In February the reburial of Masaccio's corpse was finished. He had now found his final resting place in the chapel of Holy Catherine in the Roman church of San Clemente. Luca searched the Internet for more information to give to Alessandro. The computer had been a gift from his family for Christmas. He knew that Marcello and Dante had participated in this and this was the first sign for him that his brothers wanted to make peace with him. Despite that they weren't really talking to him, Luca felt it was time to do so. The brothers had changed the gym they attended and despite their working out, they had given up dealing in drugs and being in their old company. Raniero was dead and the hooligans at the casino had left their old meeting place as soon as they had all been released from jail. It was a relief for Luca as it was for his parents as well.

He remembered Christmas Evening when his mother had whispered that the majority of the money for his gifts came from his brothers. Astonished Luca's eyes had met Dante's who looked away. Marcello was suddenly very busy with studying the instructions for it's use. Luca didn't know what to say and since Dante wouldn't address him personally he got the first opportunity to speak to him when they met in the bathroom. Luca couldn't tell whether Dante had followed him there or not, but suddenly their eyes met in the small mirror over the sink.

Luca's first impulse was to push him and run away, but then he pulled himself together and withstood Dante's brown-eyed stare. He was his brother after all. The one he had lived with through almost eighteen years and they had been happy years. His older brothers had been a force he could rely on. Until everything had changed from one day to the next.

"If you need help setting up the computer, call me", Dante said huskily.

Luca nodded, but he couldn't bring himself to force a smile onto his face. Too much had happened. Dante was still looking. "I saw this guy dying", he said then with low voice. "This morning."

Luca didn't know what to think. He knew that his brother's time at the AIDS-hospital was actually over, but apparently they had decided to still work there in their spare time. An amazing realization. With a beating heart he stood and looked at his brother.

"Nobody deserves to die alone", Dante said almost coldly.

"I never noticed that you were very affected by Riefoli's death. You never raised a finger for Sandro. You knew it was self-defence."

Dante closed his eyes and turned to the door. When he had gone out Luca breathed out audibly. He didn't know what that was about. Perhaps it was Dante's way of saying sorry.

Almost it seemed as if the house of Montori had found back it's peaceful living together except that Luca still preferred to live in the room at Palazzo Gondi. It had become his new home and there he was closer than ever to Sandro.

He had passed the test for his driver's licence and was now able to drive his friends where ever they wanted and above all, it wasn't difficult anymore to visit Poggibonsi and Alessandro - if he was allowed to visit him. Sandro never wrote and told him the reasons for all of his penalties, and Luca worried. Alessandro had changed. What would happen when he was released? Would they continue on as if nothing had happened?

There it was: a picture of Masaccio's tomb. It was a simple marble plate with the inscription of the dates of his birth and death. He wondered if Masaccio was happy that his body had finally found peace. He printed the photo and listened to the screeching of the printer's needles. He had saved the money he got from his apprenticeship to buy the printer and thought lovingly for a moment of the lion's head he had started to carve from the remaining lapis lazuli. There still was enough for an owl. Or should it be a ring he could give to Alessandro when he was out? Luca wasn't able to carve rings, but he could learn how to. Coppo spent more time with him than it was necessary or usual. Perhaps because he felt that Luca could become a good worker. Or artist, as Coppo called it. For him, every worker at the Opificio was an artist, even Luca's brothers.

He heard the door open and shortly afterwards two arms embraced him from behind. He smelled the familiar scent of darkness and Patchouli. Raffaele was there, snuggling his face into Luca's hair. He came occasionally and their relationship was based more on a friendship than on sex, despite Luca feeling that Raffaele wanted more.

Luca turned. Raffaele had come from the barber's shop and had fresh violet strands in his hair. Luca grinned at him.

"What are you doing?" Raffaele asked. "Sneaking about for naughty boy's pictures on the Internet? What do you need that for, you have me."

He dropped his jacket and the woollen scarf to the ground and was about to take off his pullover.

"There's a photo of Masaccio's new tomb", Luca said hastily. Raffaele took the printed sheet. "Nice. You think this Masolino-guy would be satisfied if he knew?"

"I'm sure." Luca took the photo. "I want to send it Sandro. At least he's responsible for this."

Raffaele grinned. His naked upper body gleamed in the light of the lamp. "Actually you're responsible because you spilled your coffee over the diary." He crouched down. "Are we going out tonight? It's Friday night." He arched his dark eye brows expectantly.

"That's the reason you're slicked up from the barber and all? Up for a new conquest?"

Raffaele gave him a kiss. "My conquest is you tonight, surely."

Luca sighed inwardly. As much as he wanted to be faithful, it didn't work out. Raffaele was too cheerful, too carefree, too convinced that he would win in the end and conquer Luca's heart before Alessandro Gondi was out of prison.

The atmosphere was seething when they entered Tabasco Bar around midnight. A mass of tangled, sweating bodies, dancing to deep-dull, yet melodious techno-beats. The basses hummed in Luca's stomach and the beats thumped directly in his cock. A heat-wave of testosterone and adrenaline flooded over him as he pulled off his anorak and pullover, gave it to the bartender who put them into a separate room. Sharp whistling cut the room when the dancer entered onto the small stage in front of dozens of small black and white monitors showing fingers penetrating butt holes, kissing tongues and dripping mouths. Raffaele stood excitedly beside Luca and finally caught the silver pants the dancer had shed. He whirled them through the air and whistled with two fingers. The stomping of the rhythm gave Luca a painfully strong hard-on and when the dancer dropped his final clothing - his jock-strap - Luca almost shot into his pants. "Woo, hoo" Raffaele was still waving, then he took Luca and kissed him as if there was no tomorrow. Luca felt the iron between Raffaele's legs and grinned. Tonight would be a hot night.

When they pushed themselves through the people, Luca was most surprised to see Tristano with Vittorio. Vito never went to gay bars, especially not when the average age was around eighteen. But from time to time he enjoyed the familiar company. Florence's gay community knew each other, except for some fresh meat arriving from time to time.

Vito's arms embraced Tristano. The stab of jealousy was brief and surprised Luca. His night with Tris was in his heart forever - at least it was Luca who had been the reason for Tris' internal coming out. And that night was a pleasant night to remember. Then Tris stood a little out of breath in front of Luca, beaming. He leaned in and kissed Luca's lips.

"Whoa", Luca said, "watch out for your policeman."

"He's gone to the loo. Where's Raffaele?"

"Buying us a beer." Luca knew that Tristano didn't agree with his relationship with Raffaele but he never heard reproaches from him. Tris knew all too well about the pleasures of love and sex to be cross with his friend. They smiled at each other. "You look happy", Luca said finally.

"Of course! It's hard enough to get Vito into a club like this. But he seems to enjoy himself. Perhaps he was keen to see the stripper."

On this cue Tristano was embraced from behind and Luca felt a pair of black- burning eyes on him. Luca knew Vito wouldn't ask about Sandro because he didn't want to give Luca a hard time. "I was indeed keen to see the stripper", Vito murmured into Tris' ear. "I have an idea of what we'll do when we're at home."

Tris had goose bumps and Luca grinned. It really seemed as if Tris had overcome the horrid abuse he'd suffered. Raffaele returned with two bottles. After a brief smile to Tris and Vito he dragged Luca away.

Luciano sat slumped in a corner of a red plush sofa, drinking and smoking alone, by himself. He didn't seem to be interested in the least in the activities going on around him. Lucas' heart was still beating too fast from the rush of adrenaline while his cock had calmed down. He slid onto the sofa next to Luciano. "Everything's all right?"

Luciano gave a thin smile. He looked haggard and unhealthy. "I'm supposed to ask you that. Everything's all right? How's Alessandro?" He eyed Raffaele who had followed Luca. "Your new boyfriend? Hi, Raffaele", he said then listlessly. "How's Andrea?"

Luca ignored the question. "Sandro's all right. Only seventeen months to go." Luca avoided pondering about the seventeen months. Life went on.

"Well, then." Luciano finished his whiskey.

"You shouldn't drink so much", Luca said.

"It doesn't make any difference anymore." Luciano lit another cigarette. "I've AIDS."

"You've HIV", Luca insisted, wondering about the incorrect statement.

"No. It's got me finally."

Luca took a sharp breath. It was as if a mountain had collapsed over him. "Are you sure?" he asked unnecessarily.

"Shall I give you a memo?" Luciano snapped. "Despite the pills and all. And the docs had said that with this new treatment I still had years and years to live." His laughter scratched in Luca's ears. He turned to Raffaele who sat helpless. "So much for your dislike of rubbers", he said quietly.

Raffaele looked down.

"What are you doing now?" Luca asked.

"What I've always done. Waiting until the end. I lost my job a long time ago. They don't want to work with a sick guy. They didn't even want to touch me, acted as if I'd got the plague." Another burst of scratchy laughter, then he swallowed the cigarette smoke wrong and started to cough. "It's the plague indeed. Some say God has sent it to erase gays from this planet. Perhaps they're right."

"They are not right", Luca said determinedly and stroked Luciano's back "The doc gave you addresses of the AID organizations? They can help you certainly."

"Yeah, certainly." Luciano looked into nowhere.

Luca didn't know what to say. Could he have fun now while somebody was so hopeless? Luciano turned his head to him. "Go dancing with your boyfriend. Enjoy your youth while as you can."

Luca saw Tristano waving from the dance floor. Vito looked too funny as he tried to cope with Tristano's contortions and it made Luca laugh. Yeah, there was always somebody dying while others had the time of their lives. Another pair draw his attention: Sergio and Alfredo, the call-boys. Though still dressed up for a fancy-dress ball at Venice, they both clung together, as if there was nobody else. Luca knew from Tristano that they had given up their occupation. Sergio now worked in his real profession: barber and Alfredo had found an engagement at Teatro Verdi as a costume designer. Tristano had told him that Sergio had done it only for Alfredo's sake. That he should never be in danger again.

Luca gave Luciano a smile and shoved Raffaele into the mesh of dancing guys.

* * *

Raffaele had become his confidante. Surprisingly he could talk to him about all the things deeply hidden in his soul. Not even with Rosso had he been able to lay down his deepest thoughts; due to the fact that Rosso didn't play on the same team, and some thoughts you can only discuss with kindred spirits only. Raffaele was informed about Alessandro's faked marriage and the reasons for that. Luca had shown him photos of Anastasia with little Matteo in her arms. Leoni had gained even more weight and cared nothing about it. She had settled down into the daily routine in Arrigo's palazzo, going out with her friends, but was careful that nobody saw her with her changing boyfriends. At least while she still was Alessandro Gondi's wife and had to think about the reputation of the Gondi-family.

In Spring Raffaele accompanied him on his walks into Fiesole's hills, gathering flowers and herbs they later put between sheets to dry them. Luca had caught Raffaele several times standing in front of the white lily Luca had framed and hung on the wall, but he never asked about the secret. Probably he could figure out the connection between Prince of the Lilies and the dried flower himself.

They made a brief stop at Bellosguardo, where Raffaele's family lived, and went on into the awakening nature. Another Scoppio del Carro had passed, this time with Vito upon a horse, full dressed in clothes of the 15th century, watching over the crowd of people. Another anniversary of Luca's and Alessandro's first meeting had gone. Raffaele had become Luca's shadow. People became used to it and forgot about Alessandro Gondi, the Prince of the Lilies, dwelling in a jail at Poggibonsi. Occasionally Luca met one of his old friends who asked about Alessandro and whether they could visit him. They were talking about the old times when Alessandro had been their leader in doing nonsense and being a plague for the town. Those times were over. Alessandro's letters meanwhile filled eight shoe boxes that Luca kept in a wardrobe.

When the first qualifying matches started for the Calcio in Costume that Alessandro's Quartiero had won two years ago, Marcello and Dante had been there in the first place. They won for their team and would attend the final on St. John's Day in June.

On the day of the final match of the Gioco Alessandro felt very depressed. He knew from Luca that the Quartiero of Santa Croce was playing against his own Quartiero of San Giovanni. Impatiently he sat in front of the TV in the common room and waited for the local news. Perhaps they would say which quarter had won. Melancholic he remembered the day when he had been tackled by Raniero and Luca's brothers were all over him. He remembered the heat and the scraping sand, the blood and the pain. And the triumph when he had scored the most goals. It was worth the broken toes and nose.

Slowly his hand slid over the hump at the bridge of his nose. The scar in his left brow was also still to be seen. He remembered the time after; the holidays at the sea. And Leoni's bombshell that changed everything. Little Matteo was now fifteen months old and would learn how to walk on his soft feet. Alessandro wasn't sure why he was affected by this, after all Matteo wasn't his son. But he felt responsible nonetheless. For him and for Leoni. He wondered where they would be now if Alessandro hadn't been arrested. Probably gone a long time ago. The will of his late father had been fulfilled, and the inheritance was waiting for Alessandro when he returned to Firenze. But what did it mean to him? Nothing. He wasn't sure what to do afterwards. His study dragged along. He felt no enthusiasm to continue. Who would engage an ex-prisoner and entrust him with tourists?

And he had another problem: the new prisoner, Tito Boni, sentenced for arson, bodily injuries and attempted manslaughter. This made him more interesting in the odd hierarchy of the establishment. He tried to behave well, but Alessandro saw the gleaming brutality behind his baby face. A face that matched Pietro Zardi's, bald headed and tattooed all over. Both had hit it off quickly, much to Ivano's misfortune who was now pouting and feeling drawn to Alessandro. Ivano had apparently a short memory, considering the incident months ago when Alessandro had left Mario's house and had been attacked by Pietro and Ivano in the fields. Alessandro by all means hadn't forgotten it. That Ivano would make friends with a 'faggot' showed Ivano's isolation. Alessandro thought him a pain in the ass. He couldn't bear the toady-ness, although it flattered him at the beginning.

Mario couldn't help it. He was a dreamer, still thinking that he could save the world and make the people sane. Tito Boni had become a nightmare for Lauro, the small kleptomaniac. More than once Alessandro had been Lauro's rescuer which annoyed Tito and Pietro to no end. Alessandro felt there was something cooking up behind his back.

Absorbed in his brooding he missed when someone had switched the channel and was watching a daft film. Annoyed Alessandro wrested the remote control and switched back to the local news. The other protested.

"Next time you'll ask before", Alessandro snarled and listened to the news announcer, announcing a heat wave for the next days over the valley of the Arno. Then there was a glimpse of a dusty playground, and a triumphant howling when a decorated calf was carried away by green and golden dressed guys, covered all over in sand and dust and blood.

Alessandro leaned back. So, his Quartiero made it again. Pity for Luca's brothers he thought oddly. They would be pissed. Then he pressed the remote control into the other's hand. "Have fun." Alessandro went out. In the hall he found Lauro, sitting upon the bench, reading a letter. His fingers trembled slightly.

Alessandro sat next to him and watched his face. His eyes were bloodshot. "What happened?" he asked.

Lauro didn't answer.

"Hey", Alessandro touched Lauro's arm. "Bad news?"

"My brother died."

"Oh." Alessandro didn't know what to say. "I'm sorry, mate. But we must go now, it's bedtime." He tried to pull Lauro up but he resisted. Unexpected a stream of tears flooded from Lauro's eyes and Alessandro flopped back onto the bench. "I know it's terrible, mate", Alessandro stuttered. "You should talk about it with Mario. Or the priest next Sunday." He hesitated. "Why... how did he die?"

"On the branch of a tree. With a rope around his neck." Lauro's voice was hard to hear. He sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Alessandro gave him a paper tissue from his pocket. "That's horrible", he said. "Why?" Committing suicide was unimaginable to Alessandro. Those actions simply didn't exist in his world.

Lauro, helpless, shook his shoulders and sniffed again. The stream of tears didn't subside. Alessandro looked up for help. "Wait here. I'll be back in a second."

He went to Mario's office and entered without knocking. Mario sat in front of his computer typing a report. "Lauro needs help."

Mario turned and removed his glasses. "What happened?"

"He's got a letter. His brother died."

Mario cursed and rose. "Emilio!" he shouted. "How come a letter passed unnoticed?"

Emilio, an elderly guy who had seen and heard too much in this prison, peered around the corner and came closer. "What letter?"

But Mario waved him off and hurried along the corridor to Lauro's cell.

Alessandro went straight into his own cell, gathered his clothes and vanished in the direction wash room.

Tito was there, occupying a shower, fixed on the walls of the large, rectangle room. And - as always nowadays - his buddy Pietro Zardi. Pietro nudged Tito, giggling. "You remember when I told you about Elmo and his games?" Pietro's Piggy-Dick-face grinned at Alessandro. Tito didn't laugh. Actually he never laughed. He only raised his cheeks and revealed something similar to a wolfish grin. Alessandro stepped under the shower opposite to Tito and examined him from head to toe. His upper arms were tattooed with a spider, looking as nasty as Shelob lurking in the tunnel of Cirith Ungol, and a woman's head with long, black hair. His broad chest was covered with an eagle, spreading it's wings. Elmo had the longest cock Alessandro had ever seen, but Tito wasn't that bad either.

Actually he should have been aroused to no end, but there was nothing stirring in Alessandro's groin. Perhaps he had forgotten how to get a hard-on in a boy' s presence and was instead too used to his own hand. Tito soaped himself while trying to copy the lascivious movements of a table dancer. The eagle's wings spread and faltered with each movement. Alessandro saw that the glands of his cock had a silver piercing. He grinned into Tito's face and turned demonstratively.

Tito's wolfish grin fell. "You only get a hard-on when you fuck Mario, eh?" he shouted over the water's rush. Pietro hooted with laughter. He rubbed his hanging arse on Tito's leg who pushed him away. "Stop that, faggot", he hissed.

Like a flash Alessandro turned. "You wanna try it?" Unconsciously Alessandro took the soap - Luca's soap - and rubbed it all over his cock until it rose, became hard and ready. Then he stepped out from under the shower and went directly to Tito. "You wanna try it out?" he repeated, not blinking, his face cold as marble. He pressed Tito to the wall where they stood head to head and cock to cock. "If you don't keep your mouth shut, I'll stuff my cock into it and I swear you'll whine for more."

Pietro laughed hysterically out loud. Tito's eyes were closed into slits. "You would never dare, fag", he shouted and pushed Alessandro harshly away. Alessandro slid on the slippery tiles, but came to a halt without falling. "You're just a sissy, not able to face a real man" Tito hissed.

"I'd never dare? I'm not a real man?" Alessandro jumped almost up to Tito and hit him with the back of his hand. Tito bumped his head on the tiles and groaned.

"That's from the fag. Sissy."

Tito slid down and sat slumped under the water stream, wiping the back of his head. Pietro gave him such a baleful glare that Alessandro shivered involuntarily. Tito looked at his bloody fingers. "You bastard", he hissed.

Alessandro hurried to leave the room and scantily rinsed off his penis at the pissoir. The shower room was filling up. The time of shutting down was getting quickly closer. Alessandro looked for Lauro but didn't see him. Ivano asked him to wait for him, but Alessandro went away into his cell and waited for the warder. As he heard the familiar sound of the rattling bunch of keys and the locks almost noiseless turned, Alessandro stood up in front of his little mirror over the sink. His legs trembled. What he had done in the shower room tolerated no return. He had attacked Tito and this meant nothing else but war. Nobody could help him here. Not Mario, not Benno, no wardens, no director.

Alessandro had had enough of the needy gangs of thugs. He simply didn't belong here. But he had to survive. He rummaged in his toilet bag and found his razor. Blades were not allowed, so he had to put up with this electric monstrosity. His growth of beard was only sparse so the blades were relatively sharp. He draw a line over his skull. Twice again and his locks fell into the sink. He shaved until only a millimetre-long stubble covered his head. Alessandro bared his teeth. Offer no grounds for attack. He swept the locks from the sink into the bucket standing below. Luca would have a fit. But it was nothing that wouldn't grow again.

The next morning a parcel arrived from Luca along with more soap - vanilla and honey; no wonder he was considered a poof - Alessandro thought, grimly grinning. Nivea cream for his skin and toothpaste and other useful things. A folder appeared at the bottom with more dried flowers. On top was a little blue flower, a Non-ti-scordar-di-me. Forget-me-not. Alessandro almost sobbed. How could he. "Amore,

This is going to hurt you, but you should hear it from me instead of from somebody else. I wasn't alone when I gathered the Non-ti-scordar-di-me. Raffaele was with me. I met him on your birthday, when I felt very lonely. People say he has become my shadow. You once said to me that I should look for another.

You said I shouldn't wait for you. I do. But it doesn't help the fact that I'm lonely. I feel so abandoned without you. Raffaele knows about you and me and that he has no chance. He takes it nonetheless and waits and is around and helps me through.

The dictionary says that the flower's name is myosotis what means nothing else than "mouse's ear". But I like the legend of the talking flower more. I hope you will pin it next to the other flowers and whenever you look at it you'll remember me. I do wait for you.

When can I visit you next? The brothers were pissed that they didn't win the Gioco. Dante's got a chipped bone in his nose, he was bleeding horridly. Rosso and Tris send their love as well as Giano and Tino. Have you heard from Leoni?

All my love.


So, Luca's got himself a lover finally. Raffaele.. Alessandro had expected it all the time. If this was the Raffaele he knew, it should be all right. Alessandro couldn't be cross with Luca. Not really. Not at all.


Do you remember when I said you didn't have to wait for me? You wanted to by all means. And I knew it would happen. You have to decide whether Raffaele remains just a stand in, or if we have both drifted apart so much, that there's nothing left for us. Well, you still have twelve months to make your decision. And I'll need it too. I'm not sure myself if I'd like to return to you. I fear that I'm not the same anymore. Perhaps it is good this way. One has to develop in ones life, right? But I guess, my development consists only of change. Whether it is for the good, I doubt.

I don't know what to tell you. Thanks for your honesty, even if it comes a bit late. OK, we are even anyway, because my honesty isn't exactly better than yours. I can't tell you more here; my letters I have to deliver open. Next time you come we can talk about everything. You will come?

I don't need a forget-me-not to think of you. Though, when I lean my ear very close, it seems to talk to me with your voice. I guess I'm becoming a drama-queen. Must be the Summer.

I've heard about the Gioco, in fact, I saw a snippet of it on TV. Sorry about the brothers. I mean it. Have they apologised yet? I remember you wrote that they've changed. I hear from Leoni occasionally. She sends me pictures of Matteo. I don't know why she does it.

I wait for your next visit. Love,


In July Luciano's corpse was fished out of the Arno. His body had been caught beneath a dam of the river opposite Cascine Park. It was a shock for the community.

When Luca stopped the red Ferrari in the parking lot of the youth custody unit at Poggibonsi he felt very depressed. It was the day after Luciano's funeral at the cemetery of the Holy Gates of San Miniato. The community had given him his last escort. Luca and Raffaele had sensed a possibly of total shock spreading amongst them. HIV and AIDS had been pushed for too long from their immediate consciousness and Luca had noticed that bare-backing was gaining ground again, disregarding danger.

Entering the visitor's room he couldn't find Alessandro until he turned. Luca gasped, eyeing the stubble skull. "What the hell happened to your hair? Did you get lice?"

Alessandro laughed unhappy. "Not at all. You like my new outfit?" He pulled Luca next to him upon a bench in the corner. "Precaution. I don't want to being pulled through the washing room by my hair."

Luca stared at him. "Who would do something like that?"

Alessandro didn't answer. "I'm sorry about Luciano", he said instead after a while. "Did you attend the funeral?"

Luca nodded curtly, then he emptied his rucksack with the things Alessandro had wanted. "Have I told you that Zardi is getting lessons in Italian?" Alessandro said, "He's almost a dyslexic. The social workers want him to get an apprenticeship."

Again Luca stared at him, then he shook his head. He knew that Alessandro avoided by all means the really important subjects. The blue eyes in the small face gleamed feverish and his broken nose was all too prominent. Still Alessandro Gondi carried a noblesse that was as sharp as a sword. He wasn't broken. He still didn't feel fear. Or was this just a mask? "Is he the reason you cut off your hair?" he asked. Luca searched the room for the plump Pietro Zardi, but he wasn't there. His eyes scanned the visitors - mostly parents, talking to their sons.

"Not only he", Alessandro said and lowered his voice. "There's this new lad, Tito Boni. Well, he's been here now for some months. Nasty guy." Alessandro faltered. "I don't want to deny you, but I wish I hadn't been so open in the first place. You know..."

Luca took Alessandro's hand under the table and pressed it. "I understand." So, Alessandro was showing signs of weakness and regret. It was good this way. Fear will sharpen your senses for danger.

"I hadn't thought it would be a problem", Alessandro continued. "I always did what I thought would be right." He paused. "In the life outside. But this is a life of its own. Actually it isn't life at all." He looked up into Luca's eyes. "Tell me about Raffaele."

Luca tried to hide his reddened cheeks. Alessandro needed his support and he was with another, enjoying "life outside". Well, what you could call 'enjoyment'. But didn't Luca need a companion to be able to stand all this?

"Do you see him often? I thought you would bring him with you."

"Bring him with me?" Luca repeated astonished. "Why would I do such a thing? I don't want to hurt you."

Alessandro pressed his hand. "I told you I understand. I hope he's nice."

"I wouldn't be with him if he wasn't."

"Will you dump him when I'm out of here? Or will you dump me?"

"We can still be friends", Luca answered reserved, realizing his betrayal. But he had told Raffaele that there was no chance for a future life together. Nonetheless Raffaele wasn't to be stopped in spending his hours with Luca.

"The reason of my bald head is me and Mario", Alessandro said, dropping the subject. "I'm sure the guys have found out, or they suppose we are having an affair. So far, they've held their mouths, but if they go in that direction, Mario will be fired."

Luca looked down on the table. "So this is the end, yes?" he said with low voice. "You and me have found others?"

"Just to survive", Alessandro said and lifted Luca's chin. "Don't you think?"

When Luca had gone Alessandro felt bad. But he couldn't be too long in the dumps. He needed all of his concentration. Again Lauro hadn't had any visitors. But the slender lad would be released tomorrow. Alessandro asked himself if anybody from his family would come to pick him up. He still needed psychological help first for the suicide of his brother and then for his kleptomania that no one could be sure was cured. He met him on the floor, sitting on the bench he was always sitting at, staring into nothing, his face even paler than usual.

"Looking forward to tomorrow?" Alessandro asked, sitting next to him.

Lauro didn't answer, he just shrugged his shoulders.

"Anybody picking you up? Your parents?" he asked in a brittle voice.

Lauro's body jerked. "Why would they?"

Alessandro noticed that Lauro's fingers had started to tremble. He wondered why. Perhaps he was too excited to be leaving all this behind. "You can write to me if you like", he said.

Lauro's big, brown eyes turned to him. "Write?" he repeated and fell silent again. Then he rose and said "I wish you luck, Alessandro. Probably we won't see each other again." Without a look back he shuffled away.

Alessandro watched him until his body had vanished around a corner. He sat on the bench for some minutes pondering what to do. This morning he'd got back his test from the university at Pisa with an outstandingly good result. But Alessandro couldn't be happy about it. He didn't feel the use of it, albeit he enjoyed working through the lessons. He just wasn't sure for what he would use it. Food for his soul, he thought then. A reason not to get mad.

Lauro was missing at the large dining room, Benno noticed, sitting next to Alessandro. Benno had become his only real friend - the big, simple baby face with the good heart. Once he had told Alessandro that he had dealt with drugs to survive the life on the streets. His parents had chucked him out when he was fifteen, because they weren't in need of another mouth to feed. And Benno was a strong eater. Alessandro shoved him his portion of over boiled spaghetti and Benno gobbled it up. Thankful he blinked at Alessandro.

"He's probably packing his stuff for his release tomorrow", Alessandro said, "and he isn't especially keen on this stuff here." He pointed to Benno's almost empty plate.

"Why? It's good."

Alessandro grimaced. Sure, when you live on the streets even a rotten apple sounds delicious.

The warden was passing their table with brash steps, watching the guys eat. "I'm out here for Christmas as well", Benno said.

"You have plans?" Alessandro asked.

"Sure. The social worker got me a job."

Alessandro smiled at him. "Good for you. As a carpenter?" Benno had made an apprenticeship here in custody.

"Yes. I only hope I won't be chucked out too soon."

"It depends on you." Alessandro's eyes were fixed on the group sitting some tables away. Tito Boni with his gang, as he named them. Just Ivano was sitting apart, trying to get Alessandro's attention as ever. Since he had broken with Zardi, Zorro and Boni he was a loner. Alessandro couldn't forget what he had done to him. And still there was the danger that Zardi would go to the director to inform him about the forbidden liaison between Alessandro and Mario.

Alessandro pulled the dessert close to him, a yellow pudding with a red, indefinable sauce. He wolfed it down without tasting it as he remembered Lauro and his odd words of farewell. 'Probably we won't see each other again.' "Gotta go, Benno", he said, shoving back his chair. "See you later."

He went straight into the hall, crossing the floor, leading to their cells. Lauro's door was closed. Alessandro listened but there was silence. He knocked at the iron door. Since nobody answered he opened it. The hinges creaked and Alessandro was momentarily blinded by the sunbeams streaming through the small, grated window set high into the wall. He blinked. It took some seconds before the information sunk in. Lauro was hanging limply from the grate, his checked bed clothes wrapped around his neck. Alessandro emitted a cry and hurried to him. He lifted his legs, dangling a few centimetre above the ground and tried to pull him down, but it wouldn't work. Desperate he searched for the stool, dragged it close and stepped upon it. He fumbled with the knot of the cloth and tried to unwrap it from Lauro's neck.

Lauro's body fell to the ground, Alessandro jumped down, patted his cheeks. Then he cried out for help.

"Here." Mario gave Alessandro a sheet of paper. "We've found this upon Lauro's table." Silently Alessandro read, then he put the paper back, still saying nothing. "How is he?" he asked.

"All right. A minute later and he would be dead. He used the time when every one was in the dining room." Tired Mario sat at the table and removed his glasses. He rubbed his eyes. "It throws a bad light upon the institution. It would had been the first suicide. It was an unforgivable mistake that this letter passed without reading. I would have told Lauro personally and he wouldn't be so distraught. Apparently I couldn't help him with all his problems."

"Who could have guessed it? What will you do now?"

"Send the police to his home. Arrest his father."

Alessandro nodded. Surely. No wonder Lauro didn't want to return home. And his kleptomania appeared now in a different light. A cry for attention and love. Perhaps he would now find real help. "Do you think this was the reason his brother committed suicide?"

Mario nodded. "Of course. Abuse by the father for years is reason enough for a kid who isn't able to talk about the unspeakable. Lauro feared to return to that hell. And he wasn't strong enough to live a life on the streets as Benno did. And the mother? Denied it. Closed her eyes. Did you know that Lauro has a little sister?"

Alessandro shook his head as shock washed over him. "Sometimes I wish there was the death penalty. He deserves it by all means."

Mario quickly took Alessandro hand, laying clenched to a fist upon the table. "You mustn't. The death penalty is barbaric. We can't do the same. We can't become equal to inhumanity. He will get his punishment."

"This can't be punished", Alessandro objected quietly. "There's no real punishment for a destroyed soul."

"It will heal. Time heals everything."

"That's a lie. Some wounds never heal."

Mario sighed. "At least he was rescued. And when he's able to give testimony his father will vanish into jail for a long time. About the mother, I'm not sure. It will be hard to prove she knew about it all the time."

Alessandro sighed as well.

"How are you doing?" Mario asked.

Alessandro had never told him about his problems with Tito Boni. He didn't want to appear as a weakling, complaining about problems he was able to solve himself. "All right", he said. "Twelve months to go."

"How's Luca?"

"He's found another bed comrade."

Mario watched him sharply. "How do you feel about that?"

Alessandro moaned unnerved. "Stop that compassionate blathering, Mario. You certainly know I feel like shit. I sit here and can't do anything about it."

"What will you do when you are out?" Mario asked calmly.

Alessandro leaned forward. "If I wasn't here there wouldn't be another comrade for Luca", he hissed. "And all this because a stupid judge thought that the life of a swine is more important than the life of my boyfriend."

Mario raised his brows. "You mustn't see it that way. When you were delivered here you were convinced that you deserved your punishment. You killed another human. Wasn't that your words?"

"Might be. I've changed my opinion."

"Alessandro", Mario said. "Don't lose yourself. You will get out of here. Soon. You can return to your normal life. And your study is going well, isn't it. You can realize your dream. That's so much more than all the others have here."

Alessandro said nothing. He stared gloomily into nowhere.

Inverno 8