It took a few days before he found more than a few minutes to himself to sit down and read the Phaedrus that Laurie had left for him. Dave had passed it on without saying much about the conversation he'd had with Laurie, only that he thought it would be for the best if Andrew put the whole matter behind him. It probably wasn't a coincidence that he had barely had a moment alone in the past few days, Andrew thought, and then chastised himself for such an uncharitable thought. Dave had known him all his life, had known his parents, and surely had his best interests at heart. But he couldn't leave this alone, not right now. He had dashed off a couple of lines on a postcard to Laurie to thank him for the book and to say that he would have wanted to see him, and to ask Laurie to keep writing to him.
The Phaedrus was a slim volume, and it didn't take very long to read. But his mind wasn't fully in it: the discussion about rhetoric passed him by, and whilst he found the soul-as-a-charioteer image charming—even more so when he remembered the fond expression on Laurie's face when he described it—it seemed so remote, something from another world that didn't touch his feelings or experiences now. He closed the book and put it aside. Perhaps following Dave's advice was in fact for the best: he had too much to do, Laurie was away, and by the sound of things had somebody else.
He kept himself busy, which wasn't difficult. There were air raids on most nights, and if he had any spare time before it was time to turn up for a night shift there were always opportunities to pitch in with something else, from rubble clearing to sorting and packing up donations. But no matter how busy and tired he was, he found his thoughts returning to Laurie, to the conversations late in the night, the afternoons by the stream before it got too cold, the brief interrupted kiss in the kitchen, the surge of jealousy he'd felt when the man, Laurie's friend, was bragging about his relationship with Laurie. He tried to push those thoughts aside, but they kept coming back. When he didn't dream about air raids and going into collapsed houses to try to rescue a child he could hear but not find no matter how hard he searched he dreamed about Laurie, of pushing him against the sink in the ward kitchen, of the feeling of Laurie's body against his.
He tried talking to Dave about his feelings on a couple of occasions but it was plain that Dave didn't want to hear it, and it hurt. He was used to going to Dave when he wanted to talk about something to work it through, to understand what he was really feeling. He looked around and couldn't see anyone else he'd find as easy to talk to.
When the opportunity to talk about it came he was not prepared for it, but he took it nonetheless. It was another night at the station. They had finished making all the ambulances ready and were now waiting for the sirens blaring and the telephones ringing to call them into action, but so far it had been quiet. And the longer the night went on in silence, the tenser the atmosphere became. Eventually one of the others, Graham, who Andrew only knew slightly from occasionally seeing him at the Meeting or dropping by to speak to Dave about something, pulled him to the store room to find something to do besides the endless waiting.
It was Graham who asked if he had something on his mind, and if it was something he wanted to talk about, saying something about it sometimes being easier to talk to somebody who hadn't known one since one was born. He was surprised by the offer and didn't know what to say, so he told Graham nothing was the matter. But Graham persisted, pointing out that it was hard to stay focused on one's work and help others if one's mind was elsewhere. He couldn't help but agree. In the course of the hour or so they spent unpacking some boxes of supplies and placing the kit onto appropriate shelves he ended up telling Graham most of it, in fits and starts.
Graham took it all very well, prompted him gently whenever he stalled, and in the end shared a story about a friend who in their youth had confided in Dave about a similar predicament, with equally useless results. Graham called it Dave's blind spot, and then offered his own advice, for what it was worth. Only Andrew could know what was right for him, loving the right person could make one a better man—and here Graham had smiled fondly, obviously thinking about his wife—and being constantly distracted by conflicted thoughts and feelings stood in the way of becoming a better man and serving one's community to the full of one's ability just as much as being blinded by lust did.
It was certainly food for thought, but somehow it seemed too easy. But the next day brought a letter from Laurie, giving him his new address in Oxford where he was preparing for the start of the term in January and concluding with an unexpected apology and explanation about the visit Andrew had had at the EMS hospital. Laurie wrote that he had only recently found out that it hadn't been his friend who had come to see Andrew but another man who had wanted to cause trouble but that it was true that he and Ralph had been closer than friends at the time. But that was in the past now—here Laurie didn't provide any details, and Andrew knew he wouldn't ever want to pry into it although he couldn't help but feel curious. After another restless night—day, actually—of sleep he knew he couldn't let go until he had explored these feelings, and only then he could know who he was and what to do with it.
* * *
Making a decision about oneself didn't immediately resolve anything as he found out over the next few days. He was still very busy, there were raids on most nights, and some of them were very bad, leaving little time for anything else. Exploring where a friendship might lead didn't seem that important in the larger scale of things, but he couldn't stop thinking about Laurie. He wrote to him, trying not to think too much about what he was saying, or what he had been thinking about recently. He sensed some surprise in Laurie's reply when it arrived, as if the letter Andrew had written after the altercation with the alleged friend meant he couldn't see Andrew as someone who wanted something more. He thought it would have been easier if they could have met in person, but it wasn't possible right now.
Instead, they kept writing. Laurie wrote about his reading, days in the library, his landlady and the other lodgers, mostly young women living away from home for the first time. There was always a note of worry about the raids in London. There was nothing he could do to allay those fears, so he aimed to write as often as he could, even if it was just a few short lines on a postcard. After one particularly bad night, he even asked Dave to write to Laurie if something happened to him. He hadn't talked to Dave about Laurie for some weeks, and Dave's expression when he brought the topic up suggested Dave would have preferred it to stay that way, even though he must have known about Laurie's letters—it was usually Dave who was awake when the postman did his rounds. Once again, Dave suggested it would be better for him to put everything to do with Laurie behind him, but he couldn't.
He hadn't confided in Graham again, but he hadn't felt the need to either. He had taken Graham's words to heart and tried to get to know himself to understand what was right for him. He went back to the Phaedrus a couple of times, but he still couldn't make it mean anything. He had to find his own way.
He had resigned himself to the impossibility of seeing Laurie any time soon—the possibility of meeting in the Easter vac had been mentioned, but it was still weeks away—when Laurie told him he was coming to London for a day before the term started and proposed meeting if it suited him. Andrew immediately wrote back saying yes, and spent the days between the letter and meeting in a giddy anticipation he struggled to hide from Dave.
When he was on his way to their agreed meeting place he was struck by a moment of dread: what if they found nothing to say once they saw each other? By now in their letters they had slipped into the easy intimacy they had had in the EMS hospital, but it was easy to read something into letters that wasn't really there, to imagine the other as different from what he really was. Through the crowd, he caught a glimpse of Laurie standing by the door, looking unfamiliar with his civilian clothes, leaning to his walking stick slightly. Andrew hurried closer. Laurie turned slightly and must have seen him then as he smiled widely, obviously pleased. When they were face to face and exchanging small talk about Laurie's journey and last night's air raid the atmosphere between them was tense at first, but somewhere in the midst of a story about storeroom mishaps when they were walking down the street he realised he was enjoying himself and if Laurie's laughter was anything to go by, he was too.
Too soon the afternoon was over and Laurie had to make his way back to Paddington to catch his train to Oxford. There had not been any opportunity for a truly private conversation, there had always been other people around, so when they alighted from the bus near the station he led Laurie to the station via a route that was longer than necessary but took them down a narrow alley that was thankfully empty and in deep shadow. He realised that he surprised Laurie when he pushed him against the wall, but in the blink of an eye Laurie relaxed against him and put his arm around his waist. Nervous, he kissed Laurie quickly, and Laurie kissed him back. The sound of approaching footsteps forced them to pull apart and continue their journey to the station, only the sleeves of their coats touching.
For days afterwards he felt he was glowing inside, throwing himself into his work and any additional tasks that came his way with more enthusiasm than he usually managed. He tried to explain it to Dave, but the conversation became as frustrating as most of his attempts at serious conversations with Dave in recent months. It still hurt that he couldn't share this side of his life with Dave. He felt more whole and grounded as a person than he had done in months. And he thought he now fully understood what Graham had meant by loving somebody having the ability to make one a better person. He had a long way to go, he thought, but it felt easier right now. Writing to Laurie and reading Laurie's responses acquired a new depth, an undercurrent of something unstated in the words but it was still there, between the lines. He couldn't wait for the Easter vac.
* * *
Winter passed quickly. Unsurprisingly Laurie had become extremely busy with his reading and essays the moment the term had started, but he still tried to write to him as often as he could. Andrew enjoyed the letters, although it was clear from them how different the wartime Oxford was from the Oxford he had known before the war. The letters were a breath of fresh air from a place that wasn't being brutally torn apart the same way as London was right now. It was hard sometimes to come off a shift in the morning and see the signs of the destruction wrought in the night. Sometimes in the mornings he wondered how any of them kept going, especially when Tom was severely injured in February when a wall collapsed on him during an attempt to clear some rubble. He died a couple of days later in hospital.
Tom was the first close friend he had lost during the war—there had been acquaintances before, of course, friends of friends, patients at the EMS hospital. The day after his death Andrew felt numb. It had already felt strange when Tom was in hospital not to have him sleeping in the bed across the room, but to know he would never come back was harder. On Dave's suggestion, they had a quiet gathering in the house that afternoon. It was comforting and when it came to leaving for another shift it felt easier to go and do it all again. He wanted to do what he could to help others whose lives were being changed beyond recognition by the war they had not wished for.
Thoughts of Laurie and the promise of some time together helped too. As long as the war lasted and he was working in London, such time was going to be rare. He was eager for the Easter vac to arrive soon so they could put their meeting plans into practice. He couldn't help talking about the plans a little to his friends because he had managed to arrange for Laurie to stay in a flat belonging to a friend of a friend that was empty right now. Dave heartily disapproved the plans and showed it. If before he had encouraged Andrew to stay away from Laurie as something that was for Andrew's best, he was now saying that it was wrong for Andrew to focus on a friendship and frivolous plans that were distracting him from his work. Hearing this made him stop and examine his feelings more carefully. Perhaps he had tipped over from using thoughts of Laurie as a motivation to keep going to thinking more about Laurie than what he was doing. But after careful consideration he couldn't agree with Dave. Seeing Laurie was important to him, but not more important than his work. He couldn't regard having something different and refreshing to look forward to as a bad thing after the constant tension and urgency of the past few months.
Eventually the day came when it was time to make his way to meet Laurie after a night that had been unusually quiet. It was a bright cold morning with a biting wind, reminiscent of winter rather than spring that he had been imagining. He was excited about seeing Laurie, but when they met at Paddington and Laurie looked rested, happy and smiling he felt shy of a sudden. Laurie resting his hand on his shoulder for a while calmed him a little, but it fell on Laurie to fill the silence with chat about visiting his mother and stepfather while they travelled to the flat where they were to be staying. The stairs to the flat were steep and made Laurie sigh and shake his head, albeit smiling, before he took them slowly. He explained he was now much better with stairs than he had been straight after the EMS hospital as one couldn't escape them in Oxford, but he was still slow and clumsy. The flat itself smelled dusty and unused, forgotten and neglected rather than welcoming. It could have been actively hostile and dangerous, but this dingy small flat was still the first opportunity they had had in a long time to be alone together.
As Andrew had been up all night, they agreed that he would go to bed now for a few hours, while Laurie went out and got them some provisions. Not wanting to make the bed just yet, he lay down to sleep on the sofa. When he woke up in the afternoon, Laurie was sitting on the floor leaning against the sofa, reading a book with a notebook and a pencil at hand. He seemed fully absorbed in his reading, and jumped a little when Andrew, still a little fuzzy from sleep, reached out to run his fingers through his hair. He looked up from his book and leaned into the touch. Andrew reached closer and Laurie turned his head to face him. They kissed until Laurie's book clattered on the floor.
Andrew thought his heart would burst with happiness. He reached for Laurie, wanting to get closer. This wasn't anything like he had imagined. He hadn't been quite able to picture this in his mind's eye—there had been this hazy idea of a bed in the darkness of the night, pulling covers up high before reaching for Laurie. He could never have imagined he would have this, and he had it now. He had never felt as whole as he felt now, or as full of love.