When Laurie opened his eyes in the darkness of the small room at first he wasn't quite sure where he was. Ralph's arm lay protectively across his chest. The air in the room felt chilly against the bare skin of his arm when he reached for his watch. It had just gone half past five. At hospital nurses would be scurrying everywhere and waking up there he would recognise the sounds of bustling and know that the time to get up would soon be at hand. Here and now, there was still time to go back to sleep, so he burrowed back under the covers, back to Ralph's warmth. In a week or so, he could be waking up like this every morning. For a moment the thought seemed overwhelming but then sleep won.
Speaking with Alec had been the last thing on his mind in the night but once he caught sight of the hospital he knew it was something he needed to do, although he wasn't sure how to get hold of him. He could probably ask someone but it might take a while to track down Alec. But before he got further than the first flight of stairs he ran into him.
"I was hoping to see you before I went home," Alec said. "I take it went well."
"Yes. He's just given me a lift on his way to the station." Laurie paused awkwardly, not sure how to say what he wanted.
"I want to thank you for sending me there," he started quietly. "Last night, I didn't quite understand why you insisted."
Alec looked at him sharply. "But you do now."
"Yes. He doesn't know I know."
"Oh. But I think it's probably best that way."
They were both silent.
"I'd better let you go to your ward so you'll be in time for the round."
"Well, I'll see you soon. I might look in before they discharge you--when was it again?"
"In five days."
"Oh yes. Well, I'd better go now."
Laurie had been prepared for questions when he got to his ward but there were none. The Sister handed him his letters and told him to get ready for the round.
It was only after the consultant had completed his round that Laurie was able to read his mail. There was only one letter today that looked important. Opening it, he discovered it was from his unit and requested him to present himself before a medical board the day after his discharge from hospital. He knew his knee would give him his discharge papers but it was plain his unit wanted to go by the book. He had been putting off writing to his college about his return to Oxford until he had a firm date for his discharge from the army. Now he had it, so he reached for pen and paper to write the necessary letter. Having finished it he started another to his mother. He wasn't sure what to do about clothes. His discharge would free him from his battledress. It had served him well, but he needed his own clothes now. He tried to recall the contents of his wardrobe before the war, thinking that some of it must still be good enough to wear. He'd probably have to buy something new but for the time being, his old clothes would do, if he was able to arrange to get them before his discharge.
Ralph collected him from the station and took him straight to the flat he had found for them. It wasn't very far from Ralph's old room and it was an easy distance from the library, which Laurie appreciated. It belonged to a relative of someone at Ralph's station, a lecturer at the university who had opted to put his skills in the government's hands for the duration of the war and gone to London. The flat was small but there were two bedrooms, one of which had clearly seen more use as a study, judging by the heavy desk and the bookshelves lining the walls. It would be easy to sublet it to a student, just like Ralph had planned.
After a quick tour of the flat they sat down on the slightly shabby but comfortable sofa. The living room was sparsely but comfortably furnished with no unnecessary ornaments or clutter. The books lying on the low coffee table were Ralph's.
"How did it go?" Ralph asked.
"The medical board was straightforward enough," Laurie said. "They had my notes from hospital, they asked some questions, wanted to see me walking up and down the room. Then they asked me to wait while they discussed my case. Five minutes later it was all over. I got my discharge papers and left."
"And what about Oxford?"
"Dr Brown gave me a list of reading he expects me to have covered by the time I go up. He said they are getting rather good at taking men through as much as possible in the short time they have."
"What do you mean?"
"War degrees for those who want to take up their places at Oxford before they are called up. Mine won't be a war degree, of course, I'll be working on my honours."
"Do have the books you need?"
"I've asked Mother to send my books. Once they arrive, I've got nearly everything I need. As I didn't know what books I would need when I was there, I asked her to send all of them. And for the rest I can use the library."
Laurie sensed Ralph was considering a question he wasn't sure he wanted to ask. In the end it was a neutral "And how is your Mother?"
"Very well, bustling with parish business. She told me how they're expecting me home for Christmas."
They were silent for a moment.
"And how was Oxford?"
"Different from what I remember."
"In what way?"
"Well, for a start, Oxford in December is nothing like Oxford in June, and that's one of the things I remember well, punting on the Cher, sitting on the lawn.... But Oxford in June is not the only Oxford I remember, and it wasn't like the Oxford I last saw at the beginning of war either, men queuing up to the Clarendon Building to sign up, friends getting married in a hurry. Now it's London mothers and children everywhere, college buildings requisitioned for hospitals and Whitehall offices, fire watches. It was busier than I expected although I knew they say it's teeming like a slum. I expected it to be silent with the men gone but it wasn't like that at all."
"What was it like?"
"In a word? Busy. Most of the men will be gone and replaced by the next set within a year, some will stay, and there will be others like me who have come back wounded or failed their medicals to start with."
"Will you be living in college?"
"Yes. They'll send me the details later. Dr Brown said it might be in the college across the road because of the requisitioning, colleges are pooling their resources."
"Will it be strange going back when your friends are no longer there?"
"I suppose so. I hadn't thought about it. Anyway, I ran into Charles of all people."
"Charles Fosticue. He was the man I was ... very fond of at the time."
"The one who kept telling you you were queer?"
"Yes, that's him. Apparently he got into Ministry of Food after leaving Oxford the summer before the war broke out, and his department was transferred to Oxford to escape the London bombings. It all sounded very important."
"What was he like now?"
"He hadn't changed from what I remember. Except it didn't feel like he held the key to anything any more."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I used to feel he could lead me into the secret or something. I can see why I was attracted to him then but...."
"But you're not any more?"
"No. I'm not the same person any more."
They were silent. It was true, Laurie thought, he had changed more than he thought he had, which in the circumstances wasn't surprising. For the first time it occurred to him to wonder if he'd find it difficult to settle back to his books.
They soon settled into a routine not that different from the one they had fallen into during Laurie's final weeks at hospital. Laurie read during the day, either in the flat or in the library. In the evenings they went for walks if the weather allowed; December rain and winds didn't always encourage it. They usually ate out. The kitchen in the flat was suitable for fixing a bachelor breakfast or boiling a kettle but not much else.
The first week they didn't see anyone from Sandy's crowd. Then Alec dropped by at the flat one evening, and after that they started drifting into pubs where they ran into people who knew Ralph and whom Laurie sometimes recognised from Sandy's party.
Once they bumped into Bunny who after exchanging the most cursory pleasantries launched into a very detailed description of his current flame's service credentials, a description that contain a number of not so subtle digs at Ralph's drinking, non-position at the station and Laurie's discharged status. Laurie recognised them for what they were but found himself unmoved by them. Without thinking he felt for his leg pocket before he remembered that he was no longer in uniform. He hadn't realised how used to his battledress trousers he had become, and it brought home how he must always--or at least for the duration of the war--to stand out in the crowd as the one who no longer could do his duty for his country and watch the likes of Bunny to flash their supposedly great responsibilities.
But then he remembered what Ralph had said about Bunny being attached to the Navy for instructional purposes. And Ralph's training was due to finish before Christmas, and he would soon find out what the Navy would do with him next, so the days with no real responsibility might soon come to an end.
Laurie looked up from a letter from his mother, full of village gossip, Christmas preparations and confirmation that they were expecting him on Monday. Ralph poured himself a drink and sat down on the sofa next to him.
"From your Mother?"
"Yes, saying how they are looking forward to seeing me on Monday."
"Yes, she wants me to stay for the entire week. I'm not sure I want to be Strike's guest that long, I could write to her and say I'm not coming until Tuesday and leaving on Friday."
"No, you should go and stay as long as she wants to have you. They're sending me to Liverpool tomorrow."
"More training. They've been hinting they may have me sent up there to assist their trainer."
"It's not definite yet. But I will need to be there on Monday morning, and I'm not coming back until late on Tuesday. So if you wanted to stay on my account, there isn't any reason. I'd rather you went home and made your Mother happy. And when I come back, I'm going to be on fire watch for the rest of the week. After Christmas, we should have time to do something together."
Laurie smiled. "I think I can get through a week with Strike if I've got that to look forward to."
A week at the vicarage has passed more quickly than Laurie had dreaded. It was strange staying in the village but not in his cottage. There was a Straike relative staying at the vicarage for Christmas, a middle-aged unmarried cousin who worked as a nurse in Oxford who hadn't been able to come to the wedding. Laurie initially assumed they had very little in common but found that she was good company on walks in the afternoon and for escaping the vicarage social life to talk about books or Oxford.
Still, it was a relief to board the train to take him home to Ralph. Ralph met him at the station and took him to the flat, only to reveal that Theo had invited them to a party and hadn't taken no for an answer. Laurie was slightly disappointed as had been looking forward to having Ralph all to himself but found himself enjoying the party when they got there. No sign of Bunny, Sandy shot the daggers to him when Alec crossed the room to talk to him and Ralph but kept his distance, Alec was his usual charming self and Ralph stayed close to his side all evening.
Laurie opened his eyes in the darkness of the bedroom, unsure how long he had been asleep. It was a quiet night; fog had obscured the outlines of buildings and trees when they walked home from the party. They had felt their way up the stairs to their flat and from the door of the flat to the bedroom without bothering to turn on any lights.
Now he was lying where he most wanted to be, held by Ralph, kept warm by Ralph's warmth. They had another few weeks before he would be going to Oxford, and Ralph would be staying at his station for now but with new duties. Knowing that they were together now was enough, and Laurie felt himself drifting back into sleep, feeling happy, safe, at home.