Laurie had shielded himself from the worst excesses of Christmas at the vicarage by burying himself in the role of doting elder brother. Penny, sweeter at three than Laurie remembered himself, took his affection as her due, and Laurie contrived to ignore all spikes of guilt: she didn't know he busied himself with her stories and games in order to better avoid her father, and that was what mattered, after all. It had never done him the slightest harm to be cosseted, and he wasn't ashamed to admit how deeply he liked her reaching for him in place of their mother or Mr. Straike.
Even with Penny's unwitting shield-wall around him, he left the Vicarage on Boxing Day a battered soldier. His knee protested the walk to the station after three days of toting Penny around, and the fragmented sleep broken from station to station only exacerbated his headache. He dragged himself onto the bus feeling fit only for sleep, and off it hoping for hibernation. Briefly and absurdly he entertained a fantasy of Toad Hall around the corner, and found himself as entranced by the possibility as Penny had been.
Ralph and Alec's flat would have left the most placid child scowlingly dissatisfied: up two flights of narrow stairs to bare walls and uncarpeted floors with a few solid pieces of furniture grouped for neither beauty nor especial comfort. To Laurie, making a beeline for the sofa and plunging himself face first into its dubious embrace, it felt more like home than his mother's had in years, an impression strengthened by Alec palming him painkillers.
He still hadn't discovered the name, and for a time had refused the conspiracy of care that left him feeling a child till necessity had overcome pride. They were more potent than anything he could easily get, especially without the excuse of a recent injury, and allowed him presently to sit up and look around.
The room boasted a few splashes of colour absent during his last visit: an evergreen wreath pinned to the window Laurie knew Alec had had forced on him by Dr. Treviss, and a russet afghan in which Alec had swathed himself.
"Did your sister make that?" Laurie asked, startling himself with the hoarseness of his voice. He hadn't spoken above ten words all day, and five of those at the station.
Startling Alec as well, which had about the same effect as surprising Mrs Timmings' cat. Alec unfurled his woollen chrysalis, grinning, and said, "No, Letty snarls yarn just looking at it. Mrs. Fitzroy gave it us."
Us might have been Alec's usual obfuscation, but it was odd she'd know one of Ralph's favourite colours: Laurie's mother, typically a champion at wheedling such secrets from people, had never met much success; Laurie himself would have been hard-put, save for how a smile rested against his mouth when he found some scrap of material or binding the colour of Laurie's hair.
"I suppose he was a bear about it?"
"No," Alec said, and now he looked as puzzled as Laurie felt. "Listen, Laurie, I have some news. I should wait for Ralph, properly, but he's dallying and I'm going to be selfish."
Laurie gestured acceptance, still too tired to worry properly, and beginning to wonder what was keeping Ralph.
"I don't know if you know Colonna Kimball, charming type, one of the nurses, well, she's been staying in this great warren of a place with her friends and with one thing and another one of the flats is falling vacant in a week. Ralph can play taxi if you need, but we paced it to the newspaper offices and he thinks you'll be able to walk it most days."
Laurie gathered from the glowing look Alec cast upon him that he was expected to greet this muddle with approbation. Ralph had promised to find him a flat in the new year, and Laurie, accepting, had ignored the implicit offer of it as a place for them.
"Is it on the ground-floor?"
"I wouldn't mention it otherwise," Alec said, still smiling. "And there's no trouble about this place either, you know."
"I can manage on my own, you know, you needn't put yourself out."
"I never would,” Alec protested, laughing. “No, it's a bit of luck, my dear. We mentioned our dilemma over Christmas, and Letty's brother-in-law, Hal, he's an insurance man with Equitable Life, been shunted over here. He'll drive up next week, help the two of you move in opposite Colonna and himself into Ralph's room."
Laurie, who had spent Christmas fending off and avoiding inquiries into his plans from everyone but Penny, found his voice with some difficulty. "That's very kind of him."
"Nosey, more like. He could afford a better place than this, of course, but they've always fostered a sense of guilty responsibility where Ralph's concerned. You'll probably have him hanging around at all hours if you don't brush him off stiffly."
"I see," Laurie managed, painfully aware of exhaustion dragging him down.
"Do you?" Alec asked, wry. "I'm sure sleep will better your perception further."
The bed in Ralph's room was a monstrosity, large enough to sleep a family. Laurie had never spent a night in it without being beset by nightmares where he went sliding off into infinity. But the sheets were worn soft with washing, and the pillowcases smelt of gin and salt. Laurie eased himself down, propped his knee against a bolster, and fell promptly asleep.
He bestirred himself once to Ralph pressing the door shut, and drowsed through him undressing and climbing onto the bed, caging Laurie in.
"Hullo," Ralph whispered.
"Hullo," Laurie tried, but the last scrap of anxiety keeping him bobbing up into wakefulness vanished with the brush of Ralph's mouth against his brow, and sleep claimed him.
When he woke again Ralph was curled around him, bolster and all, the light leaking through the blinds slashing across his face and illumining one eye.
"Your forehead creases at the temple when you're pretending to be unworried," Laurie murmured, raising a languid finger to tap at the fold of skin. It wasn't among Ralph's habitual frown-lines, graven firmly in at thirty-three.
"How stupid of me to have a tell," Ralph said, turning his head to press his mouth against Laurie's wrist. "I've got you a present."
"Alec told me about the flat."
"Did he? Damned busybody. That's hardly going to be a present for either of us, living next to Kimball and her crew. No, Laurie, I... "
In the two months since Ralph had mustered out, Laurie had grown painfully familiar with the cadences of Alec's knocks. This sounded like the first, when he hadn't known Laurie'd taken an early train, only that Ralph had locked his door while alone in the flat. It helped the resemblance that Ralph reacted in the same way, groaning into Laurie's hand, and hauled himself upright.
"One of these days I'll leave the door open and shock him," he muttered, and added, louder, "Hang on, will you?"
"Just as long as you don't mind your gloves getting shredded," Alec called.
"Your gloves," Laurie asked as Ralph winced and scrambled out of bed.
"My gloves," Ralph agreed, unlocking the door. "You're a petty man, Alec."
"This after I handled her all day while you were out," Alec tutted. "Ungrateful. Hullo, Laurie."
Laurie, who had busied himself immediately with ensuring he wasn't noticeably mussed--none of the indifference learnt in school and perfected in the army ever did him any good against Alec's clinical gaze--said, still distracted, "Hullo, Alec," and then found his attention caught by the scratching of claws against wood. "Is that?"
"Your Christmas present," Ralph said, and stooped. He straightened with a yipping white bundle that revealed itself to be a Jack Russel puppy when deposited in Laurie's lap.
"Thank you," Laurie said, gazing uncertainly between them. He wasn't sure he felt particularly grateful: half his things were still with his mother, he hadn't as much as seen the flat he was expected to inhabit, Ralph had never had a pet in his life. But his mother would have been horrified if she'd known he was even thinking of being rude about such a well-meant gift, and it was one of the few parts of his life where her standards bore upholding.
"Energetic little thing, isn't she," Alec observed idly, making himself comfortable at the foot of the bed and wriggling his fingers at the puppy. At any moment he would yelp about being bitten.
“Hal did tell us," Ralph said, "her mother's a champion hunter, apparently."
"Your sister's people gave you a puppy for me?"
"To Ralph, really," Alec said, and Ralph shrugged. The puppy was investigating Alec's wrist, and Ralph was plainly poised to pick her up and out of the way.
"Very kind of them," Laurie managed. Sleeping had clearly been of no use at all in making things clearer.
"They were at school a few years ahead of me," Ralph offered. "I ran into Hal in '35, and haven't been able to shake him since."
"Alec said he was nosey."
"Alec would know," Ralph retorted. "Hal threw us together."
Alec, smiling in the way that signalled a story Laurie would have to pull from him in Ralph's absence, said, "That hardly explains the photos Mrs. Fitzroy showed me of Dickie toting you around."
Ralph had met all Laurie's family: even Penny, whom he had won over in the summer with one of his rambles, judiciously rationing out a scrap every bedtime. Laurie had been surprised at the time by how well he'd tailored it for a child's ears, and then ashamed. He ought to have remembered Mervyn. But Ralph as a child himself was an absurd thought, and any who had known him then and liked him still an acquaintance to be cultivated, especially if they afforded help with a dog for whom he would have insufficient fortitude and Ralph time.
But meanwhile, "Dickie and Hal," Laurie said, letting his voice rise in query. "Fitzroy?"
"A family joke," Ralph admitted. "I've never quite managed to ask how old a joke. Their father’s called John.”
"Lettie thinks it might be Henry I," Alec put in. "Dickie told her when they first got serious, and she dug into it a little. The dates don't disagree. She's a historian," he added to Laurie. "Shrewsbury College."
"You can get into it with Hal," Ralph said, and fished the puppy out of the bedclothes with a grip that betrayed scant experience with animals, and all of it with cats. "Name the poor scrap."
Laurie lunged to get a hand under her as she started flailing. Ralph relinquished his hold on her with a haste bespeaking relief, and she turned to look at Laurie as he drew her closer, head tilted and one ear flopping over. She was white-bodied, plump for her size, and only one of her eyes was covered in the characteristic patch.
"Alix," Laurie said, grinning at Ralph's look of confusion. "I'm sure she'll be a credit to both her houses."
Alix yipped agreement, and licked Laurie’s wrist.