by Laura Mason
A Night at Sandy's, based on a discussion of whether or not Laurie might have been very different without Ralph in his life during his formative years.
Ralph paused briefly at the door, steeling himself. A part of him still wished he'd had an excuse to miss Alec's party. He tried on a smile, pleasant and as neutral as possible -- God knew what it would be like in there by now; he was quite late. He swung the door open and Alec turned, smiling when he saw him.
"Happy birthday," Ralph called over the noise of conversation and music. Sandy heard his voice and turned, too, just as Ralph held out Alec's gift.
"You're here at last! Alec, leave that for later. Ralph, look what we've got for you." His eyes reflecting snide glee, Sandy turned just enough to give Ralph a full view of the room. There was the expected crowd of men drunkenly hanging upon each other, roaring with laughter at the dirty joke of their lives. Somehow the group parted, and in their center stood -- Odell.
He looked marvelous, youthful, completely at ease and quite obviously recovered. Ralph's immediate wonder at how they'd managed to fix Odell's knee was overshadowed by the realization that he shouldn't be here at all.
"You're dead," Ralph said.
Odell giggled idiotically as the crowd around him burst into laughter again. "Hardly, dearie," he managed to gasp out. "All the equipment's working just fine, Miss Lanyon. Want to see for yourself?" He crudely gestured to his groin and the whole room sniggered with him.
Except Ralph. "But -- this is wrong, you--"
"Did you think I'd stay sixteen forever?" Odell asked. "Look at him--" addressed to the crowd at large-- "still so dreary -- and butch. But we like that, don't we, ladies?" His facetiousness was just as it had been on the ship from Dunkirk. But Odell was no longer that grimy scarecrow. He was immaculately clean, wearing a perfectly fitted uniform with a non-regulation gold bracelet dangling heavily on his slim wrist. There was only disdain in his laugh, not a bit of good humour. As he sniggered, his gaze raked Ralph appraisingly, head to toe. Grudging approval turned to appalled rejection when he reached the left hand.
"Your leg," Ralph said, though he already knew that somehow, Odell was still whole.
"With my connections I wasn't going to wind up at one of those dreary places with a bunch of common rabble," Odell began, but then he was interrupted by an extremely handsome man -- Ralph didn't recognize him, but he was tall and well-built.
"Give us some of that unrationed sugar, love," the stranger said, and Odell opened his arms for an embrace that rapidly grew obscene. They writhed together, the whole room voicing encouragement as they watched the show. No one heard Ralph's protests over the din, or so he thought until Odell turned his head and met his eyes, completely ignoring the man still mauling his body.
"Really, Ralph," he said condescendingly, his voice clearly expressing disgust at a grown man still expecting life to be fair or just. Ralph found this far more embarrassing than the sex show -- he knew better, or he should by now. Seven years, after all -- Odell couldn't have made it through them untouched. Of course he'd look at Ralph that way and say...
"Wait. What did you call me?"
"Ralph. ... Ralph. Ralph!"
His eyes flew open and Laurie was right there, looking down on him with fond exasperation. "You fell asleep -- I knew you were tired. But it's just an hour until I have to catch my train."
Reality came rushing back, and Ralph mumbled apologies as he reached over and took Laurie in his arms once more... his Laurie, the man who'd managed to grow up without becoming less.
Meetings, based on a discussion of what Ralph might have seen in Bunny. My response was that perhaps it was more what Bunny allowed Ralph to recall and reclaim of himself.
He didn't usually stay so late or drink so much, abusing his cinema pass. But then, he didn't usually indulge in self-pity this much, either. Lately, though, since his letter to Odell had come back... At least he hadn't taken any pain medication tonight, as the throbbing in his hand reminded him. How could the liquor be so ineffective on that?
The crowd was too thick for him to get to the head as quickly as he needed, so he pushed out a door marked "no exit" into the gangway beside the building. Even after the door swung shut, he could hear the noise of the bar, mercifully only a dull roar.
He paused a moment, swaying a little, letting his eyes adjust. The bar had been dim, but it was blackout-dark outside. He oriented himself and moved toward the rear of the building, stepping carefully because he was tight. He was glad he'd been moving so slowly when he heard the unmistakable sounds ahead, flesh on flesh. From the deep grunts and moans he could hear, it wasn't one of the tarts from inside, stepping out with a john.
The sounds reminded Ralph how long it had been. If he listened, well, so what? Surely they didn't care. But first he needed to piss, and they wouldn't mind that, either. He relieved himself against the wall and thought about asking Alec to hook him up. But the vision that brought, of him parading himself at a gathering with the damn glove on, calling more attention to his hand than actually hiding it... He really couldn't manage it.
As he did up his trousers, he heard the rutting pair cry out in release, and he grimaced to himself. Couldn't even get voyeuristic thrills tonight, worse luck. But then there was another cry, not of pleasure.
"Liked that, didn't you, pansy? Well, this is what I like." Another cut-off cry, then Ralph heard a scuffle ending with a fist striking soft tissue. He ran through the darkness without thinking.
"No, please," gasped a voice, answered only by mocking laughter. Ralph saw figures but couldn't make out what the bully was doing as the other man cried out again, sharply. So he simply threw himself at them, and all three barreled to the cobbles in a heap.
"Hey!" That was the bully's voice, and Ralph gleefully struck out at him, aiming for the face. It was too dark to be accurate, even at close quarters, but he wrapped his half-hand into fabric to pull the man close, and hammered away with his right. He took a couple of glancing hits in return before a good one landed, and he'd have a bruise from that, but Ralph wouldn't let it stop him.
"God damn it," the bully cried, "my bloody tooth!" Ralph laughed and swung again, ignoring warmth trickling down from his eyebrow. That punch landed, he felt the impact in his hand, nice and square. It was good enough to make the bully twist away, shove Ralph off him, and flee stumblingly down the alley.
Ralph remained in the muck, gasping for breath and taking inventory. His uniform might be torn; it was certainly a mess. His lip was already swollen and his eye would require some kind of cover story. But he felt more alive than he had since Dunkirk, and he laughed again, wishing he'd had a taunt ready to call after the fleeing man.
Then he realised the second man hadn't taken the opportunity to run. Ralph could hear him there in the darkness, close by.
"Your friend's gone, bub." With effort, he lightened his tone to playfulness. "Try to be a bit more choosey next time, love." Ralph pulled himself up and began to walk away, but a hand on his arm stopped him and pulled him in to warm, knowing lips.
"Thank you," they breathed, and Ralph smelled gin, but he returned to them quite willingly, lost in the sweetness of human contact. His vague arousal from earlier solidified into an almost painful yearning. But then the kiss broke and the voice said, "You're like a knight, like something out of the movies."
That broke the spell. "Hardly," he replied. "As you'd know if it wasn't so damned dark." He pulled away, turned, but the voice pleaded.
"Wait. I'm ... my friends call me Bunny. Maybe we'll meet again, at a better time?"
"Sure." Ralph walked off without looking back, and made it back to the hospital in time to horrify the Night Sister.
About a month later, back on active duty, Ralph was sent to be instructed on the new SONAR equipment. It seemed like another dead end; he couldn't imagine he'd be any good at sitting around and staring at a screen when what he wanted was another command. But no one asked his opinion when issuing orders.
He entered a room set up for twenty students. There were two officers at the front of the room. He knew Major Carter, but the second man was a stranger. He was strikingly good-looking in a boyish way, and his uniform was immaculate in the manner that told Ralph he'd never been on a ship, not even as a damned passenger.
He slipped into a seat and listened as the Major introduced their instructor, Dennis Woolton, from the Langevin Company. Thankfully, Ralph was looking down, opening his notebook when Woolton spoke in a familiar voice.
Ralph lingered after class, watching Bunny toss around charming smiles and encouragement to the men who'd see action with the equipment he touted. Ralph wasn't sure why he was bothering to wait. He didn't think that much of the man; his looks were nice enough but his judgment was questionable and he wasn't a sailor, soldier or patriot, just a hired hand dressed up in a nice uniform. Anyway, even if he recognized Ralph's voice, as soon as he saw the glove it would be over.
The others were gone now, so Ralph made his way toward the door and turned to say, "You're from the company's sales department, am I right?"
Bunny's face creased quizzically, but he answered, "However did you guess?"
"Just an impression. You don't seem like an inventor, really, and an executive wouldn't be here doing this work. Anyway, you're a bit young for that."
"Oh. Oh! My heavens, we meet again."
Ralph grinned at his stunned amazement. "Yes, small world and all that. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Wait, I mean -- would you like to go for a drink, when you're off duty?"
Ralph turned and looked at Bunny for a long moment, then carefully used his left hand to touch his collar. "If you'd like, I know of a place in town." He saw the glove register, though he didn't think Bunny had the kind of face that was usually so easy to read. Well, it was no more than he'd expected. "We can make it another time," Ralph said easily.
"No, it's just ... You still came and ... for a total stranger, with that?" And then Ralph saw that Bunny wasn't rejecting him at all, but was gearing up for a new round of hero-worship.
"I wasn't thinking that clearly, you know. I'd been drinking."
"Me, too," Bunny said. "But I'm not drinking now, and I'd really like to get to know you better. I suppose we could start by telling me your name."
"Ralph Lanyon," he said, putting out his hand, and they smiled and shook hands. He felt lighter, somehow, though he knew it was foolish to be too dazzled by the reflection of himself in Bunny's eyes. He thought about that long, boozy kiss and saw heat in Bunny's eyes, too. They could have some fun together, though that was all it would be.
Ralph's Woman - based on a discussion about Ralph's comment while at dinner with Laurie that he occasionally "has" a woman.
He had great taste, but it was the silk stockings that sealed the deal. Commander Numbnuts -- okay, she knew that wasn't his name, but who cares? -- the old guy would host his usual dull-as-dirt party, with wives and girl-friends, and no war talk... Minimal war talk. Okay, probably a lot of war talk, because what else was there to talk about anymore? There would be plenty of food, too, but no real treats. Black market goods were a strict no-no, which was part of the dullness of these Navy dos.
Still, she'd get to dance. And she'd be on the arm of a very good-looking man, in her new gown. Very chic, because Ralph had chosen it himself, and he'd been willing to pay more than she'd ever spend.
"Ralph, come do me up, darling."
"With pleasure." He deftly fastened the tiny hooks and eyes as she admired herself in the glass.
"Are you really sure about the hair?" She was fussing just to annoy him. With this dress, it did look best swept up as he'd ordered.
"You're lovely. Every man there will be jealous."
"Except your boy-friends. I hear that all sailors are really like that, you know."
"Talking to those Air Force chaps again? Be nice, or Colonel Iverson will get more than one dance with you."
She made a face at him, not really afraid of Colonel Grabby-Hands, and touched her nose once more with powder before dropping the compact in her tiny bag. She wanted to put on more lipstick, but Ralph would just wipe it off. He had very definite ideas about her appearance when he took her to these things. Anyway, she'd still be the prettiest.
"Let's go dazzle them, sweetness. Honey-bunch. Man-of-mine."
"'Ralph' will do." He led her into the corridor and carefully helped her down the stairs in the dimness.
"After two years together? Speaking of which, for the next party I'll need a manicure and facial. You know, just so I look my best." She pulled him closer and pitched her voice very intimately.
"Perhaps we'll 'break up' before that happens," Ralph threatened, moving away and holding the door for her. His car was at the curb, and she seated herself with a sigh, pulling her wrap tight even though it wasn't actually cold. He continued, "There are other women, you know. One in every port."
"But you adore me."
He chuckled and she wondered who it was.
Ralph had changed in the last few months. He was happy, she supposed. It just meant he was even duller, frankly. Still... that laughter was full of contentment, and she'd bet anything there was a woman behind it. But why would he still be carting her to these events?
Back when they'd first met, he'd been honest with her and told her he was looking for a presentable escort, not a girl-friend or wife. He'd been willing to keep it strictly business, too, but it hadn't been difficult to get him in bed with her. A little sarcasm, a little teasing, and they were happily shagging. Not often enough for her taste, but there were plenty of others, even if they didn't measure ... well, what was the point of thinking about that now?
Now, everything had changed. Ralph couldn't act the outraged virgin with her, not after some of the ways they'd spent time together. But he was bullet-proof; no amount of bitchiness penetrated. She felt ... like his bratty sister, and she missed the man who'd fucked so angrily you'd think she'd chewed off that hand herself.
The car pulled to a halt and he came around to open her door. She took his arm as she rose and held him close for just a minute, searching his face. To anyone watching, it probably looked romantic. But what she saw in Ralph's eyes was like a bucket of icy water.
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