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The Somewhat Happy Birthday

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While setting up the board for yet another game of draughts (they were always last in the queue, now, for a chess set or Space Cartel or anything interesting) Gan said, "Happy birthday, Vila."

And Vila had been doing pretty well, too, keeping the thought of it locked away, not wondering if his mum was looking at pictures and crying or if his mates were raising their pint glasses to good old Vila who was gone forever.

"Chance would be a fine thing," Vila said, and then, "Hang on, how did you know?"

Gan gave him the kind of look that teachers used to when he got an answer wrong on purpose. "I hear your identification code every day at roll call."

"Oh. Right." More than five months, and Gan still hadn't learned the most important prison skill: not paying attention.

"I tried to scrounge you a bit of booze. You know, for a birthday drink. But . . . " Gan shrugged. "Nobody was selling."

No surprise there. Even Arco was barely talking to them. They got the blame, even though Blake and his high-grade pals had left them behind like everybody else.

"You could have my fruit at dinner," Gan said. "If there is any."

"That's all right." Vila laughed, not thinking about how his mum gave him sweets every year, no matter if there wasn't a credit to spare, no matter if she had to post them to some detention center or other. His eyes stung, and he made himself look at Gan and smile. "But thanks. You're a real mate, you are." His voice cracked at the end of the sentence, and he had to put his head down on his arms and go blank, go away.

When he came back, Gan was holding his hands. It was the sort of thing Gan could do, because he was too big to care what people thought. Some big men were right bastards, but the nice ones were nicer than anybody else. "I wish I was home," Vila said.

"Don't we all." Gan kept holding on. It would've been nice to press right up against him, a big long warm hug, but they'd never get away with that when the lights were up and people couldn't pretend not to see.

After a while Vila took his hands back and they started their game. But his mind kept sliding off to things he didn't want to remember.

"Listen, Vila," Gan said, having just jumped five of his pieces in one move, "We really are friends, aren't we?"

"Yeah. Course we are."

"Well . . . " Gan lowered his voice. "Then you shouldn't have to . . . you know. With me. I'll still look out for you."

"Don't you like it anymore?" Vila crossed his arms, trying to warm up the place in his chest that was suddenly, horribly cold.

"I - " Gan's voice got even lower, barely whispering, and he kept his eyes on the board. "I do like it. But - "

"I like it too. Couldn't you tell?"

Poor Gan was as red as Federation Day bunting. "Ye-es. But I didn't know that meant you liked it."

"Well, I do." Vila stretched his arm over the board, scattering pieces, and touched Gan's hand. "I'd be lonely if - if we stopped."

Gan smiled, soft and bright and happy. It was almost as nice as mum's sweets would've been. "So, then. Fancy a shower?"

This time of day, the shower room was always empty. It was warm, too, with the water on, and dim enough to seem private. "That'd be nice," Vila said. He could stop thinking about home for a while. He could be something like happy. "And since it's my birthday, maybe . . . maybe you could kiss me?" He'd always thought Gan didn't want to, but probably Gan had reckoned he didn't want to.

Yeah. From the look on Gan's face, that was it. From the look on Gan's face, he could have as many kisses as he wanted.