Parker and Bunter were the first through the hospital doors. Lady Mary lagged behind to pay off the taxi but followed in time to hear Parker demand, "Lord Peter Wimsey?" of the nurse on duty.
The nurse stared at him severely over her pince-nez. "And you are?"
Parker forcibly brought himself back under control. "Mr Parker, a friend. Oh, and this is Lady Mary, his sister, and Mr Bunter."
"Indeed." The nurse adjusted her pince-nez. "Lord Peter has left instructions that Mr Parker is to be admitted but has made no mention of you two." She pursed her mouth and managed to imply that this was evidently due to some fault of the visitors. "He's as comfortable as can be expected but should not be excited by too many visitors. I expect you to stay outside."
Bunter opened his mouth to object but Parker's hand closed on his arm. "Peter'll have a word and get you in - no need to kick up a fuss. Besides, I'd, er, rather not leave Lady Mary unattended." Parker judged it unlikely she would run off after so neatly reciting her supposed confession but he was unwilling to take the risk.
Bunter considered the matter for a moment. "Yes, sir," he said. "But... Gun shots, in the dark. I'm worried about his nerves."
"They haven't said anything about that," Parker said, "and it's the kind of thing they'd mention."
"Yes, sir," Bunter agreed politely.
"Took your dashed time!" Lord Peter objected gaily from under the ministrations of a nurse. "I say, where's Bunter? Not like the fellow to abandon me in my hour of need."
Parker kept his attention very firmly on Lord Peter's face and ignored the fact that his friend was half-naked. "The nurse wouldn't let him in. She said you hadn't asked he be admitted."
"Of course not! Bunter's a part of me - I didn't need to invite my right hand in, did I?"
"You explain it to the dragon on the door - I'm not."
"Still scorched? Poor Charles. And poor Bunter, sitting out there all on his lonesome."
"Not quite. Lady Mary's out there too."
"Ah, dear, sweet Polly, who has lied at one time or another. But let's not talk about her - let's talk about me."
Parker, who had been desperately grasping for a way to steer the topic of conversation away from that touchy subject, was quite happy to acquiesce. Lord Peter was looking more cheerful than he had feared but hearing one's only sister had confessed to murdering her fiance would knock anybody, even if they hadn't just received a bullet in their shoulder. "What happened?"
"I was shot by a Socialist - the revolution is upon us! Raise the barricades! Ah, thank you, nurse. Much more comfortable. I've already bled through one bandage," he explained as the nurse left the room, his voice filled with obscure pride. "Who'd have thought the old man had so much blood in him, indeed."
"Oh, very well. You're a spoilsport, Charles. I bumped into an old friend of Mary's and, together, we hied us hence to the Soviet Club to indulge in potatoes and carrots with our scarlet comrades. You're looking surprised, Charles, old dear."
"I didn't have you pegged as a Socialist," Charles said stolidly.
"Who can remain unconverted after he has but once heard the stirring words of Mr Coke? Only I didn't get to hear them, so am still a filthy capitalist and will be first against the wall. I just thought it would be jolly to find out more about Mary when she was emulating the cockney sparrow." He paused and some of the manic energy faded. "Thought it might help in getting Gerald off as well."
"Has it? No. Don't answer. The case can wait till you've healed a little. Then what?"
"Saw a chap, followed him and the swine turned and shot me. Fell back, landed on a bedstead of all things and the end result is a hole in my shoulder, a cracked collarbone and what I'm told is a most interesting set of bruises. Here." Lord Peter rolled over slightly, revealing a back marked with a line of bruises. "Dashed fancy bedsteads with their pointy knobs all over."
Parker cleared his throat and did his best to ignore the glimpse of Lord Peter's buttocks.
"I ought to get Bunter to take a photo as a souvenir. I can wave it at Gerry when he gets too insufferable, to remind him what I endured on his behalf." Lord Peter winced as he settled back down and pulled the blanket over himself, much to Parker's relief. "What's the matter, old man? No point pretending to be shocked at the sight of my pasty behind, even if you haven't seen it for a few months."
Parker's eyes widened and he glanced around anxiously. "Keep it down, please! Somebody might hear."
Lord Peter blinked. "Good Lord, yes. Sorry. I'm not quite sure what they've given me but it's making the world a blurrier place. Rather difficult to think, what." He smiled. "Must be that that's making me want to ask you to kiss it better."
"Peter..." Parker's voice tailed off and he had to turn away from Lord Peter's expression.
"I see," Lord Peter said softly. "Sorry, old man. Shouldn't have assumed. Three months is a long time and all that."
"I am sorry. It's just..." Not for the first time, Parker wished he had better words at his disposal.
"Somebody else? I can see that little light in your eyes. I won't ask who." Lord Peter rotated his shoulder. "Could you possibly send Bunter in for me? Nurses were making noises like they wanted to kick me out and I'd rather be dressed when they do."
"Of course." Parker paused at the door. "I'm sorry, Peter."
"Don't be an ass. It was fun while it lasted. Best of luck with the new one. And, I say?"
There was a vulnerability on Lord Peter's face that made Parker's guilt even worse. "Yes?"
"We are still friends?"
"I can't see anything changing that," Parker said and, embarrassed by his own honesty, exited the room.
Lord Peter settled back on to the bed and sighed. Only to be expected, really. He caught himself on the edge of a precipice of self-pity and quickly hauled himself back while administering a stern warning. Quite frankly, he was alive and he wasn't imprisoned, awaiting trial for murder. That was enough to be going on with for the moment.
"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, my lord."
Bunter's soft tones were enough to make Lord Peter beam. "Finally fought your way in. Should have known nothing would keep you from your duty. Through flood, fire and something else that appears to be lost in the fog of my brain. What have they given me, Bunter?"
"I will endeavour to ascertain, my lord. I am told that the doctor is happy for you to continue your recuperation at home. An ambulance is being prepared for your journey."
"Time to stop lollygagging around in bed and get back in the saddle, in other words. Don't suppose you brought any clothes? Don't think even you could get my shirt and jacket back to a wearable state."
"Bloodstains can usually be removed, my lord. I regret to say that bullet holes are beyond me."
Lord Peter winced as he struggled to a sitting position. In a moment, Bunter's arms were round him, helping him as he swung his legs round to sit on the edge of the bed. "Good Lord. I feel weak as a baby." He mock-glared at Bunter. "And that's no excuse to start treating me as one."
"I wouldn't dream of it, my lord," Bunter replied urbanely. "Now, if sir would care to dress?"
Lord Peter leaned down to pull on the loose flannel trousers Bunter provided but stopped short with a sharp stab of pain. "Damn. Very well, Bunter, treat me as the useless aristocrat I am. And I can tell you now, I'll be taking it with dashed bad grace."
"Of course, my lord," Bunter murmured as he fastened Lord Peter's trousers. "If you'll forgive me, my lord, you still have some blood on your shoulder. Shall I remove it?"
Lord Peter glanced down at his bandage. "Oh, dash it all," he snapped. "The bally - no, bloody - thing's bleeding again." He took a deep breath. "Well, I'd rather have you poking at it than those nurses. Do your worst!" he proclaimed with an aborted melodramatic gesture.
"Yes, my lord." Bunter was gentle as he carefully undid the bandages round Lord Peter's chest. Lord Peter's mouth tightened with pain as Bunter peeled away the blood-caked dressing underneath. "It does appear to have almost stopped bleeding, my lord," Bunter ventured.
"Probably because there's no blood left in me," Lord Peter said darkly. He moved his shoulder and dark blood oozed from he wound.
"I must insist that you do not aggravate the injury, my lord," Bunter said firmly.
Lord Peter didn't reply but obediently kept his shoulder still.
The nurse had left her supplies behind and it didn't take long for Bunter to snip a new dressing. Before applying it, he rinsed the dried blood from the wound.
Lord Peter shivered as the cold water touched him.
"I should have preferred warm water, my lord."
"So should I," Lord Peter agreed vehemently. After a moment, he said softly, "I say, Bunter, what do you think of Parker? Honestly."
Bunter was silent as he laid the dressing against Lord Peter's shoulder. "Mr Parker is a respectable man, my lord. I believe he will always place what he judges to be right above any other consideration."
"Do you think so?" Lord Peter mused. "You may very well be right."
"If you will forgive me, my lord?" Bunter wrapped his arms around Lord Peter to pass the bandages round his chest. After fastening them, he stepped back. "I believe that will be sufficient to secure the dressing, my lord. If you are able to stand, it will be easier to assist you with your shirt."
"I'm not that done for," Lord Peter said but he staggered slightly as he stood and grasped Bunter's arm for support. He remained that way for a few seconds before straightening and blinking. "Not just yet. Make it quick, though." Bunter helped him into his shirt and blazer with more gentleness than speed but Lord Peter didn't object. As he gingerly straightened the fall of his jacket, he managed a weak smile. "Good old Bunter. You even know the appropriate attire for hobbling home from hospital."
Bunter remained silent and Lord Peter studied him for a long moment. "Bunter, old chap. I don't think I've told you lately how much I appreciate you."
"Thank you, my lord," Bunter murmured.
"And I don't mean to take advantage of your good nature," Lord Peter continued, his gaze resting somewhere past Bunter's left ear, "but..." He swallowed hard. "It was a bad show, Bunter."
Bunter's face softened somewhat from the immobility of the perfect servant. "I thought it might be, my lord."
Lord Peter glanced at the bloodstained shirt and swayed slightly. Bunter's hand was instantly at his elbow and Lord Peter coughed a sharp laugh, lacking all humour. "Good God. When I saw the gun in his hand, all I could think of was the mud. The damned mud."
"That was in the past, my lord. Not now."
"No." Lord Peter stared at his hand as he flexed it, at the obsessive cleanliness of his skin and nails. "Not now." He pulled himself upright. "Better get a move on, Bunter. Don't want to keep the ambulance waiting."
"Indeed, my lord."