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better than suits a man to say

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Ralph had been apparently missing from the ward for a few hours, before Alec finally found him alone in a dimly lit corner of the hospital chapel, sitting with his head bowed, his profile half-concealed by shadows. His left hand was still wrapped in dressing after his recent surgery, and a worn Bible lay open next to him on top of the pile of hymn books, although he seemed at the moment intensely preoccupied with his own thoughts.

Alec cast a scrutinizing look around. The foyer was entirely vacant aside from themselves and a large, dusty organ that looked as though it hadn't been played in months. Had Ralph been praying? It struck Alec as unlikely, but he wouldn't be the first queer with a convoluted relationship with faith, and from what Alec vaguely knew about Ralph's upbringing, some habits could be rather deeply ingrained.

Ralph didn't look up as Alec approached and, without asking permission, took a seat beside him on the pew. Silently Ralph handed him a thin white envelope.

Alec turned it over to read the writing, his brow furrowing. L. P. Odell...Died of Wounds..... He glanced up. "Oh, Ralph. I'm so sorry."

It hardly seemed like enough. Ralph had briefly mentioned writing to Odell after their chance encounter at Dunkirk, in a manner that would have seemed offhand to one who didn't know him any better. Alec had promised to privately inquire around, but with only a last name and initials to go by, in addition to new waves of wartime casualties arriving daily, the matter had appeared impossible, and Alec had put it well out of his mind until now. Yet Ralph clearly had not.

Ralph spoke slowly, his voice strangely ragged. "I should have expected this—he was in such a rotten state when I found him—all scratched up and splattered with blood, the bone sticking clean out of his leg. And yet still lucid enough to send me up like I was a damn tart." He let out a small, slightly choked noise that was nearly a laugh, then added, in a softer tone, "I really thought I'd saved him."

"You did all anyone could, under the circumstances," Alec said quickly, seeking to gently curb Ralph's tendency for self-blame and flagellation before it became too unwieldy. "God knows it would have been better for him to go out here, instead of moldering away in a POW camp."

There was a long silence, broken only by the distant echoes of footsteps ringing in the corridor and a faint susurration of voices. Then Ralph said, dully, "It would have never amounted to anything, anyway."

Even during these tumultuous times of war and devastation, Alec still found it difficult to know how to dole out the precise words of comfort to ease the pain of unimaginable loss. It was not in his nature; he'd particularly enjoyed the reputation he had built as a nascent clinician of being clever, blunt, and dispassionate. (Sandy, he thought, had always been better at the humanistic side of their chosen profession.) And from past experience he knew Ralph would instinctively bristle at any perceived acts of condescension from others, any acknowledgement of his own points of fragility. The tactfully drawn boundaries they'd established in the wake of their separation, which held even after their briefly awkward armistice had warmed into a pleasant, more durable amity, stayed vividly rendered in Alec's mind.

But Ralph had nobody else with whom to share the weight of his sorrow. Such was the additional cost of the war to their kind, that the deepest sorts of wounds must forever go on being invisible to the rest of the world. So after a moment Alec reached out to touch a hand to his wrist, squeezing it in a gesture of helpless sympathy and recognition, and Ralph, giving in quietly to his grief, for once did not push it away.