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|"Awfully slow in here tonight," said Leon, d/b/a Miss Millicent.
"We might even get to finish the game." Miss Millicent wore a bronze
mini-skirt, green fishnets, red diamante high heels, a pink ruffled top, and a
couple of pairs of sweatsocks enhancing her remaining manly attributes.
There weren't supposed to be places like The Ousel Cock in the Federation, where stern morality (and everything else) was sternly enforced. But there always were, if you knew where to look.
It was about ten o'clock on an unremarkable weekday night. A few patrons of the bar sat scattered around the room, re-assessing how attractive they found the remaining patrons and the degree to which such feelings were likely to be reciprocated, while simultaneously re-assessing the effect of a session with Miss Millicent or one of her professional colleagues on the monthly budget.
Miss Millicent, Kenny, and Rho tried to keep themselves affordable, but it was late in the month, and there would be bills to pay.
"Maybe not," said their friend and occasional client, who for all they knew or cared was named Alex. "The door's opening. Kenny, you've overbid this hand as usual."
"Look who's talking." Kenny was a well-built black kid, with sweet hazel eyes and hair mounded into a fade like a frozen soufflé. His expensive high-top sneakers could be amortized as a business asset. Over sweatpants, he wore an artfully ripped t-shirt, the sleeves rolled to display biceps like a couple of tangerines.
"He's crazy to come in here in uniform," Rho said, craning his neck to view the new arrival, a Federation officer who swaggered but still walked with some difficulty. It must have been caused by whatever had removed one organic eye and arm and required their cyborgic replacements.
"He's crazy to come here at all, for that matter," Avon said. "And I don't think mufti would be very convincing."
"That uniform's wicked hot," Kenny said. "He can get me for half price off and maybe a little more if I get to try it on." Obviously not everyone agreed, as most of the other patrons melted through the stockroom and out the back door.
"Come and join us, honey," Miss Millicent said. There were only four chairs at the table and no room to draw up another one, so Rho sat on Avon's lap. Avon nibbled the back of the neck so conveniently presented to him.
"I'll stand," the man with the eyepatch said. Rho shrugged and sat back in the other chair, putting his hand on Avon's leg so he wouldn't feel offended.
This is a nightmare, Travis thought. But what's one more fucking nightmare in a long series? I shouldn't be here, I shouldn't stay here, and when I leave here, it shouldn't be to go where I know I'm going to go. This is stupid, this is suicidally risky, and I will disgust myself tonight and hate myself tomorrow.
From long experience, he knew that needed to be able to tell himself tomorrow that he was too drunk for anything to have happened, and that he was too hung-over to remember it anyway. So he went over to the bar to initiate the process.
"On my slate, please, Henry," said the man at the table. "The beer is a little more reliable than the whiskey," he told Travis.
Travis turned so that both the bio and the engineered eye could sweep over the table. Three obvious rent boys, playing cards with a thirtyish man with dark hair. Travis turned his back, and could hear and feel three sets of giggles and a superior smile.
Avon swept the bridge hands off the table and put the pack into the pocket of the leather jacket hanging on the back of his chair. "Goodnight, moppets. Cheers, Kenny. MissyMil, be careful--there's a sweep on near the docks. Isn't there?" he asked Travis.
Travis turned around again. The dark-haired man had an arm around the third renter, who was all pout and tousle of auburn hair, a violet t-shirt matching his eyes. (Rho said you should always wear very plain clothes, it made them look at you instead.) To Travis' disgust, they were kissing.
"Can't you do better than that, Alex?"
"I presume that if I open my mouth it's on the clock."
"Have one on the house 'cos I fancy you. A kiss that is." "Here, give him--" (he meant Travis, mesmerized by the revolting spectacle)--"one for me."
"You're so sweet. Come over next Wednesday after eight, it's payday."
Although not the most lucrative of prospects--he wasn't a rich bloke, and Henry made Rho give him friend of the house rates because of a little matter of licensing and untaxed cash receipts--Alex was certainly Rho's favorite trick. Always cash on the nail, no quarrels, didn't want anything out of line, liked to have Rho get on top sometimes which made a change, even nice-looking in an odd sort of way.
And the smoothest skin. Put your hand on his shoulder, next thing you know it had glided down to his knee. Rho sometimes wondered if they would have gotten together outside the professional line, but he doubted it. Pity Alex was so old. He must have been something when he was young.
"See anything that appeals to you?" Avon asked.
"I don't pay for it."
"You should reconsider. It's marvelous. Get exactly what you want, don't have to be arsed doing anything you don't feel like, and they're gone just when you start to think they're going to become a nuisance."
"In the meantime, I don't think much of the talent about the place. But what about you. Could I have you?" Travis asked, putting as much deliberate insult into it as he could.
"In a heartbeat," Avon said cheerfully.
"There must be rooms to rent by hour in a neighborhood like this."
Avon focused for a moment on how insistently his pulse beat, how a spear of iced adrenaline was lancing through his back. He used to enjoy the feeling of pure risk, but time had added an overlay of caution. "Come home with me," he said, deciding that at this time above all he needed to get back into the practice of recklessness.
In an honestly run casino, if you have a run of luck, and you take everything you've won all night and put it on a single number or a single turn of the cards, and if you win, then the result is breathtaking.
But the other possibilities can't be ignored. Most of the time, you'll pick the wrong number or fail to hold the highest card, and you'll see everything swept off the table and away from you. There are those who say that the thrill of defeat is what takes the punters to the casino in the first place. Well, good for them. They're so likely to get what they want.
But the nature of casinos is such that, quite often, they are not honestly run.
After endless iterations, Avon's beta release of what he felt was: If I choose to love Anna, then I will be completely committed to her. All my defenses will be lost--no, worse, surrendered. If I cannot live without her, then I will have to take her from her husband. And, as she cannot be expected to live on love alone, I will need to get right out of here with a lifetime supply of money. My current salary barely keeps me in rent and rent boys, so I will have to find a great deal of money somewhere else. It's not like shoplifting from Boots--whoever I take the money from is quite likely to resent it.
Whatever my epitaph will be, I would like it to be written very far in the future. And that it record some accomplishment deeper than an exponential increase in the number of local rent boys who know how to play bridge.
But why am I assuming that I have any choice in the matter, that it's early enough to stop and walk away? Are there feelings that are not amenable to rational control? I can see the outside of the barn door, but which shire is the horse in?
There are many defenses against deep feeling. Cheap sex and casual infidelity offer certain pragmatic benefits that cannot be obtained by coldness or cruelty toward the object of the deep feeling. And, of course, you can combine them all. Then something will defuse the risk by detonating the panic-inducing relationship. If you can't stand to look at that pile of dirty dishes in the sink, then burning down the house is a bit excessive--but it gets the job done.
"Then you don't kiss?" Avon asked. Travis' grimace was answer enough. "All right then, if you dislike the preliminaries, we can move right to the center of the card. Stay here. I'll go get ready. Fix yourself a drink if you like." Avon glanced at Travis' prosthetic hand, gauging its manipulative and gripping abilities. At worst, he should be able to grasp the bottle in the prosthetic hand and open the bottle with the natural one. So removing the bottle caps would not be necessary and would hardly be appreciated.
Travis sat on a nondescript sofa, which went well with the other unremarkable contents of the small flat. There were many texvids on the shelf: a lot of them seemed to be about engineering, and there was something in a half-built state sitting on a glass table. Travis didn't feel particularly curious. After all, he wasn't there for work. So he decided to accept the provisional hypothesis that his temporary host was, indeed, an engineer.
A couple of bottles of liquor were huddled on one of the shelves attached to the wall. They didn't look dusty--nothing did--but they weren't quite where you'd put an item in constant demand either. Travis went into the small kitchen, took a glass out of the cupboard, wondered if there would be any ice cubes and if it would be too much trouble to get them out of the tray. He decided to do without them, and returned to the living room.
Still depressingly sober and conscious of the nature and purpose of his actions, he poured himself a large drink and disposed of half of it at a gulp.
Avon returned to the room, wearing a black silk dressing gown. He had decided that Travis' prosthetic arm might create some difficulties in conventional horizontal mode. Anyway, a man who insisted on being done for trade would be just as happy on a sofa as anywhere else. Suck him off for certain, give him a chance to recover (he seemed to have a lot of catching up to do), then maybe round off the evening sitting on his lap.
A walk in the country always seems more interesting if there is an objective: the converted mill where they serve cream teas, the flowers to be dried or arranged in the silver jug on the mantelpiece, the pictures drawn or taken. So Avon decided that he would get at least one kiss, as a concession.
"You're rather formally dressed for the occasion." Avon left one hand on Travis' thigh, gripping hard to reassure him that something he conceptualized as action would be forthcoming, and used the other to open the first snap securing the uniform's high collar. He loved the noise that the snap made, surrendering.
Avon wanted to lean his face into the neck slowly being revealed, but decided to remain the thoughtful host a little while longer. Given the prospect of proper professional service on Wednesday, a few rough edges could be tolerated tonight.
Two snaps at the collar. One at the level of the collarbone. Lucky for the contents of the uniform that the snaps were on the left, so he could use the natural arm to get them fastened. Two more snaps, and Avon could get his hand inside the jacket. In lieu of the caress he would have preferred himself (to administer or to receive), he massaged Travis' chest roughly. Two more snaps, and he could put his face inside the jacket. He put his free hand on Travis' other leg, and pushed his hand upward, almost to where Travis would think it was far enough.
The last two snaps, and the jacket was opened all the way. "Here, lean forward, let me take that off" Avon said.
Travis could feel the firm touch of fingers, decided but not rough, just behind his ear. On his neck. At a particular point on the shoulder; inside his elbow; about halfway between his elbow and wrist. Each time, the touch was mirrored by the nip of teeth just closing on skin. Travis knew what was being done: a move from one point to the next, on the chart of vulnerable points for unarmed combat. On the chart of erogenous zones. Small world.
Then the hands returned to his thighs, gripping hard. Moving upward, and stopping, maddeningly, just that bit too soon.
If Kenny were here, he'd insist on the boots remaining, Avon thought. But as he's not...
Travis looked down and saw the dark man unlacing his boots, easing them off. Kneeling at his feet, serving him. The sight excited him more than ever. His flesh hand ripped at the closure of his trousers, pulling one layer apart from the other.
Maddeningly, there was no mouth in the immediate vicinity.
"That can wait a little longer," Avon said, running one finger with murderous casualness along the underside of a swollen cock that demanded frantic engulfment. "I'll strip you first." Travis groaned at the very slow semi-circular track of a thumb. Warm breath, and what might have been the tip of a tongue or a need-induced hallucination. Travis lifted his hips so trousers and Y-fronts could be removed, but demurred at the implications of the next step.
"Wouldn't it disgust you, to see me?"
"I don't think so. I haven't many preconceived notions along those lines."
Travis closed his eyes and felt the closure on his shirt yield, felt the cloth sliding past his shoulders, collecting in a pool behind his back. Although the hands slid softly over his skin, there were calluses on the palms and the fingertips were roughened. Whoever it was had done something with his hands besides wanking.
"It's beautiful," Avon said. "Almost a kind of poetry, really. To be able to build something that can do anything, yet is freed from the constraints of the organic."
Brilliant, Travis thought. All I have to do is get a list of bent engineers--they must have one, back at headquarters--and I'll never have to frig myself again.
And now Avon was ready to advance, a centimeter at a time, five seconds between strokes. Travis' hand, the one from the Original Equipment Manufacturer, pushed down at the back of Avon's head. "Suck it, bitch! Suck it harder!"
And all Avon did was push Travis' knees further apart, so he couldn't thrust. This was going to take as long as it was going to take.
"You keep looking over at the communicator," Travis said. "Expecting it to ring?"
"Hoping it won't. It might be a little awkward to tell my girlfriend, 'Can't talk now, I've got a stiff prick in my mouth.'"
"Girlfriend? You've got a girlfriend? Do you fuck her?"
Avon nodded, in a way that seemed to Travis to imply, "More often than you've had hot dinners." Well, that might be true, considering the amount of time he'd spent in the field well ahead of any formal kitchen apparatus.
"Then why this?"
"I like it," Avon said. "Men and women feel somewhat different, react somewhat differently. And somewhat similarly. It's fascinating to explore that line."
"By God I'd never do this if I could fuck a woman."
I'm so sick of these whiny old queens. "I think it's pointless to despise yourself for something you can't change. And is harmless in any case."
"You can't just let people go around doing whatever they like," Travis said. "What would become of things that way? There've got to be rules, someone's got to give them a lead, someone's got to enforce the rules."
"Why'd you do this?" Travis asked. He was more or less lying on the sofa now, his head propped on the arm, his engineered arm resting on the floor. Avon half-sat, half-sprawled on the sofa (and over Travis), his dressing gown hovering over them both. "I mean, why with me? I'm no oil painting."
Your loneliness and your hunger excited me..."You've got something I need," Avon said.
"Well, you've had that," Travis said.
"No, not that, in the sense you mean. You know something I need to know. How do you get started when you have to do something that frightens you? And how do you go on when you've lost--well, not everything, but lost a lot?"
"I don't know if anyone ever does do anything that really frightens them. If they've got any choice, they just don't. And if they don't have a choice, then they're more afraid of that."
"Do you mean that nobody is ever really brave? I suppose I wouldn't be, but someone must."
"Oh, yes, I've met some who were very brave indeed. Pity they're on the wrong side. But as for yourself, you get to the point where you don't worry about it, don't think about it. Or it's the only thing you've ever known, so it's natural for you. It is normal, or it becomes normal. You just get on with it."
"That's what training does, I suppose. To keep you from thinking, keep you from feeling." Although some of us can adopt that lesson in a civilian context.
"It's just a job of work, like any other. Got its benefits, anyhow. Whatever someone does to you, you know that sooner or later, you'll make them pay it out by weight. "
Avon looked puzzled--how could you ever allocate the blame, much less find them later? He kept the question to himself.
He probably thought that I copped this packet in a battle, Travis thought. One of our brave boys fighting for President and Country. Getting a medal pinned on for all the vidcasts. Well, I'm certainly not going to tell him.
"All right, now you tell me something."
"My real name? You can get that out of the reverse directory."
"Not that, Alex will do as well as anything else. No, tell me why you'd want to kiss me. It seems awfully girly to me."
"Girls do like it, yes. But it's only pragmatic. I'm not eighteen any more, can't get hard three times a night. It's nice to have something to do over the course of the evening."
"Waste of time, that," Travis said. "Getting hard and shooting off, that's what it's about, isn't it?"
"I'd say there's a lot more to it than that."
"Well, you can if you like," Travis said, carefully offhand, meaning (as Avon knew, he could tell a concession when he heard one) "you can kiss me," not "you can think that." He felt too sorry for Travis to insist on turning it into an entreaty.
I'll have to do this backwards, Avon thought. He slid off the sofa, straddling Travis' prosthetic arm, his face at right angles to Travis' so he could force Travis' mouth all the way open, so he could get his tongue in as deeply as possible. He timed each thrust of his tongue to a rake of fingernails down Travis' chest. In a little while, his prey was gentled, and he could let up a little bit. The last kiss was almost gentle. But not really.
"It's not as useless as all that," Travis said. "Look, I'm getting hard again."
"Will your prosthesis support your weight?"
"Oh, of course. Much more so than the--other one."
"Good. You'll need a hand free," Avon said. "Move over a bit, let me get onto the sofa with you."
"And take that off as well," Travis said, pulling at the sash of the dressing gown. "If I can get my kit off, so can you."
This time Avon was the one with his head on the arm of the sofa, his shoulders pressed against the seat cushion, his feet flat on the cushion, and his knees wrapped around Travis' hips. For a while, the rippling silver sensation moving up his spine was enough. Then he laced his fingers through Travis' and wrapped both their hands around his cock, which was more than ready to give up any pretense of subtlety.
"Would you like to have a shower?" Avon asked. "It's through there." Travis collected the pieces of his uniform from where they had fallen or been thrown. The luxury of hot water and an adjustable showerhead kept Travis under the shower much longer than he usually spent there. The towels were nondescript looking white ones, like the ones in good hotels. Nothing much to look at, but mopped up the water with luxurious speed.
Travis opened the medicine chest. Nothing much in there--depilatory cream; a bottle of headache tablets; toothpaste; some kind of fancy soap. It was the color of white coffee and smelled like sandalwood. (The more intimate substances resided in the drawer of the bedside table, but he didn't investigate that far.) Eight toothbrushes still in boxes. Travis used one, threw it away, and wondered what the girlfriend made of that. Perhaps she didn't look in the medicine chest.
By the time Travis emerged, Avon was bringing a couple of plates out to the glass table in the living room. He thought it had probably been a while since his short-range ally had had a cooked breakfast. There really should be chips, but he didn't have the energy to get out the chip pan at two in the morning.
The dressing gown was back on its hook behind the bedroom door, and Avon wore an old pair of cotton trousers and a v-neck undershirt--it's too dangerous trying to keep track of dressing-gown sleeves when you're putting plates under the grill. Travis thought he looked younger by several sets of defenses.
The half-built thing had been exiled from the table, and one place had been set with the right kind of beer glass. With straight sides, not with a bulge on top. The beer was already poured out from the bottle. One place had a balloon glass with an inch or so of red wine in it. There was also a large pot of tea, under a hideous lumpy tea caddy crocheted in orange and brown, a couple of mugs, a sugar basin, and a pint of milk.
Travis sat down and looked down at the plate. It was a fairly normal fry-up, except for green bits sprinkled over the top--chopped parsley, he surmised. And the fried bread was made from a poncy French stick, not a proper loaf of Mother's Pride. The eggs were intact, the sausage and bacon and grilled tomatoes had been cut into pieces. Travis prodded one of the tomato slices. It bled. He speared it with his fork and consumed it.
He still couldn't stand grilled tomatoes.
Travis kept glancing at the tin visible from the living room, on the kitchen counter. He was damned if he was going to ask if there was a slice of cake on offer, to go with the tea. Avon shook his head, got up and brought in the cake tin, a knife, and a couple of clean plates.
Parkin, dammit. Travis was hoping for the kind with cherries and almonds in. Well, at least it wasn't seedcake.
Travis stood up, checked the fastenings on his jacket, and walked to the door. He paused near the door, anticipating. Avon decided that this would count as Rho's kiss, by proxy.
"I know what you really wanted to ask," Travis whispered, once he could. "What's it like to kill someone? It's wonderful. Much more exciting than this. And you think you've made my body surrender to you, this way."
Avon more or less convinced himself that he was shuddering with cold, not renewed excitement and repugnance. Shot silk. "I'll remember that for reference. Meanwhile, this will have to do." He kissed Travis again, briefly, and rested his hand on the ruined side of Travis' face, below the eyepatch.
"You haven't earned the right to feel sorry for me," Travis said.
"Then I'll steal it," Avon said, decisively, to the closed door.
"You should keep him under surveillance," Travis said. "He could be a security risk. He inhabits some very disreputable places." It's easy enough to confirm someone's real name and identification code, if you have an address, a communicator code, fingerprints (on metallic surfaces one happens to carry about on one's person).
Servalan smirked. She would, if anything, have staked money on Travis doing the inhabiting. "You needn't worry. That file's been open for some time." She almost felt sympathetic. Damn near everyone the poor bastard had ever met in his life seemed to have a quarter-credit and the Security office communicator number, ready to shop him. Whatever enzyme it took to inspire loyalty, he was gravely deficient in it.
Later in time, much later in experience. "I was aiming for his head."
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