Title: Watch One Hour With Me
Book: Mary Renault's "The Charioteer"
Pairing: Ralph Lanyon/Laurie Odell
Summary: On the evening after Laurie's mother's wedding, Ralph and
Laurie spend a memorable night at Laurie's childhood home.
Disclaimer: I am not worthy to tie Mary Renault's shoes. I do not own
these characters or make any profit from them, although I love them
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to my picky, patient and all-round
wonderful beta, Tehta, and to Capella for help with ensuring the
Britishness of the dialogue.
A/N: Birthday fic for Tehta, with thanks for introducing me to this
Crates packed with crystal and china sat in transient clumps on the
floor, awaiting transport to the vicarage. The hallway cabinet,
which had once softly chimed every time Gyp loped by, now stood empty,
its dark wood as strange as the naked earth under an upturned
stone. Picking his way between boxes, Laurie made his way to the
kitchen. He reached for the top shelf with the ease proper to
long-held habits, remembering a second too late that the house was not
the only thing that had changed.
"Don't be silly, Spud."
Ralph took the glasses from Laurie's hand. The chair was a few
paces away; for a moment, Laurie's awareness narrowed to Ralph's grip
on his arm as he felt himself being eased down. Then the darkness
receded and the pain eased a little.
"Have you got your pills?" Ralph asked.
"I'll be all right. Twisted it a bit, is all. Not used to
standing quite so much."
Ralph's eyebrows were drawn. "Come now, Spud, this is no time for
heroics. You should see yourself, whiter than a ghost.
Where are those pills?"
The knee still pulsed, as if pierced through with hot iron.
Laurie saw no good reason to argue. "Medicine cabinet. I
only need one or two."
Ralph nodded. Laurie heard him running up the stairs. Soon
Ralph had brought the aspirin, poured Laurie a glass of water, and
carefully prodded the leg to ensure it wasn't hurt badly. His
hands were patient but, to Laurie, being the cause of such a commotion
was a little much to take.
"Bloody nuisance. I ought to have learned by now that the leg
doesn't take well to being used in certain ways."
"It's no trouble, Spuddy. Here." Ralph reached for the
champagne bottle. "Have some of this."
The champagne bubbles fizzed, blasphemously festive in the silence of
the abandoned house. But the pleasant warmth that spread along
Laurie's limbs quickly dulled this impression. Soon even the knee
Ralph had sat down at the table, opposite Laurie. His crisp
uniform and white shirt looked odd against the backdrop of the empty
kitchen, rather as if he had wandered onto the wrong stage set.
He has never sat in that chair before, Laurie thought, feeling the
strangeness growing. The clock above the stairs ticked
theatrically, as if announcing an imminent revelation -- the build-up
before the great denouement. It seemed to Laurie that he must do
"We could have a fire, if we keep the window closed and the blackout
snug," he said. "Last night I wished I might."
"Why didn't you?"
"It didn't seem quite like my house, then. It wasn't, really."
"Well," Ralph smiled. "It is now."
It soon grew warm in front of the fireplace and Ralph took off his
jacket. Flames danced behind the grate, casting a spell across
the hearthrug and walls, cocooning the living room against the world
outside. The night had some of that quality, too, as if the hours
that lay ahead would stretch out forever, protecting any confidences
exchanged from the querying light of day. They had finished the
champagne, and Laurie made some drinks. Ralph lit two cigarettes;
for a while they smoked in easy silence.
"I used to wonder what you went back to after end of term," Ralph
said. "But this seems rather like a good place. You must
have been happy here once. Before all this, I mean." He
waved a hand expansively.
"I suppose I was. I honestly didn't give it much thought, at the
Ralph had put out his cigarette and was now regarding Laurie with a
slow, appraising look. "That's the best way of all."
For some time now, Laurie had sensed things moving slowly yet
inevitably forward, like a great, sluggish river. The tug of the
undertow became insistent all of a sudden, though he had known it was
there all along. It felt out of control, like something rolling
"Anyway," he said quickly, "that's all finished now. I can hardly
believe this is the same house; I never knew it could feel so
bare. At least the wedding is over."
"It was a lot to ask of you, to give the bride away."
"There was no one else. And she really did need me, after all."
Ralph smiled. "You did well," he said matter-of-factly.
One did not often hear those words from Lanyon's mouth back in his days
as Head of House. Laurie, in spite of the awfulness of the past
two days, felt a gratifying swell of pride. "So did you, putting
up with awkward questions. I never did properly thank you for
coming up, did I? I've had so much on my mind, Ralph; do forgive
"It's all right. You take too much on yourself, Spud, you know."
Ralph's voice had softened. "You really ought to let someone take
care of you a bit. Wouldn't be such a bad thing."
He leaned closer as he said this, and Laurie could almost swear he felt
Ralph's hand brush his shoulder. Just then the fire crackled, one
of the logs falling and dislodging a spray of sparks. Ralph got
down to see to it, and the current that had electrified the air between
them settled back down to an underlying hum.
Laurie leaned back into the comfort of the divan and looked around,
expecting the reassurance of familiarity. But the mantelpiece was
empty of ornaments, and the wall above it shocked the eye with the
bright-white rectangle of blankness where a picture had once
been. By the time the fire was once again burning evenly Laurie's
mood had deteriorated somewhat.
"Now, Spud." Turning from the fireplace, Ralph had taken in the
mood change in a swift glance. "What you need is another drink."
He poured out more rum and sat back down on the divan, a little closer
this time. He handed Laurie his glass. "Hardly worth it to
waste tonight fretting. No nurses, no late pass; the freedom's
Laurie smiled; the alcohol was doing its work. "I know I
shouldn't be so difficult. Some chaps have it much worse, it's
criminal of me, really. And still I..."
"Feel hard done by?"
"Dispossessed, I suppose. A bit."
"You've every right. The whole business was quite sudden."
"It isn't just that." Laurie felt the enormity of the world
squeeze around the little cottage, its emptiness suddenly making it
seem vulnerable, like the shell of an egg. "It's all those papers
up in my cupboard, and the lanes out behind, and Gyp. Things
could be rotten all round, and hard, but so long as this place was the
same it didn't seem to matter as much. Only now it's not.
The same, I mean. It's gone altogether."
"Spud." Ralph had moved nearer still. "It's all
right." Now his hand really was on Laurie's shoulder. It
felt warm and steadying, like the comforting weight of water.
"It will be." There was a tone in Ralph's voice Laurie had not
heard before. "I know it will." Ralph's hand had moved to
Laurie's neck. The rum was making Laurie dizzy; he could feel
Ralph's breath on his cheek.
There is a moment on the diving board when a swimmer looks down at the
surface of the water and impels his body to spring forward.
Things had been moving steadily on this course for some time; if Laurie
were honest with himself he could see quite clearly that he had willed
it to be so, encouraged it even. Still, up until the very last
second there is always the matter of choice, real or imagined -- the
comfort of knowing that, when it comes down to it, one can always turn
back and climb down the ladder.
And yet sometimes the pull of the deep is too great. Laurie
closed his eyes and met Ralph's mouth with his own.
For some moments it didn't seem quite real. It was difficult to
reconcile the Lanyon who had loomed so large in his mind for so long
with this one. For one thing, the closeness was shocking; all
that neatly bundled energy Ralph seemed to contain was now somehow
getting mixed up with Laurie -- atoms randomly bouncing, heating up
Laurie's skin. But then Ralph said, "Oh, Spuddy," and started
kissing his neck, and Laurie moved his fingers through Ralph's hair,
and all considerations of whether something were real or not ceased to
Laurie was vaguely aware of his heart hammering fast and of Ralph's
hand on his leg -- Ralph's gloved hand, his good leg. The hand
was exerting a warm pressure on his thigh, and it had been such a long
time since Laurie had been touched in anything other than a clinical
capacity that its mere presence nearly burned through his
trousers. His body felt healthy all of a sudden, and strong; the
blood in his veins pumping as joyfully as if he were a boy.
Light-headed with this feeling of vigour, so long absent, he tightened
his grip on Ralph's hair, feeling its fine texture brush against his
Less gently now, Ralph pulled him closer and began undoing the buttons
on his uniform; he was kissing Laurie's mouth again, hard, as if the
waiting that had led up to this moment had been too long. Laurie
felt as if he'd been swept up in a great wave: tossed about, this way
and that, the ground long gone from under his feet.
With an insistent swell the wave gained momentum, and the living room
began to sway. Laurie felt a strange prickly lightness under his
skin, and heard the thumping of his heart echo in his head. He
opened his eyes, but tiny black dots blotted out his vision; with an
odd detachment he noticed that he couldn't move.
"Spud?" Ralph pulled away abruptly, trying to meet his
eyes. "Spuddy, what is it, what's wrong?"
The living room lurched and fell away from Laurie, the ceiling coming
up to meet him. He braced himself for the impact of his fall, and
felt a pillow being propped under his head. Gradually the world
seemed to settle once again on an even keel.
Ralph was saying, "The pills and then all that rum; I should have
thought. No wonder you--"
"I'm awfully sorry about this, Ralph, I feel such a fool..."
"No, Spuddy, no. Really, it's no bother."
There was something in Ralph's voice that reminded Laurie of himself as
a boy, saying, "Of course I don't mind" to the prospect of some
dreadful chore just when the joys of summer beckoned in all their
glory. He should say something, he felt, but his capacity for
explanations had grown impaired, along with his ability to tell what it
was exactly he should be explaining. He said the first thing that
came to mind. "Do you know, your hair is just as soft and fine as
I imagined? And fair, too; it must have grown lighter under all
"Did you really imagine it?"
"I say, Ralph." Laurie's tongue stumbled over the words.
"You do realize that I won't be much good to you for a while.
More of a dead weight." He could feel his eyes closing.
"That's all right, Spuddy. You go ahead and sleep. I'll be
here when you come round."
And so he was. When the cotton fuzziness lifted from Laurie's
mind like a quickly rolling fog, Ralph was sitting on the carpet beside
the divan. Before Laurie had had a chance to arrange his needs
into a coherent thought, let alone a sentence, Ralph handed him a glass
"Was I asleep for long?" Laurie asked. "It's not morning yet, is
it?" The thought that he had slumbered away all those precious hours
shot through him in a bolt of panic. The sense of loss seemed to
banish ambiguity and sharpen intention.
"It's barely past midnight, Spud, don't worry. You only slept an
hour or so. How's the leg?"
"Fine." Laurie exhaled. The night seemed to slow down. "I
didn't talk nonsense in my sleep, did I?"
"Why, do you make it a habit?"
Laurie carefully sat up. "On operation days I used to say things
without being conscious of it -- ether will do that, I suppose. I
still don't know what I went on about. It was rather vexing; I
used to be afraid I'd say, well, too much."
"You didn't send any doctors up like you did me at Dunkirk, did you?"
Ralph was smiling.
"Good God, no. But there were a few nurses I talked to.
And, you see, I'd rather I hadn't talked at all; one must be careful
about what one says to people."
"You needn't worry about that now," Ralph said quietly. His
fingers were in Laurie's hair again. "There's no one here you
need be wary of, Spud. There's only me."
"I know that."
Ralph kissed him again. This time it felt slower and not quite as
unreal -- less surprising and more solid, somehow. In the back of
Laurie's mind was the thought that the night was infinite, the house
empty, and life, really, quite good. He reached for Ralph's
Navy-issue collar and tie.
"Will you be all right there, on the divan?" Ralph pulled away for a
moment. His eyes, looking into Laurie's, were strikingly
blue. "A bit of a squeeze, I mean, and the knee..."
Laurie could feel his face heating. "I used to put the mattress
down by the fire when I was younger, and read. We could--"
They managed the mattress without great trouble, not taking too much
care with the sheets. The pillow had fallen by the wayside, and
when Laurie lay down again he felt much more horizontal; he had a clear
view of the ceiling. His leg was quite comfortable, though, and
Ralph was mindful of it when he lay down beside him. Still, the
purposefulness with which they had arranged their sleeping spot cast an
embarrassing clarity over their intentions, and Laurie began to feel
"Hello, Spud." Ralph was leaning on an elbow, smiling. "Is
that really you?"
"A bit odd, isn't it?"
"I don't know, feels rather as if this is where we belong."
The confessional quality of the evening had made Laurie feel wistful,
and sleep had further relaxed his inhibitions. Like a child
seeking reassurance, he said, "I've often had a feeling that there's
nowhere I really belong."
"You belong with me." Ralph's response was immediate, his voice
unsentimental. "As long as we're both alive, this will always be
your place before anyone else's. That's a promise."
Until that moment the night had been like something out of a book for
Laurie: dear and longed for, yet without consequences. Now vague
shapes gained substance, acquired the heavy weight of obligation.
Ralph's generosity seemed plain; Laurie's willingness to be in his
debt, less certain than ever.
He hesitated. "Ralph, I..."
"Spuddy." Ralph leaned over him, wasting no time. "You
mustn't worry the way you do."
"I wasn't worried, I just--"
In an instant Ralph had sealed his mouth over Laurie's and pressed
their bodies together. His approach was more direct than the one
he had taken an hour earlier; within less than a minute Laurie had
forgotten what he was going to say and what doubts had caused him to
feel that he must say anything at all. Hazily it occurred to him
that Ralph had taken off his glove; his fingers would have been
hampered by the padding, and in their present actions seemed quite
From then on, things progressed rapidly –- a shocking thing to fathom
when set against all the years Ralph's face had been nothing more than
a memory, remote in a cloud of boyish hero worship. Soon their
shirts lay discarded on the carpet, white against khaki, and they were
moving against each other with the kind of instinct that comes
naturally even to those who do not have much experience with such
things. This might have been enough for Laurie, but apparently
Ralph was determined they should have more, for he slid down the length
of Laurie's stomach, kissing as he went, and tugged at the zipper of
Laurie held his breath then and would have said something, but in the
end could not manage the words. Ralph's hands were knowing, his
mouth soft and hot, and -- it seemed to Laurie -- incredibly
generous. His hair fell forward, rhythmically brushing against
Laurie's navel. Glinting in the firelight, it somehow looked neat
and trimmed despite its disarray. Laurie reached out a hand to
touch it, and Ralph looked up then, and went on moving. His eyes
held all the wonder and triumph of an explorer who had just set foot on
land previously unmarked on the map. Laurie, thus caught between
sensation and scrutiny, could not keep his composure for long; he felt
his body tense, gave a small cry and fell back onto the mattress.
It seemed impossible that the night could get any quieter, and yet just
then it did. Laurie sensed a profound stillness descend over the
living room, tension ebbing away. The shadows in the corners were
made of a pleasant kind of darkness and held no menace; his conscience
demanded no treacherous self-reflection; he felt sated, tired and
"Spud," Ralph said in a contained voice that meant something different
than it had some minutes before. He shifted up to lie beside
Laurie turned his head. Ralph's face was calm, his eyes
happy. Feeling a secret thrill at the thought that certain
well-entrenched barriers between them had just been broken, Laurie
asked, "Did you ever think of this when you called me into your
"Oh, come, don't look so appalled. I didn't ask whether you'd
planned on doing anything, merely if you ever thought it."
Ralph didn't answer. Laurie laughed.
"You?" Ralph raised an eyebrow.
"I didn't know enough, back then. Whatever I wanted was all
Ralph hesitated. "And now?" His mouth had hardened and his
body had gone still. More than ever he gave the appearance of an
iron control, a disciplined waiting and watching. His muscles,
tense under the skin, held steady as if commanded to do so.
Laurie felt a rush of power at the thought that all this will was being
exerted on his account. Deliberately he ran a hand down Ralph's
stomach to the button on his waistband. "Things are a bit clearer
now," he said.
Soon they were kissing again, Ralph leaning over Laurie, propped up on
his elbows. Laurie had got Ralph's zipper undone and slipped his
fingers inside, and Ralph was rocking into his hand with a slow,
deliberate motion that seemed as natural as breathing. There was
something of the rolling of a boat on the water in his movements, or of
a hammock gently swinging on an equatorial night, and Laurie half
expected to look up and see stars above them, and an infinite
sky. There were no stars, of course, just Ralph's face; his eyes
closed, a strand of hair damply clinging to his forehead.
When their movement became less steady Laurie tightened his grip, and
then Ralph opened his eyes. His expression was once again
purposeful, though not as detached as the one he showed in
public. He lifted his head, fine hair crisply swinging against
his cheek, and rocked more forcefully. Then he pulled at the
fabric around Laurie's hips and said, "Off."
It wasn't a 'may I,' it wasn't a 'let me;' the efficiency of Ralph's
voice held the unmistakable tone of command. Laurie had never
been one for capricious orders, but his nature had always found the
romance of strong leadership profoundly appealing. In his mind,
it was less a question of being mastered than it was of giving oneself
over in admiration and loyalty, heedless of the consequences, and
standing taller as a result. He felt an odd exhilaration then,
all the stranger for its familiarity in unprecedented
circumstances. He looked into Ralph's eyes expressively, and felt
For a moment they broke apart as Ralph slipped out of the remainder of
his clothes and helped Laurie get out of his. Grace was
sacrificed for speed, although Ralph was still careful with Laurie's
knee. Then Ralph leaned over him again, and in an instant they
were lying skin to skin, Ralph seeking out Laurie's mouth, Laurie
sliding his hands along Ralph's back, past the dip at the base of his
Ralph's body was slim, but strong. His arms and shoulders were
tanned from the tropical sun, his legs less dark, though still
golden. Laurie had wondered in passing whether sailors ever went
completely nude in the blistering heat, but it seemed from the pale
flesh now under his palms that it was not so. The skin was warm,
the muscles under it, alive; Laurie found his hands squeezing quite
hard. Ralph's breathing quickened then and his hips pressed more
insistently into Laurie's. His mouth found its way to Laurie's
ear. "Spuddy," he said, his voice ragged. "Will you turn
over on your stomach for me?"
Laurie's allegiance had been made clear some moments ago; what remained
now was merely the follow-through. He rolled over carefully,
watching Ralph retrieve a small jar from his trouser pocket.
Distractedly, he thought that the bathroom cabinet had yielded more
treasures than just aspirin.
The rest was as inevitable as water spilling over the edge of a cup
that has been filled to the brim. It all seemed connected
somehow, the past and the present: the sound of Lanyon's voice in his
study all those years ago, and Ralph's quick breaths on Laurie's neck
now; Lanyon's disciplined stride across the school green, and the feel
of Ralph's body pressed against Laurie's back. Even the brief
pain Laurie felt seemed to echo some vague and lonely youthful
disappointment, while the deep pleasure that quickly followed had about
it something of the schoolboy's delight in discovering a secret thrill.
It didn't take long; Ralph's sure movements soon got them to their
destination. Between Ralph's teeth gently biting his shoulder and
the steady friction of the mattress below, Laurie's perception of his
surroundings quickly narrowed to the demands of his body. The
flames in the fireplace wavered and blurred, the air seemed to still in
expectation, and Laurie felt himself climbing ever higher, reaching,
and finally tumbling down into a sweet and nearly unbearable
completion. Ralph had been silent throughout, and only at the end
gave a soft, muffled shout.
Then it was over, and suddenly the living room was a presence again,
watching, conspicuously silent –- a witness refusing to pass
judgment. Ralph lay down beside Laurie. "Knee all right?"
he asked softly, hand wandering across Laurie's back.
"Will you sleep now, Spuddy?"
"Don't know. You?"
A satisfied smile crept across Ralph's face. "I think I'll watch
for a bit. Fire needs tending."
Laurie put his head down on his arms and closed his eyes. Ralph's
hand had cautiously settled between his shoulder blades, like a small
animal that has managed access to someone's lap and sits motionless in
an effort not to be shooed away. The flames burned high and
warmed Laurie's side; it would be a good hour still before the fire
needed looking after.
"Ralph?" A straggling wave of exhilaration and gratitude washed
over Laurie. He lifted his head. "That was... rather nice."
For an instant Ralph looked as if he'd received the most wonderful
surprise, and been informed of something weighty past enduring, all at
once. Then he composed his face into a more placid
happiness. "Yes," he said. "I thought so, too." He
kissed Laurie's shoulder. "Sleep now, Spud; you must be
tired. They don't let you stay up this long in hospital, I bet,
"None of this happens in hospital."
Ralph gave a quiet laugh. "Yes, well. Sleep. I can
wake you in a little while, if you like."
Behind Laurie's shut eyelids the fire was a red-tinted glow, with
darkness around the edges. Slowly, the crimson cooled and dimmed,
and shadows crept in from all sides. The flames were no longer
hot and blazing, but warm. In spite of his professed intention to
keep watch, Ralph's breathing had grown regular, and Laurie didn't move
for fear of waking him. He opened his eyes and looked out into
the dark room; sleep would not come. Thoughts kept at bay by the
comfort of light and fellowship crowded in, demanding their due.
Solitude has many faces. It is one thing to feel alone in an
empty room or flat, and quite another when surrounded by a crowd.
Worst of all, perhaps, is the feeling of utter separateness in the
company of only one person, especially if this sort of keenly felt
isolation is one sided; it seems a great deal like a betrayal.
Laurie, taking the measure of his emotions, ashamedly saw them falling
short. He felt like a boy who has just watched a colourful parade
weave past, cheering breathlessly the rousing sounds of the marching
band, and now glimpsed individual band members struggle home in the
dust, uniforms askew and faces shiny with sweat.
He saw Ralph's unblemished hand lying on the mattress in complete
relaxation, fingers long and beautiful, and could not help thinking of
another pair of hands, just now probably hard at work scrubbing dishes
or mopping floors in a silent hospital ward. Something lonely and
sad squeezed inside his chest, and he lowered his face onto his arms
again and burrowed deeper into the mattress.
"Spud." Ralph stirred and opened his eyes. "I meant to wake
you. Seems you're waking me instead."
The buffer of seclusion with which Laurie had surrounded himself
rapidly shrank, leaving him exposed. Ralph asleep had been easier
to assess and sum up; awake, he plunged Laurie's feelings into a
confused whirl. Not for the first time, Laurie perceived the
great and perhaps unfair advantage enjoyed by those who are not absent.
"Come here," said Ralph in an intimate tone, hand settling on Laurie's
The touch was light but, after the evening's events, unselfconsciously
familiar. Its lack of reserve spoke of a simple and
straightforward sensuality; Laurie felt his body respond with an
urgency that belied his earlier doubts. Ralph's look had grown
intense, his hand mapping its way across Laurie's skin was both a
promise and a claim.
Disquiet, though persistent, is a subtle adversary. The blood
rushing in Laurie's ears drowned out the whispers of his
conscience. He turned on his side and reached for Ralph,
welcoming his hands, drawing him closer.
The night once again seemed long, the living room a world apart, like
an island. Morning was ages away.