Sometimes the smallest thing makes all the difference. I started writing fan fiction because of those "what if" questions that make a tale an AU.
This very short fic contains spoilers for the book, and is a dark AU about might-have-beens and death. If this is likely to upset you, please skip this one and find something more cheerful to read.
by Laura Mason
Nothing looked the same. In ten years, despite shortages and rationing, bombed areas were rebuilt. The hospital had grown, too, new wings cobbled on until the stone tracery and gables of the original Victorian Gothic were barely visible among the straighter red brick lines of the modern building.
Laurie didn't look the same, either. He'd gone in the other direction, of course, once-smooth surfaces now graven with lines. He moved through the streets, the rhythm of his gait unchanged since those days. He'd lived with the knee long enough that it was hard to remember ever moving with uncomplicated ease. Such feelings belonged to childhood, when one could thoughtlessly run and never imagine slowing down. Or stopping.
It was oddly fitting that he'd been thinking such thoughts when the post office loomed in front of him, unchanged though the street around it was entirely different, crowded with automobiles, people, and taller buildings. The sight sent his mind swirling back, dragged into the past like a leaf caught in the pull of the river.
Thursday dawned rainy, so overcast that patients who usually woke before breakfast with Laurie slept on, unaware day had come. The nurses would rouse them, of course, long before the skies cleared.
As Laurie dressed, he thought about the afternoon. Ralph's schedule was shifting, something about a new training assignment now that he'd completed his courses -- Ralph had to be vague about his classified duties, but the confusion was added to by the unreality of Laurie's double life. There was no future beyond his knowledge that Ralph would be here at two o'clock, to take him for a drive and outdoor luncheon. Laurie almost felt regretful about the change in schedule, already missing the peaceful wandering in old town they'd done for the last three nights. He wondered if now, for the time left to them, their afternoons would be filled with long talks about the past, interspersed with lazy kisses and gentle caresses.
In six more days, Laurie was the one who'd be changing everything. By then he'd be discharged from the hospital, discharged from duty -- and the decision, so impossible, about what to do with his life still faced him. Laurie's mind retreated, and he did his chores, then flipped through yesterday's newspaper until breakfast. He was actually relieved when no letter from Andrew arrived with the morning post.
There were hours left to fill, and after a restless circuit of the ward, the halls, and finally the hospital courtyard, Laurie sat down to write his mother. It was a letter timed to arrive before she returned from the wedding trip; she'd often sent letters to his school in the same way, to welcome him back and let him know she'd been thinking of him. It seemed the right thing to do, even if the news he could share about himself was incomplete. He wouldn't think beyond this day, not even for her.
Ralph arrived as he was sealing the letter, and Laurie stuffed it into a pocket without much thought. The day was sunny but brisk, and as they walked to fetch the car, Ralph said, "Would you rather just go up to my rooms, Spud? We'll eat there, and have a bit of a fire."
"I've got a jumper under my tunic," Laurie replied. "But it does seem too cold for a picnic."
Ralph smiled back at him. "Just as you like." But then Laurie saw the post office, and tugged Ralph's arm.
"I've got a letter to post."
"Go on, I'll have a smoke."
"No, come in with me." The future he'd been putting off was before him, suddenly, and Laurie didn't think twice about such a small commitment. "You should have stamps, for when I go up to Oxford. You will write to me, won't you?"
Ralph's warm smile made Laurie's stomach flutter, and as they walked inside, he knew when they finally reached Ralph's room the hamper would sit untouched for hours, neither of them hungry for food.
It was the first time they'd made love in daylight, the sheer curtains diffusing the late sunlight when the clouds finally vanished. Ralph was playful, laughing as he drove Laurie crazy with teasing touches of hand and mouth. They ended up in a snickering heap, naked and entwined, and suddenly there was heat and great need, passion that demanded pounding, primal satisfaction. When the combustion ended at last and they lay in a contented tangle, sharing languid kisses, Laurie heard a lark singing to the setting sun in a neighboring tree.
It was a day of perfect happiness. Perfect, because they didn't know it was the last.
He'd let Alec handle the arrangements. Alec, who'd gone white-faced with anger when Laurie arrived at the funeral, a welcome change from the stunned, frozen stare profound pain left on his face. All these years later Laurie couldn't remember who else had been there, Bunny or any of that set, but he was certain it had been Sandy supporting Alec at the very end, pulling him away when he crumbled as the clods of earth drummed down on the casket.
Alec had never heard Ralph's apology. The letter addressed to Laurie had arrived on Tuesday, posted as Ralph walked to the river front that dark and bitterly cold night. Posted while Laurie waited for him back in Ralph's perfectly tidy, empty room, too exhausted to notice the half-burned books still smoldering in the fireplace, or that Ralph's uniform was neatly hung behind the door.
Laurie retraced Ralph's path, down to the old town, past the pubs where for a few nights they sat talking with old sailors before heading back to the tacky room that had been their paradise, complete with serpent. Happiness is hard to come by and seldom lasts for long.
He stumbled to the very edge of the river, to the place where they'd found Ralph's shattered body late Sunday morning. There he stood, tearless as he'd been ten years before. All this time, yet he still had nothing to give either of his loves. Laurie hadn't even managed to share the truth with Andrew before he was blasted to pieces in France, trying to protect his ambulance full of wounded, doomed men.
His hands burrowed into his pockets, and one careful finger touched the edge of the tattered letters he always carried, replacements for the Phaedrus, edifying in their own way.
Laurie wanted to tell Ralph that he couldn't have protected him, shouldn't have tried-- But such words seemed too close to the harsh ones he'd thrown at Ralph that last afternoon of his life. Instead, Laurie stood silently watching the water, his face tight with pain, until the sun sank behind him and it was time to walk back for his train.
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