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Debt

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Although he knew it wasn't at all the right attitude, Giles couldn't stop totting up numbers. All the solid objects scattered around him faded into abstractions. The torn paper piled in drifts on the floor, the designer shirts and the MP3 player and the sixteenth-century edition of Malory that really ought to be in a library somewhere--it all turned into two columns of figures, black and red ink, profit and loss. Owning and owing.

Christmas, which Giles had been looking forward to, turned into fourteen gifts received (more if he counted the shirts individually, but he wasn't going to make it worse), and eleven given. And that wasn't profit, not at all. The ledger in Giles' mind didn't work that way. Profit in gifts was loss in something else, something obscurer and more vital. He owed; he'd been owing ever since they came back to England.

"Thank you," he said to Ethan yet again as he dropped the last piece of heavy, metallic paper to the carpet. The little box contained an ivory netsuke shaped like a pair of cranes. "It's beautiful." It was. Gracefully carved, it looked nothing like the newer ones mass-produced for tourists and export. Giles guessed it was a couple of centuries old. A marvellous gift, really, especially considering Ethan's disdain for Giles' 'trinkets and figurines.' If it were the only gift, Giles might have been able to like it more.

Ethan, if he noticed that he was three gifts short, didn't say anything. It served him right anyway for being so secretive. For weeks, it seemed, he'd been returning from walks with shopping bags that he squirrelled away in a hall closet he'd declared off-limits to Giles until after Christmas. Sometimes he'd even made Giles turn his back so he wouldn't see the shop names on the bags. Giles had thought of checking the gift hoard, just to count, just to get the numbers right, but Ethan would have been furious.

Even if Giles had bought fifteen gifts, or a hundred, it wouldn't have mattered. It was all Ethan's money, despite the joint account and the credit card in Giles' name. Giles lived in Ethan's flat, ate meals Ethan paid for, wore clothes Ethan bought. Gave Ethan gifts that weren't really gifts.

"So do you like your presents?" Ethan asked, sounding like a small boy. He looked like one, too, with his hair tousled, his legs curled under him on the sofa, and a too-big jumper (one of Giles') hanging off his shoulders. A worn, sinewy, wary boy, but a boy nevertheless. All through breakfast he'd fidgeted, impatient for presents and giving the lie to every attempt he'd made over the last month to scoff at Christmas.

"Of course. But-"

"Oh, fuck me, I should've known." Ethan frowned down at the leather coat, one of Giles' gifts, in his hands, and then, scowl deepening, looked back up at Giles himself. "But what?"

It was all too familiar, this slide of Ethan's from anticipation into disappointment. Giles got it wrong so often. He was never quite as relaxed as Ethan wanted, never quite as unreservedly happy. And now it was too late to pretend. "But next Christmas, we should set a limit. Perhaps we went a little overboard this year." He reached for Ethan's hands, interlaced their fingers, and hoped they could manage not to have a row on Christmas day.

Planning for next year might be too optimistic, when getting through a day could be hard enough. There were other balance sheets, marked with old debts, old wrongs, new quarrels and unkindnesses. Accounts scrawled in red ink like blood, unpaid and unpayable and yet somehow not forgotten.

"Well, I don't think we went overboard." Ethan pulled his hands away and started gathering up bits of paper and wadding them together. "I like my presents and I'm grateful for them." Each word was perfectly articulated, clean-edged as freshly cut glass; Ethan was close to anger now.

"I'm sorry I've failed in gratitude," Giles said. Very like Ethan's, that sharpness. Sometimes Giles worried that they were picking up each other's worst characteristics.

"For fuck's sake, Rupe. Is that what this is about?" Ethan dropped the balled-up paper and leaned forward, hands firm on Giles' shoulders. "Out of all the myriad things we've got to quarrel about, must you pick money all the bloody time? It's tedious." His tone was softer now, far kinder than the words. The touch matched it, Ethan's fingers painful-gentle as they worked Giles' tense muscles.

Ethan was right. It was tedious. Giles hated the accountant who'd taken up residence in his mind and refused all attempts at eviction. "What would you prefer that we quarreled about?" he asked, hoping to make Ethan smile.

It didn't work. "Anything. Politics, religion . . . well, perhaps not religion. But I don't understand why it bothers you so." Ethan's hands moved to Giles' neck, rubbed it loose and flexible again, then pulled him forward for a kiss. "Rupert. If things were reversed, would you care about money? Would you begrudge me something as petty as that?"

Giles shook his head. He knew Ethan didn't mind, but that wasn't the point. With everything he took from Ethan he felt himself dwindling, shrinking to ivy on an elm or a leech clinging to skin. A parasite.

"Well, then." Ethan slid closer; Giles turned sideways to hold him. It was always better, safer, when they touched--harder to quarrel, easier to hope. Giles picked up the stereo remote (he'd laughed at Ethan for buying it, but it turned out to be handy) and tuned the radio to one of the satellite stations with Christmas music. Ethan didn't say anything; he was, Giles thought, making a real effort to be agreeable.

As they listened to carols, Giles kissed his way slowly over the nape of Ethan's neck, drawing the jumper back to bare as much skin as he could. Ethan murmured contently and wrapped his own arms over Giles', holding the embrace. But when "Silent Night" was followed by "Angels We Have Heard On High" with its long refrain--"gloria in excelsis deo"--Ethan started to laugh. "Rupe, I'm beginning to feel as though I'm in church and misbehaving rather seriously. And I haven't been to church in decades, not even to misbehave."

"Sorry." Not wanting to break the quiet mood, Giles switched to a classical station, but Ethan had already wriggled out of his arms and stood up.

"Back in a second."

Giles assumed he was going to the toilet, but instead Ethan went to the hall cupboard and returned with a package.

"Oh, God, not another one." He meant to joke, but the words came out entirely too heartfelt, and Ethan frowned.

"Don't be a spoilsport. Anyway, this is different. It's for both of us, really."

Giles pulled off the wrapping, readying himself to be pleased, aware that Ethan was watching him closely. Under the paper was an old snapshot, grainy and badly composed, incongruous in its handsome frame. "Oh. Oh, my." Giles stared at the two young men, boys almost, standing on a pier with their arms around each other's shoulders. "Oh."

"It's from when we went to Brighton with Diedre and Philip, remember? 1977. July, I think."

"I remember." It had been hot that day. Ethan had sworn and sweated under his black leather trousers, and his spiky hair wilted into a damp purple mess. They'd ridden on the Tilt-a-Whirl half a dozen times, just for the breeze. "I'm just . . . all these years, you kept it." Ethan had borne the weight of memory alone, through the decades when Giles tried to forget. A too-familiar feeling, close cousin to gratitude and closer yet to shame, chafed at Giles. But there was pleasure, too, queasy and vivid, in knowing that Ethan couldn't forget him.

"It was the only thing I kept," Ethan said. He caught Giles' elbow in a cupped palm, then stroked gently up and down his arm. "Everything else, I burned. Every photograph, every book. All your clothes, even your leather jacket. And leather doesn't burn easily. I had to use magic."

The thought of Ethan's anger combined, somehow, with the touch of his hand to make a comforting mix, bitter and soothing as tea. "I'm glad you kept something," Giles said. "I wish I had." There was one photo of himself with his guitar, but he'd cut Ethan out of it.

"It doesn't matter." Ethan looked down at the photo again and winced. "Christ, we look ridiculous," he said. "My attempt at punk fashion and your awful hair. I should've let you wear it short like you wanted." His laugh tried for scornful and only managed to reach embarrassed. And it had nothing to do with the clothes, not the way he turned his head and wouldn't look at Giles.

"Ethan." Giles tapped his knee with the frame to make him turn back. "Look at how beautiful we were." He'd half forgotten what Ethan's face looked like then: perfect, open and smiling, full of unselfconscious pleasure. His own face, unlined and joyfully grinning, he hardly recognized.

The embarrassment cleared from Ethan's expression, and he smiled. "We were beautiful. And one of us still is," he added, stroking Giles' cheek with a fingertip.

"Yes, one of us still is." Giles caught Ethan's hand and kissed each finger before letting it go. "But it's ill-mannered of you to brag."

Frowning suddenly and fiercely, Ethan shook his head and then dropped his eyes. Sometimes he avoided looking in mirrors. At other times, Giles noticed him giving his reflection a long, baffled, almost angry stare, the sort of stare he normally turned on religious pamphleteers and other impertinent strangers. To Giles, Ethan looked the same as he had before prison, except for some gray hair and a face that was still too pale. The sickly, skeletal, pitiable man of a few months ago was gone, except perhaps from Ethan's mind.

"The most beautiful thing about the picture," Giles said, "is the love. You can see that we were in love. It's visible, I've no idea how."

Ethan took the picture out of Giles' hands and tilted it so it caught the light better. "You're right, it is. Do you suppose we were like this at Oxford? We must have been the talk of the city." After a moment, he added, "I don't think I care for that past tense. Were."

"Ethan." It could be wearing, Ethan's constant, prickly demands for reassurance. But then again, he had reason. Giles slid his arms around Ethan's waist, kissed his cheek, whispered into his ear. "I love you. Present tense. Shall I conjugate? I loved you. I love you. I will love you." An elementary verb, like schoolboy Latin: amabam, amo, amabo. It left out all the irregularities, all the old anger and disgust, all the inflections of doubt and confusion. Love, Giles thought, ought to be the most complex verb in the language.

A long, sighing breath from Ethan, a tilt of the head sideways onto Giles' shoulder. "God, Rupe. I . . . " And then wordless silence.

It had been almost four months since the day, late in August, when they decided to come home to England. When they lay breathless and naked, sweaty and sticky and afraid, lovers again after twenty-six years. And four months on, Ethan still couldn't get the words out.

"Ethan, wouldn't it be easier just to say it?"

"No." Ethan's arms tightened into a rough hug, then he tipped his head back to look at Giles. "Do you know what the cranes symbolize? On the netsuke?"

Usually Ethan was subtler at changing the subject; his nerves must be playing up again. Giles rubbed his thumb lightly over a tension line at the corner of Ethan's mouth. "The cranes? Longevity, isn't that right?"

"That's one crane. A pair of them means, well, long love." With a sudden rough twist, Ethan freed himself from Giles' arms. "They say cranes mate for life, or some such nonsense." Brisk cynicism in his voice, a skeptical tilt of his eyebrows, eyes brimming with salt and fear. Giles wondered, sometimes, how he could ever have believed that Ethan was a good liar.

Before Giles could answer, Ethan sprang up and disappeared into the kitchen. When Giles followed, he found him standing at the sink, a bin liner forgotten in his hand as he looked fixedly out the window. Still as cracked stone, still as thin river ice, and for a moment Giles hesitated to touch him. But the tension wavered at Giles' cautious hand between his shoulder blades, melted into pliability when Giles' arms slipped around him.

"Everything is so different," Ethan said, leaning back into the embrace. "It's not fair. I want us to be the boys in the picture again. I don't . . . I don't know you, sometimes. Don't know us. Nothing's the way I remember." The brittle stillness that had gone from Ethan's body had settled in his voice; it cracked into sharp, cold fragments.

"I know." Giles pressed his face into Ethan's hair and kissed the depression at the base of his skull. Such a vulnerable place, where armored skull gave way to spine.

"Mating for life. Christ. We bollixed that one up, didn't we?"

Giles drew one palm up Ethan's belly to his chest, feeling the solidity of the bone, then tightened his hold. Keeping Ethan close, unmoving. So often their rows ended with Ethan slamming the door and not coming back for hours. "Well, we're definitely not cranes." Cranes, he supposed, didn't fight. Didn't remember the past or worry about the future. Never felt the lactic-acid ache of regret in the muscles, never tasted guilt at the back of the throat. "Ethan, tell me you love me."

"You know I do."

"Tell me." Giles turned Ethan gently around, kissing him when he tried to bend his face away. "I . . . the things I did to you . . . I need you to tell me that you love me."

"Ah." A syllable like a kiss, like the sound of Ethan's breathing when Giles woke sometimes at night and listened for it. Like the hand Ethan laid on Giles' cheek and the shine he was blinking furiously back from his eyes. "That's all over now. Gone. I . . . fuck, this is hard." A long breath, another, a pause. "I love you."

Over now. So much pain, so many cruelties over and gone, washed white, wiped clean. Forgiven, like sins. Like debts that are unpayable, ruinous, heavy as boulders until they're lifted away. Giles felt as light as a hollow-boned bird, ready to leap skyward in a flutter of pale wings.

"Thank you," Giles said. For the first time the words weren't scrawled in red ink, marking another loss. Love, he thought, keeps its accounts differently. He leaned in for a slow kiss that tasted of morning coffee and Ethan, and then another and another, until he lost track.