Many, many thanks to Thorne and Oleander, who were both brave enough to beta this. Their suggestions have made it a much better story; they're not responsible for the weird title, though, or any mistakes that occurred in re-writes.

Riposte, Counter, Disengage
by Laura Mason


He recognized the voice and waited in the shadows at the end of the alley until Bunny exited, dabbing at his mouth with his handkerchief.

"You're a fool."

"Bim!" Bunny reeked of gin and musk when he threw his arms around Bim and clung to him affectionately. "Fancy you lurking in this place! And don't mind me if I do fancy you ... a bit."

"Can it," he replied, deflecting those roaming hands away from his body. "All of us lurk in these same places, darling, and you damn well know it. What if some loudmouth tells Ralph?"

"But you won't, will you? Even though you think the sun rises out of his arse." The clinging arms were back around his neck, and his shirt-front felt damp from Bunny's breath. Bim maneuvered them to the front of the pub and hailed a cab in the neon glow, then practically poured Bunny inside. As soon as he was seated, Bunny seemed to doze off. Bim was grateful. At least he'd be silent for a while, and keep his hands to himself.

When the cab pulled up at Bunny's flat, Bim shook his arm. There was no response, but lightly slapping Bunny's face finally roused him. Bunny stumbled out and Bim followed, trying to hand over the fare though Bunny was once again draped all over him, evidently still feeling playful.

He'd been intending to keep the cab and head right back to the Bird, but it was obvious Bunny wouldn't make it up the stairs alone. Bim thought briefly about leaving him on the stoop to sleep it off. It wasn't that cold, and if it rained on him, tough luck.

But there were too many memories of nights when he'd been the one Ralph was seeing to safety. No matter how muddled he'd been or how outrageous his behavior, Bim had never been left to fend for himself. He always woke comfortably installed in Cedric's spare bed to face a new day and the inevitable hangover. He knew it wasn't Cedric who'd cleaned him up, taken off his shoes, and tucked him in.

Bim waved off the driver, got his shoulder under Bunny's arm, and began the climb.

"My hero," Bunny simpered in a falsetto and laughed. Drunk, Bunny was like a big, friendly Retriever waggling about and hanging on, imagining itself a lap dog. Well, at least he hadn't tried to lick Bim. Yet.

"If you're sober enough to joke, help a girl out here. You're no featherweight, Bunny," he gasped, relieved they'd reached the first landing.

"But you'd sweep Ralph up a staircase and into your bed, wouldn't you?" It wasn't a joke, that low hiss. Bunny had no reason to be jealous, of course, they both knew that. He must be remembering Bim rattling on about Ralph on one of those too-frequent nights when he humiliated himself. He hoped he'd never done it in front of Ralph, but there were too many blanks in his memory to be certain about it. Ralph would never say anything, thinking it kinder. Bim wasn't so sure.

"I'd sweep up either of you -- you're both damned attractive, you know," he teased. "Hard luck you've got each other." They were at the door, thank all that was holy, and now it was time to play find the key. He impersonally patted at Bunny's pockets, which of course set off shrieks of laughter and lewd remarks. When he finally found the key and reached inside Bunny's pocket, Bunny again began clinging to Bim and trying to get his hands inside his shirt.

It took a great effort to resist the urge to jerk away -- or to push Bunny down the stairs they'd just climbed. Instead, Bim ignored the wandering hands and concentrated on getting the key in the lock, which was difficult with his hands always shaking so. He needed a drink, and he'd damn well get one here since Bunny had dragged him away from his plans at the Bird.

Bim wrenched open the door, wondering how often he'd done this to Ralph, maudlin from downers and alcohol. It was what he wanted to do tonight -- just drink until he could forget Tuesday morning and joking with Fowles before they took off. Not a bad sort, Fowles. None of the boys had been all bad; now he even missed those wankers he'd hated in training.

Today he and Fowles had gone on their mission, a success since they'd driven the Heinkels away from Portsmouth and out over open country. Then they were skirmishing for a good long time, split up and spread out. He saw Nicks go down, but he'd thought the rest of them would be fine. Until he returned to base and the AC2 told him he was the first one back.

They were all gone. But he had returned, as always, to the expectation that he would cheerfully set out again once he'd slept off his next bender. Only ten missions to go, but it felt like it would never end. That was why he'd come out, to forget his damned routine, forget Fowles and Nicks and Milson and Travis.

Forget the way Ralph looked at him sometimes, with understanding and care. Without his usual contempt for slackers and those who were overly dramatic. Ralph could look like that, because he knew what it was about, and forgave.

But Ralph forgave too damn much, or he wouldn't still be with Bunny. Bim pulled away and Bunny stumbled in after him, swaying on his feet. Thankfully the lamp had been left burning with the blackout closed, so they didn't tumble over any furniture. Bunny was always rearranging the damn room.

"There you go," he said in his cheeriest voice while lowering Bunny into a low-slung chair only good for laying out drunks, as far as Bim could tell. Damned uncomfortable, though they looked as if they should be relaxing. He shook his head and pulled off Bunny's shoes.

"He despises me," Bunny muttered. "Your precious Ralph despises all of us."

"Then he'd be despising himself, too, wouldn't he?" Bim replied lightly, though he knew better than to argue with Bunny when he was nasty-drunk.

"Of course. You don't know like I do ... Ralph's hateful. That boy liked me, liked my looks and didn't want some combination of ... I don't know what. With him I was good enough..."

"Good enough to be on your knees in the alley?" Bim laughed. "That's special. You're not trying to tell me Ralph hasn't been good to you?" He looked about for their liquor and found the bottles in a cabinet, instead of arrayed on the bar as when they were entertaining. There was no reason to remain sober, Ralph was on duty and wouldn't be home until morning. Bim clumsily poured himself a drink, spilling a little, and added a slosh of water from the pitcher. It burned going down; he should have used more water. But the tension in his neck let up a little. "Really, Bunny. Ralph's no saint, but he'd never sneak behind your back."

"No, he'd do it to my face and be proud, wouldn't he? Lancelot Lanyon... You can't know what it's like, living with that. Competing with a ghost. If you'd read about that boy who died, you'd know then."

"Boy who died?"

"Odell, the queer of his dreams. Except maybe he wasn't. But to hear Ralph go on, about how beautiful he was, even filthy and bleeding to death..."

Bim poured another drink, tossed it back, then took a third to sip, pleased by the steadiness of his hands. He shouldn't discuss Ralph's personal business with Bunny. But he sat down in the chair beside him and casually asked, "Where did you read about him, this Odell? In a letter?"

"No, he burned the letter months ago. In his damn diary, don't you know, where he doesn't write about me or you. No, he writes about all his boring ideas, the damn books he reads, and things he won't discuss. Like his duty and the war -- and Odell dying at Dunkirk. I'm sick of it, sick!" Bunny moved too suddenly as he spoke, and his face turned a lurid green in the lamplight. Bunny-the-cheat, jealously prying into Ralph's private thoughts, made Bim feel a little green himself.

Bim was still sober enough to quickly move out of the way as Bunny moaned, lurched forward, and was truly sick, all over himself and his carpet. Bim steadied himself by pouring a glass of water from the pitcher and carrying it over.

"God damn it," Bunny choked, gulped at the water Bim handed him, then coughed and spit and retched some more. "Bugger. Hoist by my own..." He was crying and laughing, soiled and ugly, and Bim just stood there.

There were too many things going on right now for this night to rank as one of Bim's worst. But the thought of Ralph in love, really in love, was disturbing. Bad enough he wouldn't cheat on Bunny. Bad enough when Bim's advances were laughed off until even he wasn't sure if the flirting was habit or actual desire. Now there was a rival, a ghost-boy, unassailable in death. Ralph was the type who wouldn't abandon even a hopeless love, the fool.

Bunny was sober enough to recruit Bim in his attempt to clean up, though they did a piss-poor job of it. The carpet would stain, a lovely memento of yet another lovely evening. He got Bunny out of his clothes and into bed, once more avoiding the clingy arms and vomit-breath kisses being offered, wondering if Bunny had taken something. Bim had never been irresistible before.

By the time Bunny was down Bim was a mess. He couldn't return to the pub and hunt up company unless he first went back to Cedric's, bathed and changed. By the time he did that, he might as well stay there.

Bim stood in the living room for a few minutes, sipping his drink and listening to Bunny's pitiful moans from the bedroom turn into snores. Now he could finally leave, but his thoughts were keeping him trapped. He'd never had a chance with Ralph because of Bunny -- Ralph didn't cheat when he was involved. But why had Ralph attached himself to this tawdry room and Bunny's idiocy? Why hadn't they met first, so Bim could be the one waiting for Ralph to come home?

He remembered Fowles smiling at him, his grace as he climbed into the cockpit and that last careless wave. Just how stupid was he, brooding because life wasn't fair? Every day proved that, in much harsher lessons than Ralph's lack of interest.

Bim helped himself to a bottle of whiskey from their cupboard before walking to the cab stand.



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