always got away. Other people died: at Central Control, on Terminal, on Gauda Prime, but Avon was always the survivor. Now that I know he's really going to die, I discover I don't want revenge for Malodaar any more.

      

      But there is no sleep when men must weep

      Who never yet have wept:

      So we - the fool, the fraud, the knave -

      That endless vigil kept,

      And through each brain on hands of pain

      Another's terror crept.

      

      

Alas it is a fearful thing

      To feel another's guilt!

      For, right within, the Sword of Sin

      Pierced to its poisoned hilt,

      As molten lead were the tears we shed

      For the blood we had not spilt.

      


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