The swimming-pool on the Liberator was a pleasant place, large and full of pillars and places to relax. Roj Blake, having done twenty laps in the deepest corner, had heaved himself out and was lying, drying off, on one of the soakaway couches. He was half-asleep when he heard the other two enter, and didn't bother to announce himself.
"You're going to drown me!" Vila was protesting.
"Actually, not at the moment." Avon. Blake was too sleepy to be surprised.
"It's about time you learnt to swim. Get your clothes off."
Vila made an indignant, breathless sound of protest.
"Don't worry," Avon was audibly amused. "Jenna's on watch, Cally's with her, and Blake should be asleep by now."
So he should be. There was no way he was going to nod off with Vila and Avon arguing in the background, though.
A startled yelp and an enormous splash from the other end of the room, and Avon chuckling.
"I could've drowned, you bastard!"
"In a metre of water? Forgive me, I thought Deltas were at least taught how to stand upright."
Then a quiet, neat splash, and Blake could visualise Avon's smooth dive. The voices and the splashing drew slightly nearer. They were probably at the metre and a half level. "Let go of my hand. Hold onto the rail at the side, fool. Now, let your feet just float off... idiot!"
There was a noisy sort of wet turmoil and Vila, protesting chokedly that he was drowning.
"No, you're not. Look, stop clinging to the side. Float up. That's better. I'm holding you, you idiot, you can't drown."
"I can," Vila said, offended. "My mother used to say, if we'd been meant to go swimming we'd have been born with inflatable rings."
"Yes, well, your mother said a hell of a lot. Now, let go of the rail."
"You want to kill me?"
"Frequently. But I have no such fate as drowning planned for you. Relax, Vila. Let go of the rail. Grip on to my hands. Keep floating.... Relax."
Avon's voice sounded almost gentle, coaxing. "No, don't kick your legs. You're just floating. Relax."
Feeling distinctly embarrassed, Blake decided to leave by the back door and finish drying and dressing in the corridor outside.
He watched them both more closely after that. He'd known for months about Jenna and Cally, but it hadn't occurred to him that Avon and Vila... they argued more like siblings than lovers. But Vila had developed a habit of standing - or sitting - very close to Avon, which the technician appeared to tolerate.
Avon was sarcastic, biting, nasty and caustic; but Vila glowed whenever the technician spoke to him. (Even if it was only to say, "Get out of my light, idiot.")
Blake caught himself staring a few times, on the flightdeck, watching them together; Avon smoulderingly, arrogantly beautiful, staring with aristocratic disdain at Vila's jokes, and Vila, his hair receding, mousy brown, slight and placating. He wondered what the two of them were like, alone together in the Liberator's narrow bunks. Was Avon still arrogant and domineering, Vila still placatory and hopeful?
Did Avon... hurt Vila? Did Vila... enjoy it? The thief had always had an obvious and utter admiration for Avon. And Vila had always lapped up attention... any form of attention, Blake sometimes thought, even being told to do something. He could have dodged a lot more odd jobs than he did.
Perhaps doing them made him feel... needed? Perhaps Avon's... domination, even sexual domination, made him feel needed? Wanted. Blake tried to remember if he had ever made it clear to Vila in so many words that he liked the thief for himself, and not because he was the way in past so many locked doors? He had a feeling he never had. I like you. Strange it should be so hard to say.
Vila looked happy, these days. He hadn't looked happy since... since before Gan died.
On impulse, one day in the rec room when Vila was out of Avon's presence, Blake asked him. "Are you happy?"
The thief looked up out of a daze. "Yes," he said immediately, and then, frowning, "Why?"
"I worry about you," Blake admitted. "You tend to get... well, ordered around... by everyone." He grinned ruefully. "Including me."
"I'm used to it," Vila shrugged. "I like it here."
"It occurred to me," Blake said thoughtfully, staring into his coffee cup, "that I don't think I've ever said that you're welcome to stay here as you. Not as a thief. Your talent with locks is very useful, but I... I like you," he finished, lamely. "I didn't think I'd ever said that. But I don't want you thinking I only put up with a nuisance because he can open doors."
The thief was squirming in his seat with embarrassment. Avon, standing behind Blake, said with a cynical quirk in his voice, "How touching."
The rebel jerked, spilling coffee all over his trousers. "Avon, you - startled me."
"Evidently. Vila, I've finished that job now. Do you want supper?"
The thief scrambled to his feet. Blake stood up as well. "Yes, thank you."
Avon lifted an eyebrow, but did not otherwise protest.
Blake wasn't sure what to expect from Avon's room. Black leather, whips and chains? Black and red silk and satin? Formal bleak greyness?
In point of fact, it was exactly like Blake's cabin, except that the bunk had a large, furry, fat, lavender teddy bear sitting on it.
Blake looked at it, then away, catching Avon's eye unexpectedly.
"It was a birthday present," Avon said mildly. "From Vila."
"I didn't realise it was your birthday. When?"
"I didn't realise Vila knew, either." Avon directed a ferocious glare at the thief, who looked cherubically innocent.
Blake realised with relief that the question he had intended to ask Vila ("Are you happy with Avon?") was effectively answered. Despite the technician's often ogrish behaviour towards Vila, he must be fond of the thief, and the thief must reciprocate; one does not give exuberantly silly birthday presents (let alone secretly dig up a ferociously guarded birthday date) to someone who makes one unhappy.
He shared their supper and went away, reassured.
"He said he liked me," Vila said sleepily, stretching himself out on Avon's bunk.
"That sounds like Blake."
"You've never said you liked me," Vila said, just a little wistfully.
"I haven't thrown you or that ridiculous gift of yours out of the airlock. Yet. That should prove something." Avon lay down beside him, tucking them both under the quilt. He kissed the thief's nose, almost absently.
Vila wrapped him close in a hug. "I like you, Avon."
"I think he was worried about you."
"That I was sexually abusing you."
Vila snuggled closer, wriggling with energetic suggestion. "I wish you'd start, then."
"What have you got to offer?"
"Why is it always me that has to grovel?"
"Me grovel for the privilege of sexually abusing you? It would hardly be in character, my dear Vila."
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