"Welcome back!" Ray strode forward with his usual energetic grace and embraced Solomon, brushing a kiss against each cheek before letting him go. Despite the heat, Solomon was sorry when the contact ended. "How was your trip?"
"Long, but useful," Solomon assured his employer. They were in public so business manners were called for. Later, in private, they would be more intimate. "I have the documents you requested, and we have a six month extension."
"Excellent. We've made some real progress while you were gone – the site is larger than we anticipated, and there are some intact pieces that will impress even you."
Ray took the case containing the papers and secured it in the desk in his tent. He motioned impatiently for Solomon to lose the suit jacket, dress shirt and tie in favor of a lightweight work shirt that had been laid out for him.
He was still fastening the shirt as he trailed Ray out of the tent in the direction of the dig. There were people everywhere, all intent on mysterious tasks. Solomon found it a little baffling – he much preferred the present over the ancient past.
"Solomon!" Florian scrambled up out of a shallow trench where he'd been kneeling in the dirt. He was streaked with dust and sweat, but his eyes were bright with excitement. "It's good to have you back. How was Cairo?"
"As hot as it is here, but not quite as dusty." He managed not to laugh when Florian moved to hug him, then stopped himself at the last minute, remembering how dirty he was. Solomon closed the gap himself, noting that Florian had lost weight but had gained a bit of muscle. When he stepped back, he couldn't help teasing a little. "Still playing in the dirt I see."
"Can't seem to resist. Want to see what we've found?" He led Ray and Solomon to a table where Laila was overseeing a group of workers as they carefully cleaned and recorded every item found. Florian's sketchbook was resting on the edge and Solomon picked it up and flipped through it, noting how much he'd missed while he'd been gone.
"Did you get the extension?" Florian asked in that careful tone that Solomon had learned to recognize. It was only used when Florian really wanted something and was convinced he wouldn't get it. He rarely used it around Ray - in fact he was more likely to use his fondly exasperated 'you're overindulging me' tone with him - but Solomon had heard this tone too often in the last three years.
"He did," Ray answered before Solomon could, but any irritation fled as Florian threw his arms around Solomon and hugged him tight.
"You're brilliant," Florian told him, and Solomon was suddenly glad for his tan - it nicely masked the blush that burned his face. Leave it to Florian to make Solomon feel like an awkward teenager.
"We're all brilliant," Laila reminded them tartly. "Now can we show you what we've found?" Meekly the three men nodded, watching attentively as she danced around the tables pointing out the most significant finds. When she was finished she waved imperiously at them. "You've seen the most interesting artifacts. You'd better take these two back to the villa and brief them on your meetings. There's no room here, and I won't stand for that kind of disruption in our work."
Ray tilted his head back and laughed heartily, Florian joining in, and then Solomon. They'd known each other far too long for pretense. At least Laila had learned more diplomatic ways of ordering them around; there had been some fairly embarrassing moments in the past that Solomon had no wish to relive.
"Come on, Sol, let Florian gather his sketchbooks. He'll meet us at the car. Florian hurried off while Laila turned to her workers and shouted for them to get back to work. They'd worked with her long enough not to let her brusque manner bother them.
"So." Solomon said as he and Ray walked back to the command tent where Ray kept a desk and a couple of cots - more for Florian's sake than his own. "Another winter in Algeria. This makes it four. Do you plan on ever returning to France?"
"I've been to France, remember? It was all we could do to convince Florian to stay here with you and Laila."
"I remember," Solomon said carefully, his voice level even as his mind relived those turbulent weeks. Florian had not been happy to be left behind; he'd been convinced that something terrible would happen to Ray even though the war was over, and they'd never see him again. The man had made himself ill with worry, and Solomon had spent some long, terrifying nights tending to him before collapsing from exhaustion.
Fortunately, that seemed to shock Florian out of his stupor, and they were both recovered before Ray returned. It had had the unexpected side effect of strengthening Solomon and Florian's relationship, a development that pleased Ray immensely. He'd always been the focal point of their unconventional threesome, forming the bridge between Solomon and Florian. But after that, the three-way bonds were all equally strong. Surprisingly, that seemed to strengthen them as individuals too, especially Florian, who reveled in his new-found self confidence.
"You can't hide him here forever, Ray. He misses Paris. I thought you were having the mansion repaired."
"I did. I even had them make a few changes that you'll both like. But the city isn't the same."
"It won't be, Ray. But we're not the same either. It will be alright. Enjoy this six month extension, then go home for a while. Earn that professor's salary they keep paying you."
"You really think they want me to terrorize their students? They only hired me for this expedition because I donated so much money to the university. They couldn't turn me down."
"Nor could they refuse to hire the people you wanted for this expedition, conveniently including most of your motley crew. And I'm including myself in that."
"I only work with people I trust. You know that, Sol." Ray's voice was fondly scolding. He opened the car door and held it for Solomon. Florian was hurrying towards them with his backpack of journals and other oddments he insisted on carrying. He had left his hat behind and his hair was almost white against his light honey gold skin. He scrambled into the car, bumping into Solomon on purpose and laughing.
"Have you been mixing wine and water again?" Ray teased as he settled in and started the car. They were a tight fit all in the front seat, but the back was overflowing with papers and books. Besides, it had been a while since they'd all been together and they all welcomed the contact, even in this heat.
The windows were open and it was almost impossible to converse while Ray drove at breakneck speed towards their villa away from home. The large residence was run much like Ray's homes in other countries - with a small but trusted and discreet staff. Ray insisted on privacy and was more than willing to pay to get it.
The car roared up the drive and Solomon could see that Florian had been talking to the gardeners again - there were new topiaries and a set of inviting benches along the front of the villa.
"Baths for all and then a light meal," Ray told them as they left the car in the drive and entered the comparative cool of the villa.
"I'll tell the housekeeper that we'll dine in your rooms tonight." Florian excused himself, taking off at a brisk walk towards the kitchen while Ray and Solomon went to the extended east wing where their suites of rooms were conveniently connected. They were at the farthest point away from the main rooms surrounded by a walled garden complete with pool. Florian called it their private oasis.
"Take your time and join us when you're ready. Florian takes forever in the bath, and the meal won't be here for an hour at least." Ray rested a hand on Solomon's shoulder then leaned in and kissed him hungrily. "We've missed you."
"I missed you too," Solomon reassured him once he'd returned the kiss with a few of his own. "Florian too. It was a lonely voyage."
"We'll make it up to you soon enough. Go take that bath." Ray waited until Solomon had retreated to his room before going to his own and taking a fast bath. He had never been one to linger in water, but he was learning to enjoy it more thanks to Florian. The man would live in bathwater if he could.
Clean and dry, Ray pulled on a loose robe - there was no point in getting more formally dressed when he'd be taking his clothes off again soon. He jotted some notes in his journal and took care of a few letters before Solomon joined him. The dinner arrived soon afterwards, and their plates were half empty before Florian arrived. He filled a plate and curled up against Solomon on the sofa.
Conversation was light as they ate and Solomon was surprised at how quickly the long weeks of travel faded in the presence of his lovers. He almost felt as if he'd never left. He set aside his empty plate and leaned back listening to Ray and Florian's excited tales of their discoveries. He had almost drifted off when a warm hand came to rest high on his left thigh.
"Don't fall asleep yet, Sol. Florian's been planning this for weeks."
Solomon straightened, turning his attention to Florian who had left the sofa and was returning with a small pile of brightly wrapped gifts.
"We didn't get to spend the holidays or New Year's with you, so Ray and I decided to postpone our celebration until we were together again."
"Um..." Solomon cast a glance at Ray and was not happy to get a grin in response. "You know I don't celebrate Christmas."
"And we're not asking you to," Florian said with a reassuring smile. "We're celebrating new beginnings. We're hardly the traditional type, Solomon. But there's nothing wrong with finding our own traditions, celebrating in our own way."
Florian set all of the boxes aside but one. He knelt before the two other men and opened the box, taking out a small replica of an evergreen tree with red silk ribbons and a gold bow on top.
"We haven't had an actual holiday tree in years, and this isn't one either. It's an evergreen - it grows strong, but never fades. The red ribbons are the ties that connect us. And there had to be something gold - for our good fortune. Give it any other meaning you want, but this is what it will always mean to me."
Florian reached over and set the tiny tree on an end table, blushing a little even under his light tan. He knew he was the most sentimental of the three. He tried not to overdo, but sometimes the feelings were too strong to contain. He'd been raised in a traditional household and it wasn't always easy to walk away from those traditions and the family he associated them with. This one had been particularly difficult to let go, until he'd found a new way of looking at it.
Solomon's response was simple. He reached down and pulled Florian into a tight embrace, holding him while Ray somehow managed to embrace both of them. They were an odd puzzle but they fit together nicely - hands, mouths and bodies.
There was tenderness laced with urgency and joy intertwined with love as they remembered and rediscovered themselves. It wasn't easy, it wasn't tidy and it certainly wasn't traditional. But it was the rarest, most beautiful thing they could imagine, And Florian's little tree stood witness to it, a fitting symbol for the three of them - red and gold and evergreen.