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the perfect reply, in the same language

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His morning dose of A.P.C. was already beginning to wear off, and it would be a few more hours before the Sister would allow him another one. Laurie was left with no choice but to grit his teeth and ride the unrelenting wave of pain to its crest, as he had grown rather accustomed to lately, and as he presumed would be his lot for the foreseeable future.

Earlier he had received the dreary news that so far there seemed to be no marked improvement in his osteomyelitis despite the multiple attempts at debridement, and there was some grave concern that the infection might soon spread to his bloodstream. Major Ferguson was still insistent that they could save his leg yet, and had been tinkering aggressively with his regimen of sulfa antibiotics over the past week. Laurie was beginning to wish they'd save the trouble and just cut it off. It was horrible to feel a prisoner in one's own body, and he wasn't sure how much longer of it he could bear.

Reg was snoring loudly beside him, having just returned from his operation and still feeling the effects of the sedative, so there could be no distraction there. Laurie turned onto his side, a dull sense of weariness and isolation pressing down on him. It was too early in the day for tears; at any rate, he was too exhausted to give release to his emotions that way.

Just then a nurse appeared at his bedside with a letter for him, her voice carrying a faint note of apology. The envelope had arrived last week, but there had apparently been some mix-up with another patient who had died recently and bore the same initials ("Only it was O'Dell with an apostrophe, you see"). Fortunately an astute Sister had caught the mistake before the letter could be sent back.

After she had left, Laurie turned over the envelope in his hands and frowned. It was addressed, obscurely, to Cpl. L.P. Odell. 

Laurie was mystified. He had only been addressed as L.P. Odell at school, and he couldn't think of any former classmates who would send him letters now, or who would be aware of his army rank. Even his close friends at the time, like Carter, rarely ever wrote to him despite the nebulous promises to keep in touch after finishing school. Something about the lettering stirred a dim inkling of recognition; there was some great, archaic significance associated with it that he couldn't quite place.

He felt too tired to deal with it now, setting the envelope aside to burrow back underneath the covers and shut his eyes. The dull, throbbing pain in his leg and the noise around the ward prevented him from sleeping, however, and so finally, mostly to have something to occupy himself, he picked up the letter and opened it.

Dear Spud...

Laurie, with a dawning sense of clarity, suddenly sat upright. Even after seven years, he could recognize Lanyon's distinctive handwriting—the same meticulously neat, sloped letters he had seen last printed on House notices, instantly commanding one's attention. He felt himself slowly waking up from his torpor, as if someone had just doused him in the cold waters surrounding Dunkirk. The ache in his leg receded to the background of his thoughts; for the first time in days, he was not quite as acutely aware of it.

He proceeded to read the next few paragraphs with growing incredulity, his heart pounding—could that bearded captain who rescued him have really been Lanyon? His face warmed in violent mortification at the memory—Reg later had told him, and anyone who would listen, all about the humiliating little incident, finding it a great laugh. At the time, Laurie had only felt a mild embarrassment and relief that the carelessly brazen joke did not seem to have reflected on him. It had not occurred to him to have any sense of alarm for how it might have affected the other party. God, what if Lanyon had thought he was....

And yet, Lanyon had still bothered to write to him after all that. Well, he supposed he shouldn't wonder. Lanyon had always made one feel as if he were sincerely invested in one's endeavors, no matter how insignificant and undeserving the recipient. Back at school, he had never even missed a single one of Laurie's swim meets. Laurie vividly recalled the wondrous sight of Lanyon seated in the crowd, clad handsomely in cricket whites, his striking blue eyes scanning coolly across the baths and all the swimmers. Laurie would always feel himself burning with a warm glow of pride from this. He had rather liked to imagine, absurdly, that those brilliant eyes lingered on him a moment longer than the others.

The majority of Lanyon's letter, however, was uncharacteristically shy and tentative, even at times verging on sentimental, which Lanyon—with what seemed an awkward attempt at facetiousness—blamed on the dope they were giving him at his hospital. It turned out that Lanyon after all had not forgotten about their final conversation in his study. He made pointed and oblique allusions to phrases Laurie had not even remembered he himself had said, despite having safeguarded the memory jealously in his heart like a treasure and forever reliving it in private moments. And there was one line, towards the end, which Laurie read with a suddenly quickening heartbeat.

I have always thought fondly of our last goodbye, and should you have forgiven me that unjustifiable interference, I would very much like to pick up the threads again.

Yours ever,

Ralph

Scrawled underneath was an address to a hospital in Bridstow.

"What's got you smiling, Spud?" Reg interjected sleepily, jolting Laurie out of his abstracted reverie. "Never seen you lit up so much. Letter from a girl?"

"An old friend," Laurie replied, hoping this was safe enough, and hastily tucked the letter underneath one of his books to stave off further inquiry. He considered telling Reg the truth about their rescuer at Dunkirk, thinking it might amuse him, but then remembered, at the last moment, how it could easily be perceived. And there was, too, the strange feeling that he was not ready to share Lanyon with anyone.

Later that day Laurie found himself staring pensively at a blank sheet of paper with a pen in hand, Lanyon's last words reverberating in his mind. (More than once he had to remind himself, sternly, not to read into the choice of valediction.) Should he write back? His thoughts drifted reflexively to old dreams of this very moment, filled with deep and unbearable yearning, in those months after Lanyon had first shown him the truth about himself. After his brief and utterly disastrous experience with Charles, Laurie had dismissed any further possibility of serious engagement with somebody of that fringe of society. But—it would have been different with Lanyon. Lanyon would have known, without the necessity of words, the things one wanted.

And then there was the matter of his leg. God, what good could come from Lanyon seeing him like this, he thought bitterly, a useless, debilitated invalid, still unable to walk and ridden with microbes? Perhaps Lanyon had only written to him out of kindness and a sense of obligation, and hadn't really expected him to write back. But as he reread Lanyon's letter, for the fourth or fifth time that day, in the back of his mind began to stir the faint glimmerings of hope—as well as a much simpler emotion. 

As though for guidance, he instinctively reached for the battered, blood-soaked copy of the Phaedrus that he still kept close by, his main source of solace in the lonely nights. Through all these years it seemed he had longed only for this; now presented with the choice, in not only the abstract, he found his courage faltering. Seven years was, after all, a long time—enough time for a person's character to change entirely.

Yet Laurie could clearly remember Lanyon saying goodbye to him, and the firm pressure of his body, as if it had only been yesterday. The way Laurie had unthinkingly drawn closer to him with an overpowering compulsion—the gentle caress of Lanyon's hand stroking his cheek—the brief and achingly sweet touch of Lanyon's mouth on his own.

"Come here a moment..."

Laurie took a deep breath, and began to write.



In the early morning shortly after arriving to the hospital, Alec went about his usual habit of checking up on Ralph before the teaching round. Strictly speaking, Ralph was not actually one of the surgical cases he was supposed to be following, but Alec had indicated enough interest in one of the technical aspects of Ralph's post-operative management that his presence around Ralph's bedside would not occur to anyone as remotely odd. So he reassured himself, anyway.

These past few weeks, in the aftermath of losing his ship, half of his hand, and his naval command in one fell swoop, Ralph had not been up much to talking, and often would turn Alec away with a dismissive grunt. Alec was becoming rather worried, but he was careful not to convey this around Sandy, who—as lovely and dear as he was in other aspects—Alec was beginning to learn had quite the jealous streak. 

Today Ralph was sitting up in bed and had eaten most of his breakfast, which was at least a good sign. The color had seeped back into his face, evening out the areas that had not been deeply browned by the sun, and he had finally shaven off his beard, causing him to look several years closer to his actual age.

"Hello, Ralph," Alec said upon approaching. "How is the hand feeling today?"

"Fine. Hasn't been getting worse, at any rate." Ralph tapped the fingers of his good hand on the bed cover, then said abruptly, "I received a letter from Spud today."

"And?" 

Ralph's lips curved in a smile that started slow and then spread all at once, as if he were suddenly unable to restrain his happiness. "He wants to see me."

"I'm glad of it," Alec said quietly, and found that it was true. He supposed by all rights he should have been at least a little jealous over Ralph getting back in touch with an old flame—one whom Alec, if he were quite honest, had been forever unconsciously measuring himself up against while he and Ralph had been together. Though it hadn't rated among the foremost reasons for their breakup, of which there had been many, Ralph's unwavering torch for the elusive Odell had figured somewhere in the back of his mind when they'd ended their relationship. But mainly he felt relief that Ralph would finally have an excuse not to start drinking himself to death the moment he was discharged. He suddenly had a wild and ridiculous notion that if Odell hadn't been found agreeable, Alec might have tracked him down and persuaded him himself, Alec's general loathing of entangling himself in others' messy personal affairs aside. 

"Even after all these years..." Ralph chuckled to himself, then glanced back at Alec. "Will you be coming by later?" Alec saw from the stack of papers nearby that Ralph had been immediately planning to write back.

"Of course, my dear. And perhaps then I can properly introduce you to Sandy?" Alec replied, with a cautious hopefulness. The brief initial encounter between Ralph and Sandy, just after Ralph had been admitted, had been rather terse and acrimonious. Though to be fair, it had not been wholly on Ralph's side.

Ralph lit a discreet cigarette. "I suppose you can," he conceded, with only a mildly long-suffering air of resignation.

As Alec left to attend his round, content in this small victory, he could hear the shuffling of papers and the notes of a soft, clear whistle fading into the background clamor of the hospital ward, which was stirring to life in a pale wash of morning light.



The first correspondence from Spud—whose real name was Laurie—was profusely apologetic over the circumstances of their last meeting. Oh, Spuddy, Ralph thought, with indulgent tenderness and relief combined. (Laurie—it had not been his first guess, back in those moments of rampant speculation—and occasional fantasy—while he had been doing the House lists, idly trying out each "L" possibility on his tongue—but it was sweet and oddly fitting, somehow too precious to use more than on the rare occasion.) 

Since then they had managed to make arrangements to talk a few times over the telephone wire, usually on days prior to one of Laurie's operations. Laurie, who had never been one for verbal expressions of self-pity, could not quite keep the stress and pain from becoming plainly audible in his voice, enabling Ralph to mete out small words of advice and encouragement that Laurie seemed to appreciate, like he was again a fifth-former hanging on to every word from his hero. The sound of Laurie's voice—of his simple unguarded happiness at their reconnection—was just barely enough to stave off the dark thoughts that had been crowding in Ralph's mind those past few weeks; it lent him a momentary, anchoring sense of purpose when he might else have continued to float adrift.

The possibility of this had, after all, been what he had clung to when he had lost all hope that he'd be allowed back on a ship. He had not wanted to talk to anyone then, even Alec. Yet with each passing day without a response to his initial letter, Ralph's optimism had rapidly dwindled into a faded, melancholy wistfulness approaching despair. The idea of somehow reuniting with Odell after so many years had been ludicrous, really—a remote, overly romantic scenario—and there had been no earthly reason why he should suppose Odell would want anything to do with his former disgraced Head of School, even if he were alive and well. Even worse yet, the revolting, intolerable thought that Spud might write back with news of a girl friend or fiancée only occurred to Ralph after he'd mailed the letter, and it had continued to torment him in the middle of sleepless nights.

Despite all this, he'd been unable to keep his mind from constantly replaying details from that fateful encounter on his ship—the vivid flame-red of Odell's hair—the sensation of his hand on Odell's chest—his bare, wind-chilled skin—the faint pulse of Odell's heart thrumming underneath his palm. The fierce stab of joy that shot through him when he'd realized Spud was still alive, which he had to immediately school from exhibiting on his face. He had felt horridly exposed, touching Odell like that in front of his crew, in a grotesque contortion of the intimate situations he had often fantasized about in his schooldays.

And then Odell had opened his eyes, looked him over, and proceeded to dismiss him like he was a common, lusty tart. Which had been, perhaps, no less than the reaction he deserved.

But the look Odell had seemed to have given him, right before sending him up, had not been of disinterest—Ralph had sought hope in that, if nothing else, during the next few weeks, when he had been lying alone in hospital.

After he was discharged, Ralph found himself too busy to visit Laurie as quickly as he'd planned, between the search for new digs and settling into the routine of his new training course. The immense frustration of being kept apart from Spud, after having waited for so long, made him restless and on edge for the following days; at Alec's house, where he was temporarily residing in the interim, he was certain he was trying the patience of Alec's new boy friend nearly as much the latter was wearing out his. Even the rather good-looking instructor of his training course, who kept eyeing him up between lessons, could not provide much of a distraction as he might have done, were Ralph's thoughts not otherwise occupied.

At long last, however, he was finally able to make his way to the E.M.S. hospital where Laurie was recuperating. Ralph found him in the hallway as he was being wheeled back from his last operation, his right leg wrapped in bandages, and had to take a minute to catch his breath. Laurie's hair was darker than it had been at sixteen, no longer quite so red and instead a rich auburn, but his face had changed little, still fresh-looking and pleasing, with a new firmness about the mouth and jaw. And then there were the same soft, hazel eyes that had woven in and out of Ralph's dreams for nearly a decade. He would have recognized him anywhere, Ralph thought with a warm swell of pride and affection.

It struck him then how tired and wan Laurie appeared, thinner than he'd seemed before and somehow very young. A distant memory surfaced from the depths of the past: Laurie at the pool, toweling off his hair after just coming off a swimming victory, laughing and healthy and gloriously beautiful. The contrast ignited in Ralph a sudden, fierce protectiveness.

Ralph waited until the Sister had finished settling him into bed and left, before approaching. Laurie's eyes lit up almost immediately, clearing away the surrounding lines of anxiety and exhaustion. "Lanyon! Good God, is it really you?"

"Hello, Spud." Ralph smiled and reached to clasp Laurie's arm in a quick, reassuring grip.

There was much for them to talk about, catching up on seven years of lost time. Laurie had become prefect and had gone up to Oxford on an exhibition, as Ralph always knew he would; he had been reading English, received a half blue in swimming, and been working his way diligently towards the goal of a First before the war had interrupted his education. Ralph sensed a careful tact in the way he verbalized all this, the ghost of a future that had been barred from Ralph. There was of course no need for such solicitousness, Ralph reflected wryly. Laurie had always been more of a scholarly bent than Ralph ever was, often seeming more at home with books and theory than practicalities. Ralph harbored no resentment, only relief that he had not steered Laurie off the right direction when he had intervened in his life so long ago, and a deep-seated gratitude that their paths had converged again at last.

The conversation took a turn to the present state of Laurie's convalescence and treatment; Laurie indicated that his doctors seemed to think his infection was finally beginning to resolve, and he expressed a furtive hope that he might someday recover complete function of his leg. From Ralph's discussions on the matter with Alec, who was always one to be bluntly pragmatic on medical issues, it seemed rather unlikely. But Ralph did not have the will to crush this tiny spark of optimism—recalling too well the despondency to which he had plunged after learning the extent of the damage to his hand.

He experienced a shock of incalculable joy when Laurie, almost shyly, presented him with his old copy of the Phaedrus, now bloodstained and wrinkled by seawater but unquestionably his—and Laurie had, remarkably, kept to his promise after all. Ralph allowed himself the guilty pleasure of letting his fingertips glide over Laurie's for a moment as he took it, sending a rosy, promising flush over Laurie's cheeks.

He had not read from the Phaedrus in years, and perusing it again, in silent wonder, seemed to evoke all the desperate loneliness of a young boy reared in a Christian home, seeking refuge in the notion of a civilization that had seemed made for people like him. He took in the sight of the yellowed and lovingly marked pages, the passages he had underlined years ago, his own brief annotations intermingled with Laurie's in the margins, the implicit and exuberant sense of recognition—of a lost soul, discovering its own kindred. His eyes unexpectedly welled, and it was only with great effort that he managed to compose his expression into something more stolidly respectable. 

"It's funny, isn't it, how after all this time, we've only been within a few miles of each other," Laurie was saying. "But if the Sister hadn't realized the mix-up with your letter, we might never have met again."

"Yes.....it's a strange bit of luck," Ralph said, still flipping through the book distractedly, not trusting himself to speak further.

Laurie tilted his head, a warm look underneath his lashes. "Do you believe in luck?" he asked, and Ralph, lifting his eyes to meet him, smiled.