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Aurora Mundi

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Clive had chosen their destination and means of transport to the Continent very well indeed, he decided, handing Anne out of the car. The weather was warm and temperate, their travelling companions the same. There was no one they knew intimately enough to be a burden, but close enough in status and background to share common interests and conversation. It was all very comfortable and made even more so, to his amazement, by Anne.

She had grown up while he was gone to war – no, not grown up, grown out, grown into; unrecognisable and entirely familiar all at once. There was no more of the slightly breathless, sweet little mouse that he had always seen her as (and during the war, had been all he could keep in his mind; for one increasingly tattered photograph that blurred to dark eyes and shadowy hair and a small firm mouth had been all he had for so long to remind him of who he had left behind, and his memories of her had grown sharper and somehow more indistinct at the same time). She was friendly and honest towards him these days, blunt enough in her observations to be amusing without giving offence – there was no cruelty in her, still, and he appreciated that more than he could put words to – and far more well-read and knowledgeable than she had ever appeared to be in the past. She was almost a stranger to him in this new persona, but a stranger whose company he was beginning to crave.

She was polite and inoffensive, still, to everyone they met, her protective drab colouring of mild good humour still a habit; and he saw in their eyes the same surface reaction he had always had in the time he could not help but think of as before -- so kind, so pretty, so suitable, what a lovely couple, what a perfect match, and sometimes he could have laughed aloud for the sheer audacity of it, because how true, how false, how very wrong they were. Kind and pretty, yes, his wife was all that, but she was also the woman who mangled her phrase book with regular atrocity and still charmed her way into comprehension, who had once fumed her way out a new dress because their cabin was too small to enable her to take it off without help (and she was no longer used to needing help), who had not brought a maid because she no longer thought like that.

The girl who had averted her eyes from his body on their wedding night, lying like a gentle little sacrifice beneath the sheets, now let her eyes glance off his naked legs and back as he tried to undress as discreetly as he could, and did not even show by a flicker of eyelashes that she was in anyway discomfited by seeing him.

It was an ironic thought that while most people used the words 'the War has changed you' in a negative way, in Anne, he could only count the positive changes. She, in fact, was the one who had suggested this trip. Something where they could be together away from the pressures at home, the pressures of people always talking about the war, asking questions that he did not want to answer about things that he would not speak of.

"We could go to Greece," she had said, light and inconsequential, and he had wondered later if she had known, somehow, what she was suggesting, because she had not even looked surprised when he responded, kneejerk and harsh and instinctive, his voice unlike itself -- too like itself, too like that part of him he seemed to be forever trying to lose –

"No."

God! Of all things, all places, all times he could no more bear now than he ever could when he did not know what death even was --

"Italy, then," was all she had said, and had that been appraisal in her dark eyes? No matter. It had been acceptance, whatever lay behind it, and of the loving kind, at that.

Clive, who wondered if he could love at all without being told by a book or a social more that this was the emotion he felt, envied her that.

Strange, he thought, watching her in the evening light, to envy one's wife an innocence she does not even know she possesses.

But either way, whether the destination was chosen purposefully or in innocence, it was a good choice. Florence was lovely. They'd taken a dinner cruise along the Arno the previous day, lounging in the warm evening air over coffee and dessert. Today it had been historical sites. Gentle exercise and the amusing sight of Anne with her head bent over her guidebook and tattered dictionary, reading aloud and asking innumerable, language-mangled questions.

Schoolgirl French and phrasebook Italian and bad Latin all jumbled into what was to Clive an indecipherable mess, and yet everyone she confronted with it slowed their own speech, and smiled, and was charmed – and Anne understood them, as they understood her, more readily than they ever did Clive's careful perfection of tone and language.

Perhaps it was just that which made her so readily comprehensible – her lack of care, her headlong stumbling into speech that flashed with unexpected humour at herself and her mistakes, a kind of English-bred passion that was somehow more accessible than any assumption of knowledge.

She was trying again, God knew for what, the man to whom she was speaking laughing helplessly, all gesturing hands that coaxed out more attempts at explanation, and "Oh, but I don't know the word!" Anne cried at last, and dissolved into laughter herself as Clive stood bemused.

" No! No! Faccia attenzione! " a voice called out, but apparently whoever he was berating wasn't faciendo attenzione enough, and there was a loud crashing sound.

Sun-bleached hair atop darkly tanned skin caught Clive's eye, and suddenly sent his heart into his throat.

"Oh Lord," said Maurice's exasperated, half-laughing, familiar tones, and the upward gesture of a strong wrist, the hairs on its back glittering in the deepening remnants of sun, was as known to Clive as if it had been his own.

Amusement and dismissal and a confident unchanging acceptance of fate, all in one fine-tendoned movement that rendered words obsolete.

"Signore Hall!" Anne's laughing companion called out, and then a blaze of rapid-fire Italian, too swift for even Clive to follow, complete with gestures towards Anne and the inevitable la signora, la bella Inglesa; Maurice replying with the same quick words, a little irritable and bent upon his task, paying no attention at first and then looking up with blank unseeing eyes, passing over them both as they stood there with no recognition, so that Clive began to entertain hopes of slipping away unseen.

"Maurice?" Anne, insensate to his fervent wishes, was already moving forward, her smile bright and welcoming. "Is that really you?"

"Good God!" No mistaking Maurice's shock, however quickly recovered, the blankness passing from his eyes into something like fear. "Whatever are you –" and then, passing as quickly into convention, "How could I not have known? I should have guessed as soon as Fabrizio spoke of a beautiful Englishwoman."

Anne laughed, a comfortable, relaxed sound, nothing in her bearing shifting or even hinting at the idea that she was not entirely at home with the situation. "There must be something in the air here that makes all men exaggerate mercilessly."

"Nothing of the—"

"Hey! Maurice! Does this lot go here or down the hill?" Clive tore his eyes away from Maurice and his wife, looking back towards the person who had interrupted their…charming reunion.

Alec Scudder. Clive supposed he should be surprised, but he wasn't. Disappointed perhaps, but not surprised. After all, loyalty had always been one of Maurice's failings.

"Well if you try and get this crew to take it down the hill, I wish you bloody good luck and I'll be happily shot of the pack of you!" Maurice shouted back in the same tones, a response so ingrained that even awkwardness and custom could not remove it from him, and Scudder tipped back his head and shouted with laughter.

"Christ, what'd they break n –" he began, and cut off abruptly, the same blank shock that had wiped over Maurice's tanned features crossing his own. "Mr. Durham," he said, neutral and muted, and Maurice snapped his head towards him, a small, utterly betraying gesture that was more telling than if he had reached out with both arms and words of reassurance. He took in a breath, looking between Clive and Scudder as though it were something physically tearing at him, and Anne said on a gasp –

"Oh I'm so glad!" the words running together in her haste, and rendering them all speechless.

"Anne –" Clive managed through frozen lips, and her next words tumbled over his pathetic attempt at intervention like a child running down a hill.

"I always – so many didn't come back, and I did wonder, the vicar said you didn't go in the end so of course you were in France, and I always – I did like you, and I sometimes thought perhaps you would be on the lists, and –" She stopped, and blushed, the colour rising over her neck and cheeks and even what could be seen of her arms. "I'm sorry. You must think me terribly rude. I didn't –"

Alec pulled off his cap and gave Anne a still little nod, "I appreciate your worry, Missus. There were some rough spots but we made it fine in the end."

"I'm sure you're lightening that story up for me," Anne's voice was calmer now and very sincere. "I nursed so many lads that I didn't know…held their hands as they passed on…I… I'm just glad to know that you made it. Both of you." She turned back and smiled at Maurice.

"Well, so was I," Maurice said easily, though there was a pale little line around his lips, under the darkness of his tan. "And it seemed easier to –"

"To stay here, yes, of course," Anne said with the same quick ease, though for all Clive could tell, hers was utterly unfeigned. "And now you try and stop things breaking! Is it better than numbers, Mr. Hall?" The title was a swift, ridiculous little jest, flung out to counter her instinctive Maurice! of before, but a tension that Clive had only suspected existed went out from Maurice's tight stance, and Scudder's hands relaxed on his cap.

"Well, it is, but I'm afraid try really is the operative word," Maurice said dryly. "It's more a case of stand here and yell when I spectacularly fail, as it happens. Speaking of which, Alec, please don't let them try to take anything else down the hill without at least – Lord, I don't know, a wheelbarrow would do, just some kind of wheels, help, assistance –"

"On it." Alec grinned as he left them, sudden and feral and knowing, and Clive felt instinctively that the look was meant for him, that little prod of I know him, and I have him as you do not and never could and never will made clearer even than if Scudder had somehow found the words to say it aloud.

"And how have you both been keeping?" Maurice slid into small talk and pleasantries once Scudder had departed, for which Clive was excessively grateful. This he could do as easily with someone he barely knew, let alone someone he knew so very well.

"Fine, really," Clive spoke directly to Maurice for the first time. "Things seem to have run rather well, while I was gone, with Anne's help, of course."

"Don't be silly, darling. I just said yes or no in the appropriate places and Simcox did the rest."

"And so he was the one who told you when to hold hands?" Maurice asked in mock surprise, and Clive had forgotten that, how quickly the barbs could appear beneath Maurice's most innocuous-seeming comments. "Oh, the estate. Of course."

Clive glared at him, and Maurice smiled.

"I'm sure he would have, if I'd let him," was all Anne said, and this time she let the silence lie awkwardly between them, letting Maurice know he had overstepped his boundaries.

"Anne worked in the hospital in town as well." Clive said, feeling the need to fill the gap. "I still don't think it was her best choice of a way to show her support, but by the time I knew she'd already been there for over a month."

"They needed every pair of hands they could get…even ones as unskilled as mine." Anne said softly. "But that's past now. It's all over and Clive is home and I'm most willing to settle back into a less stressful life."

"Yes, it's all over now," Maurice agreed, but the first moment of fellow-feeling overcame Clive in that instant, and he looked at Maurice with a softer eye; for how could it ever be over, for any of them?

War or friendship or the things that should have remained in the past – no, it would never be over, none of it, any of it.

"The war to end all wars," he murmured involuntarily, and Maurice looked away, over to where the men still worked, squinting into the setting sun, before he turned back and smiled.

"Do you think so?" he asked, and Clive heard the other question, too. Is our war over, Durham?

"One can only pray it so," Clive said, with some feeling, but whether he meant the actual battle or one more personal, even he didn't know.

"Amen." Anne added quietly, then brightened. "You must join us for dinner tonight, Maurice. Do say yes."

"Well, under such charming persuasion, do I have a choice?" Maurice asked lightly, but his eyes were clear. "Of course. Yes. I should be delighted, though I don't think I –"

"Oh, you needn't dress," Anne said immediately. "Clive, do tell him. It seems so very wrong to be on an adventure and a holiday and keep to dinner-table decorum –"

"But if I'm to join you at dinner –" Maurice said, helpless in the face of Anne's happy determination, and Clive simply shook his head in only half-feigned despair.

"Oh, she'll arrange it, old boy, she'll arrange it," he said, casting his hands up in mock-emulation of the workers' gesticulations, and Maurice laughed outright.

"Then – yes," he repeated, and Anne beamed.

**

Hotels that catered for the English were not exactly where Maurice Hall now chose to spend his time. He had left the trappings of a respectable world behind him long ago, before ever there was thought of a war or choices of a more frightening kind than any of them had even dreamt of to be made. He was not even sure if he knew how to follow the rules of a formal dinner any longer – things would have changed, surely, in the years when there were few men out of uniform and fewer still even present?

And the last time he had dined with Clive –

Well. Best not to think of that. Better to try and remember the behaviour that would be expected of him, that had nothing to do with red wine and snatched meals and tables constructed out of a packing case and the way coffee always seemed to be available from nowhere. Nothing to do with the world he now inhabited, Anne as far from the two women on the site, who dressed in men's clothes and got as dusty as he, and had more knowledge than he would ever even begin to imagine the having of, and swore at him when he got things wrong in cut-glass accents, than he could ever begin to explain.

Maurice had found peace in every way imaginable, and it was not that he was reluctant to give it up. It was that he no longer knew how.

"This is ridiculous. I'll be as out of place as a monkey," he had told Alec before he left. "I'll just send my regrets and we'll go down and have dinner with Fabrizio and Helena, as we usually do."

But Alec had just smiled and put his tie around his neck, tying it with more skill than Maurice had ever had for the binding things. "You'll go."

"It's damned unfair that you don't have to, I must say," Maurice had said irritably, and Alec had grinned at him.

"Oh, and wouldn't that be a treat for Mr. Durham..."

"Alec..."

"Maurice..." Alec had imitated him, and stepped back, letting go of the tie. "It's dinner. We all know you can eat dinner. I've seen you eat dinner, plenty of –"

"Well, you did insist on watching through windows," Maurice had said in exasperation, and given up. "I'm going. And I'll be polite. I'm reserving the right to complain about it afterwards, though."

"As if I could keep you from it," Alec had chuckled. "Go on. You know you need to do this. You and Mr. Durham have a lot of good history together, as well as the bad. Best to think on that."

Best to think on that.

That's what he was currently doing, as he stood in the lobby, feeling uncomfortable in his too stiff suit. He and Clive had, honestly, had some very good times, studying together, lively discussions with friends on a vast array of topics. They had been young, of course, and oh so very naïve.

Don't let's spoil it.

Oh, Clive, he thought, with weary affection. How much you always denied yourself for the sake of an outdated idealism that no-one thought we possessed in any case. How foolish of us not to burn that particular candle out with the heat of youth, instead of ending it in a terrible muddle that left us both stranded.

Had Clive learned to accept happiness, yet? Anne seemed eager enough to give it to him, that at least had not changed – had she been able to help him move past the strange idea that love should transcend the physical, as well?

Even with all the memories crowding his mind of the unhappiness Clive had brought him, he could not wish it otherwise.

"Maurice?" He returned to awareness to see Clive approaching him, looking just as uncomfortable as he did, although for the opposite reasons he was sure. Clive was edging across the floor as if someone would call him out for the outlandish thought of not dining formally. "Hullo. Um, Anne's waiting for us, just down the hall."

Maurice tilted his head, looking an enquiry, and Clive ran his hand over his hair with a familiar look of bewildered half-disapproval.

"One of the little rooms, she asked them if we could have our dinner – anyway, she's put her feet up on the sofa, and she says she's not putting her shoes back on for love or money, or she'd come and meet you."

"I can't see anyone here being thrilled at her bare feet," Maurice agreed and Clive went red, a startling response that left Maurice caught between unforgivable laughter and real surprise. "Never mind, Durham. I'll try to control myself."

Anne was, indeed, lounging on the sofa in the small private dining room, her bare toes just peeking out from underneath the hem of her simple frock and her hair down and plaited back as though ready for bed.

"Come in and sit down." She waved Maurice towards the chair next to her. "This was a wonderful idea, really. I may have dinner like this on a regular basis. It's made me feel quite bohemian."

Maurice did laugh, then, thinking of Anne lounging on cushions and dressed in robes, holding court amid rich colours – with her feet still bare and her hair still plaited and still managing to look all of sixteen.

"Well, perhaps not Bohemian," she amended carefully, and smiled. "What would you call it, Maurice?"

"It may be a new style," Maurice said gravely, and earned himself an approving look.

"Don't encourage her, please," Clive's censure was, at least, not serious. He sat on the sofa near her hip and gave her small hand a squeeze. |

"Oh, pooh." Anne chuckled, then smiled at Maurice. "So what would you care to have for supper? I haven't ordered yet, but there is tea in the pot – and there's coffee, of course."

"My wife, the unwitting spokeswoman for temperance," Clive said with a faint smile. "Darling, I'm quite sure the poor man would prefer a real drink. God knows I would."

"Well, if you will leave me to order the room when I'm surrounded by disapproving old –"

"Anne!"

"They are," Maurice agreed. "But they still put away gin like nothing on this earth."

"I don't like gin." Anne made a face. "Isn't there something delicious and Italian and unsuitable?"

"I –" Maurice started, and caught Clive's eye in a moment of shared and utterly unsuitable amusement.

"I'll ask them to bring some wine," Clive said in rather stifled tones. "Maurice, the food --?"

"Oh, tell them to bring anything," Maurice said with a careless shrug, and Clive rolled his eyes to the ceiling.

"Yes, I'll do that," he said, shaking his head. "Do remind me again why I let anyone make decisions, won't you?"

"You do it because it gives that air of laissez-faire at no cost because you know we can never make up our minds?" Anne's cheek dimpled with amusement.

Maurice quickly covered his smile with a knuckle and a feigned cough.

"Yes, well….. um, food." Clive stepped to the door to speak to the waiter.

"I'm glad to see you," Anne said quietly, and Maurice ducked his head, embarrassed by her earnestness, and fumbled for his cigarette case.

"Do you mind –"

"No, of course not – Maurice, I can't help thinking we were all a little – it went wrong between us from the start, after that phonecall, didn't it? I was trying so hard to be all grownup, and I just came across – oh, how I must have sounded to you, as though I didn't know you mattered to Clive, just another duty call, but I was frightened, you see."

Maurice looked up at her through a cloud of smoke, and hoped his frown could be put down to the haze. "Of me?"

"Of Clive's friends, of everyone else who might matter," Anne said with a wave of her hand. "I suppose it wouldn't have mattered, but when the war came – I'd been so supportive of his politics and doing it all right, playing the perfect wife so hard, and I might as well have stuck with my dollhouse, because it all ended up mattering exactly as much when the time came."

"I don't –"

"I would have felt a great deal better," Anne said, low and hurried and sincere, "if I'd thought he was going out there with anyone else who cared for him and would put him first. I didn't know, you see." She smiled, a little sadly, and she no longer looked sixteen, but her age. "I didn't know that love doesn't have to be jealous, it's enough to know it exists."

Maurice frowned, "What exactly are you trying to say?"

"So very much," Anne leaned toward him slightly, lowering her voice. "I saw the way you looked at Alec today when we all met, all fierce and protective and—"

"I don't know what you're trying to say." Maurice repeated doggedly, and sat up straighter in his seat, almost praying for the interruption of Clive's return.

"I'm trying to say that you care about him, that's all," Anne continued soothingly. "I remember seeing you look at Clive that way once, he'd said something and someone laughed, and you looked over at them…and…well, I think he could have used that during the war, someone on his side, absolutely unconditional. We all could have used some of that, honestly. Clive, me, so many of the boys that passed through the hospital… Alec was lucky to have you watching out for him and, I suspect, you were lucky to have him watching out for you."

"Yes," Maurice said quietly. "I was. I am."

Absolutely unconditional. Yes. Anne, for all her blunt naivety, had placed it precisely. It was what had enabled him to start trusting in life again, after Alec's fierce promise at the boathouse. "So is Clive, you know."

Anne shook her head. "Yes. No. I wasn't there –"

"No, but you're here," Maurice said fumblingly. "That – that matters to him. And it would have – during –"

Anne's smile was sad. "Yes," she said, but it did not sound like agreement. "Yes, of course it did. And does. Thank you, Maurice."

"Well, I'm not sure exactly what we’re going to wind up eating, but it should match up with Anne's Bohemian mood," Clive said as he stepped back into the room. He paused and looked at the two of them, "Although, it appears the mood has changed a bit. Should I go back and order something else?"

"No, no, darling. I'm sure it will be wonderful." Anne turned, sitting up and moving her feet off of the sofa, and giving the spot a pat of invitation. "Maurice and I were just having a chat about friendship… and a bit of the war crept in, I'm afraid."

"It will insist on doing that," Clive said rather dryly. "Who should I be apologising to?"

"Yourself, of course, for making it obvious," Maurice said, and Clive grimaced a kind of agreement.

"Yes, yes, you wait until I start telling you about my speeches –"

"And then I'll have to claim a headache," Anne said, making a face. "And I really would rather eat dinner, so no."

It was rather a relief when the wine arrived. It gave Clive something to do, and Maurice an excuse to get up and help him, since the waiter had not opened it, and gave Anne an excuse to sit back and mock them, and turn the mood back to something more like it had been earlier.

The arrival of dinner relaxed Maurice even more. Clive, it seemed, thought that eating local cuisine was 'Bohemian', so it was up to Maurice to explain what each dish was and how it was eaten, to the accompaniment of Anne's laughter and Clive's rather wary expressions.

"You eat this way all the time?" Clive asked, sceptically.

"Well, our meals are not nearly this extravagant, nor the wine quite so good, but yes, basically. It keeps you going when you work with your hands."

"I'm working with my hands," Clive said rather plaintively, looking at his decimated plate of spaghetti somewhat ruefully. "And look at what I've achieved!"

"Have some bread," Maurice said pacifically, offering the basket. Anne, ensconced upon her sofa and neat and unruffled as a cat, stifled a laugh.

The rest of the meal was much the same, jesting and poking, with Anne overseeing them like a Queen with two amusing and unruly subjects. But as they finished dessert, Anne excused herself, leaving the two behind with their coffee and cigars.

Clive opened the folding doors and stepped out onto the small balcony that the room boasted. "This has been nice, Maurice, we'll have to do it again sometime."

"Perhaps so," Maurice kept his voice polite but noncommittal.

"We won't, will we?" Clive asked the night sky. Maurice thought of another moment after a dinner he had not gone to, and a leave-taking that had been so bitter a farewell, and of looking up to see Clive at the site, in the Italian sun. He laughed.

"We might. Who knows?"

"Maurice, I –"

"Dear Clive." Maurice smiled at him, and let all his affection show. "Dear old boy, it's not a sin to love or be happy, you know. Why keep punishing yourself for something you never did wrong?"

"But I did do wrong," Clive said, low and unhappy. "I should never have said –"

"That you loved me?"

"Quiet!"

"Oh, for – Clive, love isn't an insult, it's not a betrayal, when are going to – did you? Did you love me? I don't think you know how to lie, not about that, and I certainly wasn't, so what are you worrying about?"

"The unspeakable vice –"

"All these years, have you really thought they meant love by that?"

"Well, the physical side of…that's why we decided not to, wasn't it?" Clive suddenly looked very confused and older than he was.

"No, that was due to an ideal that only men as young as we were could have any thought to follow." Maurice laughed to himself quietly at that memory, leaning back against the balcony rail. "Having a warm bed and a companion you love to share it is far more rewarding, as I'm sure you have discovered."

"I never thought of it like that," Clive admitted, his brow furrowed. "I haven't dared think of it like that, I don't –"

"Then you're a fool, Durham," Maurice said bluntly. "An obstinate fool. If you share your life with someone, then you share your life, now, here. Everything else is a part of it. Including the physical side, damn you."

"Anne's such a reserved little thing, I --"

"That might have been true...once, Clive. But anyone who knows her even a little can see how much she's come out of herself." Maurice scoffed. "She does love you. Are you going to leave her in doubt the way you did me for all those years?"

"She doesn't doubt me," Clive said, but he sounded far less certain than his words.

"Perhaps she should," was all Maurice replied, but there was no sting to his words, no hidden bitterness. "No-one can live without proof."

"And you would know!" The moment the words left Clive's mouth, he looked as though he would gladly have died to take them back. "Oh God damn it, I never meant..."

"Well, it's true. From both sides of it," Maurice said, keeping his temper.

"I…. I've made mistakes. I know it now. I should have known it then." Clive shook his head. "Can you forgive me?"

"I already did, Clive, long ago." Maurice took a long puff from his cigar, letting the smoke slip slowly between his teeth.

"As easy as that?"

Maurice laughed. "But don't you know yet? The best things are the easiest."

**

Clive stayed out on the balcony long after the cigars were finished and Maurice had taken his leave – to go where? Back to Alec, he knew, but to what else? He could only imagine the bed Maurice had spoken of –

a warm bed and a companion you love to share it is far more rewarding --

and nothing else, not whether it was poverty or comfort that gave Maurice his inner contentment, not whether it was some small room in a poor boarding-house or an airy apartment looking over the roofs of Florence.

He only knew that finally, finally, what he asked for so long ago had been given to him, freely and unquestioningly and with enormous affection.

Quits, and I'll go.

Those words had been spoken to release Maurice, or so he had thought, but instead he had set himself adrift. But now? Now the thought of those same words was sending him… home. To Anne, who loved him and who, he was coming to realize he loved in return and had for a very long time.

Maurice, a golden shade of a freedom he had not known he needed, had given it to him unquestioningly, and with it the beginnings of a real desire he had always known he should feel, and never quite dared to accept before this moment.

And somehow, it seemed fitting that Maurice, who had always held far more love than Clive could ever accept, would be the one to direct him, teach him and show him the way. All with a wry smile and a look of such contentment that Clive finally realized what he had missed so long ago - Love is of the heart, mind and body – a balance that he was more than ready to attempt.

He took one last look at the night sky, the sparks of stars so familiar and so alien at once, piercing in their clarity, and went inside, walking slowly through the little room and out into the corridor, taking the stairs the better to contain his strange revelation; keeping himself separate even from the walls and grating of an elevator.

The lamp was still on in the bedroom, light spilling out from the half-open door as he went into the suite, and he moved towards it.

"Anne," he said, standing with his hand on the door and hardly knowing how to begin, and she looked up from her book with a smile that turned to wonderment, putting the little volume aside and holding out her arms.

Clive went to her.

**

The night air was calm and clear, gentle after the bright day's sunshine. Maurice loved nights like this, lying in Alec's arms and gazing out of the window next to their bed. The stars seemed brighter on nights like this than they seemed to at other times. They were nights for contentment and the soft murmurs of lovers' speech.

He had that to look forward to, he knew. Alec would wait for him, either settled at the table with some bit of work that he'd easily set aside or already in their bed, warm and welcoming.

Maurice, who in looking to the future had never known anything but dread in the days before Italy, now saw the expanse of days and weeks and years before him with a kind of quiet joy.

Now we shan't never be parted.

He had always been the one to make promises before, never the one to whom they were made – and kept.

Until Alec. Alec with his warm smiles and cold feet and a temper that could burn just as hot as his passion. And wasn't it true that the one only made the other even more the sweeter?

Seeing Clive had just brought their differences even more into focus for him. Clive was like… Don Pedro - too costly to wear every day. Whereas Alec was something better, if less acceptable to the society Maurice had once known, something more essential, more integral; for he was all that in Maurice's life had come to stand for earth and love and contentment, now that he was new-made into work-days, and wearing his cloth with according pride.

Whistling faintly between his teeth, his hands in his pockets, Maurice walked through the streets of Florence to his home – and was not alone.