The ship had docked nearly half an hour before and the terminal was overflowing with reunions. Glad ones here, where figures in khaki embraced giddy wives, or let themselves be enfolded in parental arms. Sad ones there, where stone-faced relations took charge of the shivering remains of what had once been men. There were no coffins -- tradition insisted that the dead would sleep in France, where they had fallen.
The tall, silver haired man standing near the door took no comfort in that tradition. The dying could come home -- were coming home -- and with the Germans still bombing this side of the Channel the danger was little less in England than it was in the distant trenches. And he had no data. Only an all too familiar name printed in a newspaper nearly three days past. He'd met every ship since.
"There are times," said a small, plump woman who took up a position near his elbow, "when having a name near the end of the alphabet can be quite a nuisance." She brought a gloved hand up to shade her eyes as she studied the diminishing cluster of men still going through some arcane military ritual at the top of the gangway. "I do hope Peter's here this time."
"Yes, Your Grace," said a diffident voice. "Would you like me to fetch you a chair?"
"I think not, Simpson. It would only be in the way."
The exchange caught the man's attention, and he looked away from the gangway for a moment to acknowledge his neighbor. She was wearing a dress and coat the tailoring of which spoke quietly, but firmly, of very old money, and was attended by an elderly man in livery. When the bright dark eyes met his own he recognized her, despite the fact that her once glorious golden hair was now as white as his own.
"Hello, again," she said, as if it hadn't been thirty years since their last conversation. "I saw you here yesterday too, so I don't suppose anyone has told you anything more than they've told me about who might be aboard."
"I'm afraid not," he said, inclining his head to her. "I no longer have the connections in government which I once had."
"Yes," she said. "Mortimer mentioned the loss of your brother. I'm sorry. He will be sorely missed."
"Not, perhaps, as much as you might think. He knew his health was failing and made provisions." For a moment a corner of the tall man's lips curved upwards. "His substitutes -- and there are five of them, no less -- are perfectly competent, if determinedly reluctant to part with official information to anyone who is not official." Then he frowned. "Although, as family, you should have received some sort of notification. It is your son you're waiting for?"
"The younger one," she confirmed. "He was meant to be aboard a ship yesterday, but something must have happened. And you're waiting for your friend, aren't you?"
"I am." Reminded, he turned once more to watch the gangway, and straightened suddenly. "And I think, perhaps..." Uncertainty had never been something he wanted to admit to, but age and loss had diminished his pride. And the truth was that it was not a resemblance to the stocky, middle-aged man he had seen off to war that had caught his eye, but the ghost of a unnaturally slender young man, fresh from war and disaster, standing among the beakers and flasks of a chemical laboratory with his hat in one hand and his other shoulder held stiff against pain. Here was an officer escorting one of the stretchers off the ship. An older man, yes, by the silver in his hair, but just as painfully thin, with his left arm held immobile by a sling and the same remembered shadow of a limp.
The tall man stepped forward to see more clearly, and was startled when the woman beside him took the lead.
"Peter!" she called softly, and the tow-topped head on the stretcher pillow turned frightened eyes toward her. The officer beside the stretcher turned to look too, and a delighted smile split his face as he laid eyes on the tall man.
"I should have known!" he exclaimed. "And here I was, thinking I'd have to find a telegraph office to let you know I was back. How did you do it this time?"
"Persistence," the tall man answered dryly, forgoing the handshake he would have liked in view of the bandages that encased the officer's right hand.
"John?" the boy on the stretcher clutched at the officer's blouse. "You're not leaving yet?"
"No, no, not yet, Peter," the officer said, smiling an apology to the tall man before turning his attention back to the boy.
"You said you'd explain," the boy whispered, looking uncertainly from the officer to the woman who was now standing beside him, although she'd reached out to take his free hand.
"And I will." The officer looked around for a moment, "We just need a place to have you rest for a moment while these fellows go and fetch one of the others."
"Over there, sir," one of the stretcher bearers pointed with his chin. "There's cots and all set up, and it's out of the wind."
"That will do nicely, Carter," the officer agreed. The tall man fell into step beside him as the awkward cavalcade moved into the sheltered corner of the terminal.
"The newspaper only mentioned your name in a list of the wounded," he said, the words not quite a question.
"Ambulance accident," his friend replied matter-of-factly. "First we pitched into a shellhole and then the blasted thing caught fire. I was thrown clear -- burned my hand trying to get the patients out."
"And the shoulder?" the tall man asked, noting with grim satisfaction the way that the left arm hung limply in the sling and the fingers of that hand curled uselessly into the palm -- as if any connection to the rest of the man had been somehow severed. This would not be a short furlough for his friend.
"I landed wrong." The officer smiled but the tall man was close enough now to see the morphine glaze over the pain in his eyes. "They shan't be able to put Humpty Dumpty together a second time. But it's better than a bullet, and I should know."
The tall man shook his head at his friend as the stretcher bearers made the youngster comfortable on one of the cots and headed back to the ship to fetch another stretcher down. "What happened to letting the young bucks go dashing about the front lines while you sat comfortably at the hospital in the rear?" he asked, with a sour smile.
But he got no smile in return. "Half the youngsters are down with the influenza. It hits them harder, I think. And the work still needs to be done." The officer scrubbed at his eyes with his sleeve for a moment, his exhaustion visible despite the barrier of cloth.
"They won't send us back, will they, John? Not straight away?" the boy on the bed asked anxiously.
"They shan't need to," the officer said confidently, his attention going back at once to his patient and his calm demeanor miraculously restored. "Not with the Yanks filling in all the gaps. Ludendorff's not going to be able to counter that for long. It will be all right, Peter."
The reassurance brought some color back to the boy's face. "You really believe that," he decided, searching his protector's eyes.
"Of course I do." The officer smiled. "Now, why don't you have a chat with my friend here, while I have that talk with your mum?" He glanced to the tall man and his smile grew broader. "We were up all night, Peter and I, telling stories. You may have quite a few questions to answer."
The tall man raised an eyebrow, pretending mild indignation, although he did not feel it. He could deduce perfectly readily why both men had preferred late hours to slumber. "Why does that not surprise me," he said dryly, as he took his friend's place by the cotside. "You never could resist telling tales."
Written for Mary Crawford for the Yuletide challenge