AUTHOR'S NOTE: The html version of this story posted on the Fried-Potatoes site contains illustrations by Yasuko Aoike.
by Margaret Price
Dorian stood before the large mirror in his bedroom, staring at his reflection. While this was by no means an uncommon occurrence, lately he had found himself looking more closely at his…imperfections. The laugh-lines on his face had somehow turned into crow's feet. His peaches-and-cream skin had a wrinkle or two that he had to make a point of concealing with his hair.
His hair. His beautiful blond hair. Thank goodness the stray strands of grey got lost in the curls!
And on top of all that, it was his birthday. His fiftieth birthday! Christ, when did I get old?
Dorian was trying to decide if he should hide in his room all day or disappear from the estate entirely when there was a knock at his door followed by Bonham's voice. "M'lord…?"
The Earl drew a deep breath, straightened, and forced himself to sound cheerful as he called back. "Yes, what is it, Bonham?"
"A package 's arrived for you."
Dorian's heart sank. Birthday presents. Damn. What Bonham said next startled him out of his thoughts.
"It be from Germany, m'lord.
"Germany?" Dorian heard the disbelief in his own voice. He was halfway across the room before he realized he was moving, his heart racing just a bit. Surely it wasn't from— No, that's ridiculous. The Major was away on a long mission—somewhere. He'd learned that when he called to tease him on his—
Dorian stopped dead in his tracks as the thought completed itself in his head. When he called to tease him on his birthday.
Tease him on his birthday! Oh, hell.
There was no doubting the package was from the Major. Package? Dorian thought with a snort. Crate was more accurate. The last time a crate had appeared out of the blue from the Major, it contained a very expense set of china. For some reason, the mercurial German had taken offence at it and had his butler pack it off to England.
Now another surprise gift from Germany. The timing of its arrival meant only one thing. Payback for Dorian's annual teasing every fifteen of May that was always accompanied by roses, one rose for each year of the Major's age. The Major had always been touchy about his age. The fact that he was a few years older than the Earl was a button that Dorian liked to push from time to time.
As the top was pried from the box, Dorian found himself wondering what retaliation the Major had come up with for this, his fiftieth birthday. He did not like the look on the faces of his men as the top was pulled off the crate. They looked—shocked. No, appalled. No… Oh, hell, let me see.
Whatever the Earl expected to find within the wooden box was not what he found when he looked inside. Roses. There must've been hundreds of them. Withered. Wilted. Dead.
Dead flowers for my birthday.
Were his men not present, Dorian felt certain he would've dramatically collapsed to the floor in despair. In fact, they seemed to be expecting him to do just that as he took in the faces of his men, their eyes wide and filled with… Is that pity?
Dear Lord, they're pitying me! Me! Damn you, Major!
He waved a hand at his men before quickly turning his back on them and the offending "gift" from Germany. "Get that insult out of my sight!"
Dorian didn't need to watch to know his men were practically falling over themselves to get the offending box form the room.
"M'lord," Bonham ventured, "what d'you want done with it?"
Dorian turned to look at him. As insulting as the gift was, this was a valid question. He had saved everything he had ever gotten from the Major as a memento, although admittedly, the majority of the items had been gained without the Major's knowledge—or approval. Well, perhaps not everything. He had allowed James to sell the officer's gun that one time in Iran. After that, he'd saved it all. Not this time, however.
"Burn it. And send the ashes back to that…that…German!"
Dorian's men had kept their distance the remainder of the day. The Earl's black mood only worsened as further birthday gifts arrived from his large circle of friends and admirers. Eventually, his men stopped announcing the deliveries, choosing instead to hide the packages until after the Earl's mood improved, which they all prayed would be within a few days.
After a few days, they prayed the Earl would be back to his old self by week's end.
Or perhaps next week.
Or the week after that.
Then, just as the Earl's mood finally seemed to be improving, if only slightly, another package arrived from Germany. Everyone was at odds as to what to do with it. Bonham felt that the Earl should decide what to do with his own gift. Jones was all for burning it outright. James wanted to sell the contents, whatever that may be.
As it turned out, the decision was made for them as Dorian appeared to find out what all the fuss was about. His face fell when he saw the box in the center of the entryway floor that his men were trying, and failing, to shield it from him. It was considerably smaller than the crate that arrived on his birthday, but still large enough to contain something equally disheartening.
"Open it," he ordered.
"M'lord…" Bonham said quietly.
Dorian waved a hand. "Just get it over with, Bonham. Then you can burn it and pack the ashes off to Germany again."
Bonham exchanged a dubious look with the others and then pulled off the top the box.
Dorian took a step forward to look inside and caught his breath, a hand going to his mouth. Again, the box was filled with roses, only this time they were not dead. They were bright red, beautiful—and fake.
"There's a note this time, m'lord," Bonham said, holding out the paper and bringing the Dorian back to reality.
Dorian opened the paper and then scowled. It wasn't a note. It was a poem. A poem? From the Major? Had the man taken leave of his senses?
I realize the way your eyes deceive me.
With tender looks that I mistook for love.
I sent you back the flowers that you gave me.
And I send the kind that you remind me of.
Oh, how real those roses seem to be.
But they're only imitation.
Like your imitation love for me.
The baffled Earl handed the paper back to Bonham, who scowled down at it, equally bewildered. The paper then went from hand to hand until someone asked, "Isn't that from a song about paper roses?"
Now Dorian was certain the Major had taken leave of his senses. He went straight to the nearest telephone and called NATO headquarters, completely ignoring James' protest about the cost of the call.
The Earl waited long enough for the person who answered the phone to identify themselves before he started firing questions at him. It turned out to be Agent A who had the misfortune to answer the call. Dorian felt sure he would think that it was he who had taken leave of his senses.
"Lord Gloria—" A had to try several times, finally stopping the whirlwind of questions with a very stern, "Sir!"
Dorian blinked and gave the receiver in his hand a startled look. It wasn't often that Agent A was so forceful.
Agent A took advantage of the brief pause. "If you'll permit, Lord Gloria, I can transfer your call to the Major. You can ask him all your questions directly."
Dorian's eyebrows went up upon hearing this. "Oh? And you expect him to take my call?"
"Yes, sir." A's tone was amused. "He told us to expect your call. Hold a moment, please."
There was a click on the line and Dorian expected to hear a dial tone at any moment. Instead, he heard the Major's voice as he picked up the call.
"Mr. A informs me that you think I've gone mad," the Major said calmly. "I can only deduce that the second package arrived."
"With the lyrics from a Marie Osmond song enclosed!" Dorian shot back. "What do you expect me to think, Major?"
"I didn't think you would burn your birthday gift—"
"Don't remind me of that…that… Oh!"
There was a long pause and Dorian wondered if the Major had broken the connection. Then he heard an intake of breath and realized the officer was mulling things over while taking a drag from a cigarette.
Dorian took advantage of the silence and demanded, "What was the point of that, Major?"
The Major's reply was in a calm, measured tone. "You've been sending me roses on my birthday for…a very long time. One for each year of my age."
Dorian could feel himself getting angry again. "I am aware of that, Major! So for my fiftieth birthday, you send me several hundred dead roses!"
"Did you think they'd survive after all these years?"
The question seemed to hang in the air as Dorian got his head around it. The number of roses he had sent the Major over the years would have to number in the hundreds now. And the ones in the crate were all…
"Oh, my God! You sent them back? All of them?"
"My butler has been complaining about them taking up too much space in the wine cellar," came the Major's matter-of-fact reply.
Dorian was glad that he was sitting down because he felt sure he would've fallen over. He looked at the note that had accompanied the roses and realized that the Major had altered the words ever so slightly. I sent you back the flowers that you gave me. All these years, Dorian had been imagining the Major doing all sorts of horrible things to the roses he had been sending. Instead, the man had been saving them, no doubt in his usual meticulous way.
After a very long pause, it was the Major's turn to think the connection had been broken. "Lord Gloria?"
"I'm… I'm still here," came the shaky reply. "I'm just…speechless."
"Good. Now I know there's a way to shut you up."
This caused the Earl to laugh, his black mood starting to lift. "Major, I'm dying to know. Where the on Earth did you come up with that song?"
The Major gave a low groan that was just loud enough for the Earl to hear. "Some idiot sang it the year you sent those damned roses to my office. They didn't know I could hear them."
"They didn't end up in Alaska, I hope."
The Major chuckled, this time loud enough for the Earl to hear clearly. He did not answer the question, however, saying instead, "I knew you'd be calling as soon as you saw it."
"Really?" Dorian said playfully. "You do know what sending roses is supposed to mean, don't you, Major?"
"Dead roses or fake ones?"
Again, the Earl laughed, his black mood completely vanishing at the same time. "Shall I tell you all about it?" he asked lightly, settling back in his chair and twirling a curl around a finger.
"Let me see if I have enough cigarettes to last that long," the Major replied with a dramatic sigh.
Dorian giggled at this. "I love you, Major."