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Still Life With Lovers

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Something's wrong, or at least strange. There's a speck of dust in the world's clockwork, so that it ticks half a millisecond off.

Ethan's nervous.

He lets it dart around the back of his mind all day, this wordless awareness of difference, until it finally surfaces after dinner. Ethan looks up from the page of Booker Prize-winning tripe he's suffering through, nudges Rupert with his foot, and says, "When did we last have a row?"

"What? A few weeks ago, I suppose." Slowly Rupert tears himself away from his own book (in French, and, from what Ethan can gather, hideously philosophical) and blinks like a schoolboy caught napping. He traps Ethan's foot on its way to a second nudge and strokes the arch with his thumb. "Why, are you keeping score?"

"So you can't remember, not really. Neither can I. It's been that long."

Rupert shrugs and presses a spot on the sole, in the valley between two muscles, that makes Ethan's whole sullied flesh want to melt to a quiescent puddle. "Now that you mention it, the peace has been rather nice."

"Peace!" Ethan pulls his foot away and tucks it under his other thigh to keep it from wandering back. "We're getting old."

And Rupert, damn him, smiles. "Did you only just notice?"

That ought to be the start of a good brisk storm, hot and full of lightning at first, thundering along until suddenly they're shivering, scared and worn out, in need of a hot bath and an early night. It's the way the world works, the way the fucking May flowers grow. Ethan reaches for some cruel bolt of words to flash at Rupert, sees Rupert watching him patiently, and finds that cruelty's out of his grasp and he's disinclined to stretch.

"I don't want to be old." Sulkiness, for whatever it's worth, he can still manage.

Rupert smiles again. "Should I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?"

"Don't quote at me. Anyway, it's not the white flannel trousers and silent mermaids that worry me. I don't want to be . . . dulled down. I don't want to be too old to feel."

For a long minute or two, Rupert doesn't answer, just stares at nothing and runs his fingers along the raised letters on the book cover. Ethan's about to comment on the forgetfulness of age when he says, "Don't you think it was getting a bit . . . predictable? Our semiweekly row complete with shouting, frantic and half-angry sex, and tiptoeing repentantly around each other the next day?"

Predictable and safe as waves, the seventh one always a bit higher but nothing to swamp you if you're expecting it. Not this Sargasso calm whose dangers are thirst and boredom and mutiny. "I suppose."

"Here, give me your foot back." Rupert seizes them both, tugging at Ethan until he's lying full-length, feet in Rupert's lap. It feels like a very unorthodox psychiatrist's couch. Ethan closes his eyes and thinks of inkblots while Rupert peels off his socks and rubs first one foot, then the other, then both simultaneously. All the inkblots look like clouds.

Eventually Rupert's hands slide up to his ankles, his knees, his thighs, and Rupert settles on top of him and kisses him, thoroughly and with determination. "Do you feel this?" he whispers.

Rupert's weight, Rupert's mouth, Rupert's hands, the evening stubble on his cheek, the worn wool of the jumper Ethan gave him six Christmases ago, the cold on his own bare feet, the first burn of the desire he feels every time, every time of how many thousands, and Ethan says, "Yes. Yes."