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in the midst of this wide quietness

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Travelling by ferry and cheap train across Europe, Frank slept little and badly. By the time he landed in Dover he was in a hazy state of exhaustion, not helped by the humid hothouse atmosphere of the crowded little local train. His carriage was almost as hot as the Greek summer he'd left, and far wetter. Only when he stepped out into the airy lightness of the evening at Naseby station did he begin to feel at all awake.

The English evening was cool and mild, pleasantly lightened by moving air, deep shadows, the fresh clean smell of cut hay from the fields behind the station. It was no hardship in the slightest to cut behind the station to walk the two-mile path to the shore and the summer house his mother had hired a week ago.

He walked easily and lightly, a loose swinging stride as his half-empty rucksack thumped rhythmically against his back. He'd come ahead of the bulk of his luggage, which would be making its own slow way here with the rest of the equipment and artifacts from Greece. That was another relief, to have left all that awkwardness and fuss in someone else's hands, to be light and easy and carefree as he walked. 

It was pleasant to be here, now, not scrambling up a steep sliding slope of loose rock to get to some crumbling dig site but walking flat springy turf that yielded wonderfully underfoot. He was not thinking of anything in particular, beside the breeze and the grass and the single solitary cuckoo in the trees across the field, but he was still full of a bubbling sense of anticipation, the knowledge that soon - very soon, now - he would be with David again.

His mother was still in France, with her sister. Louise was dying - he was sorry for that, a little, though it was hard to feel any proper emotions about it when he had not seen his aunt more than four times in his life, and that not since he was still in school; he was sorrier for his mother, who loved her sister, and was going to lose her.

But it was almost impossible not to feel a sense of secret delight at the prospect of David all to himself for a month. There was the dig to be talked over - David's latest foolery at King's - all manner of books and papers and lectures, not to mention the story David had written before Frank left Cambridge, published in a magazine two weeks ago. Frank had been five months in Greece, near enough, and had not seen David since Christmas past. Frank missed him.

Behind the excitement, of course, Frank was very tired. So perhaps it was only that to blame, when the longed-for meeting with David seemed to lack its usual buoyant fizz, and the conversation seemed to stumble and falter where it had never stumbled or faltered before. Frank went to bed early, hiding his disappointment imperfectly from himself, and promising himself that the morning would be better.

Only the morning was not better. There was an early swim, and dripping, buttery toast made over a small unseasonal fire, and plans for golf, a little later, if it did not rain, and Frank did not think it would rain.

But every time the conversation strayed outside these safe bounds it faltered, and fell into silence.

Well-rested, now, and observant, Frank slowly realised that he was not at fault - had not been at fault the night before, either, despite his exhaustion. It was David who hesitated, and answered shortly, if at all. David whose words were clumsy, and who barely smiled even at Frank's best, most lighthearted efforts.

It is difficult for anyone to keep a conversation going under these circumstances - the circumstances of a dear friend who is showing all the signs he is not well pleased with one, without fair cause - and Frank did not manage it well. He felt hard done by, and showed it.

Nevertheless, the conversation limped along painfully until after lunch, when David stood and said, "I rather think it won't rain, after all. Shall we have that round of golf?"

Frank shrugged, looking away. "I'm more tired than I thought I was. Still feeling a little out of sorts, old chap. I think I'd better lie down for an hour or two instead, if you wouldn't mind missing the golf too terribly."

He waited a little, to see how David would take that.

"All right," David said shortly. "I might go for another swim. I'll keep out of your way."

Frank tightened his jaw, and said nothing.

Upstairs, he manfully read over one of the journals he'd fallen behind on while he was away, keeping it up for at least a quarter of an hour before he dove back into his rucksack to fish out David's letters. He searched them for any hint that David was unhappy with him - any hint at all -

There was nothing; nothing that Frank could see, at least.

He dropped his head in his arms.

David came back a few hours later, in the hottest part of the afternoon, pink and cross all over. He blew into the cottage in a clatter of limbs and thumps, followed by uncouth wet sounds as he drained a whole pitcher of cool water from the pantry. Frank had moved down to the cooler kitchen some time ago, his nose buried virtuously in an account of the latest findings from Knossos. He did not bother to remove it for some time.

But eventually the petulant noises ceased. David suddenly rushed across the room to fling himself down on the floor beside Frank's chair, head almost resting in Frank's lap.

"Frank," he said, a little desperately; it would have taken a better man than Frank not to look down and meet those eyes. "Frank, I've been an awful beast, haven't I? I'm so sorry - so terribly sorry - "

He broke off. Cautiously, Frank put his papers down on the kitchen table; his hand, withdrawing, seemed to fall quite naturally onto the top of David's head.

"You know I'll forgive you anything, my dear," he said presently, after a pause. "But if I have done anything to offend you, you would tell me, wouldn't you?"

David made a tiny noise in his throat. "Oh Frank. There isn't anything - I mean, there isn't anything you've done, that I have a right to take offence to..."

His voice trailed off. Frank looked at him; then after a moment David broke his gaze.

One of the lines in David's latest letter, reread only an hour ago, jumped vividly into mind. Sudden, shocked understanding was like a fist squeezing his chest.

He looked down at David's hesitant, guilty face, and was sure.

"I haven't been sleeping with Tom Crossley, if that's what you're trying to ask me," Frank said, bluntly.

David turned red and then white.

"I didn't - I wasn't - I mean, that's not what I - " He stopped trying to even stumble through a sentence, turning his eyes up to Frank beseechingly.

Frank didn't try to spare him, though he felt a sneaking thread of pity for David's distress despite himself.

"I did know you wouldn't," David said, after too long a pause. "And anyway it isn't my business, only - only I - "

It wasn't David's business, and Frank could not believe that David - generous, kind David - was making such a hash of this.

Certainly Frank would never have slept with Tom, even if he had been one of Frank's sort, which five months in close quarters had quite conclusively proven he wasn't. They had become friends rather quickly, and Frank supposed he had mentioned Tom quite often in his letters home, but that David could have, from such thin evidence as that, jumped to such a conclusion...

"I don't know what I was thinking," David continued, miserably. "And I've gotten myself in such a knot about it. I am dreadfully sorry, Frank."

"Idiot," Frank said, a little more kindly than he meant to, and stroked David's hair. He was still cross with David. But in the back of his mind was a growing awareness that some parts of his behaviour, in recent years, were not entirely the kind of which David would approve. Not that he had been unchaste, exactly, but he had become increasingly aware of the possibilities all around him, and had perhaps let others see that awareness a little too clearly...

Deep down he knew that when David was married, the thin thread that tied him to a morality not quite his own would snap, and he would have no reason not to seek out companionship where it was offered. He loved David, and while David made him the centre of his life and friendship, he would be loyal. Although Frank had been happy enough to give up all of the thrilling, sordid physical side of things to keep David, Frank was not a good enough man to think that he would be able to stay true to David after David had put him aside for another.

But - Frank put those black thoughts aside. David still loved him. David was jealous, of all the ridiculously adolescent emotions. Frank had no cause to depress himself like this, not when David had not so much spoken of marriage as anything more than a distant abstract, not while there was still a month of this summer ahead of them both.

He stroked David's hair again and then went to stand. Better to move the conversation forward himself, rather than subject himself to David's willful ignorance as he stumbled away from the topic...

"Ah well, it's all forgotten, my dear. Is there still time to play that game of golf, do you think?"

But David didn't move.

"David?"

David smiled up at him, faintly. "Can we stay here a little longer? There's something else I'd like to talk to you about, I think."

Frank blinked. To drag out a conversation like this, when Frank had offered David such an easy escape, was far less in character than the jealousy.

"If you like," he offered cautiously. "What would you like to talk about?"

David said nothing at first. Frank recognised the look on his face from school, that mix of fear and determination that appeared right before he flung himself headlong into some scrape.

"I saw Margery for a few days, while I was home," David began. "We had a rather dreadful row yesterday before I left - I suppose I shall have to write her to apologise. It's only that I needed some time to think things through, first..."

He trailed off again. Frank tried to keep his patience. "Well, yes, old chap, such things have been known to happen in families before, once or twice..."

David thumped his side, not gently. "Listen, will you? This is rather difficult." He took a deep breath. "The reason we rowed is because Margery has this friend, one of the ladies from St Hilda's, and they've been very close, ever since Margery first went up. Now the friend is offering to take her to France for a month, and next year perhaps Rome - they're both reading classics, of course -  and, well, I thought she wasn't really the right sort. I've heard some things about her, and I got an idea of the kind of person she was when I met her last Christmas, and, well, I didn't think she would be a good influence on Margery. I mean - you know what I mean."

Frank rather thought he did know. 

David took a deep breath. "I had to hint rather strongly before Margery took my meaning, but then she blew up at me. She's rather good to me, and I hadn't ever heard her shout like that before, so it was something of a shock. And then she called me the worst kind of hypocrite, and - you see she thought you and I were rather closer that we are - "

That last sentence was delivered in a rush mostly to the floor, but when he'd finished, David lifted his head to look at Frank again.

"That's not really too surprising, I suppose, is it? I'm sure there is talk about us at King's."

Frank nodded, very briefly.

"I suppose I did know that," David continued, softly, carefully. Even the near-constant fidgets had stopped. "It never really bothered me. I mean - you and I know how things are, between us, and that's all that matters, isn't it? I tried to explain all that to Margery, and I thought she'd calmed down a little, and things were going well... Only then I was fool enough to say something about how even if she didn't agree with my opinions, didn't she care what Father would think - and she blew up again, told me I was twenty kinds of idiot and didn't have the slightest idea of what our father might think. And then she had to leave for lunch with some aunt or other, so it was left hanging... it was all rather awkward."

Frank's hand was still moving, mechanically, in David's hair. He had thought, at first, that he knew where this conversation was going, but that last sentence of David's had set his heart pounding; they'd been steered wildly off course, and he had no idea where they were going, no idea at all...

"Do you know what she meant by that? About your father?" Frank asked, very carefully. He was trying not to think, but he could not help but ask the question.

"Well, yes," David answered quietly. "She said that Father knew already, and he'd given her his blessing."

"He what?"

"I know," David said. "I went straight in to speak to him. We were in there so long I almost missed my train, in the end."

"David," Frank said. He felt calm, felt in control; the world was strangely distant. Only his heart wouldn't stop pounding...

"Yes, I'm sorry, I can't keep my mind in a straight line... We talked about so many different things, you see, I don't know where to begin." He stopped, thought about it, continued. "He was rather surprised when I told him about you and me, too; I gather he'd assumed the same thing everyone else had. He likes you a great deal, you know. He respects you."

Frank had to swallow around the lump in his throat. "But I'm..."

"Well, yes. So am I, I think - mostly, anyway. And so is Margery... poor Father!"

Later, Frank would have to laugh at that, but at that moment he didn't have the breath to spare; he could barely manage to speak.

"He's a very good man," Frank said, after a moment. "I would hate so much to have upset him."

"But I don't think you have." David had started fidgeting again, but his eyes were fixed steadily on Frank's face. "We talked, you see, about all kinds of things. About - well, marriage, to begin with. It wasn't a sacrament in the early church, you know, that didn't come in until the Reformation. And sin... I'm sorry, I don't want to bore you with all that kind of talk, I know you're not quite so keen on all the details as I am."

That was an understatement if there had ever been one. Frank, if truth be told, would have little enough to do with religion these days if it wasn't for David. David cared, so much - too much, some might say. Frank felt a tiny bubble of laughter in his throat at the thought of David and his father talking together so earnestly and seriously about the religious state of a queer; it would have been ridiculous, only he loved them both so...

"I don't mind it, it comes across well from you," Frank managed, after a moment. "You make it sound so easy and natural, like it's so easy to be good..."

David shook his head, cutting Frank off. "No, don't say that. I think I might have been such a fool... oh, I don't know, I didn't know." He paused; Frank could practically see him thinking. "One of the things he told me, you see, was about my mother. You know she was married awfully young, and when she had Margery, things went rather badly. The doctor told her she oughtn't ever have another child, it would be too dangerous to try again. And she and father did try to be careful, only they mustn't have been careful enough, because if they had been, I wouldn't have been born, and she would still be here..."

He trailed off. Frank's hand drifted down to his shoulder and squeezed it.

"Well, they were married, weren't they, Frank? What they did shouldn't have been a sin, but it was still a wrong thing for them to do, because they knew it would be dangerous for her. And she did die of it. Father - well, I suppose I always knew he took it very hard, he never married again - but when he told me a little more about how badly it had shook him, I had no idea of how much it had changed him. And then he sees a lot, and hears a lot, in his work, you know. There are all kinds of marriages - some where they can't have children, some where they don't want them, some horrible ones where husbands and wives do awful things to one another, and to children... He told me that the more he sees and the more he learns, the more complex the world becomes. A sin is a sin, and it's wrong to hurt someone, or behave shamefully. But if you love someone, and you can be honest and true in that love, true to each other..."

"David," Frank said. He couldn't bear to look at him - only he must, he had to... when he forced himself to look at David again, his eyes were shining.

"Like David and - and Jonathan - " David only stuttered a little over the words.

"David," Frank said again. "David, what are you saying, old chap? You can't - you mustn't - "

"I know I don't like to think about these things, and it's never really been fair to you, has it? I just like to let things flow along easily, and not go near anything unpleasant, or difficult..." he trailed off. "Partly it was that I wanted to keep myself clean for - for whoever there might be, but partly it was cowardice. I don't want to do that anymore, I want to think things through properly and clearly, even when it's difficult for me... So. I know it wouldn't have been right for us at school, I know I was in the right back then. I was too young, I didn't know how to say no to you. But now I think it might be - oh hell, Frank. Even two or three years ago it would have been different! I've spent so long sailing along expecting to fall in love with some girl any minute, because that was what I thought I was supposed to do, and all along I was ignoring what I already had... I love you, you see. I always have, I know that you know that. But all I've managed to do is blunder around, forcing you to live only half a life, while you waited for me to wake up...

"I had to race out to catch the train before my father and I had really finished speaking, and all I could think about was the hellish waste of it, that I'd felt like I was being noble and self-sacrificing, and instead I was just sacrificing half our happiness. And then it was all going round and round in my head, horribly, and I started to be afraid that I'd waited too long, and I'd lost you... to damned Tom Crossley, of all people..."

Frank finally found the strength to move; found himself sliding forward, until he'd tumbled off the chair into David's arms.

"Idiot, you absolute idiot... as if you ever could!"

David's voice was slightly muffled by Frank's shoulder. "Well, I have made you put up with rather a lot."

"As if I minded," Frank said, breathless. "Not to mention all the things you've done for me... You know what you saved me from, at school. And you still loved me... All of the other things aren't worth much, compared to that."

David pulled back a little, to look at him.

"Are you happy as we are, then?" he asked, tentatively. "If we were to go on as we are, only knowing it was for always, and there wouldn't ever be anyone else...?"

Frank held David tighter, for a moment. "I have been happy. If that's all you want, I'd be content."

David shook his head. "That wasn't what I asked, though." His face suddenly flamed red again. "I do know you and Hughes, and - and you liked that?"

"Yes," Frank breathed out, almost a whisper. "I was younger than you the first time, and he wasn't nearly so handsome, but I - I did like it, all of it."

David was looking at him, still faintly pink-cheeked, forehead marred with the faintest trace of a frown - curiosity, as much as disgust. Frank couldn't stop looking at him.

"I wish he hadn't done that to you," David said at last, slowly. "You were too young, too..."

Frank shrugged. "It doesn't matter now, my dear. Except that you haven't told me if that side of things is something you want."

David's blush suddenly returned, colour deepening across his face. He seemed incapable of meeting Frank's eyes, again.

"I didn't let myself think about it," David said, very softly. "I haven't. Except Bags almost got me into something rather sticky once - but I got out of that too. I didn't - I wanted not to - "

Once again he trailed off into inarticulacy; but this time his motivations were rather more clear.

They were awfully close to each other, Frank thought, a little distantly. It would be so easy to lean in and - but there was still that bone-deep fear that David didn't really want it, that he was going to hurt him all over again...

"Frank," David said, softly. "Would you mind terribly if you kissed me right now? I haven't done it before, you know, so I can't promise it will be wonderful, but if you think it wouldn't be too much trouble..."

"I suppose I could try," Frank said, very fondly.

His heart was beating far too fast, but in the end it was easy enough to comply.