Laurie’s work day started, as it had most mornings since he returned to Bridstow, with a strong cup of tea and a puppy. “Good morning, Miss Haliburton,” he called as he tried to step around the puppy to get to the teapot. "Yes, yes, my darling. I also missed you during the long hours we were apart."
The tiny bulldog rammed her head into his ankle. Unfortunately, mostly for her, she had chosen his bad leg. As solid as she would someday be, her current lack of mass made little impact on Laurie. His boot was rather more solid; she bounced back and shook her whole body to clear her head. She had not quite got her growl in yet, but she looked up at him sidelong with a squeaky rasp of betrayal.
Miss Haliburton bustled in from the treatment room, already half bent to reach for the pup. "Good morning, Laurie, dear. Now stop your squalling, little girl. One would think you were her mum."
"I've always been told I have a way with ladies," said Laurie dryly.
"Lord knows what she'll think when you're not here tomorrow at all. I expect she'll turn me in to the police for your murder."
Laurie ducked his head and applied himself to his tea to hide the smile he could not repress at the thought of tomorrow. It was the first time he and Ralph had managed to get the same day off since Laurie had gone to work at the hospital after finishing his last term at Oxford. That had been in January; now April had come and Laurie felt, perhaps unfairly, that he had seen more of Ralph whilst at Oxford than he had since they began living together.
But tonight Ralph would fall asleep in his arms and he would still be there when Laurie woke, a rare and precious wartime luxury. If anyone asked him to work yet another shift, he felt he could not reasonably be held accountable for his actions. Any man, normal or queer, would understand.
The present shift at least went quickly enough between trying to keep the puppy in her box and assisting Miss Haliburton in treating patients. He was taking a course to qualify to administer treatments himself; in his spare moments he was hunched over a text, often with Miss Haliburton at his shoulder murmuring advice and explanations. When he had come to pay his respects upon his return to Bridstow, his confession that he still had no idea what sort of career to pursue resulted in a job offer, a place in the course, and a relentless mentor before he had fully realized what was happening to him. He doubted he could ever express enough gratitude for her kindness.
"Oh dear, look lively, Mr. Odell." She tapped his shoulder until he looked up from an especially puzzling diagram. "We have our last customer of the day and he looks very important, so we mustn't dawdle."
Sandy Reid was coming into the department, pushing the wheelchair of a small boy who looked certain that he was being wheeled to his imminent execution. When he had maneuvered the chair safely through the doorway, he stopped and gave the boy's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Yes, this is Philip. I promised he could expect only the very finest service here, so please don't disappoint. Any complaints will certainly diminish the bonuses this year."
Laurie got up and went over to the pair. He made a show of surveying the boy. "Well, what's wrong with you, then, Philip?"
Philip looked up at him as though undecided between terror at what they were going to do to him and scorn that Laurie could not perceive the perfectly obvious swath of bandages around his right leg. Laurie waited for an answer, and at last the boy whispered, "It was a bomb. I was the only one hurt."
"I see. It was very brave of you to take the brunt of it to spare your family. But next time, don't try stopping the bomb with your leg. It never works out well. I can tell you from personal experience." Laurie thumped his own bad leg in the solidarity of the lame.
Philip looked reluctantly interested. "Did you have this treatment, too, doctor?" Above his head, Sandy grinned and mouthed doctor at him; since Laurie's employment at the hospital, he had been campaigning for Laurie to join him in the harried life of medical training.
"Something very like it. And you can call me Spud; everyone does." Laurie cast a pointed look up at Sandy. "I'm not a doctor, actually. Not like Dr. Reid, here."
"That could always change," Miss Haliburton said in a low voice as she brushed past Laurie to take command of Philip. Laurie understood at once that she had been compromised and his peril had heightened. He and Ralph had so little time alone together now; if Laurie started the medical course, he might as well be gone at sea.
"Laurie, a moment, if you would," Sandy said as Miss Haliburton wheeled Philip back to the treatment room.
Laurie stepped closer and dropped his voice. "Look, I don't know how you got to her—"
"No, not that, though there's no good thinking you're off the hook. At the moment, we have something rather more urgent to discuss, my dear." Sandy reached into his pocket and pulled out a small packet. "As promised. Tell Ralph I hope it's worth the devil's bargain he made."
It was a small amount of crumbled cheese, which had become scarce enough in the area that Laurie had not seen any for weeks. Alec, however, received a number of such rarities from grateful patients and Sandy had established himself as a fearsome broker for his friend’s largesse. The cheese had levied the promise that Laurie and Ralph would both attend a small dinner party Sandy was hosting.
Ralph, who had taken on the negotiations, had confessed the terms to Laurie in the exact tone Laurie remembered from the moment when his lieutenant had ordered their company to make for the beaches at Dunkirk. Some men might call it retreat; some men would certainly die in the attempt, quite possibly themselves. Yet the course was the only one open to them so take it they must.
Now, cheese in hand, Laurie smiled. “Yes, I expect he’ll think so.”
While Ralph still cast a withering eye on Alec’s choice of partner, Laurie had understood that Ralph’s disapproval not withstanding, Sandy was not going anywhere any time soon. Since Alec in turn was unlikely to leave Ralph’s life, and Laurie rather liked Alec himself, befriending Sandy had seemed the logical route to self-preservation. He had gone about it by alternating praise and firm correction until Sandy seemingly forgot his raging jealousy and considered Laurie his truest friend; only later did Laurie realize he had used the same technique as a boy when he had trained his dog.
Ralph remained puzzled by the feat in a way he would not have if Sandy had been a dog. Laurie enjoyed the benefits of keeping up with the gossip about their set without ever having to encounter most of them in person.
"So you see," Sandy was now concluding, "the poor dear really had no business even making a go of it."
Laurie offered a vague nod, more in acknowledgement than agreement. They had migrated to Philip's side in the treatment room; Miss Haliburton had protested that Dr. Reid need not wait with them, but Dr. Reid had insisted. From the dark circles under his eyes and the slight tremor in his fingers, Laurie suspected this was the closest thing to a rest Sandy had had in a long time.
“How long have you been on shift?” he asked quietly.
“Thirty-six hours, more or less.”
“Alec, too, I presume?"
"There's a war on, you know," said Sandy absently, and for a moment the exhaustion showed starkly drawn on his face. But he shook his head and smiled down at their young patient. "You're such a natural with children. You should study to be a pediatrician. Don't you think Mr. Spud ought to be a real doctor, Philip?"
Laurie had offered his hand for Philip to clutch when the treatment began; his small fingers had begun to loosen when the boy realized that the whole affair was less painful than he had no doubt feared. Now he was playing with Laurie's fingers, counting them and chasing them when Laurie pretended to pull away. He glanced up at Sandy with an uncomprehending look; all male adults in a hospital were doctors, even if the adults did not understand how it worked.
"All done," said Miss Haliburton from the controls. "Could you please check my work, Dr. Spud?"
Sandy bestowed an approving look on her. Laurie internalized his sigh and focused his attention on Philip, gently guiding him through the same series of simple movements he still had memorized from his own recovery. "Well, look at that, Philip. Seems like we've made some progress, yes?"
Philip looked dubious, which was fair since it was a very small amount of progress, but he leaned trustingly on Laurie as they shifted him back into his wheelchair. Then at last they saw the miracle of a real smile when Miss Haliburton decided Philip's bravery had earned him time with the puppy, which Sandy dutifully fetched.
Laurie sat with him and showed him all the places the little dog liked to be scratched until she was wriggling in ecstasy over the boy's lap. As Laurie put out a hand to keep her from tumbling onto the floor, some instinct called to him to look up towards the door.
Ralph stood there, watching them with a hint of a smile warming his face. Next to him stood a woman watching with a more tearful smile.
"Mum!" Philip called, sounding like a normal boy for the first time since Laurie had met him. "Look at the dog. She likes me."
His mother gathered herself and wiped her eyes as she came over to her son. "Of course she does."
Laurie stood up to let her take his seat. Philip allowed his mother to give the puppy a hesitant stroke. After a moment, Ralph sauntered over and crouched down to meet boy and dog. “Hello. What’s she called, then?”
“I don’t think she has a name yet,” Laurie answered for him. He caught the curve of Ralph’s smile, and knew it was as much for him as for the child.
“I’d call her Bessie,” Philip announced to his mother. “After Nan, because she looks like her.”
“Philip, darling, that’s—“ His mother stopped short, likely, Laurie suspected, because it was true.
Miss Haliburton came to stand beside Laurie and leaned close to his ear. "I suspect you may not see little Bess again after today."
Laurie smiled, allowing his gaze to linger on Ralph. "I don't think she'll miss me."
A light melancholy settled over him as he watched his friend chatting amiably with the child and his mother. Ralph might have had children of his own by now, had he been born differently. He might still have had them, had Laurie not sealed his fate. He could not regret taking Ralph for himself; still, Ralph would have made such a fine father.
Ralph displayed no melancholy of his own as he stood up and turned to Laurie. “Hello, Spud. Are you heading home soon? I thought you might want a lift.”
“Yes, thank you.” All his life, Laurie had found it a struggle not to let his feelings shine from his face like a beacon to his truest self. Only a more primal fear for self-preservation made his eyes skim past Ralph’s face as he turned to find his coat.
Sandy watched them with the fondness of the doting auntie he fancied himself to be. Then, with the flawless instinct of the social queer, he distracted Miss Haliburton with a question and a touch on her arm so that she did not see how gently Ralph touched the small of Laurie’s back as they left the room.
In the morning when Laurie awoke, a lazy warmth suffused his limbs, and a slow stretch only increased the feeling of basking like a cat in a sunbeam. He knew there was no sunbeam; despite his initial squirm, Ralph still lay motionless beside him, except for the sleep-steady rise and fall of his chest under Laurie's arm. That meant the blackout was still up, and if Laurie opened his eyes, it would be to darkness.
However, he saw no need to open his eyes just yet. Today was their day, that very rare day, when neither of them were expected anywhere and duties could be left to others. Today they could shut the war and the world outside. Today they could be completely alone with each other, and last night they had got things off to a marvelous start. Satisfaction still weighed heavy in Laurie's body and made his lips curl with memory.
When eventually he opened his eyes, he found that the room was brighter than it ought to have been. Daylight streamed in where the blackout, Laurie would have sworn, had been fixed the night before. When he wracked his brain, he remembered reminding Ralph to put it up. He also remembered Ralph mumbling, "Later," into the hollow of Laurie's throat. When Laurie had pretended to throw him off, Ralph had stretched across him to put out the light. "Problem solved," he'd growled and replaced sight with touch, thoroughly.
Whatever remorse Laurie might have felt for their negligence, he let it go at the sight of Ralph beside him, washed in sunlight. He could have posed for Lysippos, the way his lean form curved in graceful repose.
A possessive pride welled up in his chest. So many had wanted Lanyon; so many still did, but it was Laurie who had won him. In the end, the only rival with any power had been his own fear.
As had become his habit, he reached out and ran his fingers through Ralph’s soft, fair hair. They had spent enough nights apart that this gesture still had not lost its thrill. He supposed someday it might be a mundane thing to touch Ralph and be touched by him, but he rather hoped it would not.
Ralph stirred under Laurie’s hand, just enough that he could slip back into sleep as easily as into wakefulness. The choice hung on Laurie. With the delicious selfishness of love, he decided Ralph could sleep later.
He leaned over his lover and brushed his mouth over Ralph’s, taking small kisses until Ralph’s lips started to curve under his. When Laurie drew back, Ralph was looking up at him, wide awake and smiling.
“Well, that was as fine a good morning as I’ve had in the Navy.” He reached up with his left hand and brushed his thumb along the swell of Laurie’s bottom lip until he reached the corner of Laurie’s mouth.
Laurie gave it a playful nip. “I’m sure you’ve had better.”
“Hm. I suppose that dear lad in Singapore did have a – Spuddy!”
Laurie did not answer, his mouth already being engaged in making his point more eloquently than any words could do.
Afterward, it was Laurie who wanted to sleep. Ralph’s retaliation had been equally eloquent as it was non-verbose. Laurie retained only as much power as it took to drape himself over Ralph and bury his face in the crook of his shoulder.
“Spuddy.” Ralph’s fingers, five of them this time, stroked through Laurie’s hair. He often said Laurie’s name, warm and content; sometimes he wanted Laurie’s attention, sometimes only to remind himself of his great victory.
Laurie judged this to be one of the times that did not require a response. He took a deep breath and let the warmth settle around him. He rather liked being won, it had turned out.
Ralph’s hand slid down to grip the back of his neck, and Laurie felt the press of Ralph’s lips on the crown of his head. He smiled into Ralph’s skin. His bit of sleep seemed just out of reach; Ralph could be a selfish lover, too.
When Ralph’s fingers began to trail down his spine, Laurie’s smile widened. “Did you need something?”
“You’ve had me. Multiple times, in fact. You could let me rest.”
“No, I think not.” Ralph’s reply had the same brisk assurance as one imagined he used on deck. Then Laurie found himself upended as Ralph flipped him neatly over onto his back. “How’s your knee?”
“Fine.” It was fine most of the time these days. Today he would not have told Ralph it was not fine even had it been completely dislocated.
“Good.” Then Laurie’s legs, the good one and the bad, were over Ralph’s shoulders. Ralph kissed the knee in question as though in apology for the strain he was about to inflict on it.
Laurie would have to remember, much later, to reassure him that the knee as well as the rest of him was more than happy to be pressed into service once more.
The toast, thinly sliced despite the coarseness of the loaf, had just crisped. After weeks of plain porridge, they had scrounged enough ration coupons for proper omelettes, with the exception of the unexpectedly dear cheese.
Ralph slid a laden plate onto the table in front of Laurie and pressed his lips to the top of Laurie's head. "May it be worthy of what was endured for its sake. At least it was actually a small party I didn't know Sandy had that much restraint in him."
"More than you'll ever credit him with, I think. Here's the salt."
"Oh, now, Spud, that's foul play. How am I supposed to be bitchy about all the people we know if you insist on being reasonable about it?"
"You'll find a way. Your resourcefulness is one of the things I find most attractive about you." Laurie caught the blueberry that came flying at his head. He popped it into his mouth with an air of triumph, as if that had been his plan all along.
Ralph threw back his head and laughed, leaving Laurie free to admire the long line of his throat, the strength in his jaw. "Well played, Spud," he said and Laurie admired the bright blue of his eyes as Ralph smiled at him with pure happiness. Once, that happiness had terrified Laurie. Ralph's happiness was a heavy responsibility; Laurie would have it on no one's shoulders but his own.
He had the frying pan half rinsed when he realized that Ralph had abandoned his duty station and his dish towel. Before he could crane his neck to look for him, he felt Ralph's hands settle just above his shoulder blades. Laurie smiled and pressed back into the touch to say that it was welcome, always welcome.
Ralph's hands lifted until only the tips of his fingers, five on the right and two on the left, were touching Laurie. Slowly he traced the lines of Laurie's back, from his shoulder blades down to his sides, from the nape of his neck to the base of his spine. He felt admired and adored, a heady intoxication lifting him above the deeply rooted love they had never needed to put into words.
He abandoned the pan and reached behind him to capture Ralph's hands as they came down to bracket his waist. When Laurie had committed himself to his final choice, he had made a concentrated study of how to hold Ralph's wounded hand as easily and securely as the whole so that Ralph would never feel any variance in his love.
Laurie secured Ralph's hands over his stomach. He shivered when Ralph's fingers bunched in the fabric of his shirt and it dragged over his skin.
The phone rang and Laurie jumped. The sound jangled through him, disrupting the pleasant haze of love.
He felt Ralph sigh against the side of his neck. "You or me, do you think?"
"You. Miss Haliburton isn't likely to summon me in for an emergency." It was on the tip of his tongue to suggest that they could both pretend to not be in, but Ralph had already disengaged himself and was heading for the phone in the living room.
Laurie rescued his abandoned pan, listening to Ralph's side of the conversation with half an ear. "Yes. Yes, understood. It must be today. No, of course. Good-bye."
Ralph did not immediately come back in. Laurie's heart sank, but he busied himself finishing the washing up until Ralph finally returned—in uniform.
"They need you at the Station, don't they?" Laurie worked to keep the disappointment out of his voice as he dried his hands and hung up the dish towel. The war had not taken a day off just because they had. At least they had made the most of their morning.
"Only briefly. The Commander wants to see me, a quick word, but one can't ask him to reschedule. Don't look so terrified, Spud. I'm sure it's nothing. We've been careful."
A meeting with the Station Commander was never nothing; even Laurie with his too-brief, land-based military career could figure that out. However, the man was also hardly likely to concern himself with a single queer being ejected from the service. Laurie forced a smile. "Well, whatever he wants, tell him to spit it out fast so you can come home."
Ralph laughed and came to give Laurie a quick, bright kiss. "I shall tell him my boy friend insists and that he is a good deal more terrifying than the whole of the Admiralty."
"Yes, tell him exactly that." Laurie made an effort to look terribly fierce, which made Ralph laugh again as he went out.
Laurie pass the afternoon in his usual way during the rare times when he had no work and no company. A new text from his course provided a fair diversion from Ralph's absence. Idly in the back of his mind he considered Sandy's exhortations that he should apply as a proper medical student.
The doorbell rang. Laurie looked up with a start that subsided into mild irritation. No one they knew would think to look for either of them at home at this time of day; the few who did would know better than to show up and ring the bell.
He had just decided to pretend he was not at home when the bell rang again – and again with insistence. Irritation shifted into apprehension as the possibilities narrowed to emergency or police.
Suddenly he was grateful Ralph had been called out. Laurie glanced around their modest flat to be sure nothing gave cause for suspicion. His dressing gown and the rest of his clothing hung in the room that nominally belonged to him. The only thing of his in the room where he actually slept was the book he had been reading in the evenings.
Deciding both his person and the flat would pass as normal, Laurie swung himself to his feet. He reached for his stick, rarely needed now and never used at home, but he was willing to play on his war-wounded status as much as necessary.
The bell rang again just as he pulled the door open. His apprehensions recalibrated abruptly on finding Alec on the other side, Sandy behind him, both of them looking more exhausted and despondent than Laurie had ever seen them. Sandy's easy joviality of just yesterday seemed to have been beaten out of him.
"What on earth?" Laurie managed. A wild thought seized him: something had happened to Ralph. But no: Alec would have rung or come alone had the worst happened.
"I'm so very sorry to intrude on your day," said Alec before Laurie could figure out what else to say. "But we had no idea where else to go."
"You recall the raid two nights ago?" Sandy swayed forward as though aching to lean against Alec and let his friend take the burden of wakefulness for him. His chin had nearly come to rest on Alec's shoulder before he recalled himself and straightened. "One always hopes not to be there at the time, of course, but it was a shock to find the house gone all the same."
"Christ." Laurie shook himself out of his momentary shock and ushered them inside. "Of course. Of course, come in."
Alec steered Sandy over to the divan and hovered over him helplessly as Sandy slowly sank down and put his face in his hands. "I really am so sorry to intrude on you and Ralph—where is Ralph, actually?"
"Called into the Station for a meeting that couldn't wait. So you see, it's really no intrusion at all." Laurie realized that he also was hovering helplessly and moved toward the kitchen. "I'll make tea."
The tea revived Sandy enough to say thank you. "Everything's gone," he added after another moment of staring down into the cup. "Just...rubble, all of it."
"Your landlady?" asked Laurie carefully.
Alec gave a helpless shrug and Sandy struggled to choke back a sob. Laurie instantly felt like a heel and hurried to refresh their cups. "Never mind, you both must be done in. You can have my room. It's the one we don't use. Go wash up and I'll find you some pajamas."
As Alec took his turn washing, Sandy sat on the edge of the bed Laurie had never once slept in and quietly watched him dig through the chest of drawers. When Laurie came back with two sets of spare nightclothes, Sandy abruptly stood up and embraced him.
"You're being so kind to us," he said into Laurie's shoulder. Then as Laurie gently patted his back, Sandy gave a soft, humorless laugh. "It was a good job when I picked you up on the street that night."
Laurie smiled, relieved. If Sandy could make a joke, he would be all right. If Sandy was all right, Alec would be as well. "It worked out rather well for me as well."
Sandy pulled back, a slight frown between his pale eyebrows. "I do hope it won't cause you any trouble with Ralph. My being here, I mean."
"Of course not. You know perfectly well Ralph wouldn't hear of you going anywhere else."
"Alec, maybe. I don't take for granted that I'm included in that."
"You should," Laurie said firmly. "Alec would never go anywhere you weren't welcome."
Ralph certainly was aware of that, though his affection for Sandy might not extend much further than that. Sandy's thin lips quirked in acknowledgement of both facts.
Laurie set the clothes down at the foot of the bed and patted the stack in invitation. "Get some rest. Ralph should be home any minute, but we won't disturb you."
Sandy's face fell a little. Laurie fled the room before he could hear any more apologies for spoiling Laurie's rare time alone with Ralph. If their two guests slept through the evening, as Laurie suspected they would, he and Ralph could spend at least a few more quiet hours together.
He tried to get back to his book, but the dramatic interruption had left his mind unsettled. Briefly he wondered if he should ring the Station and let Ralph know what had happened. But Ralph was likely already on his way home, and the less awareness anyone else at the Station had of Laurie, the better.
The later the hour grew, the more he reconsidered that decision as impatience for Ralph's presence curdled into worry for Ralph's safety. The sirens had not gone, he reminded himself as he fixed the blackout. But even without enemy bombers above, the pitch black streets still held innumerable dangers.
He had just given in and picked up the receiver to dial when he heard the familiar key in the lock. Laurie replaced the receiver in the cradle, embarrassed at the strength of his relief; Sandy and Alec's tragedy had unnerved him more than he was willing to admit.
When Ralph stepped through the door, it was obvious at once that something had happened. His sharp blue eyes seemed unfocused, though not the way they were when Ralph was tight. To Laurie, who had finely tuned skills in reading Ralph's emotional tells, the slight jerkiness in his movements spoke to some great tumult barely contained. It struck Laurie that Ralph might have driven past Alec and Sandy's flat and drawn the worst conclusion.
He had just opened his mouth to reassure him when Ralph reached for him and kissed him fiercely. Laurie instinctively reached to pull him closer. He caught himself and tried to pull back enough to warn Ralph that they had company. But Ralph's good hand was tight around the back of Laurie's neck; as he had learned to do with grace, Laurie surrendered.
"My God. Just how long has he been gone?"
"Well, he never greeted me like that, I can tell you, not even when he'd been six months at sea."
Ralph froze. Without releasing Laurie, he slowly turned his head to stare at their onlookers. "Spud. Why are Alec and Sandy standing in our flat? In your old pajamas?"
The pure bewilderment in his countenance confirmed that his strange state was not on account of any premature grief for their friends. Laurie related the news quickly, but had to wait until all the necessary expressions of sympathy and reassurance had been given before he could find out what had kept Ralph so late and gotten him so riled.
"We'll be out of your hair as soon as we can find new digs, however humble," Alex promised, taking a sip of the drink Ralph handed him. He already looked better after a few hours' sleep, though the shock of the new refugee was still sunken into his face.
"I know a couple people I can call tomorrow." Sandy shifted next to Alec, glancing over at him repeatedly as though worried someone would accuse him of not taking good enough care of his friend.
"Nonsense. You'll stay here as long as you need." Ralph did not look at Laurie, but his hand brushed against Laurie's knee, a silent acknowledgement that they were both in accord.
"I hear it's got much harder to find anything decent," Laurie added, then fell silent. They all knew why housing had become so dear. It was the same reason both Ralph and Alec had stayed posted in Bridstow. Too many bombs had fallen; too much and too many had been lost.
Ralph cleared his throat, picked up his drink, and put it back down again. "Actually, I suppose I'm glad you're here, despite the circumstances. I had some news at the Station tonight."
Here it was, then. For all that he thought he could read from Ralph's face, his voice, his manner, Laurie could tell nothing about whether this news would be good or bad, or what form it would take.
Ralph shifted to face him. "I would rather have told you first, Spud, but there's no point being dramatic about it now. They've given me a ship. A corvette, set for convoy duty."
"Good God. How on earth did that happen?"
Laurie heard Alec's exclamation distantly through the roar in his ears. Ralph did not bother to answer; his gaze never strayed from Laurie's face. They all knew how it had happened: too many bombs, too much lost. When enough of one's officers got blown to hell or sent to the bottom of the ocean, one became less choosy regarding things like missing fingers.
Ralph must have been hoping for it all along.
Laurie loved Ralph with his whole heart, but his heart did not feel whole at this moment. Half of him rejoiced that the one he loved now had returned to him something precious once thought lost forever. The other half had, until this moment, rested complacent with the certainty that Ralph would never be called into action again. They could both serve out the rest of the war here, in the illusion of safety built by commonplace perils.
He stared back into Ralph's eyes and could find nothing to say, except Ralph's name, once, softly. As though it were the signal he had been awaiting, Ralph leaned forward and gathered Laurie against him. "I'll be fine, Spuddy, stop your worrying. It's just a little ship. Jerry will hardly take notice of her."
"You've never lied to me before. Please don't start now."
Ralph pressed a kiss to Laurie's jaw and leaned back. "Sorry."
"When do you go? Right away, I suppose."
"In the morning, first thing. That's why I was so long tonight. Had to get all the paperwork and such settled."
Laurie nodded and mustered a smile. "I hope they promoted you, at least."
"Lieutenant Commander." Ralph held out his cuff for Laurie's inspection with an air of bashful pride.
Laurie laid his hand over Ralph's wrist and traced the thin new braided ring. "I can't believe I didn't notice it at once. My love, I'm so proud of you."
When Laurie looked up again, Ralph finally dropped his gaze. He gripped Laurie's hand tightly. "I've already arranged for you to have my pay packet while I'm away."
"Ralph, you mustn't—"
"It's perfect normal, Spud, relax."
"I'm not your wife."
"God forbid. But you'll still need to pay my half of the expenses if you want to keep the flat."
"You're the one who need to worry less. I'll be fine. We planned for this."
"You can hardly rent out the spare room now. I don't think it'll be nearly as easy to find new digs as Alec thinks, and we can hardly charge them rent when they've lost everything."
For a minute, Laurie had completely forgotten about Alec and Sandy. Perhaps for more than a minute—when he looked to where they had been sitting, their empty glasses were the only sign they had ever been there. The door to the spare room was closed, giving Ralph and Laurie what privacy they could.
"Horrible as it sounds, I am glad they're here," Ralph went on. "I'll feel better knowing you're not here alone, at least for a while."
"For the last time, I'll be fine."
"You don't do well when you're on your own, Spuddy." Ralph lifted Laurie's hand and kissed the palm before drawing it up around his neck. "You get dour. I don't want to come home to find I'm living with the PM."
Laurie settled both his arms around Ralph's neck and leaned in until their noses brushed. "Just come home."
Ralph kissed him. "Take the pay packets," he said as though negotiating the price of his own survival.
Laurie sighed but nodded so that Ralph would kiss him again. In truth, though he could probably get by, money would get uncomfortably tight if Ralph's share was lost for too long. Their landlady had been grumbling about raising their rent, and Laurie could not contemplate moving their entire household, modest as it was, by himself, if another place could even be found.
"Let's just go to bed," he said after another moment of holding Ralph to him. "You need your sleep. I imagine you won't be getting much for a while."
Ralph made a sound Laurie assumed was agreement. But a short time later as they got into bed, Ralph's weight settled against Laurie's back in a way that signaled something other than sleep.
Surprise made him jerk in Ralph's arms. "Ralph," he protested in a pointed but laughing whisper. While he knew Ralph had had his share of encounters in the dark corners or queer parties, having just two other people in the same flat seemed more inhibiting.
"You didn't think I was going to ship out without a proper good-bye, did you? Spud, I thought you knew me better than that."
"Yes, but I'm the one who has to look them in the eye tomorrow when you're safe on your damn boat."
"They won't know a thing as long as we're very quiet." Ralph caressed him, and then his stronger hand clamped hard over Laurie's mouth. A shock of unexpected, bone-deep arousal reverberated through Laurie's body. "You can be quiet, Spuddy. I know you can."
He could. A heavy blanket of silence settled over them, broken only by the soft sounds of their bodies and, in the end, a single whimper into Ralph's palm answered by Ralph's choked off sob into Laurie's neck.
For a small ship, the corvette loomed large just off the shore. Laurie stared out at it, hands plunged into the pockets of his greatcoat. The thing looked seaworthy enough, though he supposed one could never tell from the outside.
Next to him, Ralph leaned imperceptibly so his shoulder pressed against Laurie's. Even through the thick layers of their coats, Ralph's touch calmed him as it always did. "Truly, Spud, please don't worry about me," Ralph murmured, low enough that even Alec and Sandy, standing a few feet away, could not hear him. "It'll distract me if I know you're fretting."
Laurie said calmly, "I shall worry from the moment you walk away from me until the moment you come home. And you can't stop me." Congruous with Laurie's oppositional nature, the tiny moment of defiance settled his nerves. The calm would not last long, but at least he could let Ralph leave without disgracing them both.
Ralph laughed and shook his head. "Sorry. My mistake. I'll just have to stay clear headed enough for both of us."
"That seems to be your lot in life," Laurie agreed. He eyed the lieutenant coming toward them; Ralph had identified him as his first mate. The man looked young, younger even than Laurie, but he had the same brisk, confident step as Ralph, and he stopped a respectful distance away to wait for Ralph to say his farewells.
"Well," Ralph said, louder, "this seems to be it."
On cue, Alec stepped over. Their embrace lingered longer than Laurie, though rarely prone to jealousy now, would have liked if he did not recognize it for the camouflage that would also allow him to cling to Ralph a bit longer than appropriate.
Sandy took his turn, also holding on longer than either he or Ralph would have liked. After a moment Laurie realized Ralph was whispering in Sandy's ear. When Sandy stepped back, he looked Ralph in the eye and nodded once, sharply.
Laurie forgot to wonder about it any further because then Ralph was turning back to him and pulling him into his arms. It was the first time he had ever embraced Ralph in full public view; he felt dizzy with terror and pride.
Ralph's arms gripped him tight enough to hurt, mouth pressed to his ear. "I've never had a ship in front of me before and not wanted to get on it."
"Your own ship," Laurie corrected, hands fisting too tight in the back of Ralph's coat. "It's everything you've ever wanted."
Ralph gave a single soft laugh into the side of Laurie's throat. "No. Not everything."
He removed himself neatly from Laurie's arms and stepped back out of reach. Laurie felt the ground wobble beneath him. It would take him longer than Ralph, he thought, to find his sea legs. "Well. Good-bye, then."
"Take care, Spud. God bless."
Then he was gone, walking over to his first mate and exchanging a few jovial words before they both turned and headed down the pier to the small boat that waited to take them out to the ship.
Alec's hand settled on his shoulder. "It's easier if you don't wait," he said gently.
Laurie gave in to the pressure and let Alec steer him away from the water. Sandy fell in on his other side and squeezed his elbow. "Let's go home, my dear. A cuppa will set you to rights."
He took a deep breath and nodded. Ralph was still there, behind him. He felt the pull of him, but he knew Alec was right. "Maybe something a little stronger."
Alec laughed and patted him. "Never mind us. You'll be just fine."