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When It Alteration Finds

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Laurie’s motivation at first had been nearly pure compassion, with an injection of galvanic protectiveness. He cared for Ralph, of course, but he had been in love with Andrew, and such love does not crumble in a day, not even when its object has put paid to any hope of union. He had written Andrew afterwards, feeling that he owed him at least a true accounting of what had happened, but never received a reply. He had not really expected to, but a small agonized portion of his soul had desperately hoped, even knowing it was a false hope. Ralph had ironically been the thing that kept him from despair, providing comfort and silent understanding even as Laurie felt that he must do his part to keep Ralph from the bleak pit he had nearly, deliberately thrown himself down.

The combination of responsibility and heartbreak proved a heavy one to carry, and Laurie almost felt that he was fleeing when he went up to start again at Oxford in Hilary term. He visited his mother very briefly at the end of term, then went back to spend the rest of the Easter vac in Bridstow. He had been almost dreading what he had expected to be the renewed burden, but found it much easier and pleasanter than he had been anticipating; when he went up again in Trinity term, he actually felt a bit lonely before getting back into the rhythm of college. He thought of Andrew less and other things more, and more calmly. Time, direction and distraction in the form of studies, and sufficient distance to allow him to process his feelings were helping to heal the complications of what he had believed would be a permanent wound, though he was not consciously aware of the process.

At the end of Trinity term, Laurie packed up his things and headed back to Bridstow for the summer. Ralph still had his work, and Laurie created work for himself in the form of tutoring a few young Oxford hopefuls who were preparing to sit entrance exams next year, to give himself something constructive to do aside from the exercises he was supposed to practice for his knee’s benefit. With useful, generally pleasant occupation filling some of his days, summer leisure filling others, and Ralph’s company, more cheerful than before, Laurie found himself to his surprise rather enjoying life.

It was a hot, hazy day in late August, the kind of day that in the country is filled with the droning of insects and the smell of hot grass but in the city is only gritty and oppressive. Ralph had been called in to work that morning, though he had been supposed to have the day off. They had been going to visit some museum or other to which Ralph had previously been but Laurie never had, and he did not want to bother going on his own. He did not, in fact, want to do anything in the heat except hang about the flat, trying, though not very hard, to read a volume of Kipling Ralph had left lying about, and feeling rather out of sorts. He did not expect Ralph back before dinner and was therefore startled when the door burst open around three o’clock and Ralph appeared, pausing in the doorway for a moment to find Laurie, sprawled ungracefully on the sofa, with his eyes, before entering fully and closing the door behind him. The hard, shining joy he exuded made Laurie drop the book onto the cushion next to him and hastily rise, saying, “What’s going on? Ralph?”

Ralph came over and kissed him fiercely. Laurie did not mind this at all, but was still mildly confused, until Ralph stepped back, set his hands on Laurie’s shoulders, and said quietly, “Spud, they’re giving me a ship. Only a small one, and it’s unlikely I’ll see direct combat with the duties they’re assigning her, though one never knows. But they’re giving me a ship.” Laurie stared at him, unable for a moment to process this. Finally he managed, “That’s incredible, Ralph. I know you’ve wanted it.”

“Wanted isn’t the word,” Ralph said. He suddenly laughed, and kissed Laurie again. He seemed to be fairly radiating light and heat from some inner source, and his exuberance was contagious. Laurie found himself asking questions about the new ship, her specifications, the duties Ralph would be expected to carry out with her, whatever came into his head to ask. To some of these questions Ralph gave delighted answers, to others he only replied, “Don’t know yet, Spuddy, haven’t had the chance to learn. I haven’t even laid eyes on her at this point, everything I know is word of mouth from the officer who gave me the news.” He was pacing around the room, unable to stay still, picking things up and putting them down. Laurie watched him from the sofa, thinking, so this is Ralph when he’s truly happy. He had never seen him like this. He was becoming aware, as if from a long distance away, that he had taken it for granted that Ralph would be stationed there in Bridstow for the duration of the war. It had not occurred to him that anything might come along to alter that state of affairs.

They went out for dinner to celebrate, stopping by Alec and Sandy’s place to share the news. Both were free with their congratulations, and Laurie spontaneously invited them to join him and Ralph at dinner. He and Sandy were too diverse in their personalities ever to be close, but they had built a sort of careful amity over the months, and Laurie now counted Alec an actual friend. He suspected that Ralph had intended it to be a private dinner, but felt that he could do with the others to take up some of Ralph’s attention. He was having a difficult time regulating his emotions just then, made more difficult by the fact that he did not understand them at all. After dinner the four of them went back to Alec and Sandy’s flat, where Alec mixed drinks and Ralph told over again all there was to tell. Anyone could see he was fairly itching to be at sea already.

“You must be very proud of him,” Sandy whispered as Ralph and Alec were exchanging slightly inebriated goodbyes at the door afterward.

“It’s all rather overwhelming,” Laurie answered, which was true enough, though he wasn’t entirely sure that it was pride which rose threatening to choke him as they left.

They had been up late the night before, expecting to sleep in, which had not happened owing to the eight o’clock call from the base. Ralph, though he drank less these days than he had used to, was tipsy enough and worn out enough by the events of the day to be feeling the loss of sleep, and elected to call it an early night. Laurie kissed him goodnight but held off on bed himself, explaining that he had been distracted away from his book earlier and wanted to read a little more first. Rather than return to Kipling’s India, however, he paced restlessly about the living room for some time, then wandered into the kitchen. Ralph had for some reason left his naval cap lying on the table. Without thinking about what he was doing, Laurie picked up the cap and turned it over in his hands. A strand of shining fair hair, stuck in the lining, caught the light. Laurie flinched and hastily put the cap back where he had found it. Staring down at it, he felt a chill settle over him despite the lingering heat of the night, and he knew what it was he was feeling, and why he had not allowed himself to recognize it earlier.

When Laurie had consciously thought about it in the past, he had told himself that in the unlikely event that Ralph was ever given a ship again, or a posting more to his liking, it would be a relief to him to no longer be depended on. He had even thought, sometimes, that perhaps if that should happen, they ought to make a clean break of things, that Ralph wouldn’t need him anymore and they could both go free. Yet now that Ralph would have a ship again, now that he had been given his dream and his future back, now that Laurie could theoretically begin looking out for an independent future himself, he knew with a cold certainty that what he felt was not relief or hope but fear. Fear that Ralph would realize, or decide, that he no longer needed to rely on Laurie for his happiness, or for anything else; fear that despite Ralph’s assurances, the second ship would have a similar fate to the first, and Ralph perhaps go down with her this time. Fear, and this was the crux of the matter, that something would take Ralph away from him. He did not want Ralph to be taken away from him.

He had not seen this coming, had not wanted to see it coming. Blindly he pulled out one of the dining chairs and sat in it heavily. In a moment of painful clarity he recognized the way he felt now to be similar to the way he had felt when he had learned he was to be transferred to the Bridstow hospital, away from Andrew. He had not thought he could feel that way again, although, he thought wildly, Ralph was responsible for both of the occasions. Ralph loved him, he knew. He had not known until this moment how terribly he loved Ralph. Perhaps he would have kept on not knowing for an indefinite period of time, had circumstances not intervened. Laurie rubbed his hands over his face and shuddered.

“Spud,” said Ralph from behind him. Laurie twitched convulsively and scrambled half way round, still seated, heart pounding. Ralph was leaning against the doorway, squinting against the light, clad only in pyjama pants. He looked half-asleep; his hair was mussed on one side. There was a kind of vulnerability about him in this state that struck especially hard at Laurie’s already badly eroded defenses. He simply sat there dumbly, staring at Ralph, who blinked owlishly at him and said, “Spuddy, aren’t you ever coming to bed?”

Laurie felt his mouth tremble. He rose from the chair abruptly, ignoring the pain it gave his knee, and crossed the floor to Ralph, who took in his expression, straightened up, and said in a much more awake voice, “What’s wrong?” Laurie made no reply, only put his arms around Ralph’s neck and held onto him tightly. He did not trust himself to speak just then.

Ralph’s arms came around him in return. “Spuddy. Laurie. What’s the matter?” He waited a moment, then added, “I didn’t like to say anything in front of Alec and Sandy, but don’t think I didn’t notice that you’ve hardly said a word all evening.”

Laurie buried his face in Ralph’s bare shoulder. He managed to force out, “Ralph. Don't take too many risks, all right? Out there, I mean.” He swallowed painfully. “I…I shouldn’t like to—to hear…” He could not finish the sentence. Dimly he wondered if this was what women had felt like through the ages when they sent their menfolk off to war.

Ralph’s hold on him tightened. Gently he said, “My dear, I told you, with what I’m being assigned to, there’s much less chance of actual danger than you think.”

“I know,” Laurie said miserably into Ralph’s neck. “I know that really.”

“Spud.”

“Just let me—” Laurie could not think what he needed to be let to do. He pulled back to look at Ralph, who gazed steadily and patiently back at him. His rather sharp features appeared softer than usual, wearing that expression. Laurie felt absurdly that it was unfair of him to look like that just now.

Suddenly he was conscious of the bone-deep weariness which follows a time of intense emotional strain. Feeling that perhaps it was best to stop fighting it, at least for the moment, he leaned forward and kissed Ralph with deep sincerity. “You’ll come back,” he said, meeting Ralph’s eyes unflinchingly, “you’ll come back to me, won’t you.”

“Of course I’ll come back,” Ralph replied briskly. “I always will. Alive and well, as a matter of fact. That’s a promise.” He rubbed his right hand up and down Laurie’s back for a moment, then added more quietly, “Come to bed now, Spuddy. We can talk about this more in the morning, if you like, but I’ve about had it for the night and you look ready to drop.”

Laurie wasn’t about to argue with this. He allowed himself to be led to the bedroom, where he changed into pyjamas in the dark, in a daze, before collapsing into bed. Ralph got in on the other side and Laurie immediately flung an arm over his waist. They could deal with everything in the morning, he thought hazily. For now, he needed sleep more than anything. The last thing he was aware of was Ralph lightly stroking his hair. It was the most reassuring sensation he could have conceived of.