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9

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Another Spring. The hibiscus was blooming and the chestnut trees were showing their red candles. A whiff of sun-heated sage hung in the air.

Luca heard the blackbird at that early morning hour. He rubbed his eyes and turned his head. Raffaele was slumbering at his side, the bed cover pulled up under his chin while his back was bare. Furtively he stroked the violet-black hair from his forehead. Raffaele opened his eyes immediately and a smile curled his lips. "Ciao, carino", he mumbled and stretched out his arm to pull Luca closer. "Got to get up?"

Luca nodded. His fingers itched to finish the table top he was working on. It was his masterpiece and the final thing he would make as an apprentice. It was almost done and the masters considered it the best work of his group. Even Tristano couldn't hold a candle to him, although he had specialised in stone-painting, another Art of working the stones.

"And what are you up to?"

"Don't know", Raffaele yawned. "It's still so early."

"Right." Luca scrambled out of bed and tapped over to the bathroom. A minute later he felt the glass sliding doors of the shower open and Raffaele's body pressed itself against his back. He felt his erection poking his buttocks. Luca pushed back, feeling the penis rubbing over his cleft while Raffaele's hand slipped around his waist and caressed Luca's private parts. Luca closed his eyes and enjoyed the familiar feeling of losing himself.





Luca searched for the thin, white alabaster slice Dante had given him and mixed the pure colour with crimson - a corneal for this sake. He examined the bulbs with their long, straight stems at the end; the linear leaves, light green made from malachite stone. And at last the iris, the symbol of Florence, a magnificent flower which had a magical significance in all world cultures from Tibet to ancient Egypt. The strong, blue-violet colour emphasised the immaculate whiteness of the lily - lapis lazuli and amethyst, and yellow heliodor for the calyx.

Luca lent back in his chair. The inlay work was finished. It carried everything that Luca's relationship with Alessandro had contained: the joy of love and its abandonment. Melancholy followed after death. Innocence that was ruled by the royal iris and at last borage to find back happiness in love. Firenze and Alessandro di Gondi-Lucertola, prince of the lilies and carrier of the iris of Florence. This was Luca's declaration of love.

He hid a small grin. Nobody would ever understand its meaning. Briefly he regretted that he hadn't inserted an emerald-green lizard, but that would had been too obvious.

Silently Coppo stepped behind Luca's chair and looked over his shoulder. "It's finished", he stated. Luca turned and looked into his teacher's face.

"Yes", he said.

Coppo pulled a chair next to Luca and sat down. He put on his half-moon spectacles and examined the work. "Outstanding." Coppo smiled. "I want to keep you at the Opificio. Not for the restoration work but for creation. Commission work for governments all over the world. What do you say?"

Luca reciprocated Coppo's smile.

In the afternoon everybody gathered at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. The apprentices, the parents and friends. Tristano's parents had come as well as Vittorio, who had a day off. Luca's parents were present as well as Dante, Marcello and Rosso. Just Giano had to stay in Pisa, writing an exam.

The final examination works were presented and Luca received the first prize. Niccol˛ beamed over his whole face, Clarissa was close to tears. Rosso whooped and clapped his hands. It could have been the happiest day in Luca Montori's life so far if Alessandro had been there. Instead of that Raffaele joined the group when the celebration was almost over. Uninhibited he kissed Luca in front of all eyes, and yet Luca didn't feel too embarrassed. Not even when his eyes met Dante's. His brother came up to him and for a moment the old fear boiled up in his stomach. But Dante's face was calm, his eyes tried to be friendly.

"Congratulations, piccolino", he said huskily. "Three years apprenticeship is hard work. I tried it once, but would never be as good as you."

Marcello appeared behind Dante's back. "Congratulations from me too", he said and Luca saw honesty in his face.

Luca felt he had to say something, but he didn't know what exactly. Instead a warm feeling was streaming through his body.

"You certainly wish Alessandro was with you, don't you", Dante said reluctantly, glancing at Raffaele chattering with Tristano and Rosso. "Five months to go. Are you still waiting or have you decided to stay with him?" Dante's head nodded to Raffaele.

Luca had a sharp retort on his lips but he restrained himself. He didn't want to spoil the fragile flower of reconciliation growing between him and his brothers. "I still wait for him." In his thoughts he clutched the Gondi-cross around his neck.





Alessandro dropped his bag and stood still. He tipped his head back and watched the sky. Violet blue. Billowing clouds. He stood there and breathed. Freedom. Slowly he lifted his arms and turned himself around. Freedom.

Arms folded in front of his chest, Mario stood in the door frame and watched Alessandro di Gondi-Lucertola leaving the place.

Neither Luca nor any of his friends and family knew that Alessandro had been released early. Alessandro couldn't quite explain why he never told anyone, he just had a distinct feeling that this was the right way to do it. He needed time for himself. Feeling freedom. Leaving all this behind. Alone. Sort out his feelings. Sort out his ideas. Washing away dirt, harassment, loneliness. Luca couldn't help. When he returned to him he had to be another guy. Not the boy who was known in Florence as the prince of the lilies and not the boy he was known as in jail. He was now a man.

Taking the bus and train he traveled straight to Pisa, and booked a flight to New Zealand with his credit card. He knew that uncle Arrigo would know instantly that money had been withdrawn from his account, but that was all right. After a stop-over in Bangkok he stepped out forty eight hours later at the airport of Auckland.

It was close to Spring on the other side of the world.





"Luca? You've got post", Clarissa said when Luca came home from a visit to Rosso's. She gave him a letter that read 'air mail' and had a stamp from New Zealand showing a kiwi-bird. Luca turned it onto all sides but it didn't have a sender. He ripped it open and unfolded the thin sheets. Then he gasped.


"Gioia,

Auckland is heaven. Imagine, they still show the Lord of the Rings-trilogy that was made here and so I had the pleasure to watch all of it finally. I missed so much while I was in prison.

Ok. I have to hold my breath and tell you what happened. I've been released, not fled as you might feared. I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I couldn't. I need time for myself. I don't want to see Florence and return to the old life I had. To me the farthest place from home is just far enough. In this case the other side of the world suited me just fine. I've found a job with a sheepshearer. This country is all nature - a good place for a guy who has had prison walls surrounding him with nothing except for the few patches of vegetable beds I used to care for. Perhaps this will now be to my fortune.

I have no plan. Life is rural and the people are friendly though a bit - strange ;-) Rural and everything that means.

I will return, but I can't say when. Raffaele will look after you, I'm sure. Give me a couple of months please. We'll stay in contact. Please don't write me back for I travel throughout the country. I carry your ring.

All my love,

Alessandro"


Luca sunk upon his bed. For ten minutes long he felt unbelievable disappointment. If it wasn't Sandro's utmost wish to return to Luca's arms what future had their love then? Why did he have to sort it out all alone by himself? Why wouldn't he seek help from Luca and his friends?

After another ten minutes he felt sadness. Then reason won the upper hand. Perhaps it was right what Sandro was doing. He needed distance. To return healed. Getting rid off the prison walls he carried with him.

The next thing Luca received was a parcel with a huge, strange formed sea shell, wrapped in a sheep's fleece. Other parcels followed with dream catchers, feathers, sand from the beach filled plastic bags, stones and shepherd's flutes.

Luca kept all these things at Palazzo Gondi and slowly they filled Alessandro's old room. He hung the fleece on the wall and the dream catcher next to the bed. Raffaele eyed them jealously. "You still wait for him? He'll never return."

"He will", was Luca's answer. Raffaele's nightly absences were growing. Luca knew he was losing him completely. He didn't mind. Stubbornly he held on to the dream, even during a long gap where he received neither a letter nor a parcel.

One day a postcard arrived from Hawaii.


"Tuesday, the 12th of February. San Miniato. High noon."





San Miniato

He is back. The prince of the lilies, returned as a man. The king of the lilies. He unwraps his scarf and pulls out a chain he wears around his neck. The lapis lazuli blue ring dangles from it. Slowly he opens the clasp and slips his middle finger through the ring. "It's time to wear it", he says.

Raffaele slips into my mind. He's gone. I haven't seen him for a while, except when I have heard from Tristano who met him on the dance floors of Florence, hunting for the next boy he can bewitch with his smile.

Alessandro is so much more. He has grown up without losing his charm. Without losing the enigmatic wildness, shimmering in his eyes. He has seen so many things. And we have gone through so many things.

He stretches out his hand and I take it.


Palazzo Gondi has changed. Sandro walks from wall to wall, looking at the stuff gathered here, his shells, the furs, the flutes, the stones, the dried and pressed flowers while I remove the ashes in the fire and stir the embers. "Tomorrow I want to go to the Opificio to look at your work, maestro", he says with a mocking tone in his voice. His smile enchants me like it did the first day we met.

"I'm far from being a maestro."

Alessandro pulls off his jacket. The sun sinks into a rosy-orange bed. The bells of the cathedral announce the sixth hour.

"You're the maestro of my heart."

"Principe del mio cuore", I say.

I watch him dropping his boots, socks, pullover. His body has filled out with muscles and sinews and shimmers with a bronze tone.

I almost sob and feel my heart beat in my throat. But there's nothing to fear. The familiar scent is back. A scent of milk shortly before it would boil over, oozing innocence. It makes me feel at home. My body learns back the familiar feel of his skin, pressing against him when he gently pushes me upon the bed. His lips are there where they belong , following my body. I suppress the questions about what he had done in New Zealand. How many one-night-stands he had. If any. I feel, this is more. In synchronicity our bodies react and pour and there it is: my all too seriousness vanishes like haze in the mid-morning and all that is left is the seventeen year old boy.

Here, at the end of all, I sense we have done the right thing. He needed to find himself back. And it was worth the wait.


EPILOGUE

Blackbirds announced the dawn. Alessandro opened his eyes and for a brief moment didn't know where he was. Jet lag pinned him to the bed. It was a long ride from the other side of the world. Then he heard breathing beside him and stirred. Propping his elbow he looked into Luca's face. He had grown up. Become a man. The blond hair was a shade darker than he remembered, but the skin was soft and clean. A very slight shade of a morning beard surrounded his chin. His shoulders were broader and lithe muscles stood out beneath the skin.

Alessandro traced a finger down the chest and encircled his navel. Moist peach. Luca's skin reacted in his sleep. He was still ticklish, Alessandro thought. A grin appeared on his face. He vanished under the bed cover and did what he had dreamt of for so many years. Hearing Luca's familiar, pearly laughter he was sent back into the time when their relationship was at the beginning. Luca disheveled Alessandro's hair as he pulled back the cover, and gave a disappointed moan when Alessandro stopped, slid up over Luca's body and looked straight into his face. It was easy. Alessandro felt as light as a bird, enjoying the warmth of Luca's body. "Principe del mio cuore", he said again.

Luca blinked. Alessandro played with his erection. Had he ever been away? Had he feared Sandro's return could lead to more disaster and sadness? To loneliness and abandonment? His fears were all wrong. Alessandro wasn't the same, but he was a new man to him, yet familiar in the core. The angle had shifted a tiny, but significant bit.

Something loosened up within Luca's being. He pulled Alessandro's head closer, embraced his lips with his mouth, knocked him over on to his back and lay between Alessandro's widely spread legs. "I never allowed Mario to enter me", Alessandro whispered huskily.

Luca smiled sardonically.





"Hungry?" Alessandro asked. "I'm starving. Let's celebrate later. For years you made my mouth water with Tristano's cooking skills. What about a meeting with the Naked Chef junior, eh?"

Luca laughed and pushed Alessandro from his body. Tristano, he thought lovingly. He couldn't imagine him being happier with Vito than Luca was right now. He would bring them all together: Rosso, still happy with Carolina, and Giano, working at his doctorate and waiting for Tino to return from the Sudan. Franco of course and Claudio who had both finished their study in Pisa. Franco had returned to Venice and had become engaged straight away in one of the museums where he sorted broken mosaic-stones. Surely he had to start from the bottom to make a career. He could even invite Sergio and Alfredo, the ex-callboys; the contact with them had never been broken off, Tris felt too obliged. It would be a party that would shake the old walls of Palazzo Gondi.

Luca sensed Sandro's waiting eyes. With a little sigh he fell into his arms, resting his head upon Alessandro's collarbone, feeling his hands stroking over his arms and back. He was amazed that these familiar feelings returned as if the distance of almost four years had never happened. Or was there a slight unease? A little, unknown spot on Sandro's soul, waiting for Luca to explore? Of course they never could go on from where they had left off.

Luca rose and looked straight and seriously into Alessandro's blue eyes. The expression in there had changed. Deepened. A focus of the events. "You're a challenge, you know", Luca said. "Tonight it was as if you'd never been away. Despite your different look", he winked.

"Different?" Alessandro laughed. "Even better than before I hope!"

Luca grinned. "Sure you do." It wasn't easy to meet as men when you had parted as boys. "But there's something special for me to explore." Cautiously he tapped on Alessandro's chest. His eyes followed his hand. The chest had broadened and the waist was smaller; Luca sensed muscles below the deep tanned skin. It felt so right, so exciting, so new.

"You've grown up as well, carino", he heard Alessandro whispering into his ear and felt his hand roaming over his body, stroking his butt cheeks, touching his penis lightly, cupping his balls. "I dreamt every night of you down under, but I had to clear up something with myself."

Luca nodded and gave himself to Alessandro's hands. Then he decided to skip his day at work. Coppo would be all too understanding. Luca hesitated to move; he didn't want to break the magic of their closeness. Alessandro was a new man, that was for sure. Gone was the all too cocky, willful, noble boy who looked down on others. Gone was the wildness in his eyes, but Luca couldn't be sure if he was just a tamed lion sitting behind the bars of his cage. In slow motion Luca lifted his arm and stroked over Alessandro's face, felt the unfamiliar, light stubble on his cheeks, down his neckline to his shoulder, gripping the upper arm. Alessandro seemed to enjoy the touch. "You aren't curious what I had to clear with myself?" he asked, lifting Luca's chin, locking eyes with his.

"I can imagine what you had to clear up. To get rid off the prison walls." A mocking glance into Alessandro's face. "And probably count the one-night-stands you had." Surprisingly Luca felt no pain when he said this. This was Sandro's private matter and had nothing to do with himself.

Alessandro laughed relieved. "I'm happy you aren't cross with me." He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "There was this extraordinarily sexy shepherd's boy, you know..." He winked.

Luca conjured up pictures of a hay stable in his inner eye, a coupling pair in the prickling hay, watched by a flock of sheep. He had to grin. "The shepherd's flute there, is that from him?"

Alessandro nodded, eyeing the exhibits hanging on the wall. "A Farewell gift."

"And then?" Slowly Luca had fun listening to Sandro's tale of conquests, and surprisingly it made him horny. "How many lovers did you have, traveling on the other side of the world?" he asked grinning.

"And you?" Alessandro objected playfully. "What was Raffaele like? And were there others too? Come on! I know the guys are crazy for you." Unexpectedly he pulled at Luca's arm and scrambled with him out of the bed, dragging him into the bathroom where he placed himself and Luca in front of the large mirror. Luca saw his own half hard-on swaying and laughed out loud. Alessandro joined in his laughter. "You don't know how much I missed your laughter, amore", he whispered into Luca's ear. His voice made Luca's cock spring upright; he wriggled in Alessandro's arms until he faced him. "I feel seventeen again", he said.

"While you look like eighteen already!" Alessandro smirked, slapping Luca's butt cheeks. "You've grown." His palm embraced Luca's penis. "There."

Luca looked down at Alessandro's expanding length. "I bet your shepherd's boy was more than satisfied", he said. "Why not satisfy me too..?" He wriggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Alessandro pushed him out of the bathroom into bed again.





At nine the first tourist's groups gathered in front of the Battistero, looking at Ghiberti's bronze and gilt entrance doors. The guides pretended cheerfulness they never felt. Too often they had repeated the same words. Alessandro valued them no look. He would become better. Not on the streets though. Alessandro had watched tourists too often, to not feel, with the knowledge he had, that this was just the proverbial throwing pearls in front of swines.

He took Luca's hand and passed the people speaking with so many languages. "Do you remember when Masolino visited Donatello's workshop, creating the "Habakkuk"?" Alessandro asked.

"Of course. Lorenzo Ghiberti was busy with these bronze doors at the same time." Luca pointed to the doors, protected with an iron grate.

"And do you remember the original plates of them swimming through the town because of the high water in 1966? These are only copies, albeit gilt as well."

Luca raised his brows. "Indeed? I didn't know that. Where are the original plates then?" He looked at the tourists, partly solemnly, partly bored looking at the masterpiece of art.

"In a vault of the cathedral's museum."

"Well." Luca's fingers caressed Alessandro's and he leaned his body at his boyfriends, "you won't tell this your tourist groups, will you."

"Don't think so. I'd like to offer my service to a specialized audience. People who know what I'm talking about." He winked. Alessandro had passed his exam as a certificated guide with an outstandingly good result. Florence simply couldn't afford to ignore Alessandro di Gondi-Lucertola, and a guide with a noble, ancient name was always an advantage.


A wind was blowing in their faces as they passed the unfriendly, brick stone fašade of San Lorenzo, still unfinished since it had been began. Only Michelangelo's designs and wooden models had survived, but the pope never had time nor money left to fulfill his promise. Nonetheless it carried one of Florence's biggest treasures: the graves of the Medici-family and the glorious chapel of the princes, Luca's grandfather had worked on. Luca stopped his steps and Alessandro waited as well. "Coppo kept me at the Opificio", Luca said. "Together with Tris I work on a commission work for Ciampi's palazzo at Roma's Quirinale. Inlay works for the guest rooms." His gentle brown eyes radiated.

Alessandro took his hands and pressed them. "I'm so happy for you. We have to celebrate by all means. And we have to think what to do first with my money. Holiday at the sea side?"

"Sea side? I thought you'd have had enough of beaches and sun."

"Well, it's February, the air will be great. Forte dei Marmi? And then to Rome. I need to see Masaccio's new tomb."

Luca stood and watched him. "Forte dei Marmi. All right. And then Rome. We have to catch up on so many things."

"Right. You still haven't told me all of your conquests", Alessandro said playfully.

"Eh!" Luca nudged him. "There was only one, Raffaele!"

"Right. He's unique. Does he still dye his hair violet?"

Luca eyed him warily. "Don't tell me you've had him."

"Sure I've had him. He was fifteen or something when he came to Villa Kazar. I was his first. No, he was my first. Anyway..."

"Why have you never told me before!?"

Alessandro placed a kiss on Luca's nose. "Do you know how many Raffaele's live in Florence? And actually I was at ease to know you were in good hands with him. Sshht!, no objections, please", he said, stretching out his hand when Luca went to say something.

Luca shook his head. "You're something", he mumbled.

Alessandro looked ponderously. Briefly the blue sparkle in his eyes were overshadowed with heaps of burdens he had hoped to destroy. He succeeded in many things, but not in every one. He had experienced humiliation for what he was. They had made him feel dirty about the things he loved, because he was different to the mass of humans. He had needed months to feel free and feel good about who he was: a young man who loved the things he did, the things he saw, and the human he was. It took him more than the love of a shepherd's boy to regain his very being. But it had worked out. In one point he'd succeeded: he loved to love. He loved to have sex and he couldn't hold on any longer without Luca.

Slowly he said, "About Leoni and the kid, I'd like to get a divorce, but little Matteo will still be officially my son and the heir of the Gondi-wealth in the end. Nonetheless I thought about the money and reasonable things to spend it on."

"You want to spend it?"

Alessandro stepped closer. "Gioia, what would I do with twenty million Euros for heaven's sake?"

"I thought it was the Gondi-money you don't want to lose."

"Ha. Once I was convinced about that. I've got so many projects in my mind."

"Have you?"

Alessandro nodded vehemently. Arrigo wouldn't see a cent of it. He had money enough himself. But Alessandro could spent it for important things. He could even make peace with Dante and Marcello. Perhaps they would play a role in his plans, giving AIDS patients a home. Two docs were in the family already.

A dove had taken its place upon the head of the monument for Giovanni delle Bande Nere - mercenary leader and family member of the Medici's. Merchants set up their market stands and were filling them with their display of handbags, girdles, shoes, t-shirts and caps. Chattering welled up. Tourist groups tried not to lose their members and gathered in front of the entrance to the Medici graves and chapels. On this junction Luca and Alessandro stood, washed around by starting traffic and rushing people. Old women swinging their black handbags, doing a detour to the early morning Mass. Later they would look for a cheap piece of meat at Florence' market hall.

"Do you feel the Spring within Winter?" Alessandro asked. Then he embraced Luca. His blue eyes were close to Luca's and Alessandro hoped Luca could see the love he felt. When over four years couldn't change what he felt for Luca, why shouldn't it be enough for more years to come?

Their lips met in a furtive kiss, becoming passionate and tongue consuming and both lay all of their hearts in there until Luca struggled for breath and with embarrassment.

"Let them stare", Alessandro whispered into Luca's ear. "Who cares about two queers?"

Luca's pearly laughter fluttered high into the sky.                                                    -- END --