The rain was pissing down and Simon wished for the hundredth time that he’d taken the bigger and better coat when he stormed out the door. But when you’re running away from home, properly running, your brain doesn’t stop and think about stuff like the fact it’s November and it’s freeze-your-bollocks-off weather.
He stamped his feet and rubbed his hands together, blowing on them to warm them up. The doorway he was hiding in gave him a bit of shelter but not much.
He’d almost managed to scrounge up enough money for another night in the hostel, but he’d used up most of his savings getting as far as London and the rest had trickled away far too quick. It was the city. It wasn’t like… not like where he’d come from.
It was useless going out in the rain. No one gave anyone a second look in the rain, especially not some stupid kid who didn’t try and do some basic maths and packing before leaving home.
Only good thing was the rainbow flag he could see on the pub across the way. He went in there when he could, when it was open. They knew he was too young and they’d never give him any booze, but the way some of them looked at him said they knew his story and they’d let him sit in there for a while, as long as he didn’t cause trouble.
Movement down the street caught his eye and he recognised uniforms.
It wasn’t like he was really trouble, but there was that one time he got caught trying to nick a sandwich from corner shop. Always felt a bit safer to avoid them, so he hunched up his shoulders and hurried back out into the rain. Didn’t even have a hood, just a woolly hat, and the water dripped down the back of his neck. Not just rain either. Sleet now.
He was shivering, the cold right down to his bones, when he saw a shop open up ahead. The lights were on and it looked bright and clean and – best of all – warm. Five minutes inside. That’s all he needed. Just a little break from the cold and the wet.
He stumbled in through the door and jumped when a bell rang over his head. Old-fashioned, that. Hadn’t seen something like that in a shop for ages. And then he noticed the rest of the shop was pretty much the same. It was like stepping back in time, all fancy pillars and lamps and books as far as he could see.
And a pale-haired middle-aged man in an old-fashioned suit and bowtie staring at him in surprise.
“Can I help you, young man?”
Simon stared back at him. Shit. Most shops, there was no one really paying that much attention. “Um. Just looking,” he lied, then glanced around desperately. “Book. I’m looking for a book. I’m–”
The man moved a little closer. “Oh my dear boy, you’re soaked,” he said gently. He hurried to Simon’s side and took his arm so gently, so kindly, that Simon almost burst into tears there and then. “Come in. I’ll put the kettle on. You look like you could use a warm drink.”
There was no almost this time.
That was how he ended up sitting on a sofa in the backroom of a bookshop in Soho, wrapped in a thick tartan blanket, a cup of tea clasped between his hands. His host was bustling about through a doorway. He’d hung Simon’s coat up to dry and when he came back through, he was carrying a plate stacked with sandwiches.
“Here you go,” he said warmly, setting the plate down in front of Simon. “That should help.”
Simon only remembered to mumble a thank you halfway through the second sandwich, his stomach aching in gratitude. His host waved his words away with a small smile and sat down in an armchair beside the desk. He picked up his own cup of tea and sipped it, watching Simon curiously.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” he said, when Simon was licking the butter from his fingers. “You seem awfully young to be running around the streets on your own.”
Simon put his plate down and settled for staring into his cup. “So?”
“Only an observation, my dear boy,” the man said gently. “Do you have somewhere to stay?”
It was humiliating to admit it. He couldn’t shake his head. And he’d heard enough stories of the men who seemed kind enough right until you had to … do a little favour. Not like you were paying them for their help, eh? What’s a little bit of pleasure between friends, eh? And once you ended up going down that road, he could guess where it would end.
“I’m fine,” he lied.
The man was watching him and when he looked up, defiantly daring the man to challenge him, he found himself caught in the light of those shimmering blue eyes. He was safe here, he knew at once, without any question of a doubt. This place, this man, he was safe. The cup shook in his hand and the sob that had been sitting in his chest for the last three weeks clawed its way up and out of his throat.
No one could move that fast, but the man did and he was on his knees in front of the couch. The cup was gone and Simon folded into his embrace, sobbing and sobbing until he couldn’t breathe and his lungs burned and he couldn’t stop.
The man rocked him soothingly, stroking his back with broad, warm hands. “It’s all right, my dear,” he said, every word firm with conviction and kindness. “You’re all right. You’re safe and you’re loved and you’re fine.”
Wrong, Simon wanted to cry out, wrong about all of it, wrong about everything, but he couldn’t get the words to fit, couldn’t even cry anymore, his eyes burning and aching and run dry.
“I know you don’t believe me,” the man murmured. “I know. I know it’s hard now. I know it’s terrible and you’re hurting so very much, but it’ll be all right, it will.” He curled his hand over the back of Simon’s neck, warm and heavy and holding him – another sob tore through Simon – like a father would hold their child. “I know,” the man said so very softly. “I know. It hurts. They should love you and they hurt you so badly.”
Simon clung to him, nodding helplessly.
“They’re not the end of the world,” the man murmured, his voice warm and reassuring and kind. “There are plenty who will see the wonder you are. Plenty who will see who you are.” He drew back enough to look Simon in the eyes and when he smiled, it was like all the fear was pushed away. Not gone, but just… not important. The man brushed the tears from his cheek. “You must be so tired, my dear boy. You’ve come such a long way, haven’t you?”
He was right.
Simon was so bloody tired.
It didn’t take much for the man to guide him to lie down on the couch. Should’ve been terrified. Should’ve been running. But the man was right and he was tired and cold and the man covered him over with the tartan blanket, tucking him in as if he was a tiny kid.
“Rest, my sweet boy,” the man said softly. “Rest peacefully. Tomorrow will be a better day.”
He must’ve fallen asleep. Must’ve. At least it was dark outside when he closed his eyes, but when he opened them, it was light enough to see the face of the grandfather clock on the other side of the room. He was warm. He was dry. And he’d been sleeping on a strange man’s couch in a bookshop for almost twelve hours.
He sat up uneasily, wondering if there had been something in the tea, something to put him under. He checked his clothes, but everything was exactly as he’d left it. Nothing… fiddled with while he was sleeping. Nothing taken. Nothing touched.
Simon pushed the blanket back cautiously. His shoes were off. Hadn’t done that. But his feet were dry and the holes in his socks were miraculously gone. He shuffled into his shoes and got up, edging through to the front of the shop.
The man was there, sitting in an armchair in the main part of the shop, under the wide glass dome.
“Oh, good morning,” he said with that bright warm smile that seemed to fill up a little bit of the aching hole in Simon’s middle. “I didn’t want to disturb you.” He put a bookmark into his book and closed it, then cocked his head. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yeah.” Simon tried to return his smile. “Thank you.” He fidgeted. “I– I didn’t mean to get in the way.”
The man put his book aside at once and got up. “Oh, you didn’t,” he said and the warmth in his face told Simon’s it was true. “I like to offer a hand where I can to those who need it and last night, I think you needed it more than most.”
It was stupid that just that was enough to make Simon’s eyes sting again and he rubbed at them with the hells of his hands, making a small, annoyed sound.
“It’s all right,” his host said. “Truly, it is. You’re allowed to have a wobble. You’re allowed to let the tears fall.” Broad hands squeezed his shoulders. “It’s a very human thing to do, you know.”
Simon looked up at him, sniffing hard. “Feels stupid, though.”
“Only because you’ve always been told it is so,” the man said. He held Simon at arm’s length. “But now, I think you need breakfast, don’t you? You’re all skin and bones, you poor thing.”
“You don’t need to–”
“And when we’re finished,” the man continued happily, “I have some friends who might be able to put you up for a little while until you find your feet.”
Ah. There it was. Too good to be true.
“No,” he said tightly. “Thank you.”
And for a terrifying moment, those brilliant eyes looked at him, as if they could read his very thoughts, then the man chuckled. “Oh, I see. You’re concerned I might have… nefarious plans for you?” He shook his head. “My friends will be joining us for breakfast at the café across the road. You can decide whether to accept their invitation once you meet them.”
Simon eyed him warily. “I can say no?”
“Of course!” The man disappeared into the back of the shop, re-emerging a minute later with Simon’s coat. He held it out. “They were kind enough to get up early this morning, which – on a Saturday – is a miracle in and of itself.”
He had to admit he was curious enough that he pulled on his coat and followed the man – he still didn’t even know his name! – across the road to a café that was almost as old-fashioned as the man’s shop. But he saw a colourful flag pinned up behind the counter and a knot around his chest unravelled a bit.
“Ah! There they are!” His host wove through the tables and Simon stopped short when he saw the two people waiting for them.
They were beautiful. And for eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, they looked like they were both lined up for a show in the West End. One of them had a wig of chestnut curls down to her waist and the other one had gone for a blonde bob, but their make-up was sharp and their clothes were…
“Mitzy, Cassandra,” his host said warmly, “this is…” He laughed and turned. “My dear, you never gave me your name of preference.”
Simon stared at him, then at the two beautiful drag queens. And for the first time in his life, he smiled and gave the name he had picked from a song years ago.
“Lola,” she said. “I’m Lola.”