I had not expected to see John Pelham Ratcliffe again.
The circumstances under which we had been reunited had been unusual, and were unlikely to recur. I had no intention of revisiting Brockstone in future, however many more reunions might be held there over the coming years. And Ratcliffe had, despite the consideration he had shown me, made it clear that he did not think particularly well of Dr. Starkweather, and that he intended to avoid any professional association with the Parrington for as long as he could help it.
It was not out of the ordinary for me to enter the Parrington any given morning and hear the murmur of distant voices emanating from the general direction of Dr. Starkweather's office. Indeed, I treated it as a cue to determine with all due haste whether there were any errands I could think of that might draw me away from my office to some corner where nobody was likely to find me—and to embark on them immediately.
But on this particular morning, I was deeply surprised to hear such voices. For I found my ear identifying one of them as none other than Ratcliffe's.
I came to an ungraceful halt in the corridor. Surely I was mistaken. I could hardly claim to know Ratcliffe's voice well enough to recognize it beyond doubt. We were barely acquainted, after all. We had rarely interacted as boys, and as grown men there was only that single weekend at Brockstone. While it was true that I had spoken to him then with what for me was surprising openness and frequency, that could not outweigh the sheer improbability that it was Ratcliffe. It would be foolish to assume otherwise.
And yet I found I could not set aside a certain sense of nervous anticipation. I had been startled repeatedly by Ratcliffe's willingness to assist me, at Brockstone. He had listened attentively to my description of the dreams of Palmer that had plagued me, and beyond that he had believed them, or seemed to. His support had been as welcome to me then as it had been unexpected, and I remembered it with warmth. The prospect of seeing him again, unlikely though it might be, had arisen and would not be dismissed. I spent half the morning unforgivably distracted.
I was drawn out of my thoughts abruptly by a knock at my office door. I looked up, already filled with dread—for whoever it was Dr. Starkweather had been talking to, I was conscious that if he intended to introduce them to me there was no hope that they would depart with a positive impression of me, and equally conscious that it could not be avoided. There was no conceivable excuse I could make that would prevent Dr. Starkweather from opening that door.
But when he did, I froze for an entirely different reason. Because the figure waiting at his shoulder with a pleasant, friendly look was, in defiance of all my reasoning, none other than Ratcliffe.
There was no mistaking it. His face was just as I remembered it, his spare compact frame and his bright attentive eyes. When the door had swung far enough to permit it, his gaze came to me—directed up, of course, for there was still the better part of a foot's difference between our heights—and he smiled.
"Booth!" he said.
I made some reply, though I cannot venture to guess what it may have been.
It must not have been too alarming, whatever it was, for Dr. Starkweather beamed at me. No doubt he was pleased to think my acquaintance with Ratcliffe was bearing fruit at last.
He could not have understood precisely how little sense it made. And the thought of attempting to enlighten him held no appeal; repeating the words Napoleonic egomaniac to Dr. Starkweather's face was entirely beyond my ability.
Even if it had not been, Dr. Starkweather would never have believed it. Not when the same man who had spoken those words to me was now standing beside him, smiling and clapping a hand to Dr. Starkweather's shoulder with every appearance of perfect amiability. "I happened to be traveling through the city, and thought I might take the opportunity to stop by," Ratcliffe said. "We've just had the most absorbing conversation about the state of the Parrington's Persian collection—but never mind. Starkweather here mentioned that you'd be in today, Booth! A pleasure, as always."
I was bewildered. I can only hope my face did not show it. If I had attempted to offer some explanation for Ratcliffe's presence at the Parrington, it would have been that circumstances had contrived to inexorably require it of him. Or that his path had somehow crossed Dr. Starkweather's, and he had not come up with the words to politely refuse whatever invitation Dr. Starkweather had pressed on him.
And yet instead it seemed his presence here was his own doing. I could not account for it. Even if the warmth he expressed were sincere, it was not possible that my presence alone should be motivation enough to overcome the reluctance Ratcliffe had so undeniably shown to have anything to do with Dr. Starkweather.
"I don't suppose you'd be free to dine later today?"
I stared at him. Dr. Starkweather was watching me expectantly, and I could not bear to think what he would say if I turned down the invitation. He clearly felt Ratcliffe was all but won over, glowing with pleasure at the benevolence of fate, and if a meal with me was what it took to seal this triumph, then so be it.
"Yes," I said, reluctantly but inevitably. "Yes, I'm sure I am. Of course."
"Wonderful!" Dr. Starkweather said.
There was no escape. And perhaps the worst part of it all was that I might not have wished for any, if I had not been thoroughly overcome by the certainty that whoever it was who stood there with his hand on Dr. Starkweather's arm, smiling at me, it was not John Pelham Ratcliffe.
These were the facts: I had said yes. I could not easily withdraw that agreement, and the thought of making the attempt was intolerable in any case.
I had also begun to feel unhappily as though I held some responsibility toward Ratcliffe. Of course it had occurred to me, much as I wished otherwise, that perhaps whatever was wrong with him—whatever had altered him, or whatever force or power might have taken control of him—might have placed him in need of the sort of assistance that I was, unfortunately, well-equipped to provide.
But I suppose in part it was simple guilt. I had not needed to tell him about Palmer. But I had done it. I had wanted to, because he had been willing to listen and because I had not wished to bear the matter alone.
And now it seemed all too clear that in doing so I had dealt him a disservice. I felt as though I must have left some blot or brand on him; that in my selfishness, I had stained him with some residue which he might otherwise have escaped. For all his stories of the mysteries of the Levant, and his colleague's dreams of Troy, he had given no indication that he himself had directly experienced anything of the sort.
Not until he met me. And then I had marked him, as surely as my Murchison hair marked me, and something had found him, though I could not yet venture to guess its nature.
We had arranged to dine that evening, by virtue of the thing that was not Ratcliffe suggesting various hours until one was named to which I could muster no objection.
I imagine the food was excellent. I tasted none of it. I was much too busy observing my companion. Certain one moment that I had all the proof required to be sure my assessment was correct, I was besieged with doubt the next. The way he spoke was by turns perfectly congruent with my previous interactions with Ratcliffe, and then askew in a manner I could not define. It was something about the way he looked at me, perhaps—the brightness I had always perceived in Ratcliffe's sharp eyes briefly occluded, now and then, as though a cloud had passed somewhere within.
His conduct, too, was subtly disturbing to me. He could not have failed to notice how I was staring at him; I lacked the deftness to cover for it adequately. But he only smiled at me. And the smile, too, was not Ratcliffe's—not the quick, sardonic little slant of the mouth to which Ratcliffe was inclined. This smile was slow: milk and honey, poured out in lazy anticipation of the long sweet drink to follow.
I managed to turn the conversation to Ratcliffe's work, by a stumbling and circuitous route. He had only just returned from the Levant, as I recalled—was that right?
"Oh, yes," he said, turning his fork idly in his fingers, leaning in across the table. "And am I right in thinking you've never visited the area?"
"Quite right, yes."
"Well! You must go sometime—I shall have to have you along on an expedition, perhaps."
I made a sound which might plausibly be taken for agreement, and that slow, slow smile resurfaced.
"I'm sure you would enjoy it," he added, voice lowered to a murmur, so that I found I must lean in a little myself to hear him. "It is a beautiful country. Ancient, rich—so much yet lies buried there, waiting to be discovered."
And that, too, struck me distantly as unlike Ratcliffe. He was an articulate man, certainly, but straightforward. He had not demonstrated any particular tendency to wax descriptive, or to succumb to flights of fancy. Even when he had told me he believed my dreams, which might have seemed to the objective observer as fanciful indeed, he had been so matter-of-fact about it.
But of course I could not say that in response. I swallowed, and cast about for a reply fit to give aloud. "It sounds lovely," was the best I could do. "But I shouldn't like to get in the way."
"Nonsense, Booth," he said, waving this objection away with one hand. "You'd be more than welcome, I assure you."
He shifted in his chair—only slightly, but I was suddenly made starkly aware that there had not been much space between our knees to begin with. My fault, of course, for my legs were long and awkward, and I had never mastered the trick of folding them neatly enough to prevent their sticking out gracelessly in one direction or another. But Ratcliffe—the thing that looked like Ratcliffe—was now pressing a knee to mine. And the steady way he was watching me, that dulcet smile, said it was not accident.
I am naturally pale. I have no doubt the flush that overcame me was as visible to him as it was tangible to me, the sensation of heat in my face unbearably distinct.
I had not thought that way about Ratcliffe, at Brockstone. The matter of Palmer had occupied me too thoroughly. Even if that had not been the case, I had been too wary of him, expecting any moment to once again be rendered fifteen and hopeless and to hear him jeer at me. No sooner had that wariness finally begun to fade than the weekend had ended, and we had parted. I had not allowed myself to so much as speculate on Ratcliffe's own inclinations. It is my habit to assume I share nothing in common with anyone around me, because it is so often true.
But in retrospect, perhaps I carried the memory of Ratcliffe's fierce bright eyes closer than I should have.
This, though, was not Ratcliffe. And, knowing that to be true, there was no appeal whatsoever in having its knee pressed to mine.
But to play at outrage or offense was beyond me. Besides, for all I knew this was my only opportunity to learn more. So I braced myself and swallowed, and did not flinch away. "And will you return there soon?"
"I hope to," the thing that was not Ratcliffe said. "But there are details remaining to be worked out, of course. Dr. Starkweather made me an offer of funding this morning, you know. I haven't decided whether or not to accept."
"Ah," I managed. "I wasn't sure. Where are you going, then?"
He looked at me sharply, intently, and for a moment it was almost Ratcliffe again after all, sitting across from me there at the table.
"What do you mean?"
I looked down at my plate, as if it had been an idle question—though for all I knew my meal had been transformed into a squid, for I saw nothing. "This morning. You said you were traveling through the city."
He was quiet for a moment. "Ah, yes. Visiting family."
I could not recall whether Ratcliffe had any still living. I wished dimly that I had asked him at Brockstone, but it was too late now.
"I hope I haven't delayed you, then," I said. "When do you depart?"
"When I have what I came for," he said, so softly I almost could not hear, and smiled at me again in that terrible slow way.
It must only have been the lighting in the restaurant. But for an instant, his eyes looked nearly black.
I survived the rest of our dinner, one way or another. The thing that was not Ratcliffe seemed determined to make himself agreeable to me, and showed no sign of discomfort or irritation with my conversational lapses. As dinner companions go, I suppose he was pleasant enough.
And yet I could not set aside my awareness of what he was not. Or an increasingly intense consciousness of the degree to which I would have preferred that it were Ratcliffe—even as I was driven to acknowledge that it could not be. It felt grimly appropriate that I should be forced to the inescapable realization that I would have been glad to see him after all, by having the thing that was not him before me. And if I was able to be rid of it, I would know I had succeeded if I never saw him again.
The walk back to my apartment afterward felt unusually long.
I began by consulting the Demonologica, but difficulties posed themselves immediately. I reviewed the little I knew. So much was uncertain: was it Ratcliffe's body, merely removed from his control? Or had his outward appearance been borrowed, and even now the man himself was happily surveying sherds of pottery in Greece?
I recalled his mention of having discussed the Persian collection with Dr. Starkweather. Ratcliffe would not have found such a discussion engaging, I was certain, for the Parrington's Persian collection was indeed lacking. The thing that was not Ratcliffe must therefore have had some interest in it beyond Ratcliffe's own.
I paused. He had said he would go when he had what he had come for.
And despite all I did not know, suddenly a portion of the matter appeared clear. Whatever it was that was not Ratcliffe, there was something of importance to him at the Parrington. That was why he had come here. Surely he would have preferred to avoid any location associated with a person acquainted with the real Ratcliffe, if he could. Even if that acquaintance was as tenuous as mine.
That must be it. There was no explanation that fit what few facts there were half so well. In the Persian collection, or associated with it. He had not gotten what he needed during the morning's conversation with Dr. Starkweather. Perhaps that was why he had asked me to dinner. In my role as archivist, I was certainly familiar with the full catalogue of items held in the Parrington's collections. I was required by Dr. Starkweather's explicit instruction to update it with any acquisitions that fell within my purview. Our prior experience in taking a full inventory was not one any of the staff were eager to repeat.
He was looking for something. And if I could discover what, perhaps then I would know all that was needed to understand what had happened to Ratcliffe.
The Parrington was closed the following day. But I carry keys to both the main and side exterior doors. I would not have any trouble getting in.
I cannot remember whether I locked the side door behind me. I want to say I did; I have never been in the habit of leaving doors ajar in my wake. It is all too easy for an imagination as morbid as my own to construct the stuff of nightmares from a door hanging open and unobserved at my back.
But I have also never liked being alone within the Parrington's halls. So I cannot swear that, anxious as I was that day, I did not forget to secure the door.
Of course I was probably not entirely alone. There is nearly always someone within the Parrington, at least during daylight hours. The custodial staff often attend to the exhibition halls on days when they can be assured no museum patrons will be tramping through scattering fresh debris off the street, and no doubt there were some junior researchers or archival staff occupying various upstairs offices.
But I was not going to the exhibition halls, nor to the upstairs offices. I was going to the basement.
Only to the first level—for that was where the bulk of the Parrington's Persian collection currently resided. Part of the reason Dr. Starkweather must have been so pleased by Ratcliffe's unexpected appearance was that the Persian collection, already the target of Dr. Starkweather's ire for its general inadequacy, had recently suffered a blow of another kind: the combination of a slow leak of moisture that had gone unnoticed and a failure of sealant along several display cases had resulted in accelerated tarnishing of some items, and cracks and assorted minor damage to others. They had been removed to an upper-level basement room for cleaning.
Access to this area, too, required a key. No doubt it should have occurred to me sooner that I had been given precisely enough clues to lead me here, and no more.
But I was already in the habit of attempting to dismiss my own perceptions, within this building. Surely that shift in the air was only some other interior door opening as a staffperson passed through it. No doubt that distant sound was a book or drawer being carefully closed.
So I did not realize I had been followed until I had already reached the basement.
I was leaning over the worktable where the majority of the Persian artifacts had been laid out. I had no confidence whatsoever that I was equal to the task of determining which of them might be significant in this case. But at least I could look them over, and perhaps make some notes, which, if cross-referenced with the Demonologica, might narrow the field. I had nothing else to try.
My only warning was a soft scuff, which might as easily have been papers settling as a quiet shoe against the basement floor. My neck prickled, and I began to turn but could not complete the maneuver before there was the sudden pressure of a body against mine, a heavy hand clamping down on my shoulder with unusual strength.
"He knew you would be helpful," said a voice.
I shuddered immediately. For that voice was no longer making any attempt to mimic the sound of Ratcliffe's, and there was a terrible rasping quality to it, as of scales scraping stone.
"He knew, though he tried not to. He didn't want to come here. But I saw. I saw. He couldn't hide it from me. He can't hide anything from me."
I should have pushed it away. I still had the advantage of height over Ratcliffe's body, whoever was within it. I would like to claim that I was sensible of the crushing strength of that hand, and had rationalized that I would not prevail in any physical contest against the thing that was not Ratcliffe. But it was not so.
I was frozen. I felt as though I could not move, could not breathe. My numb hands were clenched around the edge of the worktable so tightly my knuckles had gone white, but I could not loosen them. I was pinned there, immobilized, as if some part of me knew myself for a prey animal and was determined to play dead.
"I suppose I might have asked Starkweather," the thing murmured. "He would have let me in, I'm sure. But I wanted it to be you. He remembered you, you see."
The hand released my shoulder—and moved to catch within its grasp a lock of my Murchison hair.
"He doesn't know what this means," it said. "But I do. You thought it was gone, I suppose. You thought you were rid of it. But the power that has touched you left a mark, Kyle Murchison Booth. You were born with it; you were drenched with it, for years and years. The curse is gone, but the scent lingers." It paused, leaning in. Of course Ratcliffe's head came no higher than my shoulder. But it did not matter. It was the work of a moment for the thing that was not Ratcliffe to grip my arm and turn me, to press Ratcliffe's face to the base of my throat and draw in a long slow breath. "Yes, it lingers," the thing repeated, sounding flush and satisfied. "And oh, Kyle Murchison Booth, you cannot begin to imagine how I hunger."
I had squeezed my eyes shut. The thing had not noticed, or had not minded if it had—but now it seemed to, for it made a small chiding sound and reached up to grip my chin.
"Come now," it said to me softly. "Come now, look at me."
I opened my eyes. I do not have the words to convey the disorientation of it, looking down into Ratcliffe's familiar face and seeing nothing familiar behind it, but I will never forget it.
"Know me. I am not all I should be. I need the seal within my grasp. The wonders I will work, with my powers restored to me—with you to sustain me!" Its gleeful anticipation was thoroughly repugnant, and I could not help but flinch from it.
My distress only made the thing laugh. Laugh, and crowd me closer still against the worktable, still gripping my chin, as if all the oppressive weight of its presence were not enough to hold me transfixed.
"He thinks of you often," it said, tilting its head and regarding me almost curiously. "Strange. You could not sustain him; he can't feed from you at all. And yet still, still, he thinks of you. It troubles him, but he can't stop. But never mind. I shall have the seal, and I shall have you. And then I shall crush every bit of him to dust, and do as I will."
And then it dragged my face down toward it, and kissed me.
I could do nothing to prevent it. I could not swear I would have tried to, had it been Ratcliffe—but of course it was not, and above and beyond all that I already hated it for, all the ways in which it terrified and disturbed me, there was the taste of its mouth. It kissed me deeply, with an arrogant certainty that it was my master and could do as it pleased with me; and it left behind a strange cloying flavor, sweet and rich but unmistakably rotten, the taste of something too-ripe and beginning, in all its abundance, to spoil.
I will forever owe a great deal to whichever junior archivist toppled what sounded like a very large stack of papers in the Reading Room directly above us at that moment.
The thing that was not Ratcliffe did not startle, or do anything as convenient as release its hold on me. I could not have run from it. But it broke the kiss, and for an instant, its attention was drawn upward as it glanced in the direction of that loud thump. Upward, and away from me. The relentless weight of the thing's will was lifted, and I could move again.
I could move, and did. I jerked my hands, still wrapped tight around the edge of that worktable, with all the panicked strength I had in me.
The table overturned with a thunderous crash, the Persian artifacts toppling from it. Some were metal, coins and knives, vessels worked in bronze, and these simply clattered across the basement floor. But fully two-thirds of the collection was ceramic of one sort or another, pottery or cylinders of Persian cuneiform in baked clay—and among these, I could only hope, was the seal of which the thing had spoken. And when they met the stone of the basement floor, they shattered.
Many of them did, at least. The thing made a sound my ears refused to absorb, a terrible shriek that must have scraped Ratcliffe's throat half to ribbons. It screamed something I could not understand—more than likely some ancient Persian tongue—and grabbed me by the shoulders so hard I knew immediately I would bruise. And then it trembled, and looked at me with Ratcliffe's round eyes. "What have you done?" it said, almost gently.
And then it was gone.
It was that quick, and that complete. Ratcliffe was left behind, and appeared almost to faint; for it was no longer in control of him, and neither was he, and so he dropped as though his strings had been cut.
I caught him belatedly by the lapels of his jacket, and did not even have time to fear that in my haste they would tear before he was restored to himself. His feet steadied beneath him, and his balance was caught, and then he blinked up at me and said, "Booth. Booth—good Lord—"
"It is gone now," I told him.
He stared at me, and I saw his throat move in a sharp convulsive swallow. His hands had come up and gripped my wrists as he steadied himself, and the clasp of his fingers tightened a little. "But," he said, and then stopped and swallowed again. "But what was it?"
"I don't know," I said. Which was true, though I could have ventured a guess. There are things referenced now by the name of "ghoul"—al-ghuul, in the Arabic—which are said to hunger for nothing more or less than the soul, and to live in places where men have died or suffered grave misfortunes. Places like, one might suppose, the fallen cities of the Levant where an archaeologist like Ratcliffe would have been inclined to delve.
But it would do him no good to hear that. And it was only a guess.
He swallowed again, still clutching my arms. And then he looked at me, went flushed and then pale, and abruptly let me go.
"I don't remember all the things it did," he said unsteadily. He stopped and wet his lips, and then met my eyes again and went paler still. "But I think I'd better apologize, if it—if it took liberties."
He was shaking just a little, a fine tremor working its way through his limbs. I could only imagine how long the thing had been in him, if he had come back from the Levant with it, and how thoroughly whatever half-formed memories he did have must trouble him.
And yet, inexcusably, I found myself briefly fixated not on what he had suffered, but on his choice of words.
For I could not help but think that for a man who had no natural inclination toward such actions would not term them "liberties".
I was tangled within the snarl of that thought for too long to hope it would go unnoticed. My silence mortified me, and the longer it extended the less able I felt to break it. I simply stared at him, flushed and useless, trying desperately to ensure I did not accidentally look at his mouth.
But he did not seem distraught. He watched me uncertainly for a long moment. And then his gaze began to take on the penetrating look I associated with him, the hunting-hawk look, and he said quietly, "You aren't angry with me."
"What?" I said blankly. "What for?"
"I brought it here," he said. "I—I suppose it might have come anyway." He paused, biting his lip, his gaze briefly turned away from me and into the middle distance. "It was looking for something," he added, more slowly. "But it would have left you out of it if not for me. You would have every right to—"
"I'd have no right at all," I said, more sharply than I'd intended, and then winced and ducked my head, rubbing a hand across my face. "That is, I mean to say—please don't feel obliged on my account. I'm well aware it wasn't you, whatever it was. I knew the moment you came into my office with Dr. Starkweather."
And for a moment, he recovered his good humor entirely. He made a face, and said, "Oh, hell. I'll never be rid of him now, will I?"
"It seems unlikely," I admitted, and he laughed—shakily, unsteadily, but he laughed.
We both seemed to become aware of the mess surrounding us at the same moment. He offered to help me go through it all, preserve whatever remained whole enough to be preserved and gather up the rest. I had every intention of refusing him, but he insisted that it would help settle his nerves—that having something to do was to be preferred to returning to his hotel room to stare at the ceiling and remember what it had felt like to be within the grip of that thing.
And when he put it that way, it would have been cruel to do anything other than oblige him.
I had found it nearly impossible to guess which artifact might have been of relevance to the thing when they were all intact. It was hardly easier now that most of them were in pieces, and I assumed with mixed apprehension and relief that it must remain a mystery.
That lasted until we were perhaps halfway through sorting out the debris. I did not see what it was that Ratcliffe had touched, but I could not miss the way he recoiled, stumbling back a crouched half-step so that he nearly fell.
Together we ascertained that the offending object was a large seal-stone, black and intricately engraved. Its fall from the table had cracked it nearly in half across the face, along an almost invisible pre-existing striation. It was carved with horned figures and serpents—a combination which Ratcliffe assured me was not uncommon in objects of that type from a particular era, and which had been speculated to serve as amuletic protection against snakebites.
But he repeated this hypothesis to me in a tone which lacked conviction, and his eyes were lingering on an inscription at the upper edge.
"What does it say?" I asked.
He swallowed, and looked away—and then back again, as though his gaze were drawn to it almost against his will. "I'm not a linguist," he warned me. "And you can see where it's worn away, there and there. Whatever it says, it's incomplete."
"But," he conceded, "I've learned to recognize bits and pieces of Persian cuneiform here and there. This part," and he gestured to a section of the inscription, scrupulously careful not to let his fingers brush the surface, "is written like a title, or an epithet. It's—the closest I can come, I think, is 'that which goes in secret'." He stopped, groping for some other phrasing. "Or—'that which walks unseen'," he amended at last, more quietly.
I looked at the seal-stone. It was cracked, and deeply, but all at once that did not feel like enough. I took it in my hands, and while its touch did not pain me as it appeared to have pained Ratcliffe, there was something unsettling about the weight of it, the feel of its surface above my palms.
"Promise never to tell Dr. Starkweather?" I said to him.
He gave me a wan smile. "I promise," he said, as I had done for him when he offered to drive me back to the city from Brockstone.
And I raised the seal-stone above my head and dashed it to the floor, where it cracked apart into fully a dozen scattered pieces, destroyed.
I cringed to imagine what Dr. Starkweather would think when he discovered what had happened to the bulk of the Persian collection. Ratcliffe had kindly insisted that he must take the blame, and I had comprehensively failed to argue him out of it. He told me he would say that he had asked to see the items, and that I had obliged him, and that he had been the one to accidentally overturn the table.
Of course there was no chance that Dr. Starkweather would guess the true sequence of events. But my guilty conscience was certain he would sense that I had had something to do with it, and I crept to my office and hid there, waiting for the storm to descend.
When at last there was a knock on my door, though, I could tell at once that the figure beyond it was not Dr. Starkweather.
I hesitated. The temptation to remain silent and pretend I was not present was never far away, whether it was Dr. Starkweather or not. But at last I went to the door, and opened it.
It was Ratcliffe.
The first glance of his eyes seemed to assess me at once, to say he knew the direction my thoughts had taken in the time between his knock and my response—and the second, in its wry warmth, to say that he understood me, and had no intention of holding it against me.
"Hello, Booth," he said quietly.
"I," I said inanely, and then, belatedly, "That is, hello," and then I opened the door wider and fumblingly invited him in.
He wasted no time; he was as direct as I had remembered. Dr. Starkweather had believed him, he reported. And was in fact prepared to let the whole matter slide, as Ratcliffe had accepted the Parrington's offer of funding and would be delivering whatever came of his next dig directly into our care.
I stared at him. "But that's too much," I blurted. "You hate him. You'd rather paint your face bright green and—"
"And propose marriage to a Bactrian camel," he agreed with a laugh. "I should have known you'd remember."
I flushed helplessly, and bit my tongue, in case that would remind it to keep still if it had nothing useful to contribute.
"He wasn't pleased at first," Ratcliffe said, "but once I agreed, and carried on a bit about—" His mouth worked briefly. "About what an honor it would be," he managed at last, "well. He was happy as a clam, in the end."
"So you'll be coming back here, then," I heard myself say.
He looked at me with sudden intensity, steady and watchful. "Yes," he said slowly. "Not for some time, of course. But I'll need to hammer out the details with Starkweather. And I suppose I can't get away with stacking my finds up on the front step and ringing the bell, and then running away before he comes out."
I should have smiled at the joke. But I could not, at least not quickly enough. He saw, of course, and went very still, and then moved with great deliberateness to close my office door properly behind him.
"Booth," he said. "I know I should leave well enough alone. I suppose I've got too much pride, in a way, to carry on and let you think something that isn't true, when—when you were honest with me about your dreams, at Brockstone. Even though you thought I'd mock you for it."
I must have made some sort of dissenting noise.
"You did," he repeated, "and I can't blame you. I was an awful snot to you back at school, and you had no reason to trust me with all that about Palmer, but you told me anyway. This is a hell of a way to pay you back," he added, grim and wry at once, "but it doesn't seem fair to keep it from you. Not after you saved me like that.
"You said you knew it wasn't me, before. But the thing is, it was. It knew me, Booth. It got in my head like you'd open a book. It was—it had everything. It saw everything." He stopped and shivered a little, absent, at the memory.
He can't hide anything from me. That was what it had said, and apparently it had been true.
"And it would have left you out of it," he had continued, "if it hadn't been for me. If it hadn't been for me and my stupid—"
He cut himself off, practically biting the last word in half. He had begun to pace a little, those sharp eyes roving all over my office in their efforts to avoid alighting on me, and I watched him and noticed as if from a distance that my heart had begun to pound.
"I'm not married," he burst out, after a moment. "You know that, don't you? Not to a Bactrian camel, nor anybody else. I'm not the marrying sort."
"Ratcliffe," I said, except his name was half-strangled by my tight throat, and didn't come out anywhere near loud enough to interrupt him.
"It would never have touched you," he said unevenly, and then stopped to rub a hand across his face. "It would never have touched you if it hadn't—if it hadn't seen the idea in my head. Understand?"
I did. Of course I did.
But I had no idea how to say so. He might have left right then without ever looking at me, and I'd have stood there and watched him go, desperate to call him back but without the words or voice to do it. He would have come back to the Parrington in the end, sooner or later, to settle things with Dr. Starkweather—and perhaps he'd have stopped by my office or perhaps he wouldn't, but either way I know neither of us would ever have spoken of it again.
Instead, though, he stood there. He was waiting, I realized dimly. Waiting to hear whatever shocked dismay I might heap on him, waiting for me to tell him to get out and that I didn't care to see him again. Or that I didn't want to know, that he shouldn't have told me—that of all the terrible secrets I'd uncovered, his was the one I couldn't bear to hear.
"Ratcliffe," I said at last, and he looked up.
His face was red, unhappy and ashamed. But he met my eyes without faltering, that bright steady stare fixed on me.
I will forever consider myself lucky that the weedy, snide, unpleasant, nose-picking fourteen-year-old John Pelham Ratcliffe of my schoolboy memories grew up to be so much braver than I.
He had already demonstrated a degree of talent for perceiving things I could not say. It did not fail him. He drew a sharp breath, as though startled, and the worst of that hot uncomfortable color began to leave his face. "You—"
"It wasn't you," I managed. "Not entirely. If it had been—"
I spat it clumsily and much too fast, and then ground to a halt, heat climbing my throat, before I could finish.
But it must have been enough. He stood there staring at me a moment longer, and then took a step toward me and said abruptly, "We must have dinner again before I leave town. Tonight?"
"Yes," I heard myself say. "Yes, please," and he reached across the desk and clasped my arm, and smiled at me: quick and slanting and bright, and entirely himself.