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The Happiest Years

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But the world outside could enter even the most stubbornly guarded paradise, Maurice had now learned. Alec’s conscription papers, lying on the kitchen table where they'd been tossed a few hours ago by said conscript, were ample proof of that.

There were more -- letter from Kitty, informing him that their mother was gravely ill, another from his broker warning him that some of his annuities, which were still the bulk of his wealth in the absence of a salary, had fallen on hard times. Investments that seemed sound in 1908 were much more hazardous in 1914 -- and Maurice had a great deal of European holdings, for all that he was a proud Englishman.

Upon this troubling scene -- Maurice trapped like an insect under a fall of white paper -- came Alec. A quick glance seemed enough for him. “In a muddle again, isn't you?”

“Am I?” Maurice wondered aloud. “Or is the whole world?”

“That’s worse than a muddle,” Alec said, and Maurice had to concede that he was right.

The kiss Alec gave him was scratchy and rough against his forehead, but still Maurice smiled. “Kiss me more,” he demanded when it was over and Alec raised his brows.

“Mr. Hall is very demanding today. Are you afraid I'll leave you, then?”

“Alec, won't you tell me exactly what you've planned? Are you going to take the summons, or should we run?”

“We can't,” was Alec’s blunt answer. “It isn't a ticket on the Normannia. If I don't present myself when I'm asked, they'll send someone after me.”

“Then I'll go with you, volunteer. They wouldn't turn me away, whatever my age.” Maurice had just recently turned thirty, but felt nothing of the grave circumspection that his younger self had assumed he would feel at such an advanced age.

Instead, he felt more lighter and entirely happy now than he had felt between the terrible years since he has lost Clive and before he gained Alec.

But Alec frowned at him. “Why would you do a stupid thing like that? You should be glad to be out of it.”

A little irritated, Maurice replied, “What do you expect? Shall I stay here and wait for you like a faithful wife --”

“Don’t be stupid, Maurice.”

And then he was cut off again, and and to be truthful, he was glad of it. It was better to speak with your body, as Alec did, than whatever attempt he made with his words. Maurice had never been clever, he knew that, but that had never seemed important before. He’d had other opportunities, after all.

Alec began to pace back and forth, an impatient look in his eye. “All right,” he said abruptly. “How do you propose we stay together?”

“We’ll think of something,” Maurice said, with all the confidence he did not actually feel. And in the end, there was no need to think -- events unfolded as they must. Alec went when he was called, and Maurice followed soon after. He hoped that the war would be over before either of them had to fight, as most said it would be.

*

That Maurice saw Clive before he saw Alec again and that struck him as very unfair. He had, from their very last meeting, stricken Clive from his heart utterly and had not found it to be as difficult a task as he had feared.

He took another look at the man on the other side of the hospital bed and began to doubt. Really, was it Clive after all? He didn’t seem to recognize Maurice at all -- his disinterested eyes slid off of Maurice as if oiled, and there was not much more of his face that was uncovered.

Maurice’s attention snapped back to the task at hand -- writing to Alec. He had so much to tell him, so much that he wanted to know -- but most of all was this: Where are you? Are you all right? Do you think of me? When will we see each other again?

Alec, Alec! I wish we’d managed to keep away after all.

*

“Private Hall!” Maurice turned at the sound of his name and was surprised to see another, vaguely familiar face, though now she was dressed in a crisp nurse’s uniform. The February wind whipped it around her, but in truth, Maurice had never attended closely to the shape and curves of Violet Tonks’ face and would not have been able to tell if she had changed greatly or not.

But still, seeing her irresistibly reminded him of Kitty, and from Kitty to his mother and Ada. Aside from the letter from Kitty, he had heard nothing from them and not written to them either. Curious as how she would treat him, he waited for her to catch him. She did with a puff of frustration, a little color stealing on to her careworn face.

“You shouldn’t be wandering from your bed,” she said, scoldingly, and he smiled.

“I’m sorry, I just wanted to stretch for a bit before dinner. How are you, Miss -- I mean, Nurse Tonks? Are you still in touch with Kitty?”

“Kitty?” she blinked and Maurice considered that perhaps she hadn’t recognized him after all. But then her face cleared and she smiled. “Of course, yes, I write to her often enough! She’s still in London, I think?”

“I wouldn’t know that,” Maurice said with a shrug.

She looked at him curiously. Then, with a nod, she said, “You were always rather cold-hearted, Kitty said.”

“Did she say that?” Maurice looked up at the wintery sky. When Lasker Jones had suggested he flee there, he had imagined France to be warm, and more welcoming for his sort than England had been. But no, it was the same, here as well as there -- the sky was like cement, closed up and full of rain.

“You shouldn’t wander,” Nurse Tonks said reproachfully.

“I wouldn’t,” he promised her, and then asked how he could send a letter the fastest way.

*

The war had only been over some days when he saw Alec again. It seemed by some miracle that it had not touched him -- he seemed very nearly the same. The same tousled brown hair -- he’d pulled off his cap as soon as he’d come inside, and his fresh color throbbed against his sunburnt skin. Those eyes were still bright, still curious -- and so, so beloved. He seemed to be looking for someone, Maurice, in his supreme self-absorption, could only believe that it was himself.

“Alec!” he cried out, and thinking a little more of it, “Scudder!”

Alec’s head whipped to his direction and his relief broke across his face like a wave. There was no fear, then, that Alec had stopped loving him. Maurice had not allowed himself to really fear that, even as he struggled up from his seat. He was still limping from his last injury, but his doctor had assured him that it was would not be permanent.

The war was long and terrible, Maurice reasoned, and no one could look askance at two soldiers embracing now. They could even share a kiss, perhaps, but he did not risk it. Instead, he swung his arm around Alec’s neck and squeezed a little.

Alec gave him a sly glance, full of delicious things that were best left unsaid. Maurice thought he was so happy that his heart could burst.

They agreed to stay on in Paris for a little bit longer. Maurice met his old friend, the Frenchman one day at the market and he -- Monsieur Clare -- had offered him something to do in the meantime, indescribably boring but able to keep both him and Alec in the pink. Maurice supposed that Clare’s sharp brown eyes had not missed the changes in him. How he had changed! Sometimes he would catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror and not recognize himself.

He knew Alec wasn’t particularly happy with staying on -- Alec was not one for cities, and though Maurice had enjoyed romantic notions of working outdoors and with his hands, he had soon discovered he was not one for the woods. They lived in a small flat close to Maurice’s office, a place with an indifferent landlady and a high, perilously fragile set of stairs up to it. In the evenings, Maurice would bypass those steps entirely -- he knew Alec would not be there. He would be in the cafe down the street, which was clogged with foreigners such as himself, all eager to drink and carouse and forget the pain of the recent past.

Maurice would wait at the door, uncertain whether he should come in before one of Alec’s friends would spot him and shout for Alec to come and attend to his stiff friend. That would bring a fresh laughter and ridicule at Maurice’s expense.

But it was worth it to see Alec happy, his cheeks ruddy from drink. They would stay there for a drink or two or three before going home again, arms around each other. Sometimes, in the slow, dark hours before dawn, Maurice wanted to ask Alec what he felt like, what he remembered from the war. They hadn’t spoken about it at all, not since their reunion.

Obscurely, he felt that that was right. The past couldn’t change. It followed that talking about the past wouldn’t change anything either. But then -- they had run into trouble, he and Alec, by not speaking.

“Alec,” he began, tracing a finger down the scar the cut through Alec’s side. It hadn’t been there, before. How had he gotten it? “Won’t you speak to me?”

Alec turned to look at him. His eyes were dark and old and Maurice felt hopeless for a moment, and furious that something had been stolen from Alec, something essential to who he was. He reached out and pressed a kissed him, brushing his lips against Alec’s cheek and then his lips.

“Speak to you about what?” Alec whispered.

“You haven’t told me what you’ve had to endure -- I want to know all about it.”

“You’ve never told me either,” Alec shot back. They stared at each other.

“What do you want to know?”

“Everything, Maurice,” Alec said, touching his forehead against Maurice’s. “I want to know everything about you. Don’t you know that already?”

He did, of course, know that. But at times, he still needed a reminder. The story of the last few years took long in telling -- by the time they were both quite finished, the morning had already filled up their small bedroom with bright sunlight and Maurice was hopelessly late. He didn’t care, however, and said so.

“Do you want to go back to England?” he asked Alec over a lazy breakfast of fried eggs and baguette from the bakery nearby.

“You know I do,” Alec said, a little scoffingly. “I thought you wanted to become an outlaw in the greenwood.”

“While you always pointed out how impossible it was,” Maurice replied.

“It will be impossible, and sooner than I suppose we want,” Alec conceded. “But all the same, I'd be happier in England. Wouldn't you?”

“I would be happy wherever you are,” Maurice said, and he meant it sincerely.

They left France soon after -- over Monsieur Clare’s arch expressions of regrets and the lighthearted scorn of Alec’s drinking companions. And their departure marked a turn in their relationship, from something tender and soft -- romantic -- into the rougher weave of ordinary life. Ordinary, but still arresting, still worthy.

Maurice doubted he could love Alec more than he already did. This thought went unchallenged -- it seemed that Alec never thought differently, and for that he was grateful.

*

Downstairs, the wireless blared on suddenly and Maurice snorted awake. “Alec,” he said crossly, “close it if you’re not listening to it.”

“Come out and have breakfast,” Alec called back. “I hope Mr. Hall isn’t expecting breakfast in bed!”

“I don’t anymore, you wretch,” Maurice muttered to himself. But their cottage was small enough that Maurice could hear Alec’s boots squeak against the kitchen floor and hear him chuckle. It was good that, after all these years, Alec had retained his good humor, Maurice supposed.

He sighed and looked up to the ceiling. There was a brownish stain that needed looking at. If he mentioned it to Alec, he’d just get an eye roll and a smart remark. But maybe that nice young man who came up sometimes to work in their garden could take care of it.

Breakfast was waiting for him when he came into the kitchen and what it lacked in taste -- Alec read too much for his own good, or Maurice’s, and had cut out the fats in their meals drastically -- it made up in warmth and freshness.

“There’s news,” Alec said casually.

“What of?” Maurice asked, dreaming of a crisp side of bacon.

“Took fifty-four years, but happens we’re not outlaws anymore.”

“Should we mark it with something?” Maurice’s eyes took on a gleam of mischief. “Maybe something nice and fatty.”

“You’re hoping for an early grave, I see,” Alec said.

“I’m already seventy-eight, I can’t expect to last that much longer.”

“Your mother did,” Alec replied.

“That was her --” Suddenly, the telephone rang. Maurice got up to get it, though usually he avoided it as such. He’d been opposed to fitting out their tiny cottage with a telephone in the first place, seeing it as yet inch of the greenwood lost, but he couldn’t deny that it had its uses. Like now, he didn’t quite like the way Alec’s face shifted when he talked about dying.

“Maurice!” Kitty’s cut into his distraction, as clear as ever. “Have you heard the news?”

“Yes, yes,” Maurice said, a touch impatiently. “It hasn’t mattered to me since -- well, since I met Alec. But I suppose it’s better late than never for everyone else.”

“I can see your face when you said that,” Kitty said with a laugh.

Maurice hadn’t meant to strike up a late-in-life friendship with his younger sister, he’d stumbled on to it like he did most things. They’d caught sight of each other -- incredibly -- in the middle of the woods, where she had been hiking and he had been cutting wood. He would have walked away, but she had shouted his name and he couldn’t very well leave it at that. Instead, he’d taken her home and they’d had tea together (with Kitty watching with round eyes to see her brother, of all people, make tea for himself and her) and waited for Alec to come home.

“Do you still see Miss Tonks?” Maurice asked her abruptly, feeling awkward.

“Miss Tonks …? Oh, I haven’t thought of her for ages. No, not since the war. I’m married now, you know. Mama thought it would never happen, on account of the scandal, Ada would have nothing to do with us for the longest time, but John doesn’t care about it. He says --”

She stopped herself and took a deep breath. “Oh you never change, Maurice. You haven’t listened to a word I said.”

“I’m listening out for him.”

“Who? Your groundskeeper --”

“Alec. I’m a woodcutter myself, you know.”

“I know now,” Kitty said, looking uncertain. She stood up and said she wouldn’t wait for the tea. “But I’d like to see your Alec again, if I could.”

“It would depend on him,” Maurice said diffidently. But she had come again and met Alec, and in the end, had become a link from his old life to the new.

“I can send Stephen out to help you with the garden,” Kitty was saying. She hadn’t paused once during their conversation, despite Maurice’s silence and occasional hums and sighs.

“You don’t need to,” Maurice said, “I’m perfectly all right with it--”

“Maurice,” Alec called out, “Come on!”

“He’s calling me now, goodbye Kitty!”

“All right but--”

Maurice put the telephone back in its cradle and hurried outside. Their garden was really a remarkable thing, taking over the small plot of land that they had bought long ago. It happened to be a beautiful day -- it had rained earlier and there was still clouds in the sky, heavy with moisture. But the sun was making an effort, rallying its strength. Alec looked up, wiping off his face. A clot of dirt marked his cheek and Maurice leaned down to brush it off.

“Are you happy, Maurice?” Alec asked him.

“I am,” Maurice replied. He was.