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trepidation of the spheres

Chapter Text

“I’ve got a date,” said Lord Peter Wimsey. And so, indeed, he had; specifically, one that he had no desire to put off or alter the particulars of given the fact that he was in no way assured of a repeat appointment. For anyone other than Miss Harriet Vane, he might have taken a more measured stock of the situation and sent his regrets. But as it was Miss Vane he intended to meet, he instead swept off home to change straight from seeing Charles and Mary.

He could manage an evening.

“How is Chief Inspector Parker?” Bunter asked as Peter stared into the wardrobe. Making a decision suddenly seemed an impossible task—he was grateful when Bunter gently guided him out of the way and took to selecting an appropriate outfit.

The question threw him for a moment, his mind flashing back to Mary’s voice on the telephone, Charles in bandages—Peter cleared his throat roughly and banished the mental intrusion.

“Spitting mad,” he replied. “But a few weeks of recovery and he’ll be fine.”

“Very good, my Lord.”

Peter changed without additional commentary as he was handed different articles of clothing. His mind kept straying to a gilded note in a mailbox, a designer pencil, bandages and blood on a stair and—

“My Lord?” A hand on his shoulder and a bitterness on his tongue. “Are you quite sure you’re well?”

Peter blinked and the room came back into focus.

“Quite,” he murmured, and settled a hat on his head as he repeated the word for emphasis.

Harriet, he reminded himself. He was going to meet Harriet.

He didn’t consider that perhaps he wasn’t fine at all.

“—it was entirely my fault—“

My fault, my fault, my fault, it should have been me—

“—Peter? …Peter?”

Peter snapped back to himself when Harriet placed her hand atop his. For a moment, he could not recall where they were or how they got there, could not remember ordering or how their conversation had gone; instead, his vision swam with bloody and broken figures as his food turned to ash on his tongue.

“Peter.”

Harriet gripped his hand tighter and he gripped back, needing to hold onto something lest he fall away again. Her lips pressed thin, her eyes wide and full of concern.

Concern for him.

He shuddered out an exhale.

“Do you know,” he said haltingly, “I find myself quite unwell.”

“It’s alright,” Harriet replied, not losing the worried look in her eyes. “We don’t have to stay.”

Peter squeezed her hand once before releasing it and didn’t say another word until they were in the car.

“I’m on a case,” he admitted after several long, silent moments. “I wouldn’t—I can’t discuss it, only, tonight—“

“What happened tonight?” Harriet prompted when he failed to continue.

But Peter shook his head. No, he couldn’t bring anyone else into such a mess. Especially not—no.

“I’m sorry,” he said instead. “I’m poor company. And I would not blame you in the least if you elected to renew your sentiment from months ago so as to avoid any recurrence of tonight.”

“Don’t be a fool.” Harriet’s voice snapped, but gentled immediately after. “If you imagine I would hold this against you, then you must think me very shallow indeed.”

“Never.” Peter looked away and lifted a hand to his temple. “Forgive me.”

“Already forgiven.”

More silence, and then—

“Peter—“

“Harriet—“

They both stopped. Harriet cleared her throat.

“As you cannot control the actions of everyone else around you, I suspect there is no way to guarantee that you will stay safe,” she acknowledged, “but, Peter—if I can ask it—whatever it is you’re doing—will you at least try to take care?”

Peter looked back to her for a long moment, a tightening in his throat that had nothing to do with the rest of the evening’s events.

“Yes, alright,” he agreed finally. “If you’d like.”

It stuck with him long after the car stopped, long after Harriet transferred him into Bunter’s capable care and disappeared off to her own home. And it struck him, when it later occurred to him to consider it, that he hadn’t asked her to marry him.

It was also the case, however, that he wished to more than ever.

Chapter Text

“Peter,” Harriet said, “come to bed.”

Between the way she kissed him beforehand and the way her hands slid down his chest after, she was certain there could be no question as to her real meaning. And indeed there was not, if she could go by his reaction—an infinitesimal freeze, a swallow, a nervous flick of the eyes. If she was testing a hypothesis—and after a fashion, she was—she could have concluded the experiment then and there.

“Are you sure?” Her husband replied. “I wouldn’t want—“

“Are you afraid to make love to me?” Harriet interrupted.

Peter, caught in the middle of a phrase, closed his mouth, opened it, then closed it again as if grasping for words that failed to come.

“Ah,” he finally settled on. “Not…entirely?”

And there it was, Harriet thought, fond exasperation spreading through her as she gently touched his cheek. She had wondered after the birth, when he took up an even more effusive style of attentiveness, if he had been struggling to restore his nerves after that particular harrowing experience. And it was harrowing indeed, for both of them—it may have been the doctor’s prerogative to pretend otherwise after the fact, but neither of them are fools.

It’s a very interesting addition to you, Harriet; but it would have been a hell of a rotten substitute.

“Peter,” she sighed. “I am perfectly well.”

“I know.” His fingers trembled faintly as they caressed her waist.

“I do not pretend it is rational,” he added. “It is only—I would not lose you. Not for children. Not for the world.”

Harriet swayed in and kissed the vulnerability from his brow, then his mouth for good measure as she took his hands in hers.

“Come to bed,” she repeated. “For I would not lose you either. And we have time yet.”

Chapter Text

“Peter?”

Harriet lifted her head from his shoulder and his fingers paused their gentle strokes through her hair.

“Yes, my love?”

“How are you? Truly?”

Peter closed his eyes, rubbing at his forehead with his free hand. He had spent much of the day with representatives of the Foreign Office and returned uncharacteristically subdued, his eyes shadowed and solemn. Time at home brought back some of the light, but not enough to erase her worry.

“I am…” Peter started and then stopped to clear his throat.

“You know,” he said, “in the War, and after, it seemed unequivocal that such a conflict could not be allowed to reoccur. But nonetheless, not a century, not even half a century later, it may be inevitable. I cannot…”

He trailed off again.

There were things each of them did not discuss, not out of any lack of trust or affection, but because it was too difficult. Easier to skirt the edges when absolutely necessary than to open up old wounds afresh by confronting them head on. For Peter, it was the War. And Harriet did not begrudge him that, had never felt owed specifics of the most painful period of his life.

But, on occasion, including this one, she wished she could understand less abstractly.

“You did everything you could,” Harriet acknowledged quietly.

“If only that were enough.”

Peter clasped one of her hands and brought it to his lips.

“I’m afraid that I’m rather poor company tonight, dearest,” he said. “I expect I may be for some time yet.”

“Would you prefer to be alone?” She asked.

“God, no. But if you—“

“Hush. I’m not going anywhere.”

Harriet did not pull her hand away when he lowered it back to her lap. Instead, she merely readjusted, lacing her fingers tightly through his as she settled her head on his shoulder once more. Peter squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. After a few moments, his other hand returned to her hair.

The clock on the wall ticked on.

Chapter Text

For all that Harriet Vane preferred not to think of one Lord Peter Wimsey when she had plenty of other pursuits to occupy her thoughts, she remained unable to forget him for long in the days following their odd evening out. She found her mind straying to him at the most inconvenient moments, concern tightening her throat as she recalled the way he had all but disintegrated before her eyes, turning ashen and shaky and withdrawn, a far cry from his usual self.

“Do you know…I find myself quite unwell.”

More than once, Harriet wondered if what she had seen was no anomaly, but in fact the real Peter, with all masks and pretenses stripped away. Those thoughts were easy to dismiss—it was no business of hers what pieces of himself he elected to hide from the world. Neither she nor anyone else was entitled to know his secrets, his flaws, his tragedies. She would not begrudge him his privacy.

But. She worried.

Ultimately, concern prevailed over aloofness and Harriet sent a note that was answered by a telephone call.

“I’m afraid I’ve already promised Wednesday to Mary,” Peter said apologetically when Harriet repeated the offer from her missive. “And I’m expected at mother’s by Saturday.”

“Of course,” Harriet replied, “I understand. I simply wanted to—” See you? Without a better excuse, she allowed the phrase to trail off. Peter caught her meaning nonetheless and picked up the thread.

“Provide me the opportunity to make up for my behavior the last time we met?” He filled in. “Entirely more gracious than I deserve and yet I seem to be hindering the sentiment with scheduling conflicts.”

Harriet’s lips quirked briefly. “You could simply call when you’re back in London,” she noted.

“That’s one possibility,” Peter acknowledged. “Alternatively, you could marry me and we could do away with scheduling entirely.”

Harriet bit back a laugh, her worry slowly dissipating. For once, the proposal elicited no negative reaction, only relief.

“Certainly not,” she replied, returning easily to familiar territory. “You’ll have to manage conflicts after all.”

“Ah, well. If I must.”

Harriet heard the smile in his voice, the warmth, and as silence fell between them, the remainder of her tension bled out of her shoulders.

“Peter…you are well, aren’t you?” She asked.

A pause, and then—softer, but no less sincere— “Much improved since we last spoke,” Peter replied.

“Good. That’s—I’m glad to hear it.”

“Harriet—” Peter cut himself off and Harriet listened to his slow and steady exhale over the line. Her own chest twisted, breath catching, suspended in the moment.

“Yes?”

“Beyond anything else, you have been my friend,” he said finally. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I hope you know that I do not take it lightly.”

Harriet didn’t know what she’d been expecting, but it wasn’t that.

“I know.” Her voice was quiet to her own ears, reflecting her inexplicable urge to be more gentle with him than usual. “And I hope you know that I don’t either. Take it lightly, that is.”

Another silence, the moment stretching between them. Harriet wished abruptly that they were in the same room, not merely on opposite ends of a telephone line.

“Take care, Harriet,” Peter said. “I’ll phone when I return.”

Right. Of course.

“Goodnight, Peter.”

And Harriet hung up the phone.

Chapter Text

“Do you regret it?” Peter asked.

Harriet’s breath caught at the memory from the night before that accompanied the question—the fireplace, his mouth, his hands—and the way he punctuated it with a slow drag of his thumb across the inside of her wrist.

“The only thing I regret,” she replied, “is being so distracted because of it that your uncle felt the need to invent an excuse to send us off early.”

Peter laughed quietly and brought her hand to his lips.

“If it helps, I’m fairly certain mother didn’t notice.”

“Small mercies.”

Harriet allowed him to pull her in, resting her head on his shoulder. She still felt somewhat unraveled, flushed and distracted, her nerve endings electric. She still wanted him more than seemed entirely reasonable.

“Do you?” she asked.

Peter shifted so he could tip her chin up to look at him.

“Not for an instant, dear heart. Say the word and I’ll gladly prove just how much I don’t.”

Harriet’s lips quirked up. She swayed in to kiss him.

Chapter Text

“Peter.”

“Hello, dear heart.”

For all that Harriet had two weeks to prepare for Peter’s return to London, his appearance at her door still managed to take her by surprise. It was not that it was unwanted—to the contrary, she had missed him deeply. But there was a certain safety in the distance of sending letters back and forth. It was easier in a way, to be vulnerable in a letter, when there was no requirement to look the recipient in the eye afterward. And they had, both of them, been painstakingly, wonderfully open with one another throughout the months of their separation.

After that, Harriet could not help feeling uncharacteristically shy upon being faced with him again.

But the shyness lasted for only a moment before other desires won out.

Falling into Peter’s arms again was as easy as breathing, and Harriet closed her eyes as she pressed her cheek to his chest, as Peter dropped a kiss to the top of her head. He was thinner than the last time she held him, she noted to herself, and she allowed herself a brief moment to contemplate the fantasy of sending a strongly worded letter to the Foreign Office.

“Ghastly business, that,” Peter said, the words somewhat muffled by her hair as he seemed as disinclined as she to relax their embrace. “But it’s finished for the moment at least. In the future, they may decide differently, but…”

“You think they’ll send you back?” Harriet asked, pulling back just enough to look at him.

“There are no plans to for now,” he admitted. “Although, I’ve learned to be prepared for requests that I submit to duty for king and country at any and all inconvenient moments.”

Harriet smiled despite herself and reached up to smooth the line in his brow.

“Have you tried being less respectable? Perhaps if you reduced your standing and didn’t insist on being quite so capable, they might leave you alone.”

The light tease got the reaction she was hoping for—Peter laughed.

“I have in fact endeavored to be less respectable for years. It never seems to stick,” he replied. “Perhaps the real solution is that the next time the government wishes to send me into a diplomatic crisis, I should simply inform them that I’m terribly sorry, but my wife refuses to allow it.”

“Now there’s an idea.”

She kissed him then, a soft, sweet thing, and when they parted he was smiling.

“Shall we dine, my dear?” Peter asked, stepping back and holding out a hand for her.

For a moment, Harriet considered saying no in favor of pulling him inside, spending the evening twined together on a loveseat instead of with the distance of a table between them. But, there would be time enough for that.

“I’ll get my coat.”

Chapter Text

“They say it’s easier the second time.”

“Ah,” Peter said, his eyes closed as Harriet’s fingers carded through his hair where his head lay in her lap. “Invoking the mysterious they.”

“Yes, they,” she echoed lightly. “Including among their number, your mother.”

“Well, I suppose she would know.”

A pause. Then—

“Peter?”

“Yes?”

“You are...happy?”

Peter’s eyes opened and he reached for her hand, bringing it to his lips.

“Positively incandescent,” he assured. “Although, I fear, at least on occasion, I may beg your leave to be a busy old fool who cannot help making a terrible fuss.”

Harriet smiled and, unable to resist a gentle tease, replied: “Is that different from any other day?”

Peter laughed. “Betrayed thus by my own wife? You wound me, darling! I fear I shall never recover.”

“Come and kiss me then,” Harriet said. “Let me soothe the sore.”

And, muttering about wicked women, Peter sat up and did precisely that.