G-rated slash based on The Charioteer, featuring Laurie, Ralph and Andrew.
This story is one answer to a topic raised on the Mary Renault fics live journal community by Century Plant, who asked for opinions about what happens after the final paragraph of the novel.
Many, many thanks to my two lovely beta-readers for this story, Oleander9999 and Matan4il. Both of them love Renault's characters and gave me excellent advice to make this a much better story.
by Laura Mason
He knew the voice at once. There was only one person who'd ever said his name with that combination of delight and admiration, and the years since Laurie had heard those tones were forgotten -- at least, until he turned.
"Andrew?" It was him, Laurie could see it now even though he'd just walked past without a shred of recognition. Andrew was smiling, an open, joyous beam nothing like the shy happiness Laurie remembered. Well, eighteen years. Everything about Andrew was different. His hair was cut long, in the new fashion that allowed it to curl a bit, his face scarcely lined. He was dressed very casually, denim slacks and a dark sweater under a damp, zipper-front jacket of the kind Laurie had only seen in American movies. Laurie suddenly felt very stodgy in his trench and every bit his age, while Andrew looked young and carefree.
"I'd have known you anywhere, even after all this time," Andrew said, and Laurie knew he was being honest, not trying to flatter.
"You're very kind." Laurie hadn't realized he was holding his breath until he needed to pause and inhale before he could continue. "You look well. Marvelous, actually. But I'm afraid I wouldn't--"
A merry laugh cut off his apologetic words. "Of course you didn't know me! Don't be embarrassed, you're not the first to mention that I've changed. It's so good to see you. Are you visiting in Paris? Oh, excuse me one moment." Andrew turned to the man standing with him, a portly gentleman with a fringe of grey hair. "Monsieur Chandelle, il est un vieil ami..."
Andrew had always been comfortable with Laurie, but still somewhat reserved. Now he seemed amazingly open and easy; that was the biggest difference in him, really. Andrew was obviously comfortable while Laurie felt off balance, startled at the chance meeting and flummoxed by the changes from the boy he remembered so well.
As he listened Laurie noted that Andrew's French was much better than he remembered, and it struck him that Andrew might have remained on the continent after the war. After all, his community of Friends had been shattered. Laurie's last letter to Dave had come back with a careless scrawl across the front, "killed in bombing," penned by some exhausted neighbor too busy surviving to worry about informing correspondents in a gentler fashion.
That was how Laurie had lost touch with Andrew, because he hadn't been in direct contact with him. He'd accepted Dave's mediation and tried to be satisfied with what news the older man would share. What choice did he have? One couldn't turn back the clock, only accept and move on. And hope that Andrew would live to do the same.
Seeing him now, so vibrant, Laurie let true happiness at this chance meeting fill him and spill out in a wide smile. Andrew had obviously done well for himself. Just the sight of him answered questions Laurie had asked himself for years.
Andrew turned back to Laurie after a final goodbye to the Frenchman. "How have you been? You look wonderful, you know." Andrew was like an excited child, his hands moving as if he wished to touch or embrace. Then he seemed to recall himself and began to pull back, but Laurie reached forward and captured Andrew's hands in his own.
"I'm very well, thanks. And delighted to see you." They'd never embraced before, but it felt as natural as their long-ago kiss had been. Andrew kept hold of Laurie's left hand with both of his as Laurie continued, "I don't even need to ask how you are. You're happy."
Andrew laughed out loud again, and this time Laurie noted the chastising look from the guard beside the gallery door.
"This is brilliant. Now we must go someplace where we can really talk. There's a café nearby -- you haven't had lunch yet, have you?"
Laurie had gone from feeling too old to feeling like a boy about to be pulled along by Andrew's enthusiasm. Another moment and he'd have said something to slow them down, but before he could manage it, Ralph returned through the far door, just as he always did when he got ahead of Laurie in a crowd.
Ralph's quizzical expression grew more serious when he saw Laurie wasn't alone. His usual teasing questions ("What old master are you communing with now, Spud?") about Laurie's slow pace were set aside, and Laurie's private Ralph was gone. Instead Laurie saw what he still thought of as the ship's officer, perfectly correct in every situation. In this mode, Laurie fancied that Ralph could competently handle anything up to and including an invasion.
"Can we get out of here, or are you with ... " Andrew seemed to know as soon as he saw Ralph approaching them. Laurie felt that old, proprietary pride as Andrew's voice trailed off.
Ralph was lightly tanned from their time on Andros, his hair sun-bleached gold with silver at the temples. He was still straight and handsome, more at ease in the same proper, well-tailored clothes that had made Laurie feel overdressed beside Andrew. Just looking at him, one knew Ralph's coat and jacket could be gone in a moment, his sleeves pushed up and he'd be ready for anything. After so long, Laurie barely noticed the glove, rarely worn back home but packed for their trip.
"Yes, here's my friend now. Let me introduce you." Laurie moved to Ralph with a smile and brought him closer. "Ralph, this is Andrew Raynes -- from the EMS hospital. Andrew, Ralph Lanyon."
He was so happy at seeing the two of them together, so absorbed in an unconscious comparison of them that Laurie didn't immediately realize that neither of them seemed precisely pleased. Ralph was white around the lips, and Andrew seemed completely at a loss as their hands met politely. Neither of them said a word, not even a hello.
That silence pulled Laurie from his own reflections, and suddenly his mental image of Andrew with Bunny returned as if it had happened only last week. "Oh," he began, but Ralph stepped in, as usual.
"I've heard a lot about you, Andrew. It's a pleasure to meet you at last. I suppose this isn't the best place for the two of you to catch up, though. Shall we?" He smoothly steered the two of them out the door, past the disdainful guard and through the crowds of tourists queued up near the museum entrance.
"We didn't check in anything, as you can see," Ralph said, gesturing to Laurie's umbrella. "Do you need to stop at the cloakroom?"
Andrew was less smooth at covering his confusion as he stammered a negative reply. Ralph maintained his composure and casual tone as he kept them moving. "Fine. Where shall we go, then?"
"There's a cafe just a block down, Le Chat Gris," Andrew managed.
"Sounds good to me. Are you hungry, Laurie?"
"I'd love a cup of ... coffee, I suppose." He essayed a smile and was rewarded by a polite laugh from Andrew, quite a different kind of sound than his unconstrained outbursts back in the gallery.
"Even after years here, I miss good English tea," Andrew admitted, and Ralph nodded.
"Yes. But at least it's nicely portable, unlike so many home comforts." Ralph slowed his pace and Andrew adjusted, too, which allowed Laurie to get down the steps without any embarrassment. By the time they reached the street, Ralph was well into a story about the first time he shipped to Australia, scorning the captain's afternoon tea ritual until homesickness really set in. Andrew listened, and Laurie could see that while he was processing Ralph's words in the present, politely responding when appropriate, Andrew was also reviewing his memory of the "Ralph" he'd met.
"Don't you keep a pot in your digs, for those times when you must have a cup?" Ralph asked.
"No, I'm afraid I don't. I wouldn't even know where to find good tea."
"I'm sure Laurie will keep you supplied, if you'd like." They'd arrived at the cafe, and the conversation was broken off while they discussed whether the rain was likely to resume and decided to look for a table inside. By the time they were settled, Laurie had adjusted to Ralph's evident acceptance that they would remain in contact with Andrew from now on. Laurie couldn't decide if Ralph's comment had been prompted by incredible generosity or simply by his knowledge of Laurie's nature.
It was perfectly true that Laurie wasn't ready to lose Andrew, not after fate had finally managed to bring them together again. While the waiter handed them menus and took their coffee orders, Laurie was back in Limbo with Andrew, once again hearing him say that it seemed the two of them had been meant to meet.
The coffee arrived and Ralph was still carrying the conversation, inconsequential chatter about Paris and their holidays. Laurie dragged himself back from the past, no doubt with a foolish smile on his face. He and Andrew would need to become reacquainted, just as he and Ralph had to do back in '40. So many years to catch up on, yet Laurie was confident that Andrew was still the fine man he'd once glimpsed under the boyish exterior.
Caught up in his thoughts, Laurie heard the words but didn't really understand what was happening until Ralph rose and tossed down some franc notes. "I've been wanting to visit des Egouts, and I know it'll bore you stiff, Spud. Relax, catch up with Andrew and I'll see you back at the hotel for dinner." He moved away, back straight, and Laurie didn't stop him. Ralph turned and said, "If your plans change, just leave word at the hotel." Don't worry about anything, Spuddy. He didn't say the old familiar words, but Laurie read them in Ralph's eyes before he turned and was gone.
"He's... rather overwhelming, isn't he?" Andrew said, then actually blushed before taking a sip of his coffee. "Head of the school, indeed."
"He hasn't been quite so high-handed about arranging my life for years, now," Laurie admitted. "Andrew, about Ralph--"
"Who on earth was that person I met, Laurie? The man I hit?" Andrew's voice was low, but he didn't seem embarrassed to be speaking about that day.
"That's somewhat complicated, Andrew, but I've wanted to apologize for what he did ever since I read your letter."
"Dave told me you came up to London, before your discharge. And later you corresponded with him, though you didn't want to see me."
"Dave said that? He must have thought it was better that way; he only wanted what was best for you." And back then, Laurie hadn't know what was right or wrong, only that it was too late to give Andrew back his innocence. "Perhaps... I wish I'd spoken with you that day in London. I'm sorry if I hurt you," Laurie finished.
"You can see, now, that it wasn't necessary to hold back things from me, as if I'd fall apart when faced with the facts of life." Andrew looked out the window for a moment, blindly, then turned back. "That man, whoever he was, told the truth in one respect. Lanyon... anyone would realize, just from how you look at him."
Laurie took a deep breath. There was nothing to protect Andrew from, not any longer. "Ralph and I have been together since we met up during the war."
Andrew's face twisted with some emotion that was too fleeting to identify. "Well, yes. Dunkirk and all that, and he's very charming. Even out of uniform, he looks like a hero."
"Andrew," he began, but what could he say? I loved you more, once? He couldn't; it felt like treachery. Then it sank in that Andrew sounded almost jealous. Laurie recalled their conversation in the kitchen at the hospital, Andrew admitting to uncertainty and his own reassurance that Andrew need never doubt his place. That was just before Nurse Sims came in for a spoon, and the memory made Laurie smile.
But the world had changed since those days.
"You're not like us," Laurie murmured, and Andrew looked up, startled. "Are you?"
"Well, no. Of course not. No," he repeated without conviction. "I... Let's talk about something else, shall we? You're here on holiday, but what do you do now?"
By the time their food was served, Andrew was again laughing as Laurie told the story of his last department meeting. "When I told Ralph about Everson's remarks, he went out and bought tickets to the Cyclades and presented them for my birthday. He said I have to be able to hold my head up among the snobs."
"I loved Greece. I was there ... oh, five years ago now. It felt as if I was stumbling over history with every step..."
"More limping and staggering, in my case," Laurie smiled.
"Oh, but you walk very well now -- I wouldn't have even noticed if I didn't know about the knee. Do you still wear a special boot?"
"Yes, but they're better made now, much lighter than that first atrocity. You're quite right, I shouldn't sit here being sorry for myself. I manage very well, and I know I've been lucky." They fell silent, eating, and when Laurie looked up he found Andrew had gone far away, lost in a memory of some kind. Laurie knew, instinctively, that it wasn't pleasant. "How bad was it, on the line?"
"No worse than the meat grinder you went through, I imagine." Andrew shook himself and came fully back to the present. "It answered some questions for me, I suppose. Do you think those who grow up in peace-time find their answers any easier?"
"Do you think they even have the same questions?" Somehow they were back on familiar footing, and they both enjoyed the next hour's rambling conversation that touched on a wide range of topics.
It wasn't until the sun set outside the window and the waiter began to turn up chairs on nearby tables that they stirred and settled their bill. "I've probably missed three appointments this afternoon, Laurie," Andrew confessed as they stood in the doorway, fastening their coats. "Margot at the gallery will be livid."
"Oh, heavens, I never told you -- I'm living in Paris now, and selling my paintings through Chandelle's gallery, on the Rue des Champs."
Laurie felt foolish, but he had to admit, "Paintings? Andrew, I never once suspected you knew anything about art."
Andrew's short laugh in reply was mirthless. "The Friends don't think too highly of spending time on frivolities. You can imagine my family's attitude; aesthetics are unimportant, such things aren't a real man's work." He led Laurie out the door, into a shower that had him scrambling to raise his umbrella and share the shelter with Andrew as they walked.
Neither one of them had a destination, so Andrew set a direction, holding Laurie's elbow to keep the umbrella close. "I grew up mad for sketching everything around me, and working in colored chalks borrowed from a classmate. Even when you knew me, there was a notebook I filled with sketches of you and some of the others from the hospital. Our Eden and Limbo were immortalized there."
"I wish you'd told me," Laurie said. "I'd like to see them, if you still have them."
"I'm not such a pack rat as that. After the war, I wanted to start over. I felt that I could, here, and I had money from my father's estate that had been gathering interest for years. I took a class, then another, and within a year I found a group of artists who spoke my language, if you know what I mean."
"I think I do."
"It has made me happy, as you said."
"I can see it. You're -- you enjoy each breath."
"Well, Paris. Heady air here, don't you think? I'll never be famous, nor wealthy, but I'm able to rent a studio and do the work I love."
Laurie smiled at him. "It suits you, though I'd never have imagined you living such a Bohemian life."
"But you're thinking it's all wine, women and song, aren't you? I'm not some wild rake. None of us are like that -- we take our art seriously, and we all want to leave the world better than we found it."
"That's not the way one tends to think of an artists' colony, you know."
"Oh, I know. But we've all lived through times which have made us aware that we must pay attention to what's happening in the world. None of us are such fools that we'd want to live in some heedless dream of artistic society, rather than seeing things as they are."
"But isn't art about seeing the possibilities instead of what's really there?"
It was just as easy to talk as it had ever been, so the friendly debate continued until fatigue slowed Laurie's steps. Andrew didn't notice immediately, but when he did he was instantly contrite.
"How selfish I am, monopolizing your time like this. Where are you staying?"
"George the Fifth."
"Here, rest your knee. Damn, the bench is wet. Wait for me, there's a cab stand just a few blocks over."
When Andrew was gone Laurie realized how deserted the streets had become. He checked his watch for the first time all afternoon. It was later than he'd thought; he'd missed dinner and hadn't once thought to leave any message for Ralph.
The taxi pulled up. Andrew opened the door, smiling warmly, and Laurie carefully set aside his concern for Ralph, not wanting to distress him. As the driver sped through the wet streets, they wrote out their addresses and telephone numbers.
"We're only here a few more days," Laurie said as he handed the slip of paper to Andrew. "But I'd love to spend more time catching up with you. You and Ralph must at last become acquainted, as well."
It was dark but Laurie could see Andrew's face change at the mention of Ralph. Still, Andrew nodded and said, "Can we have dinner tomorrow? I'll call at your hotel around seven, if that's all right."
"We'd be delighted. You must take us someplace where you really eat, a native restaurant, not a tourist place."
Andrew laughed. "Do you suppose any Frenchman considers me a native, with my accent?"
"Oh, but they'll claim you for the sake of your art," Laurie joked.
"Someday, perhaps. And for more than my art, I hope, if I'm truly following my conscience, and listening to my heart." There he was, the earnest young man Laurie remembered, serious about his life's work and about the work of living. Andrew was blazing his own path, just as Laurie had once done.
It was very easy, now that Laurie had reconciled the present Andrew with the boy he'd known, to take his hand as their cab pulled up next to the hotel entrance. Laurie knew his admiration was showing on his face and that affection was coloring his voice.
"I'm so glad you saw me this morning, Andrew, and spoke. It means the world to me, to see you so well."
Andrew didn't speak, just pressed Laurie's hand, his face glowing. Laurie climbed out, a little stiff in the damp air. Andrew called, "Tomorrow," before the door closed.
Laurie stood watching the cab drive away. It had grown cooler, so he pulled his coat a bit closer before turning to limp inside, grateful for the canvas canopy that sheltered him from the ongoing drizzle. It had been years since Laurie had needed to use a walking stick, but he missed the support when he was very tired. The lobby felt enormous and the elevator ridiculously slow, but at last he turned the key and took a deep breath, relaxed to be back at their room.
Except when he opened the door, the room was pitch dark and Ralph wasn't there. Laurie switched on lights and avoided the bed and the overstuffed chair, equally seductive to his fatigued state. He longed to just sit for a moment, but instead he called the desk. No message. Fair enough; he'd neglected to leave one for Ralph.
As he hung up, it occurred to him that if Ralph had waited, he might still be at a late dinner. He called the dining room next, but no, the maitre 'd -- whose eyes had followed Ralph all week with frustrated longing -- mournfully informed Laurie that he hadn't seen Monsieur Lanyon this evening.
Ralph was more than capable of taking care of himself. But Laurie still pocketed his key and left the room, a niggle of unease making him walk quickly despite his fatigue, and jingle his change as he waited for the elevator.
The hotel's bar was quiet and fairly empty, but Laurie walked all the way through it, searching. Next he sought the concierge and without going back for his coat he headed east three blocks, following the directions he'd been given, to a shabby little dive with no sign.
The dim room seemed bright to Laurie's eyes and the stuffy warmth was welcome, too. Best of all was the sight of Ralph at the bar.
He was sitting a little slumped, arms resting on the bar. That was unusual. Laurie had been in many pubs with Ralph. He usually stood, one foot on the rail, alert and interested in everyone around him, yet never understanding why people were drawn to confide in him.
Ralph didn't turn as Laurie limped toward him, visible in the mirror behind the bottles, but his shoulders straightened and his head came up even before Laurie's hand came to rest on Ralph's shoulder.
"I should have called. Forgive me." Laurie looked at the drink resting before Ralph. It looked untouched, but of course there was no way to know if it was the first Ralph had ordered or the tenth. Well, there was one way, but Laurie could hardly kiss Ralph right here. Not even in France.
"Have a seat," Ralph invited in that too-bright voice Laurie hadn't heard from him in years. "Let's have it out right here, shall we?"
"I'd rather go back to the hotel -- have you eaten?"
"Not hungry." Ralph was in command again, decisive and somewhat foreboding. He rose, left money on the bar and led the way out. Even in this mood, he didn't walk too fast for Laurie. He looked annoyed when he realized Laurie had no coat, but tucked his scarf around Laurie's neck without comment and took his arm, providing some much-needed support.
They headed straight to the elevator, still silent except to tell the night operator their floor. It seemed only right to keep quiet in the halls, since it was late. But once they entered the room, Laurie realized the extended silence had altered Ralph's mood. As Laurie locked the door behind them, Ralph defensively spat, "I just wanted to hold it."
"It's all right." Laurie had been close enough to know there was no whiskey on Ralph's breath. "Everything's fine. I'm sorry, my love--"
But Ralph twisted away from Laurie's arms with a grimace. "Let's do it cleanly this time, Spud, just the goodbye without the fuck."
"Goodbye?" Ralph's sailor language often surfaced with anger, but what Laurie heard was fear.
"He's still beautiful and young, and he glows when he looks at you." Ralph threw off his coat and continued, "You -- I could see it in your eyes, all those unresolved feelings. He wants you--"
"Andrew isn't queer."
"He never was, but you wanted him then and you want him now."
"And that's why the first words out of his mouth were that he can see we're in love, just from how I look at you?"
"Spud, I know you care for me, but you can't pretend you don't still love him. I was only what you settled for, because you couldn't have him. I've never really believed that you can't do without me--"
"Ralph, hush. You're giving me a headache. Come sit with me, I need to rest my knee and I want to hold you." The big chair was perfect for the two of them. Ralph obediently opened his arms when Laurie pushed at them, letting him have his favorite spot, head in place to hear the steady heartbeat. Ralph's hand came up, just as it always did, to touch Laurie's hair and soothe him, but tonight that hand was shaking.
It took a moment for Laurie to find the words he wanted. "It was wonderful to see Andrew, and to know that he's managed to make his way. Not just to survive, but to find a real place, and happiness. I... I was so worried that I'd damaged him, either by loving him or by forcing him to see himself... Of course I was happy to see him again and resolve all that."
Laurie lifted his head and moved back, to look into Ralph's eyes. "Andrew isn't a boy anymore, he's a man who's found his place in the world. No matter how happy we were to run into each other or how willing we are to resume our friendship, I'm not essential to his happiness."
"I don't want your pity, damn you."
"Good, because I don't pity the man who takes my breath away and has half of Paris admiring his backside. I merely love him, and want to be by his side always."
Ralph's too-quick breathing stopped for a moment, and then he gasped, "Spud--"
Laurie let a kiss communicate the rest of his words and all of his love, determined to keep Ralph breathless and gasping his name for the rest of the night.
There's now a sequel to this story, After-Dinner Drinks
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