"I won't stay long," Ralph said, that phrase that had become their ritual.
He was still on his feet. That in itself said very little; Alec had never seen him fall before, never mind if he had had three drinks or ten. His hands were stuffed in his pockets, as if defying the temptation to grab at the doorframe for support, but he was developing a slight list to one side. "Just got to sleep it off," he said. "I won't bother you."
Alec looked him up and down, assessing the severity of the situation. He moved forward to brace the Leaning Tower of Lanyon before he toppled, and guided him over the threshold. "Hush, Ralph, do sit down."
Ralph took his arm and allowed himself to be steered to the divan. He walked with a heavy, deliberate step, and his posture was even more correct than usual, like a soldier on parade. "I won't stay long," he said again, enunciating very clearly, as if worried Alec had not heard him the first time. "Just an hour. You've got to go to the hospital, I know. Tell Sandy not to fuss."
Prickled by foreboding, Alec looked up. Sandy had come in from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel. His eyes flicked from Alec to Ralph and back, perhaps merely appraising the situation as Alec had done, or weaving invisible webs of speculation between them. "Oh," he said, "he knows I won't fuss at all; don't you, Alec? I just came to see who it was so early in the morning."
Alec was sure he had known perfectly well who it was. The first time Ralph had appropriated their divan to sleep off a hangover, Sandy had merely lifted an eyebrow; on subsequent occasions he had been shocked, suspicious, or annoyed by turns. This time Alec thought he definitely sounded smug. How often did he get to hold the higher moral ground against Ralph?
"No fuss," Alec agreed after a moment's pause, bending to arrange the cushions on the divan. Ralph always promised he would only stay an hour, but once he dozed off he was dead to the world until noon or so. They never asked him questions. All he needed was sleep and a painkiller or two; simple comforts, which Alec found he was more than willing to offer. "Try to nap a little, my dear."
"Oh, yes," Sandy added. "Go on, we shan't mind at all. Shall I phone Laurie and let him know you're here?"
Alec suppressed a wince. At times like these, he would imagine the words glowing luminescent in a speech bubble over Sandy's head, and wish he could jump up and scrub them out with his hands. But before he could say anything, Ralph—who had not paid Sandy the slightest whit of attention since he came in—whipped his head round as if he had been struck a blow. "No," he said, his voice pitched to carry. His speech sounded somehow both thicker and clearer; he was articulating with great effort, like a news anchor on the radio. "No, you little shit, you will not—"
"No, of course not," said Alec, in that most bracing of sickbed voices he reserved for children and the delirious elderly. He glanced around and frowned. "Sandy."
"I only thought poor Laurie might worry, with the raid last night and all," said Sandy. He pursed his lips and exited the room with an air of stern petulance.
It was, as much as Alec hated to admit it, a perfectly logical reason to call Laurie, who had come down from Oxford for the long weekend. Ralph only fetched up here when Laurie was around. Otherwise there was nothing to stop him from going home and passing out for as long as he liked. He wasn't fooling anyone, Alec thought; if Laurie hadn't called himself, he had probably guessed by now, or simply did not want to know.
Ralph was still scowling at the door, as if he meant to intimidate it into belching Sandy back out for disciplinary action. "Ralph," Alec said, unsettled, "you should know by now to pay him no heed. Lie down, you look about ready to pass out."
With what appeared to be a herculean effort, Ralph refocused his eyes on Alec's face. "Don't call Spud. He needn't worry himself."
"We won't," said Alec. "Sandy's just talking nonsense, you know he'd never do it, really."
"It was just a party at the Station," Ralph said. He looked bizarrely young like this, gazing up at Alec with his fine hair mussed and starting to fall across his face. Younger, even, than he'd looked when they had been together. "S'nothing much, but you know how he works himself up when he thinks something's not right."
"I know," said Alec; the same could have been said of Ralph himself. "Hush now, sleep as long as you like."
"He said his conchie boy didn't drink," Ralph murmured. He settled back on the pillows and closed his eyes.
Sandy had made breakfast for two, with an extra serving put aside for Ralph when he woke: only toast and tea, since they were out of eggs, and bacon now cost a poor man's weekly wage. He fidgeted across the table with what appeared to be mounting impatience as they ate, until at last—when they were down to the last crumbs of toast—he said suddenly, "Laurie knows. He doesn't give him enough credit."
Alec finished chewing and took a sip of his tea. Sandy had made it hot and bitter, the way he liked it. "Of course."
"I don't suppose you mean to say anything."
The thought gave him a moment's pause, but he put it aside with a shudder. He had already intervened too many times in Ralph's personal affairs without telling him; their friendship might not survive another secret. "They're grown men. They'll have to work it out for themselves."
"Maybe," said Sandy. He tried his own tea and grimaced. Alec started to reach for the sugar, but he waved it away. "No, dear, you're right, the sugar gives me phlegm. I suppose Ralph's pride wouldn't stand for it, if you told. And you do enjoy having him here, don't you?"
Alec glanced up, wary. A great deal had happened to Sandy Reid the night he saved the hospital from the incendiary. This new directness, this confidence, was entirely unfamiliar. "What do you mean? If you're jealous you need only say so."
"I'm not jealous," said Sandy. "You just like being able to help him out, is all I'm saying. He's never depended on you like this before, has he? Small wonder it didn't work out for the two of you."
He smiled. His face had taken on a faint pink glow of pride. Alec knew what he was thinking about. Their second year had passed some months back, commemorated only by a huge row. Sandy had wanted to throw an anniversary party; Alec said no; they spent the day itself arguing about it, and most of the night after. But even uncelebrated, the fact remained that by now Sandy had outlasted all his other loves, Ralph included. The thought was vaguely alarming.
"Maybe," said Alec, noncommittal. "It doesn't mean I like seeing him like this."
"Of course not," said Sandy. "You're a doctor." Even now he still said you, not we. "But what's that line you used to quote—sacrifice uplifts the redeemer and casts down the bought? Was it something like that? You're good at playing the redeemer, Alec, and you know I'm all right with that, but Ralph isn't. That's why he despises me so much."
He shrugged, and began to gather up the empty plates and cups. Alec rose automatically to help him. They stood side by side at the sink, knocking elbows as they washed up together. Sandy had rolled his sleeves to the elbows to keep them dry, and Alec could see the faint white lines on his left wrist, souvenirs from old quarrels. There had been no new scars since the incendiary on the roof.
Two years, he thought, good lord. He would scarcely know what to do with himself if Sandy were gone. One got used to having him around. The realisation made him uncomfortable, but not so much as what Sandy had said. You're good at playing the redeemer.
He was right, of course. Alec would need to have a word with Ralph, and soon. He had kept silent too long, perhaps less selflessly than he had thought. Laurie was no fool, and might even be angry with him for enabling Ralph's habits. Ralph was not Sandy; it was strange he needed to be reminded of this, but he did.
"I have to get to the hospital," he said at last, reaching for the most mundane thing to say. He wished he didn't have a shift today. "Keep an eye on Ralph for me. I'll speak with him later."
Sandy looked relieved. "Yes, don't worry," he said. "I'll be kind, I promise. Now, are we going to Theo's party tonight; shall I go and buy them a gift?"
Alec tasted in the change of subject a big dose of Sandy's usual artless tact, offered in innocence like a child's helping hand. He felt a sudden upsurge of affection for the man, as startling as it was unfamiliar. He plucked the last dish out of Sandy's hand and placed it on the rack, still dripping. "No," he said. "I'd rather stay in tonight."
Disappointment rippled over Sandy's face, tucked out of sight as quickly as it had appeared. "I'll call and let them know, then. We could just ask Ralph and Laurie over for supper, I bet they aren't going either. It might do them some good to get out of that stuffy apartment of theirs."
"If you want," said Alec. He dried his hands on the towel and drew Sandy in with a hand on his hip. He had intended only a quick peck on the cheek, but at the last moment something swayed him, and he went for Sandy's lips instead, kissing him sweet and hard and long. It surprised him almost as much as it did Sandy. He seldom went for such gestures. Sandy gasped like a schoolboy, and laughed, and kissed him back.
"Really, dear," said Alec after a moment, remembering what he had been about to say, "I'd much rather it just be the two of us."
Sandy smiled up at him under his lashes. "As you say."