A new fandom makes me feel stupidly naive all over again. So. Hmm. PG rated slash. If you haven't read The Charioteer, please do. I have no idea if this ficlet will make sense to those who haven't read the novel or not.
Again, many thanks to Tehta for a thorough beta that raised lots of issues and questions. Hopefully this makes a lot more sense thanks to her. If sense appears to be lacking, blame me for ignoring her good advice.
by Laura Mason
It was one horror in a day of horrors, but Ralph couldn't get it out of his mind. He wasn't injured so badly that an extended stay in hospital felt necessary. The inactivity was boring. There was damn little war news, no newspapers, and no one had time to send him some good books. Still, it was perverse of him to keep thinking back to the end of May, and that one hellish trip among so many.
Odell was unconscious, grimy, and his wound stank. He was instantly recognizable nonetheless, and somehow the image of him at sixteen was what Ralph saw instead of the too-white, strained face on the deck.
"Hold on, Spud," he'd pleaded, tapping Odell's cheek gently, and the whole war faded as he remembered taking that face between his hands for a gentle kiss, and watching it transform with wonder. He'd been very wrong to do that to a boy three years his junior, then just say goodbye, walk away, and let him deal with it.
So it seemed only just when those dazed eyes opened and Odell casually sent him up, his voice strained with pain but loud and clear enough to inflict perfect retribution. "Sorry, dearie, some other time." Ralph fled amidst laughter from the men around them. Odell was very much alive, despite almost immediately lapsing back into unconsciousness.
Was his comment intended to wound, or simply the kindest way he'd found to deflect unwanted attention? Had life knocked Odell around so much that he now despised the kind of men his beauty attracted?
In the exhausting hours that followed, as the Vimy made the trip across the channel again and again, under fire and loaded with starving, dazed men, Ralph had no time to think. There was too much to do, not just the multitude of routine decisions made heavier by the lives in his hands, but also seeing that positions were manned as air attacks increased the count of the wounded on board.
He'd actually had the hubris to believe he was in control and that his knowledge and skill would make a difference. Surely life had tried to teach him otherwise at nineteen? Yet it took a shell -- thank all the gods, hitting as the Vimy headed back to Dunkirk harbor, not when it was full of fragile cargo -- to finally bring the lesson home. He was a pawn, tossed into the sea at a whim, somehow rescued when others were not.
And when he woke in the hospital, maimed, it seemed only right that now he outwardly manifested what had always been true. He felt sorry for himself for a few days, but then he dreamed of his room at Stuart's and woke up thinking about Odell.
It became a game, to relax on his bed ignoring those around him, reliving that long-ago afternoon. He compared that loaded conversation to the five words tossed out amidst the madness on his ship's deck. In memory Ralph looked directly into the boy's uncertain eyes, clearer to him than the man's, searching for an indication of the scorn Odell now expressed.
What had Ralph been about, that long-ago day? He'd been young, but that was no excuse. He'd been old enough to know what he was, and to know he shouldn't interfere with Odell, who wasn't. Despite his protest to the contrary, Spud had still been a child.
Seven years ago. Funny how vividly he recalled Odell's stillness melting into sweet acceptance. Ralph remembered feeling triumphant for just a moment while drinking the sweetness of that mouth, until he'd come to his senses, pulled away, and none-too-gently dismissed the boy. When Odell finally left the room, Ralph's hands shook.
The memory of little Spud defying him, so foolishly and wonderfully courageous, had stayed with Ralph during the sleepless night that followed and through the unpleasantness of the next days. Those eyes, full of an admiration that demanded the best from him, were what sent Ralph home instead of straight to Southampton as he'd planned. He hardly knew what subsequent actions Odell might be responsible for directing, but he suspected there were many.
Certainly it was the memory of Odell's eyes that made Ralph ask the night nurse for paper and a pen, and begin a letter.
Ralph wrote and wrote, and only when the thick envelope was safely in the post did he relax enough to mock himself. Was he still a boy, to feel it an accomplishment to extend an apology and offer a hand in friendship? In this damned war, with death hovering, soldiers and civilians around him still dared to love. Yet Ralph congratulated himself for having the courage to finally send a long-overdue letter.
Still, thoughts of that letter and Odell were what Ralph turned to when he learned there would be no other command, no ship for someone with only half a hand. If Odell replied; if Ralph had another chance... Sadly, he didn't believe in prayer any more than he believed in luck
The day before his discharge the letter was returned to him marked "died of wounds." Ralph sat staring at the words for a time. Then he laughed, a derisive bark, as the horizon once more closed down around him, just as it had in '33. Only one way out this time, but not an honorable choice for him, bound by duty to King and Country. There'd be time enough for amateur dramatics when the war was won.
Ralph burned the letter, telling himself he wished the memory of Odell's eyes would dissolve with the smoke.
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