My Father's House

Last night I dreamed that I was a child
Out where the pines grow wild and tall
I was trying to make it home through the forest
Before the darkness falls

I heard the wind rustling through the trees
And ghostly voices rose from the fields
I ran with my heart pounding down that broken path
With the devil snappin' at my heels

I broke through the trees, and there in the night
My father's house stood shining hard and bright
The branches and brambles tore my clothes and scratched my arms
But I ran till I fell, shaking in his arms

I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart
Will never again, sir, tear us from each other's hearts
I got dressed, and to that house I did ride
From out on the road, I could see its windows shining in light

I walked up the steps and stood on the porch
A woman I didn't recognize came and spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story, and who I'd come for
She said I'm sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore

My father's house shines hard and bright
It stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining `cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned.

My Father's House
Bruce Springsteen


Lorien stood still, so still he resembled the marble angels guarding the quiet hills of Canterbury. He also stood alone. The fair eyes, usually filled with laughter, were muted with tears. He didn't raise his head to acknowledge his family. Not even Daphne could win his attention as the young man stared at the grave where his father would soon find some rest from an ungrateful world and even less gracious son.

Why does peace cost so dearly?

No one answered Lorien's question partially because everyone's thoughts were trained on to the same path. The fair cheeks briefly had color as the dark lashes fluttered closed over them. Yet, Lorien never looked up. Though his entire body screamed for him to finally acknowledge the new leader of the Winters Clan, even if Sean held his presence in the funeral with nothing but contempt.

Sean was my father long before you died. Nothing ever changes in our house, does it? Was that why I did what I did? Just to see if I could shatter something in our illustrious family to the point it could never, ever be put back together again?

Lorien slammed down on the unkind thought. He betrayed his father long enough -- he would not commit the same sin standing in front of the man's grave.

"Charles Winters was beloved by many ..." The pastor droned.

Lying, thieving bugger, you never saw him while he was alive. Take your words and bury them alongside his grave, you pathetic mewl-mouthed cassocked hypocrite.

A sharp noise attracted his attention. He looked downwards to see his grip had tightened so harshly around the shovel's handle, he cracked it. No longer able to focus on anything including his anger, Lorien desperately looked around to drag his mind away from the awful duty he had to perform as a son. The blue eyes finally latched onto the eldest and what he saw opened the floodgate he clawed to hold together.

Sean's face was buried in his hands and his shoulders shook uncontrollably. Ben had one beefy arm around the brother, his face a masterpiece of anguish, confusion, but mostly fear. Like Jeb and Lorien, he could not comprehend the pain Sean must be feeling to outwardly display his grief.

We're still children, aren't we, Ben? Without Sean, we're so lost, Daphne might as well send out a rescue party in order to find us.

"Lorien, I don't think I can even begin ..."

The youngest Winters turned to face Henry Partington, his father's ex-partner, trying to embrace him. The striking, classic face twisted into a silent snarl, and the pearly teeth bared in hatred.

"Don't touch me." Lorien snapped. "Don't ever touch me. Save your lies for someone else. I know better."

The older man recoiled as if Lorien slashed at him with a butcher knife. His wife paled and tugged at his arm, hoping to drag him away to a safer place while avoiding making a scene with the son. Lorien turned around to see a grim smile on Jeb's emaciated face. The second Winters winked at his brother, giving his silent but full-hearted approval.

Lorien's thin shoulders straightened out while his spine uncurled. He was a Winters. He will stand erect, even if he stood alone, no longer a true member of the Winters family. His erupt change of behavior signaled something to the others. One by one they followed him, all the sons slowly but surely raising their heads and their extraordinary eyes once more shading away the true emotions swimming behind them.

Sean began shoveling first, his face a tight mask that dared any fool to utter a word of comfort. No one even attempted to penetrate that barrier save Daphne. The others soon joined in the silent vigil. They refused to have a group of strangers bury their father. That privilege remained with the family as far as the Winters were concerned. The attendees thought it rather strange coda, but they knew better than to raise their voice in question.

Under the obscenely beautiful blue skies, the Winters men buried their father. Beloved to them, feared and respected by the rest. And now, his absence grieved by all.


Daphne sat quietly, though her eyes darted about, making sure the guests had something to drink. Any duty, idle or otherwise, was welcomed by the widow. Voices were composed and restrained mainly out of fear that the speaker would attract Sean Winters' attention, and in the aftermath, his wrath. Jeb had a beauty draped around his arm as usual, and instead of the usual black the girlfriend had the common sense to wear a somber shade of gray. Ben was still attending the eldest, discreetly following the lean frame as Sean walked around aimlessly.

He looks like a butler following a drunk, trying to make sure the man doesn't break the family heirlooms. Lorien thought with a slight amusement. I think he lost weight since I saw him last.

"Lorien, I am glad you came." Daphne whispered as she took the seat next to him.

She placed a warm, dry hand on his. He smiled, unconsciously brightening the room with the sheer power of his beauty. Breaths were caught in throats as people stared unabashedly at the Adonis made flesh. He gave a grateful kiss on the palm of that forgiving hand and cupped it between his cold fingers.

"I had to. He was my father whether he wanted to admit it or not."

"Oh, Lorien, of course Charles was your father. In spite of what he had done and said ... he was your father, and he loved you very much."

Lorien felt a strong squeeze on his shoulder and looked up. Even as the blood drained from his forehead and throat, the cheeks reddened with a healthy flush.

"Sean."

"Welcome home."

The tears came from nowhere as Lorien wrapped his arms around his brother's waist while burying his face into the soft, wool suit. His sobs cut through the composure of all who witnessed his sorrow. Sean lovingly stroked his brother's hair, saying useless words of comfort like he had always done. Jeb and Ben also gathered by the two, shielding the youngest from prying eyes as Lorien finally let go.


Lorien sipped the coffee, staring at the morning papers, not reading a word splayed across the pages.

"They're ready." Ben said gently.

"Thanks." Lorien answered and stood up. "So, should I get the flogger or does Sean have it already?"

Ben's brows immediately knitted into a frown. "Your sense of humor needs some work."

"And your grasp of reality needs some tuning." Lorien shot back smoothly. "Let's get this over with."

The two marched down the hall and into the library where the rest of the family waited. Daphne looked neutral bordering on optimistic, giving Lorien some hope that the process would be relatively painless.

"Hello, Marcus."

The family solicitor smiled, "Lorien, sit down. We were just finishing with some preliminaries regarding the firm, which is Sean's department altogether."

Lorien nodded, "Thank G-d for big mercies."

Sean gave him one of his inscrutable sidelong glances, but remained silent. All which boded well for Lorien.

"Well, the rest of the estate, as you can imagine is divided equally among you four with the agreed upon sum put aside for Daphne along with this house until her death. I think that's also a non-issue?"

All the brothers nodded immediately. And all had the grace to look uncomfortable at being reminded that their stepmother was also mortal and will be buried alongside their father in the not-so-distant future.

"This is one clause I had problems with. It was given to me the day of your father's heart attack. I'm beginning to think Charles was not in a right state of mind when he wrote it. Sean, can you clarify it for me?"

Sean took the sheet of paper and skimmed it. A small, tight smile appeared on his face. "It's also a non-issue, Marcus. It has already been resolved."

Marcus turned to Lorien, "Glad to hear it. Then I will be more than happy to disregard ..."

"What is it?" Lorien asked.

"It's the private matter," Sean phrased delicately.

Lorien glanced at the sheet of paper in Marcus' hand. "I want to read it."

"Lorien, don't." Sean pleaded softly, but it went unheard.

Lorien read the document. At first, the smile seemed genuine. Then it turned to a grimace which morphed into one of disbelief. "Come to my senses," He whispered hoarsely.

Ben gave a look of warning towards Sean, and the eldest acknowledged it. "Father didn't mean it, Lorien. We all know it was just ... a phase you were going through."

Jeb closed his eyes and shrank into his chair. He knew Sean meant well, but what came out of his mouth was outright denial. And he knew Lorien well enough to guess how the youngest would respond.

"It's called homosexuality, Sean. And the last time I checked, I was still quite gay."

It was to the solicitor's credit that his jaw didn't hit the desk on its way down to the floor.

"Lorien, we don't need to talk about this right now." Sean's voice immediately turned sharp and forbidding.

"No, I don't agree. What are you going to do, Sean? Cut me off just because I have boyfriends instead of girlfriends? That's what father wanted you to do. What's the ... oh, yes, ‘take care of Lorien's inheritance until the boy comes to his senses.' My senses have been quite clear for some time, Sean. So, tell me what are you going to do?"

"You selfish brat. You have to drag this out here and now? You couldn't wait, could you? Couldn't wait until our father's body was at least cold in his bloody grave." Sean stood up and marched over to where Lorien stood until they were facing each other. "Listen well, Lorien. I plan to be a son to my father even if you aren't."

"Don't do this," Daphne pleaded. "Don't do this, Sean ... Lorien, please. I can't stand this."

Lorien turned to her, his eyes hard and bright only for a moment before he saw the magnitude of her distress.

"I'm sorry, Daphne."

The apology was the last sentence Daphne heard from him for over a year.

 

 

Chapter 2

Alexis looked over the receipts for the day. A small, knowing smile crept on her lips. It was as she suspected. The entire stock of the blue silk sweaters was gone. The storeowner picked up the phone and gleefully punched in the dealer's number.

"It's me, Alex."

"What can I do for you today?"

"I need a dozen more of the blues you sent last week."

"What? They're sold out already?"

"Yes, can you ship them before three? I really want to have them on the shelves by four tomorrow. The weekend's coming up."

"Fine by me. I'm surprised you sold so many. None of my other customers have reordered yet. And considering the price, I don't think I'll be hearing from them any time soon."

"I have a secret weapon," Alexis confided.

"I believe you do. Ciao!"

Alexis secret weapon was currently straightening out the shelves, making sure the display was simultaneously neat and attractive. She stood leaning on the doorway, enjoying the view Lorien offered, as he was oblivious to the attention he was attracting by just breathing.

Bloody best idea I had to give him the 70% discount. He's got expensive taste and he knows what looks good on him.

She saw the girlfriend of a potential customer eye Lorien with frank appreciation. She skimmed the sweater he was wearing and looked around the store. Alexis saw the girl spot the collection and make a beeline towards the display, dragging her boyfriend by his elbow. Alexis smiled; it never failed. Actually, Lorien never failed. Whatever graced that beautiful body -- sold, and in mass quantities during weekends if he were scheduled to work.

The young man sighed, straightened out his posture, and then winced. Alexis saw the pained look and knew he had pulled yet another all-nighter.

"Want me to get you some coffee, love?" She asked.

Lorien gave a grateful smile, "Please. Had a tough night last night."

"I believe you. How are the surgical rounds going?"

"It's not going, it's charging at warp speed. I'm barely hanging on as is. I'm afraid if I miss one lecture, I'll be nothing but a red smear on the wall."

"But you love it, don't you?"

"I do. How much of a masochist does that make me, I wonder?"

"We all are, love. That's what makes us human. I'll be back in a minute."

Alexis left the store and hit couple of places as she went to pick up coffee. She heard Lorien's stomach growl even as they had their conversation. He had gotten used to the noise, but Alexis has not. A part of her weathered heart balked against the young man's fate. She could almost guess his entire life story, and none of it was new to her. She had seen too many of his kind over the years.

End of the month, have to make sure the pay stubs are in before Friday. Rent's got to be due next Monday, and if he doesn't get the check, he's going to be in trouble with the landlord.

Alexis waited patiently in line while she sniffed appreciatively at the heady aroma drifting from the stand. The spicy middle eastern food won't bode well for the wool jackets, but anything would be preferable than hearing Lorien's stomach gnarl itself into a tight ball. She also knew he would immediately refuse any charity no matter how well-meant, even though he couldn't afford to, so Alexis had to be subtle in her kindness, a gentle deceit she managed to hone into a fine point over the years.

She came back to the store just in time to catch the girlfriend leave the store with her sheepish lover in tow, plus three bags stuffed with what had to be two hundred pounds worth of purchase. As far as Alexis was concerned, Lorien just earned free lunches for the rest of the month. She caught her favorite employee making sure the electronic tags were attached to the expensive suede jackets.

"Lorien, take a break! Be a sweetheart and set this up?"

The younger man paused only for a moment when he saw the bag of food, but silently and with that particular grace and humility of his, Lorien took the offering and disappeared into the backroom. Alexis made sure her body language was casual until he was out of sight. At least he would get one decent meal for the day, and that eased her conscience a great deal.

My maternal instinct is really kicking up a fuss today.

Alexis smirked and shook her head.

I don't have a uterus. What maternal instinct could I possibly have?

For a moment, she wondered what it would be like to have a child of her own. But stopped before she could torment herself into a miserable corner. The cancer was suppose to be terminal. It was by miracle that the treatments worked. At all. Seventeen months they gave her. Then those months turned to years and soon Alexis found herself with no other choice than to rejoin the land of the living. She resented the lack of options at first, but after opening the store, then another and soon overseeing an exclusive but popular chain of fashionable men's boutique in London and Paris, the resentment was soon replaced by old-fashioned greed. Greed for money, but also for life and companionship of the living.

Does one need a uterus to have a maternal instinct? Why am I thinking about this before lunch?

Alexis chuckled and walked to the back of the store to join Lorien for a bite to eat and to be entertained by his outrageous stories regarding his medical studies.


Lorien looked at the clock. Twenty minutes to go before he could close shop and return to his dismal flat where even more dismal amount of reading waited for him. Nevertheless, he felt rather contented for the moment -- mainly because his stomach was full and he made yet another good sale with the suede jackets. Any single article of clothing that cost over two hundred pounds came with a twenty percent bonus. He calculated he would need the extra cash to pay for the electric and phone bills. Not that he used the phone much. And since he diligently studied in the Library, he didn't use much electricity either.

"Lorien?"

The soft, beautiful voice made his spine stiffen. He turned slowly to find his classmate staring at him.

"So, you do exist outside of the Programme. I half wondered if you'd disappear like Brigadoon the moment you stepped out of the Hospital."

Lorien smiled and prayed he was blushing too much. Standing across the display case was Aslam, someone he admired from the first day they met and loved unconditionally starting the day after. But he knew his feelings would go unmet and managed to keep a safe distance from Aslam. Admiring the creature from afar like the lovesick fool that he was.

"I work, have to pay the bills you know."

"I wouldn't have a clue about that. I'm a spoiled brat, remember?"

Lorien's smile broadened. Everyone knew Aslam Subatoi was the lone heir to a vast fortune. His father built an empire through oil production, and then furthered it by purchasing massive real estate ventures in New York City, Paris and Prague. All which made his son a rather popular target of ridicule and racist comments in his quest to earn a medical degree.

"So, what are you going to do after work?" Aslam asked, curious.

"Maybe go back to the Library. Have to read on the histology reports from yesterday. I'm guaranteed to get called on it by Jameson."

Aslam's nose wrinkled in distaste. "I disliked him intensely when I had my rounds with him."

"He's a righteous bully, if that's what you're wondering. But he knows his field."

"That doesn't give him the right to terrorize the students." Aslam sighed, "But that argument never holds, does it?"

Lorien shook his head, "Never, and we both know better, don't we?"

The mahogany eyes crinkled in the corners. "We do. I'll see you for breakfast then? You do eat, right?"

"Coffee. Can't stomach eggs during surgical rounds."

"Then why are you interested in surgery?"

"If I knew that my friend, I'd be a wise man indeed."

"I'll see you at seven then. Good night, Lorien."

The youngest Winters stared after the disappearing figure with undisguised longing and affection.

"That one is definitely god made flesh." Alexis commented as she appeared from behind the mirrors lining one wall.

"He also happens to rank number one in the Programme."

"Who's two?"

"Me."

"Not too shabby, Lorien. Does his gate swing your way?"

"Definitely no. But he's a good man, in spite of all the trappings his father created for him."

"I saw his clothing and that bracelet. I can assume he came from a moneyed family."

Lorien chuckled, "I guess you can say that."

"He seems shy."

"He is. Aslam grew up in a very sheltered world. He was privately educated until University. Didn't have another schoolmate to talk to until he was nineteen-years-old."

Alexis' jaw slackened. "You have got to be joking!"

"No, and it also doesn't help that he's the handsomest bloke in the entire male population. Lots of bad feelings going against Aslam. I've heard few of my erudite fellow mates call him blackie right to his face."

"That's unforgivable."

"No, it isn't. Having a faggot in the Programme is one thing. Apparently, having a blackie is a different matter altogether."

"And this is the most prestigious medical studies in all of Great Britain."

"Stupidity is one of the most common elements in the Universe. Even the Programme has its fair share of it."

"Misery loves company. So ... how do you know he walks the line?"

"Because I do. And because I've seen him get hit on by everything that breathes. With looks like that, he doesn't get a moment's peace the second he comes through the door."

"Got his phone number?" Alexis asked, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively.

Lorien laughed, "Shame on you! And no, I don't have his ring.  It's not like we go out for drinks after classes. Besides, the places he hangs out, I couldn't afford to pay for the cover charge."

Alexis kept quiet at his observation. She knew who he was and more importantly, who his family was. Lorien didn't know but she met his brother, Jebediah Winters, years ago during a fundraiser. One could never forget the famed Winters eyes once they trained on you. And they did share a certain uniform look amongst the brothers.

How could they do this to him? Reduce him to poverty while they remain comfortable in their cozy, bigoted world?

Alexis stared at the angel fallen from his family's grace only for a minute more before she startled herself into remembering that he would need his paycheck before Friday noon. If he were to lose his flat, then that would be it. And beautiful, emotionally starved boys like Lorien were easy prey for the hunters who combed through the London streets, looking to make victims of anyone who came across their path.

 

 

Chapter 3

Lorien was tempted to take off his shoes so his toes could better grip the wooden floor. He didn't mean to drink much, but then, he never did. He swallowed the last of his pint and vowed not to take another. It was all well and good that the Programme was throwing this fabulous party, and that they expected the registrars to get roaring drunk, Lorien thought it his duty to rebel against the expected.

Wasn't that his life goal anyway?

Samantha snuggled up next to him and buried her face on his right shoulder. "Here, have another. You look even more beautiful when you're drunk."

Lorien thought that was the nicest thing she ever said to him and took the proffered drink. He was taught to never disappoint a lady who was also his friend. And with a single sip his previous vows were all but forgotten. Samantha was soon joined by Diana, who was dragging a rather shy but equally inebriated Victoria and soon Lorien was buried neck-deep with females, all quite beautiful and in various state of alcohol-induced euphoria.

The Cardinal Rule rippled across the room and the rest of the male registrars in the pub looked in equal parts of frustration and amusement. They couldn't hold a grudge against Lorien, simply because he didn't represent a serious competition. His sexual orientation aggravated many but rarely upset all. And, he was a brilliant scholar with a flare for hiding his intelligence behind monosyllabic answers when called upon. He also kept to himself, and made scarce once they've been freed from the daily toils of woe.

However, he was currently hogging all the available females in his table, and that was frustrating indeed. Because he was gay and he was an intellect, the women automatically pegged him as a safety. A member of the male species whom they could rely on to listen, to cuddle without the nasty side effects such relationship brought about when shared with a heterosexual male. It also helped a great deal that Lorien was handsome enough to short-fuse the Queen Mum during a mid-wave from a distance of six miles.

As long as the women obeyed the look-but-don't-touch rule, Lorien was absolute heaven to have around in parties. And right now, if a pair of wings suddenly materialized from his shoulders, none of them would be surprised. He began speaking softly of things medical and material, but he made it sound so interesting he soon had all the women's attention with the fascinating topic of saline solution and the different points of saturation permissible for the human body.

That lasted for few more minutes before the more adventurous male registrars in attendance decided to join in on the fray. There were just too many women around Lorien to not circle the compound and see if there were a weaker prey they could pluck off before the bash ended. However, being who they were, and because of the profession they have chosen, the group began a rather heated conversation on the subject of euthanasia. Fueled by alcohol, and passion, not to mention religion for many, the topic snared everyone else and soon Lorien was mediating a tempestuous debate roaring through his entire class.

What was an astonishing sight was every single one of them was drunk beyond redemption. And to anyone half-sober listening in, the entire thing looked like a farce until slurs began flying. That brought on the senior staff members from their own corners, and soon Lorien was alone with his female hoard once more. A state of affairs he approved of whole-heartedly.

By this time, Lorien was well into his eighth cup. Since his previous record was five in one night, he was well beyond hopeless and though he knew he'd be paying for it in the morning, he ordered a ninth. By the time he reached the bottom of the glass, he was enchanted by the walls comprising the structure of the pub. They were swaying even when he sat still and Lorien wondered if they were keeping tempo with the floor which was rocking for well over an hour.

He took off his shoes and curled his bare toes on the floor. He wasn't about to make a fool of himself and slip if one of the ladies needed an escort to the loo.

Gallantry is my name! He thought smiling as Diana actually asked for his company while she threaded her way to the ladies room. He was leaning on a wall rather heavily while waiting for Diane to reappear when he saw the door open, allowing the cold February air to momentarily disturb the relaxing warmth of the pub. He spotted a pair of brilliant mahogany eyes and a wave of short, silky, black hair. For a moment his heart constricted painfully and he switched his gaze to the wall in front of him even as Aslam waved a hello.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Lorien berated himself. Get a grip, mate, he doesn't give a bloody damn about what you want. Pining like this will only get your heart broken, and prove Sean right in the process.

Thinking about Sean always did the trick. It gave him the strength to go on, even if he bled every step of the way. It kept him warm during cold nights, fed him when there wasn't anything to be eaten in his flat.

Aslam's smile disappeared when he saw Lorien pretend he didn't catch his eye. For a moment, it hurt. Out of the entire class, Lorien was the only one who didn't ask anything from him, or of him. He couldn't call the mysterious classmate a friend; more like a close acquaintance, but still, what they shared seem genuine. Of course, the entire class seemed to be crammed into the pub, and he knew he was by far the most unpopular one in the room so it should hardly surprise him that Lorien was playing the stranger.

Suddenly, Aslam knew it was a mistake to come to the bash. He was never good at these things to begin with, and he knew he had unintentionally alienated himself from everyone by his attitude. Cursed with rather clear hindsight, he could see how the English would translate his manners of speech and body language the way they did. But, in the culture Aslam was raised, he was taught to keep a polite distance, to use certain words while talking to others. He never suspected the amount of damage a mistaken turn of head or gaze could inflict until the second month into the Programme when no one would speak to him out of their own volition.

This was aggravated by his natural shyness and soon Aslam didn't have anyone to call a friend, even a study partner even though he continuously scored the highest in the entire class. Save Lorien. And now, it looked like he managed to inadvertently raise Lorien's ire so that he was truly alone.

Aslam sighed, a soft yet bone-breaking sound. He would get one drink, make a visual sweep of the place and then leave with his dignity dragging behind him. He strolled up to the bar and ordered a pint. The bartender was friendly enough and Aslam had his drink without a hassle. He saw Lorien escort Diana back to his table and had to smile. The most beautiful women in the entire Programme were crammed into that corner and Lorien was perched right in the middle like Archangel Michael overseeing his brethren.

Aslam frowned. Were there any female angels?

"What are you doing here?"

The question itself wasn't hostile, but the tone was.

Aslam turned to his left and saw his usual tormentors. Jonathan Hockney and Thomas Bates, the epitome of what an English gentlemen weren't meant to be. Physically, they had passing resemblance to such - thin bordering on consumptive, pale, dark hair and possessing long, elongated nose. Nevertheless, both had the distinct unpleasant manners of brats who never got what they wanted for Christmas, thus destroying the illusion of being an English gentlemen.

Aslam took a long stare at the glass in his hand then looked up. "Having a drink."

For some reason, his answer got both flustered long enough that an uncomfortable silence fell among them. Aslam was actually enjoying himself as the two tried to think up a witty repartee to what he considered an inane comment.

Allah help their patients, Aslam thought unkindly. I think I prefer the tender loving care of a field medic compared to what these two could offer.

"I must say, the conversation here is just short of brilliant. Maybe I should take notes."

Lorien's sarcastic voice shattered the uneasy truce and Aslam knew victory was his. He stared at the young man and his frown returned. He couldn't figure out why Lorien was barefoot. Did someone steal his shoes as a flirtatious gesture? But, if that were the case, then Lorien should be naked, not just lacking in footwear if Aslam correctly guessed the number of female registrars who harbored secret crushes on the guy.

"What do you want?"

Hockney's question sent Lorien into peals of laughter. Aslam was confused, the others were rather hot under the collar, but Lorien refused to answer and continued to howl mad with laughter. With tears streaming down his face, Lorien grabbed Aslam's elbow and shuttled him to his table.

"What's so funny?" Aslam asked, chuckling in spite of the fact he hadn't a clue why Lorien was laughing.

Lorien shook his head, "You're too young to learn such deep secrets."

Aslam realized that cryptic answer would have to satisfy and came to the conclusion that Lorien was truly and madly drunk beyond plausible explanations. With Lorien playing referee, Aslam was relaxed enough to dispel some of the harsher gossips about his personality as conversation flowed freely around him.


Lorien never found his other shoe. Somehow his right sneaker mysteriously disappeared, leaving its partner bereft and thus ending the title "pair of sneakers." He looked down at his foot, examining the makeshift sandal Aslam made with his scarf.

"This is cashmere, Aslam. I can't ..."

"Lorien, do I look like I will miss a single scarf, cashmere or not?"

Lorien smiled beatifically, "Guess not. Thank you."

"Thank you for coming to my rescue earlier."

"You mean Cockney and his Beets?"

Aslam shot a sidelong glance and saw Lorien's teasing grin. Suddenly, he realized Lorien wasn't as drunk as he suspected.

"I think their names are Hockney and Bates."

"I stand corrected," Lorien replied breezily.

The two walked in companionable silence until Lorien turned to his right. "I know a shortcut, follow me."

Aslam did without question and was shocked into silence when Lorien shoved him into a dark alleyway. Lorien placed a warning finger on his lips before picking up an empty garbage can. Suddenly Aslam realized what he was about to do but before he could move Lorien swung the can with all his might, smashing it against the person who was stalking them the moment they left the pub.

There was a bark of pain and Lorien dove into the crumbling figure. Aslam managed to peel him off but only after Lorien gave a punishing kick at the ribs.

"Call the ..." Lorien shouted.

"He's my bodyguard." Aslam explained, glad that it was dark so Lorien couldn't see the shame bloom across his features.

Lorien blinked rapidly then stared as the behemoth slowly got to his feet. "Oh," He said weakly and took a step back.

The man sighed and threw a dejected look towards Aslam. The two had a rapid conversation in a foreign language before the guard disappeared into the shadows.

"Sorry about that," Lorien apologized profusely. "Didn't know."

"Don't worry about it." Aslam gave a piercing glance, "He's a professional."

"You're not getting your money's worth." Lorien replied coolly.

"How did you know we were being followed?"

"Spidey sense."

"What?"

"Just a joke, so ... where's your car?" Lorien asked. "If your bodyguard's here ..."

"I took the Underground."

Lorien couldn't wrap his mind around that one. "You took the tube ... with your bodyguard?"

Aslam laughed softly, "Yes. I have a chauffeur but I gave him the night off."

"How ... decent of you." Lorien said for lack of better conversation material.

"Now, how did you know we were being followed?" Aslam wasn't about to let go of the topic.

Lorien shrugged, "You develop a caution radar when you live in London, especially the rough parts, one of which I call home."

"Jacob is ex-special forces, from Israel."

"Your father really should check references with more care." Lorien quipped. "Have to make all those phone calls personally ..."

"You had a bodyguard too, once, didn't you?"

"Have to, how else can I get any privacy with all those women ..."

"Lorien ..." Aslam cautioned impatiently.

"You sound just like Sean."

Aslam suddenly remembered a name that cropped up during a phone conversation with his father. "Sean Winters?"

Lorien couldn't go there so he ran the other way, literally.  Even with the makeshift footwear he was tearing down the street. Aslam stared after the man and then pelted after him. He could hear his bodyguard skidding down across the road, discretion thrown to the wind.

Aslam caught up with Lorien on the third block. Bloody hell, Lorien was a fantastic sprinter and it took him a full minute before he could breathe properly. Aslam took a firm hold of the panicking man's right elbow, "I apologize; I didn't mean to upset you."

"My family and I don't speak anymore."

Aslam stiffened a little. He couldn't figure out why. Then, the most obvious answer hit him.

"I see." He said. "I do not understand, but I see."

"Doesn't your religion forbid such a thing too?"

"No, not really." Aslam paused for a moment, "Well, some. The more fundamentalist sects do condemn homosexuality, but they do not speak for the rest of us."

"I thought differently." Lorien took a deep breath. "I'm sorry about that ..." He made vague gestures with his hands. "It's still very hard to talk about it."

"That is to be expected." Aslam finally released the elbow. "The Islamic religion doesn't forbid or condemn everything in a group, Lorien. It tells us that we have to correct ourselves before we can correct others. And, unlike the Buddhists we only get one life to do it in so we tend to be busy trying to fix our own mistakes."

Lorien smiled, a simple, honest smile. "I stand corrected. Again."

"Do you need a ride?"

"I thought you ..."

Aslam gave a glance over Lorien's shoulder. Lorien turned around and spotted the bodyguard on a cell phone.

"Too much excitement for Jacob. He's calling a private car service to take me home."

"I can't. A car that you would favor would stick out pretty badly in my neighborhood and I don't want to garnish interest, if you know what I mean."

"Of course."

"I'll just take the tube. Take care, Aslam, and say goodnight to Jacob for me. Tell him I'm sorry I actually made him work for his supper."

Aslam laughed outright and waved farewell as Lorien turned the corner. He heard his bodyguard's footsteps approach.

"They will be here any minute."

"Jacob, you have to lose some weight."

The guard had the grace to blush. "I will. But he is very, very fast. Especially for an Englishman. Didn't know they could run."

Aslam gave a playful rib to his dear friend. "You really don't like London, do you?"

Jacob wrinkled his nose, "Why didn't you go to Columbia? At least New York has good restaurants. Had to come to this stinking city."

"I hate New York. The people there terrify me. They always have, and I suspect they always will."

"You know he's in love with you, don't you Aslam?"

The young man sighed, "I know. But at least someone likes me. And it's flattering actually. He's a good man in spite of all the evil done to him."

"No wonder he's so quick. In a world such as this, a good man must know how to run if he's to survive."

"Now you're getting all prophetic. Stop it, it disturbs me to hear you preach, you degenerate."

"At least this degenerate knows how to appreciate good food. There's our car."

Aslam looked down the road and saw nothing. Only a moment later, a black Mercedes turned the corner. He smiled fondly at his bodyguard. Jacob was getting on with his age and weight, but his senses were sharper than a hunting hound's. The older man made sure his charge was comfortable in his seat before getting in himself.

Jacob watched as Aslam fell asleep during the drive home. He couldn't believe this handsome young man was once the gangly, overeager but painfully shy boy he was hired to protect. Out of habit he checked his guns, all three of them. He wasn't on duty that day, but the terrible sense of failure still haunted him. Forty million American dollars they kidnappers said. And Aslam's father paid it in a blink of an eye, but only after he was guaranteed of his son's safe return.

Then he paid another twenty million to hunt down the kidnappers and kill them. A statement had to be made to the black industry of kidnapping to ensure it never happened again.

Take my son and you die. I have all the money in the world and there won't be a place you can hide from me should any of you touch Aslam. I will track you to heaven, to hell, and beyond if you inflict a single harm on this most beloved child of mine.

The message was heeded. But, ultimately, it was Aslam who paid the price with his loneliness, inability to make friends, even the freedom to sit at a café to have a cup of coffee. It was Aslam who ended up in an impregnable cell, and Jacob thought sadly that he will always be in one. Gilded, bejeweled, but a prison nonetheless.

 

© 2001, 2002 Copyright held by the author.

 

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