It shouldn't be strange for Ralph to be so late coming back from work, Laurie tried to reason with himself over his evening cup of tea. The situation in the Atlantic was becoming increasingly dire from what Laurie could make out from newspaper headlines and snippets of radio broadcasts, and Ralph had lately been spending longer hours at the Station since being assigned command of another ship. Still, enough locals had perished in the air raids over the last year that Laurie could not entirely suppress a faint, involuntary tendril of anxiety over Ralph's condition. Ralph usually called ahead if he was planning to come home late, so that Laurie would know not to stay up expecting him, but there had been no call tonight to alleviate the worst of his fears.
He lifted the edge of the blackout curtain and glanced out the window of their small kitchen-cum-dining room; stretches of thickening grey clouds were gathered overhead, with small clearings of darkness against which shone the faint pulsations of early stars. The night so far had been thankfully silent, save for the intermittent showers that had begun an hour ago, wind and rain slashing against the walls of the flat. The air raid sirens had stayed off, and Laurie consoled himself further with the recollection that the bombings had become less frequent since May. Nonetheless, he couldn't deny there was an element of impatience mixed in with his worry: Ralph wasn't due to ship out for another week, and selfishly Laurie wanted to make the most of their remaining time together, before having to relinquish him back to the sea.
Laurie had refused to allow himself to dwell on the likely prospect of Ralph being commissioned again for many weeks, though logically he had known it was a distinct possibility, and Ralph was clearly restless for action. Sensing opportunity in the incoming reports from the Atlantic, like a shark scenting the first signs of blood, he had become even more animated these days, less prone to the occasional fits of irritation or boredom that often led to him reaching for the bottle; he spent many nights poring over transatlantic routes, debating points of military strategy with Laurie over the dinner table, and pondering scenarios of hypothetical U-boat attacks that all ended, in one way or another, with emphatically consigning the Nazis to hell. Laurie was glad (and in no small part relieved) to see him so lively and full of purpose, but when the official announcement came, he had been ill-prepared to deal with the bitter knowledge of how terribly he would miss Ralph—all the more so now that they were finally living together.
Looking around the small flat they shared, Laurie found that he hadn't realized how much of Ralph's presence seemed to pervade it, compared to the sparseness and transient quality of Ralph's prior digs: the maps and nautical paintings on the walls, the wooden case with various odd trinkets from India and Barcelona and Shanghai (each with some intriguing story that Laurie, one-by-one, had gradually worked out of him), the assemblage of diaries arranged neatly on the writing-table, the fencing foil from their schooldays hanging above the fireplace. Sprawled alongside these possessions were Laurie's stacks of college books, assorted classical gramophone records, and clutter of papers from work, as well as the wool hooked rugs and blankets Laurie's mother had bequeathed to them as a gift when he had moved in after graduation. Despite a difficult outset they had managed to navigate the rough waters of an early wartime relationship and made a home together, and Laurie was already beginning to feel the pangs of imminent loss over how empty it would all seem without Ralph there.
He rose with the intention to pour out another cup of tea and to take an aspirin for the ache in his leg, which tended to flare up horribly when it rained, when he heard the sound of a key turning in the latch and the front door creaking open. The immense relief of this was at once elevating to Laurie's dull spirits.
What greeted him when he entered the living room, however, was not Ralph but instead a rapid flurry of black and white fur—which on further inspection appeared to belong to a scraggly, rain-drenched collie puppy that had suddenly bounded over the threshold and was racing in excited, dizzying circles around Laurie's feet.
"Ralph! What on earth—" Laurie exclaimed, before being cut off by a high-pitched series of barks. Ralph entered shortly afterward, wearing a half-smile of amusement tinged lightly with guilt, like that of a small child who had been caught out by his parent.
The puppy had no collar or other identifying tags. Ralph explained the story quickly, as he shouldered off his topcoat while simultaneously attempting to restrain the wet, eagerly squirming border collie trying to jump and lick his face. He had been driving back from the Station earlier that evening, through a desolate street that had been hit particularly hard by the bombings, when he'd noticed a pitiful-looking puppy shivering in the rain on the side of the road, his lower half trapped in a pile of burnt rubble. It had taken some effort to pull him out, but eventually he came up relatively unscathed, aside from a few missing toes on his right hind paw that he'd seemed to have lost recently (Laurie now noticed the bandages and the slight limp).
Ralph had tried taking him to the nearest animal shelter, but was told by the man there that he had escaped several days ago. The puppy had evidently been there for quite some time without anyone coming to claim him, and he had been scheduled to be put down on the day that he had gone missing. The man seemed rather exhausted—since the start of the Blitz the shelter had been overrun with lost and abandoned pets, driven by the bombings and the anticipated food shortages.
"Oh no, Ralph, how awful." Laurie's heart ached with pained sympathy over the thought of all those neglected and exterminated dogs. To this day he had never truly got over what had happened to Gyp, and the old wound still rankled fiercely from time to time.
"Quite. Well, I couldn't bear to leave the miserable little runt there, likely to be euthanized, in a filthy and overcrowded place stinking of month-old urine. There was a small voice in the back of my head that kept saying, Spuddy would never forgive me."
"You're right about that," replied Laurie, who had finally given into a long-held instinct to touch every dog within petting distance and had slid down on the floor next to the puppy, stroking him behind the ears. The puppy let out a cheerful succession of yipping noises and began nuzzling his leg delightedly. "Poor thing, I don't suppose he's had a solid meal to eat in days."
Ralph smiled down at them, his blue eyes deep with affection. "I can ask around at the Station tomorrow if anyone wants to take in the poor sod, or arrange for him to be sent over to the dog home in Battersea." He paused, looking thoughtful. "Unless you'd like to keep him, Spud?"
"Me?" Laurie glanced up, startled.
"Well, us, really, though I suppose that won't be for long." Ralph's gaze grew very intent; Laurie had to look away. "It might be good for you to have some more company," he added softly.
"I...don't know," Laurie said, holding up the puppy and casting him a doubtful look. The puppy looked back at him inquisitively, wagging his tail and waving his paws slightly in the air, including the one bandaged and mangled paw. Laurie had idly thought about getting a dog with Ralph after graduation, perhaps another airedale like Gyp, but this wasn't how he'd imagined it happening.
Ralph knelt down on one knee beside them. "You're more of an authority on dogs than I am, Spuddy. I defer to your greater experience. I've only looked after cats on the ships I served on." He took his glove off and gave the puppy a firm scratch beneath the chin. "I once asked my parents for a dog, but they were of the mind that pets were rather frivolous for a boy's upbringing."
Laurie saw that Ralph had already developed a certain fondness for him, being a fellow runaway. Feeling all of a sudden tender and indulgent, he reached out and touched Ralph's cheek.
While Ralph changed into dry mufti and warmed up dinner for the two of them, Laurie managed to coax the puppy into taking a much-needed bath and afterwards fed him a piece of meat for his trouble. The puppy was well-mannered and starved for affection; he appeared to worship Ralph and had transferred much of that devotion onto Laurie, who as far as the dog was concerned was Ralph's Owner and therefore demanded a special measure of obedience as well as protection. He insisted on following either Laurie or Ralph around, trotting energetically at their heels and sniffing about the flat for prowlers, and at supper he curled at Ralph's feet as Laurie playfully tried to cajole from Ralph details of his impending voyage ("Careless talk, Spud, careless talk"). Ralph acted outwardly reproving whenever the puppy tried to beg him for table scraps, but Laurie could tell Ralph was taking great pains not to spoil him utterly.
After supper Laurie turned on the BBC Home Service, which was presently airing a live orchestral concert of a standard satisfactory to his taste, and went to settle himself and the puppy beside Ralph on the couch, as Ralph looked over his notes and supply lists. They spent a peaceful half hour in the kind of comfortable silence that makes no incessant demands of conversation, Laurie becoming steadily engrossed in a book he had started reading for work, the puppy dozing contentedly on his lap. Ralph, too, after a while was beginning to nod off, his head drooping precariously over Laurie's shoulder; there were deep lines of exhaustion sunken around his eyes.
Laurie put down his book and leaned to wrap his arms around Ralph's shoulders. "Ralph, my love. Shall we go to bed?"
Ralph murmured back something low and allowed Laurie to tug him towards the bedroom without protest.
Laurie woke to the sound of a muffled whine and scratching at the door, the way Gyp used to do sometimes when he was very young and frightened, wanting to be let into Laurie's bedroom. Tired and bleary-eyed, he laid in bed for a moment wondering if his mother might hear and come to collect him, and then he remembered.
Ralph was sound asleep after a long day of work and a few ardent, compensatory acts of love from Laurie that had drained him of any remaining vestiges of energy. Smiling a bit at the memory, Laurie gently extricated himself from Ralph's arms and rolled off the mattress. He opened the bedroom door to find the puppy pawing at the entrance with a forlorn expression; the miraculous reveal of Laurie's presence elicited a small bark of happiness, which Laurie quickly hushed.
Quietly he scooped up the puppy and carried him over to the bed, where Ralph still laid in undisturbed slumber. It wouldn't hurt to let him sleep there for tonight, Laurie decided; he must be awfully scared to be alone in such a strange place. He stroked and soothed the puppy for several minutes until he finally fell asleep in Laurie's arms.
As Laurie tucked himself back underneath the covers, he thought that in the morning he would tell Ralph that they might keep him.