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Full House

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It was nine in the morning by the time that Chief Inspector Charles Parker had finished accounting for all fifty members of the Society, and organized the collection of what remained of the evidence at the shattered house on Hampstead Heath. He was just about to double-check that each of the prisoners would be kept separate from the others in order to prevent mischief when he glanced over and saw his friend, Lord Peter Wimsey, slumped down on the running board of one of the police cars, his fingers tugging at his dyed hair and his lacerated wrists showing above his shirt cuffs. Charles instantly felt a pang of guilt. Yes, he’d needed Peter to identify each of the prisoners (and the four bodies of the men who had failed to get far enough away before the house was blown up), but once it had all become procedure, he should have had the good sense to send Peter off to get some medical attention. Not wanting to let Peter out of sight after two years of being “dead” wasn’t in the least bit practical.

Charles only realized that he was staring at Peter and had bitten his lip when he felt Inspector Sugg bump his elbow. “I can handle this, sir,” Sugg said, kindly. “Why don’t you take Lord Peter back to the Yard and get his deposition and a bite of breakfast?”

“Breakfast?” Charles echoed. “Oh, Lord, I haven’t remembered to feed the men.”

“It’s all right, sir,” Sugg said. “They’ve been taking it in turns to go down to the high street for coffee and sandwiches. You’re the only one who hasn’t eaten. You and Lord Peter.”

Charles had the grace to look abashed. “What else have I forgotten?” he asked.

“Nothing that can’t wait,” Sugg replied. “Go on then, sir. And take Holloway for your driver. He’s due for a holiday as soon as his shift ends.”

“Right.” Charles bit his tongue against the impulse to leave Sugg a lot of superfluous instructions.

Peter didn’t respond to his name, but startled awake when Charles touched his shoulder and let himself be steered like a sleepy child into back of the waiting car. When Charles hesitated at the door, Peter patted the seat beside him. “Sit with me,” he commanded without opening his eyes. “Th’ driver knows th’ way home.”

“We’ve got to go to the Yard first,” Charles said, climbing in beside Peter and closing the door. Peter promptly shifted his weight to lean against Charles and rest his head on Charles’ shoulder. “Mm. You’re warm,” he mumbled.

“And you’re freezing,” Charles realized, chafing one of Peter’s hands between his own and abandoning his intention of more closely examining the wrist damage. “Holloway, fetch the blanket from the boot.”

The blanket duly provided, Peter snuggled down into its folds until only the top of his head showed, but still burrowed against Charles’s warmth. Charles, once the car was moving and no one but Holloway was likely to notice, obliged by putting his arm around Peter to make it easier for Peter to snuggle up. Peter promptly wrapped arms around Charles, as if the policeman were a giant teddy bear.

“Owe you thousan’ ‘pologies, old thing.” Charles had to bend his head down to catch the words Peter was vouchsafing to his breast pocket. “Didn’ mean to make you Watson. Jus’ couldn’t think of ‘nother way.”

Charles, who had been privy to some of Peter’s unfortunate nervous reactions at the end of other cases, wondered if this transformation into an apologetic limpet heralded a new variation on the theme. “Couldn’t be helped,” he said, soothingly. That the Society’s mole within Scotland Yard had turned out to be a particularly enterprising charwoman and a not a policeman was a blessing, but not one that could have been predicted two years ago. And he was too damn glad to have Peter back alive to give him a dressing down. Not today of all days. Even if he did think that Peter was modelling himself far too closely on Sherlock Holmes by going off and playing dead for years. At least he hadn’t taken up cocaine!

It was six miles from Hampstead Heath to Scotland Yard, and for the first half of the journey, Peter never moved, except for the comforting rise and fall of breath, and Charles had time to get used to the idea that his friend was most definitely alive. An amusing thought occurred to him as the car made the turn onto Baker Street. “Does this make Bunter Mycroft?” he wondered softly aloud.

Peter sniggered, proving that he was awake despite appearances. “Bunter’s not fat enough to be Mycroft.” His head emerged from the blanket and he blinked at Charles like a befuddled owl. “I expect you think I’m a dreadful nuisance.”

“Actually, I’m quite angry with you,” Charles said, smiling. “But I expect I’ll get over it.”

Peter extracted himself from Charles’s one-armed embrace and settled back against the seat cushions, wrapping the blanket more tightly around himself. His colour was better, Charles observed. The ridiculously dark beard and hair were no longer standing out against the pallor of shock and cold. But his eyes still betrayed his uncertainty. “We’ll have to put you up for sainthood then,” Peter said. “Right next to Watson. I never could see why he didn’t blacken Holmes’s eye, showin’ up like that after three years without a single word. You can take a swing at me if you like,” he added. “I’m rather expectin’ it.”

“I’m not that angry,” Charles said. “And you’ve got enough bruises already.”

Peter rubbed at his arms. “The ropes were rather tight,” he agreed, with a veneer of brightness. “I suppose I should be grateful that they never resorted to hot irons.” But then he circled back to the topic at hand, like a tongue probing a sore tooth. “I saw you once, on the street. Took everything I had not to call out a halloa.”

“Oh?” Charles asked, “What was I up to?”

“Interviewing a shopkeeper in Lambeth. Last April, on the fourteenth.”

“The Walters case,” Charles identified the incident readily enough. “We’d had an anonymous tip. Was that you?”

Peter shook his head. “No. Not that time. Nothing to do with me. I did mean to give you a nudge over old man Winthrop, but you tumbled to his blackmailing activities without any pointers, so there wasn’t any need. I haven’t really dared think about anything but the Society, to be honest. You’ll have to catch me up on all the news.”

“Hasn’t Bunter kept you up to date?”

Peter shook his head. “It’s bally difficult to gossip properly by carrier pigeon,” he said, and began to pick at the balls of fuzz on the blanket absently. “Have you heard from Polly at all while I was gone? Do you know if my mother’s all right? Newspapers never have anything really important in them.”

“Your mother is fine, to the best of my knowledge,” Charles said, pleased to be able to pass along good news to cover his confusion over being reminded that Bunter wasn’t the only one who had known about Peter’s deception. “And I ran into Lady Mary two weeks ago. She’s taken up house decorating. Did you know that? Something to keep busy. Doing rather well at it, too.”

“Is she? Good for her.” Peter reached over impulsively to pat Charles’s closed fist. “You mustn’t be upset with her, you know. She argued like a lawyer that you should be in on the whole charade, but you know how it is with secrets. And you already had a big enough target on your back. Your name was the first one that came up when the Society was decidin’ to eliminate my friends.”

Charles rubbed a hand over his face and wished that they’d had breakfast before this conversation. “That comes with the job, Peter. You know that.”

“Yes, yes. But you would have been obliged to stop things from happening. Burglaries and so forth. That comes with the job too.” Peter was practically pleading, the cracks beginning to show now that the crisis was over, and Charles took pity on him.

“It’s just as well you didn’t tell me,” he growled. “I’d have bundled you off to Bedlam for even contemplating such a wild scheme. Two years undercover! What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking it would take three months,” Peter admitted, a corner of his mouth turning up now that he’d been shouted at. “Six at the outside. They were far better organized than anyone knew.”

“Three months, my foot,” Parker countered fiercely. “It would have taken you that long just to acquire the beard.”

“Oy!” Peter straightened with indignation and Charles looked upon that air of deprecated masculinity and found that any rancour in his breast over two years of deception had vanished. He began to laugh, and after a moment Peter joined in too.