Peter paused just outside the bedchamber door. Cat out? Yes. Talboys locked for the night? Yes. Three young sons abed and sleeping? Yes. Time to rejoin his lady wife. He opened the door, saw darkness within, and carefully blew out the candle he held, so as not to wake her.
In darkness, he closed the door and undressed, quietly, laying his clothes over a chair. Then he slipped into the bed. She stirred a little, at that, murmuring unintelligibly.
"Shhh," said Peter, in a low voice, "Go back to sleep."
"Mmm," said Harriet, sleepily. "I might." But she moved into his arms, and he felt her stretching a little, as though she meant to wake up. After a moment, she asked, "Are you tired, Peter?"
"Not especially," he answered. "Nothing beyond what one might expect for a day in the country with an active family. What is milady's pleasure?"
There was a brief pause, then Harriet said, "Something happened, this afternoon, that I want to ask you about. But talking about it involves asking you rather an impertinent question. We could put if off, if you like."
Peter heard and felt the uneasiness in her breathing. "Nay, magistra. Let us have it at once--ask, and I shall endeavor to answer truthfully."
"All right," she said. After another pause, Harriet asked, "Have you ever loved a man?"
Peter thought for a moment. "Since you have seen me in Gerald's and Charles' company often enough, and in Bunter's company times without number, I gather you don't mean brotherly or comradely love."
"No," she said, quietly.
Peter took a deep breath. "There have been a few men for whom I have felt something more. Not many, and not recently--my heart is wholly fixed upon you, as it has been for a dozen years, now."
Harriet said, "I'm glad. But will you tell me a little about what came before? Not details, just--I guess I'm asking if it ever went beyond feeling, into...action."
Now Peter was the one breathing uneasily. "Once," he said, "Or, rather, with one man. The circumstances were extraordinary, and we were far from England--yes, I did love that one man physically, as well as emotionally. Might I ask what happened, this afternoon, to rouse that question in your mind?"
Harriet sighed. "I met someone, unexpectedly, who said he was your friend, but I guessed from his manner that you might have been something more to each other."
Peter said, carefully, "Who was it, and where did you meet him?"
Harriet's body tensed further in his arms. "This part is going to sound quite mad," she said.
"I have some acquaintance with madness," said Peter, "and a positive familiarity with absurdly unusual circumstances. Pray, continue."
"All right." Harriet took a deep breath. "This afternoon, as I was going down the back stairs, carrying Paul and looking for Bredon, the stairs stopped being our stairs, and I seemed to end up in another place. I would think it was just a dream, but I came back from it with an inarguably tangible souvenir--a Mr. Lupin gave me a note for you. It's sitting on my dresser. Do you want it now? I thought it had better wait for a private moment."
Peter couldn't speak for a moment. Then he said, "Tell me what sort of place it was, first. Where did the stairs take you?"
Harriet said, "I was told its name was Milliways. It seemed to be a rather strange public house, with an extremely varied clientele."
"Did you come home by going back up the stairs?"
Peter took another deep breath. "Was Lupin still there when you left?"
Harriet said, "No, he left before I did."
Peter let out his breath. "Then there's no reason for me to get out of bed to go check the stairs. Besides, I've gone down those stairs at least three times, today, and I saw nothing unusual. Confound it! This is awfully awkward."
Harriet said, "You don't think I'm mad, do you? You've heard of Milliways before, and you do know Lupin."
"Yes," said Peter, "I've paid quite a few visits to Milliways, and I met Lupin there. But I haven't been able to reach Milliways for more than fifteen years. God knows what he thinks of me, after all this time."
Harriet said, carefully, "I don't think it's been as long for him as it has been for you. He said something about time moving differently, there. He said he'd last seen you several weeks ago, in his own time, but that he knew you'd married and had children in the interim, so more time must have passed for you."
"How the Devil did he know that?" exclaimed Peter.
"He'd met Bredon there in Milliways. I gather our young imp has been there more than once."
"Christ," said Peter, emphatically. "Dear heart, would you mind awfully if I got up and read that note?"
"No, go ahead."
Peter got up, re-lit his candle, and shrugged into his dressing gown. A moment later, the small, wax-sealed roll of parchment was in his hand. He seated himself in the chair closest to the bed, and broke the seal. Harriet, still in bed, watched him with a concerned expression. The note read,
Belated congratulations and best wishes on your marriage and family. I gather more time has passed for you than for me. I hope I did nothing to cause your absence from Milliways? Lady Peter seems a fine woman, and your son Bredon makes a fine young Marauder. Very likely Paul will, as well. I gather your middle son, Roger, has a bit of a different temperament? I haven't met Roger, so far, but I have a hunch concerning him--if any of your three sons develop magical abilities, a cup of tea says that it will be Roger.
It's difficult to know what else to write. The last time I saw you was the night we made the bet about the Black Forest Torte. That was about two months ago, for me. Can you tell me if we meet again, after that? I understand that your life has changed, and I won't expect any continuation of what was, but it would help to know if it's all in the past, now, for me, or if there are still some bits to come that you've lived but I haven't.
All the best to you and yours,
Peter bowed his head over the note and was silent for a few minutes. Then he looked at Harriet, and said, "Would you like to read it? He's a true Englishman; there's nothing in it that couldn't be printed in the Times, though the implications might raise an eyebrow or two among the more imaginative."
Harriet nodded and held out her hand for the note. She read it quickly, then handed it back to Peter.
"You loved him?"
"And you couldn't get back to him."
"I could not."
"Peter, that's dreadful. I'm sorry."
"It's a long time ago, dear heart--for me, at least. I wish I could at least get there for long enough to apologize and explain, but he wasn't a frequent visitor--couldn't afford it, poor chap--so there's no telling if he'd be there even if the stairs would take me."
"You could write a note, as he did, and ask Bredon to take it to Milliways," said Harriet. "It sounds like your firstborn has inherited your rights of access, or something."
"Yes," said Peter, a little grimly. "I must have a talk with that young man about Milliways, whether he takes a note for me or not. Harriet, the management there likes children and tries to protect them, but Milliways is not always a safe place. Unfortunately, if the stairs choose to take him there, I don't think there's any practical way to prevent Bredon from going. At the very least, I intend to pour a little fatherly advice into his ear about when and where he should curb his natural exuberance."
"Oh," said Harriet. "That does sound like a good idea. Do you intend to write to Mr. Lupin tonight?"
Peter sighed. "No. Best to do it in the morning, with a clear head, I think."
"Then come and sleep. Or something."
"You don't mind?"
Harriet's voice was warm. "I didn't mind the Viennese singer, did I?"
"True, for which I am inexpressibly grateful, but this is rather a different kettle of fish, isn't it?"
"Not so different as all that. However, a few conjugal kisses wouldn't be a bad thing, just now."
"Just a little."
"All right. I will set aside distraction and perplexity for the morning, and remember to be grateful for the enormous blessings that I have. Thank you, Harriet." He blew out the candle. Then, together, they reached for joy. And found it.